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Out of Canada: The Northwest Passage

A hole in the sea ice in Aston Bay in the Qikiqtaaluk region of Nunavut, Canada A hole in the sea ice in Aston Bay in the Qikiqtaaluk region of Nunavut, Canada Scott Forsyth
16 Feb
History and geography are still at odds in the Canadian Arctic. During a voyage to the icy north, Ken McGoogan comes up against the conflict between what humans seek to achieve and what the High Arctic will allow

On day two of our voyage ‘Out of the Northwest Passage’, we sailed into a mid-afternoon blizzard. Marc-Andre Bernier, manager of underwater archaeology for Parks Canada, was halfway through a presentation on The Search and Discovery of Sir John Franklin’s Lost Ships.

Suddenly, on the 137-metre Ocean Endeavour, which weighs almost 13,000 tons, we could look out and see the kinds of conditions the Franklin expedition encountered in the mid-1840s in two small wooden ships. We could see, compare, and appreciate.

Within the next two days, Bernier proposed to lead a visit to the site of the recently discovered HMS Erebus. While outside the wind gusted to gale-force (upwards of 50 knots), he talked about the Parks Canada search operations over the past eight years, and of the ongoing battle in the Canadian Arctic between ‘History’ (as an extended narrative of human achievement) and ‘Geography’ (the natural world). He highlighted the contributions of Inuit accounts relayed through such explorers as John Rae, Charles Francis Hall, and Frederick Schwatka, who relied on interpreters William Ouligbuck, Tookoolito, and Ebierbing.

Before he finished, Bernier explained that these accounts ‘gave us an area, but did not establish a location.’ That is why the search, which turned up Erebus in 2014, had required so much time and energy. It consumed eight years, covered an area equal to 215,686 football fields, and required 322 person-days of field work. It also involved the consumption of 500 litres of coffee.

Day4 MartinBergmann GjoaHaven 09 10 2017 ScottForsythThe Martin Bergmann was the ship that discovered the wreck of the HMS Terror (Image: Scott Forsyth)


The storm raged unabated into late afternoon. And when Bernier finished presenting, he hurried up onto the bridge to confer with his fellow decision-makers. For the past 24 hours, four men (with occasional visitors) had huddled frequently around the map table: Bernier, the ship’s captain, Adventure Canada expedition leader Matthew James Swan, and David Reid, assistant expedition leader.

None of the four liked it, but as so often before, Geography was having its way with History. Geography had taken the form of ice, heavy seas, and gale-force winds, while History was seeking to extend the narrative of the Franklin expedition by bringing adventure tourism to the wreck of the Erebus. To that end, we were sailing with a full complement: 197 passengers, 37 Adventure Canada (AC) staff, and 124 ship’s crew. The plan, Swan told me, was to sail the Ocean Endeavour through a narrow channel to anchor among the islands off Adelaide Peninsula. In groups of 30, passengers would take a 40-minute zodiac ride to an island near the Erebus site. There, in a collection of heated tents, they would meet underwater archaeologists from Parks Canada, and also Inuit guardians and elders flown in from Gjoa Haven.

Then, having relinquished any instruments that could record geographical coordinates, they would ride in zodiacs to the Erebus site. There, in wetsuits, the most adventurous would snorkel above the wreck. Others would view it from zodiacs using ‘viewing buckets,’ and still others would watch on-screen as a Remotely Operated Vehicle explored the vessel. We were bidding to make history as the first adventure travellers to visit the site.

Geography declined to cooperate. As the ship sailed toward the channel, the wind blew 30 to 35 knots, gusting to 40, and the swell reached 1.5 metres. If among the islands the wind fell to 15 or 20 knots, Swan said later, he stood ‘ready to make an attempt.’ But the open channel, verified by the Canadian Hydrographic Service, ran north-south, and the wind was blowing from the northwest, which meant the islands near the site would afford no protection. Then a thick fog engulfed the entire region, grounding all flights.

At evening briefing, Swan and Bernier relayed the bad news. We would not be visiting the Erebus site after all. Swan said that the thought of putting zodiacs into the water when the winds were blowing at more than 25 knots, sending out passengers on a 40-minute zodiac ride each way... no, he couldn’t see it: ‘The zodiacs would just flip.’

Bernier revealed that at the Inuit guardians’ five-tent campsite, ‘three of those tents have blown off.’ He had arranged for a Twin Otter to fly people in from Gjoa Haven, but the pilot needed at least 1,000 feet of visibility, and that did not exist.

What about lingering in this vicinity? Speaking from experience, Bernier said that these wind-and-wave conditions would already have stirred up sediment so badly that at best the wreck would become visible in three days. And if the storm continued, we might have to wait a week. Meanwhile, the ship’s captain was concerned about the ice in Peel Sound, along our projected route. On the preceding voyage, Into the Northwest Passage, the Ocean Endeavour had followed a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker through that ice. The slow pace meant the voyage been cut short.

During the past 36 hours, the wind had blown that sea ice westward, opening up a north-south channel along Boothia Peninsula. If we delayed too long, that channel might close. ‘I’m all about adventure,’ Swan said later, ‘and extending my comfort zone. But not when it means putting people in jeopardy. We will not put our clients, our crew, the vessel itself, or the environment, in any sort of danger. Of course we’re disappointed. But also we’re inspired. We’re motivated. We’ll try again next year.’

The Ocean Endeavour sails towards Gjoa Haven (Image: Scott Forsyth)The Ocean Endeavour sails towards Gjoa Haven (Image: Scott Forsyth)


‘I expect to find human remains,’ Marc-Andre Bernier said next morning in response to a question about diving on the Erebus. ‘Most likely bones, skeletons.’ He noted that Inuit testimony speaks of at least one body on what would appear to be Erebus, and added that he had even seen flesh on bones before. Many artefacts on Erebus are covered in sediment, he said, ‘and if sedimented, the remains could be very well preserved.’ Bernier cited the example of a wreck from 1770, the HMS Swift, which researchers located in Patagonia: ‘They found a complete skeleton in uniform.’

Since discovering the Erebus in 2014, Bernier said, Parks Canada has conducted more than 250 hours of diving on the ship – ‘open water, through the ice, and now we’re setting up to dive from a barge.’ That barge had recently arrived in Gjoa Haven. The top of the Erebus is just ten feet below the surface of the water, and that has facilitated the initial exploration of the vessel.

‘Some of the deck planks are gone,’ Bernier said, ‘and in some instances we have been able to peek inside to the lower decks.’ Using state-of-the-art technology and computerized graphics, the underwater archaeologists have been able to create a three-dimensional, grid-system map of the wreck. From the headquarters of the Royal Marines, they have recovered shoes, ceramic pestles, and medicine bottles reused as shot glasses.

Parks Canada has established a protected zone, a national historic site 10km2, around the Erebus. The Inuit guardians at the site, where three tents had blown off, were now being evacuated. 

The Erebus is not badly preserved, Bernier said, but the Terror, discovered in 2016, ‘is in phenomenal condition.’ Researchers identified a ship’s boat, a 23-foot cutter, sitting on the ocean floor directly under the davits designed to release it. They found two outhouses sitting on the top deck. He took a beat and, to laughter, said: ‘Imagine all the DNA samples in there.’

Bernier said that the window over the officer’s mess is partly open. So far, the team has collected about ten hours of video, and the next step will be to introduce Remotely Operated Vehicles into the ship.

Just before lunch, despite the wind, many passengers went out on the top deck as we sat anchored off the southwest coast of King William Island. Those men who, in the late 1840s, abandoned Terror, struggled along this coastline. On his 1857-59 expedition, Leopold McClintock found the skeleton of one of the men who died here, and identified him as Thomas Armitage. Late in the afternoon, with the wind still wailing at more than 20 knots, Swan made it official: we would attempt no landing here. The sun came out and the Ocean Endeavour set off eastward through Simpson Strait, bound for Gjoa Haven.

Related items


Northwest Passage map
Geographic Location: Canadian Arctic/Nunavut
Total area: 787,155 square miles in Northern Canada
Created: April 1, 1999 via Nunavut Act and Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act
Population: 37,280 (2017 estimate)
Length: 1,450km
Western Edge: The eastern limit of the Beaufort Sea
Eastern Edge: The east coast of Ellesmere Island between Cape Sheridan and Cape Norton Shaw
Northwestern Edge: The Arctic Ocean between Lands End, Prince Patrick Island, and Cape Columbia
Northeastern Edge: The coast of Ellesmere Island between Cape Columbia and Cape Sheridan the Northern limit of Baffin Bay
Southern Edge: The mainland coast of Hudson Strait; the northern limits of Hudson Bay


1903-06  Roald Amundsen completes the first navigation of the Northwest Passage.

1904-11  Joseph-Elzear Bernier explores the Arctic archipelago in his ship, the CGS Arctic, and asserts Canadian sovereignty over the islands and waters.

1921-24 The Fifth Thule Expedition of ethnologist Knud Rasmussen establishes a unity of Inuit culture stretching from Greenland to Siberia.

1940-42 Henry Larsen in St. Roch completes first west-to-east sailing of the Passage.

1953 The Canadian government forces 87 Inuit to relocate from northern Quebec (Inukjuak) to Grise Fjord and Resolute.

Owen Beattie and John Geiger publish Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition, which details forensic examination of first three sailors to die during 1845 Franklin expedition.

1991 David Woodman draws attention to Inuit oral history with his book Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony.

1999 Nunavut becomes a separate Canadian territory – the largest change to Canada’s political map since 1949.

Parks Canada discovers the sunken wreck of HMS Erebus.

2016 Arctic Research Foundation finds the wreck of HMS Terror.


The Canadian Arctic won’t experience a shipping boom any time soon. So says geographer Jackie Dawson, Canada Research Chair at the University of Ottawa. While sailing out of the Northwest Passage as scientist-in-residence with Adventure Canada, Dawson said climate change is causing reductions in sea ice. ‘We have 19 more days of open water than we did ten years ago.’ 

But the break-up of the ice-pack in the Arctic Ocean is pouring multi-year ice directly into the northern channel. ‘You get different opinions,’ she says. ‘But it could be 75 to 100 years before that ice pack is melted and we see regular shipping. The northern route will be choked with ice for a long time.’

The Northwest Passage is nowhere near ‘open for business.’ More ships are indeed sailing through the southern route of the Passage, along the Canadian coast. But the traffic volumes in Arctic Canada remain tiny when compared with those of other regions, such as Svalbard, Greenland, and Franz Josef Land. ‘We don’t have a million vessels,’ says Dawson. ‘The risks in Canada are much higher.’ Ice and wind are among the greatest hazards for ship navigation, and while Canada has established corridors, most of its Arctic waters remain uncharted.

While climate change is reducing the amount of ice in the Canadian Arctic, other factors play a major role in any decision to ship goods through the Passage. The cost of insurance, for example, is currently creating a bottleneck. And the port and railroad facilities available via Prince Rupert, British Columbia, may well offer a cheaper alternative for decades.

Dawson also applauds an especially cogent map produced by the American Navy. It predicts that by 2025, thanks to climate change, a viable waterway will cross the Arctic region from east to west – but it won’t be the Northwest Passage. Rather, climate change will first open a route almost directly across the North Pole.


This region is ice-covered for eight months a year, which means much of the wildlife is migratory. As a result, according to ornithologist Mark Mallory, holder of a Canada Research Chair at Acadia University, wildlife appears sporadically.

Down south you can stare at a field, forest or shoreline, and eventually a bird or squirrel or insect will show itself. Not so in the high Arctic. However, if you’re patient, or lucky, you can see some of the year-round residents, including polar bears, ringed seals, caribou, muskoxen, or ravens.

By autumn, most animals are leaving. The beluga, narwhal, bowhead whales, most walrus, harp seals and many bearded seals move to areas of loose pack ice or year-round open water, like the Northwater Polynya. The seabirds are totally migratory – only a few black guillemots stay far North – but the fulmars, murres, kittiwakes, and eiders move south to the waters between Greenland and Labrador, at the edge of the pack ice, for much of the winter.

A few wildlife species are listed as At Risk by the IUCN, including some beluga and Peary caribou, and committed birders yearn for a view of rare ivory or Ross’s gulls. On the ground, vegetation is considered Arctic Desert or Lowland Tundra. It is spartan in most areas, with a lot of exposed rock, but with pockets of sedges and grasses, as well as Arctic poppies and various saxifrages in small, moist microclimates. 

Due to the complexity of land management and land claims, relatively few conservation groups are active in the Arctic. The World Wildlife Fund has supported work here for years, and Oceans North and the PEW Charitable Trust are both funding new conservation efforts. But other ‘big’ players, such as the Nature Conservancy of Canada, are not especially active in the North.


On board the Ocean Endeavour, award-winning film-maker John Houston – who speaks Inuktitut and doubles as an art dealer specializing in Inuit art – came up with some cultural recommendations...
Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner
 by film-maker Zacharias Kunuk is the first feature film ever written, directed and acted entirely in Inuktitut. It retells an Inuit legend, and in 2015 critics voted it the greatest Canadian film of all time.

John Houston’s own Arctic trilogy of films comprises Songs in StoneNuliajuk: Mother of the Sea Beasts, and Diet of Souls. These films cover the emergence of Inuit art onto the world stage, the quest for an ancient Inuit deity, and a look inside the mind of an Inuit hunter.

Houston cited two acclaimed works by his father, James Houston: Confessions of an Igloo Dweller and The White Dawn: An Eskimo Saga. The first, non-fiction, recalls the 14 years Houston lived among the Inuit; the second is an historical novel about a resonant meeting between whalers and Inuit.

Fatal Passage
 and Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage (both by this feature’s author). While both highlight the importance of learning from and working with the Inuit, the first focuses on explorer John Rae and the second reprises Arctic exploration from the 1500s to the present day.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s book The Right to be Cold is a 2015 memoir of Inuit resilience that looks at the impact of climate change. The subtitle tells the tale within: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic, and the Whole Planet.

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez is ‘a bit abstract and thinky,’ Houston says, but remains a notable celebration of the Arctic environment and the relationship between human imagination and landscape.

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