Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Franklin searcher of the Month: Robert Cundy

Robert Cundy (L) and Gordon Dean (R); courtesy of the Sunderland Echo
One of the more active armchair Franklin enthusiasts of his day, retired Admiral Noel Wright held a number of unusual views about the Franklin expedition, nearly all of which, sadly, have proven to be mistaken. Still, as a Navy man with considerable interest and enthusiasm, his theories (see his 1959 book Quest for Franklin) were taken seriously by those who read them. One of his more plausible contentions was that the retreating members of the Franklin expedition, some of whom apparently crossed over to the mainland at the narrowest part of the Simpson Strait, may well have been following Dease and Simpson's route, and even used some of the former party's cairns to deposit messages or leave signs of their passing. Wright felt that Dease and Simpson's "Beacon Six," located at the mouth of the Back River, was the most likely of these, the more so as it would have been in accord with the only known written record -- the one left at Victory Point -- which stated that the men were headed there.

So far as Wright or anyone else knew, this cairn might well still be undisturbed, and might yet contain another written record of the Franklin party. This was the idea that motivated Robert Cundy, who hailed from Sunderland on the eastern coast of Britain, to take up the quest to reach that point. Cundy, who commanded his four-man crew along military lines, was somewhat surprised on his arrival in the Arctic to encounter a group of four much more laid-back American paddlers with the same plan;  each hoped to be the first since Back to make a full descent of the river, but Cundy -- as John Lentz, one of the Americans, recalled it, was focused primarily on the goal of reaching the cairn at Beacon Six.

It was a rough journey, with numerous rapids and portages; at one point they were forced to cobble together a kayak out of the broken parts of two others that had been damaged beyond repair. And at the end, for all their hardships, they found that the cairn they sought held only a “small yellow film can, wrapped in polythene” in which a short note had been deposited by some predecessors of “Operation Back River 1960.” As Dave Woodman has noted, Cundy was still hoping that a record might be buried nearby and had come prepared to dig for one, but soon discovered that “there was not a scrap of soil on that windswept bluff, merely an irregular pattern of cracks, which revealed nothing." His disappointment, as recalled in his book Beacon Six, was palpable.

The voyage was only one of many for Cundy, an RAF veteran who took to travelling the world, documenting his trips on film and audiotape. Many of these were later broadcast as episodes of the BBC's Adventure series, including footage of South American diamond-hunters, the mysteries of Mayan civilization, and the newly-emerged volcanic island Surtsey off the coast of Iceland. His work is hard to trace today, and only a few mentions of it survive in the BBC's available archives, and it's not clear whether he himself is still living. According to Chris Cordner, whose excellent article in the Sunderland Echo was where I first learned of Cundy's roots in that area, no readers have yet come forward with information about him. I certainly hope that if he or any of his comrades are still on this side of the soil -- or if any of their family members happen upon this posting -- that they'll let me know; his achievement, though disappointing to him, is still very much deserving of recognition.