Remembering Henry Larsen and his "Ugly Duckling"
Updated: Oct 21, 2022
Remembering Henry Larsen and his “Ugly Duckling”, on the 80th Anniversary of St. Roch’s NW Passage.
80 years ago on October 11of 1942, a”short, ugly” wooden ship was piloted without fanfare through the antisubmarine net and mines into Halifax Harbour. It was the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Arctic patrol vessel, St Roch. Under its captain, Norwegian - born Henry Larsen, the St Roch had left Vancouver, BC in June 21,1940, heading for the western Arctic. That 28 month voyage placed the ship and her crew in the annals not only of Canadian history but also of global maritime history, as the first ship to traverse the Northwest Passage from Pacific to Atlantic Ocean. Forty years had passed since Roald Amundsen had made the only prior transit of the fabled passage, but in the opposite direction.
Henry Larsen was born in 1899 on the Norwegian Island of Herføl, the most southerly of the Hvaler or “Whale” Islands next to the Swedish western coastline in the Skagerrak Strait of the North Sea, into which the Oslo Fjord opens. The Hvaler archipelago of 833 islands, islets and skerries cluster at the mouth of Oslo Fjord is a part of the Ytre Hvaler National Park.
Henry Larsen’s family was close and loving, but times were harsh. During the early 1800s, Norway had been impoverished by being on the wrong side in the Napoleonic wars. The people of Herføl made a hard living on the sea by fishing, and farming the shallow rocky soil of the island. Swedish relatives living in the nearby farming area of Varmland in Sweden, had raised Henry since he was a toddler, but about 1906, Henry was sent back to Herføl to attend school.
In 1906, Norwegians were celebrating Amundsen’s success, but also Norway’s formal separation from Sweden in 1905. Amundsen’s family came from the Hvaler islands of Asmaløy and Kirkøy (Church Island). Amundsen’s feat inspired the seven year old orphaned Henry Larsen who, at the time, spoke only Swedish. He later wrote: “The school subjects which I liked most were history and geography. I read all the books on geography that I could come across, and was attracted by stories about the polar regions. Books by Nansen, Amundsen, Sverdrup and Stefansson were my favorites. Frobisher’s achievements and the fate of Franklin also interested me. The more I read, the stronger became my desire to explore the sea and the unknown islands in the North.”
The sea was his great love even before he went to sea at 14 years of age with two uncles on the herring smack Anna, a vessel much like Amundsen’s Gjøa. As a youngster he sailed or rowed pilots out to the ships waiting in the harbour for favorable winds to go into the harbor at Oslo, or to take tourists to various islands. Often, when large ships were anchored in the bay, boys were allowed to visit aboard to climb the masts and rigging, and to do chores.
As a teenager Larsen served on Norwegian sailing ships to the Americas during the dangerous time of the first world war. He was shipwrecked off the Carolinas on the US East Coast while on the General Gordon, his greatest love among the many ships on which he sailed. After gaining experience on motor vessels to South Africa and the East Indies, he entered the Norwegian State Navigation School in Oslo and graduated with a Master’s Certificate.
After completing his required stint in the Norwegian Navy, he served as fourth and then as third officer on the newest modern steamer, the Theodore Roosevelt, of the Fred Olsen Shipping Line, which travelled to the Pacific west coast and Japan. In 1922 while at Seattle, Larsen met Amundsen who was there arranging passage home for his pilot Oscar Omdahl, after their failed attempt to fly over the North Pole. Long conversations which he had with Omdahl during the return voyage to Norway, aroused Larsen’s interest in the Arctic again. But by then sealing and whaling had come to an end, so passage into the Arctic was scarce.
The following year he read in the Vancouver newspaper that a Danish-American trader, Christian Klengenberg, who had been sailing into the Arctic since 1905, was in Seattle looking for a navigator. Although Henry Larsen could look forward to a promising career with the Fred Olsen line, he recognized that this was his opportunity to navigate a ship in the Arctic Ocean. He resigned his position of 3rd mate. His captain and shipmates thought he was crazy for abandoning his good chances of progressing to the rank of captain with the prestigious Olsen line to go north on a broken down 40 year old trading vessel.
With Klengenberg and his half Inuit family he gained experience navigating in the ice, over-wintering a ship, hunting for seals and walrus, rearing and handling dog teams, trapping, living among the Inuit, and supporting himself off the land. He came to realize that life in the Arctic suited him but the days of Arctic trading ships were almost over.
He thought about joining the Mounted Police. However life at sea was also important to him. Fortunately he learned from RCMP officers at Herschel Island that the RCMP intended to build a ship to serve as a floating police detachment and supply ship in the Canadian Arctic. But he would have to become a naturalized British subject before applying to join the RCMP.
Meanwhile he mainly fished. Four years later, as a 28 year old, he began a new career as an ordinary crew member on the trial voyage of the newly christened RCMP patrol vessel, St Roch. An old sealing captain named Gillen, who had served as technical advisor for the ship, was appointed as its Captain for the first northward voyage to Herschel Island. Once in Arctic waters however, Larsen proved how capable he was. Although the most junior member of the Force, he was designated skipper and navigator of St Roch. But because he lacked the usual recruit training, a sergeant was transferred on board St Roch to be in charge of the floating detachment when the ship was anchored or frozen in.
The St Roch did not look how she does now in the Vancouver Maritime Museum. Her rounded hull is much the same shape and resisted the crushing pressure of the ice by allowing her to rise up out of the ice. But it also meant that she bucked and heaved like a bronco when at sea. With a draft of 13 feet when fully loaded, she could sail in shallow water. But her originally blunt prow caused her to just bounce off the ice flows instead of penetrating it. The prow shape was therefore later modified. Kerosine or gasoline lamps were used for lighting on the ship until 1940 when batteries and electrical lights were installed.
Originally the St. Roch had a 6 cylinder 135 Hp diesel engine, no more powerful than that of a modern car, but a 300 hp engine was install prior to her 1944 voyage westward.
The St Roch was built of Douglas fir - 104 feet three inches long, with a beam of 97 feet, 6 inches. Her outer hull was sheathed in Australian Ironbark..
The crew, of usually 7 to 9 men, were selected as for any other police detachment, and few had prior experience on a ship or in the Arctic.
They sailed without modern navigational aids; no sonar, no satellite systems or radar, no weather reports or ice reconnaissance, and no coast guard patrols or search and rescue service. Radio contact was irregular and extended only 200 miles, so the crew relied on a message relay system.
The waters in which they sailed were mostly uncharted, and their navigation methods dated back hundreds of years. Only in the mid 1940's did they get a gyro compass, and even it was unreliable.
The men generally served on the ship for about two years, just as at most other detachments. Larsen trained them well.
One of the purposes of the St Roch was to demonstrate Canada’s sovereignty over the Canadian Arctic. The primary task of this floating RCMP Detachment was governance, and the crew had a heavy task load: they carried supplies to land based detachments, transported people, priests and families between settlements or took the sick to hospital and children to school, carried mail, monitored game populations, conducted censuses, administered federal regulations, checked living conditions of Inuit communities, occasionally investigated murders or transported prisoners, acted as judges, commissioners of oaths, collected various taxes, and issued fishing and hunting licences. In other words they carried out the functions of all the other government departments in the name of Canadian sovereignty.
To do so, they raised and trained their sled dogs, and fished, hunted bears and seals to supply fresh meat for their dogs and for themselves, and sometimes for local Inuit. They collected the water they required from nearby lakes in the form of large ice blocks or from freshwater pools on sea ice. In winter they dressed and travelled in Inuit fashion, usually hiring a local man as interpreter or guide. These were the functions of the RCMP in the Arctic until the late 1950's.
Henry Larsen captained the St Roch in Arctic waters, overwintering 11 times, from 1928 until 1948, when the ship was retired from Arctic service. The longest stretch lasted more than four years. For economic and other restraints her activities during the 1930's were limited to the western Arctic from Herschel Island along the coast into the Coronation Gulf. From 1935 to 1938 she operated out of Cambridge Bay.
Henry Larsen’s assignment on the St Roch was not to be an explorer. However he submitted several requests to proceed through the North West passage, once as early as 1928, when ice conditions appeared conducive to success. In 1934, after spending four consecutive years operating out of the Coronation Gulf area he wrote to the commander of “E” Division, Assistant Commissioner JW Phillips, suggesting that the St. Roch continue straight through to the eastern Arctic via Melville Sound, Barrow Strait and Lancaster Sound. Then in May 1936, while frozen in at Cambridge Bay, he suggested to Inspector GM Curleigh that the next spring they be allowed to connect with the eastern Arctic supply ship somewhere along Lancaster Sound. “A slight bit too ambitious”, was the reply. Later the same year he made the same request of the Commissioner, Sir James McBrien who was visiting the ship at Cambridge Bay, only to be reminded that he was a policeman, not an explorer.
It was not until World War 2 that the “Great Assignment” was ordered. In mid 1940, the St. Roch was to head into the eastern Arctic via Prince of Wales Strait to supply the RCMP posts of the eastern Arctic. Access from the East risked interception by German U boats. Another concern was increased American and British activity in the eastern Arctic without Canadian oversight.
Progress on readying the ship for departure north was hindered due to shipyard priority given to military vessels. Then in April 9 1940, the Nazis occupied Denmark and neutral Norway. St Roch was instead to become part of a secret war-time mission - to head through the NW Passage into the eastern Arctic as part of a Canadian force to secure the big cryolite mine at Ivittuut (then called Ivigtut) in Greenland. Cryolite was needed to produce aluminum for the Allied war effort. But early on, the Americans intervened and secured the mines for their own use. Therefore the role of the RCMP in that mission was cancelled in May 1940. And in 1941, the USA became officially involved in World War 2. Denmark had operated the mine since 1854, but as it was a key war resource site, the United States protected it during World War 2, so that this cryolite could be used to produce aluminium for war planes. The American takeover of the mine happened a month before the St Roch was even ready to sail.
So why did the St Roch still set out for the eastern Arctic in June of 1940 ? The RCMP and Hudson’s Bay Company posts on the eastern Arctic islands had to be closed, because they could not be supplied during the war. But the American military presence in the eastern Canadian Arctic was increasing without any Canadian oversight. The St Roch’s continuing assignment was to maintain the Canadian governance over the Canadian Arctic.
The ice conditions of 1940 to 1942 were the worst which Larsen ever experienced. His intended route was through the uncharted Prince of Wales Strait. The first winter, that of 1940, they were frozen in at Walker Bay on western Victoria Island. The strait was still ice packed in summer of 1941. But hoping to still get out that year, Larsen decided to follow the reverse of Amundsen’s route in waters sometimes as shallow as two fathoms (about 3.6 meters) and that close to the magnetic North Pole, their compass spun uselessly. Again they met solid ice pushing towards them eastward of King William Island towards Boothia and luckily ended up in early September 1941 being forced into Pasley Bay and frozen in. By August 1942 their supplies were low and there was no game in the area. The ice was bad, but they had to chance an escape though Bellot Strait where ice squeezed them from east and west. Three times they prepared to abandon ship. My father said that if they hadn’t got through they would have been there yet. This is the voyage that Henry Asbjørn Larsen is best known for.
It is less often mentioned that two years later, in 1944, Larsen took the St Roch westward through the previously unconquered more northerly deep water route, travelling through Lancaster and Melville Sounds, descending Prince of Wales Strait into Amundsen Gulf and Bering Strait, reaching Vancouver in merely 86 days. This is the route that Larsen referred to as the “true Northwest Passage”.
While frozen in at Pasley Bay in 1941 to 1942, Larsen had made careful plans and measurements for alterations to St Roch, which were carried out during 1942 and 1943.
For that voyage, Canadian resources had already been overtaxed by the demands of the war. Three regular RCMP members were enticed to join the crew. Larsen himself had to find the remainder of the crew, which included two young Newfoundland fishermen who had twice been on torpedoed convoy ships and had spent days in open boats on the Atlantic. Two other crew members were airmen who had been discharged as a result of war injuries. The youngest was a 16 year old who was working as a rigger’s assistant who was keen to join the crew. The Commissioner suggested to also select two elderly Scandinavians who had spent years in the western Arctic as traders, hunters, or on trading ships (one had explored with Vilhjalmur Stefansson).
The St. Roch’s crew were to prepare for a voyage of possibly two years. It was a secret undertaking, but difficult to outfit. Larsen described their readiness for the task this way: “Never before had anyone prepared so badly for an Arctic voyage.” Although lasting only 86 days, the voyage was not without serious risks. The first problem was their canned meat supply, which bore the proud marking, “Especially prepared for the RCMP”, but it was so salty that even their dogs wouldn’t eat it. The eggs were not properly preserved, their vegetables were also rotten and had to be dumped overboard. Luckily Larsen shot a polar bear on the ice near northern Baffinland to have some meat. On reaching Pond Inlet, an Inuit family joined the crew in case the St Roch had to overwinter en route: Panipakussuk and his stepson Arreak to hunt game, and Panipakussuk’s wife Leita and mother-in- law, Panippak, as seamstresses.
The St. Roch’s new gyro compass was not reliable. Their British Admiralty map was of the previous century, but Larsen had memorized much information, which he had read and re-read about British expeditions. Visibility was poor. He acknowledged the outstanding assistance of the Inuit grandmother, Panippak, in interpreting the British Navy map, although they were travelling through waters totally unfamiliar to her.
This voyage is more clearly documented as one to maintain Canada’s claim to this section of the Arctic. Could the closed detachments of the Arctic islands be re-opened and supplied from the west ? Could additional detachments be established ? Records of the voyage and other documents were left in cairns marking their way.
Heavy Arctic blue ice, thick fog and sleet obscured the entrance to Prince of Wales Strait. Once they were in familiar waters they had to hurry. From Holman Island on it looked as if they would spend a a winter in the Arctic. A message from Point Barrow reported that no ship could get out through the worst ice in years. Henry Larsen has been described as the “most out standing of Arctic navigators who could read the ice like no other”. Reaching Herschel Island, a slight easterly wind began to blow. He wrote “Just what I needed, and after all these years I knew exactly what it would do along this coast in the way of loosening the ice pack, leaving a narrow lead along the shore. I prayed for the light breeze to hold until we got around Point Barrow”.
Buried in the little known files in the Canadian National Archives are documents attesting to Henry Larsen’s skills as a navigator. One is the 1948 report by a Canadian naval observer, Lieutenant (later Commander) Kai Boggild, who had joined the St. Roch to reassess the accuracy of Larsen’s findings and routes by using modern navigation aids of the 1940's, and to evaluate the suitability of various anchorages in the western Arctic for military purposes. That same report referred to the high regard with which Henry Larsen was held by the people of the area.
In those files is also evidence that Larsen had long before laid the groundwork for a possible opportunity to take his ship through Amundsen’s Northwest Passage route. The route is shallow, and Amundsen’s little Gjøa with a loaded draft of only 10 feet 5 inches, had run still aground. However, the loaded draft of St. Roch was considerably greater at 12 ½ to 13 feet. In 1937, while headquartering in Cambridge Bay, Larsen had made exploratory sled treks along Queen Maud Gulf out to Rae Strait, returning via Geographical and Lind Islands and the Victoria Island coast. Trip reports show that on this and other patrols he took depth soundings through seal holes.
In 1954, the northerly route was followed by the Canadian naval icebreaker Labrador. Then in 1957, the American Coast Guard tenders Storis, Bramble and Spar along with the Labrador, refined Larsen’s southerly charts for military use during the Cold War. The St. Roch eventually became the first ship to circumnavigate North America when it traveled through the Panama Canal (Vancouver to Halifax in 1949), and Halifax to Vancouver (in1954)..
In 1949, Larsen was appointed Commanding Officer of RCMP “G” Division which then included the North West Territory, Yukon, what is now Nunivut, and the northern regions of Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, that is, over half of Canada. His goal was the better selection and training of men serving at Arctic RCMP detachments, and he did everything in his power to improve the lot of the Inuit
Henry Larsen and the crews on the two Northwest Passage voyages were awarded the coveted Polar Medal, and later he received the bar to that medal as well as the Pacific and Atlantic Stars and the 1939 to 1944 War medal. He was appointed a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society (1944); awarded the first Massey Medal of the Canadian Geographical Society; he was elected a member of the Explorer’s Club, and received an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from Waterloo Lutheran University. On retiring in 1961, he expressed his gratitude to his adopted country, Canada, and the honor he felt in having come as an unknown Norwegian seaman, leaving the RCMP as a Superintendent, and having had the duty assigned to him of carrying the Canadian Blue Ensign both ways through the Northwest Passage for the first time in history. But he also expressed his deep gratitude to his native Norway, which had given him ideals, dreams and ambition.
After his death in 1963, Larsen Sound at the juncture of Franklin Strait and McClintock Channel, where the St Roch had been caught and helplessly drifted in the pack ice for 20 days in 1942, was officially named in his honour. But that name does not appear on some official Canadian maps.