National Treasure #78: Northwest Passage

“How hard can this be?” “This can’t be done!” “That wasn’t so hard!”

“Gotta find it!” “Who needs it?” “Gotta have it!”

The history of the Northwest Passage is a tale of failed expeditions and frustrated ambitions, of incremental advances and huge leaps forward, of international achievement and foreign intrigue, of ice-blocked channels and global warming, of a Russian flag and the Canadian continental shelf.

Its first traversal entirely by sea (as opposed to by ship and then by sledge over pack ice) was by Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian in a ridiculously tiny ship. Amundsen’s crew took three seasons to complete the trip, from 1903 to 1906, spending two winters icebound.

Its first west-to-east passage was by an RCMP ship, the St. Roch, from 1940 to 1942.

Its first east-to-west passage in a single year (Hurray! Home for Christmas!) was again by the St. Roch, in 1944.

Its first west-to-east passage in a single year was by Labrador, a Government of Canada icebreaker, in 1954, coincidentally 100 years after the first traversal (the one using sledges).

After all those years when commercial shippers wrote off the Northwest Passage, it’s now generating renewed interest as the Arctic ice melts and the passage is open for more of the year. There’s at least one site dedicated to the question of “Who Owns the Arctic?

Canada thinks it’s our territorial waters; other countries think it’s international waters.

When a topic gets extended play on Parliament’s website, you know it matters.

And of course its Canada’s national treasure. We’re the only people who have a song about it, and that by another national treasure. So take that, all you Danes and Russians and Americans.

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6 Responses to National Treasure #78: Northwest Passage

  1. Jim Robertson says:

    Mentioning the RCMP St Roch brings back memories for me Isabel. I remember as a wee lad being introduced to Henry Larsen by my father (who was also in the RCMP)

    Thanks for the memory.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim R – Fabulous! Sometimes these events seem a bit impersonal or distant, but I guess it’s like the six degrees of separation concept. We often don’t know how close we are to something or someone in history, either. Thanks!

  2. JimTaylor says:

    Of course, Stan Rogers’ song isn’t really about the NorthWest Passage in the Arctic, it’s about the NorthWest Passages in our lives that we must “brave” as we proceed through life. That’s not in any way to deny that Stan is one of Canada’s treasures.
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – I’d say it’s about both – or using one as a metaphor for the other, at least. Besides, how will the Russians, Danes, or Americans know the subtleties of this song unless someone blurts it out? My ownership argument stands.

  3. Jim Robertson says:

    Just realized I didn’t mention that Henry Larsen was the Captain of the St Roch……

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim R – 🙂 And I didn’t notice the omission because I knew his name from my not-so-extensive reading . . . Thanks!

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