Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Ice Diving on HMS "Erebus"

Ice-diving HMS "Breadalbane" © 2014 DND-MDN Canada
In just a few weeks, divers will return to HMS "Erebus" for a series of dives under the ice, opening a new and promising chapter in the Franklin search. Last fall's dives were severely limited by poor weather and the approach of new-formed ice; now, the very things that were disadvantages then will be advantages. Having a stable, secure platform on which to place equipment and support teams will enable a robust schedule of dives, and no surface weather will interfere. Beyond that, as lead archaeologist Ryan Harris has noted, the water under the ice, protected from surface winds and turbulence, will be calmer, and visibility better.

So what can we expect? A thorough survey of the ship, for one; using lasers, a precise map of the vessel and the surrounding debris can be assembled in three dimensions. We'll know the nature and extent of damage to the vessel, the location of the ships' anchors (which may give us clues as to whether the ship was piloted to this location and deliberately anchored, or drifted), and it's quite possible that additional artifacts in the debris field will be identified and mapped. The dives aren't planned for artifact recovery, but it's possible that, if something is found in plain view and it's already been mapped and photographed, it could be brought to the surface for study and conservation. I would not expect, though, that there will be any attempt to enter deep inside the vessel itself, although a ROV might go in to take some images and measurements. The stability of the vessel will need careful study before divers can enter, and a safe route and protocol established -- so this will likely wait until the late summer dive season.

I'll be particularly interested in the anchors -- were they deliberately deployed? If they were, that would be a key confirmation of Inuit testimony that they saw fresh tracks and deck sweepings near the vessel, and that it was manned when it arrived. And, if it was -- as Ryan Harris recently observed -- then we may have to re-assess Franklin's achievement: reaching the point it did means that the vessel passed Cape Herschel and entered an area already charted by Dease and Simpson -- effectively linking the eastern and western surveys and traversing the last link in the Northwest Passage.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Erebus Medal

It's a handsome design, with elements -- such as the octagonal edge -- from the British Polar Medal, and others, such as the tilted compass rose, that draw from the Victoria Strait Expedition patch. The "Erebus Medal," as it's called, was awarded by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society at a special ceremony yesterday at the Royal Ontario Museum, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper (a recipient) and other dignitaries in attendance.

There are two hundred and twenty recipients in all -- a remarkable number -- with the announced intent of recognizing everyone involved in the 2014 search and the work that made it possible. In that light, of course, it recognizes the crews, the dive team (led by Bernier and Harris), and support staff, along with Doug Stenton and the helicopter pilot whose discovery of ship's remains on land helped point the way to the final discovery. It also recognizes key figures without whom this discovery would never have been possible, such as David C. Woodman -- the first to compile, analyze, and trust the record of Inuit testimony -- and Gjoa Haven resident Louie Kamookak, who has helped guide searchers for many years. And yet the omissions from the list are (in my view) a bit glaring: where is Robert Grenier, who led the very first of the Parks Canada searches? Where are the archaeologists who did pioneering work analyzing Franklin sites, such as Margaret Bertulli, Anne Keenleyside, and John MacDonald? Where are early searchers such as Bob Pilot, Stu Hodgson, the late Barry Ranford, or John Harrington? Why are -- besides the environment minister -- Louie, geographer Caitlyn Baikie, and Peter Taptuna the only Inuit recognized? And then of course there are scholars, us humble blokes -- I was happy to see Shelagh Grant's name, but where are the many others whose research over the past decades has given us new insights into the Franklin search?

Of course, as with any award, there will always be some who are unhappy about those who did -- or didn't -- receive it. It's not quite clear, though, exactly what criteria the RCGS used -- did the recipients have to be living? Did they have to be Canadian? Will there be additional medal recipients in the future? Finally, while there is certainly much to celebrate, there's still a great deal to be done, starting with locating the wreck of the "Terror" and continuing through the just-announced April dive, and many dives to come. And, as I've noted frequently on this blog, there are still some sites on land -- particularly the Todd Islets and Starvation Cove -- which are sorely in need of modern archaeological study; the ships can only tell us the tale of what happened before they were abandoned, and Franklin's men may well have struggled on for many months, or years, after that.

That said, congratulations to all of the recipients are in order -- it's certainly a great honor.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Boat Place(s)?

Anyone with an interest in the Franklin expedition has read a great deal over the years about the "Boat Place" on King William Island. It's identified with the site where Hobson, McClintock's lieutenant, discovered an abandoned whaleboat from one of Franklin's ships, a boat which famously contained two skeletons, as well as an abundance of items, judged "a mere accumulation dead weight" by McClintock, which he catalogued at length: sheet lead, carpet slippers, waterproof canvas, tea, chocolate, a large array of silver utensils, and many books, Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield among them. The boat was also pointing in what seemed the wrong direction: not toward escape, but back toward the last known location of the ships.

Today, the story is a bit different: most Franklin experts, myself and Dave Woodman among them, regard the Erebus Bay site as one which was used for some time, and near which which one or both of Franklin's ships were, for a time, anchored. The period of longer use would explain some of the items the Inuit found there, including heavy metal stoves that would not likely have been dragged overland all the way from Crozier's landing; it would also explain the presence of a boat, not then in use for escape but rather for conveying items to or from a ship not far distant, the contents of which would of course not represent what the men would have laden it with had they anticipated a long journey.

And the "boat place" itself is becoming more uncertain. Hobson and McClintock found only one boat, with two bodies -- both, it should be noted, missing their crania. Hobson also saw, on examining one body, that the small bones of the hands and feet had been left behind in the gloves and socks. There was a rifle and some shot, and one body was wrapped, or rather seated in, a heap of furs.

And yet, one of the first Inuit to visit this area, In-nook-poo-zhee-jook, seems to have found quite a different boat, one which he described to Charles Francis Hall in great detail; in it, he found
Six paddles; many table-knives, white handles; one watch; a spyglass ... something like my (Hall’s) compass, but no glass about it; tobacco that had been wet and was in flakes or thin pieces; very many tin dishes; one whole skeleton with clothes on, —the flesh all on, but dried; many skeleton bones; three skulls. Alongside of the boat a big pile of skeleton bones that had been broken up for the marrow in them; they were near a fire-place; skulls among these. The number of them ama-su-ad-loo (a great many) — cannot tell how many. It is certain that some of the men lived on human flesh, for alongside of the boat were some large boots with cooked human flesh in them.
In addition to many items -- a spy-glass, table-knives, and a compass (all of which, had this boat been the one Hobson and McClintock found, would surely have been taken by them), there are many human remains here, not only in the boat but beside it, and many skulls. Clearly, this was a different boat entirely; it may well have been hidden in the snow back in 1859.

Recently, a study -- not yet available to non-subscribers -- appeared in ARCTIC, written by Anne Keenleyside (one of the first archaeologists to study human remains from this area), Doug Stenton, and Robert Park. They studied the site of a memorial, erected in 1879 by Frederick Schwatka, at what he believed to be "the" boat place. The memorial (see above) had long been taken down, but the packet of bones Schwatka had reburied was still there and in its original arrangement: a squareish cavity with the longer bones stacked side by side, topped with a human cranium like a cherry on some macabre sundae.

Their study shows clear evidence that this is indeed Schwatka's memorial. They found the remains of three individuals, all male and Caucasian, one of whom was probably quite a young man. There were very few cut marks on them, although one bone showed a curious small oval hole, as though it had been punctured by a somewhat blunt pointed instrument. The small bones of the feet and hands were largely missing.

Their study speculates that these may indeed be the bodies from Hobson's boat -- the missing small bones correspond with this, and one of the skeletons was, just as Hobson had noted, unusually large. The small hole might have been made long after their deaths, as a pick-axe was required back in 1859 to free up the bodies from their frozen surroundings.

I think that's quite possibly true, although one would still have to account for the three crania (Hobson's boat itself having zero), and indeed a third body not previously reported. Which means that In-nook-poo-zhee-jook's boat was not this boat. The Schwatka site, tagged NgLj-3, is not very far from NgLj-2, which is on a small, low-lying island surrounded by mud. There, the great abundance of remains, already catalogued back in the 1990's by Margaret Bertulli and Anne Keenleyside, corresponds more closely with a "pile" of bones, skulls among them.

The article, however, makes no mention of any other boat place. It's just one example of the kind of uncertainty which the Franklin search on land faces, with studies all done nearly a century and a half or more after the initial events. Still, it shows how the close, careful work of archaeologists is absolutely vital if we're going to put together the incomplete pieces of this mighty puzzle.

Friday, January 23, 2015

John Powles Cheyne

Lieutenant (later Commander) John Powles Cheyne was without doubt a valiant Arctic officer. As a young midshipman, he accompanied J.C. Ross in his search for the Franklin expedition with Enterprise and Investigator in 1848-49, returning as Mate under Captain Austin aboard that ill-fated ship of destiny, HMS Resolute, and then as Lieutenant under Admiral Belcher aboard the Assistance. He also gained some experience in amateur theatricals, and on his return to London took up the relatively new art of photography, producing a remarkable series of stereoscopic views of the Franklin relics brought back to England by Sir Leopold M'Clintock in 1859.

His photographic bug was a lasting one, and so was his interest in Arctic exploration. After retiring in 1870 with the rank of Commander, he took up the idea of an expedition to the North Pole using specially-equipped balloons. This was decades before Andrée's similar plan, but the public, having seen balloons in use in earlier (unpiloted) attempts to locate Sir John Franklin, were very receptive to the idea. Unable to secure any official backing, Cheyne turned to the exhibition circuit, appearing with several large series of Magic Lantern slides, projected by means of lime-light onto enormous screens in public meeting halls and lecture rooms. Many of the slides showed scenes in which he had personally taken part, and he became through presenting them the first Arctic explorer in Britain to seek to use his personal experience to lend authenticity to a lantern exhibition (back in the United States, survivors of Kane's second expedition had for some time been associated with such shows in the late 1850's and 1860's). Here you can see a handbill for a show he gave in Princeton, New Jersey.

Some years ago, Dr Huw Lewis-Jones and I spent quite a good deal of effort tracing Cheyne and his family through online records. We found that Cheyne himself had eventually retired to Halifax NS, where he died in 1902; he’d left his lantern and slides with his sister, in whose family’s care they still remained — the slide above is from his original set, and depicts the artist — Cheyne himself — at work in his studio. The Arctic interest -- and the family habit of naming children after explorers -- continued in the British branch of the family; after posting a query on a genealogy forum, I was delighted to hear from Elizabeth Cheyne, whose father the Rev. John Franklin Cheyne was a grandson of the explorer-showman!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Photo by Russell Potter © 2008
One hundred and thirty-eight years ago today, in her home in the town of Groton, Connecticut, Tookoolito ("Hannah"), one of the greatest of Inuit guides and translators, died at the sadly young age of thirty-eight years. She was predeceased by her infant sons Tarralikitaq ("butterfly") and "King William," as well as her adopted daughter Panik (known affectionately as "Punny"). Her husband, "Joe" Ebierbing's name is also on this stone -- but, borrowing Tennyson's line on Franklin's cenotaph, Joe is "not here" -- he died some years later in the Arctic under mysterious circumstances, having returned there as a guide for the American explorer Frederick Schwatka.

Hers was an adventurous life. In 1853, she and "Joe" and a unrelated young boy, Akulukjuk, were brought to England by a whaling captain by the name of Bowlby, where they were exhibited at several locations, and even brought to Windsor Castle, where they took tea with Queen Victoria. Tookoolito's talent for languages enabled her to learn English with a remarkable degree of fluency; what she had picked up in England she developed further through converse with the whalers. Ebierbing, the quieter of the two, could get along tolerably in English, but distinguished himself more as a guide and hunter.  Hall was introduced to them aboard ship; while he was quite taken by them both, it was Tookoolito who made the strongest impression; as Hall noted in his journal, “I could not help admiring the exceeding gracefulness and modesty of her demeanor. Simple and gentle in her way, there was a degree of calm intellectual power about her that more and more astonished me.”

Tookoolito and Ebierbing endured much with Hall, accompanying him on his extensive Arctic searches for traces of Franklin's men, and appearing with him in at his lectures in the United States, as well as at Barnum's American Museum and Boston's Aquarial Gardens, where they were exhibited as curiosities; the death of their first child may have been in part a result of these frequent public appearances. On the Polaris Expedition, they faced an even sterner test, as Hall was poisoned by one of the ship's scientific staff, and in their escape they ended up among the group stranded on the ice floe for six months before their rescue. At the inquest that followed, Tookoolito and Ebierbing both defended Hall and supported his belief that he had been poisoned, but no action was taken.

They had been through a great deal together, and Ebierbing was with her on the night of December 31st; she was laid to rest in the Starr Burying Ground, where this marker may still be seen.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Repost: Christmas in the Frozen Regions

At this time of year, many of us are seeking a bit of Christmas past by revisiting Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol." There are innumerable local productions, dozens of film versions (I'm most fond of the one starring Alistair Sim, or else the Muppet Christmas Carol, which I actually feel is the best recent adaptation), and of course the book itself is always available. But most today are less acquainted with Dickens's other Christmas tales -- at one point he was writing a new one every year -- or with the many special Christmas numbers of his magazines Household Words and All the Year 'Round, which Dickens personally selected and edited with great care. It was, in fact, in 1850 -- the very first year of his first magazine, Household Words -- that Dickens, hoping to revive the fading hopes that Franklin and his men might yet live, selected a piece describing an Antarctic Christmas aboard the "Erebus" and "Terror" -- the very ships that Franklin had taken on his expedition a few years later. Making this connection was important enough that Dickens wrote a fresh introduction to the article, as well as a brief coda, himself, and his words are animated with all his usual spirit:

"THINK of Christmas in the tremendous wastes of ice and snow, that lie in the remotest regions of the earth ! Christmas, in the interminable white desert of the Polar sea ! Yet it has been kept in those awful solitudes, cheerfully, by Englishmen. Where crashing mountains of ice, heaped up together, have made a chaos round their ships, which in a moment might have ground them to dust; where hair has frozen on the face; where blankets have stiffened upon the bodies of men lying asleep, closely housed by huge fires, and plasters have turned to ice upon the wounds of others accidentally hurt; where the ships have been undistinguishable from the environing ice, and have resembled themselves far less than the surrounding masses have resembled monstrous piles of architecture which could not possibly be there, or anywhere; where the winter animals and birds are white, as if they too were born of the desolate snow and frost; there Englishmen have read the prayers of Christmas Day, and have drunk to friends at home, and sung home songs."
The account that follows is by Robert McCormick, who had recently served under James Clark Ross as surgeon and naturalist aboard HMS "Terror," and describes the first Christmas of their Antarctic voyage. McCormick seems to have been an excellent writer, and this account is all the more notable as it's his earliest publication; he found himself unable to write up the expected naturalist's report for the Ross expedition, and his own account of his career, Voyages of Discovery in the Antarctic and Arctic Seas, was not published until 1884. As Dickens hands the narrative off to McCormack, the mystery and anxiety then surrounding Franklin's name is directly evoked:
"In 1819, Captain Parry and his brave companions did so ; and the officers having dined off a piece of fresh beef, nine months old, preserved by the intense climate, joined the men in acting plays, with the thermometer below zero, on the stage. In 1825, Captain Franklin's party kept Christmas Day in their hut with snap-dragon and a dance, among a merry party of Englishmen, Highlanders, Canadians, Esquimaux, Chipewyans, Dog- Ribs, Hare Indians, and Cree women and children.
In 1850, some commemoration of Christmas may perhaps take place in the Frozen Regions. Heaven grant it! It is not beyond hope ! and be held by the later crews of those same ships ; for they are the very same that have so long been missing, and that are painfully connected in the public mind with FRANKLIN’S name."
You can read McCormack's account in full here. Of course, much of the resonance of his story is how it shows the explorers keeping the traditions of home, evoking an elaborate Victorian Christmas even in the most desolate regions of the world. On this occasion, the ship was redecorated as a "hotel," and the drinks were kept cold by being served atop an enormous block of solid ice. McCormack, oddly, says very little about the food, but other explorers were far more voluble; you can follow the links here to read of a feast of "Banks Land Reindeer" in "Christmas-Keeping in the Arctic Regions, 1850-51," relish Elisha Kent Kane's Christmas on the Second Grinnell expedition, at which mere "pork and beans" were disguised as all manner of delicacies by the men's scurvy-fed imaginations, or devour A.W. Greely's luxurious first Christmas with the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition at Fort Conger, which featured mock-turtle soup, salmon, tenderloin of musk-ox, plum pudding with wine sauce, dates, figs, cherries, egg-nog, and an extra ration of rum -- a sad contrast with the meals of the last few survivors three years later, who endeavored to support life by fishing for brine-shrimp through a sieve.

Wherever readers of this blog may find themselves this Christmas, I hope that your evening meal is enriched by all the warmth and spirit of domestic tranquility that these men's meals -- whether in reality, or in their imaginations, or both -- sought to evoke so far away from home.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Talbotype of Irving's Brother

University of Glasgow, Special Collections
Last week, I blogged about the Talbotype of Lieutenant John Irving, which surfaced in the collections of the City of Edinburgh, and which I tentatively identified as the work of Hill and Adamson. It occurred to me that John's brother, the Reverend Lewis Irving, might be the link between them, since Hill had photographed all of principal figures who broke off to form the Free Church of Scotland in the 'Great Disruption,' among which Lewis Irving was prominent. Frustratingly, the good Reverend's name came up blank in all of the indexes of major collections of Hill and Adamson's work.

Fortunately, I then stumbled upon an M.Phil. thesis by one Roderick Duff Simpson. Simpson had gone through the large collection of copies on glass plates left behind at Hill and Adamson's studios in Rock House in Edinburgh, which are now in the collection of the University of Glasgow. Mr. Simpson identified one of these plates -- HA0291 -- as a portrait of the Reverend Irving, one which in the University's database is still listed as "unknown man." Despite his baldness, the resemblance is a striking one, with a similar aquiline nose and puffy lower eyelids. The photograph was taken by Hill as a study for his great painting of the Disruption, which features the heads of hundreds of men then present. According to Simpson, though, this particular photo was not the source used in the painting, which suggests that there are other images of Lewis Irving yet to be found.

I'm in the process of trying to contact Mr. Simpson, but in the meantime am happy to share this image, courtesy of the University of Glasgow, Special Collections.

Friday, December 19, 2014

New Photograph of Lieutenant Irving

Image courtesy City of Edinburgh Council – Libraries
Thanks to a posting by Stuart Tedham over on the Remembering the Franklin Expedition Facebook page, we now can look upon a never-before-noticed photographic image of Lieutenant John Irving. Because the family name was sometimes spelt "Irvine," and the photo was catalogued under that name, it had been missed by generations of Franklin scholars. It's appropriate, indeed, that Mr. Tedham -- who hails from Dumfries and Galloway -- rediscovered this Scottish photograph in the electronic archives of the city of Edinburgh.

The photograph is a Talbotype -- or more properly, a salted-paper positive print made from a Talbotype paper negative. Developed by William Henry Fox Talbot, this process postdated that of Daguerre, but had the advantage of not conflicting with Daguerre's patents (contrary to Daguerre's claim of having donated his invention to France and the world in exchange for a pension, he enforced his patent in Britain and the United States). Thus, while in all of England only Antoine Claudet and Richard Beard were licensed to take photographs, in Scotland, a number of photographers took up Talbot's process with his informal knowledge and consent.  Among the pioneers there was Dr. John Adamson, whom we know took at least one photograph of Harry Goodsir, and his brother Robert Adamson, who with David Ocatvius Hill formed the firm of Hill and Adamson.

The Talbotype process had one further advantage -- unlike Daguerre's, which produced a single opaque image (the metal plate from the camera itself), Talbotypes were negatives on paper, which could produce one -- or more than one -- positive print. Sensitized paper was placed atop the negative, and the resulting contact print or prints were positives. The image of Irving is one of these, and shows a high degree of skill and professionalism; Irving is posed in from of some buildings (or possibly a backdrop), but the depth of field is such that he is in sharp focus, with the background blurred. He is wearing civilian dress, with broad sideburns (a popular style choice on the Franklin Expedition, being also favored by Goodsir, Gore, and Fairholme). There is, according to the curators, no further information about the image in their files, but it's reasonable to assume that Irving had his portrait made not long prior to departing for London and thence to the Arctic. There's also good reason to attribute the image to Hill and Adamson; the style is quite like theirs, and few other photographers active at this time would have been able to make such a fine portrait.

It's remarkable to note that Franklin's expedition may not have been the first to be photographed, nor the first to have taken photographic apparatus to the Frozen Regions -- Talbot himself corresponded briefly with one of the officers of James Clark Ross's Antarctic expedition, who sought training and supplies to try his process there -- alas, we don't know whether these plans were ever followed through.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Tale of a Spoon (Part 3)

"Eothen" Log (courtesy New Bedford Whaling Museum)
When last I wrote, I'd held out hope that the log book of the whaleship "Eothen," which Thomas Barry swore would vindicate him, would -- or would not -- do so. Alas, it does neither, although it does give us some wonderful insights into the daily routine of life aboard such ships.

The vast majority of the notations in the log focus on the weather, the sighting of other ships, and other routine matters. Thomas Barry did not write the log himself, but delegated the task to one Frederick Merrill, a thorough man but somewhat challenged when it came to spelling (he spells his own name "Merel"). He rarely gives details of any shipboard doings, though at a couple of points he finds them worthy of note. On 28 July he writes that "Tonight the first Esquimaux came aboard: men, women, and girls. They gave us whale bones and deer, seal, and bear skins." When it came to the vessel's task in bringing Schwatka and his men north, there is a similarly brief note: "Franklynn [sic] Arctic Search Party," which seems to have been meant as a header for the journal as a whole. Somewhat later, around September, are several stanzas from a whalemen's alphabet song, with lines such as "I is the iron on the staysail-boom fit / J is the Jib that neatly did sit / K is the kelson that lies in the hole / L is the lanyards that take a good hold." There are many other versions of this song -- here's a common one -- it may be worth noting that in the place of the traditional "G is for Gangway," the version recorded by Merrill has "G is for grog, that seldom came 'round."

There's an extensive notation of personal supplies, including an accounting of the tobacco used by Captain Barry -- but no enumeration of the stores meant for the Schwatka group. The log ends before the voyage does; it's likely that it was continued in a succeeding volume, which is not presently available. And there's nothing -- alas -- about spoons. As to the honesty of Barry, we have no further indication here, although it's interesting to note that, despite his claim of having sent the mended spoon to Sophia Cracroft, he apparently didn't. In her own personal copy of Gilder's Schwatka's Search, Sophia added a note on the page where this claim was made: "This is not a correct statement. Barry never sent me a spoon." According to her note, once she read of this claim in the Times, she contacted the firm of Morrison and Brown and "after some negotiation" obtained one spoon -- apparently the mended one -- through the help of Professor Nourse (whose name is familiar to us today as the editor of Hall's account of his second voyage). This doesn't seem to speak well in support of Barry's overall honesty, but without any further information, it's hard to say how this misunderstanding came about. I'm continuing to research the history of these spoons -- I have at hand some papers from the Schwatka family that may prove to be of assistance -- if I find anything more, there'll be a part four.

With special thanks to Peter Collins and Michael Lapides of the New Bedford Whaling Museum for their assistance in searching and scanning the logbook of the "Eothen."

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Last Man Searching

Circular Cairn at Erebus Bay (photo courtesy Tom Gross)
I saw the headline a few days after the discovery of HMS "Erebus" -- "Hay River Man Continues Search for Franklin's Grave" -- and at once I thought to myself, this guy must have something to do with Woodman. And so it proved to be: Tom Gross has walked the stones of King William Island with Dave for many years, part of several iterations of the legendary "Project Supunger" -- and even to this day, he's returned each year on his own to continue the search.

Finding Franklin's grave, after all, would be in some ways an even more iconic discovery than that of his ships. We know that he died on 11 June, 1847, at a point when the ships were still afloat, and all the resources that would have, up until his death, been at his command would have been employed in his interment. If the graves at Beechey showed extraordinary care -- custom-made coffins with metal nameplates, and carved headboards reminiscent of an English country churchyard -- surely Franklin's grave would have been even more substantial. And that's the kind of grave that Supunger described to Charles Francis Hall: a vault, about four feet in depth and longer than a man's body, all lined with smooth, closely-fitted stones. A large wooden pole was fixed in the ground nearby, though part of it had been chewed off by a polar bear; the grave itself had been breached by some animal, with the several body parts outside, and the skull and a leg bone inside.

Some -- including the present writer -- have suggested that Irving's grave, already found by Woodman, could be the remnant of this vault, but Gross disagrees. When I reached him by phone a couple of weeks ago, he explained that the Irving grave was, and had always been, a shallow one, made of just a few rough-shaped rocks; it was not even long enough for a body to lay straight. Franklin's tomb, on the other hand, must have been as strong and substantial as possible; Supunger's description of a fortified vault, four feet in depth and as long as as wide as a man, is just what one would expect.

But finding it is another matter. Woodman's earlier Project Supunger searches worked on the assumption that the pile of clothes, stoves and kettles, and other items was the one abandoned near Crozier's Landing. Tom Gross -- having searched there -- now believes this to be mistaken; he points out that there were at least two areas of large piles of abandoned goods, inclduing one on the shores of Erebus Bay. Large cook-stoves would make more sense there -- the ships may well have been just a short distance offshore, and reachable by open water (thus the boats); Gross believes the stoves may have been used to melt ice and heat water, perhaps for drinking purposes, perhaps to enable the men to wash and prepare for their journey.

There are difficulties with this view: Supunger seems to describe the place as much further north, near the tip of the island -- but, as Gross notes, he was only about seventeen at the time, and may have mistaken the long coast of Erebus bay for the northern coastline. Gross also doubts that Supunger had ever seen something like a white man's map.

A few years back Gross heard an interesting account from an Inuk in Gjoa Haven who described how his father told him about finding a "house of stone" a ways inland from Erebus Bay, one that answers in many respects to Supunger's description. This house was made with large, smooth stones, had a stone 'doorway,' and was built into the side of a natural ridge. It's possible that, despite the many searches closer along the coast, that somewhere a ways further inland this stone house still stands.

It's a possibility Tom is willing to stake his time and money on. And so, each summer, he returns to search again. I think we should all wish him luck.