Inlets, rocky outcroppings, and islands dominate the northern coastal region of the Pacific side of North America. Receding glaciers that left jagged striations and massive rock formations in their wake formed the region. Ongoing volcanic eruptions resulted in island chains and mountain ranges. Unknown spurs and rocks below the surface made inhospitable obstacles for sea-faring explorers, and it took great amounts of time and attention to chart the twists and turns of the shore. Many expeditions recorded possible entrances to the Northwest Passage, which, on closer investigation, turned out to be river deltas, straits between islands, or the mouths of inlets.
In today’s terms, the Pacific Northwest includes the Canadian province of British Columbia and the Yukon Territory, the American state of Alaska, and the mainland states of Washington and Oregon. On the European charts of the 18th century, this land was between the Spanish claim of California to the south and the northeastern Pacific power of Russia.
A chain of volcanic islands called the Aleutians dots the northern Pacific. These islands extend west towards the Kamchatka Peninsula of the eastern Pacific and are actually a partly submerged portion of the Alaska Range of mountains. The Bering Strait runs between eastern Asia and western North America. It connects the Bering Sea, the northern extent of the Pacific, to the Arctic Ocean. South lie the Coast, Columbia, and Rocky Mountain Ranges, which feed major river systems including the Fraser and the Columbia. Island groups also dominate this region. The Haida Gwaii archipelago, also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, is divided from the mainland by the Hecate Strait. The Gulf Islands, including Vancouver Island, the largest of the group, sit on the Johnstone Straits to the north, the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the south, and the Strait of Georgia between the islands and the mainland.