HIS­TORY

Map­ping years of ex­ploratory der­ring-do in the North

Canadian Geographic - - DEPARTMENTS - By Harry Wil­son*

Map­ping 271 years of ex­plo­ration in the Far North

IIT’S A VERITABLE who’s who of Arc­tic ex­plo­ration — well, al­most. Had James White waited an­other year to com­plete his 1904 map Ex­plo­rations in north­ern Canada and ad­ja­cent por­tions of Green­land and Alaska, he would have un­doubt­edly added Roald Amund­sen to his work that traces 271 years of Arc­tic ex­plo­ration, from Luke Fox in 1631 to Otto Sver­drup and Robert Peary in 1902. Af­ter all, by 1905 Amund­sen had nav­i­gated the North­west Pas­sage, suc­ceed­ing where so many of those listed on White’s map had failed. But the suc­cess­ful tran­sit of that once mythic route is only part of the end­lessly fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory of ex­plo­ration in Canada’s North. Take Ge­orge Back, for in­stance. The English­man’s 1833-35 jour­ney, which is shown on White’s map (see red dots on inset), started out as a search for John Ross, who hadn’t been seen since set­ting out to seek the North­west Pas­sage in 1829, but ended as an in­cred­i­ble feat of ex­plo­ration. Back didn’t find Ross (he’d been res­cued in 1833 af­ter spend­ing four years in the Arc­tic, his ship locked in the ice), but he did lo­cate the Th­lew-ee-choh, or Great Fish River, a wa­ter­way that no Euro­pean had seen and that to­day bears his name. Back didn’t rest on his lau­rels. In 1834, af­ter learn­ing Ross was alive, he pad­dled 853 kilo­me­tres down the same river, ne­go­ti­at­ing 83 rapids along the way. When he reached Chantrey In­let on the Arc­tic coast, he ex­plored for three weeks be­fore re­turn­ing to win­ter at Fort Re­liance on the south­ern shore of Great Slave Lake. “It was, and will likely for­ever be,” wrote Ed Struzik in his book Ten Rivers: Ad­ven­ture Sto­ries from the Arc­tic, “the great­est over­land boat­ing ex­pe­di­tion in North Amer­i­can his­tory.” Back’s next jour­ney to the re­gion, how­ever, was a near-dis­as­trous fail­ure, which ex­plains its ab­sence from White’s map. In 1836, he and his crew spent 10 months im­pris­oned in pack ice aboard HMS Ter­ror (Back painted the wa­ter­colour of Ter­ror shown above a month be­fore the ship was trapped) and barely made it back across the At­lantic — just one of many es­capades that fur­ther ce­mented the Arc­tic’s rep­u­ta­tion as an al­lur­ing yet harsh mis­tress.

*with files from Erika Rein­hardt, ar­chiv­ist, Li­brary and Archives Canada

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