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A Yankee Notebook

September 15, 2014


MONTPELIER – The recent discovery in the Canadian Arctic of what is certainly one of the lost ships of the doomed 1845 Franklin expedition has our northern neighbors abuzz with excitement.  Even the Prime Minister, who had made a trip to visit the searchers, bubbled as he announced it.

Found in about 35 feet of water not far from Hat Island, a low, glaciated bit of bedrock and sand about 68º N, 100ºW, the ship was not at all near where many searchers had expected  it to be.  But a chance discovery along the shore by a low-flying helicopter pilot had turned out to be artifacts from a Royal Navy ship, and side-scan sonar shortly afterward revealed it to be one of the two long-lost ships, either HMS Erebus or HMS Terror.  Its timbers appear disarranged, as would befit a vessel transported, crushed, and sunk by the ever-moving and irresistible ice pack.  I was surprised to see what look like swivel guns lying among the wreckage.  What the Royal Navy was planning to shoot at up there I haven’t any idea.

There’ll no doubt be dozens of illustrated articles about the discovery in the coming months in National Geographic, Canadian Geographic, Smithsonian, and the like; so the story of Franklin’s last and fatal expedition will be fairly common knowledge even among people with little interest in Arctic matters.  But less well known will be all the little details and other stories related to what the Brits long referred to as Franklin’s heroic exploits.

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars the British Navy was at the zenith of its powers, but had no war to exercise them.  So the Admiralty turned its attention once again to the exploration and completion of the Northwest Passage, the fabled water route from the North Atlantic to the North Pacific that had eluded it thus far and ended in expensive, deadly icebound frustration and agonizing retreats across frozen land and sea from shipwrecks left to bleach on forgotten strands.  Flush with its success in the wars and able to mount then-state-of-the-art expeditions, the Royal Navy was confident that a properly equipped squadron could solve the problem of the Passage.

Rear-Admiral Sir John Franklin KCH FRGS RN was far from the first choice to lead the expedition.  Other officers with arctic experience were approached, but all of them declined the honor, no doubt because of their previous experience.  Two had promised their wives they’d go no more a-rovin’; another was passed over because he was Irish and not a gentleman; another because of his youth.  Meanwhile, Franklin had been lobbying for the assignment.  He was going on sixty, really too old for the job.  But his wealthy second wife’s influence was no doubt a factor.

Franklin had led two arctic expeditions already – overland by snowshoe, York boat, and birchbark trade canoe – to map the arctic coast of Canada.  Both were epics of northern travel, but the first in particular demonstrated the military-style organization he preferred and a disturbing tendency to push things a bit too far in a climate he didn’t fully appreciate – yet.  Starting with a party of 20 navy officers and midshipmen, an able seaman, and Canadian voyageurs, he remained too long on the coast and then, as fall came on with snowstorms and high winds, trekked cross-country to his base in a nightmare death march that left 11 of his crew strewn behind him on the tundra, dead of hypothermia, starvation, murder, and execution (for cannibalism).

After his early expeditions, he was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania, for seven years before being removed at the request of the British bureaucrats serving under him.  His wife was equally unpopular for trying to civilize the colony’s society.  He was back in England, at the end of his career, when the Royal Navy came calling one more time.  His ships were last seen in Lancaster Sound in 1845, and never since then – till now.  

Franklin’s disappearance triggered dozens of searches, the results of which finished the survey of the Passage.  In one instance, a survivor of a wrecked westbound ship trekking across the ice met a party from another ship probing eastward; they thus in a sense completed the voyage.  But Franklin remained – still remains – lost.  It was all very British, except that one searcher, the incomparable John Rae, an Orkneyman, surgeon, and incredible walker, brought back reports of cannibalism among the dying men.  Scorned for the unthinkable suggestion, for speaking the languages of the local “savages,” and vilified by even the great Charles Dickens for even intimating such an unEnglish resort, he was the only prominent British explorer never to receive a knighthood.  Recent forensic studies of the scattered bones, however, have corroborated Rae’s reports.  A couple of years ago we paddled a river that he once snowshoed, and which has been named after him.

My friends and I also once paddled a river that, if we’d gotten to its mouth (we were slowed by snow, sleet, and wind in late July), would have put us within 130 miles of the remains of the last staggering survivors of Franklin’s crews.  Scrounging the riverbanks for tiny twigs to build a fire, we could sympathize with those poor starving British seamen, who dropped and died as they tried to escape the Arctic winter at the nearest Hudson’s Bay Company post, impossibly distant.

But there’s a bright side.  I have a cherished friend who lives in the village of Kugluktuk at the mouth of the Coppermine River.  We’ve sailed with him on his schooner and fished from his camp near Bloody Fall (another dramatic story).  One of his sons has started a rock band in Yellowknife and named it Erebus and Terror, after Franklin’s ships.  People Googling for information about the lost expedition find the band’s web site instead, and occasionally hire the boys just for their name.  Bookings are bound to pick up very shortly.

Photo by Willem lange