It's true. This occurred to me while sitting in history class, hearing about exporers like Hudson and Franklin and Balboa and Magellan, and noting their particular trouble with finding a Northwest passage, or for that matter any passage to Asia. The Americas were shaped specifically to infuriate explorers and navigators, and here's proof:
- Great Lakes: An explorer sees the mouth of a huge river (the St. Lawrence). He decides, "hey, this could be a passage!" So he travels down the river and finds,
- Niagara Falls: A massive waterfall spanning the Niagara River, blocking any access to the further lakes. The resourceful explorer decides to take out his trusty canoe, and paddle the rest of the distance. Things are going great, he finds vast expanses of open water which must be a passage to Asia. (Strange that they're freshwater, but no matter,)
- Lake Superior: All of a sudden, the intrepid explorer happens upon the greatest expanse of water yet! His heart surges, because he knows that at long last he has found what no other man has, the fabled Northwest Passage! With renewed vigor he paddles down the lake, and about 600 km later it starts to narrow...(No matter, just a natural outcroppoing, that's all). But despite his hopes, Lake Superior dwindles and dies until he reaches as far west as possible, near current day Duluth, having wasted the last six months and countless investors' dollars in the process.
Undaunted, our explorer goes back to England and begs the king, say James II, for some more money and ships to finance the voyage, because this time he'll be going further north. King James says ok, and off goes our explorer to:
- Hudson Bay: Wow, the explorer can't believe his eyes when he sees this - a massive basin of water, salt water to boot. The explorer knows that vast expanses of water have tricked him before, but this time, surely a body of water this size wouldn't, couldn't lead to nowhere, right? Both captain and crew are eager to sail, and sail they do, albeit south (But that's ok, surely it'll turn west...). However, a thousand kilometers in our intrepid explorer sees a similar pattern forming...the great Hudson Bay is shrinking, shrinking, turning into something called James Bay, which in turn shrinks and narrows until finally, our explorer is sitting in a rowboat off the bottom of James Bay, having been sent adrift by the mutinous crew.
I won't bore you with the details of our hero's miraculous escape, but sure enough six months and many thousands of crowns later he's back in the court of King James II, pitching his new idea for an expedition:
"Gee, the last two times I was way off...now I know that to get to Asia we must travel south...surely there will be a passage there."
So the King once more grudgingly says yes, and our brave explorer sets off with a new crew to sail the sunny Caribbean Seas...
- Isthmus of Panama: After sailing south a while, our explorer doesn't find much of interest. He thought he had something at the Gulf of Honduras, but silly him, it just died into nothing. So south and south our explorer sails, until they reach the mouth of a small river, near where the Panama Canal is today. On a hunch, he sails down this river until its terminus at Lake Gatun. He steps on the deck...smells the air...he gets small goose pimples all over his body. The crew thinks that this is just another lake, but no, oh no, our explorer knows otherwise. He rows to the shore and starts hiking southwards, driven by the smell of salt in the air that never seems to go away, not even in the mountains...after maybe 15km of hiking, our explorer hikes past the crest of a hill and sees, barely five kilometers away, a massive expanse of blue sparkling sea...the Pacific Ocean. He gets on his knees and weeps uncontrollably, for he knows that truly, he was so close and yet so far (I think this is where that saying originated).
As it happened, there are actually two passages around the Americas, in the North (Arctic Islands) and in the South (Magellan Strait), but in a twist of irony both of these passages are too close to the polar areas to be of any real commercial benefit. Roald Amundsen in 1903-4 became the first person to traverse the length of the Northwest Passage through Canada's Arctic archipelago, though he required a massive ice-breaking ship, a tool which explorers like Hudson and Franklin didn't have at their disposal.
There are many more examples of American geographical mischief, including: