A walk across the Northwest Passage

Sledge party leaving HMS Investigator at Mercy Bay,” from a series of eight sketches by Lieutenant (later Captain) Samuel G. Cresswell, an officer with McClure’s Franklin expedition. Cresswell was among the party that trekked from Mercy Bay to Resolute on Cornwallis Island, and back again. Library and Archives Canada, from the W.H. Coverdale collection.


It is September 1969 and I am aboard the SS Manhattan as it sits trapped in polar ice while attempting to complete a crossing of the Northwest Passage through McClure Strait, around the northern coast of Banks Island. The Manhattan is stuck in the polar ice grip for 34 hours before she is released by the Canadian Coastguard icebreaker John A. Macdonald to complete her crossing of the Passage, by sailing south of Banks Island. I re-read the journal of Captain Robert John Le Mesurier McClure. From the Manhattan I can look across the expanse of ice to the steep, hazy banks of Banks Island, near Mercy Bay where McClure and his 60-man crew of HMS Investigator were also trapped by ice, not for days but for 18 months.

McClure and his crew were the first to find this final opening through the Northwest Passage, and made the first known complete crossing of the Passage, during a period of more than four years in the 1850s. But their ship, the Investigator, did not make it all the way. McClure and his men were compelled to escape starvation by completing the journey on foot.

It was little wonder that the 400- ton, wooden-hulled sailing ship was unable to make it through McLure Strait. Aboard the Manhattan, we sailed within 28 miles of Mercy Bay, where McClure, his men and the Investigator had been stranded for so long. Unable to breakthrough the ice, the Manhattan and Macdonald retreated from McLure Strait, but retreat had been impossible for the Investigator.

The McClure expedition was one of 40, which, during a period of 10 years, sailed the Arctic in search of Franklin and his lost men and ships. The Investigator left Plymouth, England, in January, 1850, sailed around Cape Horn, up the Pacific coast of the Americas, through Bering Strait, past Point Barrow, and into the legendary Northwest Passage, the hoped-for sea route between Europe and the Orient.


The Investigator passed south of Banks Island that Fall and northward along the Prince of Wales Strait, then snuggled in behind Princess Royal Island to winter in. Exploring the route ahead, which they planned to sail the following summer, McLure and a party of men set out from the ship with ice sleds, each man pulling 200 pounds of supplies. On October 26, McClure climbed to the top of a hill near the north end of Banks Island, and discovered the final segment of the Northwest Passage. In the distance to the northeast, McClure could see Melville Island, which had been reached 30 years before by Edward Parry, who has sailed from the east and spent the winter of 1819-1820 at Winter Harbour. Coming from the west, McClure was within 100 miles of Melville Island, and could see the final opening of the route across the northern end of the continent.

The following summer, the Investigator sought to burst through the northern end of Prince of Wales Strait, across to Melville Island, then eastward through the Northwest Passage, and home triumphantly to England. But the ice pack blocked the passage out of Prince of Wales, and the Investigator was forced to turn around, again crossing the southern end of Banks Island, and this time up the western coast and around the northern end. In open water, the Investigator hoisted sails and flew with a bone in her teeth, until gripped in ice, when she at times drifted aimlessly for weeks. In narrow leads, the crew scrambled over the ice to pull the ship behind them. Along the northern coast of Banks Island, the Investigator drifted along in a lead, barely wider than the ship, pressed on one side between vertical cliffs that rose as high as 1,000 feet, and the polar pack on the other side. A crushing death appeared to be their inevitable fate as they drifted day after day until finally, that fall they found the sanctuary of a harbour—their Bay of Mercy—and here they stayed for 18 months.

From Mercy Bay (as it is now known), McLure led a sled party 170 miles over the ice to Winter Harbour. From where the Manhattan and Macdonald were beset I could see most of the route they had taken, across snow-covered ice and row after row of pressure ridges with their jumbled pile of ice blocks. At Winter Harbour, McLure had hoped to find another of the ships searching for Franklin, or at least some cached provisions. He found nothing. On the sandstone rock where Parry had earlier recorded his arrival, McClure left a document, giving the position of the Investigator and its state, then returned to Mercy Bay.

At Mercy Bay, the men of the Investigator augmented their depleting provision with game they shot—musk ox, caribou, rabbits and a few birds. Eventually another Franklin relief expedition found the McClure message at Winter Harbour, and sent a rescue party over the ice to Mercy Bay. They found the Investigator and its crew in critical condition. Three had already died (three more were to die before the party reached England); the survivors were weak and ill from malnutrition, scurvy, frostbite, and several were suffering from temporary insanity.

Abandoning the Investigator at Mercy Bay, the men walked 200 miles across the ice to their rescue ships at Bridport, not far from Winter Harbour, and spent yet one more winter in the Arctic before reaching England late in 1854, almost five years after they had started out. In locating the final opening, McLure completed the work of others who had sailed for centuries in search of the Northwest Passage, men such as Cabot, Frobisher, Davis, Parry, and Franklin.

If icebreaker tankers ever do sail through McLure Strait, will they doff their caps, dip their flag, or toot their horn in salute as they pass Mercy Bay?

Before he abandoned the Investigator, McClure had the ship’s stores cached on shore—1,000 pounds of biscuits, plus salt pork, sugar, flour, tea, rifles, ammunition, extra clothing, 20 gallons of brandy and 28 gallons of rum. While some remnants of the expedition remained at Mercy Bay more than a century and half later, they did not include these stores. Even the copper nails of a small boat left on the shore had been removed. The salvagers did a good job.

When the ice at Mercy Bay briefly cleared on July 25, 2010, researchers from Parks Canada towed a sonar scanner behind an inflatable boat. They found the wreck of the Investigator sitting up in 11 metres of water, and in “very good condition.” Sonar images showed one of the missing masts lying on the deck. Upright, the main mast would have stood above the surface, except, of course, for the ice.

Unfamiliar Canadian History Stories 128

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