Quest for Arctic Passage World First
THE MAINSTREAM LAST FIRST
This is the story of an extraordinary expedition, an expedition that began over a century ago. The Northwest Passage is a place that conjures images of ice-locked tall ships, stitched-skin kayaks and steel hulled icebreakers, of explorers, the Inuit and merchant sailors, of Franklin, Amundsen and Larsen.
On July 1st, 2013 four modern-day explorers hope to become the first team to ever row a 1500 mile portion of the 3600 mile Northwest Passage in a single season – one of the Earth’s last great firsts.
The first recorded attempt to discover the Northwest Passage was the east-west voyage of John Cabot in 1497, sent by Henry VII in search of a direct route to the Orient. In 1524, Charles V sent Estêvão Gomes to find a northern Atlantic passage to the Spice Islands.
An English expedition was launched in 1576 by Martin Frobisher, who took three trips west to what is now the Canadian Arctic, in order to find the passage. Frobisher Bay, which he first charted, is named after him. As part of another hunt, in July 1583 Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who had written a treatise on the discovery of the passage and was a backer of Frobisher, claimed the territory of Newfoundland for the English crown. On August 8, 1585, the English explorer John Davis entered Cumberland Sound, Baffin Island.
The major rivers on the east coast were also explored in case they could lead to a transcontinental passage. Jacques Cartier's explorations of the Saint Lawrence River were initiated in hope of finding a way through the continent. Indeed, Cartier managed to convince himself that the St. Lawrence was the Passage; when he found the way blocked by rapids at what is now Montreal, he was so certain that these rapids were all that was keeping him from China (in French, la Chine), that he named the rapids for China. To this day, they are the Lachine Rapids.
On May 9, 1619, under the auspices of King Christian IV, Jens Munk set out with 65 men and the King's two ships, the Einhörningen (Unicorn), a small frigate, and Lamprenen (Lamprey), a sloop, which were outfitted under his own supervision. His mission was to discover the Northwest Passage to the Indies and China. Munk penetrated Davis Strait as far north as 69°, found Frobisher Bay, and then spent almost a month fighting his way through Hudson Strait. In September 1619 he found the entrance to Hudson Bay and spent the winter near the mouth of the Churchill River. Cold, famine, and scurvy killed so many of his men that only two sailors and himself survived. With these men, he sailed for home with the Lamprey on July 16, 1620, reaching Bergen, Norway, on September 20, 1620.
René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de LaSalle built the sailing ship, Le Griffon, in his quest to find the Northwest Passage in the upper Great Lakes. Le Griffon disappeared in 1679 on the return trip of her maiden voyage. In the spring of 1682, LaSalle made his famous voyage down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. LaSalle led an expedition from France in 1684 to establish a French colony on the Gulf of Mexico. He was murdered by his followers in 1687.
In 1772 Samuel Hearne travelled overland northwest from Hudson Bay to the Arctic Ocean, thereby proving that there was no strait connecting Hudson Bay to the Pacific Ocean.
Although most Northwest Passage expeditions originated in Europe or on the East coast of North America and sought to traverse the Passage in the westbound direction, some progress was made in exploration of its western end as well.
In 1728 Vitus Bering, a Danish Navy officer in Russian service, used the strait first discovered by Semyon Dezhnyov in 1648 but later accredited to and named after Bering (the Bering Strait), concluding North America and Russia were separate land masses.
In 1741 Bering, with Lieutenant Aleksei Chirikov, went in search of further lands beyond Siberia. While separated, Chirikov discovered several of the Aleutian Islands while Bering charted the Alaskan region before the scurvy-ravaged ship was wrecked off the Kamchatka Peninsula.
In 1762, the English trading ship Octavius reportedly hazarded the passage from the west but became trapped in sea ice. In 1775, the whaler Herald found the Octavius adrift near Greenland with the bodies of her crew frozen below decks. Thus the Octavius may have earned the distinction of being the first Western sailing ship to make the passage, although the fact that it took 13 years and occurred after the crew was dead somewhat tarnishes this achievement. The veracity of the Octavius story is still in question.
The Spanish made numerous voyages to the northwest coast of North America during the late 18th century. Determining whether a North West Passage existed was one of the motivations for this effort. Among the voyages that involved careful searches for a Passage include the 1775 and 1779 voyages of Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra. The journal of Francisco Antonio Mourelle, who served as Quadra's second in command in 1775, fell into English hands and was translated and published in London. Captain James Cook made use of the journal during his explorations of the region.
In 1791 Alessandro Malaspina sailed to Yakutat Bay, Alaska, which was rumoured to be a Passage. In 1790 and 1791 Francisco de Eliza led several exploring voyages into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, searching for a possible Northwest Passage and finding the Strait of Georgia. To fully explore this new inland sea an expedition under Dionisio Alcalá Galiano was sent in 1792. He was explicitly ordered to explore all channels that might turn out to be a Northwest Passage.
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.
After journeying through the Pacific, in another west–east attempt, Cook began at Nootka Sound in April 1778, and headed north along the coastline, charting the lands and searching for the regions sailed by the Russians 40 years previously. The Admiralty's orders had commanded the expedition to ignore all inlets and rivers until they reached a latitude of 65°N. Cook, however, failed to make any progress in sighting a Northwestern Passage.
Various officers on the expedition, including William Bligh, George Vancouver, and John Gore, thought the existence of a route was 'improbable'. Before reaching 65°N they found the coastline pushing them further south, but Gore convinced Cook to sail on into the Cook Inlet in the hope of finding the route. They continued to the limits of the Alaskan peninsula and the start of the 1,200 mi (1,900 km) chain of Aleutian Islands. Despite reaching 70°N they encountered nothing but icebergs.
From 1792 to 1794, the Vancouver Expedition (led by George Vancouver who had accompanied Cook previously) surveyed in detail all the passages from the Northwest Coast and confirmed that there was no such passage south of the Bering Strait. This conclusion was supported by the evidence of Alexander MacKenzie who explored the Arctic and Pacific oceans in 1793.
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. When the ships failed to return, relief expeditions and search parties explored the Canadian Arctic, which resulted in a thorough charting of the region along with a possible passage. Many artifacts from the expedition were found over the next century and a half, including notes that the ships were ice-locked in 1846 near King William Island, about half way through the passage, unable to break free. Franklin died in 1847 and Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier took over command.
In 1848 the expedition abandoned ships and tried to escape south across the tundra by sledge. Although some of the crew may not have died until the early 1850s, no evidence has ever been found of any survivors.
In 1853 John Rae received information from local Inuit about the fate of Franklin's expedition, but his reports were not welcomed.
Starvation, exposure and scurvy all contributed to the deaths. In 1981 Owen Beattie, an anthropologist from the University of Alberta, examined remains from sites associated with the expedition. This led to further investigations and the examination of tissue and bone from the frozen bodies of three seamen, John Torrington, William Braine and John Hartnell, exhumed from the permafrost of Beechey Island. Laboratory tests revealed high concentrations of lead in all three (the expedition carried 8,000 tins of food sealed with a lead-based solder).
Another researcher has suggested botulism caused deaths among crew members. New evidence, confirming reports first made by John Rae in 1854 based on Inuit accounts, has shown cannibalism was a last resort for some of the crew.
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.
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 crew—who were by that time dying of starvation—were found by searchers who had travelled by sledge over the ice from a ship of Sir Edward Belcher's expedition, and returned with them to Belcher's ships, which had entered the sound from the east. On one of Belcher's ships, McClure and his crew returned to England in 1854, becoming the first people to circumnavigate the Americas and to discover and transit the Northwest Passage, albeit by ship and by sledge over the ice. (Both McClure and his ship were found by a party from HMS Resolute, one of Belcher's ships, so his sledge journey was relatively short.)
This was an astonishing feat for that day and age, and McClure was knighted and promoted in rank. (He was made rear-admiral in 1867.) Both he and his crew also shared £10,000 awarded them by the British Parliament. In July 2010 Canadian archaeologists found HMS "Investigator" fairly intact but sunk about 8m below the surface.
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. Gjøa was much smaller than vessels used by other Arctic expeditions, but Amundsen intended to live off the limited resources of the land and sea through which he was to travel, and reasoned that the land could sustain only a tiny crew (this had been the cause of the catastrophic failure of John Franklin's expedition fifty years previously). The ship's shallow draught would help her traverse the shoals of the Arctic straits.
Amundsen set out from Oslo in June 1903 and was west of the Boothia Peninsula by late September. The Gjøa was put into a natural harbour on the south shore of King William Island; by October 3 she was iced in. There the expedition remained for nearly two years, with the expedition members learning from the local Inuit people and undertaking measurements to determine the location of the North Magnetic Pole. The harbour, known as Gjoa Haven, has become the only settlement on the island.
After completing (a portion of) the Northwest Passage of this trip and having anchored near Herschel Island, Amundsen skied 800 kilometres to the city of Eagle, Alaska, and sent a telegram announcing his success. Amundsen then skied 800 kilometres back to rejoin his companions. (This was done to collect the prize money - remember he departed with creditors after him.) Although his chosen east–west route, via the Rae Strait, contained young ice and thus was navigable, some of the waterways were extremely shallow (3 feet, or 1 meter, deep) making the route commercially impractical.
Reports and Other Papers Relating to the Two Voyages of the R.C.M.P. Schooner "St Roch" Through the North West Passage 1940-42 and 1944. King’s Printer (1945).
The North-West Passage, 1940-42-and 1944. City Archives, Vancouver (1948) reprinted (1954).
Henry med det Store Skipet. Mortensen Forlag, Oslo (1964) reprinted by Flyt Forlag (2003).
The Big Ship, an Autobiography by Henry Larsen in co-operation with Frank R. Sheer and Edvard Omholt Jensen. McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1967.
Robin’s adventure started when he was 4 years old and he decided to jump off the 2nd floor balcony with an umbrella as a parachute. It almost all ended when he spent 4 minutes in an underwater hydraulic after going over a waterfall on a canoe trip down Riviere Ouareau. He could have used the umbrella. Since then, he has always had a need for adventure. So, he got married and now has three wonderful daughters.
He wrote the software that the Canadian Civil Air Search and Rescue Association uses in searching for missing persons. He holds multi-national patents on guitar bodies and fibre reinforced ceramics. He has countless copyrights on things from snowboard chord calculation software to 1/16th scale flight simulator models. Currently, he designs the world's finest kayaks for Atlantis Kayaks on Vancouver Island. When he’s not doing that, you will find him with his wife Karen filming and traveling this wonderful world of ours.
|RCMP ST. ROCH|
Vancouver Maritime Museum Photo
Launched: May 7, 1928
At: Burrard Shipbuilding & Drydock Company, North Vancouver, B.C.
|Class & type:||Hecla class bomb vessel|
|Displacement:||715.3 long tons (726.8 t)|
|Tons burthen:||372 tons|
|Length:||105 ft (32 m)|
|Beam:||29 ft (8.8 m)|
- she became the first ship to cross from the Pacific to the Atlantic by the North West Passage;
- she was also the first ship to complete the hazardous journey in both directions.
The heritage value lies in the original design and the multiple refits that were designed to deal harsh conditions and reflect the changing technologies in marine transportation over the course of her working life. The St. Roch has been restored to her appearance during her epic journeys between 1940-1944 that was a mix of original elements and subsequent refits. Additional value in her material fabric include the spare and well-considered details of her design in terms of the efficiency and economy of her living and working quarters.
- schooner form, relatively large scale and compact massing;
- surviving original construction materials and craftsmanship;
- intact spatial configuration above and below deck, illustrating the daily living and working arrangements of the ship’s crew, intact mess and galley facilities;
- intact interior millwork throughout the domestic and common quarters;
- hardware including decorative and nautically themed brass and iron fixtures, plumbing, washbasins and radiators;
- navigational equipment including scientific instruments, compass, maps and charts, chart rack, set of international code flags, steering wheel and helm;
- nautical equipment including the masts and swivels, sails, ropes, decks and rigging, propeller and rudder, booms, crow’s nest, anchor, winches and windlass;
- safety equipment including lifeboats, lifebuoys and racks, fire extinguishers;
- communication equipment including wireless transmitters and receivers;
- mechanical equipment including diesel engines, pistons, compressors, fuel tanks, pumps, generators and auxiliary;
- recreational materials such as gramophone, records and reading material such as periodicals;
- lettering cut in main beam under hatch coaming: ‘O.N. 154, 809 R.T. 80.07’.