Canada’s Northwest Passage: a short overview

by John M. MacFarlane 2002

Mild winters in Vancouver BC make thoughts of sailing through ice choked waters almost inconceivable. Yet Victoria and Vancouver are pivotal connections to the fabled Northwest Passage, to Arctic trading and exploration as well as being home for many famous Arctic mariners. Ships built or based here, mariners from Victoria and traditional economic links to the North make the Northwest Passage partially a British Columbia story. The 500th anniversary of the voyages of Columbus was celebrated in 1992. He was trying to find a direct westward route to China. Though he believed that he had found islands in the vicinity of China, subsequent voyagers of the time merely saw the bulk of the North American continent as an obstacle to reaching their ultimate goal of a sea route to the orient.

For early voyagers the financial rewards of finding a fast alternate sea route to the camel caravans from the east far outweighed the challenge of the voyage or the thrill of discovering new lands. Some of them voyaged south via Cape Horn and Cape of Good Hope. The Spanish introduced galleons in the Pacific, and transported treasure overland at the Isthmus of Panama and onward to Spain.

With the southern world controlled and dominated by Portugal and Spain the English became interested in finding a Northwest Passage to circumvent this control. The Strait of Juan de Fuca is far from the ice filled Northwest Passage.

But for many years, when large parts of the world's geography were unknown, our local waters were thought to have been the western end of a northern marine passage to China. This idea seems to have originated from a meeting in Venice in 1596 between an English trader, Michael Lok, and the navigator Juan de Fuca. De Fuca told the story of how, in 1592 he was sent by the Spanish Viceroy of Mexico to find the western entrance of the passage to the Atlantic Ocean. With two ships he sailed northward to what would be about the southern tip of Vancouver Island. He reported sailing around a high pillar of rock (Cape Flattery) and in to an "inlet that trended north–northeast" (the Strait of Georgia.) For 20 days he sailed into this strait and concluded that it reached the Atlantic. He could not have sailed as far as Discovery Passage or he would have realized that this was not the body of water for which he was searching. He then returned to Acapulco Mexico. This story was kept alive and embellished through tavern talk and wishful commercial thinking until about 1800. As late as 1780 at least five maps were published indicating a navigable passage at that location through the Rocky Mountains to Hudson Bay.

Although the existence of such a passage, if it had existed, would have been important to the British the surveys of Captains Cook and Vancouver eliminated the possibility once and for all. When next you are sailing through the Strait of Georgia, on a ferry or a yacht, put yourself in the mind of the early surveyors. Imagine the excitement that must have been prompted by the existence of many deep channels leading eastward from this vast inland sea. It is easy to understand how they could have thought that one of them was indeed the fabled Northwest Passage. Russians and Americans showed little commercial interest in direct passage from China to Europe. As a consequence their activities were focused on exploiting the natural resources of the North Pacific: marine mammals, furs, fish, timber and gold. In Europe the realization had set in 200 years ago that an Arctic Passage probably did not have a commercial value, but by that time it had become a symbol of enterprise, fame and glory. The three expeditions led by Sir John Franklin in 1818, 1825 and 1845 were the culmination of British attempts to find the Passage. His final and fatal voyage was a disaster which still fascinates researchers.

The voyages by those searching for the remains of this expedition also represented the death knell of British attempts to sail all the way through from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Those voyages though resulted in the surveying of many of the Arctic islands and established sovereignty over much of those lands. Roald Amundsen, in the herring boat Gjoa, was after the fame and glory of the first transit. An adventurer more than an explorer, to get backing for the expedition he developed a research program focused on the North Magnetic Pole. He set a new trend in expedition voyaging by adapting local knowledge. His contacts with Eskimo people involved learning as much as he could and utilizing that knowledge to survive. Shrewd and decisive he was capable of sharp action. Hearing that his creditors were arriving to arrest the Gjoa he left immediately for the high seas knowing that on his successful return he would be able to raise the funds to pay off his debts. Without men like Amundsen to reach high risk areas of the world, discovery would never have been accomplished.

For years a few fur trading mariners sailed the Western Arctic without formal charts or the benefit of detailed surveys. The San Francisco based trader Captain C.T. Pedersen routinely sailed into the Western Arctic from the Pacific as far as Sachs Harbour on Banks Island. Although he didn't transit the Passage he developed some of the local knowledge and ice navigation techniques used by those who did. The lure of white fox skins in the fur trade beckoned vessels farther and farther East until, in 1928, Fred Bush in the HBC Ship Fort James sailed from King William Land to meet the HBC Ship Fort Macpherson. Linking in 1929 a symbolic cargo of tea and spices from the Pacific was forwarded on to Newfoundland. In 1934 the Fort James, sailing via Panama, reached Cambridge Bay. Had her captain sailed the few hundred miles on to Gjoa Haven she would have been the first ship to circumnavigate North America, one of many examples of "what if" related to the Passage.

The local knowledge gained by these Hudson’s Bay skippers made it easier for subsequent voyagers, though the HBC never seriously pursued the idea of a regular commercial link through Arctic waters. Victoria's Captain Scotty Gall took the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Vancouver built schooner Aklavik through Bellot Strait in 1937 linking the commercial shipping of the Pacific to that of the Atlantic. Overshadowed by the more ambitious voyage five years later of the St. Roch, Gall’s accomplishment is still remarkable even by modern standards and is one of the milestones of Arctic maritime history. Henry Larsen, in the RCMP St. Roch, completed the second transit fifty years ago, in 1942 sailing West to East. The significance of his voyage was over–shadowed by World War Two but was repeated again in 1944 (in one season) when he sailed the return route East to West. A great Canadian hero, Larsen epitomizes the best Canadian presence in the Arctic, and he is held in especially high regard by the people of the Arctic.

Ten years later, the Royal Canadian Navy’s icebreaker H.M.C.S. Labrador created another strategic Federal presence, in 1954. Her naval captains, O.C.S. Robertson RCN and T.C. Pullen RCN, both went on to gain international reputations as Arctic navigators. Robertson is the only person to have transited the Passage both on the surface as well as submerged (in 1960 he acted as ice–pilot in the nuclear submarine USS Seadragon.) The United States Coast Guard sent a squadron of three ships through the Passage in 1957: the USCGGC Spar and USCGC Bramble and USCGC Storis. This is considered by the US Coast Guard, in their history, as one of their greatest feats.

Concerned with the resupply of the DEW Line sites the United States Government wanted to get experience with the possibility of supplying the sites by sea. The idea was quickly abandoned but Canada's Northern Transportation Company has successfully supplied the DEW Line chain by tugs and barges based from the Mackenzie Waterway and Tuktoyaktuk. The voyage of the CCGS John A. MacDonald under Captain Paul Fournier, in 1967, re–established Canada’s pre–eminence in NW Passage transits. It wasn’t until the oil tanker Manhattan voyage (escorted by the CCGS John A. MacDonald) of 1969 that serious attention was given to the issues of marine transportation through the Northwest Passage.

The apparent commercial need to move oil from Alaska to the Eastern United States caused international attention but the experiment of tanker traffic in Arctic ice was a failure. The friction of the ice against the long ship’s side consumed so much fuel that the cost was prohibitive. Pipelines were built instead. The question of free access to the Passage is a continuing issue. Recent transits by the powerful United States Coast Guard icebreakers USCGS Polar Sea and USCGS Polar Star sparked international controversies surrounding the right (or lack of it) for foreign vessels to use the Northwest Passage without prior approval. American authorities do not recognize the sector claims to the north nor do they recognize any need to request permission to navigate what they presume to be international routes through Canadian territory. The Law of the Sea states that ships have the right to innocent passage through territorial sea. As long as the passage is continuous and expeditious the vessel may anchor and stop for reasons related to navigation or force majeure or distress. As long as the voyage isn’t prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal state. The coastal state may not create regulations which tend to inhibit the innocent passage of foreign vessels.

Submerged vessels, on the other hand, are not considered to be taking innocent passage when in foreign waters so a nuclear submarine would be considered differently from a surface icebreaker. Transits, in 1970, by the Canadian Government research vessels CSS Hudson and CSS Baffin brought a serious technical and scientific focus to Arctic marine activity. Focusing on geological and geophysical studies, the Hudson was the first ship to circumnavigate both North and South America. Besides creating greater knowledge for Arctic marine traffic they help confirm Canada’s sovereignty over the northern sector against potential foreign claims.

Rising world oil prices in the 1970s caused a scramble for oil resources in the Arctic. Geologists predicted major deposits of oil and gas under the Beaufort seabed. The rush to sail exploration and drilling vessels to the Beaufort Sea made the Northwest Passage relatively busy. The high cost of ice–navigation suddenly became less important. Many ships arrived from around the world and in a short period many drill ships, ice–breaking tugs and supply vessels were operating in Arctic waters. Many of them eventually completed full transits as they returned home as the oil boom ended.

Many readers will remember the red–hulled, Vancouver–built, Pandora II which used to be moored next to the Johnson Street Bridge in Victoria’s Harbour. Although mostly unrecognized, that vessel had the distinction of having transited the Passage twice (in 1975 and 1980) as well as having circumnavigated North America. Victoria skipper Captain Robin Jones took her through the second time. Although a Class 1A icebreaker, heavy ice in Alaska that year damaged the rudder. The rudder damage could be minimized but not repaired, so the decision to go east to escape the freeze–up was made. Jones claims modestly that light ice conditions in the eastern Arctic enabled Pandora to make a relatively easy passage. Travelling with the CCG icebreakers Bernier & Franklin, Pandora made the passage to Halifax NS in a little over two weeks. Seamanship is obviously a factor, but so is timing and good luck. After all, until 1991, only 55 vessels had ever done it at all!

Today the Passage is still a challenge for shipping even with satellite ice photography, heavy duty ice–breaking hulls and nearly ninety years of successful passages. In recent years the Passage has attracted the most adventurous of yachtsmen who have challenged the geography with no ice–breaking capabilities. The epic sailor Willy de Roos was the first, in 1976, to sail a yacht through the Passage. Sailing mainly alone he completed the voyage in one year from Europe clearing Canadian Customs at Oak Bay. The 1984 transit of the luxury cruise ship Lindblad Explorer, under Captain Hasse Nilsson, introduced tourist traffic to what had previously been the sole domain of explorers and adventurers. A small number of cruise ship vessels have now made the trip dependant on a combination of luck and assistance from Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers.

Local skipper Sven Johansson, skipper of the US yacht Belvedere, was the first to sail a yacht from west to east during the six-year expedition led by John Bockstoce (1982–1989) from Victoria to New York via Greenland. The voyage of the Belvedere was one of the most accomplished passages. Johansson states proudly that on no occasion was the vessel trapped by ice nor was she at the mercy of the ice without a viable alternative. Other yachts, which have transited, placed themselves in situations of dire danger and anxiously waited opportunities to make forward progress. If conditions had worsened their little ships would probably have been lost. Johansson took six years to complete the voyage. The expedition leader was investigating whaling sites and forward progress was governed by the need to visit specific sites and local ice conditions. At the end of each navigation season, in August or September, the little vessel had to be hauled out of the water and stored for the winter to escape the crushing ice.

On August 25th 1988 there was a veritable ‘traffic jam’ of cruising yachts transiting the Passage when within four hours four small privately owned yachts met in the most difficult part of the Passage at Ross Strait. The yachts Belvedere and Vagabond II sailing from the West met the yachts Northanger and Mabel E. Holland (a retired RNLI lifeboat) sailing from the East. Such a concentration of yachts in a perilous and remote part of the world is a remarkable and rare occurrence which indicates that the spirit of adventurous seamanship is still very much alive.

The maiden voyages of new Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers built in British Columbia both tested the capabilities and designs of the vessels but also provided a means of delivery to their East coast operational bases. Among others the icebreakers CCGS Pierre Radisson (1978), the CCGS Martha L. Black (1988) and the CCGS Henry A. Larsen (1988) have all contributed to the continuing expertise and capability of Canadian mariners to transit this most difficult waterway.

Only in the past 50 years have the difficulties of marine navigation through the Northwest Passage been understood. The topographic, climatic, wind, current and other factors that influence the occurrence and movements of ice and all aspects of marine navigation are more complex in the Arctic than in any other region of earth. For example the Coriolis Effect caused by the spinning of the globe causes movement in the entire polar ice pack. This effect, combined with local winds, controls the movement of ice and creation of open water suitable for ships.

Generally speaking navigation by smaller vessels in the Western Arctic is by following the shore lead (the open water near the shore) travelling as close to the shoreline as possible to take advantages of open water there. Oddly in the Eastern Arctic the opposite tactic is used: in bad conditions the idea is to get away from the coast and keep to the centre of the passage.

It is generally considered that there are several routes which can be followed. There are six areas of difficulty facing mariners aspiring to make a Northwest Passage. In any particular year conditions vary dramatically between each area. For example, ice free sailing in one region does not necessarily indicate similar conditions elsewhere in the Arctic.

  1. Alaska Coast: The northward current through Bering Strait opens up navigation to Point Hope and Cape Lisburne early in the season. From Icy Cape severe ice conditions can remain throughout the summer. Navigation here depends on southerly and south–easterly winds driving the polar ice pack offshore. Prolonged Northwesterly winds drive the ice pack on to the shore making passage impossible even for small ships with ice-breaking capacity. There is a current condition bringing the ice close to shore at the Canadian – US border making that passage the most difficult west of Herschel Island.
  2. Beaufort Sea: Southerly winds create good ice navigation conditions by moving the icepack offshore. Even in mid–winter those winds can open up a wide ice-free area between the landfast ice from Herschel Island to Cape Perry Warm water from the Mackenzie River in spring and summer melts the landfast ice out to that area sometimes as early as the third week in June. With northwesterly prevailing winds the ice will be driven up on the beaches and the ambient temperature will be cooler.
  3. Western Canadian Arctic Islands: A good summer condition depends on a mild winter with heavy snow cover making the winter ice thinner than usual. A warm spring melting is also important as the ice does not move but tends to be landfast. Thick winter ice and a cool summer will produce difficult conditions.
  4. Queen Maude Gulf to Bellot Strait: The most difficult area of the Passage due to southeast flowing current in M’Clintock Channel bringing down thick multi–year polar ice on both sides of King William Island. A warm summer with prevailing southerly and easterly winds will make favourable ice conditions in that area.
  5. Lancaster Sound: Although the eastern part of the Sound opens up relatively early in the year the situation later in the summer becomes complex when the landfast frozen ice to the west breaks free and moves eastward possibly blocking the area in August and September.
  6. Greenland Sea: The center ice pack determines the ice conditions. Early in the Summer the only passage is right under the glaciers along the shore of Greenland. Large icebergs calving from the glaciers are a major navigational hazard. The centre ice pack seldom melts entirely even in a good summer. Because of the currents the Baffin Island side remains difficult until very late in the summer. The warm northward current on the Greenland side makes winter navigation by small ships possible as far as Holsteinsberg. The navigation throughout the summer is more favourable on that side.

The North Pole has always fascinated the glory seekers. The potential fame of being the discoverer was a goal which drove expeditions for years. The North Pole is still a powerful strategic symbol which draws vessels now of a different kind. Starting in 1899 the Russians have been making attempts to reach the Pole by ship. The powerful USSR nuclear–powered icebreaker Artika battled for two weeks from Siberia to become the first surface vessel to reach the North Pole in 1977. Now a new and different type of ship regularly passes under the Arctic Ocean icepack, often travelling from ocean to ocean. Nuclear–powered submarines have been making this voyage for years on missions cloaked in secrecy. Submarines of three nations (United States, UK and USSR) have surfaced at the North Pole using special sonar technology to facilitate the point of breakthrough of the ice.

Curiously, a Passage to China via the North Pole was proposed to King Henry VIII by Robert Thorne stating that "sailing northwards and passing the Pole, descending to the Equinoctial Line, we shall hit the Spice Islands a shorter way than the Portuguese." Adding "There is no land uninhabitable nor no sea un–navigable."

From the experience of US nuclear submarines in the area Thorne’s statement seems not too far from the truth. The USS Nautilus, in 1958, sent ripples of excitement to the world when Captain William Anderson USN revealed that his submarine had passed under the North Pole travelling from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Captain James Calvert USN in the USS Skate subsequently surfaced at the Pole in 1960 during a winter cruise emphasizing the strategic significance of the polar waters to the world’s navies. That same year two other United States submarines surfaced at the Pole (USS Sargo and USS Seadragon) signalling that the area at the top of the world had become a regular patrol route. The last part of the Northwest Passage was explored and utilized.

Not to be outdone, the Soviet navy nuclear submarine Leninskiy Komsomolets surfaced at the North Pole but it is unclear whether this is a capability which is routinely practiced. I was not able to find other records of surfacing Soviet submarines but presumably this has happened at other times. Although the tradition of submariners being the "silent service within the silent service" has kept the details of these voyages shrouded in mystery we have been able to track down some of the records. More than 60 under–ice voyages are publicly known to have been made either through the Passage itself or to the North Pole (often from ocean to ocean.) Rumors of even more intensive activity in Canadian territorial  waters abound.

Under the Sector Principle, Canada claims Arctic waters from the Canada – Alaska Boundary in the West to the Greenland–Canada Boundary in the East in straight lines converging on the North Pole. This claim gives Canada authority to the sea contained within that sector. It is generally felt, by Canadians, that there is considerable under–ice marine traffic in the Canadian Arctic waters. Nuclear-powered submarines of several nations are probably transiting Canadian waters there on a regular basis.

Little official public data is available to verify the basis for that attitude, but the existing records lead us to believe that this is probably an everyday occurrence. Photographs of Nuclear Submarines from different countries surfaced at the North Pole confirm that some foreign submarines are present, from time to time, in Canadian waters. There is unlikely to be regular economical commercial surface navigation through the Passage in the foreseeable future. Navigation conditions are too formidable under prevailing economic and strategic conditions.

However the global strategic positioning of the Passage continues to make it an important operational area for nuclear submarine fleets. Undoubtedly, control of the Northern Hemisphere will hinge upon the ability of submarines, with missiles, to operate undetected under the icecap. With the ability to surface through the ice to launch, or to launch through the icecap will make a submarine in that area a very strategic platform. The search for opposing submarine forces presents special challenges to skippers operating in those waters.

Even after the five hundred years since Christopher Columbus and John Cabot participated in the quest for the Passage to the Orient the mystique of the Northwest Passage continues until today. During those five centuries 50 surface NW Passage transits have been completed by ships through the Passage from ocean to ocean. It is still the most difficult and perilous sea passage on Earth, commanding the fascination and respect of mariners world-wide. Canadians should reflect on the notion that the importance of the north to those of us in the south may not seem great today – but interest in its resources and strategic position will definitely increase in importance in the future.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2002) Canada’s Northwest Passage: a short overview. 2002.


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