Friday, August 31, 2018

Croker's Consolation

John Ross's chart of the Croker Mountains
Just two hundred years ago today, on August 31st 1818, John Ross -- in command of the Isabella and Alexander -- sailed deep into Lancaster Sound, searching -- as his sailing orders commanded -- for a possible inlet into the fabled Northwest Passage. Ross, aboard Isabella, described what he saw -- or thought he saw -- thus:

"At half past two, (when I went off deck to dinner), there were some hopes of its clearing, and I left orders to be called on the appearance of land or ice a-head. At three, the officer of the watch, who was relieved to his dinner by Mr. Lewis, reported, on his coming into the cabin, that there was some appearance of its clearing at the bottom of the bay; I immediately, therefore, went on deck, and soon after it completely cleared for about ten minutes, and I distinctly saw the land, round the bottom of the bay, forming a connected chain of mountains with those which extended along the north and south sides. "

John Wilson Croker
These seeming-mountains were vivid enough that Ross both mapped and sketched them, even adding small details, such as naming a small bay at the southwestern edge after Sir John Barrow, though the honor of the principal name was reserved for the First Secretary of the Admiralty, John Wilson Croker. Curiously, William Edward Parry, aboard the Alexander, could see nothing of such mountains, and was completely taken aback when his commander ordered a retreat to the eastward. Though he didn't publicly contradict Ross, Parry communicated his doubts to the Admiralty, and, now placed in command of his own two ships Hecla and Griper, returned in 1819 and promptly sailed through the illusory peaks, eventually reaching Winter Harbor on Melville Island -- the furthest west any British vessel had ever sailed through the north (and in fact, further than any vessel coming from the east would ever manage priot to Amundsen's victorious transit in 1903-06).  Maps were quickly revised, and Croker -- who must have been disappointed at the loss of so impressive a range of snowy peaks -- was left with the consolation of a bay, named after him by Parry, on the southern coast of Devon Island.

Cruising the face of the Croker Glacier
But what a consolation it is! The Croker Glacier, which feeds the bay with its blue-green silted meltwater, has a face more than two miles wide, and is up to three thousand feet deep at its thickest, near where it branches out from the massive Devon Ice Cap, itself nearly 6,000 square miles in extent. Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to have a first-hand look at the glacier's face, along with passengers and fellow staff from One Ocean Expeditions. We spent nearly three hours going back and forth along the entire length of the face aboard our zodiacs, and later that day, celebrated the experience with a shipboard barbecue on the stern deck of our ship, the Akademik Ioffe. I thought then -- and think now -- that the sight would have been a magnificent consolation to Croker; had he only seen it in person, his mountains would never have been missed.

[With thanks to Jeff W. Higdon for pointing out the anniversary of the date!]

Friday, August 24, 2018

New studies on lead poisoning and Franklin's men

Tin of Ox Cheek Soup (Photo by Jeff Dickie)
It's one of the first things that many people still ask about the demise of the Franklin expedition -- wasn't it the lead in the tins that caused it? But now, after several recent studies shed some doubt on whether the "lead hypothesis" was the catch-all explanation of the tragedy, comes a broad and significant study -- whose co-authors include veteran Franklin researchers Anne Keenleyside and Doug Stenton -- that demonstrates that, in the end, this hypothesis turns out not to hold. However, there are still instances where lead exposure may have played a role, and as the picture clarifies it grows more complex. It's my personal view that, although the earlier lead hypothesis -- originally advanced in Owen Beattie and John Geiger's classic Frozen in Time -- no longer explains everything, it has led to some of the most fascinating and significant research on the health -- and thus the ultimate disposition -- of Franklin's men.

This new study, whose lead authors are Treena Swanton and  Tamara L. Varney, does what no other study has done before -- compare lead levels in the three individuals buried at Beechey (who died in the first winter) to remains from King William Island, which -- assuming that they date from after the desertion of "Erebus" and "Terror" -- date from at least two years further along in the expediton. If, as had been conjectured, these later remains showed signs of continued exposure and absorption of lead, then that would have demonstrated that the source of such exposure must have come during the expedition, and thus from sources on board ship, presumably the provisions consumed in this interval. And yet, using imagery that reveals the deep cortical microarchitecture within which lead would have been absorbed and stored, this new study shows that the patterns within the bone are very similar between individuals who died in both timeframes. There were, indeed, elevated levels of lead, but these were in parts of the bone that would have been formed prior to the expedition's departure in May of 1845.

And yet lead remains a factor, at least for some. By an interesting coincidence, another study appeared scarcely a week prior to this one; conducted by Lori D'Ortenzio, Michael Inskip, William Manton, and Simon Mays (Dr. Mays, it should be noted, was a co-author in two earlier and significant studies, both of which included William Battersby's work), looked at a strand of hair from the Greenwich skeleton, widely now believed to by that of Henry Duncan Spens ("Harry") Goodsir. Since this skeleton, brought back by Charles Francis Hall, was found on the southern coast of King William Island, it can safely be assumed to be part of the later timeline, and since the hair, even more so than bone, could show the changes in absorption over time, it was hoped that new insights might be gained from it. And yet, in many ways, it confirms the larger study; the lead isotope ratios were nearly identical to the bodies exhumed at Beechey, and although there was evidence of more recent absorption of lead, in this case it did not reach levels likely to cause clinical symptoms. It should be noted, though, that from the earlier studies of Keenleyside, Bertulli et. al. we know that at least some of the individuals whose skeletal remains were represented at NgLj-2 (the "Boat Place" at Erebus Bay) had lead levels as high as 223 micrograms per gram of dry bone. Further studies by Keenleyside suggested that blood levels as high as 1500 mcg per decilter of blood could be inferred; these individuals would almost certainly have been suffering from acute lead toxicity, and it may indeed have been the primary cause of death.

Why these few men -- just two to four of the estimated 11-13 skeletons in Keenleyside's study -- would have had such high levels of lead remains unexplained. Recent DNA analysis, which shows that the number 13 is the most accurate, and that Erebus Bay sites collectively represent at least 21 individuals, may make these few even more "outliers" from the rest -- but they still remind us that lead was a factor for some. For the rest, it now seems clear, background levels of exposure from before they sailed with Franklin were simply much higher than we'd realized, and despite some continued exposure -- variable, certainly -- during the expedition, the original lead hypothesis no longer explains the eventual demise of the expedition as a whole.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Louie Kamookak's spirit lives on

James Qitsualik with elders, Guardians  (photo courtesy Barbara Okpik/Parks Canada)
When I first heard the news of the death of my friend Louie Kamookak, my first reaction -- beyond sorrow -- was a concern that his vital work collecting and recording the Inuit oral histories of his family and friends in Gjoa Haven might not go on, and that the work he'd already done over many years might be lost. Today, thanks to the support of Parks Canada, the Know History group, along with the Inuit elders and Guardians in whose care this history lies, have been able to make a special, focused effort to make sure that Louie's work is both preserved and extended. It's been a community-wide effort, assisted by people such as James Qitsualik (shown here pointing out sites on a map of Terror Bay), working with former Nunavut commissioner Edna Elias as well as indigenous partner organizations NVision Insight Group and Konek Productions, all working to bring the Franklin Expedition Oral History Project to fruition.

Louie and me in Gjoa Haven, August 2017
It's no easy task. Many of the threads of that tradition have grown frayed in the light of modern changes that have affected the community of Gjoa Haven, and stories that were once distinct and clear have become a bit fainter. As Louie himself noted, the oral tradition often mixed together elements of accounts of different explorers, including Sir John and James Clark Ross's ship the Victory, which spent three seasons alongside the winter camps of the Netslingmiut in 1829-31. Which is all the more reason to work now to collect all that can be recovered, and seek to connect this knowledge with the body of materials already gathered by Louie, as well as by other historians such as Dorothy Eber. Together with the large body of written records of earlier Inuit testimony, this tradition -- when carefully collated -- continues to offer our best source of information about the final days of Franklin's ships and men. Modern-day Inuit hunters are also vital, as they know the land better than anyone else, and may well have seen physical evidence missed by other searchers; James Qitsualik, the chair of the Gjoa Haven Hunters and Trappers Association, has been co-ordinating this effort.

It's my hope that the results of this project will be widely shared, first and foremost with the Inuit community in whose traditional lands this history took place, but also with the wider world of Franklin researchers in Canada and around the world.  That was what Louie worked to do, and it's a touching tribute to his persistence that this project is taking place this summer. I know he would be very pleased and proud to know that his work, and his spirit, are being carried forward with such vigor.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

A tale of two settlements ...

Moravian Mission House, Hopedale Labrador
Two of the most remarkable places I've visited in the north are bound together both with parallel and broken lines: founded as settlements by Moravian missionaries, one still has and active congregation and community, while the other is connected mainly by memory, a memory of exile and loss.

We first visited the community of Hopedale, the place from which 16-year-old Esther Eneutseak departed in 1893 on her way to the World’s Columbian Exposition’s “Esquimaux Village,” where her daughter Nancy would be born. Her story is still remembered here; David Igluiorte, the keeper of the town’s museum tells me they always call her “Columbia,” not Nancy, which was true even in her own family. The museum also showcases the cultural history of this heterogeneous community, one of the few where Inuit were taught to play brass instruments; a community band’s recordings are on offer in the gift shop. Within the enormous mission house, more traces of history distant and recent: the roof of the house, erected by the first Moravian missionaries in 1782, is patched in places with shipping containers bearing the names of companies such as Frigidaire and Zenith. The local lay  minister still holds weekly services in the original church, and the replica schoolroom, — now used as the town’s Sunday School — sports children’s colored drawings of the twelve Apostles, and a large rainbow beneath which a cartoon Noah proclaims, “God keeps his promises.”

Partly restored chapel at Hebron
How different the building — structurally almost identical — at the former Moravian settlement of Hebron, a day’s journey by ship further north. Although recently repaired and given a fresh coat of white paint by the Parks Canada staff who are here seasonally, its inhabitants are long gone — forcibly removed and relocated by the provincial government in 1959. Hebron had always been hard to maintain — the mission house required enormous amounts of wood to heat, and the nearest trees were 60 kilometers to the south — and from the point of view of the government, it was expensive to maintain. But the people of Hebron, the “Hebronimiut” as they called themselves, were happy and prosperous; the runs of Arctic char, along with the hunting of sea and land mammals, offered more than enough food for everyone. And yet it was then, at Easter service, that the announcement was made: the people must go, the mission would be closed, the community’s lone nurse removed. That fall, a ship arrived, too small for the task, so that the families had to camp out in the cargo hold; government officials shot their dogs, save for a few who were towed behind in a skiff. The people were moved into outlying parts of more southerly settlements — “Hebron ghettos” — with poor living conditions and no access to traditional hunting areas. The provincial government apologized in 2005, and a few elderly exiles embraced one another — but no apology could undo the sorrow they’d endured.

Levi Nochasak
Our tour guide at Hebron was Levi Nochasak, who was among the Hebron exiles of 1959, when he was only two years old. His family was moved to Nain, where his father still lives, but Levi has come back every year for twelve years to work as a carpenter, carefully restoring the old church and mission building, and living in a temporary modular house parked next door to the ruined foundation of the house where he was born. He told his story proudly, giving us a full tour of the buildings, as well as both the cemeteries. The first was apparently reserved for the Moravian brethren and their families, but the second was where most Inuit were buried. More than 100 died in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, their graves marked only with small wooden boards; among them was Zacharias Zad, who had appeared at numerous fairs and in half-a-dozen films alongside Nancy Columbia; he had returned home just a few years earlier.

Levi points out his name on the plaque
Today, this whole area of Labrador is embarking on a transition into a more independent, Inuit-run government, known as the Nunatsiavut region; in Hopedale, we visited their beautiful new assembly building, shaped like half an igloo; the legislator’s chairs are made of sealskin. After the betrayal and exile of the people of Hebron, and the economic and social isolation of the region, tt’s a hopeful beginning to a new era -- one in which Inuit will enjoy increased self-determination, and the ability to set their own policy in the land of their ancestors.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Back from the Arctic!

View of Croker Glacier, Devon Island
It's been, as ever, a voyage filled with surprises -- followed by a long series of airplane flights that took me from Pond Inlet via Igloolik to Iqaluit, and thence to Ottawa, Toronto, and home -- but I'm back at last from this year's trips aboard the Akademik Ioffe with my fantastic fellow staff from One Ocean. And, as I did last year, I met many fascinating passengers, each with his or her own story of what drew them northward, what sights they sought, and what they took away from the journey.

This year, I started further south, exploring the many islands and small ports in the area of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, including the strange sandy shores of Sable Island, the deep red sandstone cliffs of the Magdalen Islands, Bonaventure Island (home to the world's second-largest colony of Northern Gannets), and deligtful, tiny fishing towns such as Francois (prounounced Franzway), where we were invited to a foot-stomping "kitchen party." From there, we headed up the coast of Labrador, with stops at Battle Harbor, Hopedale, and the former mission settlement at Hebron, followed by two days among the fiords and slopes of the Torngat Mountains National Park. Then, on our third voyage, we started in Iqaluit, heading up the Baffin Island coast, spending some days among the fog and ice before emerging to the even more spectacular scenery of Buchan Bay and Bylot Island, and finally to the glacial coast of Devon Island, before our return.

In the next few weeks, I'll be posting periodic items about some of my favorites among these many wonders, along with news of the latest searches by land and sea for new evidence of the fate of the Franklin expedition. I invite you to come along with me on this smaller, virtual version of those voyages!