Northwest Passage

Maritime-themed Ballad

Written and recorded by Stan Rogers. © Fogarty’s Cove Music

Permission to record this song was kindly granted by Stan’s widow, Arial Rogers, representing Fogarty’s Cove Music.

Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin (1) reaching for the Beaufort Sea (2);
Tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.

Westward from the Davis Strait (3) ’tis there ’twas said to lie
The sea route to the Orient for which so many died;
Seeking gold and glory, leaving weathered, broken bones,
And a long-forgotten lonely cairn of stones. (Chorus)

Three centuries thereafter, I take passage overland.
In the footsteps of brave Kelso (4), where his “sea of flowers” began.
Watching cities rise before me, then behind me sink again,
This tardiest explorer, driving hard across the plain. (Chorus)

And through the night, behind the wheel, the mileage clicking west
I think upon Mackenzie (5), David Thompson (6) and the rest,
Who cracked the mountain ramparts and did show a path for me
To race the roaring Fraser (7) to the sea. (Chorus)

How then am I so different from the first men through this way?
Like them, I left a settled life, I threw it all away.
To seek a Northwest Passage at the call of many men,
To find there but the road back home again. (Chorus x3)


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Song Notes

The quest by European explorers to find an economical means to reach ports in the Far East (for the British, principally China and India) is legendary. Many Elizabethan sailors, Baffin, Frobisher and Davis among them, made their names in their failed quests for the Northwest Passage. The final, first passage wasn’t until 1906 when Roald Amundsen successfully forged a way through in a three year expedition.

This tune is arguably one of the most popular of Stan Rogers’ songs, and is a hallmark Canadian melody, widely covered by folk and shanty singers. At the height of his popularity, Stan Rogers met a sad and untimely demise at 33, the victim of smoke inhalation from an aircraft fire on June 2, 1983.

(1) Sir John Franklin – (1786 -1847) English naval officer and explorer who fought at Trafalgar. In 1845 he set out to discover the Northwest Passage with two ships (The Erebus & The Terror) fitted with steam and sail. The expedition was lost; the ships bound in ice, the crew, maddened by lead from tins of provisions, all died. Franklins previous expeditions mapped great sections of Canada and paved the way for future exploration.
(2) Beaufort Sea – Named after 19th Century British rear admiral Sir Francis Beaufort, it is the outlying sea of the Arctic Ocean situated north of Canada and Alaska. It extends northeastward from Point Barrow, Alaska, toward Lands End on Prince Patrick Island, and westward from Banks Island to the Chukchi Sea.
(3) Davis Strait – The wide channel between Greenland and Baffin Island. Named after John Davis (Davys) (1550?-1605) early English explorer.
(4) Kelso/Kelsey – Henry Kelsey made an early trek on foot into present-day Alberta for the Hudson’s Bay Company.
(5) Mackenzie – Sir Alexander Mackenzie was the first to reach both the Arctic and Pacific oceans over land.
(6) David Thompson – (1770-1857), London-born surveyor and explorer, he crossed the Rocky Mountains on foot, charting important areas of Western Canada.*
(7) Fraser – River named after Simon Fraser (1776-1862), Canadian fur trader and explorer. Born in Vermont, educated in Montréal, apprenticed to the North West Company in 1792. In 1805 he crossed the Rocky Mountains, and in 1806, with explorer John Stuart, reached the Fraser River and Stuart Lake. He established Fort Saint James and Fort Fraser in 1806 and 1807 respectively.

Bounding Main’s recording of this song was used in the ten-part nature mini-series, The Polar Sea.