“We passed Liston and Sutton Islands and ran out the Dolphin and Union Strait. My relief over managing the last difficult hole in the Northwest Passage was indescribable,” writes adventurer Roald Amundsen in his notes from August 21, 1905. Dressed in sealskin, Amundsen gazes upon the open sea. Three years in the ice is slowly disappearing behind him. Three legendary years through the passage in the northern island areas of Canada. Three magical, cold, adventurous—and at times dangerous—years on the expedition vessel Gjøa, had finally come to an end.
Curiosity & Mystery
The Northwest Passage is the sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. It runs via the Arctic Archipelago in northern Canada, and is without a doubt the shortest sea route connecting east and west. It is about 12,000 miles shorter than the voyage around Cape Horn, and is 7,000 miles shorter than the route through the Panama Canal.
The Northwest Passage is explorers, adventurers, and scientists. It is mystery, hope, curiosity, and determination. It is life and death. Ships have disappeared, people have disappeared, and for a long time the passage was merely a theory among scientists and navigators, an idea of an easier way; but no one was certain. Thanks to explorers like Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen, today we know the old navigators were right. Today, we know the Northwest Passage exists.
John Cabot was the first to set sail in search of the mysterious route. The year was 1497, and his expedition marked the start of what would become a series of expeditions through the far Arctic. This pursuit of the legendary Northwest Passage stretched through the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the English Civil Wars, the French Revolution, and onward into the modern era.
The British Are Coming
On May 19, 1845, two English ships known as HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, cast off from London’s harbor, in an effort to discover the Northwest Passage. Tens of thousands of people watched as the ships sailed away, led by Captain John Franklin. The ships were reinforced with extra lumber and iron plates in the bow and, rumor had it, they were so loaded with books and food there were several shops in London that had been emptied out as a result!
After the ships set off, a year passed by. Then two, then three, all the while with no word from the expedition. In London, those awaiting news became more and more concerned, and a series of rescue operations were initiated. Through 1869, as many as 26 ships set sail in hopes of finding Captain Franklin and his crew. As a result, several new areas and islands were discovered in polar waters! Though unfortunately, the remaining expedition was also discovered.
HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were simply too heavy in the extreme polar conditions; it is believed their ship became trapped in ice and ultimately sank in 1846, leaving the remaining crew members to eventually die of cold, starvation, and disease.
Amundsen & Nansen
Two of the most important explorers in Norwegian history, Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen are also inextricably linked: Amundsen decided to dedicate his life to polar exploration when, at just 17 years old, he was inspired by Nansen who had returned to Norway with his team after skiing their way across Greenland in 1888 - 1889. Over 60,000 people, including Amundsen himself, celebrated and welcomed the explorers home—and Amundsen's fate was sealed.
A few years later, Nansen aimed to become the first person to reach the North Pole, on board his custom-built ship, the Fram. Young Amundsen was only 20 years old and too young to join him, but spent the next few years working hard to become strong enough for his own expedition. Amundsen dropped out of medical school, took a job as second mate on the expedition vessel Belgica, and completed his first Antarctic expedition from 1897 to 1899.
On August 25, 1903, Amundsen prepared the expedition ship Gjøa, originally a herring boat, for its voyage to the Northwest Passage. She was much smaller than Franklin’s heavy, fully loaded ship, and glided elegantly across the sea. Every night, Amundsen wrote in his diary; thanks to his consistency, we know that Gjøa navigated into the Rae Strait, east of King William Island, where the crew stayed for 23 long months.
The Land of the Inuit
During the course of those two long winters, Amundsen and his crew became familiar with the local indigenous people, the Inuit. They traded goods with each other, and the sailors even learned how to build igloos. The knowledge he gained from the Inuit—along with the warm sealskin clothes—stayed with Amundsen through his long life of exploration, and was likely, in large part, responsible for his great success.
A Homecoming Fit for a King
Meanwhile, great things were happening at home. Norway was emancipated from Sweden, through the dissolution of the union between the two kingdoms, and had its own royal family: King Haakon and Queen Maud. The Norwegian identity was being built, and a national hero like Amundsen was just what the free nation needed.
When the telegram arrived saying that Amundsen had managed what no one else had—to find the way through the Northwest Passage—there was immense celebration in his home country. In his diary, he wrote: “The Northwest Passage was resolved. My boyhood dream, in that moment, it had come true… I burst into tears.”
When Amundsen returned home, he was declared a national hero and received the medal of the Order of St. Olav.
A New Journey
While the first era of expeditionary exploration is over, the modern era of expeditions has begun. The Northwest Passage is still a rare destination, iced over, and inaccessible for most of the year; but travel there is possible with an expedition company like Hurtigruten.
Aboard both MS Fram and MS Roald Amundsen, follow in the footsteps of the latter ship's namesake and journey through the Northwest Passage. You’ll pass historical landmarks such as Fram Fjord, Baffin Island, and Gjøa Haven, and search for the stunning wildlife of the region: whales, belugas, caribou, seals, and perhaps the elusive polar bear. You’ll even visit small, colorful Inuit communities, known for their wood carvings and exquisite needlework.
Join our journey, as we follow in the wake of the legendary Roald Amundsen.