“Northwest Passage” is one of the best-known songs by Canadian musician Stan Rogers. An a cappella song, it features Rogers alone singing the verses, with several guest vocalists harmonizing with him in the chorus. It is not to be confused with the big band tune of the same name by Ralph Burns.
While it recalls the history of early explorers who were trying to discover a route across Canada to the Pacific Ocean (especially Sir John Franklin, who lost his life in the quest for the Northwest Passage – see Franklin’s lost expedition), its central theme is a comparison between the journeys of these past explorers and the singer’s own journey to and through the same region. The singer ultimately reflects that, just as the quest for a northwest passage might be considered a fruitless one (in that a viable and navigable northwest passage was never found in the days of Franklin and his kind), a modern-day journeyer along similar paths might meet the same end. The song also references the geography of Canada, including the Fraser River (“to race the roaring Fraser to the sea”) on the western coast and the Davis Strait to the east. He is driving across the Prairies, allowing him to view cities behind him fall and cities ahead rise.
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 wide and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.
Westward from the Davis Strait ’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.
Three centuries thereafter, I take passage overland
In the footsteps of brave Kelso, where his “sea of flowers” began
Watching cities rise before me, then behind me sink again
This tardiest explorer, driving hard across the plain.
And through the night, behind the wheel, the mileage clicking west
I think upon Mackenzie, David Thompson and the rest
Who cracked the mountain ramparts and did show a path for me
To race the roaring Fraser to the sea.
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.