In recent years there have been several notable expeditions that have traversed the Northwest Passage over several seasons. We’ve taken great inspiration from them.
As a result of their westward explorations and their settlement of Greenland, the Vikings sailed as far north and west as Ellesmere Island, Skraeling Island and Ruin Island for hunting expeditions and trading with Inuit groups. The subsequent arrival of the Little Ice Age is thought to have been one of the reasons that further European seafaring into the Northwest Passage ceased until the late 15th century.
Cook and Vancouver
In 1776 Captain James Cook was dispatched by the Admiralty in Great Britain under orders driven by a 1745 act which, when extended in 1775, promised a £20,000 prize for whoever discovered the passage. Initially the Admiralty had wanted Charles Clerke to lead the expedition, with Cook (in retirement following his exploits in the Pacific) acting as a consultant. However Cook had researched Bering’s expeditions, and the Admiralty ultimately placed their faith in the veteran explorer to lead with Clerke accompanying him.
In the first half of the 19th century, some parts of the actual Northwest Passage (north of the Bering Strait) were explored separately by many expeditions, including those by John Ross, William Edward Parry, and James Clark Ross; overland expeditions were also led by John Franklin, George Back, Peter Warren Dease, Thomas Simpson, and John Rae. In 1826 Frederick William Beechey explored the north coast of Alaska, discovering Point Barrow.
Sir Robert McClure was credited with the discovery of the real Northwest Passage in 1851 when he looked across McClure Strait from Banks Island and viewed Melville Island. However, this strait was not navigable to ships at that time, and the only usable route linking the entrances of Lancaster Sound and Dolphin and Union Strait was discovered by John Rae in 1854.
In 1845 a lavishly equipped two-ship expedition led by Sir John Franklin sailed to the Canadian Arctic to chart the last unknown swaths of the Northwest Passage. Confidence was high, given there was less than 500 km (310 mi) of unexplored Arctic mainland coast by then.
During the search for Franklin, Commander Robert McClure and his crew in HMS Investigator traversed the Northwest Passage from west to east in the years 1850 to 1854, partly by ship and partly by sledge. McClure started out from England in December 1849, sailed the Atlantic Ocean south to Cape Horn and entered the Pacific Ocean. He sailed the Pacific north and passed through the Bering Strait, turning east at that point and reaching Banks Island.
The expeditions by Franklin and McClure were in the tradition of British exploration: well-funded ship-borne expeditions using modern technology, and usually including British Naval personnel. By contrast, John Rae was an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was the major driving force behind exploration of the Canadian North. They adopted a pragmatic approach and tended to be land-based. While Franklin and McClure attempted to explore the passage by sea, Rae explored by land, using dog sleds and employing techniques he learned from the native Inuit. The Franklin and McClure expeditions each employed hundreds of personnel and multiple ships. John Rae’s expeditions included fewer than ten people and succeeded. Rae was also the explorer with the best safety record, having lost only one man in years of traversing Arctic lands. In 1854, Rae returned with information about the outcome of the ill-fated Franklin expedition.
The first explorer to conquer the Northwest Passage was the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. In a three-year journey between 1903 and 1906, Amundsen explored the passage with a crew of no more than six. Amundsen, who had sailed just in time to escape creditors seeking to stop the expedition, completed the voyage in the converted 47-ton herring boat Gjøa.