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Stirring account of finding Franklin's lost ship

  • Author: David James
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published April 10, 2016

Franklin's Lost Ship: The Historic Discovery of HMS Erebus

By John Geiger and Alanna Mitchell; HarperCollins; 2015; 224 pages; $34.99

It happened by accident on Sept. 1, 2014. For several summers, a team from Parks Canada, a Canadian federal agency, had scoured the sea floor of Queen Maud Gulf and Victoria Strait off the nation's Arctic coast, searching for the long-lost ships of the Franklin Expedition.

Searchers had planned to move out of the Gulf and north into the Strait, but the notoriously fickle sea ice that had once fatally entrapped Franklin's ships failed to go out that year. With their ships idled, two members of the team boarded a helicopter to visit a nearby island in the Gulf to nose around and set up a GPS station.

The pilot, Andrew Stirling, assigned full time to the team, typically would have dropped them off and immediately left for his next job. With searching at standstill, however, he climbed out of his copter and strolled down to the beach.

A piece of old metal on the shore caught Stirling's eye. He quickly summoned archaeologist Douglas Stenton, who immediately identified the artifact as coming from a 19th-century British Navy vessel. Looking about, Stirling next found a piece of aged and weathered wood with an iron nail that clearly came from an old ship. Something had to be in the waters nearby.

In very short order, with the aid of sonar equipment, that something was found. The Erebus, flagship of the Franklin Expedition and object of more than a century and a half of obsessive searching, had been located. And in the words of John Geiger and Alanna Mitchell, "it was exquisitely, almost unimaginably, well preserved."

Seeking Northwest Passage

Geiger and Mitchell, along with the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, a partner in the search, recently published "Franklin's Lost Ship: The Historic Discovery of HMS Erebus," an extensively illustrated account of the ill-fated voyage and the headline-making discovery of one of its two ships.

For those unfamiliar with the tale, Sir John Franklin was a British naval officer and accomplished Arctic explorer who set out from London in 1845 with great fanfare aboard the Erebus. Along with its companion ship the Terror, it was tasked with locating the fabled Northwest Passage, a sea route over the northern coast of North America to the Pacific that would shorten trading voyages to Asia. Great Britain, at the peak of its glory, had made attainment of the Passage a primary objective and was throwing its most technologically advanced ships and 134 able seamen at the cause. Confidence in their success was absolute.

The ships sailed north to Greenland, where five men disembarked. From there, they headed west, never to be seen again by Europeans. In 1848 concern over their failed return prompted the British government to dispatch rescue parties. Over the next decade and a half, countless public and private expeditions sought evidence of what had transpired.

Based on accounts from Inuit people in the area, the few artifacts found, several graves, a couple of notes and some human remains, a grisly story emerged. Franklin had died in 1847. That same year, the ships became bound in the ice of Victoria Strait. After two winters and running low on provisions, the remaining men loaded sledges and attempted to escape to the south. Starvation and illness set in. The first to die were butchered and eaten. Ultimately, no one survived and very few bodies were found.

Haunting Arctic history

The mystery of what happened has haunted Arctic history ever since. Nations, professional archeologists, historians and curiosity seekers have fruitlessly sought the two ships. As Geiger and Mitchell put it, "For nearly 17 decades, men have lost their good health and even their lives on this quest. Fortunes have been spent during these many generations of barren searching. Obsessions have swelled; imaginations have taken flight; myths have been born. But none of this has brought back Franklin's Erebus until this moment."

The story they tell moves quickly. Alternating chapters detail the hard work that went into the successful finding of the ship and recount the now-legendary story of the Franklin Expedition's disappearance. It's written with an enthusiasm that makes the modern-day tale as fascinating as the historic one.

The discovery of the Erebus flowed from the efforts of numerous Canadian government agencies, speared on by then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who saw in the Franklin search a means of strengthening Canada's Arctic identity. Also contributing was billionaire philanthropist Jim Balsillie, founder of Blackberry, whose Arctic Research Foundation purchased a dedicated ship for the endeavor.

Local Inuit residents played a key role; their oral history accounts of where the ships sank proved true at least for the Erebus (the Terror, thought to have gone down in Victoria Strait, has yet to be located). Most important were the members of the team who endured the tedious work of searching the floor of a large body of water over several seasons. Canadian Navy and Coast Guard members, archaeologists, hydrographers and others all worked together. As the authors assert repeatedly, this was a Canadian endeavor on all levels, one the nation takes tremendous pride in.

Accompanying the text is a wealth of illustrations ranging from historic depictions of the Franklin Expedition (some of them absurdly fantastical), to photographs of the wreck taken with sonar and by divers, and gorgeous images of the Arctic itself, a barely populated place where sea, ice, land and sky melt together and 129 men melted into the landscape.

Much work remains. The Erebus' precise location remains secret to protect it from looters. Divers returned to it in 2015, and some of their photographs have been included in this book. A few items have been brought up, but the decision on whether to raise the vessel has yet to be made. Clues that might help solve the puzzle of what happened await recovery. The answer to one question — where did HMS Erebus sink? — has raised countless new questions.

"Franklin's Lost Ship" is a reminder that long after the Northwest Passage was finally attained, the Arctic remains a place of adventure, mystery and discovery.

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based critic and freelance writer.