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It was 60 years ago that three U.S. Coast Guard cutters and a Canadian icebreaker became the first deep-draft vessels to sail through the Northwest Passage.
The four-ship convoy that included the icebreaker HMS Labrador and cutters Storis, SPAR and Bramble were involved with charting, recording water depths and installing aid to navigation during the approximately 4,500-mile, 64-day trip.
They weren't the first to make the traverse between the northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans by sea — that distinction is held by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who completed the task over three years and concluded in 1906. In 1944, Henry Larsen and crew of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police vessel St. Roch completed the first single-season voyage.
It wasn't until much more recently that a change in climate reduced summer ice cover enough to allow more vessels to make the voyage. Even cruise ships are tackling the Northwest Passage — Crystal Cruises is wrapping up the 2017 Alaska season of its 821-foot, 1,080-passenger ship Serenity with a 32-day Northwest Passage voyage beginning Aug. 15 in Anchorage and ending Sept. 15 in New York City (Crystal Cruises' least expensive fare listed for that sailing Thursday was $21,855).
Despite the recent increase in traffic through the Northwest Passage, there remains much to learn about the complex archipelago. A U.S.-Canadian effort to learn more is underway with Wednesday's departure of the Coast Guard's Sitka-based cutter Maple.
The 225-foot seagoing buoy tender will make a quick stop in Nome to pick up an ice navigator and then sail for the Northwest Passage as a “ship of opportunity” to conduct marine science and other research in support of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, according to a Coast Guard announcement.
The Maple — which as a reinforced hull with limited icebreaking capabilities — will be joined later this month by the Canadian Coast Guard ship Sir Wilfrid Laurier, which will provide icebreaking capabilities.
All of the scientific and icebreaking activities will be conducted in accordance with the 1988 Canada-US Agreement on Arctic Cooperation, according to the Coast Guard.
“In planning this, we have worked very closely with our Canadian counterparts and we look forward to continuing that cooperation in the Arctic," Lt. Cmdr. Patrick Armstrong, commanding officer of the Maple, said in a prepared statement.
This cooperative effort with the Canadians is a positive step in furthering our knowledge of the Northwest Passage.
That's important for Alaska, an Arctic state with tremendous potential to be involved in whatever the future holds for the Northwest Passage and the broader Arctic region. Active exploration of the region — including assessments for environmentally sound commercial uses — can benefit Alaska and Alaskans in many ways. That includes Ketchikan, which, with its shipyard and deep-water facilities, stands ready to help facilitate Arctic exploration and commerce.
It's exciting that the Maple and the Sir Wilfrid Laurier are making this voyage. May many more voyages follow theirs.