The odds of making it through the Northwest Passage

If I were a betting man, I would bet that we’d make it through the fabled Northwest Passage. Adventure Canada has had good success with our ship, the Ocean Endeavour. Eight of the last ten attempts have made to Kugluktuk.

image: The Guardian

However if you wanted me to bet on John Franklin’s chances in 1845, I would be more hesitant.

There were times when it didn’t look promising for us. Ice sloshes back and forth in the channels and it takes a skilful captain to pick a way through the ice.  Some days one path would open up only to close up the next.

Many explorers tried to find the Northwest Passage but probably the most well-known was Sir John Franklin. He left England aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. We visited the grave sites on Beechey Island where two of his men perished where they overwintered.

Franklin is not famous because he made it but because of the mystery surrounding why he didn’t. Many others, including those sent to rescue him, found out more about the Arctic and lived to pass on the information.

One reason Franklin didn’t make it was bad luck. Jerry Kobalenko, onboard author of books on Franklin, told me that if only he had gone down Prince Regent Inlet instead of Peel Sound, he might not have got stuck in the ice and perished.

We were faced with Franklin’s choice -Prince Regent Inlet or Peel Sound? The original plan was Prince Regent Inlet but when ice began to pile up there, we chose Franklin’s route down Peel Sound where the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror ended up at the bottom of the sea. There was ice in Peel Sound but not as thick.

You would think that a rapidly-warming arctic would make navigation easier. But Canadian Coast Guard representatives aboard said that warming has only loosened existing ice so it can shift around, making it less predictable. Without the benefit of reliable ice charts, we too might have found ourselves blocked.

While minor compared to Franklin’s, we did face some challenges in Peel Sound. The Ocean Endeavour has a strengthened hull but not strong enough to break through the ice that faced us. The captain called the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Terry Fox to clear a path for us.

Unexpectedly, while we waited for the Terry Fox to arrive, one of the passengers became ill and although not in critical condition needed medical treatment. So we had to turn back up Peel Sound towards Resolute, which would take 12 hours one way. From there, the passenger could be flown out.

The risk in this delay is that clearing ice for passenger ships is low on the list of priorities for the Terry Fox. If they were called some emergency, we could be out of luck. While the Terry Fox was available now, who knew about 24 hours from now when we got back?

Fortunately, it didn’t take that long. Canadian Search and Rescue sent a ship from Resolute to meet us; the passenger was transferred, we returned south more quickly, and the Terry Fox was still available. The only delay was waiting for another ship to catch up so the icebreaker could escort us both in a convoy through the ice.

Soon we were safely through Peel Sound, leaving the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in their watery crypts, and on our way to Kugluktuk.