Article | Northwest Passage

Part 4: Gory, Glorious, Uproarious—Amundsen and His Successors in the Modern Northwest Passage

In the early 1900s, Roald Amundsen became the first European expedition leader to successfully sail the notorious Northwest Passage. How did he do it? It was largely due to the generous aide of local Inuit! Learn more in the last installment of this four-part series.
Ocean endeavour and coast guard terry fox 2019

© Dennis Minty

An Adventure Canada Northwest Passage expedition follows the CCGS Terry Fox icebreaker through thick ice.

By the dawn of the twentieth century, almost all the world was mapped. The only geographic feats remaining were the poles, both north and south, as well as navigating the Northwest Passage. The man who conquered them all was Roald Amundsen.

Amundsen grew up near Oslo, where he was perversely inspired by stories of Franklin’s suffering. His childhood was spent hardening himself for the polar tests to come. He mastered skiing, sailing, and magnetic observations. In 1903, he and a small crew headed out on a sloop called the Gjoa, entering the Northwest Passage. Two years later they came out the other end.

Roald amundsen in fur skins photographer unknown date unconfirmed

Amundsen saw value in the traditional knowledge of Inuit he met, and went on to wear furs throughout all his polar travels. (Photographer unknown)

The trip was almost easy. By far the most noteworthy occurrence was wintering with the Inuit in “the finest little harbour in the world,” at the present-day community of Uqsuqtuuq (Gjoa Haven), Nunavut. It was from Inuit that Amundsen learned to run sled dogs, make igloos, and wear skins. Employing this knowledge, he would go on to outrace Scott to the South Pole in 1911. Then, in 1926, travelling by dirigible, he was on the first journey to decisively reach the North Pole.

After Amundsen’s pathbreaking adventures, the romance of the Northwest Passage all but faded. For at least the next half century, journeys through the archipelago were mostly undertaken in the name of national defence.

Plane flying over coronation gulf taken from st roch

© Howard R. Rokeby-Thomas / Library and Archives Canada / e010787450

This photo of plane flying over sea ice was taken from aboard the St. Roch.

The first two Canadian transits were led by Henry Larsen, an inspector with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, piloting the legendary St. Roch. In 1940, concerned the Nazis might seize Greenland, Larsen and his crew left Vancouver and endured two winters in the Arctic before emerging into the North Atlantic. This was the first west-to-east passage conducted by non-Inuit. Two years later, with World War II ending, Larsen returned the St. Roch to the West Coast, navigating the passage in an unprecedented single season.

Henry larsen and myles f foster standing in front of the st roch at kogluktualuk tree river nunavut

© Vancouver Maritime Museum / Parks Canada / HCRO-30-06

Henry Larsen (left) and Myles F. Foster (right) stand in front of the St. Roch at Kogluktualuk (Tree River), Nunavut.

Later, in the Cold War, militaries figured out an easier way around the ice—by going under it. The American submarine USS Seadragon got through the passage in 1960, but was it the first? For decades, Inuit have shared stories about seeing mysterious periscopes. And, curiously, for years the best bathymetric charts of the passage were not American or Canadian, but Russian.

Since the late 1960s, the Northwest Passage has returned to public prominence. It has been travelled by a diverse array of vessels. In 1969, the U.S. oil tanker Manhattan infamously transited the passage on a journey decried by Inuit, Canadian officials, and environmentalists. In 1984, the first cruise ship, the MV Explorer, sailed through. Two years later, Adventure Canada staff member Mike Beedell and skipper Jeff McInnis boarded an eighteen-foot catamaran and became the first sailors to navigate the passage in a non-motorized vessel.

Mike beedell and jeff mcinnis pushing through multi ton pack ice in an ice gyre in the beaufort sea 1986

© Mike Beedell

Mike Beedell (shown) and Jeff McInnis (behind the sail) push through multi-ton pack ice in an ice gyre in the Beaufort Sea, 1986.

As the ice has thinned, more journeys have been undertaken—by kayak, an “ice catamaran,” a Humvee, kite-skis, a bulk carrier, and even a floating condominium complex.

And yet, for the most part, the Northwest Passage is quiet, pristine, and untouristed. Except for the occasional coast guard vessel, and for “sea lift” barges that bring supplies and fuel to Arctic communities, ships remain rare. Inuit are still by far the most common travellers through the waterway. Even today, more than 700 years since their forebears first came this way, the Northwest Passage remains theirs.

Susie evygotailak jessica winters qulliq tunngasugitsi welcome ceremony

© Scott Forsyth

Susie Evyagotailak of Kugluktuk, Nunavut lights a qulliq (oil lamp) during a tunngasugitsi (welcome) ceremony on an Adventure Canada Northwest Passage expedition.

About the Author

Aaron Spitzer

Aaron Spitzer

Historian, Political Scientist, Journalist

For more than twenty years, Aaron has obsessively explored, studied, documented—and yammered about—the world’s polar places.

For a decade he ran Up Here, the journal of Canada’s north, which in 2010 was named the country’s best magazine. Before that, Aaron edited Canada’s northernmost paper (Nunatsiaq News), the world’s southernmost paper (Antarctic Sun), and the highest-circulation paper in the Alaskan “Bush” (Tundra Drums).

Aaron recently left Arctic journalism for Arctic academia. He earned a master’s degree in Northern Studies at the University of Alaska in 2015, and is now working on his Ph.D. at the University of Bergen, Norway, where he examines the opportunities and challenges of Indigenous governance in the circumpolar world.