In 1819 Edward PARRY, in command of ships of the British navy, explored the opening north of Baffin Island and west of Lancaster Sound to Melville Island. This route through Viscount Melville Sound is the widest passage through the arctic islands, but Parry reported it blocked by eastward-moving heavy ice floes even in August. After 1829 John ROSS confirmed the extension of Boothia Peninsula north from the mainland, which blocked any sea route through that part of the central Arctic, but he missed the narrow opening through Bellot Strait.
The many expeditions after 1845 in search of the lost Sir John FRANKLIN finally defined the coastal outlines of most of the arctic islands and reported an uncertain ice-free period for ships of only 1-2 months in August and September. In 1853-54 Robert MCCLURE became the first person to traverse a route from west to east, partly by sledge over the sea ice from Banks Island to near Devon Island. As a result of the natural environmental information accumulated, commercial shipping had no further interest in the passage. The Hudson's Bay Co continued to use part of the water route to its posts around Hudson Bay. Otto SVERDRUP confirmed that there was no sea passage through the islands northwest of Lancaster and Viscount Melville sounds 1898-1902.
The Northwest Passage was finally traversed 1903-06 by Norwegian adventurer Roald AMUNDSEN in his tiny ship, Gjoa. He travelled west and south of Lancaster Sound through Peel Sound and along the western Arctic coast through Queen Maud and Coronation gulfs. His western exit from the Arctic was simply a feasible route out of the area rather than a planned attempt to traverse the Northwest Passage. The first west to east passage by the RCMP vessel ST. ROCH under Henry LARSEN followed a similar route through the relatively shallow channels along the mainland coast 1940-42. Larsen left the central Arctic through Bellot Strait and travelled north and east of Baffin Island.
During the summer of 1944 the St. Roch became the first to traverse the passage from east to west in a single year, using a new route west of Lancaster Sound, south through Prince of Wales Strait between Banks and Victoria Islands, and along the northern Alaska coast. Finally, in 1954, the first ship to achieve the passage from west to east in a single year was the Canadian government icebreaker Labrador.
In 1969 the American oil tanker Manhattan, with the assistance of the Canadian icebreaker John A. Macdonald, traversed the Northwest Passage from east to west. The Northwest Passage again was the focus of national attention in the mid-to late 1980s when, as a result of the American Polar Sea traversing it, the question of ARCTIC SOVEREIGNTY arose.
In early 1988 Canada and the US reached an agreement to permit US icebreakers access to arctic waters, including the Northwest Passage, on a case-by-case basis. The agreement, however, did not settle the question of sovereignty.
See also ARCTIC EXPLORATION.
Author J. LEWIS ROBINSON
Links to Other Sites
Vancouver Maritime Museum
Explore the rich maritime history and traditions of the Pacific Coast at this Vancouver Maritime Museum website. Click on "Virtual Tours" to step on board Canada’s famous RCMP schooner St Roch and other museum exhibits.
Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea
The website for the United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea. Covers navigational rights, territorial sea limits, economic jurisdiction, legal status of resources on the seabed, passage of ships through narrow straits, conservation and management of living marine resources, and more. Search this site for data related to Canadian sovereignty issues.
Maps of provinces and territories from "The Atlas of Canada," Natural Resources Canada.
Major Northwest Passage Exeditions and Explorers
This site offers brief accounts of various European expeditions to North America in search of the Northwest Passage. From the website "Of Maps and Men: In Pursuit of a Northwest Passage," Princeton University.
Henry Larsen's Northwest Passages
This NFB site features photos from the documentary "Henry Larsen's Northwest Passages."
The discovery of the North-West Passage
This site features notes and images from "The discovery of the North-West Passage by H.M.S. “Investigator”... edited by Commander Sherard Osborn...from the logs and journals of Capt. Robert LeM. M’Clure. London, 1856." Images by artist Lt. Samuel Gurney Cresswell. From the Toronto Public Library.
A superb online exhibit about the search for the Northwest Passage. Historic maps and images from books show how the Inuit assisted foreign led expeditions into the Canadian Arctic and how European explorers gradually accepted Inuit techniques of travel and survival. Contemporary maps show the lasting achievement of the expeditions: the mapping of the Canadian Arctic. From the Toronto Public Library.
Arctic Blue Books
The website for the Arctic Blue Books online, a searchable, online version of Andrew Taylor's unique index to the 19th Century British Parliamentary Papers concerned with the Canadian Arctic. Also offers links to related reference sources. From the University of Manitoba.
Polar Imperative and Beyond
A lecture delivered by Shelagh Grant, recipient of the Lionel Gelber Prize for her book, "Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America." From the Munk Centre for Global Affairs, University of Toronto.
The Discovery of the North-west Passage
See online excerpts from the book "The Discovery of the North-west Passage," based on the logs and journals of Capt. R. M'Clure and edited by Commander Sherard Osborn. From Google Books.
Video: A look at HMS Investigator
View close up underwater videos of the wreckage of the HMS Investigator located in the Canadian Arctic. From the National Post website.
A fascinating biography of Royal Navy officer Henry Kellett. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
The Strait of Anian and British Northwest America: Cook's Third Voyage in Perspective
An article about James Cook's voyages of exploration along the West Coast of North America. From "BC Studies," a University of British Columbia website.
Northwest Passage: Imaginary Voyages
View ealry European maps depicting fabricated descriptions of the fabled "Northwest Passage." From the online exhibit "Of Maps and Men: In Pursuit of a Northwest Passage," Princeton University.
Beaufort Sea commercial fishing banned
A CBC News story about the federal government and the western Arctic Inuvialuit people agreeing to declare commercial fishing off-limits in the Beaufort Sea.
Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America
An interview with historian and professor Shelagh Grant about her book "Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America." From D&M Publishers.
Canadian Arctic Sovereignty: Time To Take Yes for an Answer on the Northwest Passage
An academic paper that examines Canadian jurisdiction over the Northwest Passage and related issues. From the website for the Institute for Research on Public Policy.
HMS Investigator and McClure's Cache
See details about the underwater investigation of the HMS Investigator wreck in Mercy Bay and terrestrial investigations of McClure’s Cache and an ancient Paleoeskimo site in Aulavik National Park. From Parks Canada.
Shawnadithit grew anxious waiting for her uncle, Longnon, to return to camp at the junction of Badger Brook and the Exploits River, deep in the wilds of Newfoundland...