Saturday, February 3, 2018

Franklin Searcher of the Month: Stephen J. Trafton

Image courtesy Stephen J. Trafton
Long before Owen Beattie's taking up the Franklin cause, before David C. Woodman's searches of King William Island and the coast of the Adelaide Peninsula, and decades before the involvement of Parks Canada, the search for evidence of the fate of the Franklin expedition was in the hands of a few persistent trekkers who made the journey north on their own dimes. We've hailed a few of these, such as Dick Finnie and Paul Fenimore Cooper in previous columns, but I'm especially glad this month to recognize Stephen J. Trafton as our Franklin searcher of the month. He led many expeditions to the shores of King William Island, tracing some familar areas as well as mapping out new discoveries. He also had an experience which -- I think it's fair to say -- is the kind of thing that happens only once in a lifetime, and would be the envy of any searcher: he found a note in a cairn. True, it wasn't one left by Franklin's men, but it was nearly as fantastic: a note left by Frederick Swchatka on his Franklin search expedition in 1879!

Happily, Mr. Trafton is still alive and well, and has in fact just published a book recounting his treks, both in search of Franklin and for other great geographical challenges. Its apt title is At The Edge, and in its pages one gets quite the curriculum vitae of Trafton's achievements, including decades working for mountain rescue in the North Cascades, his crossing of the Vatnaj√∂kull glacier in Iceland, treks in remote corners of Baffin and Ellesmere,  and a series of ascents of mountains in the British Empire range whose names will instantly resonate with readers here: Hecla, Fury, Griper, Resolute, North Star, Victory, and Investigator. And yet, though these journeys involved at times no little risk from cold, exposure, or treacherous ice, Trafton's tone is mostly light-hearted, evidence of a sense of humor which seems to have been as regular a part of his equipment as his snow-mitts and Sorels.

Of course, for those of us who have come down with incurable cases of the bug known as "Franklinitis," the chapters on King William Island will be of greatest interest. Two of his journeys there -- one a long retracing on foot of the greater part of the southern coast of King William Island, the other, an extensive search of the northwest corner of that same island -- were groundbreaking in every sense of the word, and it was on the second that Trafton was rewarded with a find that the rest of us only idly dream of, that of Schwatka's note. Using that commander's own account, as well as that of his comrade William Gilder, Trafton re-located that cairn they'd taken down and rebuilt to mark their furthest north. As Gilder described it:
Lieutenant Schwatka found a well-built cairn or pillar seven feet high, on a high hill about two miles back from the coast, and took it down very carefully without meeting with any record or mark whatever. It was on a very prominent hill, from which could plainly be seen the trend of the coast on both the eastern and western shores, and would most certainly have attracted the attention of any vessels following in the route of the Erebus and Terror, though hidden by intervening hills from those walking along the coast. It seemed unfortunate that probably the only cairn left standing on King William Land, built by the hands of white men, should have had no record left in it, as there it might have been well preserved. When satisfied that no document had been left there, the inference was that it had been erected in the pursuit of the scientific work of the expedition, or that it had been used in alignment with some other object to watch the drift of the ships. Before leaving we rebuilt the cairn, and deposited in it a record of the work of the Franklin search party to date.
And there, nestled in the rocks of that cairn, he spotted a green bottle with the stopper still in it, and a paper inside. He dared peep no further than the top edge, where he could make out the date: July 5th, 1879.

And then, of course, on his return, he faced the dilemma that everyone who joins in the Franklin search and finds an item of value faces: what to do? By regulations, the note ought to be turned over to the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife, but in Trafton's view, an American note left by an American explorer would be more at home in the United States. On the advice of his mentor, George Hobson, Trafton agreed to send them the note for conservation and study, though he found a clever way (which one will have to read his book to discover) to hold on to the bottle which contained it. The note, which passed into the Nunavut collection upon the creation of that territory in 1999, is currently in storage, but Trafton is hopeful that someday it will be shown to the public, and he'll be able to lay eyes on it again.

The book is supplied with a goodly number of color photographic illustrations, as well as clear, readable maps. In it, we get a glimpse of what it was like to take up the long search for traces of Franklin in the days before it became a more celebrated cause. When Trafton, stumbling into a D.E.W. Line station in search of shelter, was asked what he was doing there, he first told the officer he and his friends were selling magazines -- would he be interested in any? The joke unappreciated, he explained his real mission was to retrace Franklin's footsteps. Back then might have been the last time when either explanation might have seemed equally implausible!

Mr. Trafton has very graciously agreed to answer any questions here that readers may have about his Franklin searches, or his other many adventures -- please post them as comments, and I'll work to ensure that his responses are posted here in a timely manner.


  1. The paper in the bottle left by Schwatka was damaged . Were the missing letters or words - figured out?

  2. You can read Trafton's transcription of the note in his article in the Mariner's Mirror -- here's a snippet view.

  3. I always look forward to and check your blog for new posts. I just do finished your book and it was incredible.