Sunday, November 16, 2014

Last Man Searching

Circular Cairn at Erebus Bay (photo courtesy Tom Gross)
I saw the headline a few days after the discovery of HMS "Erebus" -- "Hay River Man Continues Search for Franklin's Grave" -- and at once I thought to myself, this guy must have something to do with Woodman. And so it proved to be: Tom Gross has walked the stones of King William Island with Dave for many years, part of several iterations of the legendary "Project Supunger" -- and even to this day, he's returned each year on his own to continue the search.

Finding Franklin's grave, after all, would be in some ways an even more iconic discovery than that of his ships. We know that he died on 11 June, 1847, at a point when the ships were still afloat, and all the resources that would have, up until his death, been at his command would have been employed in his interment. If the graves at Beechey showed extraordinary care -- custom-made coffins with metal nameplates, and carved headboards reminiscent of an English country churchyard -- surely Franklin's grave would have been even more substantial. And that's the kind of grave that Supunger described to Charles Francis Hall: a vault, about four feet in depth and longer than a man's body, all lined with smooth, closely-fitted stones. A large wooden pole was fixed in the ground nearby, though part of it had been chewed off by a polar bear; the grave itself had been breached by some animal, with the several body parts outside, and the skull and a leg bone inside.

Some -- including the present writer -- have suggested that Irving's grave, already found by Woodman, could be the remnant of this vault, but Gross disagrees. When I reached him by phone a couple of weeks ago, he explained that the Irving grave was, and had always been, a shallow one, made of just a few rough-shaped rocks; it was not even long enough for a body to lay straight. Franklin's tomb, on the other hand, must have been as strong and substantial as possible; Supunger's description of a fortified vault, four feet in depth and as long as as wide as a man, is just what one would expect.

But finding it is another matter. Woodman's earlier Project Supunger searches worked on the assumption that the pile of clothes, stoves and kettles, and other items was the one abandoned near Crozier's Landing. Tom Gross -- having searched there -- now believes this to be mistaken; he points out that there were at least two areas of large piles of abandoned goods, inclduing one on the shores of Erebus Bay. Large cook-stoves would make more sense there -- the ships may well have been just a short distance offshore, and reachable by open water (thus the boats); Gross believes the stoves may have been used to melt ice and heat water, perhaps for drinking purposes, perhaps to enable the men to wash and prepare for their journey.

There are difficulties with this view: Supunger seems to describe the place as much further north, near the tip of the island -- but, as Gross notes, he was only about seventeen at the time, and may have mistaken the long coast of Erebus bay for the northern coastline. Gross also doubts that Supunger had ever seen something like a white man's map.

A few years back Gross heard an interesting account from an Inuk in Gjoa Haven who described how his father told him about finding a "house of stone" a ways inland from Erebus Bay, one that answers in many respects to Supunger's description. This house was made with large, smooth stones, had a stone 'doorway,' and was built into the side of a natural ridge. It's possible that, despite the many searches closer along the coast, that somewhere a ways further inland this stone house still stands.

It's a possibility Tom is willing to stake his time and money on. And so, each summer, he returns to search again. I think we should all wish him luck.


  1. It is a relief knowing that there is still someone looking on the ground in King William Island.

    I had never heard anything about that stone house in Erebus Bay, thanks for mention it

    Could that stone house have been a winter camp done after a second landing during the winter 1848-1849 instead of the Franklin grave? The alleged fact that the officer, who was seen in Whasington Bay by the Inuit, described that his ships had been crushed by the ice, together with the recent finding of the Erebus southern than that Bay makes me think on that possibility. If those were the men which had abandoned the ships in the spring of 1848, they must have left the ships near Victory point in good shape.

  2. Hi Andrés, and thanks for your comment, thoughtful as ever. This "stone house," from the description Tom Gross was given, seems much too substantial for use as part of a camp -- they had tents, after all -- although Gross also believes that it was used to store or cache some supplies. The difficult thing about the Washington Bay encounter is we don't know exactly what year that was; the "classical" narrative says 1848, but Woodman and others are thinking 1849 or even 1850.

    1. Thanks Russell. I was thinking on a camp for a long stay not on a transitory one. If the Terror sank in front of Erebus Bay during the winter of 1848, after having remanned it, the men likely could have abandoned the ships and have built a camp there for wintering. However, as there are only traces of a single stone house and not piles of goods and clothes then surely I am wrong.

    2. Andrés, there was indeed a pile of goods and clothes at Erebus bay too -- seems to have been a slightly smaller one -- as well as two whaleboats. The sequence of events is still the question: even if "Terror" had sunk, the surviving crews could have been crammed into "Erebus" (that's what Parry did when he lost the "Fury"). On the other hand, it's possible that the men might have built a substantial camp building of some sort, though I suspect they'd choose snow over stone -- something like the Rosses' building at Fury Beach.

    3. Of course we now know that HMS Erebus was the first ship to sink, since her wreck was found in Victoria Strait while HMS Terror was found a hundred miles to the South and West.

      I have been hoping that, since the discovery of both wrecks and their condition, that written records will ultimately be found and salvageable on one of the wrecks; unfortunately, the Arctic being the Arctic, the conditions at the wreck sites have not been conducive to the archeology work that would be necessary for this to come to fruition--and that's if it is not just a pipe dream of mine.

  3. The "house of stone" is a compelling prospect! Thanks for sharing this tale of Franklin dedication. Best of luck to Mr. Gross--many of us would love to accompany him!