Northwest passage: a voyage through time

By Maeva Elliott 15 June 2009
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Unfettered by the mishaps of voyages past, Maeva and Peter Elliott navigate the notorious Northwest Passage.

THE WIND IS HOWLING in the rigging and I can hear the Bering Sea’s waves breaking all around us in the darkness. On deck, my husband Peter is trying to get rid of our only remaining sail, a piece of canvas not much bigger than an apron. If he falls overboard, he’ll freeze to death within minutes.

Instead, he jumps back into the cockpit. He’s beaming. “We’ve done it! We’ve completed the Northwest Passage!” he says, screaming over the wind as he hugs me.

Indeed we had, almost two years to the day since we first joked that there should be a less conformist way to sail between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans than through the expensive Panama Canal or around stormy Cape Horn. Truth is, there is – it passes through the Arctic Archipelago and is signposted with stories of lost ships and souls.

Since the early 16th century, the idea of a navigable Northwest Passage linking Europe to Asia through North America had stirred merchants’ dreams of wealth. But it’s the loss of Sir John Franklin’s expedition that truly captivated minds and led to the first massive exploration of the Arctic.

The birth of the Northwest passage

IN 1845, THE BRITISH Navy gave command of its largest-ever Arctic expedition to Franklin, a veteran explorer and former Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania. Equipped with two ice-strengthened ships, 129 men and the best of British technology, Franklin was expected to reach the Pacific in two sailing seasons. Instead, the ships and crew vanished, prompting a decade of searches.

Although they uncovered patchy evidence of the lost seamen’s fate, search parties accomplished another goal: the mapping of most of the Arctic Archipelago and the interconnected channels that comprise the Northwest Passage.    

It wasn’t until 1903, however, that the first transit of the passage occurred. Leaving from Greenland, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his crew of six completed the journey in three years, proving that the passage’s ephemeral navigability made it unsuitable as a fast and safe shipping route between Europe and Asia.

In the two years it took to prepare our own voyage onboard our 10 m aluminium yacht, Tyhina, I became fascinated by Amundsen, not because of his polar passage, but because he was a kabluna (white man) living among the Inuit. His writing subtly reveals the changes in a man who came to appreciate Inuit wisdom and survival skills, so much so that upon returning to Europe, he hoped that civilisation would never reach Arctic shores.

At first approach, any of the few villages along the Northwest Passage felt like a deserted space station. Tethered sled dogs seemed to be the only inhabitants of unremarkable prefabricated dwellings scattered awkwardly along the rocky shore. But the racket made by our anchor chain soon brought groups of children running to the beach with huge smiles of excitement.

Amundsen’s journey in modern times

SINCE AMUNDSEN’S TIME, the Inuit have tried to strike a balance between Western and traditional lifestyles. Nowhere is this more evident than in Gjoa Haven, population 1109, on King William Island. The village sprang up around Amundsen’s boat, the polar sloop Gjøa, which sheltered in its natural harbour for two winters from October 1903. The local Inuit, called Netsilik, were nomadic but established a more permanent camp here to trade dressed caribou- and seal skins for steel sewing needles. In 1927, the Hudson Bay Company established a trading post at Gjoa Haven and the village became permanent. The people living there today are descendants of the Netsilik as well as people who claim to be descendants of Amundsen. The town is now serviced by small aircraft and a yearly icebreaker that brings the fuel needed to power snowmobiles.

To us, it epitomised Amundsen’s journey, but our joy was short-lived as we found the stone cairn, said to enclose a piece of marble that supported Amundsen’s scientific instruments during the expedition, and the nearby cemetery covered with litter and industrial rubbish. Then, in the gentle way of the Inuit, a hunter named Jonathan taught us a lesson about surviving in the Arctic: looking after the living leaves no place for dwelling on the past.

Jonathan’s dark, leathery skin and calloused hands spoke of a lifetime on the land but as we walked with him among the drying skins of musk-ox and caribou, his chest seemed larger, straighter, more youthful. In 2008, at 68° N, Jonathan’s status in the community was still linked to his ability to bring food and skins for winter clothes to his family of seven children and 38 grandchildren.

The Arctic still possesses the same beauty that mesmerised Amundsen and all who visit the region. In Baffin Bay and Landcaster Sound, we came across pods of beluga whales, bobbing up and down on the sea like shelled boiled eggs. Once, a sudden splash of freezing water disturbed my daydreaming at the helm and I turned just in time to see a narwhal plunge its spiralling ivory tusk under the boat.

On 14 August 2008, the last of the six polar bears we encountered, a 3 m (at full stretch) male on a pack of ice floes the size of a small town, followed Tyhina’s every move with its small black eyes, seemingly registering our human scent. Then, when we came within a few metres, it entered the water headfirst and swam away. That night, after two months in the sky, the sun at last set and by dawn, the ice that blocked our progress only hours before had gone. Before us was clear blue water.

“The ice can’t be far away,” Peter reasoned as he manned the onboard radio for our daily update with our ice router Peter Simotiak, based in Cambridge Bay, 966 km to the south-west. Peter relayed information that allowed us to navigate around pack ice and between large floes. “The ice has completely broken up overnight. The passage is free. Repeat, the passage is free,” he announced. Then, in a rare show of emotion over the crackling radio, we heard: “I’ve never seen this before. Never. It’s unbelievable.”

ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGA, it took Amundsen three seasons and many epic battles with the ice to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage aboard Gjøa. In the Northern Hemisphere’s summer of 2008, guided by modern navigation aids, satellite weather forecasts and daily ice reports, Peter and I sailed Tyhina through it in 51 days.

As we left the Arctic we made a wish: that ice continues to rule this region for many years to come.

Source: Australian Geographic April – June 2009