Even the very words “Northwest Passage” speak wonder and excitement to a true adventure traveler. For hundreds of years, dating back to King Henry VII of England and John Cabot of the late 1490s, explorers dreamt of establishing a commercial sea route that connected the Atlantic and Pacific.
The maze-like, icy channels have enchanted and struck fear in the hearts of explorers in equal measures for hundreds of years. Sir Humphrey Gilbert drowned in 1583 in an attempt to find the fabled trade route from Europe to Asia. By 1620, Danish sailor Jens Munk lost 61 members of his crew to the cold, famine, and scurvy, leaving only Munk and two others to return to Europe.
Sir John Franklin's ill-fated 1845 voyage is still shrouded in mystery and legend. He and his crew of 129 men and officers remain in the Northwest Passage to this day, some buried on Beechey Island; the rest claimed by the channel's icy depths.
The Challenge of the Northwest Passage
A dominant male musk ox keeps a watchful eye over his harem in an Arctic meadow on the Boothia Peninsula, Canada. Photo credit: Daven Hafey
Over the years, data gathered by explorers began to point towards a route now known as the Northwest Passage. But it wasn't until 1903 to 1906 that Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen finally made it through onboard the Gjöa, a 47-ton herring boat.
Although modern technology has made life easier for adventure travelers, there is nothing simple about crossing the Northwest Passage. However, if you're fascinated by people and history and crave an authentic, truly exclusive expedition experience, the Northwest Passage is for you.
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Traversing the Northwest Passage Today
There are six different ways to make the Northwest Passage transit, dependent on weather and ice conditions. No two expeditions are the same, and each day is a brand new adventure. Travelers making this historic trip today do so on modern, ice-strengthened expedition ships equipped with tough, inflatable Zodiacs that allow passengers to become fully immersed in the raw beauty of these iconic Arctic surroundings.
A polar bear drags its fresh kill, a small seal, along the edge of an ice floe in the Northwest Passage. Photo credit: Alex Preston
Dramatic fjords, glaciers and mountains leave passengers awestruck in their wake. Arctic wildlife, from whales and walrus to giant, gentle muskox, feed and roam the vast lands and waters of the Northwest Passage. Modern villages and untouched ancient ruins somehow survive one punishing, inhospitable Arctic winter after another.
On a modern Northwest Passage expedition, passengers might visit traditional Inuit communities, brushing up on ancient cultures at remote historical sites, or pay homage to Sir John Franklin and his crew at remote Beechey Island. Some itineraries might make stops at big-wall playground Sam Ford Fjord, the iceberg capital of the world at Qikiqtarjuak (formerly known as Broughton Island), and the picturesque high Arctic community of Pangnirtung, world-renowned for its prolific artists.
Others may take travelers to explore ancient Thule archaeological site, search for polar bears at the popular research locale of Radstock Bay, or discover soaring cliffs teeming with sea birds near the hamlet of Arctic Bay.
The best time to take an expedition through the Northwest Passage is from late August through September, when rising summer temperatures and ocean currents have gone to work on the thick, multi-year sea ice, opening channels to various degrees.
Want to learn more about planning your own Northwest Passage expedition? Read more Northwest Passage expedition stories from expedition experts and adventurous travelers like you.