The Northwest Passage: mission accomplished

A 500-year-old dream that shaped the Pacific Northwest has finally been realized, thanks to global warming. So let's toast the past before fighting about the future of the Arctic.
Crosscut archive image.

The now-open Northwest Passage (top), extending from the Bering Strait at upper left, and John Everett Millais' <i>The Northwest Passage</i> (1874). (European Space Agency, Wikipedia)

A 500-year-old dream that shaped the Pacific Northwest has finally been realized, thanks to global warming. So let's toast the past before fighting about the future of the Arctic.

You'd think a story like this would make big headlines in the Pacific Northwest. After all, it is the culmination of a 500-year dream that was the impetus for the exploration and settlement of our region. It is also a new chapter in our future – one with international power plays reminiscent of dynamics that drove the exploration in the first place.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is reporting that for the first time since records have been kept that the most direct east-west sea route from Europe to Asia through the Arctic, the fabled Northwest Passage, is "fully navigable."

That means that enough ice has melted so that ships that aren't icebreakers or submarines can make it through open water, sailing across the top of the world.

You can thank global warming. The BBC reports ESA saying that "recent years have seen a marked shrinkage in [the high Arctic's] ice cover, but this year it was extreme."

Already, the U.S., Europe, Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark are squabbling over who controls the passage and adjacent land and water. The Canadians regard the passage as an "internal waterway" while others, including the U.S., consider it to be international waters.

Meanwhile, the nearby North Pole is in dispute, and those claims are driven by the increased access to the Arctic that the opening ocean allows. Russia, which planted a flag on the seabed under the nearby North Pole this summer, claims the pole as its own. Denmark has called for a summit of the "five Arctic superpowers" (the U.S, Russia, Canada, Denmark, and Norway) to discuss rival territorial claims.

But before getting wrapped up in various bids for future Arctic supremacy, let's remember those of the past. Without them, the history of the Pacific Northwest would have been very different.

Columbus was looking for a shortcut to Asia and smacked into North America. In response to the New World claims of the Spanish and Portuguese over the next century, the isolated British developed a strategy to extend their power into northern climes. The chief architect of that plan was Elizabeth I's one-man think-tank, the magus John Dee, an astrologer, mathematician, spy, expert on cartography and navigation, and alchemist. Dee devised a plan in the late 1500s to create what he called a "British Empire" – a term he popularized. He advised his Virgin Queen to turn Britain into a sea-based power and look for routes to the East by going north. He labeled it the "Brytish discovery and recovery enterprise."

Recovery was a key word. In justifying his proposal, he glossed it with a kind of Manifest Destiny-style appeal. He said it would make Britain rich, powerful, and bring about a kind of spiritual renewal. Plus, he argued, Britain was only asserting previous British claims. These included the "fact" that the Arctic lands had once been explored and claimed by King Arthur (presumably when duties called him away from his Roundtable) and that a Welsh Prince, Madoc, had led an expedition to North America in 1170. The descendants of these adventurous colonists were thought to have gone native and turned into a tribe of "white Indians," often referred to as the "White Paducas" or "Welsh Indians."

At any rate, Dee was involved in sending Martin Frobisher to explore the Arctic from the east, and he also helped convince Elizabeth to send the piratical Francis Drake to the Pacific coast – "the backside of America," he called it – to look for the Northwest Passage from the west.

How far north Drake sailed in 1579 is unknown, but it is thought to have been as far as what is now Washington, perhaps even the Alaska panhandle. Drake couldn't find the passage. He was eventually turned back by the cold and took refuge somewhere in a "lost harbor," probably near San Francisco. There he repaired his ship, convinced himself that the local Indians had crowned him their king, and claimed the Pacific Northwest for Britain, calling it Nova Albion, Albion being an ancient name for Britain with a mythic resonance.

Many explorers followed, looking for the magical yet elusive passage. The Strait of Juan de Fuca is named for a legendary Greek navigator who supposedly found it. The British later sent James Cook to probe the North Pacific in search of it. Cook was followed in 1792 by George Vancouver, who surveyed the coast of what his charts still called New Albion. He named many of the Northwest's major landmarks (Puget Sound, Mount Hood, Mount Baker, Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier), but he decided the mythic passage did not exist. His word couldn't be considered definitive, however. After all, he missed discovering both the Columbia and Fraser rivers on that same expedition.

Nevertheless, the British had shifted to exploiting the continent's land-based resources (including beaver and otter) and to finding an overland "passage." Alexander McKenzie forged one when he emerged on the British Columbia coast in 1793 after crossing Canada on foot. The Americans were in the game, too, sending Meriwether Lewis and William Clark overland a little more than a decade later. They were, by the way, instructed by President Thomas Jefferson to keep an eye out for those "white Paducas." Lewis took special note when they encountered the Flathead Indians, believing the guttural sounds of the Salish language might be vestiges of Welsh.

Various passage expeditions on land and sea helped solidify the Anglo-American hold on the region and marginalize other empires jostling for a piece of the action, including Russia, Spain, and France. The search for the Northwest Passage continued well into the Victorian era, when it was finally acknowledged to exist, albeit as an ice-bound waste. When the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen finally navigated the passage by boat in 1906, it only demonstrated its impracticality: his vessel was frozen in ice much of the time and the trip took three years, hardly the shortcut sought for centuries.

But the early probes in the Pacific and the master plan for empire had left their mark. Were it not for Sir Francis Drake and the wizard who inspired his search for the Northwest Passage, our regional tongue might well be Spanish, Russian – perhaps even Salish.

The Arctic, Alaska, and the Pacific Northwest are the most rapidly warming regions of the planet. This signals the end of a frozen dream that reshaped the world during the last half-millennium. In the coming age of empire, competition, and open waters, you can't help but wonder where it will lead. In the meantime, it's time to toast the end of the era that made us what we are. Call it a rite of passage.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.