Northwest Passage

Written by Patricia Tunstall
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The search for the Northwest Passage held the known world in its grip for centuries. Time after time, English and Spanish explorers made futile attempts to find a sea link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Indeed, much of the exploration of the coasts of North America was motivated by the search for a Northwest Passage.

Finally, a Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, completed a three-year voyage through the passage in 1906. Sailing just in time to avoid creditors who would have prevented the trip, Amundsen began his incredible voyage in a converted 47-ton herring boat! Even today, the route remains controversial and forbidding.

The Northwest Passage in Recent Times

It wasn't until World War II that the first west-to-east crossing took place. The St. Roch, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police schooner, needed 28 months to sail from Vancouver to Halifax. This ship was also the first to travel the route through the northern, deep waters. The region is broken up by many islands of varying sizes, and is usually undertaken today with the assistance of North Pole icebreakers.

This northern shipping route is still considered a most desirable passage--it cuts 4,000 miles off a European-Asian trip via the Panama Canal! The problem is that Arctic travel involves ice fields, and so far, only icebreakers can clear a path through the region. Depending on your point of view, recently-sighted water at the previously ever-frozen North Pole is propitious for shipping or ominous for the polar environment and wildlife. The United States Arctic Research Commission estimates that the rapidly-melting ice pack may permit ice-free shipping through the fabled Northwest Passage in as little as 10 years.

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