Book review: The ‘elusive’ Northwest Passage is reconsidered in this exhaustive history of efforts to navigate between oceans

“Discovering Nothing: In Pursuit of an Elusive Northwest Passage”

By David L. Nicandri; UBC Press, 2024; 328 pages; $37.95.

The search for a northern sea passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans is legendary. Numerous expeditions from both sides of the continent ended in failure, some in disastrous frozen-in-ice situations. David Nicandri, a respected historian based in Washington state and the author of several books, including “Captain Cook Rediscovered,” now has taken on an exhaustive examination of the explorers and schemers who sought or promoted a link between oceans, along with the global competitions that influenced the search.

Nicandri also shows how the search led to further explorations across the continent, including that of Lewis and Clark. He expands the meaning of a northwest passage from one by sea across the top of the continent to theories of an inland (“mediterranean”) sea that would mirror Hudson Bay in the east, a network of lakes and rivers that would cross the continent with easy portages and, finally, transcontinental railroads. For a very long time, no one understood how wide North America was and how formidable its mountain ranges were. What the author calls “a geography of hope” prevailed.

“Discovering Nothing” is organized thematically, not chronologically, which can be confusing and repetitious at times, but the author has thoughtfully included a cast of characters, a chronology, maps, and end notes to help readers find their way. Nicandri draws upon extensive research about four primary explorations — those of James Cook, Alexander Mackenzie, George Vancouver, and Lewis and Clark — and surrounds them with the personages and geopolitics of others with significant roles related to the quest for both scientific knowledge and the control of territory and resources. Although there’s very little note of contact with Indigenous people, the author makes clear that there was really nothing to “discover” about places where people already lived, traveled and traded.

In 1778, on Cook’s third (and final) voyage, with instructions to find a northwest passage if there was one, Cook roughly charted the West Coast of North America and sailed all the way through the Bering Strait to Icy Cape on the Chukchi Sea, where thick ice stopped him. On his way, he looked for openings that might lead inland. The one that became known as Cook’s River seemed promising but shallowed out (hence our Turnagain Arm). It was Vancouver, in 1794, who put to rest the idea that Cook’s River ran inland to connect to lakes and more rivers that could constitute a passage to the east; he confirmed that the waterway was an inlet with a couple of glacier-fed arms.

Meanwhile, Russian, Spanish and French explorers were similarly adventuring, leaving their names all over islands, capes and inlets while looking for glory and riches. One pleasure of this book for Alaskans is gaining a greater appreciation for connections between history and our named geography. Kotzebue and Malaspina, Valdes, Bligh, Portlock and Dixon, Gore, Delong and many lesser-known individuals all appear here in respect to their travels along Alaska’s coast.


Once it was generally understood that there was no northwest passage to be traversed (despite the continuing wishfulness of many), interests of the Western world shifted to other concerns. A second wave of Arctic enthusiasm, less of discovery and more of romanticism, followed through the 1800s and included the ill-fated Franklin Expedition and the 50 rescue missions that searched for survivors. No ships made it through the ice until Norway’s Roald Amundsen completed the transit in 1905, only after his ship was locked in the ice for two winters.

An epilogue, “The New North,” brings the entire question of a northwest passage and its “elusiveness” up to date with tremendous relevance. Here, Nicandri discusses the retreat of Arctic ice in recent decades and the increase in commercial ship traffic both across the top of North America and the top of Russia (called the Northern Sea Route.) He points out that Russia has 36 large icebreakers that accompany more than 1,000 ships per year along its northern coast and that China (which has declared itself “a near-Arctic state” for political purposes) is building a fleet of its own. (The United States has two operable icebreakers, only one of which visits the Arctic.) Moreover, extensive open ocean makes oil, gas and minerals newly available for exploitation, and no international agreements sufficiently regulate claims to the seabed.

“In terms of the practical adaptation to this circumstance,” Nicandri writes, “it seems as if the clock has been turned back to the last third of the eighteenth century and the era of James Cook ... assessing prospects for reducing shipping distances between Europe and Asia.” The “travel window” for passage is now eight months long, and ships are carrying natural gas between Russia and China, saving 5,000 miles and two weeks of time.

Curiously, the book makes only a three-sentence mention, in an earlier chapter, of the 1969 voyage of the oil supertanker Manhattan, which succeeded in reaching Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay in a test of whether oil transport by sea was practical. (The trans-Alaska pipeline was constructed instead.)

Anyone with an interest in northern or exploration history will discover in “Discovering Nothing” a studious critique and sometimes reinterpretation of a significant part of Alaska, American and global history.

Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."