The Northwest Passage: From Myth to Reality

The following article is an editorial written by The Canadian Encyclopedia staff. Editorials are not usually updated.

As far back in history as the days of Marco Polo, European mariners, dreamed of a shorter sea route for reaching the riches of silk, porcelain, jewels and spices of Asia. They imagined the existence of a marine passage through that looming and rocky land blocking their way to the west - North America. Spaniards called this mythical passage the Strait of Anián. The British called it the Northwest Passage.

Explorer Samuel Hearne (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-20053).

After two false starts, Samuel Hearne set out on foot on December 7, 1770 from Fort Prince of Wales on the shore of Hudson Bay, where Churchill, Manitoba lies today, to find a river, the so-called Far Off Metal River that according to the natives "abound[ed] with copper ore, animals of the fur kind, etc., and which is said to be so far to the Northward, that in the middle of the summer the Sun does not set, and is supposed by the Indians to empty itself into some ocean." The main purpose of Hearne's trip was to discover "everything that might prove of future value in opening up the territory to trade." His orders from the Hudson's Bay Company also specified that Hearne resolve once and for all the question of "a passage out of Hudson's Bay into the Western Ocean," the mythical Strait of Anián.

Accompanied by Matonabbee, a trusty native guide along with his several wives, this lone white man walked 3000 kilometres north-west to achieve his objective of finding the Coppermine River and paddled down its rushing waters until they spilled into the relative calm of the Arctic Ocean. In doing so, he became the first European to reach the Arctic Ocean from Canada by land. He also resolved the mystery of the mythical Strait of Anián through mainland Canada - it just did not exist.

Hearne's discovery did not mean that the idea of a northwest passage was abandoned. It merely served to redirect the focus of those who sought it toward the ice-choked waters around the islands of North America north of the Arctic Circle, where many mariners before and after Hearne suspected a passage might be hidden. Columbus, Hudson, Frobisher, Cartier, the Cabots all tried to find it, and all failed. Undoubtedly, the most spectacular failure was that of Sir John Franklin who disappeared with the Erebus and Terror along with their 137 officers and men into the Arctic mists in 1845, never to be heard from again. Although M'Clure is credited with proving the existence of a Northwest Passage, it was Norwegian Roald Amundsen and his crew in the tiny 47-tonne Gjøa who first navigated it in a three-year east-to-west transit lasting from 1903 to 1906. The first to sail it in both directions 1940 to 1948, was a Canadian of Norwegian birth in the 193-tonne St. Roch.

One thing the trips of the Gjøa and the St. Roch proved was that the Northwest Passage might be navigable by small boats, but it was definitely not a route that large ships could use for commercial purposes. This fact was further amplified by the impractically difficult transit of the American tanker Manhattan through a more northern route in 1969 with the assistance of a Canadian icebreaker. That is the situation today, but there is something afoot that will almost certainly change all that - Global Climate Change.

It is a measurable fact that Arctic glaciers and ice fields are slowly, but surely, disappearing. The only thing that impedes east-west commercial shipping today through the Northwest Passage is ice, particularly in M'Clure Strait and Prince of Wales Strait at the western end. When that ice disappears, so does the only major physical obstacles for big ships. The commercial value of an open shipping lane through the Arctic is huge. One thing is certain - Canada's sovereignty will be open to some serious challenges in the Arctic Archipelago in the coming years when that shipping lane becomes a reality. This is not a time for the Canadian Government to be complacent about such matters. Now is the time for initiating serious preparatory action.