Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Canadian Arctic

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I have been reading about early Canadian explorers, and so far I've focused my interest on the Canadian Arctic, including the tragic story of Captain John Franklin and his doomed men.  It astonishes me when I think about it that I did not learn a single thing about all this in school, certainly one of the most interesting stories to be told about Canadian history.

This is my own personal project this winter and it's been a good one for me.  I'm not a historian, so I'm just reporting on what I have learned in my reading.  I should add that doing all this has been excellent pain medication.  It distracts me completely from my chronic nerve pain.  Obviously I am totally dependent on using maps and illustrations from the internet in doing this.  I do so knowing it's for a legitimate educational purpose.  I am particularly indebted to both Wikipedia and the Canadian Encyclopedia.

So I'm going to share the very superficial knowledge I've gained with you, and tell you about the Canadian Arctic.  As I've written these posts, they keep expanding, so I've broken it into two groups, first five posts on Arctic exploration. and secondly 4 or 5 posts on the Arctic today which I'll post later.  If you're not interested just rejoin us after a week or so.

Arctic Exploration.
This is actually the best map I have found for naming the waterways and islands 
of the Canadian Arctic.  It may be worth referring back to as we follow our story.

This is the map that got me interested, from the Canadian Encyclopedia article on 'Arctic Exploration'*.  As you can see, there were many sailors who explored the Arctic, starting in the late 1500s.  Detailed mapping has continued right until today.  Unfortunately there's no legend with this map, but I'll refer to it as we go.  It told me at a glance that there was a lot more to learn here than I thought.  You can also clearly see the two main routes that became the Northwest Passage.

It goes without saying that this part of the world was settled by indigenous people for thousands of years before the English got interested.  The poorly known pre-Dorset culture spread into the area from the west as early as 3000 BCE, followed by the Dorset peoples.  They were followed by the Thule people from about the 13th century onwards.  These are best understood not as waves of newcomers migrating into the area, but as changes in culture within the people over time.  Only a few remnants of the Thule culture remain, mainly as stone building foundations, but this is a topic about which I still need to read a lot, so apologies for the brief mention.  We'll come back to discuss the Inuit today later in this series..  All modern Inuit are descendants of the Thule; the term 'Eskimo' is no longer favoured.  

The modern European interest in the area was primarily an interest by the English in finding a route to the orient, a 'northwest passage', rather than the typical interest in colonialism as elsewhere in the world, and as far as I've read there were no 'hostile natives', nor any massacres.  (The only reference I've seen is to the Bloody Falls Massacre on the Coppermine River in 1771.  This was a massacre by natives, of natives.  About 20 Copper Inuit were killed by a group of Copper Indians accompanying the explorer Samuel Hearne, who you'll meet soon.)

The stone foundation of what is thought to be a Thule house.

Two main factors shaped the physical reality of arctic exploration.  The first was the polar climate, specifically the ice; the second was the geography of waterways, islands and peninsulas that shaped the ultimate northwest passages.  

The Arctic ice basically defined where sailors could go and where they couldn't.  The first few explorers actually gave up when faced with the sight of 6 or 8 foot thick ice extending into the distance.  And remember, these were sailing ships; they couldn't just turn around in a narrow channel and go back the other direction.  Ship after ship was frozen in and spent the winter stuck in the ice; some spent 2 or 3 winters.  Indeed it's not much of an exaggeration to say that more than half the later effort put into Arctic exploration was in the form of rescue operations to find ice-bound ships of earlier explorers.

The Arctic ice pack extending to the horizon.

In fact, the ultimate successful navigation of the Northwest Passage did not come until diesel ships were available, Roald Amundsen being the first captain to do so in 1903-06.  It took him 3 years to do it, spending two winters frozen in the ice.  Even coal-fired steamships could not do it; they couldn't carry enough coal!

We'll encounter many stories of ice and cold later in these posts, indeed it's always there, not just in the background but in the foreground, defining the navigational choices sailors made.  But first the other factor, the geography of waterways, islands and peninsulas,

Nunavut, the eastern Canadian Arctic.
(Shaded in light brown)

Take a close look at the pattern of islands and the mainland.  This map shows you the barriers than sailors coming from the east faced.  As you can see, Baffin Island blocks the entire east end of the Arctic, sailors had to choose to go around the south or the north end of this island.  Going around the south would seem natural, but it never worked.  The main channel led into Hudson Bay, the route used so heavily by the Hudson Bay Company, but otherwise a dead end.

Going past the south end of Baffin Island and turning north into Foxe Basin leads to two dead ends.  The first is the narrow east-west strait named after the Fury and Hecla, two ships that were frozen in there in 1821.  It has proven to be ice-clogged more often than not.  The second, at the south end of Somerset Island, is a very narrow strait that is characterized by strong changeable currents making it impossible for sailing ships.  The first crossing of this strait didn't occur until 1937.  So sailing ships were left having to go around the north end of Baffin Island, through the waterway today known as Lancaster Sound. 
Satellite image of Canadian Arctic

You need to carefully compare this satellite image to the map above to keep the islands straight.  On the right you can see the north half of Baffin Island, with open water across its northern end through Lancaster Sound.  Similarly the southern  channel on the left half of the map, abutting the mainland, is open water.  These two areas are part of what later became the Northwest Passage. But even in recent years the area beyond Lancaster Sound is often choked with ice, as shown.  This is where the Northwest Passage was most difficult to explore and where Franklin got frozen in.  It formed a block to all early exploration.

And this image is taken in the summer!  After the first three centuries of exploration it had become very apparent that there was only a two-month summer window when the Arctic could be navigated at all.  Ice was the dominant factor constraining arctic exploration.  It was this large area of ice that delayed early arctic exploration for 200 years.


* Unfortunately I haven't figured out yet how to embed links here in the new version of Blogger as I'd like to, so you'll just have to look up the links yourself if you want to pursue them.  The 'link' function doesn't work for me.


  1. This is fascinating information, FG, and I look forward to learning more and more about the Canadian Arctic, thanks to your research. :-)

  2. This is going to be so interesting, I had no idea that Baffin Island was so large, or that there were so many islands there.No wonder the boats and sailing ships froze in place, brave explorers, without any modern aids for navigation, fuel, GPS or food or clothing to help them survive,. I wait for the next instalment.

  3. If you haven't read it already, I recommend Michael Palin's book on the Erebus and the Terror.

  4. Thank you for delving into the subject, it's fascination. I'm looking forward to each installment.

  5. as a kid I became fascinated with Sir John Franklin and there were a few books available for me to read. The finding of the ships rekindled my interest. I look forward to this series as I spent five years in the Arctic during the 60's.

  6. An interesting post with good maps. Have a pleasant weekend.

  7. I didn't learn anything about Franklin in school either but first heard about it through the old ballad Lord Franklin as sung by the English folk singer Martin Carthy (you can find it on YouTube if you're interested). A young Bob Dylan visited these shores in the early 60s, met Carthy and ripped off the melody and some of the words for a song he called "Bob Dylan's Dream". I look forward to learning more about Franklin's story and the wider history from your posts.

  8. a great project to undertake this winter. i read and skimmed just a is all so interesting and all new to me. i barely know my own history!!

  9. Your right, I don't remember learning about any of this in school either. It might have been mentioned but simply not studied.