Mapping years of exploratory derring-do in the North
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