Friday, October 2, 2009

Northwest Passage

An illustration of a ship stuck in ice.A few weeks ago, two German ships sailed from Vladivostok to Rotterdam via the Northwest Passage -- a trip envisioned for centuries but only made practical in recent years. The quest for this path to riches connecting Europe and the East occupied the imaginations of European traders for centuries. Our expansive Stefansson Collection on Polar Exploration now boasts a late-16th-century volume devoted to three voyages in search of the Northwest Passage by Willem Barentsz: Vraye Descriptions de Trois Voyages (Amsterdam: Cornille Nicholas, 1598). Barentsz, with Gerrit de Veer on board the third voyage, explored the north and made important observations on region’s climate and fauna with a special emphasis on Polar bears. He theorized that the sun's rays shining on the northern regions for six months each year would stifle any ice formation above a certain latitude and create an easily navigable open polar sea. The theory had currency for hundreds of years and fueled the search for a short, easily navigated trade route to the Orient.

The Northwest Passage was not successfully completed until Roald Amundsen traversed it over 300 years later in 1903.