Thursday, August 24, 2017

To find the hand of Franklin ...

The photo at left was taken on the broad, sloping plateau above Fury Beach -- and yes, of course, it's part of a seal's skeleton, not a man's -- but when I stumbled upon it in the company of a group of fellow voyagers a couple of weeks ago, we laughingly gave it that name. And well we might, as we'd already visited Beechey Island, Sir John Franklin's first winter camp of 1845-46, and paid our respects at the graves of the three crewmen who died there. The phrase was in our ears as well as on our minds: the night before we landed at Fury Beach, we'd all joined together in a rousing chorus of Stan Rogers' immortal "Northwest Passage": "Ah for just one time, I would take the northwest passage / to find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea ..." As part of One Ocean's 'Pathways to Franklin' voyage, of course, we were all in a sense seeking Franklin, though also realizing how much time, and tide, and scouring ice had worn down the shores on which he and his men once trod. At Fury Beach, we found a wide scattering of barrel staves and hoops, the last remnants of what had been a substantial cache of supplies offloaded from the wreck of Parry's HMS Fury, which had met its fate there in 1825, too badly damaged by the ice to be repaired. On that occasion, Parry had ordered his men -- including a young midshipman by the name of Francis Crozier -- to offload the supplies and cache them on the beach, should any future Arctic explorer have need of them.

And indeed they did. Returning from their voyage to the Gulf of Boothia in 1829, Sir John and James
"Somerset House"
Clark Ross had abandoned their ship, the Victory, in Victoria Harbor and trudged up the coast of the Boothia Peninsula and Somerset Island, in hope of rescue. For the winter of 1832-33, they found shelter at Fury Beach, living comfortably off the stores and erecting a modest dwelling of canvas tenting and snow-blocks they dubbed "Somerset House" during which they enjoyed a winter of relative comfort. That next spring, they sailed their small boats up into Lancaster Sound, where they were rescued by a passing whaler -- indeed, the very same ship that had once been Sir John Ross's during his 1819 exploration of Baffin Bay. Grand as that structure appeared in this lithograph of its "Transverse Section" in Ross's book, its mostly ephemeral building materials have left no trace detectable today.

Fragment of food tin at Fury Beach
One of the peculiarities of the Franklin mystery is why Crozier -- who became its commander on the death of Sir John in 1847 -- never sought out Fury Beach for the same reason. He may have thought its stores depleted, but those who revisited the site in the 1850's found that there was still a considerable amount of some stores, such as flour, that was perfectly usable. After all, having placed the original cache, and having Ross's account of his expedition in his shipboard library, he could have readily learned what remained. Ross, though noting that his men had eaten all of tinned meat, gave a tally of "“30 casks of flour, each weighing 504 lbs, and 12 casks of 336 lbs; 11 casks of sugar, each weighing 372 lbs; a few kegs of lime juice, and a large quantity of parsnips, carrots, soups etc." All that's left now, aside from the timbers of the Fury which one can dimly glimpse through the icy water, is a few old bits of wood and metal that can, at most, merely hint at the human presence here at this remote strand.


  1. Very interesting Russell. You have brought a real sense of place with your writing.

  2. That seal skeleton had me thinking you were walking the shores of King William Island and came across, literally, the hand of Franklin!
    What an incredible journey you are on. To stand in so many places and just imagine the events which took place. I'm sure the "what ifs" of history must be swirling around!
    I love the image of Somerset House. It looks so inviting!

  3. Great post Mr. Potter!
    Your musing of the expeditions failure to go to the cache at Fury Beach makes me wonder of just what the officers discussed during those long winter nights before they first left the ships.
    Is it possible Crozier was influenced by Franklins tales of his overland expeditions? Perhaps Crozier thought that if such a man as Franklin could survive those mammoth treks then he Crozier, might have a chance of making it up the Back River?

  4. Great report, Dr. Russell ! Looking at the picture of the food tin, amongst stones, I wonder again how hard you felt that the soil was. In the narrative of John Ross, he tells of having buried a seaman in a shallow grave when the ground was hard. Now, the graves at Beechey were pretty deep still remains to be seen via written records that the wrecks of Terror and Erebus may reveal : when were the three graves at Beechey dug so deep ? I speculate , not in January of 1846 when the ground was probably too hard. Maybe mid Spring, after the third man died.

  5. I just stumbled on this fascinating discussion, a year late...

    I had never pondered this question of the Fury Beach ca, having never realized that such substantial supplies were left behind.

    The lesser distance is obviously the great advantage of Fury Beach - perhaps not more than a third of that to Fort Resolution on Great Slave Lake (which by my crude calculation would more like 950 miles by the path Crozier seems to have intended to follow, rather than the 800 mile figure banded about in The Terror book and series).

    But Crozier was a highly experienced polar veteran, and he had plenty of time to turn the matter over in his head. Assuming he was still in his right mind ... Perhaps the certainty of a regularly tended HBC outpost over the uncertainty of one abandoned for 15+ years bulked large. Or, conversely, the danger that some other expedition *could* have taken advantage of Ross's intention in the interim and depleted the supplies might have figured in to Crozier's thinking?

    But even more fundamentally, I wonder: wouldn't Fury Beach be seen as a real risk of trading one abandoned (and limited) cache of supplies for another - one actually well to the *north*? What do they do once they are there? Hope that an expedition or some whalers come by? Could they only be trading starvation off King William's Island in 1848-49 for starvation on Somerset Island in 1849-50?

    In fact, as far as I can make out - someone please do correct me on this, if you are still checking in - neither Ross's 1848-49 expedition, nor any of the 1850-51 missions seem to have gone anywhere near Fury Beach. Ross actually made it to Somerset, but only the north and west coasts.

    We will never know. It is an interesting question.

  6. I would love for someone to check Crown Prince Frederick Island, I believe that the Inuit mentioned a camp there. Seems reasonable that perhaps there was men headed that way to the cache and never made it.

    Also what of the reports of Crozier in Baker Lake.

    Its all so intriguing and mysterious.