The Northwest Passage, a series of channels which wind their way through the Arctic Archipelago, has long been the object of attention for Arctic explorers. From Henry Hudson in 1611 to the doomed Franklin party in 1845-48, the promise of prestige and discovery - not to mention large prizes from the British Admiralty - drew men to venture across the frozen Arctic waters. The first successful transit was made between 1903 and 1906 by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen in the 47 ton herring Boat Gjøa.
Commanded by Corporal Henry Larsen, the RCMP vessel St. Roch was the first Canadian vessel to make the transit, the first ship to make the passage from west to east (1940-2) and the first vessel to complete the trip in only one season (1944).
Compared to the powerful icebreakers which ply Northern waters today, the St. Roch was a frail and underpowered little ship. Built in 1928 in North Vancouver for the RCMP, it was a wooden vessel made from extra thick timbers of Douglas Fir and sheeted in Australian gumwood - meant to protect the hull against the grinding of the ice floes. The St. Roch was 140 ft. long with a beam of 25 ft. It was powered by a diesel engine and crewed by an average of only nine RCMP officers.
During the 1930s the St. Roch operated extensively throughout the North. From 1928-9, the crew wintered in Langdon Bay, from 1930-34 the ship cruised between Coronation Gulf and Herschel Island, and from 1935-8 it was on station in the Cambridge Bay area. As an RCMP vessel, the crew of the St. Roch had a myriad of duties to perform. These ranged from enforcing Canadian sovereignty and acting as administrators, to maintaining game laws, checking the living conditions of Inuit communities, compiling information, taking censuses, and transferring the sick to hospital. The most audacious tasks of the St. Roch's career however, were its two transits of the Northwest Passage. From 1940 - 1944, the ship made two epic passages through blizzards, pack ice, hurricanes, and freezing temperatures in the name of exploration and Canadian sovereignty.
Crew forced to winter on island
The first passage began in Vancouver in June of 1940. Through the Bering Strait and across the north coast of Alaska, the St. Roch entered the Arctic Archipelago through Amundsen Gulf. However by September the passage had begun to freeze and the crew was forced to winter on the coast of Victoria Island. Traveling out by dog sled dressed in Inuit style caribou skins, the crew spent the winter exploring the surrounding area, often covering 30 to 40 miles in a day.
With the breakup in August 1941 the St. Roch continued its passage east. Through blizzards the vessel wound its way south of King William Island through the Franklin Strait and out into Lancaster Sound. On several occasions it seemed as though the ship would be crushed by the ice. When the situation looked perilous, the Inuit passengers would hurry to the forecastle to sing. When asked, they said they were singing to avoid being crushed - they were kindly asked to keep singing.
By October 1942 the vessel reached the Atlantic safely and was cruising off the coast of Nova Scotia, becoming the second vessel ever to complete the passage and having done so in only two-thirds the time of Amundsen and the Gjøa.
From Halifax to Vancouver, 1944
While at Halifax during the winter of 1943-44, the crew of the St. Roch received orders to make a return trip that spring. To facilitate the passage, a larger diesel engine was installed along with ex panded living spaces for the crew. The ship set off on July 22nd and made good time. After a quick stop at Frobisher Bay (Iqaluit) fog and ice forced it east towards Greenland, whose shore Cpl. Larsen followed until turning west for a resupply mission to Pond Inlet on August 12th. There the St. Roch also took on an Inuit family who traveled west to Herschel Island.
On its westward passage, Larsen took the St. Roch on a different route. Through the Parry Channel to Banks Island, the ship turned south through the Prince of Wales Strait and out into the Beaufort Sea. The return passage was far easier than the previous one had been. In September the ship was nearly destroyed by hurricane force winds while at Tuktoyaktuk, yet the ice had been lighter than the previous summer. As a result, Larsen decided to try to complete the passage without having to winter in the Arctic. Traveling west along the coast of Alaska, the St. Roch found itself in a battle against the ice as it tried to reach Bering Strait before it was locked in for the winter. By September 27th however, the St. Roch had reached the strait and passed into the Pacific. After stopping at King Island to trade with the native residents, the crew made the final leg of its journey, reaching Vancouver on October 12th 1944 . The return voyage had been conducted in a record 86 days, having covered 7,295 miles in 1,031 hours and 34 minutes of steaming.