Fort Ross is not your average tourist area. There are no souvenirs or post cards to buy. In fact, the Hudson’s Bay Company post there hasn’t sold anything in 68 years.
Located on the southeast corner of Somerset Island at 72°N, 94°14′W, Fort Ross is not easy to get to. However, it’s become a main attraction for passengers aboard ships cruising the Northwest Passage (NWP) via Bellot Strait. What draws people to its rocky shore isn’t just the abandoned clapboard buildings, but its connection to the search for Sir John Franklin’s Northwest Passage expedition.
Bellot Strait, a narrow channel 25 km long and 2 km at its widest, connects the Gulf of Boothia and Prince Regent Inlet on the east with Peel Sound and Franklin Strait on the west. The strait divides Boothia Peninsula from Somerset Island, separating the mainland of North America from the rest of the Arctic Archipelago.
The first non-Inuit to see Bellot Strait was Capt. William Kennedy during his 1854 search for Franklin. He named it for his second-in-command, Joseph René Bellot. The strait had been entirely missed by Englishman John Ross on his 1829–33 Northwest Passage expedition, as ice and snow had made the strait’s indistinguishable from the land. As a result, Ross concluded that Prince Regent was an Inlet and, therefore, a virtual dead end in the search for the NWP.
In 1858, Lady Jane Franklin hired Francis Leopold M’Clintock to search for her husband. He entered Bellot Strait in the Fox, intending to pass through it to the waters on the west, then head south to King William Island. M’Clintock’s men unloaded supplies at a little harbour that he subsequently named Depot Bay, and built a cairn on a rock promontory. The Fox made seven attempts to get through Bellot Strait, but came up against impenetrable ice blocking the western entrance. M’Clintock gave up and he and his men sledded overland to King William. They returned to England with profound evidence, including a written document, of the demise of Franklin’s expedition.
No one attempted passage of Bellot Strait until 1937 when the Hudson’s Bay Company decided to establish a trading post on the northern end of Boothia Peninsula. It offered good hunting and new fur trading opportunities. The Company’s 2,540 tonne, 87-metre steamer- icebreaker Nascopie, carrying building supplies for the post, headed to Bellot Strait. Aboard were passengers, RCMP officers and three Inuit families from Cape Dorset who were moving to the new post.
When the Nascopie dropped anchor in Depot Bay at 11 a.m. on September 2, they could see the schooner Aklavik coming through the strait from the west. The Aklavik, the Company’s supply ship for the Western Arctic, was the first ship to make passage of Bellot Strait. The smaller ship came alongside the Nascopie and exchanged cargo — furs from the west and trade goods from the east — making this the first east-west trade through the strait. The Hudson’s Bay Company proudly boasted that the Nascopie and the Aklavik made a combined transit of the Northwest Passage.
The Nascopie stayed at anchor for six days while passengers and crew erected the three post buildings: a three-bedroom house for the post manager, Lorenz Learmonth and two clerks, a store and a big warehouse. The Inuit families set up their homes nearby. The new post was named Fort Ross after John Ross. Richard Finnie, one of the Nascopie’s passengers, reported that several of the passengers discovered that M’Clintock’s cairn had been destroyed by bears, so “had promptly set up one of their own.” This cairn still stands on the hill behind the post. Many records have been deposited in it since, including one by RCMP Sgt. Henry Larsen on his historic 1942 transit of the NWP aboard the St. Roch, when he stopped at Fort Ross.
Hunting around Fort Ross was plentiful with narwhal, beluga, walrus, caribou and seal. But so was the ice. And Fort Ross turned out to be a difficult place for ships to get into.
In the summer of 1942, the Nascopie couldn’t break through the jumbled pack ice, and had to land the supplies at Arctic Bay. The men headed off on the 480-kilometre sled journey to retrieve them once Prince Regent Inlet had completely frozen over months later.
The following September 1943, the Nascopie was again unable to get through the ice to the post. Without fresh supplies, the situation was dire. The Company had no alternative but to close the post. It would do an air drop of supplies, then pick up the manager William Heslop, his wife Barbara, and Darcy Munro, the clerk, once the ice was thick enough to land a plane. The US Army forces in Winnipeg, Manitoba, had an available Arctic-worthy plane, and took on the mission.
On November 4, Capt. J.F. Stanwell-Fletcher parachuted in with the supply drop to determine a good landing place, becoming the first parachutist above the Arctic Circle. The lake ice measured 1.2 metres thick, enough to hold a 15-tonne plane. A rough landing strip, 915 metres long and 15 wide, was marked out with snow blocks covered with empty coal sacks. Three days later, the plane with “Fort Ross or Bust” painted on its side landed on the makeshift runway. Due to weight restrictions, the four passengers were told to leave their baggage behind on the ice, including the films the Heslops had taken over the past two years. This was one of the first Arctic ‘rescues’ by plane.
The Nascopie got into Fort Ross in 1944, and the post reopened. However, ice continued to be a hindrance and the post closed permanently in 1948.
With the Arctic ice thinning over the last 20 years, Bellot Strait has now become more easily traversable. The commercial cruise industry began in Nunavut in 2006.
With ships passing through the strait, Fort Ross reopened to tourists.
The Government of Nunavut doesn’t track how many ships stop at historic places like Fort Ross, although cruise ships passing through the Arctic are required to report their itinerary. In 2015, 11 ships made nine NWP transits with seven reporting visits to Fort Ross. As of May 2016, the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Economic Development and Transportation expected a similar number of cruises with 10 visits anticipated.
Hundreds have visited Fort Ross in the last decade, climbing out of zodiacs onto the sandless beach to explore. They troop up to M’Clintock’s cairn, and the monument that his descendants erected in his honour in 1979. The post buildings show their age, faded paint and broken windows. The storehouse is still used as shelter by occasional travellers, with bunk beds and shelves of canned goods. A pathway lined with stones leads from the store to the house, an effort to bring order to the endless jumble of rocks.
Tourists wander the small house. Furniture was left behind: two beat-up armchairs, a rusted potbelly stove, an old fridge, a metal bed frame. There are four unmarked graves piled with stones near the storehouse. These are poignant reminders of the transient life of Fort Ross.