- For the film of this name, see Northwest Passage (movie).
The Northwest Passage is a route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean through the Arctic archipelago of Canada.
Between the end of the 15th century and the 20th century, Europeans attempted to establish a commercial sea route north and west around the American continents. The English called the route the Northwest Passage, while the Spanish called it the Strait of Anián. The desire for the route motivated much of the European exploration of both coasts of North America.
In 1539, Hernán Cortés commissioned Francisco de Ulloa to sail along the peninsula of Baja California in search of the Strait of Anián. On August 8, 1585, the English explorer John Davis entered Cumberland Sound , Baffin Island. In 1609, Henry Hudson sailed up the river that now bears his name (Hudson River) in search of the passage. Hudson later explored the Canadian Arctic and discovered Hudson Bay.
In the first half of the 19th century, parts of the Northwest Passage were explored separately by a number of different expeditions, including voyages by John Ross, William Edward Parry, James Clark Ross; and overland expeditions led by John Franklin, George Back , Peter Warren Dease , and Thomas Simpson .
In 1845 a well-equipped two-ship expedition led by Sir John Franklin attempted to force a passage through the Arctic ice from Baffin Bay to the Beaufort Sea. When the expedition failed to return, a number of relief expeditions and search parties explored the Canadian Arctic between the two bodies of open water resulting in final charting of a possible passage. Traces of the expedition have been found including records that indicate that the ships became icelocked in 1846 near King William Island, about half way through the passage, and were unable to extricate themselves. Franklin himself died in 1847 and the rest of the party in 1848, after abandoning the ships and attempting to escape overland by sledge. While starvation and scurvy are the most likely reasons why all 129 members of the expedition perished, other causes have been suggested as well, and explaining the failure of the expedition has become something of a cottage industry.The expedition took 8000 tins of food. Unfortunately, the tins were sealed with lead, which is poisonous. The lead would have got into the food and made the crews ill. They would become weak, bad tempered and they would have found it hard to make good decisions. In 1981, Owen Beattie, an anthropologist, found part of a bleached human skull. This led to further investigations and findings, using forensic evidence and techniques, and examining three well-preserved bodies of three seamen, exhumed from the permafrost of Beechey Island over 138 years after their death. Laboratory tests revealed lethal doses of lead poisoning.
During the search for Franklin, a party led by Robert McClure traversed the Northwest Passage from west to east in the years 1850 to 1854, partly by ship and partly by sledge. McClure's ship was trapped in the ice for three winters near Banks Island, at the western end of Viscount Melville Sound . Finally McClure and his party -- who were by that time dying of starvation -- were found by searchers travelling by sledge from one of the ships of Sir Edward Belcher's expedition, and returned with them to Belcher's ships, which had entered the sound from the east.
The Northwest Passage was not conquered by sea until 1906, when the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who had sailed just in time to escape creditors seeking to stop the expedition, completed a three-year voyage in the converted 47-ton herring boat Gjřa. At the end of this trip, he walked into the city of Circle, Alaska, and sent a telegram announcing his success. His route was not commercially practical; in addition to the time taken, some of the waterways were extremely shallow. The first single-season passage was not accomplished until 1944, when the St. Roch, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police schooner, made it through.
The Northwest Passage is the subject of a territorial dispute between Canada and the United States. The United States considers the Northwest Passage to be international waters, while Canada considers it internal Canadian waters.
In the summer of 2000, several ships took advantage of thinning summer ice cover on the Arctic Ocean to make the crossing. It is thought that global warming is likely to open the passage for increasing periods of time, making it attractive as a major shipping route. Routes from Europe to the Far East save 4000 km through the passage, as opposed to the current routes through the Panama Canal.
Northwest Passage is the title song of an album by Canadian folk artist Stan Rogers.
Last updated: 08-14-2005 21:49:58