Right of Passage

Will the promise of the Northwest Passage finally be realized?

Image provided by Library and Archives Canada
1854 engraving of the HMS Investigator, after a painting by Samuel Gurney Cresswell.

Books discussed in this essay

Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage
by Glyn Williams
Viking Canada (2009), 448 pp.

The Ice Passage: A True Story of Ambition, Disaster, and Endurance in the Arctic Wilderness
by Brian Payton
Doubleday Canada (2009), 352 pp.

Across the Top of the World: The Quest for the Northwest Passage
by James P. Delgado
Douglas & McIntyre (2009), 240 pp.

Auyuittuq National Park is an awe-inspiring landscape of jagged mountain peaks and hanging glaciers, the kind of natural wonder that would be thick with tourists were it not on Baffin Island, hundreds of kilometres away from any urban centre, accessible in summer only by boat. Remarkably, small groups of visitors do sometimes make the trek to this swath of land on the edge of the Arctic Circle, and this past summer, after a series of lucky accidents, I found myself among one such group: an expedition of scientists and enthusiastic high school students exploring Canada’s polar region. Hiking north up the park’s valley floor, we waded through ice-cold rivulets that streamed down from the mountains, fed by the glaciers that locals say are retreating quickly, leaving the once ice-capped mountains brown and bare. It was impossible not to see the irony in the fact that Auyuittuq, which means “land that never melts” in Inuktitut, was, in fact, melting.

That night, when the botanists, geologists, environmentalists, oceanographers, and student chaperones gathered to sip drinks in the ship’s gently pitching lounge, talk inevitably turned to climate change. After all, it had only been two summers ago that an area of sea ice nearly four times the size of Texas had virtually disappeared, opening up large sections of the Canadian Arctic for the first time in perhaps a million years. Though the ice didn’t retreat as severely last summer, coverage was still the third lowest since satellite recording began in 1979, and signs of the thaw were everywhere. Climatologists now say that summer sea ice—a feature that seems as essential to the Arctic as sand to the Sahara—could largely be a thing of the past in just ten years.

By the time I returned home, Stephen Harper’s annual trek to the Arctic was making the news. Rather than expressing alarm at the signs of climate change, however, the prime minister made bold pronouncements about the future of the North. “With immense natural wealth and the growing potential for new global trade routes,” he crowed from the deck of a navy frigate in Frobisher Bay, “the strategic importance of Canada’s Arctic is heightened as never before.” The melting of the polar ice caps, it turns out, presents some exciting economic opportunities. New petroleum reserves may be exposed. Locked-in mineral resources could at last be accessible. Perhaps most intriguing, the Northwest Passage of myth and legend, a valuable shortcut between the Atlantic and the Pacific, could finally be open to commercial traffic.

A passage through the icy islands of Canada’s Arctic has been sought after for more than 400 years, from Martin Frobisher’s doomed sixteenth-century expeditions to Roald Amundsun’s three-year journey through the icy channels ending in 1906, which proved the passage was navigable but also completely impractical as a shipping route. The fact that the dream of a reliable, ice-free Northwest Passage could finally be achieved thanks to global warming is somewhat anticlimactic—as if we’d inadvertently discovered the Holy Grail while digging a landfill. Nevertheless, these environmental changes have set off a new round of Northwest Passage mania, reigniting the battle for Arctic sovereignty and renewing old hopes about the promise of an Arctic path.

Publishers have greeted this revival with three new books that trace the history of the hunt for the world’s most elusive shortcut. Naval historian Glyn Williams’ Arctic Labyrinth offers a compelling and erudite account of the many efforts to find a route through the Arctic’s scattered islands, while maritime archaeologist James P. Delgado’s handsome reference guide Across the Top of the World: The Quest for the Northwest Passage, first published in 1999, has been reissued with an epilogue that includes information on the staggering environmental developments of the past decade. In The Ice Passage, Vancouver writer Brian Payton takes a slightly different tack, imaginatively recreating the expedition that discovered the passage’s final link in 1850.

Each of these books contains familiar elements of the maritime adventure narrative: mutiny, cannibalism, deprivation, triumph, and so on. There’s another way to read them, however. Time after time, explorers ventured out to find the Northwest Passage, only to have their way blocked by a country they had hoped didn’t exist. What emerges, then, is a kind of inadvertent portrait of Canada, a nation built on northern pipe dreams. As national myths go, it isn’t particularly gratifying. But if we can bring ourselves to see Canada as the upshot of the futile expeditions chronicled by Williams, Delgado, and Payton, their stories have much to tell us about our new obsession.

In 1631, at the request of a society of merchants in Bristol, England, Thomas James set off in search of the Northwest Passage, armed with maps, instructions, and, perhaps a little optimistically, letters addressed to the Emperor of Japan. James wasn’t the first to attempt the passage—John Davis, William Baffin, Martin Frobisher, Henry Hudson, and a host of other ambitious Englishmen had already spent decades fruitlessly searching for the route—and the captain very much conformed to type. In Glyn Williams’ engaging account, he comes off as courageous but foolish, tough but arrogant, level-headed and yet completely unprepared for the ferocity of an Arctic winter. And, like so many others, he didn’t make it very far. Sailing through Hudson Bay, his ship was flung from island to uncharted island, battered between rocks and shoals, until in early October he and his crew found themselves stranded on the shore of the bay that would later bear his name, to endure a cruel Arctic winter.

Throughout the long, sunless months, the walls of their makeshift cabins were encrusted with ice, their beds blanketed with frost. While the cold waged its ceaseless attack, scurvy left them weakened, “all the teeth in their heads being loose, their gums so swoln with blacke rotten flesh, which every daye must be cut away,” according to James. First the gunner’s mate died, and then the gunner, his body pitched into deep water. Months later, returning from yet another funeral, the crew noticed that his corpse had drifted alongside the ship, where it had “frozen fast in the ice, his head downward, his heel (for he had but one leg) upward, and the bandage still on his wound.” Prospects for survival looked grim. “If it be our fortune to end our dayes here,” wrote James, “we are as neere heaven as in England.”

But miraculously, once the winter ice melted, they were able to limp home in their battered craft, and despite the failure of the voyage James found a way to capitalize on it. The Strange and Dangerous Voyage of Captaine Thomas James, his thrilling if slightly melodramatic memoir, was an instant hit, likely even providing the inspiration for portions of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The book also contained some of the first descriptions of winter in the northern reaches of the country that would become Canada, though they weren’t particularly complimentary. James was adamant: the Northwest Passage was a myth, the northern country he had wintered in a wasteland. “There are certainly no commercial benefits to be obtained in any of the places I visited during this voyage,” he concluded.

It’s a story repeated countless times in both the Williams and Delgado books: an ambitious explorer peeks into the labyrinth of islands to the north, experiences the awesome cold, and returns with harrowing, discouraging reports. Their frustrated attempts, however, laid the foundation for a country. For example, while the bay that trapped James and his men did not prove to be the entrance to the Northwest Passage, his voyage and those of the explorers that followed him were enough to convince two enterprising French fur traders that a northern route could provide a quicker path to the Atlantic than the long canoe trip down the St. Lawrence. The traders eventually took their idea to the English, and in May 1670 the Hudson’s Bay Company was founded, later followed by the churches, Mounties, and settlers that would transform the North.

A little over a century later, lured out of retirement by the prospect of riches and glory, Captain James Cook attacked the Northwest Passage from the west. On what would be his final voyage, the hero of British exploration made remarkable strides, accurately charting land never before mapped by Europeans and laying out the general shape of the northwest coast of North America for the first time. Cook, however, saw the whole project as a waste. When it became clear that the passage he had been following was not a route to the east, he wrote in his diary that he had lost two whole weeks settling “nothing but a trifling point in Geography.” The waterway was of so little consequence to him that he didn’t even name it.

George Vancouver sailed up the same coast between 1792 and 1794, completing the first circumnavigation of the hulking island situated just offshore before setting off in search of the passage. Unlike Cook, however, Vancouver did name the features en route to his eventual failure: Desolation Sound, Traitors Cove, Poison Cove—they remain today as faithful indicators of the explorer’s feelings about the land he helped trace.

On October 21, 1850, Robert McClure and a team of eight men left their companions aboard the ice-locked HMS Investigator and began the trek they hoped would finally establish the existence of the Northwest Passage. Finding the route wasn’t supposed to be their primary mission—the Investigator was one of thirty-nine expeditions sent in search of explorer John Franklin, who had famously disappeared into the Arctic wilderness with 128 men five years earlier—but the ambitious captain was determined to seize the prize while he had the opportunity.

In The Ice Passage, Brian Payton constructs an intimate narrative of the Investigator’s voyage from the journals and documents its sailors left behind. The account is full of the dramatic scenes of Arctic hardship—food frozen solid, fingers succumbing to frostbite—that have been staples of Arctic narratives ever since Thomas James’s memoir. That these scenes become slightly monotonous somewhere around the fourth winter shouldn’t reflect badly on Payton. As early as 1838, explorer Thomas Simpson was already worried about the staleness of yet another story of Arctic exploration. “I will have the honor and trouble of publishing our travels,” he wrote to a friend, “but the subject is so hackneyed and exhausted, and there are so few opportunities for vivid description among the interminable ice and almost tangible fogs that little remains to be won in that line.”

The difference here is that McClure’s trials and tribulations were rewarded with success. After their five-day hike across the ice, he and his men climb a hill and watch the sunrise from the shores of Banks Island, proof at last of a northern route. Back in England, the sailor is knighted and shares a £10,000 reward for discovering the Northwest Passage with his crew. But all the excitement obscures an awkward reality, one Payton doesn’t dwell on. As expedition interpreter Johann Miertsching was quoted as saying, the passage is “useless for navigation as long as the climate in these parts is so severe and the sea covered with ice 50 to 60 feet thick.” The Times dryly commented that a Northwest Passage “may be assumed as open once or twice in a century during favourable circumstances for short periods.”

Now that those so-called favourable circumstances are on their way to becoming a permanent reality, the time is seemingly ripe for another McClure moment. If Harper is correct, we face the culmination of centuries of northern speculation. The other possibility, of course, is that the Northwest Passage mania of today is no different from its precursors, yet another instance in which the incredible potential of a polar shortcut has blinded dreamers to the practical difficulties.

Certainly, Glyn Williams isn’t optimistic that we’ll have a commercially viable passage anytime soon, arguing that the cost of building suitable vessels and insuring them against damage would more than cancel out any money saved by using it. More radically, Brian Payton posits the inevitability of an open polar sea, and asks why merchants would bother navigating through Canada’s Arctic Archipelago at all when they could simply travel straight over the top of the globe.

For now, though, this is all speculation. As our Arctic expedition sailed north up the coast of Baffin Island this summer, past Frobisher Bay and Cumberland Sound, fields of sea ice blocked our path. For two days, we waited hopefully at the edge of the pack, exploring nearby inlets while our Russian captain checked satellite images to see if the ever-shifting ice had cleared. Finally, we had to admit defeat. Heading south to clearer waters, I felt a twinge of disappointment, a touch of the frustration explorers of the past must have experienced when they found their way to the north obstructed.

Any regret is more than mitigated, of course, by the knowledge of what such failures produced in the end. The country that stood in the way of the Northwest Passage, the so-called wasteland with no commercial value, has proven early explorers wrong. It seems only natural that we should now want our shot at the passage’s potential riches. But if there’s a lesson to be learned, however banal, from the stories of the thousands of men who have tried in vain to conquer the Northwest Passage, it’s that those riches tend to remain stubbornly inaccessible.

Nicholas Hune-Brown
Nicholas Hune-Brown (@nickhunebrown) has written for Toronto Life, Hazlitt, and The Believer.