Once more into the Northwest Passage

This one, which turned up in the National Post, finds our hero sailing in the High Arctic with Adventure Canada. You gotta love the podcast, which becomes accessible through the link . . . .

High Arctic: Travelling to the top of the world

So this was the view that greeted explorer Samuel Hearne in 1771, when he became the first European to reach the Arctic coast of North America: a vision of small islands rolling away to the horizon. Hearne had travelled months to get here, trekking northwest across “the Barren Lands” with an ever-changing party of Chipewyan Dene from Prince of Wales Fort at Churchill.

Almost 220 years later, while sailing in September with Adventure Canada, a dozen voyagers stood on the bluffs outside Kugluktuk and revelled in the history of this place. In 1819, five decades after Hearne, a young John Franklin had looked out over this same vista, having led a canoe expedition down the Coppermine River. From here, where the river empties into Coronation Gulf, the naval officer pushed eastward and, overruling his Native guides, went too far: His return journey became a desperate flight for survival during which he lost 11 of his 21 men. Later, in 1845, he would sail into the Arctic with two ships and 128 men – none of whom would ever be seen alive again.

PODCAST: The author discusses the Arctic with the Post’s Brad Frenette in the latest NP Traveller Podcast. [Subscribe via iTunes here]

Later still, in 1851, that peerless traveller John Rae reached these bluffs while leading a Hudson’s Bay Co. expedition searching for the now-lost Franklin. From here, Rae used snowshoes to cross the ice and explore the southern coast of Victoria Island; then, having retrieved two small boats as the ice melted, he continued the search by water.

Kugluktuk, an Inuit community also known as Coppermine, today boasts a population of 1,300 and an airport with regular flights to Yellowknife and Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. But we visitors, mostly older adventure travellers certain to increase in numbers as the Northwest Passage becomes increasingly viable, had ridden ashore in zodiacs from the Clipper Adventurer, a comfortable expeditionary ship, ice-strengthened, that accommodates about 130 passengers.

After visiting the bluffs, we explored the town, then mixed and mingled at a multi-purpose community centre called The Complex, where locals sold carvings, prints and knitted goods and mounted a cultural presentation with drumming and dancing. For some travellers, the cultural dimension of the voyage was paramount. Resource staff included lawyer-activist Aayu Peter and filmmaker John Houston, who led workshops in the rudiments of Inuktitut while the ship called in at several Inuit communities.

For others, an Arctic voyage is mainly about the outdoors: cruising in zodiacs through spectacular icebergs, or else trekking across the tundra and seeing polar bears, muskox, caribou, seals, Arctic hare, snowy owls – all of which, during our 16-day voyage, we encountered. For history buffs like me, however, who regard Arctic exploration as the great adventure of Canadian history, the touchstone epic that, like the Civil War for Americans, demands a response from every generation, this voyage was all about visiting history-rich sites.

Adventure Canada had originally intended to sail the Clipper Adventurer northwest from Kugluktuk through Prince of Wales Strait, which runs between Victoria and Banks Islands, and then carry on to Greenland. But ice conditions at the mouth of the Strait dictated a change of plans. Those of us who were history-oriented felt almost vindicated because, in 1851, Robert McClure encountered precisely this challenge in the Investigator. After spending three winters trapped in the pack ice, McClure was forced to abandon his ship to destruction.

Mid-voyage we changed course and took the southern route through the Passage – the same one taken (in reverse) by Roald Amundsen in 1903-06, when he became the first to navigate the Northwest Passage. As a result, we made an unanticipated visit to little-known Pasley Bay on the west coast of Boothia Peninsula. Here we discovered a sturdy five-foot cairn, beside which we found a two-decades-old plaque commemorating the maiden voyage in 1988 of a ship called the Henry Larsen.

The cairn itself remained a puzzle until later, when I determined that it had been erected just 67 years ago by Larsen himself. In 1942, while making the first return voyage through the Passage, Larsen spent 10 months trapped in Pasley Bay in the St. Roch. When a crew member died suddenly of a heart attack, Larsen built the cairn to mark his gravesite.

Not far north of Pasley Bay, we veered east through the narrows of Bellot Strait, which is never wider than 1.6 kilometres. In 1851, Jane Lady Franklin dispatched Captain William Kennedy to search for her husband just south of this region, where indeed he had met a sorry end. But Kennedy got trapped in the ice on the east coast of Boothia, and after travelling through this strait by dogsled with Joseph-René Bellot, his second-in-command, Kennedy insisted on continuing west instead of south. Where he and Bellot battled ice and blizzards, we sailed through open waters and saw no icebergs – just four restless polar bears.

Next morning, in cold, blustery weather, we went ashore on Beechey Island, where Franklin spent the winter of 1846 before sailing south to his tragic fate. After visiting the graves of three sailors who died on Beechey, we ranged over the island, careful not to disrupt the site. In 1850, when American explorer Elisha Kent Kane and others discovered the graves, they also found a neat pile of more than 600 tin cans that had been emptied and filled with limestone pebbles, “perhaps to serve as convenient ballast on boating expeditions.”

No such pile exists today. But at Northumberland House, two kilometres east of the graves, we counted about 85 of the pebble-filled tins buried in the rocky soil to form the shape of a cross. On the ridge above, the most interesting of several monuments is dedicated to Joseph-René Bellot.

After returning to England with Kennedy, the young Frenchman rejoined the Franklin search in 1853. That August, while anchored off Beechey Island, he volunteered to deliver a message. While he trekked north up Wellington Channel, the ice cracked and Bellot found himself stranded on an ice floe with two men. The three tented overnight, and in the morning, Bellot left the tent … never to be seen again.

On the Clipper Adventurer, we continued eastward along Baffin Island to Greenland. We traversed Disko Bay, where virtually every sailor who ever entered the Northwest Passage, Franklin included, put in for fresh water. At nearby Ilulissat, in zodiacs, we cruised among the icebergs of the Jakobshvan Isbrae, the fast-moving Greenlandic ice river that has always spawned the largest bergs in the world, including the one that sank the Titanic. This proved a spectacular climax to a 16-day voyage in the wake of John Franklin.

• Ken McGoogan, a recipient of the Pierre Berton Award for History, sailed on this voyage as a resource historian with Adventure Canada. He is the author of four books about the Northwest Passage, the latest of which is Race to the Polar Sea.


High Arctic cruises start in July and run through August and September. Space is limited and people have already started booking: The earlier you reserve cabin space, the better. Voyages vary in length, but 15-day cruises, meals included, start around $6,200. Best bet: check out the websites below.

• Adventure Canada (1-800-363-7566; adventurecanada.com) This Mississauga-based company specializes in High Arctic, Greenland and Northwest Passage cruises.

• Cruise North Expeditons (1-866-263-3220; cruisenorthexpeditions.com) This Inuit-owned company offers High Arctic, Baffin Island and Northwest Passage adventures.

• The Great Canadian Adventure Company (1-888-285-1676; adventures.ca) This Edmonton-based company offers a variety of Arctic voyages and adventures.

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