Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Mysteries of Radstock Bay

Scarcely a stone's throw from the much-better-known Franklin sites on Beechey Island, tucked away under the mighty shadow of Caswall's Tower, Radstock Bay is in many ways the area's best-kept secret. In August of 1850, after having been present at the discovery of the lost expedition's winter camp at Beechey Island, Sherard Osborn followed a series of deep sledge-tracks -- apparently made by Franklin's men -- to the southeast and east. One set led in the direction of  Cape Riley, while another headed directly toward the limestone face of the tower. Under its shadow, Osborn came upon a remarkable sight:
Arriving at the margin of a lake, which was only one of a series, and tasted decidedly brackish, though its connection with the sea was not apparent, we found the site of a circular tent, unquestionably that of a shooting-party from the "Erebus" or "Terror." The stones used for keeping down the canvas lay around; three or four large ones, well blackened by smoke, had been the fire-place; a porter-bottle or two, several meat-tins, pieces of paper, birds' feathers, and scraps of the fur of Arctic hares, were strewed about. Eagerly did we run from one object to the other, in the hope of finding some stray note or record, to say whether all had been well with them, and whither they had gone. No, not a line was to be found. 
Osborn was puzzled by the sledge-tracks, which cut as much as three or four inches into the muddy gravel, testimony to their having borne heavy loads. At some points, they veered onto higher ground, "the sledge-parties appeared at last to have preferred taking to the slope of the hills, as being easier travelling than the stony plain."  Why Franklin's men would have chosen such means of conveyance, in the apparent absence of ice or snow (or with so thin a cover of these that the runners cut down to the gravel below) is perhaps the first mystery of the place.

A Franklin-era tin
But there are others. Visiting the site this past August, a mere 167 years later, I found that several of the tins mentioned by Osborn are still visible; near them I also observed many barrel staves and heavy iron barrel-hoops, doubtless from later in the Franklin search era. Most puzzling of all, though, were a series of fragments, some of them quite large, of a boat built using old square copper nails. One long section (seen above) had wooden rubbing-strips affixed, while others showed traces of faded yellow paint. These materials had plainly been there a long time, as the moss had encroached on their borders, but they certainly had not been present in 1850. It's my surmise, though, that these may be parts of Sir John Ross's yacht the "Mary," left at Beechey Island in 1851, and which has been by slow degrees scavenged to such an extent that nothing now remains but her mast and a few broken planks. Why someone would have dragged them to this spot remained unclear, although some graffiti on a nearby plank with the date "1970" suggested that, at least at times, passing parties camped here.

Caswall's Tower
Another question is what happened to the two cairns observed there by Osborn's party. The "brackish lake" -- now named Red Loon Lake -- remains, but I could find no trace of cairns nearby. The archaeologist James Savelle, who worked here in the early 1980's, had reported a cairn built practically in the middle of one of the several Thule-era stone hut ruins at the site, but I could find no sign of it either, though in one of the houses I could see a board or plank that looked to be of the Franklin era. Neither cairn, in any case, had ever been reported to have contained a message, leaving the exact purpose of the encampment there uncertain. The cliffs of Caswall's Tower have seen many expeditions come and go; for a time Ian Stirling had a hut up there from which he made observations to determine at what distance a polar bear could smell a seal's corpse. Ours was just the latest of many visits, but I feel certain that there is more to be learned from the site; next time I'm there, I hope to be able to make a more positive identification of the boat fragments. All the same, I'm sure that won't be the last of the mysteries of Radstock Bay.


  1. Could Caswell's Tower, itself, have been used as a carin? It looks big enough to be seen from a distance.

  2. A map showing the various locations mentioned would be a wonderful addition to a very interesting article.