Stan Rogers was a balladeer, a folksy Canadian crooner who often sang about his country and whose most famous anthem celebrated the Northwest Passage. Mr. Rogers died young, leaving behind a son, Nathan, who grew up to be a folksinger and who, in a curious twist of fate, had to be rescued along with about 200 other passengers and crew from a cruise ship that ran aground in the Northwest Passage late last week.
Perhaps the experience will inspire Mr. Rogers to write a song of his own song about the Northwest Passage, an almost mythical stretch of water in a frozen northern land that has infected the popular imagination for almost 500 years. Explorers once looked for it. Poets have put it to verse. The Group of Seven has rendered it on canvas.
And today, a boatload of tourists — with a Rogers heir in tow — can see it for themselves and end up like so many of the explorers did: marooned on a rock, waiting to be rescued.
Stan Rogers died, tragically, in 1983, but his famous ode to the Northwest Passage is alive and well and remains a folksy Canadian anthem among college students from sea to shining sea.
“Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage/
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea/
Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage/
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, like countless artists and poets — and songwriters — has been awed by the lyrical imagery of the Canadian North. Our dear PM even appropriated a few lines from the aforementioned Stan Rogers song in a speech he gave in Yellowknife in August 2006.
“Don’t worry, I won’t try to sing like Stan, I’ll just quote him,” Mr. Harper said. “The one warm line we will draw across the North is an unmistakable boundary of Canada’s sovereign territory.”
Thomas James, the explorer and namesake for James Bay, was looking for the Northwest Passage when he found the body of water that bears his name. After “discovering” it, he got stuck in the ice for one horrific Canadian winter. Many of his crew would die, but the explorer lived to write about the experience in a Strange and Dangerous Voyage, published in 1633.
“Oh, my poore soule, why doest thou grieue to see/
So many Deaths to muster to murther mee?/
Look to thy selfe, regard not mee; for I/
Must doe (for what I came) performe, or die./
So thou mayst free thy selfe from being in/
A dung-hill dungeon; A mere sinke of sinne.”
Words don’t always do a place justice. Pictures can help, and so can landscape painters. Group of Seven giant Lawren Harris is synonymous with icebergs. And A.Y. Jackson and his doctor pal and sketching companion, Sir Frederick Banting, were aboard the S.S. Beothic on a painting trip when it cruised the Artic seas in 1927.
There is a lot more to Hugh MacLennan than the Two Solitudes. The Canadian thinker/writer turned his thoughts to the Northwest Passage in The Scotchman’s Return, an essay from 1960. Mr. MacLennan’s muse was the Scotsman Alexander Mackenzie, a long dead explorer who went hunting for the Northwest Passage … in a canoe. Mr. Mackenzie did not find the Northwest, but he did make it to the Pacific Ocean.
“After an achievement of incredible boldness and endurance,” Mr. MacLennan wrote, “what, after all, did this Highlander find but nothing.”
Al Purdy, the famously crusty Canadian bard, left his southern home behind for the desolate wilds of Baffin Island in the summer of 1965 where he waxed poetic in The North West Passage.
“The North West Passage is found and poor old Lady Franklin well she doesn’t answer the phone
tho once she traded her tears for ships
to scour the Arctic seas for her husband
but the Terror and Erebus sank long ago
and it’s still half an hour before dinner
and there isn’t much to do but write letters
and I can’t think of anything more to say
about the North West Passage
but I’ll think of something
maybe a break-thru
to strawberries and ice cream for dinner.”