Sunday, July 8, 2018

Northward, Ho!

Image courtesy London Science Museum, cc-by-SA 4.0
It's that time of year again. Just when enormous heat waves have finished frying eggs on sidewalks from Sligo to San Francisco, I hear the call of the North -- which this year, comes once again in the form of a series of shipboard lectures for the adventure cruise line One Ocean Expeditions. I'm delighted to work with them again, now aboard the Akademik Ioffe, the sister ship of the Akademik Vavilov, on which I served last summer. There is something about the sight of ice through a porthole which energizes the soul, and makes a 7:30 a.m. staff meeting not seem early at all (and of course the sun is always up!).

I'll be on some different routes this time, working my way up the eastern seaboard of Canada from the Maritimes, through Newfoundland and Labrador, and then along the coast of Baffin Island, finishing my tour at the Franklin expedition graves on Beechey. I'm looking forward to talking about the stories of Labrador Inuit who found themselves on stage at World's Fairs and exhibitions in the late nineteenth century, some of whom actually appeared in early Hollywood films; to seeing the peaks of the Torngat Mountains National Park, and watching the southward drift of Greenland-calved icebergs. Then, as we head up the coast of Baffin, I look forward to visiting many places I've never been before (Sunshine Fjord, Auyuittuq National Park, and the Niginganiq Wildlife Area), as well as some I have, such as Pond Inlet, where I hope to meet up with old friends.

Knowing the limitations of shipboard Internet -- e-mail only, at the state it was around 1996, with no attachments larger than 256k! -- I'll have to wait to share my experiences unil my return in mid-August, but I plan to do so again in a series of posts here. At the same time, I'll be eager to hear news of the multiple expeditions that will be underway at the same time on King William Island, searching for signs of the storied vault or tomb which may contain records of the Franklin expedition -- or perhaps the bones of Sir John himself. One of these, the "Bayne/Coleman Expedition," is led by my friends Russ Taichman and Tom Gross, the latter the "Last Man Searching" of my book Finding Franklin. The other, organized by Adventure Science, will be searching from Cape Felix at the northern tip of KWI to Terror Bay on its southern coast. I wish both groups all the best of luck in their endeavors. And of course, this year's search by the underwater archaeology team at Parks Canada will  have everyone's attention; with the cooperation of Inuit organizations and the new Guardians program, as well as the dedicated support of the newly refurbished RV David Thompson, their work this summer on HMS Erebus and HMS Terror promises great things. I have a feeling it will be a year to remember.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Sir John Franklin's Tomb

Drawing by Danny Aaluk for Louie Kamookak
For some, it's even more of an 'Arctic Grail' than Franklin's ships, and with Erebus and Terror found, it's the one thing that has evaded searchers the longest: the fabled tomb of Sir John Franklin. Like the ships, there are stories in the recorded Inuit testimony about such a place, a stone vault covered over with two layers of large flat stones, near which a tall pole had stood before it was bitten or broken off by a polar bear.

My late friend Louie Kamookak, whose work on Inuit traditional knowledge has been such a significant part of the many new discoveries made in the past few years, had hoped to make a fresh search for this storied vault in the summer of 2018 -- a search that, alas, is not to be -- but I know that others will take up the cause and carry on. Some years ago, he asked Gjoa Haven artist Danny Aaluk to draw an image of this vault as it was described; in Louie's version, the post may have been the vertical part of a wooden cross (see above), though in other reconstructions it's been imagined as a flagpole.

Tom Gross, who accompanied Dave Woodman on several of his "Project Supunger" searches (Supunger or See-pun-ger is the Inuk whose stories of a stone vault, told to Charles Francis Hall, started it all), has searched nearly every year, and hopes to return this summer as well, and several other parties will be in the area as well. Much depends on good planning (getting all the needed permits from the Government of Nunavut), good weather, and good luck -- but there's no reason that this might not be the year that the site is located. The short searching season, and the uniformity of the flat, rocky, barren land are obstacles -- but surely, with enough effort, the land can yield more of its secrets.

I wish Tom and everyone else all the best in their endeavors. And, knowing how widely the Franklin story is now known -- much more so in the wake of AMC's "The Terror" series -- I thought it might be useful to place some of the original testimony and accounts here. I've created a separate page for the Inuit testimony itself, and would also note the following frequently-asked questions/assumptions:
• Might not Sir John have been "buried at sea"? Other commanders were given this kind of burial, but given Franklin's importance -- and the fact that, just to get to the "sea" his crews would have had to blast a hole in the ice -- this seems to be unlikely. His men may at the time have cherished the idea of returning his remains to England, which also augurs for a land burial. 
• Might Franklin have been preserved on board, either in a keg of rum a là Nelson, or in a coffin? Might he even be the heavy man with the "long teeth"? Either of these seems to me very unlikely; the preservation of Nelson was an exigency demanded by the warm weather and length of journey home, which was both known and possible; Franklin's men faced a far longer and more uncertain haul. And, even with the cold, a body kept on board ship would have decomposed; two of the Beechey burials show signs of this, and their only wait was for coffin and grave -- it's hard to imagine Franklin's men keeping a moldering corpse on board for a year or more.
• Since Sir John Franklin died on June 11th, 1847, while his ships were still beset northwest of Cape Felix (the northern tip of King William Island), the assumption has generally been that his grave or tomb would be near here. There are signs of a camp in this area, one that was occupied for some time, or (perhaps) repeatedly over more than one summer; this would surely have been the most convenient place for a burial. 
• Some, however, regard Supunger's testimony as possibly misleading -- he was only 14 years old at the time, and may have mistaken the coast of Erebus Bay for the northern limit of King William -- if so, the argument goes, Franklin's tomb might be here instead. 
• While Franklin's body and his personal effects would certainly be of extraordinary interest, the story of a stone vault is also mixed up with that of a vault constructed with Inuit witnesses, and sealed with concrete (something wet that when it dried became "all the same stone." Both this vault, described in the so-called Peter Bayne story, and the tomb found by Supunger and his uncle, have been supposed to conatin written records or logs of the expedition, a prospect which -- for many -- is even more exciting than that of a corpse!

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The man with chains attached to his ears ...

Many of those who  watched the final episode of AMC's "The Terror" were puzzled -- or horrified -- by the scene in which Captain Crozier finds Lieutenant Little -- or what's left of him -- his face festooned with tiny gold chains. This detail, so strange and haunting in the show, is in fact drawn directly from the testimony of Inuit who saw the bodies of Franklin's men. The sight of skeletons with gold chains about their necks was reported by multiple witnesses, both those who spoke with Charles Francis Hall in the 1860's, as well as others who spoke with Schwatka nearly twenty years later. What could this mean? Were these just decorative jewelry items worn by the men, or was there some more sinister explanation for them?

An Inuit woman who spoke with Hall told what Dave Woodman calls "one of the most powerful of all Inuit remembrances":
[An old woman] and her husband went to a big tent not very far from Neitchille, and among the frozen mass of human bones and bodies that were lying around in it she saw one Kob-lu-na body that had a bright white (probably silver) chain around the neck. She knew at once what the chain was for, as some of the other Neitchille Innuits had just come into possession of several watches and chains, which she saw.The body of this man was lying on one side, and was half imbedded in solid ice from head to feet. The way the chain was about the neck and running down one side of the body indicated that the watch was beneath it; and therefore, to get at the watch, she found a difficult and disagreeable task before her. Neither she nor her husband had any instrument with them that they would use for any such purpose as was desired; therefore, while the husband was seeking around, she procured a heavy sharp stone, and with this chipped away the ice from all round the body till it was released ... [The woman] could never forget the dreadful, fearful feelings she had all the time while engaged doing this; for, besides the tent being filled with frozen corpses - some entire and others mutilated by some of the starving companions, who had cut off much of the flesh with their knives and hatchets and eaten it - this man who had the watch she sought seemed to her to have been the last that died, and his face was just as though he was only asleep. All the while she was at work breaking the ice near the head, especially the ice about the face, she felt very bad, and for this reason had to stop several times. She was very careful not to touch any part of the body while pounding with the sharp stone. At last, after having pounded away the ice from around and under the body, her husband helped her to lift it out of its icy bed. Still she was troubled to get the watch from the frozen garments with which the body was completely dressed.
Those who have at times accused the Inuit of a want of feeling in recovering items from Franklin's men would do well to read that passage! Still, the idea of many men wearing watches around their necks sounds odd to us today: why wouldn't they be kept in pockets -- why around the neck? And why so many? And yet, if one sifts through all the testimony, it seems that watches were fairly ubiquitous; Hall heard multiple witnesses who echoed stories of of "watches found in the tent, found there in some of the clothes that covered some of the skeletons, some with chains knotted around the necks of the skeletons."

Frederick Schwatka heard such tales as well, in particular from a woman named “Ogzeuckjeuwock," who described the curious adornment one of one man who was found “with the flesh on.” This man “had a gold chain fastened to gold ear-rings, and a gold hunting-case watch with engine-turned engravings attached to the chain, and hanging down about the waist.[W]hen he pulled the chain it pulled the head up by the ears." Schwatka's companion Heinrich Klutschak similarly recorded “he wore ear-rings and a watch fastened to them (the ear rings) by means of a chain," though it seems that the nature of these adornments was the subject of some debate.

As my late friend Garth Walpole noted in his Relics of the Franklin Expedition:
It appears that that the [Inuit] statements had been forcibly challenged by Schwatka, Gilder and Klutschak. Gilder thought it particularly odd and tried to account for it. He believed that although the statement itself was peculiar, it was given in good faith and so concluded that either the chain had somehow become attached to the ears or he was just eccentric and liked to wear his watch in this fashion (Gilder 2006:73). The description given appears to be indicative of part of a pocket watch, but if the body was that of “Doktuk,” then the adornment may have been a stethoscope. If it was hanging around his neck, it may have looked as though it was attached to his ears. One could reasonably suppose that as a doctor, he may have felt it his duty to check the life signs of those with him; if not theirs then his own? All of the various accounts mention in association to the adornments a ring worn by the individual. While Klutschak’s account simply stated that the individual “wore a ring on his finger,” Schwatka and Gilder both recorded that it was a “gold ring found on the ring finger of the right hand” and, like the books, it too was given to the children and lost.
We may never know the precise significance of these golden accoutrements, but their presence is undeniable. The idea that the man with the "flesh on" may have been a doctor certainly adds pathos to possibility, and inevitably makes me think of Harry Goodsir, so memorably brought back to life by Paul Ready in the AMC series. The flexible-tube stethoscope had only been invented in 1840, but our progressive, forward-looking surgeon naturalist would, it seems, surely have been one of its early adopters. 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Inuit cast of AMC's "The Terror"

Nive Nielsen and Johnny Issaluk on set
One of the best things about AMC's "The Terror" is that, unlike many other film and televisions productions, they made a very conscious decision to cast Inuit in Inuit roles. This might seem the obvious choice, but so many others have cast Japanese, Mongolian, or even Mexican-American actors in Inuit roles over the past decades, that it breaks away powerfully from a long Hollywood tradition.  Sadly enough, the last time all Inuit were cast in all Inuit roles by a major studio may well have been in 1911, when "The Way of the Eskimo" -- a film since lost -- was made, starring Nancy Columbia, her mother Esther Eneutseak and other Labrador Inuit (Nancy was also credited as the author of the film's scenario).

Great praise, and rightly so, has been heaped upon Nive Nielsen for her role as "Lady Silence." There was a broad and early effort to find and cast an Inuk in this role. Their search led them to Nielsen, who was at the time on tour with her band, Nive & the Deer Children; her preliminary auditions were conducted via Skype! Her role is arguably the most central one next to those of the ships' commanding officers, and stretches from the beginning to the end of the series. Her performance is all the more remarkable since from episode six onwards, she must be silent, not only in name, and convey all her thoughts and feelings solely through her face and gestures.

A newcomer to southerly audiences, Johnny Issaluk is well-known in Nunavut, not only for his previous acting roles in films such as Kajuktalik and Two Lovers and a Bear, but also for his appearance on widely-circulated posters advocating good health and avoiding alcohol and cigarettes. He also serves as an advisor to the 2014-2018 Sedna Epic Expedition, as well as with the Students On Ice Foundation, which brings young people age 14-18 up to the Arctic. Although his character is not named -- he's listed in the credits simply as "Netsilik Hunter" -- his presence in both the opening and closing scenes of the series serves as a powerful bookend, a reminder that the men of the Franklin expedition were traveling through a land well-known to the Inuit, who had lived and hunted there for thousands of years, and live there still.

Kotierk as Kumaglak in Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner
Inuit actors also appear in other smaller but significant roles: Igloolik resident Apayata Kotierk, known for playing the shaman Kumaglak in Zacharias Kunuk's award-winning 2001 film Atanarjuat, is cast in a similar role in The Terror as Lady Silence's father, the angakkuq who originally summons the "Tuunbaq" (more properly, tuurngaq) spirit that, disconnected from its master when the shaman dies, attacks Franklin's men. And Vinnie Karetak, known for both serious and comic work -- his comedy show Qanurli? is the first of its kind in Inuktitut -- plays "Koveyook," the leader of the small band of Inuit who give seal meat to the famished Lieutenant Irving.

Vinnie Karetak (2nd from left), with Ronan Raferty as Lieutenant John Irving

Taken together, the performances of these Inuit cast members give "The Terror" a degree of authenticity and drama that no other major-network television series has had, and prove that, the next time a major production comes calling, there will be no excuse not to hire Inuit actors for Inuit roles.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

One million views!

It's been a long road since that day, on February 20th of 2009, when I first launched this Visions of the North blog. So much has happened since then, including the discovery of both of Sir John Franklin's long-lost ships. At some point late last night, the odometer turned over the one million mark. On the graph, you can see the surge in traffic that corresponds with each event -- with HMS Terror making an even bigger splash than HMS Erebus. But the biggest splash of all, it seems, coincides with AMC's "The Terror," which has brought more fresh interest in the Franklin story than the actual ships themselves! Let's hope that, with another search season for Parks Canada, Michael Palin's upcoming Erebus: The Story of a Ship, and the opening of the first US installation of the "Death of the Ice" exhibit at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, that this interest will continue to grow! With thanks to everyone who stopped by.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Franklin Expedition Documentaries

Inspired by the current AMC television series "The Terror," based on Dan Simmons' novel of the same name, many viewers have been seeking more information about the actual histories of the Franklin Expedition. I've posted here before with some book recommendations, but for those who would rather -- or in addition -- watch a documentary film, there are quite a few to choose from. Since 1988, in fact, there have been no fewer than eight, and with the discovery of HMS Terror in 2016, there are probably more to come. So here's an annotated list, with links to online versions wherever those are available.

1988 NOVA: Buried in Ice -- The Franklin Expedition This first of all Franklin documentaries focuses on the exhumations of the three men of the expedition buried at Beechey Island, with the participation of archaeologist Owen Beattie and writer/historian John Geiger, co-authors of Frozen in Time. It's a dramatic story, well told, and one that still exercises a nearly magnetic pull on all who have taken up an interest in the Franklin story since then.

1994 CBC, "The Mysterious Franklin Disappearance" This is more of a mini-news-feature than a full documentary, but it features interviews with many key figures, among them Rudy Wiebe, Pierre Berton, Margaret Atwood, and Barry Ranford, the man whose search in 1993 uncovered one of the key archaeological sites on land, which became the source of inavluable new evidence about cannibalism, lead poisoning, and scurvy.

2001 History Channel: Arctic Tomb (unavailable online) A more tradional long-format documentary, made in the early days of the History Channel when it was still working to make a name for itself, it's the first to feature historical re-enactments (the actor who plays Franklin seems perfectly to capture his mild-mannered, religiously sincere persona). Numerous Franklin experts of the day, among them the late Chauncey Loomis and Louie Kamookak, along with Ralph Lloyd-Jones add depth to the presentation. It's only available via a scarce VHS tape these days, though a digital copy is probably out there somewhere.

2005 NOVA: Arctic Passage -- Prisoners of the Ice This is the documentary I first appeared in, and probably the biggest-budget effort yet made to tell the Franklin story. The first half of a two-hour two parter (the second recounts Roald Amundsen's achievement of the Passage), it also features Francis Spufford, Benedict Allen, Anne Keenleyside, and the late Roy "Fritz" Koerner, whose ice core studies suggested Franklin sailed at a period of unusually cold weather. Both the re-enactments and some of the on-camera experts, such as myself, were shot on location on Beechey Island and near the hamlet of Gjoa Haven on King William Island.

2005 Crossing the Line Pictures: Franklin's Lost Expedition. Produced by the Irish documentarian John Murray, this film comes closest to capturing the feeling of the Franklin search in the years before either ship was found. Dave Woodman, whose work on Inuit testimony and tireless work on land, is a featured interviewee, as we see scenes from the Irish-Canadian Franklin Search Expedition, which Murray co-sponsored. Andrew Lambert is our on-camera expert, and there are some excellent segments, including my favorite: a scene where muscular new RCMP recruits try dragging a fully-loaded Franklin-era sledge across a frozen lake in Saskatchewan; by the end of the day, they're utterly exhausted and barely able to stumble into the nearest Tim Horton's.

2008 John Walker's Passage (clip only) Passage is a fascinating hybrid -- in parts, a magnificently acted and realized dramatization of Dr. John Rae's bringing of Inuit testimony about cannibalism back to Britain, and in part a sort of making-of documentary, including discussions and debates within which modern figures -- Ken McGoogan, Tagak Curley, Maria Pisa Casarini, Ernie Coleman, and John Muir -- add to the historical context and show why and how this story matters. The appearance of Charles Dickens's great-great-grandson near the end leads to a truly memorable scene.

2014 Mill Creek: The Northwest Passage: The Last Great Frontier (clip only). A modest film done mostly using archival imagery and interviews, this was my second go-round in the documentary lens. It's well-done overall, though it misses some of the depth it could have had with location footage and a wider array of speakers.

2015 NOVA: Arctic Ghost Ship. This documentary, interestingly, was originally directed by Andrew Gregg, who was the photographer and videographer for the 1994 CBC segment. It was re-edited, however for the UK and US markets, so not all the same segments have all the same on-camera experts. Huw Lewis-Jones appears throughout all three, but Louie Kamookak only in the US version; the Canadian edit makes good use of Ken McGoogan's expertise. I served as a behind-the-scenes consultant on this version, the first to include the finding of HMS "Erebus" in 2014, and I can say that all three versions are quite good!

Friday, April 27, 2018

Harry Peglar and his papers

The "roundel" from Peglar's Papers
As imagined by AMC's writers, and vividly brought to life by Kevin Guthrie, Harry Peglar is a pensive, thoughtful, reflective man. Under the mentorship of subordinate officers' steward John Bridgens (John Lynch), who feeds him books from Shakespeare to Herodotus, he evolves into one of the key figures of the story, particularly as it reaches its later stages. It's no accident that the episode titles of two of the last three installments -- "The Terror Camp Clear" and "The C, the C, the open C!" are both lines taken from the mysterious "Peglar Papers," of which he was the presumed author, and which constitute the sole surviving written record -- aside from the "Victory Point Note" -- yet recovered from the expedition. So who was Peglar, in real life? Who was Bridgens? How much did the show's writers draw from his writings, and what can we learn from these cryptic, mostly backwards-written papers?

Peglar's old neighborhood
Thanks to the work of pioneering Franklin scholars Richard Cyriax and A.G.E. Jones, we know a bit more about Peglar than the other regular seamen aboard Franklin's ships. Harry Peglar was born in either 1811 or 1812; his father was a gunsmith with a shop at 12 Buckingham Row, Petty France (later Victoria Street), Westminster. As Jones observes, and as we can see on this detail from Stanford's Library Map of London, the Blue Coat (now Blewcoat) School was quite nearby, and Peglar might possibly have attended (the building still stands, though now used as a fashionware shop. Like other similar charity schools, it would have provided young Harry with the sort of rudimentary education that was, at the time, thought all that poor children needed, or could use.

This modest training was supplemented when Peglar entered the Marine Society, which prepared young men for navy or merchant service; on his entry in 1825, he was noted as being able to both read and write. He was only there a month before being dispatched to the Solebay training station for his final practical training, after which he was issued a set of sea-going clothes, along with needles and thread, a canvas bag, a prayer book, and a copy of the Reverend Sellar's Abridgement of the Bible (one can imagine that his tendency to quote or paraphrase passages from these books must have had its roots here).

His career at sea was an extensive one; before joining the "Terror" he'd served aboard more than a dozen ships, from the Clio in 1825 to the Temeraire in 1844, on voyages to China, Singapore, Bombay, and the West Indies. His conduct was generally noted as satisfactory, though he did earn one indication of unsatisfactory while aboard the Marquis Camden in 1833, where he was cited for drunkenness and mutinous conduct -- for which he was given two dozen lashes and disrated to an ordinary seaman. The lesson apparently took, though, as his conduct was good for the rest of his career, and he re-ascended the ranks, coming aboard Terror as "Captain of the Foretop" -- quite a senior grade.

The wallet that contained the papers
As his papers testify, though, his literacy in writing was somewhat wanting; he tended to spell phonetically (Jamaker for Jamaica, wissel for whistle, and sitty for city). It would seem unlikely that he was very widely read, as one would think that would have influenced his spelling habits, and a volume of Herodotus would seem quite a challenge! But the relationship with Bridgens (who was in fact more than a decade his junior) is the show's way of representing the fact that Peglar's infamous papers were found in the jacket pocket of a corpse on King William Island, that of a man who, when living, tied his neckerchief in a steward's knot, and wore a coat with cloth-covered buttons -- telltale signs of his shipboard status as a steward.

Two candidates have been proposed for this person from among the crew of the Terror: William Armitage, the gun-room steward, and William Gibson, the subordinate officers' steward (the same rank as Bridgens on Erebus). Both had served with Peglar before, giving ground for the presumption that the dead steward was, as a friend, hoping to carry Peglar's papers home (he in this theory being deceased). Recent work by Glenn M. Stein seems to indicate that Armitage was illiterate, whereas Gibson was not -- which could be a key detail. His paper "Scattered Memories and Frozen Bones: Revealing a Sailor of the Franklin Expedition, 1845-48" is available free from my website as a .pdf.

As to the papers themselves, they are their own special enigma; I've been quoted as referring to them as the "Dead Sea Scrolls of the North." Not only are nearly all of them written backwards, but they contain almost nothing relating to the Franklin expedution, with the exception of a blank page headed "lines writ in the Arctic" and the enigmatic "the Terror Camp Clear" (or, I should say, Eht Rerrot Pmac Raelc!) I've spent more than twenty years working to decipher them, with some success, following in the footsteps of Cyriax and Jones. Those who wish to go down the rabbit hole -- you've been warned -- may read my most recent analysis, which appeared a few years ago in the Trafalgar Chronicle. You can also search this blog for earlier posts about Peglar -- no stone has been left unturned -- I've even identified the torn newspaper clipping with which his wallet (see above) was lined -- but the enigma remains.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

A "deed of gift" -- and a gift indeed!

It's been a long time in the making -- roughly twenty years or so -- but the two ships that sailed as Sir John Franklin's last, lost expedition -- HMS Erebus and HMS Terror -- have now been officially given to the people of Canada by the government of the United Kingdom.

It all began in 1997. That was the year that Canada and the UK signed their first "memorandum of understanding," which stated their mutual agreement that Franklin's ships, if found, would be given to Canada, with the exception of three things: Gold (not bloody likely), the bodies of the dead (to be repatriated if practical), and objects deemed "to be of outstanding significance to the history of the Royal Navy." It was a hypothetical division of the spoils, to be sure -- neither ship had yet been found -- and it predates the era when the Harper government made finding these ships such a priority. The main force behind it, I would say, was the increasing realization -- particularly in light of the dramatic exhumations of the Franklin soilors' bodies at Beechey Island by Owen Beattie in 1984 and 1986, as well as the excavations at Erebus Bay undertaken by Anne Keenleyside and Margaret Bertulli -- that the Franklin story, among the many other things it was, was increasingly, distinctively, a Canadian story.

With the discovery of the ships themselves in 2014 and 2016, though, the plot thickened. The precise meaning of the MOU, and the definition of "outstanding significance" raised a host of issues that now appeared as obstacles. And so, although Britain's then-defense minister Sir Michael Fallon announced late in 2017 that the ships were indeed to be given to Canada, this was followed by a very long pause, as negotiators met over weeks, and then months, to hammer out the details of how this transfer would be made.

Enter Canada's new Environment minister, Catherine McKenna, along with Susan le Jeune d'Allegeershecque, the High Commissioner to Canada. At today's press conference, the implication seemed to be that they had, together, brokered an end to the logjam of back-and-forth negotations, and indeed it seems that they have, as they signed the formal "deed of gift" for the two vessels. Those who remembered the history of the earlier agreement were led, of course, to wonder when it was mentioned that the items of "special significance" had been deemed to be the 65 items already brought back from HMS Erebus by Parks Canada's underwater aracheologists, many of which are part of the current exhibition at the Canadian Museum of History, which hosted the signing news conference.

It's a peculiar solution to a peculiar problem. On the one hand, it seems a sad and sudden loss to surrender these 65 items, which were removed from the wreck of the Erebus and conserved in laboratories in Canada at considerable expense. On the other, it is certainly the case that the remaining artifacts -- which will likely include written materials -- will eventually number many times that figure. I was initially a bit upset at the idea, but it's grown on me as I've thought on those things which are yet to come.

The other major takeaway from the press conference is that the Inuit Heritage Trust have given their blessing to this settlement, and that their ongoing co-operation and co-ownership of artifacts with Parks Canada is secure. The IHT spokesman, Torsten Diesel, spoke of the invaluable contributions of the late Louie Kamookak (in whose memory a moment of silence was observed) along with Sammy Kogvik, and the older Inuit testimony that have all been vital to the finding of the ships. He and the Trust hope -- and it's a hope I share -- that this will add momentum to their efforts to raise funds for a proper Archives of Nunavut, which would be able to conserve and house future findings, along with all the vast collection of materials currently held in trust for the GN at various museums and archives.

The ultimate point of all this complex history, though, is a simple one. With legal issues such as ownership and management cleared up, and with the dedicated support of their new research vessel the David Thompson, Mark-André Bernier and his Parks Canada team will finally be able to proceed with their work free from the many complications these matters created when unresolved. I'm very happy for them, and looking forward enormously to the finds of this year, and many years to come.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Stephen Samuel Stanley

Due in large part to his icily brilliant portrayal by Alistair Petrie in AMC's current series "The Terror," Stephen Samuel Stanley has moved into sudden prominence among Franklin's officers and men. Petrie seems to have picked up on a certain hint of haughtiness, which seems to me evident in his Daguerreotype: he is posed at his ease, face at a perfect 3/4 angle, with just the slightest hint of a smile -- doubtless one of self-satisfaction. In the series, Petrie expands this into a consistently arch, aloof, private man, who repeatedly emphasizes that Mr. Goodsir is not a doctor, while he is "Doctor Stanley."

But who was he in real life? Was he in fact a doctor of medicine? And who is the mysterious "daughter" alluded to in one episode (she appears in a drawing in his journal), the one who may (or may not) love birds?

HMS Cornwallis in service as a jetty
Stephen Samuel Stanley qualified and entered the Navy as an assistant surgeon on June 5th, 1838. There were a number of ways he could have qualified for this post -- a degree in medicine was not required, -- although there is a record indicating he studied for a time under Sir William Fergusson, at the time Britain's leading anatomist and later sergeant-surgeon to HM the Queen. As with many of the other younger officers, Stanley first saw active duty in the China War of 1842, aboard HMS Cornwallis. The Cornwallis, a 74-gun third rater, saw considerable action, and was selected as the site for the Treaty of Nanking to be signed. Remarkably, although built in 1813 (the same year as HMS Terror), the Cornwallis was converted to a jetty and survived until 1957, when she was broken up at Sheerness.

As to Stanley himself, the record is less clear. Although it's not often mentioned -- and wasn't apparently known to some of his brother officers -- he was married, and had at least one (step) child, a son, Samuel Leopold Stanley, who died in 1861 at the age of 27 in Hastings. This would have made him a lad of eleven when the Franklin expedition sailed. Curiously, the record shows that our Stephen married Mary Ann Windus on May 10th, 1845 -- this would have been scarcely ten days before the ships sailed! This raises the possibility that the son was Mary's from a previous marriage -- and yet, for whatever reason, Stanley did not alter his will of 1839, which made no mention of, or provisions for, any family. Mary Ann died in 1873 at the age of 67, and was mentioned in her notices as Stanley's widow; although the AMC series makes reference to a daughter, there is no record of any other children. A genealogist of the Windus family, who has done a good deal of digging into the matter, believes that the son was in fact Mary Ann's, born as Samuel Leopold Speight -- Speight being the name of her first husband, Samuel Speight, from whom she'd separated after he was declared a bankrupt in 1835. It's a tangled web, indeed.

Regarding his character and habits, we have only a few fragmentary scraps of evidence. James Fitzjames, who served with him in China and was likely responsible for his appointment, seems to have thought highly of him, though he didn't pass over his faults:
"He was in the Cornwallis a short time, where he worked very hard in his vocation. Is rather inclined to be good-looking, but is fat or flabby as if from drinking beer, with jet-black hair, very white hands (which are always abominably clean), and the shirt sleeves tucked up; giving one unpleasant ideas that he would not mind cutting one's leg off immediately -- 'if not sooner.' He is thoroughly good-natured and obliging, and very attentive to our mess."
Harry Goodsir, the expedition's assistant surgeon and naturalist, who served directly under Stanley, was somewhat less charitable in his letters home:
"Stanley  is a  would-be great man who as I first supposed would not make  any effort  at work after a time. He is at present however altho  he knows nothing whatever about his subject & is ignorant enough of  all other  subjects showing it more than any other person I  ever  met with in consequence of his speaking so much."
There is only one other, enigmatic clue as to the fate of Stanley. On Montreal Island, a search expedition led by James Anderson found two small pieces of wood; on one was scratched "Erebus" and on the other "Mr Stanley." Thinking back to his character as played by Petrie, one may well wince at this final demotion to "Mr." -- and wonder if, just perhaps, the wood was a little singed around the edges.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The "Last Resource"

In next week's episode five of AMC's "The Terror," Captain Crozier, seeing Henry Collins approach with a party from "Erebus," quips "Ah, Mr. Collins! How fares the Raft of the Medusa?" Given the ships' already hellish names, the reference might slip by some -- or perhaps seem simply an allusion to the crowded conditions aboard ship -- but in 1847, a far darker meaning would have been obvious to anyone, as Théodore Géricault's infamous painting of that name had become a byword for cannibalism.

The painting was based on the wreck of the French frigate Méduse, which sank in July of 1816; what followed was one of the most harrowing shipwreck stories of all time. A raft, made of parts of timber from the ship, was crowded with nearly a hundred and fifty people; over the next two weeks, all would perish but fifteen of them. Dehyrdration (some drank sea-water and died even more painfully), starvation, and drowning took many, and in their final desperation, cannibalism was resorted to by the survivors. The painting itself stirred its own controversy; Géricault consigned it to a somewhat unscrupulous art-dealer, who took it on a one-painting tour of Europe that was condemned for making money off an image of disaster. At one of its appearances, in Dublin Ireland, it was upstaged by a moving panorama of the same subject, which had the added attraction of being personally narrated by one of the survivors!

It's a fairly well-known story today how Dr. John Rae, along with the almost-sacred relics of Franklin and his men, brought back Inuit testimony that some of them has resorted to what he called "the last resource." The Inuit told of boots containing cooked flesh, bones broken open for the marrow, and piles of skulls. On arrival in England, Rae's testimony proved explosive; he had intended it only for his private report to the Admiralty, but it ended up on the pages of The Times. He received the £10,000 reward for ascertaining the fate of Franklin, but was shunned by Lady Franklin and many other Arctic hands. His toughest opponent turned out to be Charles Dickens, who -- after the seeming-kindness of offering to print Rae's full report in his magazine Household Words -- launched into a two-part tirade, "The Lost Arctic Voyagers," in which he argued that no good Christian navy man would resort to such behavior, and that hostile Inuit were to blame. Thanks to the careful  forensic work of Anne Keenleyside, we now have clear evidence that Dickens was wrong, and that the Inuit testimony was, as it has again and again proven to be, truthful.

Dickens, as it happens, had been obsessed with the subject of cannibalism since he was a boy. Working in a boot blacking factory, he managed to set aside a penny a week for a subscription to a lurid magazine calling itself The Terrific Register. To his friend John Foster, Dickens quipped that for a mere penny, the magazine frighened the wits out of his head, "which, considering that there was an illustration to every number in which there was always a pool of blood, and at least one body, was cheap." Among these was the case of a miser, Mr. Foscue, who was so fond of his money that he had himself locked in his own bank vault; some time later, he was found dead, having endeavored to sustain himself by eating his own flesh, fork in hand. Some Dickens scholars feel this story planted the seeds of the character of Ebenezer Scrooge!

Dickens's obsession with the subject continued into adulthood; on hearing of Dr. Rae's report, he immediately wrote to his friend W.H. Wills (the managing editor of Household Words): "It has occurred to me that I am rather strong on voyages and cannibalism and might do an interesting little paper for next number on that part of Dr. Rae's report, taking the arguments against its probabilities. Can you get me a newspaper cutting containing his report?" He did, and Dickens was as good as his word. In his paper, he not only cast doubt on the Inuit testimony brought home by Rae, but embarked on a lengthy catalog of every single well-known instance of cannibalism at sea. The "Raft of the Medusa" was therefore part of his subject; as with the other instances, Dickens used it to advance his view that cannibalism was impossible among well-disciplined, Christian English men -- but of course, as to ill-disciplined Frenchmen:
No discipline worthy of the name had been observed aboard the Medusa from the minute of her weighing anchor. The captain had inexplicably delegated his authority "to a man who did not belong to the staff. He was an ex-officer of the marines, who had just left an English prison, where he had been for ten years." This man held the ship's course against the protest of the officers, who warned him what would come of it. The work of the ship had been so ill done, that even the common manoeuvres necessary to the saving of a boy who fell overboard, had been bungled, and the boy had been needlessly lost. Important signals had been received from one of the ships in company, and neither answered nor reported to the captain. The Medusa had been set afire through negligence. When she struck, desertion of duty, mean evasion, and fierce recrimination, wasted the precious moments. "It is probable that if one of the first officers set the example, order would have been restored; but every one was left to himself."
All this, of course, was brought home by Dickens's intense admiration for Franklin and his officers and crew. Franklin's presence alone, he reasoned, rendered such a thing impossible (he apparently forgot that cannibalism also occurred on Franklin's first land expedition -- and did not know that Franklin had died the year before the ships were abandoned, as this was only learned in 1859). Naval discipline, the good character and cheer of the men, and their essential Englishness formed the rest of the guarantee.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The (other) books behind "The Terror"

In browsing my Twitter feed about AMC's new series "The Terror," I was a little surprised to see a --possibly mock -- complaint hurling an obscenity at any show that starts by "making me read." Fair enough, mate; no one's really going to make you read -- but for those who might want to read more about the story behind the show, I thought it might possibly be helpful to offer a few recommendations. After all, the Franklin story has been the principal or partial subject of well over a hundred books, including not only historical studies, but more than two dozen novels, many written long before Dan Simmons's, on which the series is based. When you consider that Jules Verne wrote one of the first, The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, back in 1864, you have some idea of the length of this interest; between fiction and nonfiction the list of possible readings seems almost too much for even the most voracious reader to tackle. So where to begin? Herewith, some suggestions.

Until 2014, neither of Franklin's ships had been found, a circumstance which limited the scope of history but served as a spur to fiction. Those who love Tobias Menzies' portrayal of James Fitzjames have two excellent choices on either side: John Wilson's novel North With Franklin: The Lost Journals of James Fitzjames, and the late William Battersby's biography James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition. For viewers who want to learn more about Ciarán Hinds's Franklin, there's Andrew Lambert's biography (thorough but tedious, in my view), or the more wide-ranging and lively The Man Who Ate His Boots by Anthony Brandt. And those -- and there are many -- who've been especially drawn in by Jared Harris's darkly brilliant portrayal of Francis Crozier can turn to Michael Smith's Captain Francis Crozier: Last Man Standing.

The Franklin mystery has been with us so long that the history of the search itself has been a recurring topic. My own book, Finding Franklin: The Untold Story of a 165-Year Search, is perhaps the widest overview, but there are other books that focus on specific searchers or aspects of the search, such as David C. Woodman's Unravelling the Franklin Mystery , which ooks at what the long tradition of Inuit testimony, leading to the discovery of HMS "Erebus" in 2014. That discovery itself is the subject of John Geiger and Alanna Mitchell's Franklin's Lost Ship. Geiger was also the co-author, along with anthropologist Owen Beattie, of the 1987 classic Frozen in Time, detailed what was -- until the AMC series -- the most graphic and grisly of discoveries, the three bodies of Franklin sailors exhumed on Beechey Island in the 1980's. Last, and far from least, many viewers have been curious about the Inuit legends and beliefs that the series incorporates. Unfortunately, there's not yet a readily-accessible (i.e., non-specialist) introduction to the topic; the best way to learn about it remains the stories themselves. Here, I'd recommend two collections of tales: Lawrence Millman's A Kayak Full of Ghosts, which collects stories from Greenland to the central Canadian Arctic, along with Dorothy Eber's Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers. Millman gives a wide range of traditional tales, while Eber collects modern versions of Inuit stories that relate to their encounters with Franklin and other explorers. Perhaps not surprisingly, Franklin's men, wandering about suffering from scurvy, exposure, and starvation, have been transformed in some traditions into hollow-faced bogeymen with which to frighten children.

There are many other books -- a true "Franklinlite" can never have enough! -- but these offer a good start. 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

AMC's The Terror

It's a scene that, though made slightly fanciful, brings together all the elements of the essential mystery of the search for Sir John Franklin and his lost ships: a white explorer, working through an interpreter, asks a "Netsilik man" if he has seen any white men, especially the one they know as "Aglooka." Only here, there's a twist: out of a fur pouch onto a caribou skin come three of the infamous Dageurreotypes of Franklin and his officers (here showing, of course, the actors who portray them in the series: Ciarán Hinds as Franklin, Tobias Menzies as Fitzjames, and Jared Harris as Crozier). With no hesitation, the Inuk informant points to the third and last portrait: that, that one, that's Aglooka.

It's hard to imagine a better way to set the stage for a series that, like the novel by Dan Simmons on which it's based, builds a tissue of horrific fiction around the armature of historical fact. For those of us who already find the factual story endlessly fascinating, a certain additional suspension of disbelief will be required. We'll have to let go of our idealized version, for instance, of Franklin, and let Hinds's masterful performance of Sir John as an ambitious commander who throws caution to the winds, take its place; our Fitzjames will, as Menzies portrays him, be less whimsical than the lively young fellow evident in his letters home; our Crozier, above all, will be darker: feeling that his sense of the perils of the ice is not being taken seriously, he turns to drink and grim warnings: "Our situation is more dire than you may understand." Jared Harris's performance is, so far, the highlight of the series for me; no other actor I know so perfectly combines -- and balances -- darkness and light. All these new characters, though drawn differently from the way we've seen them before, serve this show's narrative as faithfully as the original officers served their nation's Navy.

I won't be giving any spoilers here -- though I will be doing an episode-by-episode recap and commentary on Canadian Geographic's website -- but I will say that, despite the fact that its horror is of a different and more fantastical kind, the show captures the bleak realism of Franklin's ill-fortune with remarkable clarity. Part of this is thanks to an excellent production crew and visual effects team, who worked magic with the look and feel of the ice, as well as having the expert advice of ship-modeler extraordinaire Matthew Betts which has made the structure and shape of both ships remarkably accurate, far more so than your usual "Master and Commander" fare. And these three actors, along with a brilliant supporting cast, well portray the essential human drama at the core of it all -- it's not "man vs. ice" but "man vs. man vs. himself vs. ice" -- a far more psychologically vexed formula, even before we meet the horror.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Louie Kamookak, 1959-2018

Louie at Victory Point at the 150th anniversary of Crozier's Landing in 1998
In all the recent history of the revival of interest in the fate of the Franklin expedition -- a period which could well be said to encompass the past forty years or more -- there's really only one man whose presence links it all together: Louie Kamookak. He guided numerous parties to sites vital to the history of Franklin, Rae, and other key figures, from the days of the Franklin Probe, through to Dave Woodman's searches, the first Parks Canada search with Robert Grenier, the St Roch II expedition with Ken Burton, Ken McGoogan's re-tracing of Rae's surveys, and beyond. He was there for the recent rediscovery of both of Franklin's ships, and was personally brought to the site of HMS "Erebus" by Parks Canada to perform a traditional ceremony of remembrance. His work preserving Inuit oral traditions extended far beyond the Franklin story; he was the central contact for the Inuit Heritage Trust's work on traditional Inuit place names in the region around King William Island (Qikiqtaq), and helped to collect numerous oral histories of all kinds from the Gjoa Haven elders. He was just as much at home with younger Inuit, guiding them on expeditions on the land that retraced traditional routes and knowledge. And, when news of the Franklin ships' finding raced round the world, Louie was there too. At the school, where he worked, the phone started ringing off the hook, leading him to the wry observation that he'd be harder to find if he had a more common name, but "I'm the only Louie Kamookak in the world."

And now the world has lost him. Not many knew of it, and Louie himself kept fairly quiet, but his cancer diagnosis had everyone around him worried. His Facebook posts, as always, were mostly about family, and every morning all of us who knew him answered to his ready Ublaakut! On March 14th, scarcely a week ago, he posted a rare comment on his illness, which was only to mention that he'd had a good night's sleep after chemo, "another blessing from the Lord." Throughout his illness, as with his earlier bouts with heart disease, Louie's Christian faith was his comfort and his foundation, and placing his trust in God, he weathered more storms than most. The strength of his belief never wavered, even when things became dire, and so the news of his passing came as a shock to his friends, who somehow had hoped that he would always be among us.  His work, his legacy, lives on, and always will -- for even those who never met him will not forget his generous, curious, friendly spirit, which was shared throughout the world via today's technologies. His like will not be seen again.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Ranford Relics in the Nunavut Collection

(Photo courtesy Logan Zachary)
In a sad side-note to the story of Franklin searches in the twentieth century, a significant number of artifacts collected from the Erebus Bay area were found in Barry Ranford's basement after his death in September of 1996 and that of his son in 2012. Ranford, who in many ways was responsible for re-invigorating public interest in Franklin in the early 1990's, had first walked the shores of King William in 1992; a year later, an archaelogical team led by Anne Keenleyside and Margaret Bertulli did a proper study of the site, and the bones which gave confirmation of Inuit accounts of cannibalism. Ranford, ever a maverick, didn't worry too much about archaelogical protocols, and had been known to pick up, and sometimes pocket, small items. These, along with some human remains he also collected, weren't known about until after his death, and until last week I'd had no idea what had become of them. Thankfully, his family did the right thing and brought them to the Canadian Museum of History, which then transferred them to the Nunavut collection, established when the territory came into being in 1999.

As those following the story in the Nunatsiaq News and other sources will know, Nunavut has yet to secure full funding and make a final site selection for its own archival facility; in the interim, its collections are stored in two places: in Winnipeg (art) and at the Canadian Museum of Nature (archaeological materials). And it was at the latter's storage and conservation facility that, in the company of a fine fellowship of Franklinites, I was finally able to see these materials in person. They have been carefully preserved and tagged, but the location is given simply as NgLj-2, even though that's far from certain. Without a clearer sense of where precisely they were found, the story that these artifacts have to tell is incomplete, and subject to wide conjecture. Archaeology, in a deep sense, is about reconstucting a story -- so imagine if, say, instead of James Joyce's "The Dead," we had only a few scraps of manuscripts, a bit of typescript, and notes, none with page numbers or dates to show how the story evolved. It would be at best a ghost of a story.

It's my understanding that Doug Stenton has been working on these materials in an effort to sort out what specific sites they are most likely from; I certainly wish him luck. But for now, simply seeing these relics was a powerful experience, a reminder of the fragility of human life and endeavor.

(With thanks to Scott Rufolo of the Museum of Nature for our behind-the-scenes tour, and to Alex Stubbing of GN Heritage for permission to share these images, and this story).

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The grave of Heinrich Klutschak

It often seems to be part of the story, and the saddest by far, when a famed explorer suffers an ignominious end: James Weddell (he of the Sea) freezing in his London flat because he couldn't afford a scuttle's worth of coal; Parker Snow, reduced to paying his rent by selling his books and papers; and Frederick Schwatka, a victim of his addition to laudanum, dead in an alleyway in Portland, Oregon with a bottle beside him. Yet few perhaps have suffered such an ignominious end as Heinrich Klutschak, the gifted artist and draughtsman whose service in Schwatka's expedition of 1878-1880 earned him accolades in America and the Cross of Honor from Emperor Franz Joseph. Following that honor, and the success of his book, Als Eskimo unter den Eskimos, he returned to the United States, but apparently found little success in any of the many lines of work in which he was skilled; he'd hoped to head north again, but ended up working as an errand boy at the firm of Morrison & Brown (known for having supported many such ventures with its ships and resources). Suffering from the effects of tuberculosis in a tiny flat at 330 Broome Street in New York's Bowery, he had been offered, through the kindness of his few friends, a rent-free room at Sailors' Snug Harbor in Staten Island, but was too ill to travel there. Finally, in early March of 1890, he decided to make the journey, but his choice of date was an unlucky one; a huge late-winter snowstorm swallowed the city in drifts, and he was forced to turn back, sicker than before. Finally on March 26th, he succumbed to his illness -- he was only 41 years old.

Photo courtesy Doug Wamsley
The same few friends who had arranged for his new home now arranged for his burial: J.C. Morrison (of Morrison & Brown), a certain "Dr. Franklin," who may have been his physician, and his landlady. The funeral home was Diehl's on Essex Street; in an irony that Klutschak -- who also served as the Schwatka expedition's cook -- might have appreciated, its premises are now a restaurant, the "Sons of Essex." The horse-drawn carriage then conveyed his coffin to the "Lutheran Cemerery," now known as the All Faiths Cemetery, in Flushing, Queens. Thanks to the kindness of the staff there, we now have located his burial plot, and thanks to my good friend and fellow Arctic historian Doug Wamsley, we now have a photo!  If you look very closely, or save the image and increase the contrast, you can make out HEINRICH in the first line, and the first few letters of KLUTSCHAK in the second. It’s my hope that, at some point, we might hold a fresh ceremony of remembrance there.

For now, his account of the Schwatka expedition, translated and edited by the ever-capable William Barr, remains as a testament; the original artwork and map for the German edition are preserved in Ottawa at Library and Archives Canada. And he who served an expedition that collected much valuable Inuit testimony is now fittingly the subject of that testimony; in oral histories preserved in David F. Pelly's Ukkusiksalk: The People's Story, the elders remembered him as Henry the cook, a man who always "spoke very loudly." And yet today from his grave, for those who know how to listen, he speaks louder still.

[With thanks to Russ Taichman, who first asked where Klutschak was buried, Gina Koellner, who joined in the search, and Doug Wamsley, who made it to the grave site!]

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

"Death in the Ice" comes to Gatineau!

Courtesy Canadian Museum of History
Next Thursday evening, March 1st, the exhibition "Death in the Ice" will finally open in Canada. I say "finally" without any sense of undue delay -- other than my own impatience! -- but only to answer the  question asked by so many Canadians as to when this remarkable, material embodiment of the Franklin mystery, combining relics from archives with those newly discovered aboard HMS "Erebus," would come home to a nation for whom this story has become so central, so generative. As Margaret Atwood has observed, the Franklin story has been 'adopted' by Canadians, for whom, as she says, blood and ice are part of the national mythos -- "You thought the national flag was about a leaf, didn't you?" as she puts it, "Look harder. It's where someone got axed in the snow."

And, while it's the second iteration of an exhibition that originally opened in the UK last summer at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, it's by no means a re-run -- the narrative here is uniquely and specifically Canadian, and includes a number of key items that were not part of the Greenwich exhibit. For one, the segment of the ship's wheel of Franklin flagship (shown above) is perhaps even more iconic than that same ship's bell. Here rested the hands that steered, here stood the eyes that scanned the horizon, here one fateful turn of those hands spun both ships into the pack ice, from which they were to be released only when all hope was gone, or nearly so. The charts, alas, showed (erroneously) that the eastern passage around King William Island dead-ended in a bay, and so the western one was chosen, in all likelihood before the ships encountered the heavy multi-year ice that streams down what's now known as the McClintock channel. And here, too, a table leg, from Franklin's own great cabin, upon which those fateful charts lay. For a true Franklinite, there can be very few items as richly significant as these.

And there are other surprises, too -- I won't give them all away! -- but let it be known that not all the forks and spoons and medals associated with Franklin's men are stored away in the UK! And, from the Greenwich archives, comes one item that has never before been publicly viewed in Canada -- Sir John Franklin's Guelphic Order of Hanover, the very one which shone upon his breast in the Daguerreotype by Richard Beard that was to be his first -- and his last -- photographic portrait.

I hope that many thousands of Canadians -- as well as those visiting Canada from abroad -- will find their way to the Canadian Museum of History to see this remarkable exhibition. There's a public opening reception at 6 p.m. with a cash bar (which, for the especially thirsty, opens at 5:30). I'll be there, as will many others -- curators, Inuit representatives, underwater archaeologists, descendants of Franklin's men, historians both amateur and professional, and modelers of ships. It will be a rare and wondrous occasion to take in, at one place and in person, the full sweep of this remarkable story.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Franklin Searcher of the Month: Stephen J. Trafton

Image courtesy Stephen J. Trafton
Long before Owen Beattie's taking up the Franklin cause, before David C. Woodman's searches of King William Island and the coast of the Adelaide Peninsula, and decades before the involvement of Parks Canada, the search for evidence of the fate of the Franklin expedition was in the hands of a few persistent trekkers who made the journey north on their own dimes. We've hailed a few of these, such as Dick Finnie and Paul Fenimore Cooper in previous columns, but I'm especially glad this month to recognize Stephen J. Trafton as our Franklin searcher of the month. He led many expeditions to the shores of King William Island, tracing some familar areas as well as mapping out new discoveries. He also had an experience which -- I think it's fair to say -- is the kind of thing that happens only once in a lifetime, and would be the envy of any searcher: he found a note in a cairn. True, it wasn't one left by Franklin's men, but it was nearly as fantastic: a note left by Frederick Swchatka on his Franklin search expedition in 1879!

Happily, Mr. Trafton is still alive and well, and has in fact just published a book recounting his treks, both in search of Franklin and for other great geographical challenges. Its apt title is At The Edge, and in its pages one gets quite the curriculum vitae of Trafton's achievements, including decades working for mountain rescue in the North Cascades, his crossing of the Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland, treks in remote corners of Baffin and Ellesmere,  and a series of ascents of mountains in the British Empire range whose names will instantly resonate with readers here: Hecla, Fury, Griper, Resolute, North Star, Victory, and Investigator. And yet, though these journeys involved at times no little risk from cold, exposure, or treacherous ice, Trafton's tone is mostly light-hearted, evidence of a sense of humor which seems to have been as regular a part of his equipment as his snow-mitts and Sorels.

Of course, for those of us who have come down with incurable cases of the bug known as "Franklinitis," the chapters on King William Island will be of greatest interest. Two of his journeys there -- one a long retracing on foot of the greater part of the southern coast of King William Island, the other, an extensive search of the northwest corner of that same island -- were groundbreaking in every sense of the word, and it was on the second that Trafton was rewarded with a find that the rest of us only idly dream of, that of Schwatka's note. Using that commander's own account, as well as that of his comrade William Gilder, Trafton re-located that cairn they'd taken down and rebuilt to mark their furthest north. As Gilder described it:
Lieutenant Schwatka found a well-built cairn or pillar seven feet high, on a high hill about two miles back from the coast, and took it down very carefully without meeting with any record or mark whatever. It was on a very prominent hill, from which could plainly be seen the trend of the coast on both the eastern and western shores, and would most certainly have attracted the attention of any vessels following in the route of the Erebus and Terror, though hidden by intervening hills from those walking along the coast. It seemed unfortunate that probably the only cairn left standing on King William Land, built by the hands of white men, should have had no record left in it, as there it might have been well preserved. When satisfied that no document had been left there, the inference was that it had been erected in the pursuit of the scientific work of the expedition, or that it had been used in alignment with some other object to watch the drift of the ships. Before leaving we rebuilt the cairn, and deposited in it a record of the work of the Franklin search party to date.
And there, nestled in the rocks of that cairn, he spotted a green bottle with the stopper still in it, and a paper inside. He dared peep no further than the top edge, where he could make out the date: July 5th, 1879.

And then, of course, on his return, he faced the dilemma that everyone who joins in the Franklin search and finds an item of value faces: what to do? By regulations, the note ought to be turned over to the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife, but in Trafton's view, an American note left by an American explorer would be more at home in the United States. On the advice of his mentor, George Hobson, Trafton agreed to send them the note for conservation and study, though he found a clever way (which one will have to read his book to discover) to hold on to the bottle which contained it. The note, which passed into the Nunavut collection upon the creation of that territory in 1999, is currently in storage, but Trafton is hopeful that someday it will be shown to the public, and he'll be able to lay eyes on it again.

The book is supplied with a goodly number of color photographic illustrations, as well as clear, readable maps. In it, we get a glimpse of what it was like to take up the long search for traces of Franklin in the days before it became a more celebrated cause. When Trafton, stumbling into a D.E.W. Line station in search of shelter, was asked what he was doing there, he first told the officer he and his friends were selling magazines -- would he be interested in any? The joke unappreciated, he explained his real mission was to retrace Franklin's footsteps. Back then might have been the last time when either explanation might have seemed equally implausible!

Mr. Trafton has very graciously agreed to answer any questions here that readers may have about his Franklin searches, or his other many adventures -- please post them as comments, and I'll work to ensure that his responses are posted here in a timely manner.