1899-1964 | Vancouver
PERHAPS NO PART of Canada’s Far North has had such a pull on explorers as the Northwest Passage. The promise of a trade route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans was an irresistible beacon for nations, which sought proof of a way through, and for explorers who longed to be the first to accomplish the feat. Funny to think, then, that the first Canadian — and second person ever — to complete a crossing did so as a side activity to his essential duties of patrol and freight transport to remote outposts.
Henry Larsen was so enamoured with our nation that he emigrated from Norway in 1927. Already an accomplished sailor, his deep love for the sea and the vastness of the Arctic moved him to join the RCMP when his Canadian citizenship became official. Assigned to the RCMP schooner
St. Roch, he and his ship became a critical Canadian presence in the North for decades.
Larsen first captained St. Roch through the Northwest Passage in 1940-42, becoming the first to do so from west to east and only the second (after his compatriot Roald Amundsen) to make it through the ice-clogged route at all. Other world firsts: in 1944, Larsen sailed the passage both ways in a single season (a momentous feat at the time); six years later, he completed a circumnavigation of North America.
Larsen was not one to express excitement about his accomplishments, which he had carried out in the line of duty. Yet they were of such significance to our understanding of Canadian geography that in 1959 The Royal Canadian Geographical Society presented him with its very first major award, the Massey Medal.