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Exploration of the Northwest Passage


Long before the Europeans arrived, the Inuit were the first explorers of the Arctic. The Inuit have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years. Through their daily lives, they have travelled and explored the area in search of food, supplies and settlement areas. While most of their travels remain undocumented, the Inuit and other aboriginal groups are considered the first explorers of the "Northwest Passage" and many other northern areas.

Pytheas, a Greek, was the first explorer ever to describe the far north. In the late 300s B.C. he claimed to have sailed to an island in the north. At that time the Europeans believed everything in the north was covered by ice and it was not until the 1490s, when John Cabot proposed that there must exist a direct way to the Orient via the Northwest Passage, that the Europeans' interest in the far north was peaked.

It was during the 16th century that Europe began to investigate the possibility of a passage in the Northwest that would offer a safer sea route to the Orient than those which lay exposed to possible Spanish or Portuguese attack, such as the areas of Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope. This search was to continue for over 300 years, during which time explorers would brave the harsh climate and treacherous ice conditions of the North. Some men would lose their lives due to starvation, scurvy, attack by Inuit or even their fellow crew in an attempt to find a way through the maze of ice and islands.

While searching for the Northwest Passage, the Canadian Arctic began to take shape through the discoveries of new land and waterways by European explorers. Therefore, only those expeditions which explored previously unknown stretches of the Arctic coasts have been included in this section.


Early Explorers

 [Picture of early explorers with ship] Early explorers




With the discovery of several routes of the Northwest Passage, the quest of many centuries of explorers had been completed. In the years that followed, international interest in the Arctic was observed and the fascination with the Arctic continues to this day. For example, in 1954 the icebreaker H.M.C.S. Labrador became the first medium-sized vessel to navigate the Northwest Passage and in 1960 the United States Navy nuclear submarine Sea Dragon completed the passage. Research in the Arctic is continuous and very intense, with much yet to be studied. Every day leads to new discoveries and to this day records left by early explorers are still being found.


 Information taken from Arctic Canada, Volume I, Third Edition, 1982

Image courtesty of Inuktitut Archives


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