A route through the Arctic, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans would be a brilliant shortcut to the riches of the Orient. The possibility of a Northwest Passage lured explorers for centuries.
Between 1576 and 1776, the British sent a number of expeditions to find such a passage. The names of the commanders of those expeditions grace the Arctic maps: Frobisher, Davis, Baffin, Hudson, Bylot. These men named waterways, headlands, and islands after their sponsors and themselves. However, the impenetrable ice defeated the majority of these attempts.
After the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, the British Navy had a plethora of unemployed officers on its hands. It also had heavily built war ships that had the potential to withstand the crushing ice. John Barrow, Second Secretary to the British Admiralty, decided a wise use of these resources would be to send expeditions to find the Northwest Passage. The British Admiralty fully expected that the Passage would be transited in a matter of months.
In 1818, Barrow sent the first four ships out to explore the Arctic waters. Two ships headed up the east side of Greenland, but were stopped by heavy ice. Two other ships, under the command of John Ross, explored the west side of Greenland and Baffin Bay, but Ross ordered the ships to turn back when he sighted mountains across Lancaster Sound, indicating it was a bay.
The following year, William Edward Parry’s expedition proved Ross wrong by sailing through Lancaster Sound as far west as Melville Island. Here his two ships, Hecla and Griper, spent the winter of 1819-1820 frozen in a bay they named Winter Harbour, becoming the first British Naval expedition to overwinter in the Arctic.
The Arctic was a fickle environment. Some years, ice was more impenetrable than others. The Admiralty took no notice, confidently sending expeditions that were ill-prepared for their Arctic encounters. Ships were crushed and men’s lives lost, proving that this was no easy transit.
In 1845, an expedition, led by Sir John Franklin, sailed into Lancaster Sound with 129 men aboard two ships, Erebus and Terror. This expedition was outfitted better than any previous naval voyage, being equipped with state-of-the-art vessels, equipment, and provisioned with enough food to last at least three years. However, they were never seen again by their countrymen.
Between 1848 and 1859, a slew of unsuccessful search expeditions that included 35 ships and five overland journeys were financed by the British Admiralty, Lady Jane Franklin, and the American government. In those 11 years, over 40,000 miles were covered by sled (much of that with man-hauled sledges), and 8,000 miles of Arctic coastline were mapped.
In all, the Admiralty spent £675,000, Lady Jane spent £35,000 of her own and public sponsored funds, the United States’ government spent, $150,000, and American philanthropist Henry Grinnell spent $100,000, outfitting search expeditions. By disappearing, Franklin was responsible for the discovery of more land than he ever would’ve found had he lived.
However, Robert McClure, searching for Franklin aboard Investigator, from the Bering Sea, identified the Northwest Passage. McClure and his starving men abandoned the ice-trapped Investigator at Banks Island in 1853. They sledged across the central part of the Parry Channel to join ships heading back to England, and thus traversed the Northwest Passage.
Almost fifty years passed before anyone attempted to make the Northwest Passage again. This time it was a Viking.
In June 1903, 31-year-old Norwegian Roald Amundsen and six men set sail aboard the Gjøa to transit the Northwest Passage. They headed south down Peel Sound, and overwintered on the southeast side of King William Island in a harbour they named Gjoa Havn. Amundsen proved that the Magnetic North Pole had moved 40 miles northeast from where James Clark Ross had located it in 1831.
Amundsen befriended local Nesillik Inuit, and learned about dogsledding, hunting, building igloos and other techniques for living in the Polar Regions. In 1906, the Gjøa emerged in Bering Strait, becoming the first ship to successfully make the Northwest Passage.
No one sailed through the Northwest Passage for another 36 years.
Then a Mountie did it. When Norwegian-born sailor Henry Larsen heard that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was building a ship to patrol the Arctic, he joined the RCMP. Larsen became captain of this ship, St. Roch, patrolling the Western Arctic and visiting the communities there.
In June 1940, St. Roch left Vancouver Island and proceeded north. Its destination was Greenland. It carried out its regular patrol duty, overwintering two years in the Western Arctic. In August 1942, St. Roch continued its eastern trek. By then, original orders to head to Greenland had been cancelled, and the St. Roch carried on to Halifax, arriving in October 1942. It became the first ship to sail the Northwest Passage from west to east.The St. Roch made the return journey in 1944, travelling from east to west. This time it travelled the more northerly route through Viscount Melville Sound and down Prince of Wales Strait. The ship arrived in Vancouver on October 16. The St. Roch earned its place in history as the first ship to complete the Northwest Passage in one season. It was also the first vessel to traverse the Passage in both directions.
Up to the end of the 2013 navigation season, according to Robert Headland of the Scott Polar Research Institute, 207 complete maritime transits of the Northwest Passage, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, have been made by 149 different vessels. Incredibly, a route through ice-strewn Arctic waters that halted the passage of scores of ships barely a century ago is now being traversed by ice-strengthened cruise ships.