The Northwest Territories is the western gateway to the world's most elusive watercourse – the Northwest Passage, traversing the icy waves of the Beaufort Sea and threading the choking channels between the High Arctic Islands. For centuries, this route attracted legendary explorers – and precipitated grim tragedies.
What is the Northwest Passage? It's the sea route over the top of North America. Long before it was mapped, Europeans longed to discover it, hoping for a shortcut to the riches of the Orient. Much of it passes through the Northwest Territories, where sea ice and islands make navigation especially challenging.
The first people to navigate the passage? The Inuit of Alaska. By paddling and dogsledding along this wildlife-rich corridor, they were able to migrate as far east as Greenland and Labrador.
Many of them stopped and stayed in the Northwest Territories, becoming the forebears of today's Inuvialuit – the nothernmost of the territory's peoples.
The first European to enter the Northwest Territories was Samuel Hearne, who came here while searching for the Northwest Passage in 1770-72.
Guided overland from Churchill, Manitoba by the legendary Denesuline leader Matonabbee, Hearne visited Great Slave Lake and then travelled across the Barrenlands. He verified what the locals already knew – no sea route to the Orient existed south of the Arctic Circle.
After Hearne came Alexander Mackenzie, who in 1789 became the first European to descend the river that the Dene called the Deh Cho - which translates to "Big River".
Mackenzie was frustrated when the waterway took him north to the Arctic rather than serving as a "northwest passage" to Asia. He called it the "River of Disappointment." It is now known as the Mackenzie River - the largest river in North America flowing to the Arctic Ocean.
In 1819-20, British naval officer Edward Parry became the first European explorer to enter the Northwest Territories by sea, when he sailed west through the Northwest Passage to Melville Island. There, he and his crew spent the winter – the first Europeans to do so in the Canadian High Arctic.
This sandstone monument, inscribed by a crewman from Parry's expedition, long served as a waypoint for subsequent Arctic explorers. It marks what is now the northernmost national historic site in Canada.
Next up was John Franklin, who explored the Northwest Territories while seeking a shortcut to Asia. He paddled from Great Slave Lake to the Barrenlands, and thence to the Arctic Ocean, guided by the great Yellowknives chief Akaitcho in 1820. Here they are crossing Prosperous Lake, now a popular fishing spot just east of Yellowknife.
Franklin then returned in 1825 to descend the Mackenzie and explore east and west from its mouth. In the course of these two journeys he mapped the entire continental shore of the Northwest Territories. He also very nearly starved to death, becoming notorious as "the man who ate his boots." During Franklin's second expedition he wintered at Fort Franklin – also known as the community of Délįne – on the west shore of Great Bear Lake. During that time, Franklin's men played the first ever recorded game of ice hockey.
No one did more to map the Northwest Territories' islands than Capt. Robert McClure, who was searching for the Northwest Passage from the west in 1850-54. In the waters around Banks Island his ship, the Investigator, escaped numerous perils until it finally sought safe harbour in Mercy Bay, near present-day Aulavik National Park.
There, it was trapped by ice and sank. In 2010, Parks Canada divers re-discovered the ship, sitting in eight metres of icy water. McClure and his crew escaped from the ship and trekked east over the ice. They were thus the first Europeans to traverse the Northwest Passage.
This is Roald Amundsen. He was the first European to complete the Northwest Passage by sea, in 1903-06.
When he finally reached the Beaufort Sea, he anchored his ship, the Gjoa, near the Mackenzie Delta, and then travelled overland through Inuvialuit territory to the nearest telegraph office to communicate his achievement to the world.
More than a century later, the Northwest Passage remains are alluring journey. A variety of cruise ships have plied the route in recent years, getting visitors up close and personal with Northwest Territories attractions including Aulavik Naitonal Park, the Smoking Hills, bird sanctuaries, and stunning communities such as Ulukhaktok, Sachs Harbour and Tuktoyaktuk.