Northern Exposure: Can the Northwest Passage live up to its billing as a maritime superhighway?

“I always compare it to the gold rush in the American West,” Humpert said. “Initially, it was this very arduous trek reserved for specialized people looking for resources, then it became more mainstream.”

Ask Tim Keane to recount his voyage through the fabled Northwest Passage and he’ll spend a good bit of time talking about the things that aren’t there.

“The scarcity of traffic, the vastness of the place, the total remoteness, that’s what I remember,” said the manager of Arctic operations for Montreal-based shipping company Fednav.

Press him a bit and he’ll tick off some things that are there: “A few whales, loads of birds, the odd seal.”

But four years after the icebreaker Nunavik hauled a belly full of nickel from Deception Bay, Que., to Bayuquan, China — becoming the first unescorted cargo ship to cross the Northwest Passage — what still grabs Keane most about Canada’s Arctic sea route is its emptiness.

Some believe that emptiness could be short-lived as global warming causes summer ice to recede and journeys such as Keane’s stoke enthusiasm about the Arctic’s potential as a new frontier for maritime trade.

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