Arctic discovery places 118-year-old UAF map in mix of current events

The 188-year-old ship found in Arctic waters off the coast of northern Canada is the HMS Erebus, the flagship vessel of Sir John Franklin's ill-fated voyage, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the House of Commons Wednesday.

With that announcement, a 118-year-old map in the Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has become more relevant to current events than anyone would have guessed when UAF added the artifact to its extensive collection of rare maps earlier this year.

An expedition from Parks Canada discovered the ship in about 35 feet of water off the coast of King William Island on Sept. 7. It was the sixth expedition since 2008 and the continuation of a quest that dates to the 1840s. Harper said the divers identified the wreckage as the HMS Erebus, one of the two ships on the Franklin expedition, which was stalled by ice in the Northwest Passage.

The iron-clad ship, built in 1826, is about 105 feet long, and much of it has been preserved by the cold water. Parks Canada underwater archaeologists reviewed artifacts observed on the seabed and used high-resolution photography, video and sonar. The wreckage is off the coast of King William Island, about 1,000 miles east of Alaska.

"Franklin was based aboard Erebus, that ship is where he lived and likely where he died. It was at the very center of this great historical mystery. The stunning condition of the ship and the artifacts represent a global treasure," John Geiger, CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, was quoted as saying in a blog post on the society's website.

For two years the two ships were icebound, and all 129 men onboard died, though for many years there was hope that some had survived. A note found in a cairn in 1855 revealed much of what had happened. Franklin died aboard ship long before many of his crewmen and before the ships were abandoned in the ice.

The mystery now is what happened to the second ship.


The news comes as the University of Alaska Fairbanks unveils a recent acquisition to its collection of rare maps -- an 1896 map created by the U.S. Department of the Navy that tracked Arctic expeditions, including Franklin's and more than 20 that searched for him in the decades that followed.

At the time of the publication in 1896, The New York Times reported that the map showed 76 expeditions, from Franklin's to the 1895 journey by Robert Peary. The map also shows 48 exploration routes on the Arctic Coast.

The Rasmuson Library acquired the map with a grant from the Rasmuson Rare Books Endowment. It is titled "The Arctic Regions with the Tracks of Search Parties and the Progress of Discovery Compiled from the Latest Information."

"While it does include the presumed route of Franklin's 1845 expedition and the routes of nearly 20 expeditions launched into the North American Arctic to locate Franklin survivors, its scope is much broader," said Kathy Arndt, UAF curator of rare books and rare maps. "At the time of its publication it was the most detailed overview of the history of Arctic exploration ever issued in such compact form -- the entire history of circumpolar exploration condensed into a single map."

The map highlighted how far north the explorers had traveled, as by that time the focus of exploration was not on the Northwest or the Northeast passages, Arndt said, but on who would be first to the North Pole, a goal that remained out of reach for nearly 15 years after the map's publication.

The original of the map, which is in frail condition, will be stored in a vault but a reproduction is to be on display. In addition, copies are available from the Alaska History Store.

Aaron Spitzer, former editor of "Up Here," a magazine about northern Canada, has traveled through the Arctic every summer for the past six years as a lecturer on summer cruise ships. He said that the area where Franklin's ship was caught in the ice is even today often blocked throughout the summer.

"The place that they sailed into is a chokepoint," he said. "It seldom clears. Even this year it wasn't clear in that place. Not one year out of 50 would he have gotten through back then."

He estimated, based on published reports, that the ship was found about 150 miles away from where it was trapped. That's where Inuit people had said a vessel had drifted and where the currents would have taken it, he said. The area where the preserved hull came to rest is out of the worst ice and in an area where about a dozen vessels a year now travel, he said.

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.