The Northeast Passage | Polar Unbound

The English and the Dutch resumed exploration of the Eurasian Arctic by the early 16th century—a move largely motivated by the desire to trade with the far East. As many of the southern trade routes rounding South America and Africa were claimed by Spain and Portugal, and were extensive undertakings as well, the northern latitudes offered enticing possibilities. 

Britain first attempted to navigate the Arctic in 1533, sending out three ships commanded by Sir Hugh Willoughby alongside Richard Chancellor. While Willoughby and two ships of men perished on the Kola Peninsula, Chancellor was able to reach Archangel before returning to England via a terrestrial route to Russia. 

Of course, these waters were very familiar to the Russians, who often navigated routes from Norway to western Europe, but these exploits were not public knowledge. Chancellor’s own excursions led to the development of the Muscovy Company as well as profitable trade routes with Russia. The English lost interest in the Northeast Passage relatively quickly, however, due to their lucrative relationship with Russia. While Stephen Borough set out in 1556 and made it to the mouth of the Kara Sea and Arthur Pet and Charles Jackman once again attempted to breach the Ob River in 1580, these unsuccessful attempts did little to inspire the English. 

The Dutch’s Arctic efforts were largely inspired by the work of Olivier Brunel, who established a trading post on Archangel in 1565 but wasn’t able to reach the Ob River by sea. Willem Barents followed in Brunel’s footsteps and discovered Novaya Zemlya in 1594. The excitement surrounding Barents’ journey to Novaya Zemlya’s northern tip was somewhat dampened by the wreckage left along the coast, clearly indicating the Russians’ previous presence in the region. 

Barents’ 1596 journey was more successful. Sailing north from Norway rather than circumnavigating the coastline, led Barents to Svalbard and Bear Island, which he mistakenly thought was Greenland. Barents and a portion of the party stayed behind and wintered in Ice Haven, becoming the first recorded Europeans to have wintered in the Arctic successfully. That being said, Barents died on the return journey home. 

Perhaps fortuitously, Barents’ Arctic winter influenced Henry Hudson’s epic 1609 journey into the Barents Sea. In fear of having to winter in the Arctic like Barents, Hudson’s crew mutinied and compelled him to alter his course. Hudson ultimately traveled west to the coast of Virginia, where he sailed the Hudson River. 

The Russians had established an Arctic trade route by the late 16th century, a route running along the coast from the Northern Dvina River to Yamal via the Yugorsky Shar Strait. Though Tsar Michael discontinued the use of this route in 1616, the Russian presence was felt. 

By the mid-17th century, the Cossacks regularly traversed the Lena-Kolyma region further east. By 1648, they attempted to penetrate further into the Arctic. Semyon Dezhnyov headed the expedition, sailing east for the Anadyr River basin and thereby becoming the first European to venture through the Bering Strait. 

Documentation from Dezhnyov’s voyage was relatively obscure, so Peter the Great commissioned Vitus Bering to command an expedition to the Bering Strait region in the 1720s. Though Bering discovered the Diomedes and St. Lawrence Island as well as penetrating far north through the Bering Strait, he did not sight the Alaskan coast.Several years later, Ivan Fyodorov and Mikhail Gvozdev became the first Europeans to site Alaska upon discovering Cape Prince of Wales and the coastline around Nome. 

The Russians followed up these discoveries with the greatest Polar operation to this day: the Great Northern Expedition of 1733-1743. Bering once again headed the operation which consisted of 7 distinct detachments tasked with exploring various regions of the Pacific coast and Arctic. 62 maps and charts were produced over the course of 8 years and vast amounts of terrain were explored. Though the data gathered proved vital to later explorers, the hardships and unnavigable waterways encouraged the Russians to believe the Northeast Passage wasn’t a practical option. 

Due to these difficulties, a gap in Arctic charts remained, stretching from Chaun Bay to the Bering Strait. Englishman James Cook partly filled in this gap in 1778, inspiring Russia’s Catherine II to fund another expedition to the Chukchi Peninsula in 1791. However, it wasn’t until 1823 that Ferdinand Petrovich Wrangel  mapped Chukchi’s northern coastline. 

The Northeast Passage was finally overcome in 1878-79 by Adolf Erik, Baron Nordenskiöld of Sweden. The Russians traversed the Northeast Passage in 1914-15 during the Arctic Ocean Hydrographic Expedition. The first one-season (and accident-free) traverse of the Northeast Passage was completed in 1934 by the icebreaker Fedor Litke—a ship which accompanied the Arctic’s first freighters through the passage in the opposite direction the following season.