THE NORTHWEST PASSAGE, the trade route through the Canadian Arctic that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, has been the subject of myth and nightmare for European sea explorers since 1497, when Giovanni Caboto—the flamboyant Venetian-English navigator and explorer who is today known as John Cabot—was sent off by Henry VII to find it. Part of the mystery of the passage is whether or not Cabot actually succeeded (and why, if he did, he thought he had landed in—of all places—China).
But attempts were made even before Cabot to cut through this channel of icebergs—in 985-6 CE. Norse explorer Bjarni Herjólfsson, chasing to catch up with the flotilla of Eirikr Thorvaldsson (Erik the Red), who wanted to colonise Greenland, was blown off course, coasted to southern Greenland, tacked east, and kept going until he spotted what was the east coast of North America. Not recognising the changing land terrain—wooded and hilly to mountainous and snowy—and being a trader, not a salty adventurer or an outlaw (like Erik the Red at that time), he turned back. The Norse were superstitious seafarers: Herjólfsson’s lucky boat was bought, 15 years later, by Erik the Red’s son, Leifr Eiríksson (Leif Ericson), who sallied forth with a crew of 35 and ended up founding, in 1,000 CE, what is known today as L’Anse aux Meadows (from the French L’Anse-aux-Méduses, or ‘Jellyfish Cove’) in Newfoundland. This is the only instance of Pre-Columbian transoceanic contact with the Americas that scholars accept as incontrovertible.
But this pre-Columbian exploration was, basically, Viking adventurism, celebrated not so much in cartography but in sagas. The first definitive, marked route was covered by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen in 1903-06, who hired six sailors, struck out on a 21-metre-long, 47-tonne, shallow-keel sloop to escape baying creditors, anchored near Herschel Island off the coast of the Canadian Yukon—and then skied 800 km to the settlement of Eagle, Alaska, to send off a triumphal telegram. And then skied 800-km back to his ship.