On October 11, 1942 a 104-foot wooden schooner, captained by Norwegian-born Henry Larsen, was escorted without fanfare into the harbour of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Arctic patrol ship, the St Roch, left Vancouver, British Columbia in June 1940 for the Canadian Arctic. The 28-month voyage placed the ship and her crew in the annals of Canadian and global maritime history, as the first ship to traverse the Northwest Passage from west to east. Forty years had passed since Roald Amundsen set out to make the only prior transit of the fabled passage, a feat that inspired a young Henry Larsen.
I first met my father, Henry Larsen, in 1937 when I was only twenty three months old; the meeting is still burned into my memory. My mother, a family friend, Mrs. Poulsen, and I stood on the Evans-Coleman-Evans wharf in Vancouver. Mrs. Poulsen held my hand tightly as the St Roch glided in; its gangplank descended and a man in a brown uniform began his way down. I remember loosening her grip and running towards him. Reportedly I called out, “My Daddy, My Daddy, My Daddy.” He swept me up into his arms. That meeting was the beginning of a lifelong bond.
Larsen was born in 1899 on the Norwegian island of Herføl in the Baltic Sea. He was a voracious reader, especially about the Arctic and could quote every major Arctic explorer. He said, “At school 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…” Even before he went to sea at the age of 14 on the Anna, the sea was his great love.
“During the 28-month voyage St. Roch was the first ship to traverse the Northwest Passage from west to east”
Larsen loved ships, large and small, especially sailing ships. His hobby was building models of ships on which he had sailed. In the basement of every house we lived in, he built a beautiful room like a ship’s cabin. As a youngster he sailed pilots out to their ships and tourists to various islands. Often when large ships were anchoring in the bay waiting for favorable winds, he was allowed to go aboard, climb the masts and rigging and to do chores.
At age 15, Larsen first served on Norwegian sailing ships to the Americas during the First World War. Later he graduated with a master’s certificate from the Oslo navigation school and completed his required stint in the Norwegian navy. While on the Theodore Roosevelt in 1922, he met Amundsen, who was arranging a passage home for his pilot, Oscar Omdahl, after their failed attempt to fly over the North Pole. The long conversations he had with Omdahl again aroused his interest in the Arctic. The following year he read in the newspaper that a Danish-American trader, Christian Klengenberg, who had been sailing into the Arctic since 1905, was in Seattle and looking for a navigator.
With Klengenberg he gained experience navigating in the ice, over-wintering a ship, and living off the land by hunting for seals and walrus, handling dog teams, trapping, and living among the Inuit. Most importantly, he came to realize that he really liked life in the Arctic.
“Of all the many men that served under me, none ever let me down” – Larsen
While on this voyage he learned that the RCMP intended to build a floating Arctic police detachment and supply ship. Larsen was determined to join this ship. Four years later, after becoming a naturalized Canadian citizen, Larsen, now 28, was the most junior member of the crew on the trial voyage of the RCMP St Roch. Once in the Arctic Larsen was appointed skipper and navigator.
The St Roch was built of Douglas fir with a sheath of Australian ironbark. Her rounded hull helped to resist the crushing pressure of the ice, but made her unstable. She had a 6 cylinder, 135 HP diesel engine, which was no more powerful than the engine of a modern car. The crew of 7 to 9 policemen usually had little prior experience on a ship. They sailed mostly through uncharted waters without modern navigational aids or regular radio contact. Larsen trained his crew to cope with such difficulties.
My dad once said to me, “Of all the many men that served under me, none ever let me down.” He was described as egalitarian and his men respected him. When there was work to be done he led his men by example. As one of his men said, “He never gave orders, he just asked you to do things.”
“Henry Larsen demonstrated Canada’s sovereignty over its part of the Arctic region”
Henry Larsen’s assignment was to demonstrate Canada’s sovereignty over its part of the Arctic region. The St Roch carried supplies to land detachments, transported Inuit, priests, and families around. The men carried mail, monitored game, conducted censuses, administered federal regulations, checked living conditions of Inuit communities, occasionally investigated murders or other crimes, acted as judges, collected various taxes, and issued licenses. In other words they carried out the functions of every government department. They raised and trained their sled dogs and hunted for fish, bears and seals to supply fresh meat for their dogs, themselves, and sometimes local Inuit. In winter they dressed and traveled in Inuit fashion, usually hiring a local man as interpreter or guide. These were the functions of the RCMP in the Arctic up until the late 1950’s.
Henry Larsen sailed the St Roch in Arctic waters, overwintering 11 times, from 1928 until 1948 when the ship was retired from Arctic service. Among the most renown achievements of the St Roch were the first west to east transit of the Northwest Passage (NWP) in 1940-42, the first complete transit by ship of the more northerly NWP route in 1944, and the first circumnavigation of North America. After his death in 1963, Larsen Sound, north of King William Island, Nunavut, was named in his honour.
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