Monday, September 28, 2015

Solomon Tozer, Royal Marine

Some time ago, under the title "The Sword of a Great Officer," I posted an image of the hilt of sword that had been presented to HBC Factor Roderick MacFarlane in 1857 by an elderly Inuk who told him that it was from one of Franklin's men, the "sword of a great officer." I noted that this sword was engraved with "W IV" for King William IV, and therefore dated to his reign (1830-1837). I'd  tracked down the date at which each of Franklin's senior officers might have obtained their lieutenant's commission (the usual date on which one acquired a sword), and found Fitzjames the closest match -- though, in his case, a delay between getting his passing certificate and his commission meant that he wasn't promoted until a year after William's reign ended and Queen Victoria ascended to the throne. Ah well, I thought to myself, what's a year?

To my lasting shame, I didn't take the time to look closely at the guard, which featured an open "basket" style rather than the closed gilt guard that had been standard in the Royal Navy since 1827 (and indeed, is standard still). Seeing one of these sorts of guards among the latest artifacts brought up from HMS "Erebus" pricked my memory -- and that of my colleague Glenn M. Stein as well. In response to a query by fellow Franklinite Regina Koellner -- mightn't a Sergeant of the Marines have had a sword as well? -- he passed along an image of the type of blade that would have been issued to a Sergeant in the Royal Marines (right, above) -- and lo, there was the open style of guard, almost exactly as seen on the hilt given to MacFarlane!

Which leads me to Solomon Tozer. Years ago, my good friend Dave Woodman proposed that perhaps Tozer, whose name may well have sounded to Inuit ears very similar to Crozier (rendered by Hall's informants as "Cro-zhar"), could have been the "great officer" of this Inuit story. I dismissed the idea, my head filled with romanticized notions of Fitzjames among the final survivors -- how could a mere Sergeant of the Marines, the hardest-working (and lowest-paid) of all the Expedition's members, be that man? But now, seeing the sword, I went at once to Ralph Lloyd-Jones's excellent article on the Marines who served with Franklin, and discovered that Solomon Tozer had enlisted in Bath on 12 November 1834, well within the reign of William IV!

There are, as there almost always will be, caveats and contraditions. According to Lloyd-Jones, Tozer had only been promoted to Sergeant in 1844, so if the sword had to wait until then, it's not a match. Still, he was more of a veteran than most, having already risen to the rank of Corporal in 1837, the year of Victoria's coronation. He also received, though he was not to know of it, a promotion to "color sergeant" in 1849 when, as Lloyd-Jones notes, "he was unlikely to be alive in the Arctic." And yet, if he was indeed among the last men standing, he may well have yet been living at that date. I conclude with Lloyd-Jones's epitome of his character:
At the age of 18, Tozer was 5 feet 8 1/2 inches tall with light hair, hazel eyes, and a fair complexion. He was a carpenter by trade and, as befits one who reached the highest non-commissioned rank, had an extremely neat signature. A unique solecism recorded that he was ‘D[ischarged] D[ead] North Pole [sic] expedition under Sir John Franklin’ (ADM 158/69). He appears as a fairly major, brave, and practical character in Robert Edric’s novel The Broken Lands (Edric 1992).
A great officer, indeed.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Franklin Searcher of the Month: Henry Larsen

Image courtesy of Doreen Larsen Riedel
Even before he arrived on the shores of King William, he’d already been awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, for being the first man to traverse the Northwest Passage from West to East, in command of the RCMP vessel St. Roch – a feat he repeated in the opposite direction a few years later. His name was Henry Asbjørn Larsen, and no other searcher before him came closer to standing in Franklin’s own metaphorical shoes. Larsen’s experience had been gained on numerous northern patrols over two decades; he eventually rose to the rank of Inspector, in charge of all RCMP detachments in the Canadian Arctic. Both the breadth of his experience and his keen eye for detail served him well; despite poor weather conditions and limited time, his search of the area between Cape Felix and Victory Point produced what may be some of the most significant finds since those of Schwatka.

Larsen’s search took place in the summer of 1949, just before his promotion to commanding officer of the force’s “G” division. He took two RCMP men with him, Corporal Seaforth Burton and Constable John Biench. He’d hoped to squeeze in the mission between his other duties, but news of his trip was inadvertently leaked to the press; as a cover story, an announcement was made that the trip was merely to scout a location for a new RCMP post. Larsen’s pilot, Harry Heacock, flew them over Lind Island and Victoria Strait; despite poor conditions, he was able to land briefly to establish a fuel depot at Terror Bay. Returning the following day, they were able to land and establish a base camp near Collinson Inlet. From there, they proceeded on foot, working their way up the coast to Cape Felix. At Cape Lady Jane Franklin, they found wood-chips and part of a shoe sole; joined there by Bill Cashin (who’d served as Larsen’s mechanic aboard the St. Roch), they began a close search of the area around Victory Point.

Here they had better luck, turning up two iron knees (almost certainly from a ship’s boat of the kind used by Franklin’s men), along with other small fragments of wood, nails, and wire. Continuing to Cape Felix, they made their most significant find: embedded between two mossy stones, they came upon a human skull. On their return, the artifacts were brought back to the National Museum (the precursor institution to both the Canadian Museum of Nature and the Canadian Museum of History). There, the bones were examined by Dr. Douglas Leechman, one of Canada’s pre-eminent archaeologists, who identified them as “definitely that of a white man, and a fairly young one at that.” Larsen and his companions had found the most northerly grave of one of Franklin’s men on King William Island.

courtesy of Doreen Larsen Riedel
Yet, as with earlier searches, the vital documentary evidence of this discovery has been misplaced and scattered. Larsen’s report, if indeed he submitted one, has gone missing, although R.J. Cyriax’s article about the search in the Geographical Journal was clearly based on some sort of fairly detailed communication from Larsen. Cyriax thought very highly of Larsen’s account, declaring it “much more detailed and precise than any of the published accounts with which the [present] writer is acquainted.” No trace of the report is known, and the artifacts themselves appear to have been misplaced; the curators that I’ve contacted to date have no record of them, and they were never entered into the archaeological databases of either the Northwest Territories or Nunavut. Had it not been for the assistance of Doreen Larsen Riedel, Larsen’s daughter, I might never have learned the details of their discovery. They were, fortunately, photographed, and the images deposited in the National Library of Canada; spread out on of white surface, these mossy bones glimmer with an eerie presence, frozen in the camera’s eye even though they, too, have since vanished from our sight.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Politics of Exploration

I had originally planned to be posting on my blog this fall about the new finds from HMS "Erebus" that I'd hoped would be announced by Parks Canada. Archaeology is a patient science, though, and though news is scarce now, I'm sure there will eventually be much more to hear about this remarkable discovery and the secrets it yet has to tell. But alas, the politics of exploration have once more taken over the headlines from actual exploration itself, journalist Paul Watson's would-be exposé -- the one he says the Toronto Star wouldn't let him publish -- has now been plastered over the Internet thanks to Buzzfeed. Ordinarily, I wouldn't want to comment on such an article, but now that major news outlets such as the Ottawa Citizen have picked up the story, I fear that I need to set the record straight again. While Watson's article certainly shows that there was a fair amount of squabbling and bitterness among some of the parties involved in the 2014 search, and that some details were, at first, imperfectly conveyed to the public (understandable in the great excitement of the moment), the evidence for any deliberate deceit -- especially on the part of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society's John Geiger -- is simply nonexistent.

A large part of Watson's article hinges on remarks made by Mr. Geiger as part of the CNC documentary on the Franklin find. As the lead historical consultant for the Canadian, UK, and US versions of this program, I've reviewed scripts and checked historical facts for all three, and so am very closely aware of the many slight differences between each version. The directors, using the same available "elements" -- video sources that, added together, would fill many times the length of the program -- made a variety of different choices. The moments that Watson points to, when John Geiger uses collective pronouns, such as 'we,' and 'our efforts,' and contrasting 2014 with previous years, are moments in which he's referring to the whole history of the modern Franklin search. Here are his exact words, from the final production script of the upcoming NOVA version of the documentary, which will air in the U.S. on September 23rd:
This is a great moment for exploration. We’ve been searching for, you know, a hundred and sixty years for answers to what happened to the Franklin expedition, the best equipped, most finely prepared and trained expedition that had ever set out for the Northwest Passage — and to have it literally obliterated, end in mass disaster, no survivors and no ships. It's just … it's been a confounding mystery.
Clearly, the "us" of this "we" is us -- all the people, Canadian and American and British, Inuit and non-Inuit, who have been a part of the long search, whether as researchers in libraries, writers/scholars, or people walking the ground or probing Arctic waters.

A shorter version of Mr. Geiger's remarks was used in the Canadian and British versions, where their intended meaning might not be as clear -- but in any case it was never, so far as I am aware, Mr. Geiger's intent to claim any credit as the discoverer. These false criticisms, made by Mr. Balsillie (see here for my earlier blog post pointing out that his letter of complaints about the CBC documentary has no foundation in that program's actual contents) and echoed in Mr. Watson's article, are without any basis in fact. The credit has been given, from the very start and consistently going forward, to Ryan Harris, Marc-André Bernier, and their divers, and I am absolutely certain that, whichever version of the documentary one views, there couldn't possibly be any confusion about this fact.

I agree with Madeline Ashby's op-ed piece in the Citizen -- it indeed matters who discovered the ship! -- but Mr. Geiger has never made any claim of having done so. While we are at it, though, the Parks Canada divers themselves have often acknowledged the importance of earlier work to their find -- to Inuit testimony, both still living in the person of Louie Kamookak, and that collected and analyzed from the historical record by David C. Woodman, and to all the searches and researches, adding up to nearly fifty searches between 1926 and 2008. As with all great discoveries, it's the ultimate result of the efforts of many. Among whom I would certainly include Mr. Geiger, whose book Frozen in Time, co-written with Owen Beattie is quite often the first volume that has caused a Franklin searcher-to-be to develop a deep and lasting fascination with the Franklin story -- and that's what fuels us all.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Tale of a Table leg ...

One of the more remarkable finds of the earlier dives upon HMS "Erebus" was a wooden element, found near the stern (where the "great cabin" was located), much resembling the leg and part of the side of a table shown in an early woodcut of Sir John Franklin's cabin, as published in the Illustrated London News shortly before his departure for the Arctic. The resemblance seems much more than superficial; though the table looks slightlymore squat in the woodcut the way the leg -- likely machine-made upon a lathe, given the date -- is turned, with two long segments separated by a rounded, shorter one.
This seems a good visual match for the leg seen in the underwater photograph from last year's dive.

Some commenters have observed that, had the damage to the stern of the "Erebus" taken place prior to or at the moment of its sinking, smaller bits of wood such as the table-leg would have had enough bouyancy that they might well have floated to the surface; that they did not suggests that the damage occurred long after the sinking, perhaps when the ship's superstructure was scoured by a passing iceberg. The Inuit certainly recalled that, after the sinking of the ship at Utjulik, they were able to recover casks, boards, and other pieces of metal and wood; these may well have been from material that had been stowed on the deck, while items below deck, such as the table, remained there and became more thoroughly waterlogged.

But we actually do have another leg to stand on: in 1949, Henry Larsen -- who had himself navigated the Northwest Passage twice as the captain of the RCMP vessel St Roch -- came to King William Island and searched its western coasts. There, among other objects, such as iron knees that doubtless came from a ship's boat, there was a turned wooden piece that appears very much like the leg of a similar, low table, about two feet four inches in length. It was apparently recovered from some point on the coast between Victory Point and Cape Felix; if indeed it came from a similar table abord HMS "Terror," then that vessel must have suffered a fairly catastrophic fate -- it would have to have been crushed in the ice severely enough that furniture from the great cabin would have broken free of the wreck and drifted to shore. And so, while I hold out some hope that the site of Terror's sinking may be found, this sort of evidence tends to give credence to fears that the wreck may be fragmentary -- what parts of it could be recovered, the Inuit surely took and make use of, leaving perhaps only a partial hull, or even just a field of débris.

[Image of table leg courtesy of Doreen Larsen Riedel; with thanks to Ship Modeler for his thoughts on this artifact.]

Friday, August 14, 2015

Where should the searchers search?

With the approach of the 2015 dive season, it won't be long before Ryan Harris, Marc-André Bernier, and the rest of the Parks Canada team return to HMS "Erebus" to renew their search for artifacts. This fabled vessel, certainly, has a wealth of secrets to tell -- but where to begin? Even with ideal conditions, the window for open-water dives is a limited one, and time will always be of the essence.

My personal expectation is that they will start with the stern of the ship. In the debris near there, we've already seen what looks like a table leg from a table shown in Sir John Franklin's cabin. Given the damage to this area, other items -- maps, log-books, and personal effects -- that were stored in Franklin's cabin are most likely to be found here. And, though the damage is regrettable, it's much easier to dive safely when one doesn't have to worry about enclosed spaces and diver safety. Small items that might otherwise escape notice -- message cylinders, eyeglasses, or (should they have been made and left behind) Daguerreotype plates, would all be much more readily found if one can sift freely through the silt, which itself forms an excellent preservative.

Secondly, it looks to me as though it may be quite possible that the ship's modified railway engine may be in this vicinity, or at least visible from there. Given its weight, and that fact that it was primarily secured in place by bulk alone, I'd think that there's a fair chance that it has settled to the aft of its original, installed location. It may be too delicately situated to move, but detailed imagery could help confirm the type of engine used, and settle many decades of research and speculation.

If time allows, it would be ideal to also search the officers' cabins, particularly Fitzjames's -- and they would be next in proximity if the search moves in a forward direction. It may be difficult for divers to enter the main area below decks, but if they can direct an ROV into that area, some imagery of the Fraser stove, which we've been told is still in situ, would be wonderful.

Lastly, it would be invaluable to account for as many of the ship's anchors as possible. To know whether any shows signs of deliberate deployment may well be -- until some detailed journal or log is retrieved -- the best evidence as to whether "Erebus" was piloted, or drifted to its present location (as would be the status of the removable rudder, as a commenter below pointed out!).

Some search for the "Terror" will doubtless go on this season as well -- but I would urge all possible efforts be directed at the bird -- that is the ship -- in the hand.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Franklin searcher of the Month: Richard Finnie

Richard Finnie -- shown here on a search, in company of L.T. Burwash, of the northwestern coasts of King William Island in 1930 -- was not only an avid investigator of the Franklin mystery, but also a pioneering filmmaker; while his Among the Igloo Dwellers (1931) never attained the status of Nanook of the North, it remains a significant early depiction of Inuit life in the pre-settlement period. Finnie eventually gained steady employment working for Canadian Bechtel on a series of more than 60 films promoting its petroleum projects -- one of which, 1967's "Fabulous Oil Sands," would doubtless raise hackles among environmentalists today (the curious can see the entire film here).

Finnie was born to the North in Dawson City in Canada's Yukon Territory in 1906; his maternal grandfather had founded the Dawson City News there in 1899. His father, Oswald Sterling Finnie, was from 1921 to 1931 the "Director" of the Northwest Territories and Yukon Branch. The younger Finnie shared his father's passion for the region, and started out at the age of eighteen as a radio operator aboard the C.G.S. Arctic. Late in the summer of 1930, he accompanied L.T. Burwash on the latter's search of King William Island; on September 6th they located what they believed to be a significant Franklin "camp" between Lady Jane Franklin and Victory Points; the results of their study were published in the very first issue of Canadian Geographic. In the 1930's he spent several years in Yellowknife, of which he left some very vivid descriptions.

Finnie later took an avid interest in music, and while on locations around the world for Bechtel, made a large number of field recordings of traditional music from Korea, Libya, Tunisia, Sumatra, South Africa, Lebanon, Cambodia, and Venezuela; these recordings are preserved in the Finnie collection at Stanford University. The collection also includes a number of significant live recordings of jazz performances and jam sessions, including some of Mugsy Spanier and Earl Hines.

Finnie is warmly remembered by those who knew him, my friend John Bockstoce among them. He eventually retired to California, but kept up an interest in northern doings for the rest of his life; he died in 1987. If anyone out there knows where a print of Among the Igloo Dwellers may be had, I'd certainly like to hear from them! It's a very hard film to find; the only copy I know of is a 16mm print at Library and Archives Canada.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Credit Where Credit is Due (Part 2)

Anne Keenleyside, Margaret Bertulli, and Barry Ranford (w. camera), 1993
As I described in my last post, the bones brought back for study by Beattie opened up a whole new era in the Franklin search. Many of the issues later raised as possible explanations of its demise -- scurvy, lead-poisoning, and cannibalism -- were present in these bones, in the form of ostitis, bone lead levels, and cut-marks. And yet, as with the previous search era, there was a certain amount af redundancy and uncertainty built into the story.

Beattie's report offered only a very rough chart of where these remains were found, without specific geographical co-ordinates, which makes it hard to say whether in fact some of the key sites were identified then, or at a later time. That said, two men whose work shaped all that came after arrived on King William Island in the early 1990's: Dave Woodman, whose Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony (1991) was the first comprehensive analysis of the written record of oral testimony, and Barry Ranford -- an unlikely searcher who, until the Franklin bug bit had been a high-school art and photography teacher in a small town in Ontario.

Woodman, although he'd initially been unsure whether he could get the funding and support to test his claims, launched the first of his nine searches in 1992, this one using a magnetometer in an airplane to search the area west of Grant Point for traces of the anomaly he hoped one of the ships' engines would cause. That same year, Ranford and a former student of his searched the coast of King William, finding the bones -- notably a number of crania -- which Beattie apparently missed. He returned the next year with archaeologist Margaret Bertulli and forensic specialist Anne Keenleyside, who made the first proper archaeological study of a Franklin site. NgLj-2 -- the location of numerous bones with cut-marks, as well as NgLj-3 -- site of some crania, later identified by Keenleyside, Stenton, and Park as the location of a reburial made by Schwatka in 1871 -- were all mapped at that time.

And there to cover the find in 1994 was Carol Off of the CBC, along with cameraman Andrew Gregg (later to be the director of the 2014 documentary Franklin's Lost Ships). The resulting news feature, which included Margaret Atwood and Pierre Berton among its commentators, cemented the Franklin story in Canadian consciousness. Woodman -- who was back for his first on-the-ground serach, makes a cameo in the early program as well!

Sadly, Barry Ranford took his own life in 1996, but his friend (and former principal) John Harrington returned numerous times to continue the search. Woodman, too, came back again and again, along with his friend Tom Gross (who still continues searching to this day), trying every conceivable means to locate Franklin's ships, or any possible deposit on the shore, whether Franklin's grave or the famed 'vault' described to Hall by See-pung-ger. He scanned the stones in the summer, dragged a magnetometer on a sledge over the ice in the winter, and drilled down with an ice-augur to lower sonar booms. By his singular labors, a very large chunk of the "southern search area" -- that of the ship at "Ootjoolik" -- was covered.

In that same era, many other searchers -- among them George Hobson, Ernie Coleman, Cameron Treleaven (often accompanied by his friend Louie Kamookak), Wayne Davidson, Peter Wadhams, and Maria Pia Casarini -- trekked along these same shores, investigating mounds, cairns, and any other features of interest. Their searches were not all as persistent or methodical as Woodman's, but each of them found small, crucial pieces of evidence as to the fate of Franklin's men once they left the safety of their ships behind.

These searchers finally established a modern map of possibility -- even if, in one sense it was a negative map, that is, a map of where traces of Franklin were not. For in such a vast area, with such a small window of opportunity each year, such knowledge was vital all who came after; without it, the work of later investigators, such as the Parks Canada team, would have been far more daunting.

Photograph courtesy Margaret Bertulli

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Credit where Credit is Due (Part 1)

Paddy Gibson and Inuit, Richardson Island, Coronation Gulf, Sept. 1930
We've heard a lot in the press lately about who deserves -- or doesn't deserve -- credit for the magnificent 2014 discovery of HMS "Erebus." However that debate plays out -- and journalist Paul Watson promises his story will be out next week -- there's another, deeper kind of credit that's not yet been part of the conversation, either in Canada or abroad -- that due to the nearly fifty expeditions prior to Parks Canada's entering the field in 2008.

The count of fifty opens with L.T. Burwash in the 1920's, and "Paddy" Gibson-- Louie Kamookak's grandfather -- in the 1930's. Both these men, who were already present as part of their daily employment -- Burwash for the Northwest Territories government, Gibson for the HBC -- took advantage of their proximity to search anew for remains of Franklin's men. Burwash's finds consisted mostly of fragments of rope and cloth, but Gibson found numerous human remains -- including the skeletons of at least four individuals in the Todd Islets, who might represent the very last survivors. Louie has taken people to this site repeatedly over the years; its proximity to Gjoa Haven would make archaeological work there easy to support -- but so far, Doug Stenton and his colleagues have stuck to Erebus Bay.

The list goes on with L.A. Learmonth, another HBC employee; like Rae, he was an Orkneyman, and had an ability to survive and thrive, supporting himself on long journeys, that became the stuff of legend; he located the remains of at least three individuals at "Tikeranayou," a site ten miles west of the purported location of Starvation Cove (itself another site that's never had proper archaeological study). Henry Larsen was next, in 1949 (not long after he became the first to traverse the Passage from West to East) to search the coast from Cape Felix southward; a skull he found there was later identified as Caucasian.

Searches, though more sporadic, continued through the 1950's, with Paul Fenimore Cooper walking King William in preparation for his book, Island of the Lost. In 1962, Robert Cundy led an expedition to the mouth of the Back River, hoping to locate a cairn in which Franklin's men might have deposited their last record -- but instead found only a note from the Geological Survey of Canada saying they'd checked already and found nothing.

In 1967, a military exercise, "Operation Franklin" -- the only government-sponsored search of its kind to that date -- searched multiple areas, though an old boot-heel and some wood (quite possibly from the "Erebus, "which they'd dived near without discovering) were the sole results.

And then, in the 1970's came the "Franklin Probe," the first co-ordinated search, led by Bob Pilot and Stu Hodgson (the latter then the Commissioner of the Northwest Territories) which traveled to Beechey Island, Cape Felix, the Boothia Peninsula, and Starvation Cove, leaving historical markers as they went (it's always helpful when, since you are the government, you don't have to bother about permits).

By the time Owen Beattie conducted his two searches of King William Island in 1981 and 1982, his was, in fact, the sixteenth search of the twentieth century. He, as had others before him, found bones (including several which had already been seen and described by Gibson, but unlike Gibson he didn't leave them, or rebury them with a salute. He took them back for study, opening the era of serious archaeological work on Franklin expedition remains.

In Part II, I'll trace the searches from 1982 into the 1990's, which by any measure were the most productive ones of the modern search era.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Documenting Discovery

After the jubilation so many of us who've followed, or been a part of, the search for Sir John Franklin's ships, felt at the 2014 discovery of HMS "Erebus," still upright and proud upon the sea-floor, there was an inevitable period of letdown. We were, of course, well aware that it would take years to fully probe this find, to extract the secrets that she took with her to the bottom. We had to be satisfied with glimpses -- the propellor well, the deck illuminators, a bilge pump, a bell. When ice dives were announced for April of 2015, our spirits revived, and we shared in the excitement when new artifacts were brought to surface and sight: china plates, a cannon, even the buttons from a Marine's coat. What further wonders awaited?

But alas, as has happened with many such exciting ventures, the glow of discovery has now been dimmed with the clouds of acrimony. Jim Balsillie, whose Arctic Research Foundation was a key partner to last few Parks searches, wrote an angry letter to Environment Minister Leona Aglukkak, complaining that the television documentary Franklin's Lost Ships, co-produced by Lion TV in the UK, and Canada's  90th Parallel. Balsillie claims that the documentary shorted the contribution of the Parks Canada team and the role of the icebreaker Sir Wilifrid Laurier in the search, and gave and undue portion of credit to the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Then, in a move that caught everyone by surprise, photojournalist Paul Watson resigned from the Toronto Star, claiming that a story he'd wanted to report on, which apparently included Balsillie's complaints, as well as a claim that 'civil servants' -- presumably either Parks Canada's team or the crew of the Laurier -- had been silenced.

It's a puzzling situation. Why on earth Balsillie would address his complaints about the documentary -- in the production of which the Canadian government and the RCGS had no role -- to the Environment Minister is the first puzzle. What could he expect her to do? But let's say he had indeed approached the documentary's actual producers, what then? All of them have stood behind their work, and as the lead fact-checker for this documentary, I do as well. To me, Balsillie's comments simply reveal a poor understanding of how documentary films work. (I've been involved with quite a few of them -- on-camera with the 2005 NOVA "Arctic Passage," for which I also served as an historical consultant, a role I've filled for John Murray's "The Lost Expedition" (2004), Mill Creek Productions' "The Northwest Passage" (2014), and now the Canadian, UK and US versions of "Franklin's Lost Ships").

The first stage, once the basic subject of the documentary has been established, is to obtain the visual and other "elements" from which the film will be made. Depending on the budget and the time-frame, these may include location shots (used to establish a sense of place); if the locations are remote, as is the high Arctic, the production company may send only a small "second unit" team, which can capture the big visual elements needed later. Then, a series of experts will be interviewed, sometimes at considerable length, with multiple takes of the same line of questioning. If the budget allows, there may historical re-enactments of key scenes. Lastly, there will be some in-studio visuals -- maps, old photographs or other 2D sources, CGI animations, titles, and so forth. 

The point of gathering as many elements as possible is to give the director as much flexibility as possible in the editing process. It's always best to have multiple shots, or "angles" of a certain subject, and multiple takes of an interview, so that they can be edited into a smooth sequence, and the director can choose the best, or clearest takes. The key imperative is to tell a compelling story, and having multiple elements to choose from makes this possible. Typically, for a documentary feature, a ratio of 10:1 of elements taken to elements used is common; in commercial feature films, this ratio can run much higher. Charlie Chaplin, famously a perfectionist behind the camera, often shot as much as 400,000 feet of film for a feature that, in its final cut, was only 9,000 feet long!

At times, though, a documentary director may have to do with a limited number of shots; it's too expensive to re-take shots at remote locations, and there may be some key elements -- newsreel footage, or live events -- for which only a single source is available. In those cases, the director works to use them in a way that fits most closely with the story being told. All along the line, as the story is being developed and polished, historical consultants such as myself are asked to confirm the particulars, and make sure the final edit, and the voiceover, are free from any factual errors; in my work, I'll typically review a series of several draft scripts, along with answering dozens of ad hoc questions as the process plays out.

As a result of this same process, it's meaningless to measure how "important" someone or something is by how many seconds, or minutes, they're shown on camera. Plenty of important people saying important things have ended up on the cutting room floor, if what they said doesn't form a vital link in the story that the documentary is telling. Some people do better on camera than others, and may become the director's go-to talking heads simply because what they say is clearer, and more to the point, and easier to edit into the storyline -- but in general, unless the program has a host, these voices will be spread around, as the effect of several experts or commentators with different backgrounds is stronger than having the same person talking all the time. We can't all be Jacob Bronowski.

Balsillie seems most miffed that the documentary doesn't show enough of the Laurier, along with the Martin Bergmann (a vessel he paid to outfit), or the Gannet and Kinglet, the boats that did much of the side-scan work -- though in fact, all these vessels are shown in the documentary, and repeatedly

As he doubtless knows, the small filming unit sent to the scene of the (then only potential) discovery was based on One Ocean Voyager, and had only limited access to the Laurier and the research vessels. Given that, they managed to take some impressive shots, giving the overall scene of the search, as well as a clear sense that it was indeed the Parks Canada team that was doing the actual searching; we see camera angles of the team, shots off the bow of the research vessel Investigator, and team members monitoring the sonar screen. And, in at least one sequence, we see a sonar boom being lowered from the Martin Bergmann -- one would think this would have made Balsillie happy.

John Geiger, fulfilling his and the RCGS's designated role of 'communications,' speaks in broad terms of the challenge of the ice, and the difficulty of the search -- not claiming any personal credit for it -- and his screen presence is modest compared with the multiple segments with Marc-André Bernier and Ryan Harris, showing them at work and giving their perspective both before and after the discovery.

Balsillie is also upset that the AUV, one of the much-vaunted technological innovations, is shown being deployed, when in fact it wasn't used in the 'southern search area,' and had nothing to do with the discovery. But if he'd looked more closely, he'd have seen that this is exactly the point: scenes of the AUV's being deployed are used as a segue from the earlier attempts to get at the Victoria Strait area, underscoring the limits of human endeavor, after which the story switches -- as did the expedition itself -- to the southern search, where we can clearly see the older side-scan sonar depoloyed.

Throughout the documentary, Ryan Harris and others from Parks Canada are featured prominently, and it's quite clear that it's their discovery; I don't think anyone watching the program could possibly miss this point, or the excitement felt by Harris, Bernier, and others. The credit, clearly, is theirs. It's not the documentary, in the end, that contains errors -- it's Balsillie's letter, which makes repeated, and demonstrably false claims about the documentary.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Unfriendly Millionaires

At the conclusion of several seasons of conducting a gruelling magnetometer survey over the ice of Wilmot and Crompton Bay -- a search which, he'd hoped, could pinpoint the location of one of Franklin's ships by detecting its engine -- I can recall David Woodman ruefully declaring that he felt there wasn't a great deal more that could be done, barring the sudden appearance of a 'friendly millionaire.' And doubtless many Arctic researchers of all kinds, their funds cobbled together out of grants, sponsorships, and their own dwindling bank accounts, have said much the same.

For a time, it seemed, Jim Balsillie was the answer to a Franklin searcher's prayer -- a man with deep pockets, broad enthusiasm, and the patience to find out just what was needed for each year's search, and provide it. The research vessel he donated, the Martin Bergmann, was a sort of dream: crammed with all the latest technology, it was carefully chosen so that it could be carried aboard an icebreaker, and lowered by crane into the water. Balsillie's Arctic Research Foundation proved instrumental to the last several years of Parks Canada searches, and articles in Maclean's and Canadian Geographic have lionized him as the prime mover behind the successful 2014 search for Franklin's ships.

But now he's angry. He's written a long letter to Environment Minister Leona Aglukkak, complaining about the way the discovery's story has been told in the Lion TV/90th Parallel documentary that aired on the CBC. Why he would write to her with his concerns instead of the the actual producers of the documentary is a mystery -- but of course by now they've read the letter as well, and stand behind their work.  And, as the lead fact-checker and historical consultant on the project, I can say without hesitation that they are right to do so. Every detail of these documentaries has been carefully researched, and neither the Government nor the RCGS had any say whatsoever in how the story was told. Balsillie's complaints strike me both as sour grapes -- he doesn't think that he's gotten enough credit -- and naive; he seems to have very little idea of how documentaries work.

I'll address the criticisms of the documentary specifically in a post to follow. But now, there's another wrinkle -- prizewinning photojournalist Paul Watson has quit his job at the Toronto Star, claiming that its editors suppressed a story of his about problems with the 2014 search. On his blog and in interviews, Watson alludes both to Balsillie's letter, and to (so far, rather vague) claims from 'civil servants' -- presumably Parks Canada employees -- about not being credited, or being allowed to tell their stories. It certainly is true that, as Government employees, Parks' archaeologists, or the crew of the CCGS Laurier, are not as free to speak as would be private individuals -- that's the nature of their jobs, not a scandal. Would I and other Franklin experts have liked information to flow more freely, or be less "managed"? Of course, but I don't know of any significant facts that were suppressed; both Ryan Harris and Marc-André Bernier have subsequently spoken at numerous public events and forums. Watson also implies, as does Balsillie, that the RCGS claimed outsize credit for its role, something of which I see little evidence. Watson promises a story, so we'll have to wait to see what it is before we judge -- but certainly, from what's now known, it seems a tempest in an Arctic teapot.

All of this, unhappily, obscures the tremendous achievement of the 2014 find of HMS "Erebus." It's sad to see such squabbling among partners, especially when there's plenty of credit to go around. The documentary acknowledges this, while making it clear that Ryan Harris and the Parks Canada team made the actual discovery. John Geiger, veteran Franklin searcher and CEO of the RCGS, practically wore out the phrase "and our partners" at the many press events he attended surrounding the discovery, and Canadian Geographic and other press articles all have given plenty of credit to Balsillie.

There is, however, one group of people I do think have not yet been given enough credit: the searchers and researchers who kept the search for traces of Franklin going for decades before the Government searches. Between 1925 and 2008 (the first year of the Parks Canada search), there were nearly fifty expeditions to the Arctic organized in part or in whole to search for Franklin and his ships, many of them accompanied by the Inuit who'd kept the oral traditions alive. Tremendous scholarly work, particularly David Woodman's careful analysis of written Inuit testimony, also laid the foundation for the eventual discovery by Parks. If there's anyone who has a right to feel slighted, it might be these folks -- but unlike Balsillie, they've all been supportive of everyone involved in the recent searches, excited by the results, and have expressed no rancor. There's more than one kind of generosity at stake here -- and the generous-spirited, in my view, are far better role models than the generous-pocketed.