Robot explores where no human dares: The final rest of the Franklin expedition

July 5, 2011 - via The National Post

This summer, a torpedo-shaped robot will try to do what 160 years of navy expeditions, RCMP search parties and eagle-eyed Northern hunters could not.

In August, when the Arctic ice is thinnest, a small icebreaker filled with Parks Canada archaeologists will make its third attempt to find the Erebus and Terror, the long-lost vessels of the Franklin expedition, a doomed 1845 voyage to find the Northwest Passage. While underwater searches in 2008 and 2010 relied largely on sonar, this year researchers will be bringing along an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle to “dramatically increase the size of the search area.” “This is the year I hope we will solve one of the great mysteries in the history of Arctic exploration,” said federal environment minister Peter Kent in an announcement last week.

Ever since 128 well-trained English explorers disappeared seemingly off the face of the earth, the fate of the Franklin Expedition has been an obsession for generations of Arctic searchers. In the latter half of the 19th century, the British sent 38 ships in search of Sir John Franklin, whom they considered a hero. His bust was mounted in Westminster Abbey, his statue was installed in Downtown London and his name was affixed to straits, districts and bays throughout the Canadian North. The explorer’s name still adorns public schools in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife.

Retired RCMP Constable Bill Pringle has his own theories about the final resting place of the Erebus and Terror. In 1974, while posted to what is now Taloyoak, Nunavut, Mr. Pringle was sent to King William Island with a team of 11 others to comb the land for Franklin-era relics.

The team dropped marked fuel cans into the water near where the Erebus and Terror were believed to have last been sighted. A few years later, one of the gas cans was discovered more than 100 kilometers away on the western edge of the Boothia Peninsula. On nearby Matty Island, says Mr. Pringle, Inuit legend also tells of a mast that once stuck out of the water. Mr. Pringle tried to marshall additional expeditions, but RCMP headquarters turned him down. In the attic of his Carcross, Yukon home, Mr. Pringle still keeps a heavily marked map detailing his lifetime of Franklin research.

For years, the Canadian government was content to sit back while foreign explorers and filmmakers combed the Northwest Passage for Franklin’s ships. When Prime Minister Stephen Harper ramped up his “use it or lose it” campaign for the North, finding the Erebus and Terror suddenly rose to the top of government agendas. “It will reinforce Canada’s sovereign claims on not just the passage, but on all of the Arctic lands and waters in the North,” says Mr. Kent.

Franklin searchers thought they had a breakthrough last year, when two Inuit brothers in Gjoa Haven came forward with a wooden box they said contained logs from the Franklin expedition. But the box had belonged to Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, not Franklin. Furthermore, it was already well-known to archaeologists. Nevertheless, Franklin-hungry camera crews snapped up the news. “Purported Franklin Expedition records found,” read a CBC North dispatch.

Similar fanfare greeted the 2010 discovery of the HMS Investigator, a ship that sunk in the Western Arctic in 1853 while searching for the Franklin Expedition. Unlike the Erebus and Terror, however, the HMS Investigator was never really missing.

“You can’t really call it a discovery — or even a re-discovery,” says Aaron Spitzer, a Yellowknife-based writer. The final co-ordinates of the ship were well-recorded, and having sunk in a shallow bay, it was unlikely to have drifted too far. As with dozens of immaculately preserved sternwheelers and WWII bombers scattered throughout the Arctic, archaeologists had simply never bothered to look for the Investigator. In 2010, a Parks Canada crew in an inflatable boat found the vessel within 15 minutes of leaving the dock.

The aim of the Franklin Expedition was to find a sea route through the Northwest Passage. The expedition’s 128 crew members would sail to Alaska, take a left turn to the Pacific Ocean and then sail triumphantly back to England with the co-ordinates for a new route to the Orient. Expedition commander Sir John Franklin, a 59-year-old Royal Navy officer who had fought at the Battle of Trafalgar, had pulled off risky Arctic voyages before ­— and this time he had two ships equipped with heated rooms and state-of-the-art steam engines. Less than halfway through the passage, however, the ships became mired in ice near what is now Gjoa Haven, Nunavut.

After two brutal years on the ice ­— which Franklin would not survive — the remaining crew members loaded their dwindling supplies on to sleds and attempted to escape the arctic on foot. Living almost exclusively on canned food contaminated with lead, researchers speculate the crew was beginning to go mad from lead poisoning. The party kept to the coast of King William Island, leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake. The expedition’s last survivors, numbering only 30 or 40, would ultimately succumb to starvation and disease in a pebbly cove a little more than 200 kilometres southeast of their stranded vessels.

Rescue expeditions would discover King William Island strewn with the bones and provisions of Franklin’s men. One of the expedition’s eeriest relics was a ship’s boat that the men had painstakingly hauled across the ice stuffed with seemingly useless implements such as hair brushes, chocolate and gold watches. Standing guard over the bizarre treasure was a well-clothed skeleton still clutching a loaded rifle in each hand. Chillingly, many of the bones discovered on King William Island carried deep knife marks — the telltale signs of cannibalism.?

The Franklin Expedition is “a classic tale of British misadventure,” says Mr. Spitzer. “The Royal Navy, with too many men and opulently stocked ships, goes sailing into their doom because they refuse to eat or dress like the Inuit,” he says. Indeed, well-fed Inuit hunters would be the last humans to see Franklin’s ragged men alive. “Looked at through a lens of 170 years, Franklin’s a bit of a boob,” says Mr. Spitzer.

In Victorian England, the unfortunate commander was elevated to the status of a mythical hero. When explorers returned with evidence of cannibalism, they were viciously silenced. In a 1854 essay, novelist Charles Dickens claimed that “by nature,” Englishmen do not eat humans.

The Arctic is a far different place than it was when it killed John Franklin. The treacherous ship-swallowing ice of the Northwest Passage now melts every summer into an open-water channel frequented by luxury cruise ships. Along with polar bears and Inuit settlements, the graves and relics of the Franklin tragedy are the star attraction for the Arctic’s new tourist class. “Since the days of Christopher Columbus, explorers have sought a way to shorten the journey from Western Europe to the riches of the East,” reads promotional material by Quark Expeditions. “Today, you can relive the adventure on [our] 23-day Arctic Passage expedition.”

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Author:ristin Hopper