Arctic Exploration

Arctic exploration began in the Elizabethan era when English seamen sought a shortcut to the Spice Islands of the Far East by the seas north of America - the so-called Northwest Passage. Martin Frobisher in 3 voyages (1576, 1577 and 1578) found the way blocked by Baffin Island. Seeking to round this obstacle, John Davis (1585, 1586 and 1587) explored Cumberland Gulf (now Sound) and found the entrance to Hudson Strait, which was to conduct Henry Hudson (1610) into his bay.

In 1616 Robert Bylot and William Baffin explored Baffin Bay, sighting the westward-leading channels of Jones and Lancaster sounds. Owing to ice-covered seas and mirage, they mistakenly judged them to be closed bays, a common error among arctic explorers. The arctic littoral of North America remained unexplored for the next 2 centuries. Samuel Hearne (1771) by the Coppermine River, and Alexander Mackenzie (1789) by the Mackenzie River, barely reached arctic tidewater and learned nothing of adjoining coasts. Of the vast Arctic Archipelago to the north, only isolated stretches of Baffin Island's east shore had come to light.

In 1818 the British Admiralty renewed its search for the NW Passage. That year John Ross rounded Baffin Bay but, like Baffin, believed that Lancaster Sound was just a bay. In 1819-20 W.E. Parry proved the sound to be the gateway to unknown western seas. Hampered by ice, he sailed 800 km along Parry Channel (Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait and Viscount Melville Sound) to Melville Island, where he wintered. Across the ice-choked Viscount Melville Sound he obtained a distant view of Banks Island. On a later voyage he entered Prince Regent Inlet, where he lost a ship in the ice. The summers were very short, and it was found that a sailing ship could stay at sea for barely 2 months before being immobilized by ice.

To the south, between 1819 and 1839, canoe and boat parties under John Franklin and later Thomas Simpson explored a channel along the continental shore from Bering Strait to Boothia Isthmus. In 1845 Franklin sailed from England to link this channel with Parry Channel, intending thus to complete the NW Passage. His 2 ships never returned, and were for several years unreported. Numerous rescue parties were sent (1848-54) by Britain and the US. The search for the missing crews could not be done thoroughly by ships icebound for most of the year. Small parties hauling equipment and supplies on sledges sought evidence. Although unsuccessful in their assigned task, these parties mapped much of the Canadian archipelago.

John Rae and Richard Collinson explored and mapped the island coasts nearest the continental shore, while 4 crews of Captain Horatio Austin's squadron (1850-51) did the same on both sides of Parry Channel. Other expeditions mapped parts of Somerset and Victoria islands, and gave shape to the south coasts of Devon, Bathurst and Melville islands. Sir Edward Belcher explored (1852-54) the north shores of the latter 3. The great sledge traveller Leopold McClintock, helped by G.F. Mecham, discovered Eglinton and Prince Patrick islands in a return journey of over 2100 km.

The most dramatic voyage in polar history was made by the rescue ship Investigator. Having sailed from Plymouth, England, on 20 January 1850, it rounded Sout America and entered the Arctic Ocean by way of Bering Strait. Its captain, Robert McClure, discovered Prince of Wales Strait and travelled through it to the northeast angle of Parry's Banks Island - thus completing the NW Passage. McClure had, by an alternate route, accomplished what Franklin had died attempting: he had connected Parry's voyage of penetration from the east with Franklin's coastal survey from the west. However, he rashly put his ship into the heavy ice pack, which had stopped Parry. His ship was repeatedly thrown over on its side by gale-driven ice masses. In September 1851 he found refuge in the Bay of Mercy on Banks Island's north shore, where the Investigator was frozen in for 18 months. Its crew was reduced to extreme want, and would have perished but for the timely arrival of a detachment of Belcher's squadron under Captain Henry Kellett.

This and other strenuous endeavours continued the search for Franklin. Rae (1851) and Collinson (1853) had come near success but had turned back at the approach of winter. In 1854 Rae learned from Inuit that years previously many Europeans had died on western King William Island and on the adjacent mainland. In 1859 McClintock reached the island by ship and sledge and ascertained that Franklin's vessels had been frozen in in that region. The crews had perished of hunger and scurvy while trekking for the mainland. McClintock also filled in certain gaps in his predecessors' maps, tracing almost completely the coasts in the archipelago up to 77° N.

Discovery farther north was largely the work of Americans and Scandinavians. Englishman E.A. Inglefield and Americans E.K. Kane, I. Hayes and C.F. Hall opened up the channel between Greenland and Ellesmere I, and the survey of Ellesmere's east shore was completed by the 1875-76 British polar expedition under G.S. Nares. In 1876 P. Aldrich rounded the top of Ellesmere and named the northernmost point of what is now Canadian territory Cape Columbia. Norwegian Otto Sverdrup explored the W shore of Ellesmere Island (1898-1902) except for a gap filled in by American Robert Peary in 1906. Norwegians in separate groups also surveyed the entire coast of Axel Heiberg Island, and to the west discovered and mapped the 2 Ringnes islands and King Christian Island, the latter a promising source of natural gas in the 1980s.

Sverdrup had accomplished a vast amount with a minimum of mishap or danger. The Norwegians' use of skis and their familiarity with the northern climate gave them a great advantage over their British predecessors. This was illustrated in the 1913-18 journeys of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, which opened to Europeans the last lands in the Canadian North previously unknown to them. In the employ of the Canadian government he took his ship through Bering Strait, where it was crushed in the ice. With ready adaptability he organized a foot party and crossed the hazardous moving ice of the Beaufort Sea to Banks Island. Taking to the ice again he put the finishing touch to McClintock's survey of Prince Patrick Island, and went northeast to discover Brock and Borden islands. The latter was afterwards found to be 2 islands: Borden and Mackenzie King. With the discovery of Meighen Island in 1916 Stefansson made the last substantial addition to Canadian territory.

The NW Passage had been traced but its navigation was long deferred, as no sailing ship could hope to get through, nor could a steamer stow enough coal to wrestle its way through the ice pack that was certain to be encountered. From 1903 to 1906 the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen , when engaged in a magnetic survey, made use of the internal combustion engine to propel his 80-ton Gjoa from ocean to ocean. The voyage of US tanker Manhattan in 1969 made it plain that the most nearly usable NW Passage is by way of Parry Channel and Prince of Wales Strait.

These explorations have done more for general science than for material interests. There has been little success in extracting seemingly abundant fossil fuels from the northern islands, but the attraction of petroleum and mineral deposits has provided a fresh impetus, and aerial photographs and more detailed maps improved tools, for a new phase of exploration on this Canadian frontier.

See alsoExploration.