Monday, December 3, 2018

Paying our respects at Inuit Graves in Groton

IHT President Pam Gross at Tookoolito's Grave
I've just come back from the magnificent opening weekend of Mystic Seaport Museum's "Death in the Ice" exhibition this past weekend -- it was a truly memorable occasion, from the evening reception prior to the opening to the welcome ceremony the next morning, hosted by the chiefs of the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes, to Marc-André Bernier's marvelous lecture that afternoon updating us on Parks Canada's archaeological team's latest work on the wreck of HMS "Erebus." But for me, the highlight of the weekend was the visit many of us paid to the Inuit graves at the Starr Burying Ground in nearby Groton, These stones recall the names of six Inuit, although only three of them rest there. Two -- "Cudlargo" and "Oosecong" -- had been brought down from the Arctic by local whaling captain Sidney O. Budington, but had died at sea; these names are memorial to their memory. But it's the family of "Hannah" (Tookoolito) and "Joe" (Ebierbing whose presence is most felt here. They, too, had worked for Budington -- indeed, years before, they had been taken to England and had tea with Queen Victoria! -- but their subsequent careers were far more significant.  The two of them worked as translator (Hannah) and guide (Joe) for Charles Francis Hall, the American Franklin searcher who collected more Inuit testimony about his fate than any other man. And, as historian Kenn Harper -- who gave an interpretative lecture for us all at the site -- notes, if Hall was the most significant searcher, then Hannah was the most significant translator and interpreter, whose work enabled the accurate preservation of testimony that would otherwise have been lost forever. Hannah's son and daughter are buried nearby, but her husband -- "Joe" -- is not; he returned to the Arctic as a guide, and his bones lie somewhere in or near Hudson Bay.
Group photo courtesy Logan Zachary
Those of us who came represented many different peoples and perspectives, but it was the delegation from Nunavut for whom this moment was especially meaningful. Pam Gross, the mayor of Cambridge Bay and head of the Inuit Heritage Trust, along with Ed Devereux, an administrator from Gjoa Haven, represented the two northern communities closest to the Franklin wreck sites, as well as the Kitikmeot region generally; with them was Alex Stubbing, head of heritage for the Government of Nunavut. Marc André also came with us, as did Steve White, president of the Museum, and Nicholas Bell, Vice President for Curatorial affairs. Karen Ryan, the lead curator for the "Death in the Ice" exhibit at all its locations, Franklin researcher Russ Taichman, and myself rounded out the group. We are all of us indebted to Kenn Harper for his moving talk about the graves and their history, and to the staff of the Mystic Seaport Museum for bringing us all together at a place where all our histories so richly resonate.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

"Death in the Ice" Comes to Mystic

Inkstand from HMS "Resolute," courtesy Mystic Seaport Musem
It's been a long voyage. "Death in the Ice," which combines relics of the Franklin expedition recovered in the 19th century with new finds from HMS Erebus brought back and conserved by Parks Canada since her discovery in 2014, first set sail, (as it were) at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich in the summer of 2017. Its second stop, at the Canadian Museum of History, began in March of this year, and ran through September. And now it comes into port at the Mystic Seaport Museum, in a stop that is both a fresh step on its voyage and also a sort of homecoming. For it's not far from here, in New London, where HMS "Resolute" first docked after being found adrift at sea, and -- even closer -- at the Starr Burying Ground, a fifteen-minute drive away in Groton, where Tookoolito, Charles Francis Hall's translator and guide during his nearly decade-long search for Franklin, lies at rest along with two of her children. The extraordinary roles played by Americans in that search have never been more evident, even as -- for the most part -- the story of the Franklin expedition is less well-known here than in Canada or Britain. There have been harbingers of change, though -- beginning with AMC's extraordinary television series "The Terror," and continuing with the warm reception given here to Michael Palin and his book Erebus: The Story of a Ship -- that this is about to change, and the exhibit in Mystic is about to launch a fresh cannonade.

Mortar shell fired by HMS Terror on the town of Stonington
And, appropriately enough, one of the items unique to this version of the exhibition is a mortar bomb, fired from the 13-inch mortar mounted amidships on HMS "Terror" on the people of Stonington, Connecticut, scarcely ten miles distant, in the War of 1812. Similar shells were "bursting in air" during that same vessel's bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor, and are the very same that are sung of in our national anthem. That a ship of war could later become a vessel of discovery is but one of the many revelations that await those who come to visit this magnificent show. Here, nearly all the extraordinary relics of the previous exhibits are joined by this ball, an inkstand, chairs, and china ware from HMS Resolute -- along with a fiddle perhaps played there in the presence of Captain Kellett -- and the Grinnell Desk (on loan from the New Bedford Whaling Museum), one of four "Resolute" desks made by command of Queen Victoria from the timbers of that storied vessel. It is a show not to be missed! -- and opens, appropriately enough, on the first day of the wintry month of December. More information, and tickets, can be found on the Mystic Seaport website here.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

A bone to pick ...

Skeletal remains uncovered by the 1RCR in 1973
The question of the dispersal of the Franklin expedition over land has always been a difficult one; it's even been hard to say exactly how many individuals are represented by the known skeletal remains. When possible, DNA studies have been of extraordinary importance, telling us for instance that the human remains at Erebus Bay -- previously thought to represent only 11-13 individuals -- in fact include bones from at least 21. This study and others like it have been spearheaded by Doug Stenton, who since his retirement from the Government of Nunavut's Heritage office, has redoubled his efforts to check every known site. One welcome result of this has just appeared in The Polar Record, and it's the most comprehensive one by far. Stenton's study accounts for nearly every known site, and he's followed up by conducting digs whenever a site can be positively identified, and adding the bones and artifacts at those sites into his ever-growing record.

Very sensibly, Stenton strives in this article to classify finds into "confirmed" (sites where the remains can be attributed to Franklin's men with a high degree of confidence), "unconfirmed" (sites where the remains were most probably Franklin-era, but circumstances -- often the fact that the remains are unavailable for study -- prevent confirmation), and "questionable," where he feels that the evidence tends rather toward the sites being unrelated to Franklin. In nearly all cases, his reasoning is sound, but there are some instances where I feel a site has been misclassified. It's no easy task -- one of the hurdles is that historical researchers such as myself have some pieces of the evidence, while archaeologists have hold of others -- and so I think it's germane to go over the evidence on these cases in a more public forum, where all our wisdoms can be collectively applied. There may not be a definitive answer -- but in these few cases a reclassification may be in order.

A perfect instance of this is the skeleton located by the 1st Royal Canadian Regiment in 1973 as part of their "Operation Northern Quest," which I've discussed previously here. Stenton tags this as a "questionable" find, arguing that the presence of faunal bones (caribou) in a period photograph of the remains supports the view that they are more probably Inuit. The case is complicated, because although the 1RCR stated at the time that the bones and other artifacts were sent to the Museum of Man (now the CMH), no record of them there has been found; indeed, by some accounts they were reburied rather than sent to the museum. I've spent quite some time researching this find, and working closely with the 1RCR's regimental historian -- I wish that Stenton had contacted me before making his assessment. In the diaries of expedition members, and articles published in service magazines of the day, the evidence is quite compelling for it being a Franklin site.

First, in an 1974 article in the Sentinel, it's stated by Sergeant R.T. Walsh that "an almost intact skeleton was uncovered among the rocks. Along with it were several shirt buttons and larger jacket buttons ... the skeleton, buttons, and many other relics and artifacts may now be seen at the Museum of Man in Ottawa." Such buttons may be similar to those found by Stenton himself at Two Grave Bay, and used to authenticate that site, but he discounts them here -- and unfortunately, they are unavailable for examination. Secondly, in one of the expedition's diaries, a much more detailed account of the find exists:
"Ingraham and Eddy found the bones of a human forearm and hand on the beach. This seemed recent as the bones were still connected by ligaments. Immediately after this, Willard found bones protruding from the ground by a large rock. A quick check showed this to be an almost complete skeleton in a shallow grave. We thought it to be the bones of a large man; too large for an Eskimo. We uncovered as much of the skeleton as we could without disturbing things. We planned on returning tomorrow morning with the metal detector and shovel. Eddy said he knew where a sheet of plywood could be located on the beach to put the bones on. The skeleton had been covered by several inches of moss and rocks. The skull was not visible to us but the jawbone was there. The armbone found on shore does not appear to have anything to do with the buried skeleton."
In addition to these accounts, I have two higher-resolution photos of the skeleton (Stenton apparently made use of a reproduction from a printed article). The one of the skeleton on the plywood plank is quite clear -- it may well be that what the 1RCR men thought was a human hand was in fact  the bones of a seal flipper -- bear in mind that these men had no archaeological training whatsoever -- which would explain the presence of the same in the photo. The faunal bones may well have also been picked up by them and heaped up, unknowingly, with the human ones. Interestingly, at the Schwatka reburial site earlier studied by Stenton, faunal remains are also present, and probably for the same reason.

This evidence strongly suggests that the skeleton in question here should be reclassified -- at least as "unconfirmed." There's also a ray of hope, as in another reference in the Sentinel, it's stated that the skeleton was reburied rather than brought back to the museum. I think it would be worth checking the area in case it can be relocated -- and then, of course, we'd have much firmer grounds, one way or the other.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Two Grave Bay

Detail of map by Heinrich Klutschak
It was one of the more poignant finds of the expedition led by Frederick Schwatka from 1878 ti 1880. In the words of journalist William Gilder, who accompanied the searchers, "we found the graves of two white men, near one of which was lying the upper part of a skull; within the pile of stones we found the upper maxilla, with two teeth, and a piece of the cheekbone. No other human bones were found; but these were laid together for burial on our return." The find was apparently the cause for the name "Two Grave Bay," which isn't mentioned as such in Gilder's text, but appears quite clearly on Klutschak's map as "Zwei Gräber Bai." Klutschack noted that “the builders of this grave no longer had the strength to build an above-ground grave out of large rocks” and that “a few stones were all that they used to cover the corpse."
Gilder waxed a bit more poetic: 
"Near Point le Vesconte some scattered human bones led to the discovery of the tomb of an officer who had received most careful sepulture at the hands of his surviving friends. A little hillock of sand and gravel - a most rare occurrence upon that forbidding island of clay-stones - afforded an opportunity for Christian-like interment. The dirt had been neatly rounded up, as could be plainly seen, and everywhere, amid the debris and mould of the grave, the little wild flowers were thickly spread ... The fine texture of the cloth and linen and several gilt buttons showed the deceased to have been an officer, but there was nothing to be seen anywhere that would identify the remains to a stranger. Every stone that marked the outline of the tomb was closely scrutinized for a name or initials, but nothing was found."
And now, with thanks to a number of searchers, this reburial site has had a proper archaeological examination. First relocated in modern times by veteran Franklin searcher Tom Gross, the area was visited this summer by the team from Adventure Science, who observed grave-like features, as well as a cairn, in this same vicinity. They alerted officials in Ottawa and Iqaluit, but were unable to do more than photograph the site, as they only had a Class I permit. Doug Stenton, however, has apparently had this spot on his list for some time, and already had the necessary Class II permit in hand; news of his work at the site this summer shows that the material there still matches very closely with what Schwatka and Gilder reported. According to the CP24 website,
"Stenton and his team recovered three metal buckles, 10 gilt buttons and remnants of an 11th made of mother of pearl. Stenton said such accoutrements were likely only worn by officers or senior-ranking members of Franklin's crew. Stenton said his team then found human bones some distance away, including an intact skull and jawbone, as well as a partial calf bone."
It should be noted that this particular site, roughly that of #6 on Klutschak's map, is some distance out on an island out in the bay; the team reached it via a lift from helicopter pilot Alexander Stirling, whom many will recall as the man who first spotted the davit part that led the Parks Canada team to "Erebus."

Dr. Stenton has been in the process of accumulating a database of DNA from recovered remains, as well as obtaining samples from known direct or collateral descendants of Franklin crewmembers, so there's a chance that, once the laboratory work is done, the remains might be identified. Even if not, we are sure to learn more about the life -- and the death -- of one of Franklin's officers, and in the long run this kind of work offers us the best chance of reconstructing what happened to these men once they left the shelter of their ships, and set out on what was to be their last, desperate journey by land.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Michael Palin awarded first Louie Kamookak Medal

L-R Michael Palin, Gavin Fitch, and John Geiger at medal presentation
(Credit: Credit Ben Powless/Canadian Geographic)
Last week, I was delighted and honored to host Michael Palin at Providence's historic Columbus Theatre, where we enjoyed lunch together, followed by the evening's delightful "in-conversation" style talk about all things Erebus. Among the many subjects we turned to, that of Louie Kamookak was one of particular poignancy to us both. I recalled how, the last time I saw Louie in Gjoa Haven in the summer of 2017, he'd seemed in such good health and spirits, though that turned out to have been only a couple of months before his cancer was diagnosed. From him, I learned that Louie had planned to guide him a land excursion to some of the Franklin sites on King William Island -- a collaboration that, alas, is now never to be. In the Acknowledgements section of his book, Michael offers this moving tribute:
"Though, to my great regret, I never met him, the name of Louie Kamookak, the Inuit historian who died in March 2018 at the age of fifty-eight, came up again and again in my research for the book. He wanted, above all, to find Franklin's grave, and it is a huge sadness that time ran out for him. But he won't be forgotten. Everyone who has ever been curious about the fate of the Franklin expedition owes a huge debt of thanks to him for his dogged and thorough research."
Michael with Chris Cran's portrait of Louie
And now those thanks come full circle, as the Royal Canadian Geographical Society has presented Mr. Palin with its first Louie Kamookak medal. It was a surprise honor, given on the occasion of the book event at the new RCGS headquarters at 50 Sussex Drive in Ottawa, and although Michael was characteristically modest in saying he felt he didn't deserve it, to my mind it's entirely apropos. I feel sure that Louie, from wherever he journeys now, would feel the same. No book in many years has commanded the audience of Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time, and none has brought home the human elements of its dramas -- both in the Antarctic and the Arctic -- as eloquently.  It's those aspects -- both the courage and resourcefulness of Franklin's men, and the curiosity and 'doggedness' of those who have searched for him and his ships for all these years -- that both Louie and Michael embody.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Lost and Found: The Beechey Island Anvil Block

Courtesy Glenbow Museum
Just in the wake of this year's round of dives by Parks Canada's underwater archaeologists, here's a powerful reminder that, sometimes, the most significant finds can be made right at home. Over the years, relics of the Franklin expedition -- the vast majority of which are in storage at various museums -- have sometimes gone missing -- not stolen, only misplaced, or perhaps imperfectly catalogued when paper records have given way to digital ones. One of the most intriguing of these items has long been the "anvil block" recovered from Beechey Island in 1850; although it was depicted in the newspapers and exhibited alongside other Franklin materials, it hasn't been seen in public since the Royal Naval Exhibition of 1891, and efforts to trace it at the National Maritime Museum had -- up until quite recently -- led to a dead end.

But now -- mirabile dictu! -- it has been found in the collection of the Glenbow Museum. The story of its loss and discovery now forms a fresh chapter of the renewed interest in the Franklin story. Back in the early 1960's the Royal United Services Institute -- which had charge of the majority of the Franklin relics -- was understaffed and underfunded, and a decision was made to refocus its mission, with the closure of the museum one of the consequences. The vast majority of its collections of Naval interest were transferred to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, but -- for reasons that are still unknown -- some of the items were made available to other institutions.

From Smucker (1857)
Some forward-looking curator at the Glenbow must have realized the significance of the return of such an object to the nation in which it was first found, and thus the anvil block -- which, in the interim of time, had become festooned with various metal items also found at Beechey -- was duly shipped to Calgary. It's a fascinating artifact -- not only because of its association with the discovery of Franklin's winter quarters at Beechey Island in 1850, but because of the still-unfolding mystery of the "metals" it wears. Early depictions of the anvil block -- such as the one at right from Samuel Smucker's 1857 compilation of Arctic narratives -- show it was unadorned when first retrieved. And yet, by some point in the late 1870's, someone -- presumably at the RUSI Museum -- had decided to fasten all manner of metal items to it, including a large eyebolt. The new photographs taken by the Glenbow show these items to be still very firmly in place, though some seem to have shifted a bit, and one (the horizontal metal strip shaped like a crenelated wall) has gone missing.

As depicted in 1878
The collections at the Glenbow are renowned for their depth as well as breadth -- but of course this has meant, in practice, that the proportion of materials is storage is high compared to the space for their display. Happily, the occasion of the rediscovery and conservation of the anvil block is also that of the opening of a new exhibition, curated in part by Travis Lutley, The Arctic: Real and Imagined Views from the Nineteenth Century.  The images and artifacts displayed are meant to show the  "contrast the cultural and technological differences between Arctic inhabitants and Arctic visitors." In this remarkable array of materials, the anvil block will be joined by Inuit tools and decorative items, a miniature Bible book-dummy carved from the wood of HMS "Terror," colored plates from the expedition narratives of Parry, Franklin, Back, and McClintock, and even an original tin of the notorious "Ox Cheek Soup." Among the highlights of the two-dimensional materials are some pencil sketches and watercolors made by Elisha Kent Kane, chromolithographs of Samuel Gurney Creswell's Arctic scenes, and William Bradford's striking "The English Arctic Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin." It's a dazzling array of visual and cultural materials, and one which brings back into the light many scenes and objects that have lingered too long in storage. With the "Death in the Ice" exhibit closing and heading to Mystic Seaport, it also offers Canadians as well as visitors from abroad a fresh opportunity to see significant materials relating to the Franklin expedition -- materials that happily are part of a permanent collection.

THE ENGLISH ARCTIC EXPEDITION IN SEARCH OF SIR JOHN FRANKLIN (Courtesy Glenbow Museum)


The finding and identification of the anvil block is a story all its own. Starting with a copy of an engraving posted to the Remembering the Franklin Expedition Facebook page (the same one from which the detail above was taken) by Kristina Gehrmann in 2015, it led to a lively discussion involving William Battersby, Kat Stoetzel Andrés Paredes, and Randall Osczevski, but it was Regina Koellner who finally made the connection to a captioned illustration indicating that the mystery object was the anvil block. I then wrote to Claire Warrior at the National Maritime Museum, and she checked the records of the original transfer of items from the RUSI Museum to the NMM; the anvil block was not among them. It was a nearly two years later when I heard from Travis Lutley at the Glenbow; seeking to confirm the identity an object in their collections, he'd consulted Garth Walpole's book (which reproduces the illustrations above) and gotten in touch with Claire Warrior to confirm -- and the anvil block was found!

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

2018 Discoveries from HMS Erebus

Images © Parks Canada
It had the makings of an ideal search season: the RV David Thompson was renovated and raring to go; the dedicated barge Qiniqtiryuaq (the "Big Searcher") was at the ready, and all the varied legal and cultural issues affecting the recovered items had been resolved after years of patient negotiation. But of course, there remains that most implacable opposing force, an essential part of the Arctic from Franklin's day to our own: the ice.

The ice significantly delayed the voyage of the David Thompson to the wreck site, and posed a challenge to getting the Parks Canada team safely in and out; in the end, there were scarcely two days available for diving on the Erebus, and none for the Terror. And yet the modest group of items recovered is only the more remarkable for that: they range from the generic and common, such as a belaying pin or a nail, to the specific and personal: a stoneware pitcher and part of an artificial horizon recovered from one of the officers' cabins (no word yet on whose). There are also two metal blocks, part of the mechanism for managing the rigging, and a piece of "fearnought," a sort of tarred felt that was wedged between the planking of the upper deck to make it waterproof.

One of the more intriguing items is the "roof" for an "artificial horizon." which would have consisted of a pan of liquid mercury. By means of this device, a mariner could obtain an elevation on a celestial object even if the horizon were obscured by fog or blocked by looming icebergs; its principle is known as a "double altitude." It would probably have been employed by one of the lieutenants aboard the Erebus, and evokes -- as did navigational tools found by earlier searchers -- a sense of the limits of science. Here were these men, equipped with every technological apparatus to steer themselves safely through the unknown -- and yet none of them were able to find their way safely home.

The pitcher is another poignant item; it's said to be of English brown salt glaze, and have been found in an officer's cabin. It's rather plain -- comparable examples of such jugs often feature decorative motifs -- and must have been employed in some humble use, such as with a washbasin. It was found near a stack of plates, which were not -- alas -- retrieved, as these might well have shed some light on the proximate pitcher. Doubtless many photographs were made, even in such limited circumstances, but these have yet to be shared. At last year's press conference, Parks's divers spoke of the ornamental woodwork on the drawers built in to the base of the officers' bunks; it would be lovely to see images of these! This year's search has been, in other respects, one of the more fully shared, with nearly-live photos and information along the way; it's to be hoped that a new set of photographs will soon be forthcoming.

2018 was a difficult ice year all 'round -- none of the expedition cruise vessels that had planned to navigate the Northwest Passage made it through -- we will just have to hope that the next season will be more favorable.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

This year's Franklin search underway

Image courtesy Parks Canada
It's already been a remarkable year on land, what with two search expeditions -- that of Adventure Science, and Tom Gross and Russ Taichman's Bayne/Coleman expedition each having made extensive surveys of both old and new sites and land features. Both of them have done yeoman service, co-ordinating and connecting GPS-tagged features and identifying sites for further investigation. Each group had a Class I permit, which allows image-making, mapping, and tagging but no digging; next year, it's hoped, a return with a Class II permit may yet yield great things. Sites near "Two Grave Bay" up at the northern end of King William Island, as well as near the cairn on the southern coast erected by Charles Francis Hall, both show promise.

And, though the season is soon closing for work on land, it's just that time of year when the underwater archaologists from Parks Canada are doing new dives, in water that -- both literally and legally -- is much clearer than last year's. The final agreement between the UK government and Canada has been signed, making it clear that the British government waives any further claim to the ships and their contents, while at the same time, joint administration over the recovered relics with Inuit organizations -- the Franklin Advisory Group, the Kitikmeot Inuit Association, and the Inuit Heritage Trust -- is now firmly in place.

Justin Sigluk Milton
For HMS Erebus, planned work includes stabilizing the hull so that artifacts can be retrieved by divers, as well as additional work using ROV's; for HMS Terror, additional photography and mapping, and perhaps also a proper look inside with a ROV. Parks has been sharing many images of the preparation for the search, such as the one above showing the barge Qiniqtiryuaq about to cast off from the Sir Wilfred Laurier. "Qiniqtiryuaq," which means "the big searcher," was named after a contest was held last year, with the winning suggestion made by Justin Sigluk Milton of Pond Inlet. The Qiniqtiryuaq carries several containers which serve as mobile labs and storage for the Parks archaeologists, and makes it possible to stabilize and properly prepare any artifacts that may be brought up from the ships.

We've yet to see any new imagery from Franklin's ships, but the new generation of ROV's being used is said to have the capability to stream live video! -- a prospect which, understandably, makes any true "Franklinite" tremble with anticipation. I'll do my best here on my blog to give updates and offer some initial interpretation of any imagery we do see! -- nothing now, it seems, would be too much to hope for.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

A rough year for ice ...

Ice in Resolute Bay
2018 will go down as a rough year for ice in the eastern Canadian Arcric, particularly along the classic route of the Northwest Passage that so many who sign up for adventure cruises seek most keenly. It's been both an obstacle -- forcing the re-routing of numerous ships -- and an active threat; in the worst instance crushing and sinking a yacht (the French-flagged "Anahita") near Fort Ross on the eastern end of the Bellot Strait. And, as in previous years, a very large and heavy plug of it has rendered the area around the Victoria Strait impassable by nearly any vessel short of a heavy icebreaker, cutting off the legendary "last link" and preventing completion of any planned transits of the Passage. Indirectly, by forcing the re-routing of larger vessels such as One Ocean's Akademik Ioffe, the ice also may have played a role in her running aground on what was apparently an uncharted shoal or submerged rock.

Canadian Ice Service chart for 27 August 2018
Is it an unusually bad year? Or were the past few seasons unusually favorable? It's hard to say with absolute certainly, even though the Canadian Ice Service regularly provides a chart showing where the concentrations of ice are higher or lower than historical conditions. Their estimate requires 30 years of data to make, and thus doesn't stretch back very far, as comparable data is unavailable much further back than that. Still, the most recent chart offers some insight into the overall trend; just as it was last summer, this year's ice concentration in the eastern Arctic was higher than the historical norms, while in the western Arctic it was significantly lower. The areas of higher concentration were also problematic; at Resolute, ice in the bay prevented the zodiac landings needed for passenger/staff turnover aboard larger vessels; in the Bellot Strait, even ships with an icebreaker escort ended up turning around; in the Victoria Strait, neither the hoped-for pilgrimage to Victory Point nor a visit to Gjoa Haven seemed likely for any vessels entering from the east -- the ice was simply too dense.

Some who misunderstand the way ice forms and melts, or don't realize how complex a system it forms with land, winds, waves, and currents, may scoff at warnings about climate change and a warming Arctic -- not realizing that, even as warming puts more thermodynamic eneregy into the north, such energy can readily propel ice -- by speeding the calving of bergs off glaciers, increasing winds and currents, and pushing ice more densely together -- making conditions worse rather than better.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Croker's Consolation

John Ross's chart of the Croker Mountains
Just two hundred years ago today, on August 31st 1818, John Ross -- in command of the Isabella and Alexander -- sailed deep into Lancaster Sound, searching -- as his sailing orders commanded -- for a possible inlet into the fabled Northwest Passage. Ross, aboard Isabella, described what he saw -- or thought he saw -- thus:

"At half past two, (when I went off deck to dinner), there were some hopes of its clearing, and I left orders to be called on the appearance of land or ice a-head. At three, the officer of the watch, who was relieved to his dinner by Mr. Lewis, reported, on his coming into the cabin, that there was some appearance of its clearing at the bottom of the bay; I immediately, therefore, went on deck, and soon after it completely cleared for about ten minutes, and I distinctly saw the land, round the bottom of the bay, forming a connected chain of mountains with those which extended along the north and south sides. "

John Wilson Croker
These seeming-mountains were vivid enough that Ross both mapped and sketched them, even adding small details, such as naming a small bay at the southwestern edge after Sir John Barrow, though the honor of the principal name was reserved for the First Secretary of the Admiralty, John Wilson Croker. Curiously, William Edward Parry, aboard the Alexander, could see nothing of such mountains, and was completely taken aback when his commander ordered a retreat to the eastward. Though he didn't publicly contradict Ross, Parry communicated his doubts to the Admiralty, and, now placed in command of his own two ships Hecla and Griper, returned in 1819 and promptly sailed through the illusory peaks, eventually reaching Winter Harbor on Melville Island -- the furthest west any British vessel had ever sailed through the north (and in fact, further than any vessel coming from the east would ever manage priot to Amundsen's victorious transit in 1903-06).  Maps were quickly revised, and Croker -- who must have been disappointed at the loss of so impressive a range of snowy peaks -- was left with the consolation of a bay, named after him by Parry, on the southern coast of Devon Island.

Cruising the face of the Croker Glacier
But what a consolation it is! The Croker Glacier, which feeds the bay with its blue-green silted meltwater, has a face more than two miles wide, and is up to three thousand feet deep at its thickest, near where it branches out from the massive Devon Ice Cap, itself nearly 6,000 square miles in extent. Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to have a first-hand look at the glacier's face, along with passengers and fellow staff from One Ocean Expeditions. We spent nearly three hours going back and forth along the entire length of the face aboard our zodiacs, and later that day, celebrated the experience with a shipboard barbecue on the stern deck of our ship, the Akademik Ioffe. I thought then -- and think now -- that the sight would have been a magnificent consolation to Croker; had he only seen it in person, his mountains would never have been missed.

[With thanks to Jeff W. Higdon for pointing out the anniversary of the date!]

Friday, August 24, 2018

New studies on lead poisoning and Franklin's men

Tin of Ox Cheek Soup (Photo by Jeff Dickie)
It's one of the first things that many people still ask about the demise of the Franklin expedition -- wasn't it the lead in the tins that caused it? But now, after several recent studies shed some doubt on whether the "lead hypothesis" was the catch-all explanation of the tragedy, comes a broad and significant study -- whose co-authors include veteran Franklin researchers Anne Keenleyside and Doug Stenton -- that demonstrates that, in the end, this hypothesis turns out not to hold. However, there are still instances where lead exposure may have played a role, and as the picture clarifies it grows more complex. It's my personal view that, although the earlier lead hypothesis -- originally advanced in Owen Beattie and John Geiger's classic Frozen in Time -- no longer explains everything, it has led to some of the most fascinating and significant research on the health -- and thus the ultimate disposition -- of Franklin's men.

This new study, whose lead authors are Treena Swanton and  Tamara L. Varney, does what no other study has done before -- compare lead levels in the three individuals buried at Beechey (who died in the first winter) to remains from King William Island, which -- assuming that they date from after the desertion of "Erebus" and "Terror" -- date from at least two years further along in the expediton. If, as had been conjectured, these later remains showed signs of continued exposure and absorption of lead, then that would have demonstrated that the source of such exposure must have come during the expedition, and thus from sources on board ship, presumably the provisions consumed in this interval. And yet, using imagery that reveals the deep cortical microarchitecture within which lead would have been absorbed and stored, this new study shows that the patterns within the bone are very similar between individuals who died in both timeframes. There were, indeed, elevated levels of lead, but these were in parts of the bone that would have been formed prior to the expedition's departure in May of 1845.

And yet lead remains a factor, at least for some. By an interesting coincidence, another study appeared scarcely a week prior to this one; conducted by Lori D'Ortenzio, Michael Inskip, William Manton, and Simon Mays (Dr. Mays, it should be noted, was a co-author in two earlier and significant studies, both of which included William Battersby's work), looked at a strand of hair from the Greenwich skeleton, widely now believed to by that of Henry Duncan Spens ("Harry") Goodsir. Since this skeleton, brought back by Charles Francis Hall, was found on the southern coast of King William Island, it can safely be assumed to be part of the later timeline, and since the hair, even more so than bone, could show the changes in absorption over time, it was hoped that new insights might be gained from it. And yet, in many ways, it confirms the larger study; the lead isotope ratios were nearly identical to the bodies exhumed at Beechey, and although there was evidence of more recent absorption of lead, in this case it did not reach levels likely to cause clinical symptoms. It should be noted, though, that from the earlier studies of Keenleyside, Bertulli et. al. we know that at least some of the individuals whose skeletal remains were represented at NgLj-2 (the "Boat Place" at Erebus Bay) had lead levels as high as 223 micrograms per gram of dry bone. Further studies by Keenleyside suggested that blood levels as high as 1500 mcg per decilter of blood could be inferred; these individuals would almost certainly have been suffering from acute lead toxicity, and it may indeed have been the primary cause of death.

Why these few men -- just two to four of the estimated 11-13 skeletons in Keenleyside's study -- would have had such high levels of lead remains unexplained. Recent DNA analysis, which shows that the number 13 is the most accurate, and that Erebus Bay sites collectively represent at least 21 individuals, may make these few even more "outliers" from the rest -- but they still remind us that lead was a factor for some. For the rest, it now seems clear, background levels of exposure from before they sailed with Franklin were simply much higher than we'd realized, and despite some continued exposure -- variable, certainly -- during the expedition, the original lead hypothesis no longer explains the eventual demise of the expedition as a whole.