Tracing the Steps of Pioneer Polar Explorers Through Canada’s Northwest Passage

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This article was created by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

The HMS Terror, lost for 168 years, was located off the coast of King William Island, Nunavut, in 2016. Its companion ship, the HMS Erebus, had been discovered in nearby shallow Arctic waters two years prior. The finding of the Terror completed the perplexing puzzle of polar exploration till that point.

The 19th-century expedition led by British explorer Sir John Franklin to chart the hitherto unmapped and periodically impassable Northwest Passage — a maritime route linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans — held Victorian England in suspense. The expedition’s disappearance was intertwined with stories of cannibalism, shamanism, and mutiny.

Canada’s High Arctic coastline and the dispersed islands encompassing the Northwest Passage — a perilous route once considered the key to forging trade connections between Europe and Asia — largely remain unmapped due to icy conditions, except during summer. Nonetheless, it presents a thrilling arena for seafaring adventures.

Regular but careful landings occur here, with the adept crews of the handful of small ships anchoring in the area constantly on the lookout for hazardous wildlife, pack ice, and shallow water. Sturdy inflatable boats transport passengers to the shore, bypassing seals slipping on and off ice floes and gyrfalcons soaring overhead. Hikes span gravel-strewn shores populated by polar bears and musk ox. Guides, vigilant with their binoculars, maintain a safe distance from the fauna. During the night, ships navigate the dark seas, the realm of the narwhal, illuminated occasionally by the green shimmer of the aurora borealis.

Despite its remoteness, this region is home to Inuit communities spread around the passage in distant towns like Resolute, on Cornwallis Island. Here, subsistence living is supplemented by selling traditional soapstone carvings; sculptures portraying ice bears leading hunters illustrate the human-animal synergy integral to Inuit culture. Island communities have significantly contributed to unraveling the fate of the Franklin expedition — oral histories and artefact discoveries eventually led to the ships’ location.

As the summer sea ice retreats, the trade envisioned by early explorers is now possible. The growing influx of Qallunaaq (non-Inuit) ships docking at Nunavut’s coasts brings both opportunities and environmental worries to these sensitive edges’ stewards. For now, traversing these waters remains a privilege, controlled by weather conditions and local knowledge.

Plan your trip
Northwest Passage tours range from 10 to 17 days and depart in August and September. Prices begin at around £8,000 per person, all-inclusive, excluding international flights. Book with operators like hurtigruten.com, swoop-arctic.com, adventurecanada.com.

Additional adventures to consider:

  1. Sail the Great Lakes: Embark on a 15-day Viking Expeditions cruise across all five Great Lakes, which also features Niagara Falls. From £10,095 per person, all-inclusive, international flights not included.

  2. Explore Torngat Mountains National Park: This 3,745sq mile wilderness expanse is the only Canadian national park fully staffed by Inuit. Prices on request.

  3. Canoe on the Yukon River: Watch canoes tackle 444 miles from Whitehorse to Dawson City through the Klondike. Held 4-7 July 2023.

  4. Navigate the high Arctic: The Thomsen River, flowing through Aulavik National Park, is a wildlife haven and the world’s most northerly canoeable river. 13-night guided canoeing and camping trip from £7,000 per person, all-inclusive

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