Sunday, October 6, 2013

How to search for Franklin

In the wake of the disappointing results of this year's Park's Canada search for traces of Sir John Franklin's lost Arctic expedition, it seems timely to reflect on how this effort has been directed over the past several years, whether it's worth continuing, and how it might be done better. None of this is meant to reflect badly on Parks Canada, whose team, led on Ryan Harris, did exemplary work scanning the sea-bed and covered a larger area than in any previous year. The land search, alas, co-ordinated by Doug Stenton and the Nunavut government, was far less effectual; this time, we didn't even find a toothbrush, only a couple of scraps of cloth and an Inuit cache of metal pieces; instead of searching significant, known sites that haven't been examined before, they looked again at Erebus Bay, probably the most combed-over area on King William Island.

Some have argued that all this searching is just a colossal waste of public funds, a search for quite possibly long-destroyed shipwrecks that takes resources away from where the Inuit and other people in Canada's north most need them -- for housing, healthcare, drug treatment, education, and other areas. Others have argued that, though worthwhile, the search would be far better conducted by private parties rather than by the government. The internal kickbacks between Parks Canada and the CBC certainly didn't help matters.

So I thought I'd outline a few ways that next year's search -- if there is one -- could be made more likely to succeed, performed at a lower cost, and take fewer resources from either Federal Canadian agencies or the budget of the Government of Nunavut.

1) The search for the ships, if continued, can and should be conducted by private parties working in co-ordination with Parks Canada. There have been a number of outfits who have proposed their own side-scan sonar searches in the past, many of whom have had their permits denied. The search for the ships is a matter of covering a larger area; more scans mean more area covered and more chances of success. It would not be difficult to co-ordinate searches, and having just one additional private support vessel, and boats to tow the sonar, would immediately double the area that could be covered in a season.

2) The land search should be concentrated on yet-unsearched areas known to contain human and other remains. The graves near the Todd Islets have been known about for decades, and Gjoa Haven resident Louie Kamookak has taken numerous parties to see them. They are likely the remains of the very last survivors of one party of Franklin's men, and may contain other kinds of artifacts  that would give us clues as to the expedition's final fate. This is a land site easily suppoted by skidoo or ATV from Gjoa Haven, and one very likely to produce valuable finds.

3) Satellite telemetry should be explored as an avenue for narrowing the search area. There are satellites today which can map underwater features, and with ice in retreat, even a high-resolution visual spectrum scan could reveal valuable clues. The cost of obtaining this data would be far less that simply methodically tracking back-and-forth over the whole search area; it could identify potential targets or help eliminate some area.

4) Involve not just archaeologists, not just government staff, but other experts on Franklin's expedition in the search. Dave Woodman should be invited to participate, and there should be Inuit elders and historians from the area as well. I can't think of a better outcome than that of a significant find being made by a team that included Inuit and qallunaat searchers.

5) Instead of spending vast sums of government money, use the limited resources available to speed up and assist with the permitting process. Right now, Doug Stenton routinely turns down requests for private searches based solely on their lack of having accredited archaeological staff on the team; why not instead help arrange for such archaeologists to join the team? Offer ground support and other services through local Inuit hamlets? Welcome rather than reject private searchers? All could be required to report any findings and secure significant discoveries for a government team to examine further.

I don't know if any of these suggestions will be pursued -- experience suggests that they won't -- but if they aren't, the search for Franklin's fate is in all probability going to take longer. And if it stretches on for too many more years, the public support and interest are almost sure to wane.


  1. Very interesting reflection concerning the once more deceiving campaign searching for Franklin’s lost expedition. Only a couple of thoughts to be added:

    It is not easy to understand the stubborn attitude towards privately funded searches for the ships, and their sometimes unjustifiable obstruction to the concession of permissions. Albeit some archeological expertise is a needed skill, I doubt that we require an Arthur Evans to conduct the researches. It should not be difficult to provide some government assistance, maybe even paid by the interested private groups, so that no public money would be wasted.
    Finally, those whom we are indebted to for their discoveries were not skilled or trained archeologists, and they did a quite decent work. On the other hand, the search for Sir John Franklin is far from being a lucrative enterprise.
    The wrecks (and further objects inland) are certainly not of the type to be found in the southern coasts of America, where the interest on the site lies usually more on the high probability of finding gold or other precious metals than on the historical significance of the objects. There is certainly no treasure (in the financial sense!) in the wrecks of HMS Erebus and Terror, therefore most of the notorious treasure-hunting companies will show little or no interest on the matter.

    I agree that other sites on KWI not yet inspected (or at least not in the past decades) should be considered more in detail. How many of the potential areas indicated in the facsimile reproduction of the Admiralty’s maps of Cyriax’ book have been investigated? For example, it is not unlikely that the neighborhood of Cape Felix contains more than one surprise, but it seems that this fact has been ignored completely. Focusing exclusively on the more than well-known (and therefore almost surely devoid of further clues) places will not help to advance in the understanding of the disaster. It can be claimed that changing the schedule to study places that are not clearly identified as valuable would be a loss of time and resources, but without a close examination its classification of valuable/worthless is ludicrous.

    Satellite technology also constitutes a potentially important tool that is not being applied properly. The costs are not inmense, and here some private iniciative could be very helpul.
    Consider for instance some newspaper headline like „Google Maps helps to unravel the Franklin mystery!“
    I am pretty sure that many places in the Arctic have been carefully mapped by satellites in order to weigh up their contents in natural resources.

    For whatever reasons, but quite possibly political, the mechanism will not be changed in the coming years. I personally think that, besides inner tensions between Canada Parks and CBC, they are doing good work, as their freedom of movement is constrained by political interests with absolute certitude.

  2. I couldn't agree more with your comment. As a resident of Nunavut, I am well aware that many people, including territorial politicians, resent the money being spent on this, when there are pressing needs in housing and education. Better to bring in some private money to assist in the search, if it continues. The Government of Nunavut needs to recognise that almost everything we have learned about the fate of Franklin in the last hundred years has been discovered by the dedicated amateur researcher, and not by professional archaeologists.