Friday, December 30, 2011

Strange Graves

When the New York Times ran a blog post on its Dot Earth blog about the ballad "Lord Franklin," they chose as an illustration a curious engraving. It comes from a June 1881 issue of the Illustrated London News, and was one of many large plates showing scenes from Schwatka's search for Franklin. This one was captioned: "THE AMERICAN FRANKLIN SEARCH EXPEDITION: GRAVES OF THE COMRADES OF SIR JOHN FRANKLIN." So it would seem an ideal illustration for blog about the famous ballad lamenting the lost of Sir John and his "gallant crew," except for one detail: the graves shown here are certainly not those of Franklin or his crewmembers. The only graves, in the sense of organized burials with grave markers, are those found on Beechey Island; there were only three, until an unlucky crewman aboard the "North Star" joined them to make a party of four. And yet here we see what appear to be sixteen graves, three of which feature enormous columns that would seem to be made of wood or stone -- two obelisks and one cross.

So where is this graveyard -- with a village of igloos and an ice-bound ship near at hand? I think I have a likely answer, but rather than offer it here, I thought I'd "crowd source" the question: whose graves are these, and how did they end up being depicted in such a lovely but mistitled engraving?

(p.s. the version here is scanned from my own personal copy, not from the Times or the collection credited there).

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Tima and Chimo

The first use of "Chimo" as a greeting is in Drage 1748, in Hudson Strait: "The Person in the Canoe... shewed a Piece of Whale-bone, repeating Chimo, and moving his Left-hand circularly upon his left Breast..." Andrew Graham in 1768 wrote that the Eskimos "rub their breast with their open hand, calling in a pitiful tone, 'Chimo! Chimo! which is a sign of peace and friendship. Hearne records "Tima" in 1795: "Tima in the Esquimaux language is a friendly word similar to 'what cheer.'" Edward Chappell in 1814 wrote that "Chymo" meant to barter.

These words each derive, in my opinion, from words that have their own discreet meaning, but in this context of being used as a greeting they have merged. George Back (1836-37) suggested as much when he referred to the men he met "vociferating their accustomed 'Tima' or 'Chimo'..." And McTavish in the 1880s wrote, "I bade the majority of the Esquimaux 'Timah,' generally written as 'Chimo'"

Taima (the modern correct spelling of tima - teyma - timah) today means - that's all, that's enough, it's over.

Chimo (which I think traditionally was pronounced Saimo - like Sigh-moe) comes from a root "saimak" which means blessing or peace. Saimaqsaiji means peacemaker. Saimati in northern Quebec and southern Baffin is "flag" - because after conversion Inuit stuck white flags into the snow beside their snowhouses to show that they were Christian and therefore peaceful. The phrase "saimugluk" (used between two people) today is always accompanied by a handshake, but derives from the same root, so it can be thought of as once meaning "Let's be friends," "Let's be in peace."

So the Taima and Chimo of the early white explorers and traders converged. The meaning was one of friendship and peace, with overtones of barter at the time.

None of this helps us understand "Mannik toomee."

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Mannik toomee

The image is almost a cliché of nineteenth-century Arctic explorers' narratives: the Kabloonas approach the "Esquimaux" carefully, and the natives, weapons in hand, crouch nervously, never perhaps having encountered white men before. And then, with a cry of "Teyma," "Mannik toomee," or "Kammik toomee"-- all words thought at one time or another to mean "Friend," "Peace," or "Welcome" -- the two parties instantly relax; handshakes are exchanged, and trade goods soon follow. Thank goodness the white people knew what to say!

But of course they didn't know what to say. Most British and American explorers did not know a single word of Inuktitut; if they had phrasebooks, these were often in the wrong dialect, and if they had interpreters these were often Greenlanders whose dialect was -- quite literally -- thousands of miles off. The Brits, and the Americans who followed them, also had a habit of taking any word or phrase spoken to them, interpreting it by context and gesture, and using it in return as a greeting.

Which brings us to "Mannik toomee," subject of part of my last posting. This phrase or something close to it is in the journals of many Arctic explorers, each of whom heard it a little differently; McClintock heard it as "Kammik toomee," Schwatka as "Munnuk toomee," and Hall as "Man-nig-too-me." Taken literally, it seems to be made up of either manik ("here") or kamik ("sealskin boot"), which is followed with tumiq ("tracks"?). In an agglutinative language such as Inuktitut, this could be construed as anything from "there are tracks here" to "here we stand" -- but my knowledge of the language is extremely limited, so I'd leave that to those who speak it, or linguists. The one thing I can say with some certainty is that it doesn't mean "Welcome," which is what the explorers thought it did.

It appears that this is one of those phrases, heard by white men at one point in time, and then re-used as a greeting. Since white men wrote down what they heard, later explorers might well re-use the term. "Teyma," assumed to mean "friend," was noted by Sir John Franklin in 1821, who remarked that it was "used by Esquimaux when they accost strangers in a friendly manner." Later explorers used it too, though at some point they seem to have switched to a variation of "Mannik toomee" -- so the question is, who first heard this expression, and made the assumption it was a friendly greeting?

Here things get sticky. I have a clear recollection that I'd read it was spoken by the angekoq or shaman who, in 1833, tried to keep the kabloonas led by George Back -- who, unbeknownst to Back, had earlier killed three Inuit -- from coming too close. But it's not in Back's, or in King's narrative. It does, however, feature in Inuit oral tradition. Dorothy Eber heard this phrase in a story about nervous Inuit approaching white men, and wrote about it in The Beaver and again in her most recent book. Her informant even offered a gloss on its meaning:
The shaman told his people, 'Maniktumiq' - do it smoothly, not aggressively. The Inuit stood together and said the same word - 'Maniktumiq' - do it smoothly. It was sort of a prayer to a great power, the spirit. All together they began walking gently and smoothly, not agressively.
Eber believed the word was a specialized, "magic" or shamanistic word, used for its symbolic rather than literal meaning -- like, say, the English word "abracadabra" -- and that it may well have been the kind of word used only by a particular band, or even one specific shaman.

I believe this phrase may have been specific to the Utjulingmiut. This was the band Back met near the mouth of the river that would later bear his name, the band whose hunting area was nearest the site of the last Franklin ship, and the band which, due to famine and hostile neighbors, was dispersed to the winds, its survivors often finding refuge with other bands. Eber believes the testimony just quoted referred to Ross -- and indeed a similar scene happened at his first meeting with the Inuit. But where then is any reference to the man with one leg, sent ahead as the most expendable member (and later given a welcome wooden replacement by the ship's carpenter of the Victory)? No, I think this account is a worn-down version of the Inuit encounter with Schwatka's searchers in 1878; here is his version:

They formed a line with bows, arrows, and spears or knives, and, as we moved up to within a few feet, they began a general stroking of their breasts, calling "Munnik toomee" (Welcome).

The association of this gesture with the phrase is noted elsewhere -- but what is significant here is that this band, although from another area, had as its head-man one of the last survivors of the Utjulingmiut diaspora.

Incidentally, this also gives us another reason to suppose that "Too-loo-ark" may have been Franklin -- it was Franklin who picked up on "teyma," and according to Kok-lee-arng-nun, it was "Too-loo-ark" who added that phrase to his greeting:
Too-loo-ark would say "Ma-my-too-mig-tey-ma." Ag-loo-ka's hand shaking was short and jerky, and he would only say "Man-nig-too-me." After the first summer and first winter, they saw no more of Too-loo-ark.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Kok-lee-arng-nun's Tale

One of the most remarkable pieces of Inuit testimony was that given the Charles Francis Hall by a native in Pelly Bay whose name Hall transcribed as "Kok-lee-arng-nun." This old man, nearly blind, had two spoons of Crozier's, and happily volunteered his tales of visiting white men on ships. There was one boat which had been near where they were speaking (this must have been Ross's Victory) and two boats out near "Oot-joo-lik." His tale of visits to these two boats, at first, seemed very clearly to describe Franklin and Crozier, under the names "Too-loo-ah" and "A-gloo-ka."

He described "Too-loo-ah" as "an old man with broad shoulders, thick and heavier set than Hall, with gray hair, full face, and bald head. He was always wearing something over his eyes (spectacles, as Too-koo-li-too interpreted it), was quite lame, and appeared sick when they last saw him. He was very kind to Innuits -- always wanting them to eat something." With this man was his second officer, "Aglooka" -- Kok-lee-arng-nun showed how Too-loo-ark and Ag-loo-ka used to meet him. They would take hold of his hand, giving it a few warm and friendly shakes, and Too-loo-ark would say "Ma-my-too-mig-tey-ma." Ag-loo-ka's hand shaking was short and jerky, and he would only say "Man-nig-too-me." After the first summer and first winter, they saw no more of Too-loo-ark."

There are difficulties with this tale -- much of it seems to match up with Franklin's ships, but other parts of his stories seemed to relate more to Ross's expedition aboard the Victory. Hall himself, after his initial enthusiasm, decided that everything the old man had told him was nothing but memories of Ross. But this, of course, can't be true, for all kinds of reasons (Ross had one boat, not two, he had a full head of hair and was not short and squat, he did not die during the expedition, and many other details, as Dave Woodman has noted in his books). Yet assuming it to be Franklin's vessels leads to problems as well -- most notably that, since as Woodman notes, the Netsilik Inuit had no idea that Franklin's ships or men had been in the northwest of King William Island until they learned of this from McClintock in 1859, it seems impossible that such visits as Kok-lee-arng-nun described took place prior to the 1848 landing. This would date them to some following season, long after the death of Franklin. So who was the bald, lame man with spectacles?

I believe it was, after all, Sir John Franklin himself. First, let us remember the circumstances under which Hall met Kok-lee-arng-nun -- they were nearing an area where they had been warned about hostile Inuit, possibly Netsilik, and known locally as the See-ne-mun-ites. Hall at first worried that Kok's band was one of them. In fact, not long after the meeting Hall would be forced to turn back, mainly due to the fact that Ebierbing, his trusty guide, was too worried about hostile Inuit to go further. There were stories of some Inuit, originally from the area of Utjulik, who had returned home only to be murdered in cold blood. Clearly, the Utjulingmiut had been displaced by these hostilities, as they turned up in all kinds of places far from their home hunting ground; some were among Rae's informants who had passed Franklin relics to him in Repulse Bay in 1854, and I think that Kok-lee-arng-nun, though himself an Arvlingmiut from Pelly Bay -- must have been on good terms with the Inuit of Utjulik, since he had visited there. Both bands likely suffered from the hostile Netsilik, their near neighbors. That at least one of Franklin's ships ended up in this area we are fairly certain -- and yet, up until this meeting, McClintock and other searchers had met only with Netsilik. It seems likely to me that the astonishing wealth left in and near an abandoned ship might well have been the source of the violence between bands, and in the context of that violence, the reason why Kok-lee-arng-nun's group would not have shared their knowledge with any Netsilik. They knew of Franklin's ships, but would not have had the opportunity to return to the place of their meeting him, as it was now controlled by hostile Inuit.

The physical description of Franklin given by Kok-lee-arng-nun matches that of no other explorer known to be in the region. Franklin's expedition was the only one whose commander died, and whose replacement was a man already known to the Inuit. And there is a final reason why I am convinced that Kok-lee-arng-nun's tale relates to Franklin himself, and it is the greeting he described Too-loo-ah and A-gloo-ka using: "Man-nig-too-me." This is not, from what I understand, a very typical Inuit greeting, and in fact the belief that it was one can be traced very specifically to Back's expedition to rescue the Rosses. It was during this journey that, though Back did not learn about it until later, two Inuit were killed by his party. When he met later with other Inuit from the area near the mouth of the Fish River, he could not understand why they were so nervous, or why their head man kept repeating "manik toomee." Back recorded this in his published account, a copy of which would surely have been aboard Franklin's ships. John and James Clark Ross could not have learned of this phrase until long after their sojourn in the Arctic, and could never have used it; that the two men described by Kok-lee-arng-nun did is further evidence to me that they must have been Franklin and Crozier.

Woodman feels that this tale could apply to Crozier and Fitzjames -- but unless Crozier was bald under that cap of his, and put on considerable weight, injured his leg, and had started looking "old" -- I just can't see it. It seems more likely by far to me that Kok-lee-arng-nun's band, under threat by hostile Netsilik, would of course have had neither the opportunity nor the inclination to talk to them about their earlier visits with Franklin.

Monday, November 28, 2011

New theory on the Boat Place

Ron Carlson has just posted a very thoughtful item on the possible reasons for the abandonment of the boat later discovered by M'Clintock to have been facing what he considered the "wrong" direction -- back toward the presumed location of the ships. I think it raises some good questions as to the ways in which we reconstruct both the physical evidence and our sense of the state of mind and morale of the men. I recommend that anyone interested in this question have a look at Ron's blog, and post their thoughts.

Monday, October 3, 2011


I wanted to let everyone who's been following this blog over the years know why posts have been a bit less frequent of late, and why I'm taking a brief hiatus from new postings. My novel, Pyg: The Memoirs of a Learned Pig, is about to be published in the UK by Canongate books; editions in the US, Italy, and other countries will soon follow. Like everything I've done, the novel is a labor of love, and right now I plan to spend most of my energies helping to get it launched. I have a new blog for the novel, and have even done something I thought I'd never do, and started a Twitter account.

But I will not -- and never shall -- leave these regions of thick-ribb'd ice -- the Arctic is in my blood. I will still make periodic postings, and will certainly follow all of those who are out there keeping the polar torch alight. I hope those of you who have followed me here may consider picking up the novel, with the assurance that you will find therein something of the same quality of writing you've enjoyed here.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Sword of a "Great Officer"

The story is the stuff of old chivalric romances: in gratitude for helping him and his companions survive the winter, an officer of the Franklin expedition presented an Inuk hunter with his most valuable possession: his sword. And then, years later, this same hunter, now grown elderly, presented this same sword to a trader at a Hudson's Bay post, saying it had been given to him by a "great officer." And then the kicker: this sword is still in the archives of the Hudson's Bay company.

But who was this officer? Or was he an officer at all? The details are caught up in the web of interconnected, contradictory stories about "Aglooka." In the tale of the meeting at the 'crack in the ice,' there is a mention of exchanging a piece of seal meat for a "knife." Could this knife have been exaggerated in later re-tellings? In the tale of the "Aglooka" who was sheltered for a winter by Too-shoo-art-thariu, this man offered his rifle in thanks, but Too-shoo was reluctant to accept it, not sure how it worked, and so the man offered his "long knife" -- a word that Tookoolito, Hall's interpreter, believed meant "sword" -- along with "nearly everything he had." The first tale is associated with Washington Bay on King William Island, and must date to an earlier time; it's possible that the later tale may be a garbled or slightly fanciful version of the first.

As to the provenance of the sword in the HBC's collections, it was given by an elderly Inuit man to Robert MacFarlane, the chief factor of the Athabasca district in the 1880's. The date, some thirty-odd years after the Franklin expedition, is sufficient for the description of "elderly" to be given to a man in his prime in 1850. Their archival record reads as follows:
HBC 1226 A,B : MILITARY SWORD; 1830s 
This ornate sword is documented as having been retrieved by Chief Factor Roderick MacFarlane from an Inuit man who claimed that the sword had been presented to him in 1857 by an officer of the Franklin expedition. The letters"W IV" appearing on the blade and hilt refers to King WilliamIV, 1830-1837. "Moore, late, Bicknells & Moore, Old Bond Street,London," have been engraved on the brass ferrule and chape.
This last detail has given rise to speculation that the "great officer" might have been Fitzjames, who obtained his Mate's passing certificate (the prerequisite for the rank) in 1834, well within the reign of William IV. But the promotion itself would have to wait on additional service; he came close in 1837, and finally obtained the rank on 26 January 1838, more than six months after the death of William IV. The dates for most others of Sir John Franklin's officers, however, are even further off the mark (Crozier, 1826; Le Vesconte, 1841; Fairholme, 1842; Hodgson, 1842; Irving, 1843). Graham Gore was promoted in 1837, but was then in the Arctic serving with Back; King William died prior to his return. The only other candidate would be Edward Little, whose promotion in December of 1837 is just barely prior to Fitzjames's. It's possible, in these last three cases, to imagine that the officers' swords might have been purchased at a time when blades stamped "William IV" were in stock, and new ones with Queen Victoria's name were not yet available.

The date of "1857" is certainly remarkable as well -- could an officer have survived that long?

And yet what evidence do we have that the sword was presented to the Inuk by its original owner? None at all -- and indeed, given that so much of the officers' silver plate had been distributed to the men, the idea of a sword being passed to a subordinate -- possibly with the idea of bringing it home as a memorial -- has to be considered. The sense of mission in a man who was charged to return the sword to the family of its owner might account for its being retained so late in the time after the ships were abandoned -- and yet again, why would such a man suddenly give the sword away? Was it in the hope that the Inuk might return it himself someday? Lastly, we have to consider the possibility that the sword was never given at all, but simply taken from a dead body or a cache, traded from hand to hand, and eventually returned with the statement that it was from one of Franklin's officers.

As with so many other elements of the Franklin mystery, this sword -- which at first presents itself as a brilliantly specific piece of evidence -- turns out to be of uncertain provenance and significance, save in the way it has fired the imagination of those who seek answers to the many enigmas surrounding the expedition's disappearance.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Who was "Aglooka"? There's been a great deal of chat about this eternal question over on the Facebook page on the Franklin Expedition, with quite a few new voices. And so, although I'd caution that I don't think that we will ever have an absolute or complete answer, I thought I'd take the opportunity here to ask the question.

Aglooka -- aglukaq in Inuktitut -- means roughly "long strider," and from the point of view of the Inuit, it's a term that could be applied to almost any of the white explorers who sojourned among them. It's been associated, at various times and by various conjectures, with Sir John Ross, Frances Crozier, and Dr John Rae, and in Inuit oral histories, there are stories which -- depending in large part on when one decides the events recounted took place -- could apply to one or more of these main candidates. Some, like Charles Francis Hall, were convinced "Aglooka" was Crozier, and held fast to that belief even in the face of contradictory evidence. Some, like the eminent Franklin expert David C. Woodman, believe it more likely that "Aglooka" was not one of the senior commanders of the Franklin expedition, but rather a minor officer or even and ordinary seaman who took on a leadership role in a small group of survivors. So -- if everyone is ready -- let's review the evidence.

First there is the question of contact with the expedition while aboard their ships. Inuit testimony given to CF Hall tells us of an encounter with an expedition of two ships, one commanded by a bald man who wore spectacles (little pieces of ice) over his eyes, and who suffered some infirmity. He was called Toolooah, and his second-in-command was Aglooka. Some time after the Inuit had visited them, they told Hall that they heard that Toolooah had died, and that Alglooka had become the Esh-e-mut-ta (Hall's phonetic spelling for isumataq or leader). Such a scenario corresponds only with the Franklin expedition, as that of the Rosses -- the only other British voyage to the central coastal area in the period -- had only one ship (The Victory, unless its small coal-tender Kreuzenstern is counted), suffered no death of a commanding officer, and both Rosses were possessed of vast and healthy heads of hair.

Nevertheless, there's a problem when one connects this account to Franklin and Crozier and the Erebus and Terror: During the time they were off the NW coast of King William Island, they apparently had no contact with Inuit, since later Inuit did not, by their own account, know of ships abandoned in this area until they learned of them by way of McClintock in 1859. It's possible that the Inuit who did visit the ships did not, for some reason, communicate their visit to other Inuit bands -- there was some hostility, apparently, between the Netsilingmiut of the Boothia Peninsula who were McClintock's main informants, and the Utjulingmiut whose territory near Queen Maud Gulf put them closest to the final locations of Franklin's ships. Still, on the basis of this discrepancy, Woodman discounts the idea of any contact between Inuit and Franklin's men prior to the ships' abandonment.

We also have Inuit testimony as to witnessing the funeral of some important person near the ships. It's tempting to think this was Franklin's funeral, but when he died the ships were far offshore, separated from KWI by several miles of hummocky old ice. Woodman thinks it was, more likely, the funeral of a different, senior officer, and took place some time after at least one of the ships was re-piloted further south; this would explain the fact that the Inuit who saw it were still unaware of the Victory Point cache or any ships near there. He thinks it may well have been Crozier's funeral, a conjecture which, if true, eliminates him as a candidate for "Aglooka."

Curiously, after these accounts, our next tales of an encounter with a possible "Aglooka" seem to deal with the party of men who left the ship or ship and travelled south and then east along the coast of KWI. Somewhere along that trek, there was an encounter at the crack in the ice, where the white men traded a knife for some seal meat, and "cooked the meat with the aid of the blubber (a foolish waste of good, caloric blubber from the Inuit viewpoint). The Inuit named two of these men -- "Aglooka" was one, and the other "Doktook," the latter possibly an Inuit attempt at "Doctor." They described how Aglooka made notes in a little book, and tried to tell them what had happened to the ships by pantomime. This is perhaps a significant detail, as we know that Crozier, during his time with the Inuit of Igloolik on Parry's second expedition, was said to have learned the Inuit language better than any of the officers -- so why would he resort to pantomime? Then again, the officer did say that he was trying to get to "Iwillik" -- the area near Repulse Bay -- so maybe his vocab was just a little rusty.

We next hear of the finding of "Aglooka" at the Todd Islets, in the form of the body an officer with a gold chain around his neck. Yet the Inuit who made this identification seem to have used the name because they thought this man was Ross!

The last accounts of an "Aglooka" have to do with a man who was an excellent hunter -- so good that he shared food with the Inuit. The description matches Rae, and it's hard to rule him out as a source of some of these stories. Old Ook-bar-loo's cousin, Too-shoo-ar-thariu -- according to her at any rate -- had hosted a group of four men, including this "Aglooka." Aglooka was weak and ill, apparently because he refused to eat human flesh. The others were stronger. Too-shoo allowed them to stay in his igloo and hunt with him for a season, nursing Aglooka back to health. One of the men, not Aglooka, died early the next season, and the other three headed south, apparently planning to skirt the western coasts of Hudson's Bay and make it to Fort Churchill. They never made it; according to Hall's later informants near Marble Island, they may have been killed by sub-Arctic Indians along the way. Before they left Aglooka, who was described as a "great officer," gave Too-shoo his sword.

Hall was, of course, thrilled to think that this Aglooka was Crozier, and always referred to him as such in his diaries. He faced two disappointments: first, that Too-shoo-ar-thariu, when he finally met him in person, denied his aunt's account. Further queries seemed to indicate that Too-shoo was among the men who'd met at the crack in the ice, and that he and his fellow hunters had packed up and left, even as Aglooka ran from his tent begging them to stop. This shattered Hall's faith in the Inuit. Then, hearing the account of the possible murder of Crozier on his way south to Fort Churchill, Hall lost faith that there were any survivors of the Franklin expedition.

Aglooka, or "aglukark" as it is more often spelled, is still a common Inuit surname. The great Inuit singer Susan Aglukark was born in Fort Churchill, the place that Hall's "Aglooka" had sought to reach. And, more recently, when the Inuit of Gjoa Haven retained the services of a lawyer in their quest to protect the contents of the (later found to be empty) box under the cairn near their town, the lawyer they hired also had the last name Aglukark.

So who was this man -- who were these men? The world may never know...

Thursday, September 8, 2011

BBC Story on Franklin

I wanted to put up a link to a news account of the Franklin story and modern interest in the same, written by Kate Dailey for the BBC's News Magazine. Ms. Dailey interviewed a number of the regulars from this and other online Franklin sites, including myself , William Battersby, and Tedd Betts -- and I think that the resulting story is accurate, well-written, and informative. It includes not only an account of the Parks Canada search, but of the attempted search using thermal imaging by Ron Carlson. Have a look here to read the full account. Congrats especially to William Battersby, whose distinctive voice narrates the associated slideshow, with great élan.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Still Missing: Erebus and Terror

The news has begun to trickle out that this year, the final year of the three-year long Parks Canada search for the lost ships of Sir John Franklin, has ended without result. Apparently, the special remote-controlled underwater probe brought to the search was unable to be deployed, though the reasons for this have not been made public. Of course I am disappointed, though I am also grateful to Marc-Andre Bernier, Parks Canada's chief of underwater archeology, and all the rest of the team for their efforts.

It's all too easy to give armchair advice -- but I do hope there will be further searches. My own view is that, in addition to whatever government efforts may or may not be funded, the Canadian government, as well as the territorial government of Nunavut, could and should do more to promote searches. The permitting process, under CLEY, should be streamlined in every way possible. A number of promising avenues, such as that proposed by Ron Carlson and discussed on this blog, were turned down due to technicalities, most often the absence of a government-credentialled archaeologist. So why not make such archaeologists available? In Carlson's case, he brought -- and essentially donated to the effort -- his own plane and imaging equipment; why not, instead of simply crassly denying him a permit, the territorial government helped find and place a qualified archaeologist to work with him? The cost to the Nunavut and Canada would be minimal, many times less than that of any of the state-sponsored efforts of these last three years. Another bone I have to pick is that I cannot understand why, given his work over many years on the Franklin mystery, David C. Woodman, has not been invited to participate in any of these recent searches. I believe it's unfair, and wrongheaded, to exclude the one person who knows the Inuit testimony better than any man living.

Lastly, I would observe this: in many human endeavors, it's been found that "crowd sourcing" -- the open and free participation of many in tackling a task -- is by far the most efficient way to solve many problems. If (say) the National Archives at Kew, the Maritime Museum at Greenwich, the Arctic Institute of North America, The Scott Polar Research Institute, Parks Canada, and the National Library of Canada got together, put all their resources on one wiki, including high-res imagery of every document and artifact, and a wiki-editable tag map of the search area, I'd wager that enormous progress could be made. Six very expensive days of federally-funded searching are all well and good, but in my experience, historical puzzles of this level of complexity require many voices -- experts and amateurs, Qalluunat and Inuit, historians and archivists, archaeologists and pilots -- the more voices the better.

(Image of the Muster book of HMS "Erebus" courtesy David Malcolm Shein, from the original at the National Archives, Kew)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Tragedy in Nunavut

I was greatly saddened today to learn of the crash of the First Air Boeing 737 near Resolute, Nunavut earlier today. The plane, one of six 737's in the First Air fleet, apparently encountered some sort of trouble on approach to the runaway at Resolute on a flight from Yellowknife; of 15 passengers and crew, 12 were killed; the other three are in hospital in Iqaluit as of the latest reports.

Nunavut is a vast land. But its population is only around 30,000, making it in many ways more like a town when it comes to who knows who. When I heard the news of the crash, I had that sickening feeling that someone I knew, or was connected with someone I knew, was probably aboard. And this turned out to be true; among the passengers were two granddaughters of Aziz "Ozzy" Kheraj, proprietor of the South Camp Inn in Resolute; one of them is among the survivors. Also on board, and apparently among the dead, was Randy Reid, the longtime cook at the South Camp Inn, whose wonderful cuisine was a great feature of the place. I was a guest at the South Camp in 2004, and enjoyed both the excellent food and the delightful, irascible presence of Ozzy, a true northern character whose career has taken him from the tropics to the Arctic. Word on others aboard has not made it through to the news services, but I have a feeling and the fear that, when the list is released, there may be other familiar names. My thoughts and feelings go out to all those affected in this vast, outspread town known as Nunavut.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Library of the Erebus and Terror II

I've written here before about the mystery surrounding the library of books taken aboard HMS "Terror" and "Erebus" on the Franklin expedition. As to the exact number of books, sources vary, and there are few precise descriptions. A copy of the Book of Common Prayer for each seaman was donated to the Expedition, and documents also mention the inclusion of a standard "Seaman's Library," though exactly what that meant in 1845 is not entirely clear. A number of the officers, particularly Fairholme and Fitzjames, mentioned their reading in their letters sent home from Greenland; Fitzjames mentions making a catalog of their books, but this, alas, is lost. Our other evidence comes from books recovered by Franklin searchers, most of which are held at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich; here the proof would seem to be definitive, but a number of these books are in such a fragmentary or mutilated condition that positive identification is difficult.

Nevertheless, it may well be possible that this library could, at least to some extent, be reconstructed. Copies of the official narratives of previous polar expeditions would certainly have been included; a standard nautical ephemeris and other reference works surely have been provided. Evidence may be lurking in all kinds of places, and Google Books and WorldCat could help us track down specific editions.

And now there is a perfect venue for such a collective undertaking: the LibraryThing Legacy Libraries project. They already have a catalog of the books aboard HMS Beagle, as well as several other vessels, and I've now created a catalog page for the lost library of Franklin's ships. It's fairly easy to add books -- the system will even look them up in the British Library or other catalogs and automatically fetch details. The criteria for inclusion should be (1) Books mentioned as being aboard by crewmembers or visitors to the ships at any time from their outfitting to the point at which the last letters were sent home from Greenland; (2) Books actually recovered by McClintock and other Franklin searchers; and lastly (3) Books which it can be reasonably inferred were aboard based on period evidence -- e.g. the statement that they had aboard all the previous printed narratives of British polar explorers. You can see that I've started to tag the books.

If anyone is interested in contributing, just drop me a note and I will send you the details so that you can log on, edit, add, and contribute.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

New Images of HMS Investigator

Parks Canada recently concluded its new mission this year to photograph and gather information about the Franklin search ship HMS Investigator in the icy waters of Mercy Bay. There doesn't seem to have been any big press release or fanfare, but a number of images such as the one here have quietly made their appearance on the PC website. The quality of these images, when compared with those taken by the remote camera last summer, is remarkable; one can see every nail in the copper sheathing, and it's apparent that the roman numerals were not painted upon this surface, but were cut out of sheet metal and nailed on. There's nothing, at least yet, of the 3D laser telemetry they had planned to gather, nor -- alas -- any images of the interior of the captain's cabin which, the initial announcement implied, might be photographed if it proved possible to insert a camera through a nearby hole in the ship's planking. But I'm sure what we can see is just the tip of the iceberg of the images they've made.

For those who enjoy the immediacy of an audio report, you can get a series of podcasts on their site which give weekly updates on the dives and the progress of their research; I haven't yet had time to listen to all of these myself, but they've provided some interesting evidence which William Battersby discusses on his blog, and if other have listened and found items of interest, I'd certainly be glad to hear about them.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

White Snow and Red Tape

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

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

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

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Rumors of Parks Canada Franklin Search

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

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

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

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Ron Carlson's Franklin Search

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

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

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

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Japanese duo retrace Franklin's steps

Faithful readers of this blog will recall, perhaps, my posting from back in February about a previously unknown Japanese adventurer, Yusuke Kakuhata, and his bold plan to retrace Franklin's footsteps across some of the most barren areas of the Arctic, unsupported and on foot. At the time, I was doubly skeptical -- first, that the attempt was real, given that its only mention was on a relatively unknown English-language Japanese news site -- and second, that such a journey, undertaken as it appeared to be by a man whose previous experiences were all on guided expeditions, seemed foolhardy. It now appears I was mistaken on both fronts -- according to this new posting at the ExplorersWeb site, Mr. Kakuhata and his fellow traveller, the more experienced Yasunaga Ogita (both pictured above) have indeed completed the most difficult leg of their planned trip, making the more than 1,000 kilometre trip from Resolute Bay to Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, in 60 days. Having left Resolute on March 15, they are now resting in Gjoa before departing on the final section of their journey toward the Baker Lake region. This would seem to evoke the route supposed to have been traversed by the mysterious Kabloona known only as "Aglooka," and supposed by Charles Francis Hall to have been Francis Crozier -- for he and his two or three companions (depending on the source) are the only members of Franklin's party said by the Inuit to have headed out in this direction. Ogita and Kakuhata plan to start their journey taking sleds, then switch to backpacks when the snow withdraws and the tundra begins to thaw. The article also mentions that Mr. Ogita has been posting updates to his blog -- it's in Japanese, and didn't see a translation link, though you can auto-translate it and get the general gist.

I for one would certainly want to congratulate these two travellers -- their undertaking, although not unprecedented (the American Express Franklin Memorial Expedition followed much the same route in 2003) is certainly remarkable in its being undertaken by such a small, unsupported party, and commencing so early in the season. I hope we'll soon have more details of their journey.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Art from the Arctic

The Arctic has spurred the creativity of artists for centuries, marking as it does the border between the known and the unknown, the visible and invisible worlds. As historian Robert McGhee so eloquently put it, they are, in many ways, the "last imaginary place" on earth. Most of the time, artists relied on the sketches and accounts of explorers, reconstructing this unearthly country by borrowing the witness of those who sojourned there; some of the most astonishing works -- Friedrich's "Sea of Ice," or Landseer's "Man Proposes, God Disposes," were painted by men who had never approached within a thousand miles of the Arctic Circle. And yet, even in the nineteenth century, there were artists -- sometimes a whole shipload of them -- who headed north to see this singular landscape for themselves. The Armerican artist William Bradford chartered annual excursions for photography ice-painting nearly every year from 1861 to 1867. In 1869, aboard the Panther, with the explorer Isaac I. Hayes as their guide, Bradford and his fellow artists journeyed father north than any such party had managed before, venturing deep into Melville Bay before being turned back by the implacable barrier of pack-ice at about 75º north. In his quest to make the most of his northern sojourns, Bradford regularly brought along hired photographers to take studies of every scene. Two of these, John L. Dunmore and George P. Critcherson, accompanied him on the Panther, making hundreds of wet-plate collodion images, from which Bradford later drew from to assemble the massive elephant-folio volume, The Arctic Regions.

Such a thing, I had until now thought, was a curiously nineteenth-century notion: putting artists on a picture-making cruise seemed somehow both bold and quaint. And yet just today, just by chance, I stumbled across a documentary, Art from the Arctic, which describes a series of voyages made between 2003 and 2005, with British filmmaker David Buckland taking the role of Bradford, and the passenger-artists including sculptors Anthony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread, choreographer Siobhan Davis, and the writer Ian McEwen. The film documenting their journeys is, happily, available to watch free online, both at Hulu and at SnagFilms (I recommend the latter, as it's free of adverts for insurance companies). The film itself isn't terribly remarkable, though there are some lovely shots of Svalbard, including calving glaciers and a polar bear which -- thanks to a telephoto lens -- looks dangerously close to a boatload of defenseless artists. Nevertheless, the story it tells is a remarkable one; in this day and age of virtual visits and Skyping sociality, it's somehow encouraging to see artists and writers actually enduring the rigors of a sea voyage -- and, in one case, a wintering-over -- simply to gain that ineluctable thing that we still can call "experience." I recommend it very highly, and hope that perhaps this sort of thing may happen again -- if it does, I'll put in for a ticket.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Who's in that Grave?

To riff on an old American joke, it turns out that it may not be Grant in that tomb. According to a forensic facial reconstruction, the skeletal remains reburied with great ceremony in 2009 in Greenwich may not have been those of Henry Dundas Le Vesconte, but rather those of Harry Goodsir, surgeon-naturalist of the Franklin expedition. On one level, it matters not; any honors bestowed upon the remains by sonorous ceremony, with the blessings of the Bishop of Woolwich and the speech of the Canadian Chargé d'affaires would be no less deserved if performed over the bones of any of Franklin's officers or men as had they been made for Le Vesconte. Nevertheless, the identity of this curious skeleton -- brought back to England's shores by way of the eccentric explorer Charles Francis Hall -- remains a bone of contention.

There are questions, of course. How accurate is a facial reconstruction, when it comes to making a positive identification? The technique was originated in the 1890's, but was not widely known outside forensic circles until Wilton W. Krogman popularized it in the 1960's. A particularly well-publicized case was that of German forensic scientist R.P. Helmer's identification of the skull of Nazi "Angel of Death" Josef Mengele in 1985. Helmer looked at photographs of a cross-section of the skull and compared them with known photos of Mengele while alive; by "merging" these two images and looking at specific points and proportions, Helmer felt he could make an identification with a fairly high degree of certainty. Another technique, building up the muscles and skin tissue on a skull or a cast of a skull, came somewhat later; originally used to reconstruct the probable appearance of primitive humans, it was later extended to modern remains. This technique depends upon the reconstructor's knowing something of the age, race, and gender of the subject, and involves a certain degree of interpretation.

The photo distributed with the news of this fresh view of the remains brought back by Hall suggests a blend of both techniques: a facial reconstruction model photographed and then superimposed on a photograph of the candidate. There are questions: given that we only have photographs of perhaps half of Franklin's officers, and none of his men, there might be matches that could be missed; given the limits of this procedure, results would be far stronger if corroborated by other sorts of evidence.

Happily, having had the opportunity, with thanks to one of its co-authors, to see the actual study, "New light on the personal identification of a skeleton of a member of Sir John Franklin’s last expedition to the Arctic, 1845" (Journal of Archaeological Science) I can say that there is substantially more to this identification than facial reconstruction. The jury may still be out, but we have some remarkable additional clues: The skeleton is definitively male, and was of a man between 23 and 59 years of age; he was probably tall and slender, and an isotope analysis of his tooth enamel shows that this individual almost certainly did not grow up in Devon, as did Le Vesconte. Moreover, whatever the precise accuracy of the facial reconstruction, the proportions of the skull and jaw are inconsistent with those of Le Vesconte. Lastly, there is the gold tooth filling -- a very gracefully inserted bit of metal, hardly the "plug" described by its first witnesses, in a tooth showing signs of careful filing -- which suggests someone who had very advanced dental care, in nineteenth-century terms.

And as it happens, Goodsir answers excellently to all these features: he grew up in Scotland, and had never served on a naval vessel prior to his service with Franklin; his face shows the basic features present in the skull, and his eldest brother -- John Goodsir, a scientific pioneer renowned for his medical teachings -- had commenced his career with a careful study of dentistry, with an eye to reforming and refining a hitherto rather brutal practice imposed upon its poor sufferers by ill-trained barber-surgeons. Indeed, John Goodsir's portrait in the Dictionary of National Biography reveals a nose that looks almost the exact match of the facial reconstruction, a helpful additional clue given that the nose of the younger Goodsir, his face turned three-quarters from the camera's eye, is less easily measurable than it would be in a head-on shot.

But there is one remaining issue. If DNA was collected from these bones, then it should be possible to find a match in Goodsir's collateral descendants. As one of several successful brothers, it would seem likely that there would be many candidates, but research so far has not located any. A DNA test would make the identification definitive, or (possibly) rule it out completely, but this would depend on finding a suitable candidate -- preferably someone descended via the female line, where mitochondrial DNA would be passed on unaltered.

But does it matter? Not for the memorial, certainly, which would stand as proudly whichever Franklin officer it honored (and indeed, it honors all of them). But possibly, for the understanding of the last months of the Franklin expedition, it does. Was Goodsir sent along with an advance party of some kind? As a surgeon-naturalist, would the presence of his remains indicate that science was still taking the lead, or rather that circumstances were dire enough that he was sent to perform ordinary medical duties with some party of last survivors? More needs to be done, but if the identification of this body is in error, perhaps the remains supposed to be those of Lieutenant John Irving -- the only other skeleton brought back to England -- should be examined as well.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Franklin Projections in Hobart

The statue of Sir John Franklin in Hobart, Tasmania, has doubtless seen its share of strange things, but those who visit in the next few weeks will see something stranger still. As part of a series projecting art all over Hobart, the pedestal of Sir John's statue, as well as several of the surrounding trees, have become the canvas for an art installation inspired by the story of Mathinna, the young Tasmanian girl adopted for a time by Lady Jane Franklin, and then left behind at an orphanage on her departure.

According to a recent article by Carol Raabus which appeared on the ABC Hobart news site, these installations, by Craig Walsh, are but the first of many planned for the "Ten Days on the Island" festival, which opens officially on March 25th. Those at Franklin square are the first, and bound to be among the most compelling, as they transform an area which -- by day at least -- has a staid and solid feeling into one which evokes a story that has crept out from between the bloodied floorboards of the "standard" histories, and which many feel redounds poorly on Sir John and Lady Franklin's character.

Mathinna's story has been told several times in recent years -- most powerfully in a radio play by Carmen Bird, "In Her Father's House," which was broadcast on ABC Australia in 2003, and again by Richard Flanagan in his 2009 novel, Wanting. Lady Franklin apparently thought she could "improve" the child, and by so doing demonstrate the capability of the Aboriginal population of being educated. She was given a place at Government House, and educated at Lady Franklin's expense -- and yet, when she experienced difficulties, there was always the threat, implicit or explicit, of her being turned out. When Sir John was recalled to England, Lady Jane sent Mathinna back to the orphanage whence she had plucked her; not surprisingly the young girl did poorly after this, being found dead in the street some years later, apparently of acute alcohol intoxication. Perhaps most poignantly, there survives a lovely portrait of Mathinna, made in 1842 by the painter Thomas Bock, whose pathos depends on our awareness of a fateful truth unknown to the artist.

As conceived here by Craig Walsh, Lady Jane has become a tree, overlooking with strange, sad passivity both the statue of her late husband, and the ghostly image of Mathinna projected upon its pedestal. It's a haunting image to see online, and must surely be more so when seen in person.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Japanese Writer Searching for Franklin

Until today, I had not heard the name Yusuke Kakuhata mentioned in the context of the Franklin expedition. His plan sounds almost absurd in its ambition -- to travel overland from Resolute to the Baker Lake area on foot, without either a satellite phone or a GPS transponder.

Mr. Kakuhata, a former newspaper reporter who has received the Takeshi Kaiko award for his nonfiction writing, says he is seeking the answer to the question "What does it mean to travel through an unexplored land?"

I would caution him that, first off, the area he'll be traveling through is not unexplored -- but it is extremely remote, and temperatures in February can be harsh -- at the moment of this posting, it's 13 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a predicted low of -29, and blowing snow. He plans to travel in the company of Yasunaga Ogita, who has visited the Magnetic North Pole in 2010, and the Geographic North Pole in 2011, so at least he will have an experienced companion, although it remains unclear what kind of support crew, caches, or other provisions for the unexpected have been made. According to the Daily Yomiuri Online, Mr. Kakuhata says that he "wants to experience the extreme situations the lost team faced and will solve any problems through trial and error." It seems a curious determination -- I only hope that his trek does not place other people -- rescuers -- at risk. It is one thing to seek the mystery at the heart of a lost expedition, and quite another to seek to lose one's self.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Franklin's Arctic Voyageurs

Although best known for his final, fatal voyage of 1845, Sir John Franklin's initial fame rested upon the near-disaster of his expedition to the Polar Sea in 1819-1822. It was this journey, which ended in starvation, cannibalism, and murder, which earned Franklin the lasting sobriquet "the man who ate his boots," proving once again that, when it comes to Arctic exploration, risk is everything.

Not that the Royal Navy was opposed to outsourcing some of that risk -- indeed, they did so quite readily -- and, since they were sticklers for paperwork, we have the contracts to show it. My thanks to Laurent Veilleux for sending along links to these contracts, which have been preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale du Québec. They are part of the documentation for Franklin's third Polar expedition, not his disastrous second -- I had to do a double-take at first, since one of the more notable names here is that of Solomon Bélanger, a man who, considering that he saved Franklin's life on one occasion, and suffered being berated by his employer on another, might understandably have been reluctant to sign up for another tour. The pay was good, though -- and why not? -- and this time, Franklin guided his men through their voyage without major loss of life.

As it happens, Bélanger was to survive Franklin by nearly 16 years; he died in the parish of St. Jacques de l'Archigan, Québec, in April of 1863, having traversed the route to the Polar Sea twice, though without any memorials having been erected to his name.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

New Canadiana Portal

Looking for information relating to Arctic history in Canada has always been a bit of a task; aside from Library & Archives Canada, many of the other notable institutions -- the Hudson's Bay Archives, the Glenbow Museum, the Canadian Museum of Civilization -- each had their own online archives, all with different search systems. That's all about to change now, though, thanks to the new Canadiana Discovery Portal, where dozens of institutions have begun to share their online materials, making them available at a single click. You can also limit your search by collection, if desired, as well as other parameters. Right now, the system is still in its beta version, and most of the contributing collections have placed only some portion of their digital material in the new system. Nevertheless, just this morning, I made use of the portal and came upon the following:
From my initial experience, I would say that, in its present form, the value added is largely that of convenience, although further searches in individual archives would still be needed. And yet as the project progresses, I'm certain it will soon have the breadth and flexibility to be a truly world-class archival search, and the go-to site for anyone interested in the history of the Canadian Arctic.

P.S. -- my thanks to the Bioscope blog for first alerting me to this service!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Beechey in Fractals

What are the odds that this tiny rock, which I picked up at random from the gravel at Beechey Island, would happen to be shaped almost exactly like Beechey Island? Common sense would seem to suggest that it's incredibly unlikely, but -- as a friend to whom I showed this rock remarked, seen in terms of fractal geometry, the odds of such a thing are actually far closer to one than to zero. Fractal geometry often exhibits this property of "self-similarity," and there is even a mathematical formula for it. Like a glass hologram shattered into bits, each shard of a fractal form contains within it the same patterning forces and tendencies that shaped its parent. Of course, my Beechey rock has not been subject to erosion, ice-scour, tides, or other larger-scale forces; it's a bit more angular and rough. It appears to be a sort of igneous rock, and is pocked with little round holes that look like the craters on some irregularly-shaped moon. Nevertheless, the signature of nature lies within it; what I had picked up as a casual souvenir turns out to have a connection with its source that is anything but accidental.

These patterns were first noted by the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, after whom the 'Mandelbrot set' is named. His 1983 book, The Fractal Geometry of Nature, shows the prevalence of such forms in all manner of realms, ranging in scale from microscopic particles of dust to entire galaxies in space. His ideas were at first received with considerable skepticism, but have since been widely accepted and better understood; their combination of widespread applicability and mathematical elegance sets them as a remarkable leap in the understanding of the world around us.

In passing, I'd like to note that this is the 100th post on this blog since I began it in February of 2009 -- I'm still finding new things to write about, and I look forward to many more posts and responses to come. Since the start, we've had 34,833 pageviews, from all around the world -- over 4,000 from Canada, 3,000 from Australia, 1,800 from Poland, 1,500 from Germany, more than 1,000 from Ireland, the Netherlands, Itay, and Hungary, and even 409 from India!

My thanks to everyone who has read and posted on the site.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Polar Follies

Longtime readers of this blog know that I rarely editorialize -- I know that those with an interest in the history of polar exploration come from a wide variety of social and political backgrounds, and are of all ages and persuasions. I would hesitate to say anything here which might limit the appeal of this seemingly inexhaustible subject, but this article in today's New York Times about planned excursions to the South Pole on the upcoming anniversary of the Amundsen and Scott expeditions of 1911-12 has got my dander up. The idea of dropping off tourists -- many with no polar experience, no prior training, and (in some cases) even novices to skiing, at a cost of $30-$40,000 a pop -- is wasteful, irresponsible, and quite likely to lead to some serious injuries or deaths.

I can, to a degree, speak to this issue from experience. When I was in Resolute, Nunavut in April of 2004 for the filming of the Channel 4 documentary Search for the Northwest Passage, there was another group in town -- they consisted of the participants and organizers of the 2004 Fujitsu Polar Challenge, as well as a BBC film crew sent to cover the event. In teams of three, these Arctic novices were to "race to the magnetic pole" --- sort of. The problem was that the Pole had moved out into the polar icecap, which led the event's planners to shift the goal to an abandoned mine site located where the Pole had been in 1996. The members of these teams were young people, many between 18 and 25 years of age, who had raised money through their schools and various fundraising events back home to pay for their journey. Their "training" -- much like that of one of the persons preparing for the 2011 Antarctic events -- often consisted simply of dragging tyres around by a rope. Many of them had never been north of 60 in their lives, and had little cross-country skiing experience.

The events of that year were sobering. At the Resolute airport, I talked with some of the backup and rescue staff assigned to protect the teams during the race. Two racers had had to be brought out by rescue teams when they collapsed from exhaustion. A third young man was the least fortunate of all; because he had not vented moisture properly from his wind coveralls, water had condensed inside his crotch area. He lost sensation, and later that day became incontinent; his urine also froze. By the time rescue teams reached him, profound frostbite and necrosis had set in; he had to be flown out in a helicopter and the word "amputation" was muttered by the medics who'd treated him.

The "winning" team was a British one, and among their other privileges was to plant the Union Jack out on the ice of Resolute Bay, between two Fujitsu company banners. The fact that their victory was an artificial one, possible only through enormous and expensive logistical support from experienced persons, and came at the expense of injuries which were 100% attributable to lack of experience, was ignored as they posed for photos and chatted with the BBC crew.

On the fight back from Resolute to Iqaluit, I chatted with the BBC's cameraman, who recounted how he'd just read a book on R.F. Scott which attributed his death and that of his comrades to unusually bad weather conditions. And surely this may have been a factor -- but Scott and his men, at least, had undergone considerable training and preparation. How might a party of novices have fared under such conditions? Who would have had to pay for the cost of rescuing them?

Such exploits as these tourist "races" to the South Pole are only possible at enormous expense and risk, and offer no new discoveries, perform no scientific work of any value, and confer only the most artificial sense of achievement. Like the paid tourist guides to the top of Mount Everest documented by Jon Krakauer, these kinds of "expeditions" have no business being in business. They are profit-making sham operations, and it would do much more to honor the memory of Scott and Amundsen to have them banned by the international authorities who administer the Antarctic continent.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tom's a-Cold

To the annals of dramas inspired by the plight of Sir John Franklin's men in the last stages of their fatal Arctic expedition -- a noble list that begins with Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens's "The Frozen Deep" of 1857 -- one can now add another play: Canadian playwright David Egan's "Tom's a Cold." The play, which takes its title from the storm scene in King Lear, embodies the psychological drama of two men in a boat -- a boat which any follower of Arctic history will recognize as that found by Sir Leopold McClintock with two skeletons aboard -- in their final extremities of cold and despair. It might seem a grim subject -- but here in the twenty-first century, with Samuel Beckett known to us, it gives the word "endgame" a curious new twist. The play opened in London this summer, where the reviewer for TimeOut London, while he thought the play a bit overlong, praised the last portion of the performance, declaring that "Egan conjures a devastating end stretch, poetic and stomach churning."

The play now comes back to its literal and metaphorical home turf -- Canada -- where it is now appearing as part of the Factory Theatre's Next Stage Festival. But if you want to see it, you'd better hurry -- the last performance will be just a few days from now, on Sunday, January 16th.