Thursday, June 30, 2011

White Snow and Red Tape

Every government has its bureaucracy, and to rail against them collectively would be absurd. All the same, for those of us who celebrated the creation of Nunavut in 1999, it's disappointing to find that the territorial government's bureaucracy can be just as complicated and slow-moving as any office in Ottawa. Good intentions for Inuit cultural self-determination have been translated into regulations, and in some cases the process has ended up delaying or defeating even the kinds of historical or archaeological research that have the support of local Inuit communities and elders.

As Ron Carlson has explained on his blog, the process for applying for any kind of archaeological work in Nunavut is particularly labyrinthine. One has to have one's request signed off on by a wide array of interested parties, including local Inuit hamlets in the vicinity of the proposed work. Mr. Carlson, to his great credit, has taken the process seriously, working closely with local Inuit leaders, and taking care to provide all the requested information. Since his project, which proposes taking aerial photographs using a thermal camera, is totally non-intrusive, one would think that approving it would be a straightforward matter -- but this is far from true. Nunavut's regulations are very strict -- even taking an ordinary photograph of a possible archaeological site without a permit -- as Bear Grylls' team did last summer -- is technically illegal. In Carlson's case, he satisfied all the various entities who had to sign off on his proposal, and had the support of the Hamlets as well -- and yet his permit was denied. The reason given was his lack of archaeological qualifications! Now, if his proposal involved putting spade into soil, or even a foot upon the ground, that would be understandable, but in this case, I personally feel the rationale borders on the absurd. His proposed search is totally without impact on the ground, undertaken at his own expense, and would produce data which he would share with any and all professional archaeologists an scholars who were interested -- a great many of whom have not the means to get up to King William Island -- and they would have been enormously grateful (I know I would). And yet, apparently, unless he can locate an archaeologist to sit in the passenger seat, this potentially valuable research won't be allowed.

Ron, to his credit, plays absolutely by the book, and he hopes to return next year with the support and/or presence of qualified archaeologists. But it's a real shame that the government of Nunavut has not seen fit to approve this year's search, which I know all of us here were very hopeful could shed new light on the Franklin mystery. Fortunately, Franklinites are very patient people -- we certainly wish Ron the best and I know we'll be there to support, and to follow, his proposed mission next year.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Rumors of Parks Canada Franklin Search

It's that time of year again when -- despite what has been for the most part a more open, accessible, and timely release of materials from the Parks Canada teams involved with the Franklin search -- we once again must strain to garner what faint rumors we can as to the nature and extent of this year's activities. Fortunately, we have the good reporting of Randy Boswell to rely upon; in a recent article posted to, Boswell outlines what he's learned so far. By his account, quiet preparations are already underway for a search this year, although PC haven't released any details yet as final agreements with private partners, as well as permits and (one supposes) funding have not yet been worked out. The logistics of sending a government expedition are daunting, and the relative expense of getting a team up there and in place during what is still a fairly small window of time, don't augur well for major progress -- it all seems to depend on whether, in the limited search area identified, searchers have the good fortune to find what so many have sought for so long without result.

There are, however, some hopeful signs; I have heard from a couple of Franklin buffs about the possibility that the Canadian government may be considering the use of LIDAR telemetry to narrow the range of targets, or (possibly) even locate the ships themselves, without having to dispatch a ground team at all. LIDAR (the name is an acronym for Light Detection and Ranging) uses lasers to create detailed maps of the surface or near subsurface features; NASA has already done some impressive work with its EAARL (Experimental Advanced Airborne Research LIDAR) in creating highly detailed 3D models of coastal features, including underwater topography. Such a system could, in theory at least, be used to obtain imagery from the region of King William Island which could include submerged features such as ships or debris fields. At the very least, it's an intriguing possibility.

In the meantime Ron Carlson -- assuming some co-operation from weather, local officials, and permits -- will soon be in Gjoa Haven making final preparations for his fly-over of key KWI sites using thermal sensing technology, in hopes that he may be able to identify the site of Franklin's grave. It could be a very interesting year indeed.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Ron Carlson's Franklin Search

Over the years, as readers may imagine, I've been in touch with all kinds of people who've had ideas about searching for traces of Sir John Franklin. I've heard from psychics, conspiracy theorists, supposed "direct" descendants, pathologists, poets, and glaciologists -- each with their own angle on the Franklin mystery. But until now, I've rarely known a Franklin searcher as ready, as able, and as determined as is Ron Carlson. Carlson, by his own account, first caught the Franklin bug from my late friend Chauncey Loomis's book on CF Hall, Weird and Tragic Shores. Many who have read Chauncey's book have wondered about the loose ends of the search for the elusive "Aglooka," but as the Wizard of Oz might have put it, Mr. Carlson had one thing the others hadn't got -- an airplane. With his DeHavilland Beaver, one of the legendary workhorses of the North, and his many hours of flying experience, Carlson has set out to do a fly-over of King William Island equipped with thermal sensing cameras to detect potential Franklin burial sites. He has even, in a move reminiscent of Hall's practice camp near the Cincinnati Observatory, constructed a mock-grave in his own backyard to see whether his thermal sensing equipment could detect it -- and it could.

I retain some skepticism, of course: any Franklin grave, 160+ years later, could have receded into the background radiation of thermal imagery, much as the grave of Lieutenant Irving receded back into the visual static of rocky scree and boulders. Nevertheless, given the enormous size of the area to be searched, it seems a very sensible approach to use any sort of visual or scientific telemetry to identify worthy targets in a (frozen) ocean of possibilities. Dave Woodman did much the same with his magnetometer search, and Parks Canada have tried the same approach with side-scan sonar. Even if, on examination, most of the targets proved to be natural features, we certainly need something to limit the size of the haystack in which we are to search for this needle.

Ron has an excellent blog in which he's detailed his progress so far, including landing at Arctic airstrips in adverse wind conditions, relocating an abandoned HBC post, and visiting a church in Churchill whose stained-glass windows were donated by Lady Franklin -- I urge everyone who follows my blog to follow his! There's also just been a great article on Ron's efforts in the Lakeland Times. I'm sure that the best wishes of all Franklin buffs go with him on his search this season!