The Northwest Passage is one of Canada’s most exciting chapters of discovery, history and exploration.
The Northwest Passage is a sea corridor connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through Canada’s Arctic Archipelago islands and along the northern-most coast of North America. Europeans searched for 300 years to find a viable sea trade-route to Asia. Names of adventurers, like Henry Hudson and Sir John Franklin, are etched into the history of the Northwest Passage.
The fascinating history has sparked an interest in travellers from around the world. Modern-day explorers are drawn to Canada’s High Arctic for the chance to walk in the footsteps of the first Arctic explorers.
Let’s dive into this thrilling history with some of the most famous names in Arctic exploration.
Early Attempts to find the Northwest Passage
In the earliest attempts, explorers still believed they could find a passage across the continent. Rene-Robert Cavelier believed he could find a Northwest Passage from the Great Lakes. While exploring the Saint Lawrence River, Jacques Cartier falsely claimed that the rapids at present-day Montreal was the last obstacle keeping him from China.
With little knowledge of just how large the continent is these early explorers may have failed but they furthered the knowledge that led to its success. Explorers began to look further north for a route around the continent, not through it. This led explorers towards Baffin Island and the Arctic.
Exploring the North
Explorers Martin Frobisher (1576) and John Davis (1585) described Baffin Island as a barren obstacle with ice-blocked passages to the west. Henry Hudson (1611) discovered Hudson Strait and the enormous Hudson Bay on his final expedition.
When he wanted to travel further west after wintering in James Bay, his homesick crew mutinied and set him adrift as they sailed back to England. It is said that Hudson attempted to keep pace with the ship in his rowboat until the crew grew tired of this guilty presence and let down their sails leaving Hudson behind the horizon.
The British were becoming frustrated by failing attempts and declared a £20,000 prize to anyone who discovered a northwest passage. This continued to stimulate and encourage future expeditions.
Most of the attempts to find the Passage travelled west, departing from Europe. But there were several attempts from the west coast of North America by explorers like captains James Cook and George Vancouver.
In 1776, the Admiralty in Great Britain dispatched James Cook to explore the west coast for a route. He was ordered to ignore all inlets and rivers until they reached the northern latitude of 65 degrees north. He traveled to the limits of the Alaskan Peninsula and reached 70 degrees north but came short of finding any such route.
George Vancouver, who had accompanied Cook on his expedition, then lead his own trip from 1792 to 1794. He surveyed and mapped the passages and rivers of the Northwest Coast in detail. This confirmed to all that there was no great passage south of Bering Strait.
The Second Era of Exploration
The most famous of all attempts to find the Northwest Passage were Sir John Franklin’s tragic expedition and Sir Robert McClure’s grand success.
In 1845, Sir John Franklin was chosen despite being 59 years old to lead a lavishly-equipped expedition to chart the last unknown parts of the Northwest Passage. The two ships became ice-locked in 1846 near King William Island, roughly halfway through the Passage. Franklin died in 1847, leaving Francis Crozier in command. In 1848, they abandoned the two ships and tried to escape south by sledge across the northern tundra. None survived.
Several searching expeditions were sent out when the ships failed to return to England. One of the attempts was by Sir Robert McClure. He was later credited with being the first to travel the entire Northwest Passage.
After returning from the first Franklin search expedition, a new search party was sent in 1850, with McClure in command of the second ship, Investigator. The two boats set out together but soon became separated. They didn’t regain contact for the rest of their trips.
McClure then travelled up the west coast and into the Bering Strait. Unfortunately, the ship became stuck in pack ice in the spring of 1853 and McClure and his crew were rescued by an expedition travelling from the east. McClure continued his journey by sledge and became the first to transit the entire Northwest Passage.
When McClure returned to England, he was first court martialed, the penalty for a captain losing his ship. He was then given an honourable acquittal and was knighted and promoted. The British Admiralty awarded McClure and his men the prize for traversing the Northwest Passage.
Exploring by sea and ice (www.canadianmysteries.ca)
A Successful Journey through the Northwest Passage
Ronald Amundsen was the first to make the journey through the Passage entirely by ship.
The expeditions led by Franklin and McClure were examples of the British tradition of exploration with expensive ships that were well-funded with supplies and modern technologies. In contrast, a Norwegian explorer named Roald Amundsen set sail with a small crew of six on a small and shallow-draft vessel called the Gjøa. He was escaping creditors who were seeking to stop the expedition.
As Amundsen’s expedition travelled past Baffin Island, they harboured off King William Island to take shelter from the winter. They spent two winters (1903-04 and 1904-05) in what is now a community called Gjøa Haven. They learned from the local Netsilik Inuit people how to survive in the Arctic.
Leaving Gjøa Haven, they continued to sail west past Cambridge Bay and Victoria Island until they finally emerged out of the Canadian Arctic islands in August 1905. They decided to winter here before they made the final journey back to Norway.
Norway had recently gained independence from Sweden and had a new king, so Roald was excited to inform him of their success. Roald skied 800 km to Eagle City, Alaska. He used a telegraph station to send the news home, before heading 800 km back to his crew.
It wasn’t until 1942 that Henry Larsen, a Canadian, became the second to sail the entire passage. Larsen first traveled west to east on a two-year expedition departing from Vancouver in 1940 and arriving in Halifax in 1942. In 1944, his return trip set the record for traversing the route in a single season. The ship had undergone extensive upgrades and followed a more northerly route that was partially uncharted at the time.
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In 1985 the Northwest Passage came back into international attention when an American coast guard vessel traversed the Passage without seeking Canadian permission.
This sparked the question of Arctic sovereignty. By 1988, Canada and the US came to an agreement to allow US icebreakers access to Arctic waters, such as the Northwest Passage, on a case-by-case basis. This didn’t answer the question of sovereignty, leaving Canada claiming the territory while the US and European countries claim it’s international waters.
Modern-Day Explorers Return to the Northwest Passage
The Northwest Passage has an incredible history filled with heroic figures pushing themselves to the limits of survival for the sake of exploration. Steeped in history and surrounded by breath-taking landscapes, Canada’s High Arctic has become an increasingly popular destination for adventurers, history buffs and travellers seeking the next frontier of travel.
Trips like Narwhal & Polar Bear Safari take you to the floe edge of Lancaster Sound, bordering the Northwest Passage. This region is filled with some of the most iconic wildlife in the Arctic, including migrating narwhal and roaming polar bears. Cruises like Northwest Passage Cruise can also take you to some of the sites visited by historic explorers.
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By: Mat Whitelaw