|View of Resolute Bay from the South Camp Inn (2004)|
When I was last there, it was for the filming of the documentary Arctic Passage: Prisoners of the Ice, a co-production of WGBH's acclaimed NOVA program and ITN Factual, the documentary division of Britain's Channel 4, which offered what was then state-of-the-art knowledge on the story of the lost Franklin expedition. We filmed at the Franklin graves at Beechey Island, on the cliffs overlooking the hamlet of Resolute, on the ice of Resolute Bay, and in and around Gjoa Haven on King William Island. We traveled almost entirely by air -- small commercial planes, and, for the trip to Beechey, a chartered helicopter. I'm very proud of the film that we made, although of course a great deal has changed since then: both of Franklin's ships have been found, and extensive new archaeological work on the ground has advanced what we know of the movement of Franklin's men on land. And yet, as with any mystery of this size, so long searched for and scrutinized, even today we have more than our share of "known unknowns." Were the ships piloted? How widespread was the cannibalism that's been attested to at Erebus Bay? And of course, above all -- if one is inclined toward the more Romantic aspects of the story -- where is the grave of Sir John Franklin himself?
This time, though, I won't be participating in a film; instead, I'll be lecturing aboard a series of voyages, both from the comfort of shipboard conference rooms, and on some of the sites on land which have been made famous by the exploits of nineteenth-century explorers. I'll be back at Beechey, of course -- but also at Fury Beach, where the Parry expedition's ship HMS "Fury" ran aground and was abandoned, and from whose stores, a decade later, Sir John and James Clark Ross made sustainance enough to reach an unlikely rescue. I'll be at Fort Ross, at the entrance to the fabled Bellot Strait, whose first post-manager, L.A. Learmonth, was a veteran Franklin searcher. I hope also to stand on or near Victory Point, James Clark Ross's furthest, and the site of the last known written record of Franklin's men. And, I hope, I'll be able to pass near the sites of both of Franklin's fabled vessels, the Erebus and the Terror (one can't get too close, as they are now in protected areas).
And this time, going by ship, I'll have a perspective much closer to that of Franklin and his men. Even for a modern vessel, these waters are not without hazards; even with GPS and modern safety equipment, a landing on shore and visit to an historical site require considerable caution, planning, and permitting -- and a polar bear may always decide to investigate the invaders.
I'll also be drawing from a different tradition than that of documentary film -- that of the public lecture. In the decades during and immediately after the search for Franklin and the discovery of the final record at Victory Point, there were many who gave public lectures on what was known -- or unknown -- about the fate of Franklin. The speakers included many leading lights of the day, among them: William Scoresby, Leicester Silk Buckingham, Charles Francis Hall, and William Bradford. These noted figures, however, did not have the enviable platform of an icebound ship, though they could always -- as did Dickens's friend Henry Morley -- board a phantom ship in their imaginations. For myself, as a speaker and (mostly) imaginary sojourner, I feel I'll be in good company, and have no doubt of my capacity to inform and amuse. And yet, as a voyager, I'm as much a greenhorn as any passenger.
I do also have a couple of tools my predecsssors lacked: this blog, and my Twitter account. As time and technology allow, I hope to be able to post periodic bulletins, along with some photographs and other materials from my voyages. I invite my readers here, who have followed me these last eight years, to come along with me on these latest adventures.