The struggle for the North Pole began nearly one hundred years before the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers at Plymouth Rock, being inaugurated (1527) by that king of many distinctions, Henry VIII of England.
In 1588 John Davis rounded Cape Farewell, the southern end of Greenland, and followed the coast for eight hundred miles to Sanderson Hope. He discovered the strait which bears his name, and gained for Great Britain what was then the record for the farthest north, 72° 12´, a point 1128 miles from the geographical North Pole. Scores of hardy navigators, British, French, Dutch, German, Scandinavian, and Russian, followed Davis, all seeking to hew across the Pole the much-coveted short route to China and the Indies.
The distinction of being the first to make the Northwest Passage, which Franklin so narrowly missed, fell to Robert McClure (1850-53) and Richard Collinson (1850-55), who commanded the two ships sent north through Bering Strait to search for Franklin. McClure accomplished the passage on foot after losing his ship in the ice in Barrow Strait, but Collinson brought his vessel safely through to England. The Northwest Passage was not again made until Roald Amundsen navigated the tinyGjoa, a sailing sloop with gasoline engine, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, 1903-06.
...The Northeast Passage was first achieved in 1878-1879 by Adolph Erik Nordenskjold. Step by step energetic explorers, principally Russian, had been mapping the arctic coasts of Europe and Siberia until practically all the headlands and islands were well defined.Nordenskjold, whose name was already renowned for important researches in Greenland, Nova Zembla, and northern Asia, in less than two months guided the steam whaler Vega from Tromsoe, Norway, to the most easterly peninsula of Asia. But when barely more than 100 miles from Bering Strait, intervening ice blocked his hopes of passing from the Atlantic to the Pacific in a single season and held him fast for ten months....In his first north polar expedition, which lasted for four years, 1898-1902, Peary failed to get nearer than 343 miles to the Pole. Each successive year dense packs of ice blocked the passage to the polar ocean, compelling him to make his base approximately 700 miles from the Pole, or 200 miles south of the headquarters of Nares, too great a distance from the Pole to be overcome in one short season.
From the foreword by Gilbert H. Grosvenor.
Robert E. Peary - The North Pole - 1910
Nares Strait did not consolidate in 2007, allowing for a continuous flow of thick multi-year ice from the Arctic Ocean down to Baffin Bay. It did consolidate in 2008, but further north than normal (with the ice bridge starting at the north end of Kane Basin instead of in Smith Sound). This year, 2009, it hasn't consolidated yet (again). So far (unlike 2007) an ice bridge HAS formed, preventing a flow of Arctic multi-year sea ice into the Strait. But (unlike 2008) it has formed at the far north end of Robeson Channel.
Because of the location of the ice bridge at the north end of Robeson Channel (instead of in the normal position in Smith Sound) and because of the prevailing northerly winds through the Strait, a polynya has formed extending the length of Nares Strait. The winds continuously push newly formed ice southwards, away from the ice bridge, keeping the ice at the north end of the Strait permanently broken and thin. Normally this polynya (the North Open Water or NOW polynya) forms at Smith Sound, with open water first appearing in mid-May to early-June ...