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Across the Northwest Passage: The Larsen Expeditions


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).

Hull reinforced
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

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
, 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

Crew forced to winter on island
first passage began in Vancouver in
June of 1940. Through the Bering Strait and across the
north coast of Alaska, the St.
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.

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
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

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

From Halifax to Vancouver, 1944
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
(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

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.
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.