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In Search of the Northwest Passage

by Robert C. Brears Blog

In the first half of the 19th century, Napoleonic War veteran and British Second Secretary to the Admiralty, Sir John Barrow, envisioned what Britain’s sailors should do after the war: explore the unknown regions of the world, namely the Arctic. Foremost among these explorations was finding the Northwest Passage, an as-yet only speculated route through the Arctic Ocean into the Pacific.
Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Arctic

Destinations: Greenland, Svalbard

In Search of the Northwest Passage

In the first half of the 19th century, Napoleonic War veteran and British Second Secretary to the Admiralty, Sir John Barrow, envisioned what Britain’s sailors should do after the war: explore the unknown regions of the world, namely the Arctic. Foremost among these explorations was finding the Northwest Passage, an as-yet only speculated route through the Arctic Ocean into the Pacific.

Barrow Launches His Arctic Expedition

The first of Barrow’s expeditions was launched in 1818 under the command of John Ross, a career officer who had joined the Royal Navy in 1786, when he was only nine years old. Ross had experience in the Baltic Sea but none in the Arctic. Nonetheless, he commanded two ships in the expedition, the Isabella and the Alexander. His expedition, however, did not succeed.

Franklin’s Search for the Northwest Passage

Despite his early failure, Barrow was not discouraged. He launched further voyages to find the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic. In charge of these voyages was John Franklin, who had seen action in the Battle of Trafalgar and had been to the Arctic as a captain. Franklin knew the difficulties of the region, having struggled through pack ice north of Spitsbergen in 1818 – something Svalbard cruise passengers see plenty of, albeit under more pleasant circumstances. However, the Canadian expedition had challenges from the start: first, it relied on recruiting men from large trading companies instead of picking sailors from the British Navy; second, it provided inadequate food supplies for the crews, as people assumed they would hunt for game. As such, the men were starving before they reached the Arctic coast. Franklin noted later that his trip was a disaster, saying “we drank tea and ate some of our shoes for supper.” They also subsisted on lichen.

Parry Doubles Up in the North

While Franklin was up north, the Royal Navy sent ships to the Arctic under the command of William Parry, who had captained the Alexander in Ross’s 1818 expedition. Parry was ambitious, not concerned whether he went to “Africa or the Pole” so long as it advanced his career. With two ships in tow, he headed north. Parry did not find the elusive Northwest Passage, but he did return home a hero for having sailed farther west into the Arctic than anyone had before.

Further Probing for the Northwest Passage

It was not long before Parry set out on his second expedition. In 1821, he embarked on HMS Fury and HMS Hecla to Repulse Bay, north of Hudson Bay. When this proved not to be the entrance to the Northwest Passage, Parry followed the coastline northeast, probing for areas that would let him head westward. His efforts did not bear fruit.

Amundsen Tries His Hand in the Arctic

It was not until the early 1900s that the Northwest Passage was finally found. Roald Amundsen accomplished the feat on his 1903 – 1906 voyage. In this famed expedition, Amundsen sailed from Oslo toward the west coast of Greenland on the Gjøa, a former herring boat, to reach Dalrymple Rock. From there it was a week’s voyage across Baffin Bay, through the opening of Lancaster Sound, to Beechey Island, where they anchored in Erebus Bay.

A Two-Year Arctic Search

For two years, Amundsen and his men lived on the Gjøa while searching for the passage. The men interacted with local Inuit, a culture passengers of Greenland cruises have the opportunity to encounter, and adopted their clothing. Amundsen’s crew participated in dog sledding and seal hunting in the winter, kayaking and net fishing in the summer. They also conducted numerous scientific studies. They proved that the North Magnetic Pole does not have a permanent location, but moves fairly regularly. They also carried out the first continuous magnetic recordings (non-stop for 19 months) in the high Arctic. And in 1905 Amundsen achieved his boyhood dream of being first to cross the Northwest Passage, spotting a whaling ship in the Pacific Ocean.

Amundsen Seeks New Arctic Glory

Not satisfied, however, Amundsen tried in 1925 to become the first to fly to the North Pole. With five other passengers in two aircrafts, he took off from Svalbard on May 21, 1925, and flew with them side-by-side to 87°43’ N, where they landed on the drift ice after more than eight hours of flying. By that time, half their fuel was gone and they were not entirely sure where they were. Because they had landed in separate locations, it took more than five days for the crews to find each other. One of the aircrafts was damaged, so they had to rely on the remaining one to return home.

Photo by Wilse, Anders Beer

A Nerve-Wracking Return

For nearly four weeks, Amundsen and his men lived on the ice with minimum food rations, using whatever tools they had to make a take-off strip on the ice. Taking fuel out of the damaged aircraft, they refuelled their one working plane. They also stripped it of all unnecessary items to make sure it was as light and fuel-efficient as possible. On 15 June, the six men boarded the aircraft, and with only a small strip to take off from, barely got airborne before it was too late. Once in the air, they had exactly enough fuel to make it back to Svalbard.

Heroes of Arctic Exploration

While Amundsen had failed in his attempt to reach the North Pole by air, he and his men were received with honor. They had flown farther north than anyone previously had. After arriving back in Norway, they flew their plane to Oslo, where a parade was held for them in the streets. Some 50,000 people attended the parade.

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