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.