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One of the greatest stories of exploration and discovery is the European quest for a Northwest Passage—an oceanic shortcut from the Atlantic to the Pacific across the top of North America. In the centuries following Columbus's encounter with the Americas, the search for a route through the continent (as opposed to the long, arduous voyage by way of the tip of South America) engaged the attention of Spain, Britain and other European powers. By the nineteenth century, the quest for the Northwest Passage was a major initiative of the British Admiralty, particularly since it appeared that the passage would lie in British-claimed territory across the more northerly part of the continent. The search for the passage, at that time largely a matter of conjecture and legend, its eventual discovery, and the saga of human endeavour in the far north, are formative aspects of the history and culture of what is now Canada.
After the first voyage of Martin Frobisher to the Arctic in 1576, subsequent expeditions probed the region and its shores, charting and mapping the land and interacting with its indigenous peoples. The climax of this great quest was the ill-fated expedition of Sir John Franklin in 1845—48, when every one of the 129-man expedition died. The search for Franklin and for clues to his fate resulted in the charting of the Northwest Passage by 1859, but it was not until the 1903—6 voyage of Roald Amundsen in the sloop Gjøa that the passage was conquered by ship. The final acts in the drama of the Northwest Passage were the two voyages of the Royal Canadian Mounted Policeschooner St. Roch, which in 1940-42 became the second vessel to navigate the passage, this time from west to east, and again in 1944, when St. Roch became the first vessel to navigate the more northerly route through Melville Sound and Prince of Wales Strait.
The frozen north, with its long history of exploration and settlement, the rugged conditions in an environment where survival was tenuous, and the occasional loss of ships and lives in its lands and waters, captured the popular imagination and interest. For people of the Victorian era, in particular, the Arctic voyages of the nineteenth century were compelling. The era of Arctic exploration, and the sacrifices it required—isolation, privation, starvation, even death—coincided with the rise of the Gothic tale. The accounts of the explorers themselves, culminating in the seventeen contemporary narratives of the search for the ill-fated Franklin expedition, fed the public's taste. Indeed, the high drama and tragedy of the Franklin expedition has probably done more to popularize the quest for the Northwest Passage than any other event. Franklin's epitaph, fittingly enough, was penned for his memorial at Westminster Abbey by his nephew, Alfred, Lord Tennyson:
Not here: the white North has thy bones; and thou, Heroic Sailor-Soul, Art passing on thine happier voyage now Toward no earthly pole.
The Arctic and its grim appeal have served and continue to serve as muse. Mary Shelley, writing in 1818, when Britain resumed its push for the Northwest Passage, had Dr. Frankenstein chase his "modern Prometheus" into Arctic seas, while Gothic novelist Wilkie Collins penned The Frozen Deep about a lost Arctic explorer, drawing on the public's interest in the then still unravelling story of the Franklin expedition.
Artists, too, were drawn by the Arctic and the tales it held. Edwin Landseer, in Man Proposes, God Disposes, and Frederick Church, in Iceberg, both paint broken masts on ice-strewn shores. Caspar David Friedrich's Die Gescheiterte Hoffnung (The Polar Sea) captures the seemingly impenetrable mass of broken, upthrust ice that had thwarted, and occasionally trapped, Arctic explorers. In more modern times, Irish-Canadian artist Vincent Sheridan used the stark images of skulls and of the exhumed frozen bodies of some of Franklin's men to create a series of prints, A Journey With Franklin. In several of his prints, Sheridan shows, rising out of the skulls, images of ice-bound ships and desperate men, like long-lost memories embedded within the bleached and flaking bone. Canadian artist Ken Kirkby in his gigantic Isumataq depicts the Arctic coast on a 46-metre-long, 3-metre-high (152-foot-long, 10-foot-high) canvas. The scale of Kirkby's work captures, unlike many other paintings, the sheer magnitude of the far north.
The powerful imagery of the Arctic has also inspired musicians. The folk song "Lord Franklin" tells that "In Baffin's bay, where the whale fish do blow, the fate of Franklin no man may know," while Canadian songwriter Stan Rogers yearningly sings:
Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage, to find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea. Tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage and make a Northwest Passage to the sea.
In more recent times, songwriter and performer Sting, in his song "Why Should I Cry for You?", evokes the timeless image of sailing under "Arctic fire" over silent seas, hauling on frozen ropes.
So many words, so many images.
My interest, my passion, lies in the marriage of the two. Ever fascinated by the weaving of words as well as by the verbal texture of memory as it is set down in song or on paper, I have pursued the career of a historian. But at the same time, I have been inexorably pulled by images, places and artifacts. Indeed, in also pursuing careers as an archaeologist and as a museum director, I have been drawn to the places and the things we make as humans. In seeking the past, I have tried to meld words with artifacts and landscapes to arrive at a more tactile, if not more intimate, understanding. For me, the past lives because I have been fortunate enough to touch it. This has included wading past muddy banks where the still shroud-encased bones of plague victims tumbled free of their graves beside the Thames, walking over the wooden decks of ships buried in landfill during the California gold rush of 1849, and swimming along the sides of the sunken battleship Arizona at Pearl Harbor, past silent portholes with air and oil yet trapped behind them. It has meant picking up scattered bones, opening a hatch last closed by a long-dead hand, silently examining broken dishes and scattered silverware on a galley deck from a Sunday breakfast forever interrupted by a fatal attack on the morning of December 7, 1941.
This personal quest also led me north to the Arctic. It came in stages—first from reading the accounts of the great expeditions, then seeing the Arctic relics themselves—the legacy of the quest for the Northwest Passage. When I was a child growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, my parents took me to see the tiny Gjøa, the ship in which Roald Amundsen conquered the passage, nestled in its sandy berth at the foot of Golden Gate Park, looking out to sea. Long after Gjøa was plucked from the dunes and sent home to her native Norway, I too took passage from San Francisco. Arriving in Canada, I settled in Vancouver, British Columbia. Now, daily, I see the venerable Arctic schooner St. Roch in her concrete berth on the shores of English Bay. Second ship to make the Northwest Passage, this dauntless vessel is now my responsibility as the director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum, St. Roch's final home.
Over the past several years, I have been fortunate to again merge words with artifacts and places as I travelled around the world to numerous museums, seeking the scattered relics of the quest for the Northwest Passage. I travelled north as well, to the shores of the Arctic Ocean, where the stories of the quest played out. This book is the result of those travels and research. It is not intended to be the final word on the quest. There are shelves of books that examine the various voyages, the personalities and the events. This book, rather, is my attempt to assemble the flow of the story, from antiquity until now, and let the words and the images draw the reader with me along those icy shores.
The Arctic holds many tangible reminders, even centuries after the events discussed in the pages of this book. Stan Rogers sings that the explorers came "seeking gold and glory, leaving weathered, broken bones, and a long forgotten, lonely cairn of stones." The numerous expeditions, the caching of supplies, the building of camps and cairns, and the sinking of ships have combined to create a rich archaeological record. Relics of the Franklin expedition, as well as others, have been gathered by searchers and later by souvenir hunters throughout the last decades of the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth century. Serious scientific work, conducted under the supervision of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, in Canada, has resulted in the documentation and stabilization of a number of sites, and careful archaeological excavation of a few. Fragile and yet strangely resilient, these places evoke the past, be they a ring of rocks that once marked a tent, or the intact hulk of Breadalbane, crushed and stink in 1853 while searching for Franklin and now slumbering beneath the ice off Beechey Island.
In writing this book, I have been privileged to have some experiences that made the past come to life. I have stood on grey gravel beaches, with the wind never ceasing, inside one of those tent rings; floated in frigid waters at the submerged bow of the wreck of Amundsen's Maud, and sat in the library of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, with the last record of the Franklin expedition in my hands. I have mused, alone for an hour, in the small cabin of Gjøa. This book, with its marriage of the words, the places and the artifacts, is my attempt to share a physical sense of the centuries-long quest for a Northwest Passage. For I, like Stan Rogers, sought the Northwest Passage, and found there but the way back home again.