Northwest Passage Facts

The North Pole: a tropical paradise

For most of the 1800’s and for a few years into the 1900’s a very popular theory held that the top of the Earth was tropical, with warm easy seas beckoning sailors for an easy trip from Europe to Asia. The only thing separating the known oceans from this fertile milk-run was a huge ring of seemingly impenetrable ice. Once the right set of vessels, explorers and circumstances were in place, the elusive Northwest Passage would become the predominate route of choice. Vast amount of money was spent by governments and shipping companies to explore and break the code to the polar north.

What is the Northwest Passage?

Any number of routes that wind through a series of large islands between the northern most coast of Canada and the North Pole known as the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. European explorers gave it the name “northwest” because of the location in proximity to Europe. The length of the Passage from end it end is about 1900 miles, depending on which route is taken. Well before the Passage was navigated via a water route, explorers and traders made their way in and around the archipelago, mapping and preparing for a time when the frozen ocean would thaw.

Where is the Northwest Passage?

Just a few miles north of the Arctic Circle and about 1200 miles south of the North Pole. The Passage is bordered in the east by Baffin Bay and in the west by the Beaufort Sea. Sailors know as soon as they depart the open ocean of Baffin Bay or the Beaufort Sea they are likely to encounter frozen seas, shifting sea ice, shallow rock-strewn shoals, thick fog and desolation.

History of Expeditions

As early as the early 1500’s explorers searched for the fabled Northwest Passage from the Atlantic and Pacific sides. It wasn’t until the McClure expedition of 1849 that an expedition actually made it through the Passage – but not unscathed. Robert McClure sailed from the west through the Bering Strait towards the Passage and became icebound as soon as they neared the first set of islands. After spending three winters living and dying in the Passage, the remaining men began trekking over land and frozen sea, east towards Europe. Eventually, a search party that entered the Passage from the east and pulling sleds rescued them, thus making McClure the first person on record to travel through the Passage.

Many people are aware of the infamous Franklin expedition, primarily because of the number of men lost in the tragedy. In 1845, Sir John Franklin commanded two British ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror with a highly trained and experienced company of 129 men. The Erebus was captained by Francis Crozier after Franklin died shortly after entering the Passage. What shocked the world so much about this expedition were two things. The first of which was massive amount of food, fuel and modern-day equipment aboard the two ships, both of which had been to Antarctica and were the most ice-worthy and included the greatest technology for their time – including a auxiliary steam engine, hot water plumbing and central heating. The second thing that shocked the world was the fact that both ships and their entire crew appeared to have disappeared without a trace. Just imagine two huge modern-day nuclear-powered aircraft carriers with over 5000 crewmen each, disappearing without a trace. Such was the impact on the world after three years when no word was heard from the expedition.

Franklin’s wife was quite the socialite and no wallflower. She pressured politicians, noblemen and the king himself to launch multiple search parties, which all encountered and spawned legendary adventures of their own, including that of Robert McClure. The explorer John Rae discovered remnants from the expedition on King William Island, including what appeared to be evidence of cannibalism. He submitted his report to Lady Franklin and the British government commission in charge of the rescue and the subsequent reward money. The idea of cannibalism was so aberrant to the upright socialites that Lady Franklin called upon her friend, none other than Charles Dickens to write public notices slandering John Rae to the point that Rae never received the recognition or reward money he was due.

It wasn’t until 1906 when the Northwest Passage was finally navigated. It took Roald Amundsen three years to sale his small ship, the Gjoa, with is six crewmen through the archipelago. His expedition was quite conservative, with plans to be frozen in over two winters and to learn all he could from the Inuit. With this advanced knowledge from people that lived for hundreds of years below zero, he later became the first person to the South Pole, easily beating Robert Falcon Scott, who died while relying far too much on advanced British technology, instead of the tried and true methods of the Inuit.

It took another 38 years before another boat navigated the Passage, when the St. Roch powered its modern diesel engines through the semi-frozen straits.

Since the 1950’s navigation of the Passage has increased in fits and starts, as the sea ice has thinned and receded, to be replaced by drift ice from the north. Sea ice is frozen sea. With the advent of warmer air and water temperatures in the Passage, the sea freezes less and less each year. Drift ice, driven by wind and tides, makes its way down from the north pole, to clog the narrow waterways of the passage; however, the drift ice is beginning to show more and more regular tends towards melting before reaching the shipping routes of the southern portions of the Passage.

Why is the Northwest Passage important today?

For centuries, shipping has dominated world travel and moving goods from one place to another. It still does. While air travel moves more people, planes and trains take a backseat well behind the volume of products transported by ships and the industry is growing quickly.

Well before mariners ventured to North America geographers theorized a northern passage over the top of the planet, though many of the theories were pretty far-fetched. One of the more popular ideas that lived almost to the 20th centuries was the idea that the North Pole was a tropical area surrounded by a barrier of ice. All we had to do was make it through that ice barrier and it would be smooth sailing between Europe and Asia.

Sailing around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America, was and still is very treacherous due to the meeting of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and proximity to the South Pole. Early mariners didn’t encounter the same terrible storms when attempts were made to sail north over the continent – though the ice proved formidable.

Eventually, the Panama Canal was completed and safe passage between the oceans became commonplace. Now, with the astronomical increase in the number of ships and with the advent of super-duper tankers and colossal container ships, the Panama Canal has become the world’s largest bottle neck, coming and going, with ships waiting days or weeks to make the narrow passage. Even as new canals are dug and in the planning stages through Central America there appears to be no end in sight to the ever-growing shipping industry – simply because shipping is the least expensive method to move huge amounts of materials.

If the Northwest Passage were to become a viable, regular trading route, it would knock out about 2500 miles off the route through the Panama Canal, which would not only save a lot of time but also fuel and other overhead costs.

What is at risk?

Since the influx of European explorers and eventually settlers, the Inuit culture has been greatly influenced and radically changed. For the most part, the Inuit welcomed the newcomers and every new piece of technology they brought. Early on, guns were traded for animal hides to the point that eventually sea otters were nearly hunted to extinction in some areas – until bans were put into effect. As more and more outsiders moved into the Passage, the Inuit adapted to the diets rich in flour, sugar and processed foods. Alcohol and drugs eventually became a problem that still threatens the small communities today. Many towns ban alcohol outright because of the high rates of alcoholism and alcohol-related violence.

While modern medicine has been advantageous to the Inuit, most communities remain very small and isolated from the world and have not developed common immunities. This is particularly evident with regards to COVID.

Nunavut is a massive province encompassing most of the Northwest Passage. It was ceded back to the Inuit a few years ago for governance. Contracts have been negotiated between the Inuit run government and oil companies such that almost every citizen over the age of 18 gets a monthly royalty check. While this has been very helpful for a formerly impoverished population, the long-term effects include a widespread lack of motivation towards education and employment. A majority of high schoolers drop out and parents are rarely motivated to encourage their kids to stay in school – knowing a monthly check is coming their way as soon as they are adults.

With a sudden influx of dollars from oil companies, gold and diamond mining companies, shipping companies and the industries supporting the growth of those industries, the water, air, land, wildlife and people are going to experience an impact greater than any natural disaster could ever come close to replicating.

This influx to the Northwest Passage is no longer considered an “if” but a “when”. The best that can be accomplished at this point is “how” the development of this barely touched corner of the planet can be accomplished with the least damaging effects.

What is at risk?

Climate change is already causing alterations in geology, weather, ocean currents, flora and fauna of the Northwest Passage. With the addition of increased shipping traffic and the subsequent ports and human industrial activity in this fairly untouched region, the effects will be substantial and not necessarily positive, outside of the economic effects.

Many people have heard of Prudhoe Bay and the oil drilling activity on the northern coast of Alaska, just outside the western boundary of the Northwest Passage. Oil drilling operations always result in an oil spill. That sounds like quite a radical statement, but it is true. Spills are inevitable because there is no way to provide a 100% safeguard against oil spills. It’s more of an issue of “when”, not “if”. The Inuit communities have consistently voted for increased oil drilling and production in the Nunavut, as well as diamond mining and other minerals, mostly because they get direct payments from the oil companies on a monthly basis. So, regardless of the negative effects increased mining and drilling will have upon the land, air, water, wildlife and people, the expansion of these industries with the warming temperatures is almost a foregone conclusion.

Outside of the effects the industries will have, wildlife is already exhibiting signs of change because of the warming temperatures of the Passage.

Polar bears, one of the only Family of bears that does not hibernate. This can be attributed to the year-round availability of food and the polar bears ability to hunt on land, ice and in the water. Given the diminishing sea ice and subsequent seal hunting opportunities sea ice affords, polar bears have begun migrating more inland (south) and breeding with grizzly bears, who have begun migrating more north, due to warming weather trends. The result of this is the “pizzly”, a truly terrifying hybrid that combines the speed and endurance of the polar bear with the ferocity of the grizzly.

If sea ice diminishes to the point where polar bears cannot hunt in the winter, this could result in hybrids, such as the pizzly becoming the dominate breed.

Cetaceans, such as the Narwhal and dolphins, like the Orca, migrate through the Passage on a seasonal basis, in search of food and breeding habits. At this point, it is difficult to estimate the effects a predominately ice-free Northwest Passage will have upon these migratory species and, just as importantly, the food chain. For instance, Orcas hunt sea life and move to where they can find the food. Will they stay in the Passage year-round, if their food source is available year-round and more importantly their access to air – without the frozen water surface?

The study of Narwhal tusks has revealed and increase in the presence of mercury 100-fold over the past 50 years, some of which was determined to be from the South Pacific, thousands of miles from the regions where narwhal live. While certain amounts of mercury are natural, the rapid and extreme increase is significant. The tusks play a crucial role in mating behavior and the ability to sense food and conditions near and far. Studies are still underway to determine the effects of these higher concentrations of mercury in the tusks. Mining activity in the Northwest Passage, especially gold, includes the use of mercury.

These are just the tip of the iceberg to give you an example of what is to come in the Northwest Passage.

Who are the Arctic Cowboys and what are they doing?

One of the goals of the Arctic Cowboys is to chronicle the Northwest Passage before any of these things come to pass. We’ll be at surface level traveling at a natural pace which gives us a unique perspective no other expedition has held since exploration of the Passage was initiated two hundred years ago.

As with most expeditions, the goals are rarely singular. In the wake of Roald Amundsen, we also want to complete one of the rare “firsts” remaining in our ever-shrinking world. The Arctic Cowboys will be the first to kayak the entire Northwest Passage.

Since Franklin’s expedition in the mid-1800’s travel in the Passage has increased, with hunters and traders making their way there over ice and frozen ground. The Hudson Bay company established outposts throughout the Passage and relied heavily on sledge travel pulled by dogs. It wasn’t until the past three decades that the Passage has become navigable via small craft on a regular basis, even when larger ships were blocked by ice.

The kayak is a product of the Greenland and the Alaskan natives and never really adopted by the Inuit in the Northwest Passage, primarily due to the predominantly frozen conditions. It wasn’t until about 30 years ago that exploration of the Passage was initiated by kayakers. A handful of kayakers have attempted the routes with varying degrees of success and failure. Three adventurers made it across the southern portion of the Passage by portaging many miles overland into Hudson Bay, but no one has traversed the Passage via a strictly water route, as Roald Amundsen had done in the first recorded navigation.

Most of these kayak teams ran out of time or were iced in. Some succumbed to polar bear attacks or fell prey to the erratic katabatic winds.

Thus far, our team will be the most experienced team of kayakers to attempt the Passage. We’re prepared to be self-supported for up to four weeks between re-supply towns.

We also hope to assist a scientific study by gathering data along the route and are currently seeking out researchers with whom we can partner.

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