Sailing the North West Passage

Travel facts | Getting there | Season | Further information

The ice was heavy and it cleared late from the Canadian Arctic this year. For the heroic explorers of the Victorian age, that would have been bad news. But for modern travellers sailing the fabled North West Passage it's a mixed blessing. The ice may limit access to some of the remote and tiny Inuit communities along the way but more ice means more polar bears. And most visitors to the Arctic fervently wish to see polar bears in their natural habitat.

In fact it's hard to match the excitement of a ship's bow crowded with people looking at an inquisitive polar bear standing on a nearby ice floe sniffing our potential as lunch. It's said that a polar bear can smell a dead seal some 65 kilometres away. A ship's galley can be even more alluring. Often, it's the cubs that are most curious and their mothers frequently lose the battle to keep them from investigating ships that come into their territory.

The first word association with "North West Passage" is generally "history". With Spain and Portugal claiming the southern capes and oceans, Britain especially, was looking for a route to the riches of China. It seemed logical to try a path across the top of the world. From England you could either turn right and try for the North East Passage across the top of Siberia, or left and aim for Arctic Canada that was under British rule. There were various heroic disasters that reached a peak with the expedition under the command of Sir John Franklin, recently returned governor of Van Diemens Land (now Tasmania).

Franklin set off with the Erebus and Terror in May 1845. It was the best equipped and most ambitious polar expedition Britain ever launched.   The ships, with 130 men on board, were seen in the Canadian Arctic in late July and have never been seen since. Most of northern Canada was explored looking for the expedition but it wasn't until 1905 that a Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, finally sailed the whole way through the North West Passage - he was to be first to the South Pole, too.

A modern voyage along the North West Passage normally begins in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, just above the Arctic Circle. Well, if you're travelling with Peregrine Adventures of Melbourne, it really begins in Ottawa, Canada when you board your plane for Greenland. Kangerlussuaq is an airstrip and a service village for the airport and a road down to the port. From there the ship sails down a long, beautiful fiord before turning north along the Greenland coast.

The towns and villages of Greenland are a surprise. They largely consist of well-maintained, brightly coloured cottages dotted across the tundra or over barren rocks. They are a photographic delight. The landscape is not as expected either - most of us have heard that Greenland is not really green but rather is covered in a huge ice cap. That's true enough, but the fringes are exposed and they are filled with summer wildflowers running riot amongst rich green grass and moss. The climate is so extreme that even trees that are decades old cling to the ground and are less than 10 cm high - few stand higher than your index finger.

There are a couple of towns that are frequently visited. Ilulissat has 4500 residents and that makes it the third largest town in Greenland. The locals live here for the fishing; visitors mainly come for the nearby ice fiord. This is the fastest iceberg factory in the world, extruding about a metre of ice an hour, as it flows off the Greenland ice cap and into Disko Bay.

Uummannaq is a spectacular village situated on a rocky island further north. Behind the town a bare imposing mountain looms overhead. One of the civic problems faced here is that, every now and again, a giant iceberg collapses in the bay and the resulting tsunami destroys much of the fishing fleet and waterfront buildings - and has even cost lives. Sled dogs, idle and imprisoned on small nearby islets for the summer have suffered, too.

From Uummannaq the route is now north west across Davis Strait to Lancaster Sound at the top of Baffin island. Throughout the short summer, Davis Strait may have large areas of sea ice and this is summer abode of the polar bear, known locally as the ice bear. It is one of the highlights of the north to see one of these creatures, the largest of all bears, in the wild and perfectly at home on the ice. In fact they are marine mammals (like whales) and can be seen hundreds of kilometres away from land or even ice.

Most birders will have a wish list of species to see on the wing. And sometimes whales make an appearance, including narwhals with their long tusks reminiscent of unicorns, and even sperm whales, the square-headed whale of "Moby Dick". However, for the average traveller, the other mammal to see is the walrus. These impossible creatures with their long whiskers and giant tusks are apparently much smarter than they look. But that wouldn't be hard. They can sometimes been seen on ice or on the shores of bays like Dundas Harbour, the site of an early Royal Canadian Mounted Police station to bring law (and sovereignty) to the north. The post still stands - it was used as a Hudson Bay Trading Post for a while - but it hasn't been occupied for more than 50 years.

While Greenland has attractive towns and gorgeous fiords, the Canadian side has much more wildlife, including cliffs crowded with bird colonies with numbers in the millions. The Inuit culture of the people we once knew as Eskimos seems better maintained in Canada, too. A ship arriving in a small Canadian village like Pond Inlet is generally cause for a demonstration of drum dancing and specific Inuit sports, as well as a fashion show of local garments made of seal skin.

For history buffs, the ultimate landing site along the North West Passage is Beechey Island. This is where the Franklin expedition spent its first winter - no-one knows where the men spent their next. Just above a bleak, shingly beach are the three graves of the first of the 130 men to die. The first was John Torrington, just 20 years old when he died of tuberculosis here on New Year's Day. I mentioned to the person standing alongside me that this seemed a very sad and desolate place to die. "Isn't anywhere?" she replied.

Further along the beach lie the ruins of Northumberland House, in turn built from the wreckage of a whaling vessel. The quarters were built by sailors searching for Franklin in case he found his way back. Strewn around the site - and shaped into a cross above it - are tin cans from the Franklin expedition. It now seems quite possible that the lead in the can's solder drove the men mad. It's just as likely that the meat in the cans was unsterilised and rotting because the British Admiralty accepted the lowest quote for provisioning and it was completed on the cheap.

As Franklin found, the route through the rest of the North West Passage heads south from here and it becomes increasingly difficult. The highlights have already been visited. So the voyage may end at Resolute, a town very near the North Magnetic Pole.

For an unusual adventure, a voyage along the North West Passage is hard to beat. It has scenery and exotic animals, a climate as far removed from Australia as one can imagine, and it provides a chance to experience ice in all its forms, from towering icebergs to endless sea ice. There's a glimpse into the lives of the Inuit, still hunting and fishing as they have done for centuries. Best of all, it gives an understanding of a huge slice of the world that is little known. There's also the conversation stopper when you return home. "When I was in Greenland," or "While sailing the North West Passage," certainly attract attention. Describing how beautiful Greenland is will take much longer. The local t-shirts simply say it's "the coolest place on earth"

Travel facts

Getting there

Air Canada flies from Australia to Vancouver via Hawaii. From Vancouver it has a full domestic network spanning Canada. It has a very easy-to-use website at . Canada's cheap, no frills airline is Westjet and it can be found at .

The only company offering a full series of voyages through the North West Passage is Australian: Peregrine Adventures. It ran four such voyages in 2004 aboard its 110 passenger, ice-strengthened Russian vessel, the Akademik Ioffe or Peregrine Mariner. The voyage operates very much like Peregrine's popular Antarctic program, with expert presenters on board and as many excursions by inflatable zodiac craft as possible. It can be found at or by calling the Peregrine offices in every state capital around Australia or the head office in Melbourne at 258 Lonsdale St, Melbourne, Tel. (03) 9663 8611 .


The Arctic summer is short. In fact, it begins about mid July and is pretty well over by the end of August. Early in the season, some Canadian bays and ports may still be locked with sea ice but that increases the likelihood of seeing polar bears.

Further information

There has been a whole industry of writing books about the North West Passage and theories about what happened to the Franklin Expedition. "Frozen in Time" by Owen Beattie is a good forensic analysis based on an exhumation of the bodies on Beechey Island. "Arctic Grail" by Pierre Burton tells you more than you need to know about Arctic exploration. And there's a Lonely Planet "Arctic" guide.


David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd