Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Veni, vidi, Beechey

The first time I visited Beechey Island was in April of 2004, as part of the filming of the 2005 NOVA episode "Arctic Passage," I didn't have much time to walk around. The film crew had chartered a helicopter, and as soon as they'd gotten the shots they needed, it was time to head back to Resolute. At the time, I wasn't sure I'd ever be able to return -- but now, this past August, I was there three times in the space of two weeks!

It never gets old. What's more, being able to see the island from many different directions and angles, and in all sorts of weather, revealed much more about its variability, its place in light and shadow, its moods if you will. On my first visit, in early August, the entirety of Erebus and Terror Bay was packed with wind-driven ice, which obliged us to arrive on the Union Bay side, separated by the narrow tombolo that yokes it to Devon Island. This, as it happens, was the way it was first visited by those searching for Franklin in 1850; having seen an enormous cairn on the cliff-top, Sherard Osborn trekked up its sloping backside, failing to notice the traces of a camp that lay just around the corner. This latter discovery was made by William Penny's men, who came running back to their ship shouting "Graves, sir! Graves!"

And the graves are yet there, though their headboards have been replaced by modern replicas; having seen them before only amidst the sweep of snow and ice, they looked even lonelier in their vast bleak grey-brown swathe of gravel. Little else remain of the camp, though the stone outlines of what may have been a storehouse and a garden may be seen; the garden apparently was populated by plants brought over from lusher lands nearby. The oblivious optimism of such a gesture well befitted those who, raised on Robinson Crusoe, who dreamed of
Making a garden of the desert wide,

Where Parry conquer'd death, and Franklin died.
On my second visit, scarcely three days later, the wind had shifted, leaving Erebus and Terror Bay entirely free of ice. This time, though, I headed first to the Northumberland House side, which I'd missed on my previous visits. There, remarkably, a few timbers of the old frame still stood, over a dense scatter of barrel-hoops, staves, and rusted cans. One, on examination, proved to bear the stamped markings of "D. Hogarth & Co." of Arberdeen, revealing this to be one of the tins supplied to Belcher's squadron in 1852 (Thanks to Peter Carney and Gina Koellner for the ID). There, also, the mast of Sir John Ross's "Mary" stood mute testimony to his fidelity in seeking after his missing friend, as did the Cenotaph, atop the tilted marble stone dispatched by Lady Franklin in 1855 with one of the expeditions searching for Dr. Kane, but undelivered until McClintock's visit in 1858.

And then, at the end of August -- and the end of such summer as these regions enjoy -- I was there once more, stationed for several hours to interpret at the gravesite as the braver passengers arrived by zodiac. The temperature was just slightly below freezing, but a fresh fall of snow now coated the island, and a constant 30 mph wind rendered my exposed position a chilly one. Leaving on one of the last zodiacs, I turned back toward the sight, knowing full well that this was but the first and mildest harbinger of a winter that would see the entire island plunged into months of darkness and extreme cold. These were Beecheys I could not -- yet, at least -- know, but these graves had already witnessed more than 170 of them.


  1. Latest findings from Parks Canada regarding their Spring dive on HMS Terror:

  2. Way cool Russell. Thanks as always..

  3. Very cool Russell. Thanks as always for sharing.

  4. Those four headstones are a compelling monument to British sailors who braved the then-Final Frontier, the Arctic, to boldly go forth.

  5. Great stuff Russell - interestingly Northumberland House was not just a depot; Belcher stayed there briefly and recalled having a hot bath and breakfast by the fire - "Indeed, from the care and attention manifest in all the preparations for my comfort by Captain Kellett and Pullen, I feel satisfied that I enjoyed myself infinitely more, and in my own way, than if I had been tha t instant near Charing Cross".

    1. Thanks, Shane, I hadn't known about that. Though I'll bet expedition commanders such as Belcher got better baths than mere captains!