European explorers spent centuries searching for a passage through the ice at the top of the world. The Northwest Passage, a shortcut to Asia, proved elusive until about 100 years ago, when Norway's Roald Amundsen completed a three-year journey.
These days, thanks to global warming and a receding ice cover, the voyage is easier to complete, says explorer James Delgado, author of Across the Top of the World.
In 2000, with a decidedly smaller, modern craft -- an aluminum catamaran -- it took Delgado's team just six weeks to go through the Northwest Passage.
"A lot of people thought we'd be crushed like a beer can in the ice," he says. "But no, the Northwest Passage has had its fangs pulled."
The change has been dramatic, Delgado says. "Certainly this is not the passage of John Franklin," a British explorer whose 1845 mission ended in the deaths of 129 men after their two ships were lost in the ice.
"Today, you have ice that can move in with the wind but then just as easily move away," Delgado says. "At times, I felt as if I was on a Caribbean cruise," with barely a speck of ice to be seen, he adds.
The melting offers opportunities, some say.
"Perhaps now with less ice, particularly with a longer summer season, the age-old dream of a fast passage to Asia can be achieved," Delgado says. "You can shave thousands of miles off and get to Asia faster… There are those who say the day is coming -- perhaps as soon as the next 10 to 15 years."
Delgado calls the changing northern environment "sad in a way -- one of the great mysteries of the world, boiled down to a simple tourist experience now, perhaps, or just another route on a commercial highway."
The top of the world remains a dangerous place, he says, recalling the story of an Inuit woman who had frozen to death during a recent winter snowstorm.