The fabled Northwest Passage across the top of Canada’s Arctic continues to exert a romantic allure – and, in the wake of oil discoveries in the far North, an increasingly economic one. The world’s most severe maritime challenge, it involves a 1500km journey from north of Baffin Island to the Beaufort Sea above Alaska. Some fifty thousand icebergs line the eastern approaches and thick pack ice covers the route for nine months of the year, with temperatures rising above freezing only in July and August. Perpetual darkness reigns for four months of the year and thick fog and blizzards can obscure visibility for the remaining eight. Even with modern technology navigation is extremely difficult: little is known of Arctic tides and currents; sonar is confused by submerged ice; and the featureless tundra of the Arctic islands provides the only few points of visual or radar reference.

John Cabot can hardly have been happy with Henry VII’s 1497 order to blaze the northwest trail, the first recorded instance of such an attempt. The passage subsequently excited the imagination of the world’s greatest adventurers, men such as Sir Francis Drake, Jacques Cartier, Sir Martin Frobisher, James Cook and Henry Hudson – cast adrift by his mutinous crew in 1611 when Hudson Bay turned out to be an ice-bound trap rather than the actual passage.

Details of a possible route were pieced together over the centuries, though many paid with their lives in the process, most famously Sir John Franklin, who vanished into the ice with 129 men in 1845. Many rescue parties set out to find Franklin’s vessels, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, and it was one searcher, Robert McClure, who – in the broadest sense – first transited the route in 1854. Entering from the west, he was trapped for two winters before sledging to meet a rescue boat coming from the east. Norwegian Roald Amundsen made the first sea crossing in 1906, but only after a three-year voyage. The first single-season traverse was made by a Canadian Mountie, Henry Larsen, in 1944 – his schooner, the St Roch, is now enshrined in Vancouver’s Maritime Museum.

Book through Rough Guides’ trusted travel partners

Canada features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

Ottawa: top things to do in the capital of Canada

Ottawa: top things to do in the capital of Canada

Move over Toronto and Montréal: there's a quiet revolution happening in Ottawa. Not so long ago, the city was lambasted as the dullest place in Canada, dubbed …

14 Aug 2018 • Edward Aves insert_drive_file Article
Road trip Canada: 5 of the best routes

Road trip Canada: 5 of the best routes

Rugged and vast, Canada is a road-tripper's dream. Driving gives you the freedom to travel at your own pace – pull over and take in the scenery along the w…

09 Mar 2018 • Stuart Forster insert_drive_file Article
Why Halifax is Canada’s friendliest city

Why Halifax is Canada’s friendliest city

Canadians are a friendly bunch; in fact according to Twitter analysis (so it must be true) Canucks are the nicest people in the world. And Canada’s friendlies…

05 Mar 2018 • Edward Aves insert_drive_file Article
View more featureschevron_right

Privacy Preference Center

Necessary

Mandatory - can not be deselected. Necessary cookies help make a website usable by enabling basic functions like page navigation and access to secure areas of the website. The website cannot function properly without these cookies.

PHPSESSID,aelia_cs_selected_currency,cookie_notice_accepted,RS,bp-message,bp-message-type,id,UIDR,w3tc_logged_out,__cfduid
__cfduid

Statistics

Statistic cookies help website owners to understand how visitors interact with websites by collecting and reporting information anonymously.

__utma,__utmb,__utmc,__utmz,_ga,_gid,__atssc,__atuvc,__atuvs,di,dt,ssc,ssh,sshs,uid,uit,xt
__utma,__utmb,__utmc,__utmz,_ga,_gid
__atssc,__atuvc,__atuvs,di,dt,ssc,ssh,sshs,uid,uit,xtc

Marketing

Marketing cookies are used to track visitors across websites. The intention is to display ads that are relevant and engaging for the individual user and thereby more valuable for publishers and third party advertisers.

__gads,PISID, BEAT, CheckConnection TempCookie703, GALX, GAPS, GoogleAccountsLocale_session, HSID, LSID, LSOSID, NID, PREF, RMME, S, SAPISID, SID, SSID,__utmv, _twitter_sess, auth_token, auth_token_session, external_referer, guest_id, k, lang, original_referer, remember_checked, secure_session, twid, twll,c_user, datr, fr, highContrast, locale, lu, reg_ext_ref, reg_fb_gate, reg_fb_ref, s, wd, xs
__gads,PISID, BEAT, CheckConnection TempCookie703, GALX, GAPS, GoogleAccountsLocale_session, HSID, LSID, LSOSID, NID, PREF, RMME, S, SAPISID, SID, SSID
__utmv, _twitter_sess, auth_token, auth_token_session, external_referer, guest_id, k, lang, original_referer, remember_checked, secure_session, twid, twll
c_user, datr, fr, highContrast, locale, lu, reg_ext_ref, reg_fb_gate, reg_fb_ref, s, wd, xs