By the mid 1800’s, as the golden age of exploration was at full sail after the discovery and mapping of the coast of Antarctica was big news, geopolitics and commerce combined to fuel several pushes to find the Northwest Passage. It was during the 1800’s that overland expeditions made their way to the Passage from Canada’s barren lands, via the great rivers that flowed north. Slowly, a general map of the southern route of the Passage began to take shape and regular visits were not uncommon by fur trappers, partnering with indigenous people, who knew the land well. From the west, semi-permanent outposts and missions were established in what would later be named “Alaska”, along the coasts of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas to service the whaling fleets and trade with the indigenous people.
Still, even with all that was learned and mapped of the Northwest Passage, by the mid 1800’s any attempt to navigate a vessel east of the Beaufort Sea or west of Baffin Bay was thwarted, with the exception of short forays into the natural boundaries set by the group of large islands.
The first person to spot a western entrance to the Passage was Sir Robert McClure, in 1851, during one of the many attempts to find the missing Franklin Expedition. McClure found what was to become “McClure Strait”, between Banks and Melville Islands; however, this northern route through the Passage was blocked by sea ice. During another search for Franklin in 1854, John Rae mapped another western entrance into Lancaster Sound (later named “Amundsen Strait”), which led to Dolphin and Union Strait – the southernmost and most frequently navigable route through the Northwest Passage.
Many laymen believe the western boundary of the Northwest Passage is at the Bering Strait, primarily because it’s a relatively narrow body of water between the two huge bodies of water, the Atlantic Ocean and the Chukchi Sea, resembling a gate or entrance – which it kind of is… between the Atlantic Ocean and Chukchi Sea, not the Northwest Passage.
This same kind of subjective pop-mentality is what leads many to believe Columbus discovered America, the Mississippi is the longest river in North America, the Nile is the longest river on the planet and that vaccines cause autism and that man never landed on the moon. Geographic parameters, such as the length of rivers and the boundaries of routes like the Northwest Passage, require more than hearsay or conjecture. This is where actual science, geology and international maritime laws come in handy.
The International Hydrographic Organization is the only internationally recognized organization accepted by most governments to define parameters of waterways and oceans. The USA and Canada are members of the IHO.
The International Hydrographic Organization defines the limits of the Northwestern Passages as follows:
On the West. The Eastern limit of Beaufort Sea from Lands End through the Southwest coast of Prince Patrick Island to Griffiths Point, thence a line to Cape Prince Alfred, the Northwestern extreme of Banks Island, through its West coast to Cape Kellet, the Southwestern point, and thence a line to Cape Bathurst on the mainland (70°36′N 127°32′W).
On the Northwest. The Arctic Ocean between Lands End, Prince Patrick Island, and C. Columbia, Ellesmere Island.
On the Northeast. The Coast of Ellesmere Island between C. Columbia and C. Sheridan the Northern limit of Baffin Bay.
On the East. The East Coast of Ellesmere Island between C. Sheridan and Cape Norton Shaw (76°29′N 78°30′W), thence across to Phillips Point (Coburg Island) through this Island to Marina Peninsula (75°55′N 79°10′W) and across to Cape Fitz Roy (Devon Island) down the East Coast to Cape Sherard (Cape Osborn) (74°35′N 80°30′W) and across to Cape Liverpool, Bylot Island(73°44′N 77°50′W); down the East coast of this island to Cape Graham Moore (7250’53.48”N, 7604’06.64”W), its southeastern point, and thence across to Cape Macculloch (72°29′N 75°08′W) and down the East coast of Baffin Island to East Bluff, its Southeastern extremity, and thence the Eastern limit of Hudson Strait.
On the South. The mainland coast of Hudson Strait; the Northern limits of Hudson Bay; the mainland coast from Beach Point to Cape Bathurst.
Since the 1940’s Canada has engaged in international legal procedures to establish maritime law and parameters designating the entire Canadian Arctic Archipelago as within the Canadian maritime jurisdiction. While this seems like a no-brainer, international maritime law designates a limited distance from shore as sovereign territory of a country. The width of the Parry Channel exceeds twice this distance, meaning that any ship can cruise down the middle of the channel through the Northwest Passage and stay outside the jurisdiction of Canada, all the while being smack dab in the middle of Canadian territory. Throughout all this debate and litigation, the eastern and western boundaries of the Northwest Passage have been recognized, and universally agreed upon, as the IHO definition, leaving the Bering Strait a good 1000+ miles away.
If the interests of scientifically and geographically based definitions aren’t enough, then it should also be noted that Roald Amundsen’s navigation of the Northwest Passage has never been called into question. Being the first to successfully make the passage on water, Amundsen made note of the western limit of the passage once he entered the Beaufort Sea and, upon finding a whaling ship, declared that the goal of the Gjoa had been attained. Wrote Amundsen in his journal on that date,
“The North-West Passage was done. My boyhood dream — at that moment it was accomplished. A strange feeling welled up in my throat; I was somewhat overstrained and worn — it was a weakness in me— but I felt tears in my eyes.”
Continuing on a few miles beyond Cape Bathurst, the Gjoa became icebound at Herschel Island with several whaling ships that were in the habit of over-wintering at the island for several years, forming a community with local missionaries and indigenous people on Canada’s northern shore at the approximately 1000 statute miles from the Bering Strait. Since being the first to navigate the Northwest Passage wasn’t badass enough, Amundsen cross country skied overland 500 miles to Eagle City, where he sent out telegraph communications that he had completed the Northwest Passage. Though he later sailed through the Bering Strait on the same journey, he did not retract or alter his claim that his navigation through the Northwest Passage was completed near Cape Bathurst.