Friday, December 8, 2017

The man with the long teeth

Not a man with long teeth
The question of whether there may or may not be human remains aboard either HMS "Erebus" or "Terror" is haunted by the long shadow of a story that was passed through Inuit oral tradition for many decades: the story of the man with the "long teeth" whose body was found on board the ship at Utjulik. A version of this story, with many of the same essential points, was told to Franklin searchers from McClintock in 1859 onwards. At one point, Franklin theorist Noel Wright theorized that perhaps HMS Investigator had drifted south, and that its figurehead, said to resemble a walrus, might have been mistaken for a man with long teeth by the Inuit! This of course, ignores two vital details: 1) The Inuit knew quite well how to tell a carved walrus from a dead man; and 2) figureheads don't "smell very bad," another key part of the story. And of course, we now know what he didn't: that HMS Investigator never moved from her final resting place in Mercy Bay.

But let's look at this story, with all its variants, across time. The version told to McClintock was second-hand, and provided by a young man whom they interviwed alongside old Oo-na-lee, a Netsilik elder then camped near Cape Victoria: "The [young man] also told us that the body of a man was found on board the ship [at "Oot-loo-lik]; that he must have been a very large man, and had long teeth; this is all he recollected having been told, for he was quite a child at the time."

As David C. Wooman has noted, Hall was repeatedly told of the “very large man” whose teeth “were long as an Innuit finger & of very great stature.” In-nook-poo-zhee-jook's account had several key details:
"The party on getting aboard tried to find out if any one was there, and not seeing or hearing any one, began ransacking the ship. To get into the igloo (cabin), they knocked a hole through because it was locked. They found there a dead man, whose body was very large and heavy, his teeth very long. It took five men to lift this giant kob-lu-na. He was left where they found him." 
As with the boy who spoke with McClintock, In-nook's story was a second-hand one; he was retelling what he had been told. In Hall's notebooks at the Smithsonian, another account adds this detail: the man's teeth "were long as an Innuit finger" and he was "of very great stature" (Hall field notes, book 22). Another witness in this same notebook, Seeuteetuar's wife, Koo-nik, offered the most detailed account of all:
"She says that Nuk-kee-the-uk & other Ook-joo-lik Innuits were out sealing when they saw a large ship - all very much afraid but Nuk-keeche-uk who went to the vessel while the others went to their Ig-loo. Nuk-kee-che-uk looked all around and saw nobody & finally Lik-lee-poonik-kee-look-oo-loo (stole a very little or few things) & then made for the Ig-loos. Then all the Innuits went to the ship & stole a good deal - broke into a place that was fastened up & there found a very large white man who was dead, very tall man. There was flesh about this dead man, that is, his remains quite perfect - it took 5 men to lift him. The place smelt very bad. His clothes all on. Found dead on the floor - not in a sleeping place or berth."
Finally, when during Schawatka's search a decade later, Puh-too-raq told of the ship he had personally visited, aboard which there was a "dead body in a bunk inside the ship in a back part." Both Gilder and Klutschak confirm that his story included mentioning "a dead man in a bunk," though none of their, or Schwatka's accounts include the detail of the teeth. Rasmussen heard from the grandchildren of some of these same witnesses, and they too spoke of bodies -- this time in the plural -- "lying in their beds" (presumably bunks or hammocks).

John Hartnell -- a man with long teeth!
The best explanation for this tradition of stories is that there was at least one body on board the ship at Utjulik. The points of general agreement are that it was in the "back part" (stern) of the ship, in a room that may have been fastened (locked) or nailed shut, and that it was a large, heavy, tall man. That he would have seemed tall to the Inuit who, historically, were a foot or more shorter in statue that the average European at the time, is not surprising; that he was "heavy" and that his remains were "quite perfect" suggests that he died aboard, quite possibly where he was found. The "long teeth" are doubtless due to the desciccation of the lips and gums, which has in known cases made the teeth appear much longer than they would in life -- see for example John Hartnell (right).

I would be willing to bet that these remains, which sank with the ship in question before the next summer, are still on the site. The ship must be HMS "Erebus," so if the body was in fact in the stern, it might well have been in the captain's or "great" cabin. By the same token, since portions of that area of the ship have been torn away and lie below the vessel, the most likely place for these remains would be in the débris field at the stern.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Talk at the National Maritime Museum

In just a few days, on November 29th, I'll be delivering a lecture, "Making Marks: Officers' Crests and Sailors' Scratches" -- at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, UK, in connection with their current exhibit Death in the Ice. It's a lunchtime lecture, hosted by curator Claire Warrior; after my remarks, she and I will have an open discussion, and welcome questions from the audience. The talk will start at noon, and with the discussion will go until 1 p.m.

What is mark-making, some may ask -- and what has it to do with the history of the lost Franklin expedition? In one sense, mark-making is the oldest of all human artistic impulses, going all the way back to the painted handprints in neolithic caves; in an ultimate sense, they all say the same thing: I was here. And, in one sense, that's just what happened with Franklin's men: at some point, probably around the time of his ships' initial abandonment in 1848, much of the silverware that had been brought by the officers was distrubuted to the ordinary seamen of each vessel. The motive may have been to preserve these items, which were of both monetary and personal value -- but it may also have been to communicate with the outside world. The leaders of the expedition at that time -- Francis Crozier and James Fitzjames -- knew that items traded with the Inuit might travel far, and could potentially be recovered by those who would recognize their meaning. For the sailors, though, these items also had personal value, and many of them chose to mark the items they received by
scratching their initials onto them. In some cases, the letters are clear -- the WC on the Franklin fork above is William Clossan, though of course sometimes the initials match more than one man. Some, such as caulker's mate Cornelius Hickey, carved their full surnames, while in other cases the marks are ambiguous -- a scratched A? D? -- or perhaps simply a random pattern. The Inuit themselves sometime modified the utensils, as they did with a large serving spoon from Franklin's service; the bowl having become cracked, they mended it with copper (many Inuit were skilled at re-working and cold-forging metal). These additions allow us to trace, in many cases, the path of the silver item from the officers' mess to the crew of their ship, to Inuit who then exchanged these items with searchers such as Leopold McClintock, Dr. John Rae, Charles Francis Hall, and Frederick Schwatka.

Photo used with permission of Jersey Heritage
My talk will be illustrated with slides -- many of them the first high-resolution images ever made of the utensils in question -- and will be a reunion of sorts, with items not only from the NMM's own collection, but from museums around the UK, US, and Canada, and even from the island of Jersey, where a lone fork is preserved with other remembrances of Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte, whose family was from there. We'll also have a look at some of the plates recovered from HMS "Erebus" by the Parks Canada underwater archaeology team; some of them, too, have marks that suggest connections between the officers and crews. I'll also show maps of where the spoons were recovered, and what kind of story they tell of Franklin's men once they set foot on land. His ships -- HMS "Erebus" and "Terror" -- will have many tales to tell once archaeologists dig a little deeper into their holds, but until then, these humble souvenirs of ordinary sailors speak volumes as to the final journey their owners undertook.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Accuracy -- and respect for Inuit culture -- matter

For some time now, I've been thinking about Paul Watson's book about the Franklin search, which has been published under the title Ice Ghosts. People have asked me about it, and as I'm generally reluctant to say unkind things about someone whose book might be seen as competing with mine, I've usually demurred. But now that the book is coming out in paperback, and is therefore likely to reach even more readers than before, I feel that it's my obligation to speak out.

As the founding editor of the Arctic Book Review, now in its nineteenth year, I've had occasion to read, and often to review, all the many new books about the Franklin expedition that have been published since 1999. My personal library has nearly every book ever written on the subject, which runs to well over a hundred volumes. Some are rather silly -- a book by a woman in Florida who had psychic "conversations" with Sir John and Lady Franklin; the late Jeffrey Blair Latta's The Franklin Conspiracy, which marks the far outpost of what one reviewer dubbed the "Franklin lunatic fringe"; or the small self-published leaflets of homespun enthusiasts.

But even among all these, Ice Ghosts stands out. It's one of those books that tries to beef up personal  reportage with a large dollop of historical background, and turn the author's journey into a combination whodunit and adventure yarn. It's an approach that can work well for a writer with a journalistic background, and there's nothing wrong with the basic idea. However, not all journalists are as good at handling historical narratives that stretch over centuries as they are at dramatically retelling events of the present, and that's the case with Mr. Watson. The sort of "potted history" he has written is big and dramatic on the surface, but wanting in the kind of substance that can only be gained by longer study and the consideration of multiple sources.

If these were the only issues with the book, though, I wouldn't feel as strongly as I do about it. Its inaccuracies may be due to mere carelessness, but it seems Mr. Watson's editor did no fact-checking. The errors are both numerous and substantive, such as having Lady Franklin pass through the Panama Canal (it wasn't completed until more than forty years after her death); James Fitzjames's letters to his sister-in-law are referred to as letters to his "wife" (he was unmarried); Parry's crucial 1819 expedition is missing from the book's chronology; winter and summer are confused with one another.  Any book, of course, had some errors -- cataloging them is not necessarily criticism -- but Watson's are so numerous as to erode the confidence of any well-informed reader in what he has to say. The author's tendency to drift into purple prose doesn't help matters, nor does his decision to personify the Arctic as female ("That was the plan. The Arctic, as she usually does, decided otherwise"). Yet these, though they will doubtless frustrate many readers, aren't the real problems with the book either.

As part of the story, Mr. Watson rightly wished to include the Inuit role in the search for Franklin's ships, and like many such, he decided to speak with Louie Kamookak, who's certainly the most important Inuk historian of all matters Franklin. Watson apparently interviewed him at length, and ultimately decided to make the results of the interview into a centerpiece of the book, dubbing Louie his "Inuk detective" and devoting most of two chapters to him. Unfortunately, Watson's tendency to expand and gussy-up the story got the better of him, and he ended up putting in material -- such his a story of Louie playing with a polar bear paw as an infant -- that was completely inaccurate, and untrue to Inuit culture generally. To make things worse, he never gave Mr. Kamookak a chance to look over what he'd written, so that by the time he saw it, the page proofs were already printed. Louie wrote a letter to Watson, asking him in the strongest terms to remove this material, and Watson flatly refused. It's an odd way to try to honor Inuit oral history by misrepresenting, and then insulting, one of its leading historians.

And then there's the matter of the discovery of HMS "Terror" in 2016. Watson, as many at the time will recall, published an exclusive news story with The Guardian about the find. Why was it exclusive? Well, because Watson had been given the story several days (at least) before the Arctic Research Foundation, whose vessel the Martin Bergmann made the discovery, had notified either its partners at Parks Canada (under whose permit they were operating) or the government. During that time -- nearly eight days in all -- the crew of the Bergmann first dispatched several cameras in a net (which snagged on the wreck, possibly damaging it, and was lost) and later, having doubled back to Cambridge Bay on the pretense of engine repairs, dispatched a ROV with which they made and edited a substantial video, at one point directing the ROV below decks and capturing imagery of a cook's pantry or storeroom.

It's shameful that the ARF failed to notify its partners for so long -- and it's criminal that they depoloyed a camera bag and a ROV on the wreck, since they had no permit to conduct such a search. In fact, the permit, issued to Parks, specifically excluded Terror Bay as a search site. At the behest of the Government of Nunavut, the RCMP launched a months-long investigation, which ended without charges being filed. Nevertheless, the language of the Nunavut Act is quite clear that to approach within 20 meters of an underwater site without a permit is forbidden. And, as the chronicler of this act, who was aware of it (and should have been aware that it was illegal), Watson is, I believe, complicit in it. And this is the most serious problem of all with his book: no one reading it will know anything about the above issues, as Watson simply omits them.

Watson's book, and the fact that it has been taken as somehow authoritative, has something in common with ARF's deployment of cameras and a ROV -- it actually damages the thing it claims to protect. Yet unlike those actions back in 2016, Ice Ghosts will continue its damage every time someone reads it, likely for years to come. It's especially frustrating, given that it appears under the imprint of W.W. Norton in the United States, a publisher whose textbook arm is known as authoritative, and which has a (deservedly) high reputation for quality publications.  And so, in the interests of placing the full facts in the hands of its present and potential readers, I've decided to speak out.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Anchors aweigh ... or not?

The image at left, recently released by Parks Canada, is captioned "Anchors still in their sailing position on the port stern quarter of HMS Terror." Earlier imagery showing an anchor cable (rope) played out from the ship had led some to think that the ship might have been at anchor, but as it turns out, the line had simply played out from the windlass and the anchor was still stowed. Had the ship been at anchor, that would have been evidence that, at least at some point, it had been re-piloted, since dropping or weighing anchor are things that can only be done if the ship is under someone's command, and a conscious decision and order has been made to do so.

Nineteenth-century Inuit evidence as regards the "Terror" is far more scarce than that concerning "Erebus," and for good reason -- the former ship sank quickly, in deep water, and "nothing was obtained from her," whereas the latter was, for many years, a go-to site for Inuit seeking wood and other valuable things. It's possible that the "Erebus" was even beached for a time, before sinking, and even after she sank, wood and other precious things washed up on shore. The Inuit had no such luck with "Terror" --which is good news for Parks's underwater archaeologists, although it seems that, for now, work will focus on the more damaged and fragile flagship of Franklin's expedition.

All of these matters speak to a central question: was either of the ships piloted to its final location? If so, an argument can be made that they completed the final link of the Northwest Passage (albeit that some feel that a discovery that the discoverer does not live to report should not be counted). Indeed, the same argument could be made of the survivors on land, since they reached and passed the location of Dease and Simpson's cairn (again, we know this from Inuit testimony, and again the men did not live to tell their tale). What could such evidence then be?

The possibility of the ships having drifted can't be entirely dismissed, however unlikely. Inuit testimony tells us that "Erebus" had been re-inhabited by a small group of perhaps four men, but it's not clear whether they arrived at her final location aboard, or simply found and used the vessel as a shelter for a season. The possibility is still less for "Terror," since drifting ships rarely send themselves into a convenient harbor, and indeed the general drift path of the ice would have taken southeast them along the same route as "Erebus," whereas "Terror" took a turn to the eastward. Some drifting ice has however -- on occasion -- followed a similar route, so such a course can't be entirely eliminated.

I suspect that the only way to really ascertain whether either ship was piloted would be to find a clear indication in writing. Even if manned by a skeleton crew, it would be contrary to all the training and habit of the Royal Navy to steer a ship and keep no log, no record, of its voyage. Barring the discovery of such a log, even a single dated document with some indication later than that in the Victory Point note saying the ships had been deserted would make the case for piloting much likelier, though it couldn't -- unless the writing specifically addressed what had happened -- eliminate the possibility that some men had simply re-occupied the vessel. And, in either case, it seems clear that, for at least some period following the initial abandonment, the ships drifted without guidance, and that such drift might affect how some people assessed the accomplishment of that journey.

Now that the question of national ownership has been resolved, and now that full cooperation and co-management of the finds with Inuit organizations and local communities are in place, the odds are that we will have some kind of answer to that central question. It's quite possible, though, that the answer may be ambigious or incomplete; in some areas of the Franklin story, we may simply have to learn to "let the mystery be."

Friday, October 27, 2017

Franklin searchers of the Month: Operation Northern Quest

Courtesy Royal Canadian Regiment Museum at Wolseley Barracks, London ON
Although it was conduced by the famed Royal Canadian Regiment, and in many ways was among the most elaborately-planned and ambitious of Franklin searches, few people today know much about what was known as "Operation Northern Quest," which took place in 1973. A few footnotes here and there, along with a long-forgotten feature article in (of all places) Canadian Motorist magazine, were all that were publicly known about it. Now, with the help of the Regimental museum, I'm finally able to share with readers of this blog some details of the operation, which included the identification and removal of skeletal remains of a member of Franklin's expedition.

According to an article in Pro Patria, the regiment's official journal, the aim of ONQ was two-fold: "first, to practice skills valuable for the infanteer in the harsh environment of the Far North" and secondly "to uncover useful information about the fate of the Sir John Franklin expedition." That it undoubtedly did, including a nearly-complete skeleton discovered by Corporal Dave Willard "while taking a break only five miles from our firm base." The finds were all mapped, but unfortunately the map -- a detail of which is shown here -- does not say anything about what was found, with the exception of the skeleton. Stars simply mark "19th Century Findings." including one tantalizingly located at the back of Terror Bay. All the findings were to be deposited at the Museum of Man, but unfortunately the Canadian Museum of History -- today's successor to that institution -- has no records of them.

"Joe," in situ, courtesy RCR Museum
The skeleton was found not far east of Gladman Point, and indeed may be one of those previously observed by earlier searchers, such as Hobson, McClintock, or "Paddy" Gibson. The expedition's journal offers a fairly detailed description of the find:
[We] found bones protruding from the ground by a large rock. A quick check showed this to be the bones of a large man; too large for an Eskimo. We uncovered as much of the skeleton as we could without unduly disturbing things. We planned on returning tomorrow morning with the metal detector and shovel. Eddy said he knew where a sheet of plywood could be located on the beach to put the bones on. The skeleton had been covered by several inches of moss and rocks. The skull was not visible to us but the jawbone was there. 
It was not, needless to say, a careful archaeological procedure -- but the bones were gathered up on the plank, and brought back to the Museum of Man. The estimated height of the individual, from the bones, was six feet, and horn and bone buttons were found with it, the combination of which is consistent with the Franklin period (according to the Bertulli report on NgLj-2, four-holed black bone buttons were fading from use in the 1840's; vegetable ivory bones were just being introduced then). The men jovially nicknamed the skeleton "Joe," and searched about for a other artifacts, but found none. It's also noteworthy that the skeleton appears to have been placed in a sort of stone-lined grave, which would make it the furthest-south full burial managed by the survivors of Franklin's crews.

Outposts were established at Terror Bay and Douglas Bay -- two known sites of Franklin-era remains -- and apparently items were found at both; the reports unfortunately don't seem to include a listing of what was found where. One find was described as "a badly disintegrated ship's rudder held together by wooden pegs" -- how intriguing that is, and how much more it could tell us if its exact location were known. Might it have been at Terror Bay? Did the party at Douglas Bay disturb the pile of skulls reburied there by "Paddy" Gibson, and might that be why they were missing when Owen Beattie and Jim Savelle went looking for them in 1981?

I'm hopeful that publicizing this expedition might lead, as it has in other cases, to more information from persons who participated in it, or their friends of families.  If any such are reading this, I would be very happy indeed to hear from them.

[UPDATE: According to a 1974 article in the Sentinel, "Joe" may in fact have been reburied rather than brought to Ottawa. I'll continue researching the matter.]

Monday, October 23, 2017

Franklin's Ships now Canada's

Approximate sites of Erebus and Terror
With a dramatic announcement, British Defence Minister Sir Michael Fallon declared that Sir John Franklin's ships, HMS "Erebus" and "Terror" would shortly be officially given to Canada, with the UK presumably abandoning all salvage rights that would have been its perogative, since the naval vessels of all nations (unlike private or commercial ships) normally remain the property of that nation. It's a welcome development, as it at last removes the veil of uncertainty that had recently descended once more on these fabled ships, despite a 1997 Memorandum of Agreement (which you can read in full here) stating that the UK would abandon or delegate these same rights, "with the exception of those items of particular historical significance to the Royal Navy."

The earlier agreement was somewhat ambigious about these items -- would they be brought to the UK and loaned for display, or kept permanently? This new announcement says that only a "small sample" of items will be retained, but these (presumably) permanently. I have checked with my contacts at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, but they had no further information on which items these might be; it's quite possible that the National Museum of the Royal Navy -- mentioned in the announcement -- might be the intended repository. I hope that this small sample will be discrete and remain so; it would be a shame if, every time an artifact is brought up from one of the ships, a fresh debate had to take place over how "significant" it was.

There is another crucial part of this news which, as is their wont, many press outlets have ignored -- which is that this announcement will have no effect on the agreements already made with the Franklin Advisory Committee, the Kitikmeot Inuit Association, the Inuit Heritage Trust, and the Government of Nunavut. Parks Canada has issued a press release, which reads in part:
The Government of Canada recognizes the invaluable contributions of Inuit of Nunavut, the Government of Nunavut, and all partners in the search and discovery of the wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. Most importantly, the discoveries would not have been possible without the support, guidance, advice and traditional and modern knowledge shared so generously by Inuit of Nunavut.
Frank Pederson, who respresents the KIA and chairs the Franklin Advisory Committee, had this to say:
I am very pleased by the announcement today from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on the intent to gift the Franklin wrecks to Canada. This exceptional gift will allow for the joint ownership of the artifacts by Inuit and Canada, as stipulated in the Nunavut Agreement. We look forward to working with Parks Canada on the future management of the Wrecks of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site and helping to protect and present these wrecks and artifacts to tell the story where these events took place.
So it is good news all around -- now that these issues are settled, we have every reason to expect much good work, and continued co-operation and respect between Parks Canada and Inuit organizations, will continue througout the many years it will take to learn all these storied vessels have to teach us.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Franklin Searcher of the Month: Joseph René Bellot

"The death of Bellot" (with thanks to Andrés Paredes for this image)
Among all the storied names of Arctic explorers from the "heroic age," none resonates so widely, and yet (in some parts of the world) is so imperfectly known, as that of Joseph René Bellot. In the search for Sir John Franklin, which attracted support from people of many nations, he became -- in 1851-- the lone active-duty member of of the French navy to volunteer for such service. Although only twenty, Bellot was no stranger to exploration and its hardships; having already participated in French expeditions to Madagascar and South America; as part of his embrace of the rigors of Arctic travel, he permitted himself only one blanket, and a thin mattress atop a bare wooden board.

Passing through the Bellot strait, 2017
He served under William Kennedy during the latter's Franklin search, which covered more than 1,800 kilometers to and from their winter quarters on Batty Bay. Kennedy, for reasons that are still no quite clear, did not seem to fully trust his second; indeed, he went out of his way to prevent Bellot from making independent navigational observations. When the two came upon the strait that bisected Somerset Island from the Boothia Peninsula, Bellot was -- in part as a result of Kennedy's keeping him in the dark -- reluctant to claim it for what it was. So it was that, when Kennedy named the strait after him, Bellot a first felt more concern than pride; what if this vaunted waterway turned out to be as insubstantial as the Croker Mountains?

But it didn't. Indeed, although Leopold McClintock, the first to try to sail through it, was blocked by ice on its western outlet, the Bellot Strait was to become a mainstay of transit between the Eastern and Western Arctic, and is much used to this day; this past August, I passed through its waters three times aboard two different vessels. Because of its strong currents, it needs to be entered at slack tide, and ships often find themselves passing through in company with others. These same current make the strait, effectively a polynya, generally ice-free throughout the year except for that sea-ice that drifts in from one side or the other.

The Forestier memorial to Bellot
Bellot, committed to the cause of finding Franklin, returned almost immediately after his first expedition, serving under Captain Edward Augustus Inglefield. His high personal character and complete devotion to his duty once again drew admiration from all with whom he sailed; no work seemed onerous to him, no mission too risky. It was on one of these -- an attempt to walk over the ice to deliver a communication to Sir Edward Belcher, that Bellot met his end, falling through the ice so quickly that his comrades could find no trace of him save his walking-stick. The area, in Wellington Strait, is notorious for thin ice; one of my shipboard lecturimg colleagues this summer, Christian Haas, noted that it was near this same area in 2015 that two Canadian ice researchers met with a similar fate. It's comforting to think that it could have been just such a patch of treacherously thin ice, rather than some unexpected crack or lead, that took the life of such a skilled and resourceful man.

Beyond the strait itself,  Bellot's name is remembered in many places in the Arctic and beyond. At Beechey Island, a memorial headboard once stood beside those of Franklin's men; when the others were replaced by replicas, none was made for his, on the theory that it might confuse people as to whether he was buried there. This lack has since been made up by Jean-Claude Forestier, who installed a plaque on a nearby cairn in 2012. There is also, at the other side of the island, a plaque to Bellot placed between Lady Franklin's marble slab and Belcher's Cenotaph. In Greenwich, on the grounds of the old Royal Naval Hospital, a granite obelisk to his memory stands facing the Thames. And, perhaps most fiitingly of all, a crater upon Earth's Moon was named after Bellot in 1935; there, in the "Sea of Feritility," it has among its neighbors craters named after his fellow Arctic explorers Crozier and McClure, as well as two named after Ferdinand Magellan.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Port Leopold

The site of the winter encampment of the first major Royal Navy search for Sir John Franklin's expedition, Port Leopold possesses a sense of desolation unlike any other place I've visited in the Arctic. The vast plateau of barren gravel dwarfs even that of Beechey Island, its lone and level plane stretching out toward distant grey cliffs, with only a few signs that living things ever tarried here. The famous rock, carved by the men of HM Ships "Enterprise" and "Investigator" in the latter part of their sojourn there, still stands; nearby, a small and battered HBC outpost is its only company. Built in 1926, it was abandoned in 1927, when (as the HBC record drily notes) it was found to be "too isolated" to carry on a profitable trade. The Inuktitut name for the post, Siqiniq -- the sun -- also seems to mirror that isolation (the HBC post at Arctic Bay was symmetrically known as Taqqiq -- the moon).

The abandoned Hudson's Bay Company post
Indeed, the most lively time ever experienced there was likely that of Ross's encampment with his two ships. Sledge parties were sent forth, exploring the northern and western edges of Somerset Island (not yet known to be an island), and on board the ships, the usual regime of stage-plays, schooling for sailors, and other ship-board occupations continued. Yet even though the crews spent only one winter, their rate of sickness was unusually high, a problem possibly due to the hastily-assembled provisions and equipment. It had been a cold year coming in, and it was a cold year coming out; the Enterprise and Investigator were not released from the ice until the 29th of August. The date on the rock was one that the men had ample time to carve, motivated in part by the hope that no further date would need to be added.

It's not often remarked on, but Ross left behind a store-house full of supplies, should Franklin or his men come that way, said to contain a year's provisions and fuel sufficient for sixty-four persons. Those supplies were never called upon, not does much trace of them remain today, though a slight scattering of barrel-staves and hoops hints that something was there.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Mysteries of Radstock Bay

Scarcely a stone's throw from the much-better-known Franklin sites on Beechey Island, tucked away under the mighty shadow of Caswall's Tower, Radstock Bay is in many ways the area's best-kept secret. In August of 1850, after having been present at the discovery of the lost expedition's winter camp at Beechey Island, Sherard Osborn followed a series of deep sledge-tracks -- apparently made by Franklin's men -- to the southeast and east. One set led in the direction of  Cape Riley, while another headed directly toward the limestone face of the tower. Under its shadow, Osborn came upon a remarkable sight:
Arriving at the margin of a lake, which was only one of a series, and tasted decidedly brackish, though its connection with the sea was not apparent, we found the site of a circular tent, unquestionably that of a shooting-party from the "Erebus" or "Terror." The stones used for keeping down the canvas lay around; three or four large ones, well blackened by smoke, had been the fire-place; a porter-bottle or two, several meat-tins, pieces of paper, birds' feathers, and scraps of the fur of Arctic hares, were strewed about. Eagerly did we run from one object to the other, in the hope of finding some stray note or record, to say whether all had been well with them, and whither they had gone. No, not a line was to be found. 
Osborn was puzzled by the sledge-tracks, which cut as much as three or four inches into the muddy gravel, testimony to their having borne heavy loads. At some points, they veered onto higher ground, "the sledge-parties appeared at last to have preferred taking to the slope of the hills, as being easier travelling than the stony plain."  Why Franklin's men would have chosen such means of conveyance, in the apparent absence of ice or snow (or with so thin a cover of these that the runners cut down to the gravel below) is perhaps the first mystery of the place.

A Franklin-era tin
But there are others. Visiting the site this past August, a mere 167 years later, I found that several of the tins mentioned by Osborn are still visible; near them I also observed many barrel staves and heavy iron barrel-hoops, doubtless from later in the Franklin search era. Most puzzling of all, though, were a series of fragments, some of them quite large, of a boat built using old square copper nails. One long section (seen above) had wooden rubbing-strips affixed, while others showed traces of faded yellow paint. These materials had plainly been there a long time, as the moss had encroached on their borders, but they certainly had not been present in 1850. It's my surmise, though, that these may be parts of Sir John Ross's yacht the "Mary," left at Beechey Island in 1851, and which has been by slow degrees scavenged to such an extent that nothing now remains but her mast and a few broken planks. Why someone would have dragged them to this spot remained unclear, although some graffiti on a nearby plank with the date "1970" suggested that, at least at times, passing parties camped here.

Caswall's Tower
Another question is what happened to the two cairns observed there by Osborn's party. The "brackish lake" -- now named Red Loon Lake -- remains, but I could find no trace of cairns nearby. The archaeologist James Savelle, who worked here in the early 1980's, had reported a cairn built practically in the middle of one of the several Thule-era stone hut ruins at the site, but I could find no sign of it either, though in one of the houses I could see a board or plank that looked to be of the Franklin era. Neither cairn, in any case, had ever been reported to have contained a message, leaving the exact purpose of the encampment there uncertain. The cliffs of Caswall's Tower have seen many expeditions come and go; for a time Ian Stirling had a hut up there from which he made observations to determine at what distance a polar bear could smell a seal's corpse. Ours was just the latest of many visits, but I feel certain that there is more to be learned from the site; next time I'm there, I hope to be able to make a more positive identification of the boat fragments. All the same, I'm sure that won't be the last of the mysteries of Radstock Bay.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Fort Ross

Among the more storied spots that I was able to visit during my voyages this past August is surely Fort Ross, whose significance stretches from the Franklin search era to the 1930's and beyond. Not far from here, Francis Leopold McClintock established a camp at a place he dubbed "Depot Bay": it was from here that he crossed over to take on the search on King William Island. The entrance to the Bellot Strait is just around the corner, and he'd hoped to sail on through it -- but alas, even though its strong currents generally keep the Strait ice-free, that year ice on the western side blocked further progress. Still, it was from here that he departed, and here that he returned, just prior to sailing back to England with the news of Franklin's men and the final note found in the cairn at Victory Point.

Patsy Klengenberg [left] with his adopted son aboard Aklavik
The spot remained desolate until 1937. That year, the Hudson's Bay Company, in what was to be its last effort at expansion into the High Arctic, decided to establish a trading post at the site. L. A. Learmonth, the legendary trader (and Franklin searcher) was selected to command the post; he was to take ship aboard the Nascopie from the eastern side, and meet the schooner Aklavik which would arrive from the west, to make a meeting of trade from either end of the Northwest Passage. Unfortunately, Learmonth was an impatient man; eager to select the post's site before others had arrived, he and his second left Gjoa Haven early on a motor launch towing a canoe. They ran into engine trouble and ice which obliged them to abandon the launch and make a lengthy portage with the canoe, with the result that they arrived late, with the site for the future fort already selected.

It's hard, though, to imagine that Learmonth could have found a better spot -- the fort sits on a low, flat peninsula of land, tucked away in a modest bay from the last point of land on Somerset Island before the eastern entrance to the Strait. The HBC hoped that the fort could capitalize on new sources of Arctic Fox pelts, but that was not to be -- after a slow decline throughout the 1930's, the price of pelts collapsed with the onset of World War II. What was worse, the site turned out to be extremely difficult to resupply; after failing to reach the fort in 1942, the Nascopie came painfully close in 1943 -- the residents of the fort (which included an Inuit community of 16 people) could see the smoke from her smokestack -- but despite the best efforts of her veteran captain Thomas Smellie, she was forced to retreat without reaching them. The staff at the post, then headed by Bill Heslop, would need to be evacuated, but the R.C.A.F. had no plane available which could manage it. The U.S. Army Air Force volunteered to provide a Douglas C-47 Skytrain (the military's version of the DC-3), and J.F. Stanwell-Fletcher, a former RCMP officer turned U.S. airman, parachuted in with supplies -- the first such jump ever made in Arctic Canada.

Captain Fletcher's real mission was to find and stake out an appropriate airfield, which -- with Inuit guidance -- he managed to do on a lake about ten miles from the post. On November 9th, the plane managed a landing, and Bill and Barbara Heslop were taken aboard while provisions and ammunition for the Inuit were hurled overboard. At the last minute, it was decided that the Heslops' dog, "Hobo," added too much weight to the plane, and he was left behind. The post would eventually be re-manned in 1944, but by 1948 the HBC had decided to close it permanently, bringing to an end their experiment with fur trading in the area. The post warehouse remains -- stocked for those needing emergency supplies -- along with the trader's house, last used by the Canadian Wildlife Service in the 1970's. It's open to the winds today, its former "comfy chair" a mass of rusty springs, its mahogany trim dry and peeling. The workshop which once had stood nearby was taken down and rebuilt at Spence Bay, which was the eventual home for the Inuit there as well. Except, that is, for four of their community killed in an avalanche; their graves still stand on a rise above the fort, offering mute testimony to the end of a time long gone.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Veni, vidi, Beechey

The first time I visited Beechey Island was in April of 2004, as part of the filming of the 2005 NOVA episode "Arctic Passage," I didn't have much time to walk around. The film crew had chartered a helicopter, and as soon as they'd gotten the shots they needed, it was time to head back to Resolute. At the time, I wasn't sure I'd ever be able to return -- but now, this past August, I was there three times in the space of two weeks!

It never gets old. What's more, being able to see the island from many different directions and angles, and in all sorts of weather, revealed much more about its variability, its place in light and shadow, its moods if you will. On my first visit, in early August, the entirety of Erebus and Terror Bay was packed with wind-driven ice, which obliged us to arrive on the Union Bay side, separated by the narrow tombolo that yokes it to Devon Island. This, as it happens, was the way it was first visited by those searching for Franklin in 1850; having seen an enormous cairn on the cliff-top, Sherard Osborn trekked up its sloping backside, failing to notice the traces of a camp that lay just around the corner. This latter discovery was made by William Penny's men, who came running back to their ship shouting "Graves, sir! Graves!"

And the graves are yet there, though their headboards have been replaced by modern replicas; having seen them before only amidst the sweep of snow and ice, they looked even lonelier in their vast bleak grey-brown swathe of gravel. Little else remain of the camp, though the stone outlines of what may have been a storehouse and a garden may be seen; the garden apparently was populated by plants brought over from lusher lands nearby. The oblivious optimism of such a gesture well befitted those who, raised on Robinson Crusoe, who dreamed of
Making a garden of the desert wide,

Where Parry conquer'd death, and Franklin died.
On my second visit, scarcely three days later, the wind had shifted, leaving Erebus and Terror Bay entirely free of ice. This time, though, I headed first to the Northumberland House side, which I'd missed on my previous visits. There, remarkably, a few timbers of the old frame still stood, over a dense scatter of barrel-hoops, staves, and rusted cans. One, on examination, proved to bear the stamped markings of "D. Hogarth & Co." of Arberdeen, revealing this to be one of the tins supplied to Belcher's squadron in 1852 (Thanks to Peter Carney and Gina Koellner for the ID). There, also, the mast of Sir John Ross's "Mary" stood mute testimony to his fidelity in seeking after his missing friend, as did the Cenotaph, atop the tilted marble stone dispatched by Lady Franklin in 1855 with one of the expeditions searching for Dr. Kane, but undelivered until McClintock's visit in 1858.

And then, at the end of August -- and the end of such summer as these regions enjoy -- I was there once more, stationed for several hours to interpret at the gravesite as the braver passengers arrived by zodiac. The temperature was just slightly below freezing, but a fresh fall of snow now coated the island, and a constant 30 mph wind rendered my exposed position a chilly one. Leaving on one of the last zodiacs, I turned back toward the sight, knowing full well that this was but the first and mildest harbinger of a winter that would see the entire island plunged into months of darkness and extreme cold. These were Beecheys I could not -- yet, at least -- know, but these graves had already witnessed more than 170 of them.