Story by Evan Solomon, Photos by Chris Christie. An Outpost original expedition.
We’re not prepared. We know it as soon as we follow our Inuit companion, Louie Kamookak, onto the rocky shores of the Todd Islets. It is the oldest Arctic error, the Franklin error you might call it, immortalized in 1846 when Captain John Franklin vanished with his entire crew, two ships and 129 men in this area. How could he come here, to the fabled Northwest Passage, and not be prepared for every eventuality?
In the months leading up to our own expedition, it seemed absurd, one of those conundrums of history that let us look back at the arrogant blindness of Victorian explorers with a sense of superiority and power. And yet, here we are, in the very same place, succumbing to the same thing: Franklin’s error. We should have known better.
Within the vastness of the North, the Todd Islets barely warrant mention, just three tiny smudges of rock and sand in the middle of the Simpson Strait on the Northwest Passage, mauled relentlessly by wind and weather.
Two kilometres to the north lies King William Island, where we have just exited in Louie’s 130-horsepower outboard. The Canadian mainland traces a thin line along the southern horizon. The tourist brochure on the Todds, if such a thing existed, would be shorter than the Arctic summer. There is no food here, no permanent wildlife. The only fresh water supply is a small, turbid tundra pond, polluted by the waste of passing snow geese. Occasionally, Inuit hunters stop here in the winter to cache seal and caribou meat, but when the ice in the strait breaks up, it is abandoned. What the Todds do have, however, is history. And where there is history, there are secrets to be uncovered.
As we pull the boat up the shore and secure it to a rock, Louie tells us that the Inuit call this island Keeu-na. The name comes from a legend about the ancient Tuniit people, a race of giants who lived in stone houses on the shores of King William Island. When the Inuit migrated here from Greenland, they killed the Tuniit by drilling holes in their skulls while the giants slept. Some Tuniit escaped, however, jumping into the freezing waters of the Northwest Passage.
“Keeu-keeu-keeu,” the giants cried out desperately as they swam out to the Todds, “Cold, cold, cold.” We look around at the small island of desolation. “They died here,” Louie says. “Their whole culture disappeared.” This place is named after death, and death is why we are here.
“The graves are this way,” Louie says, and walks down the shore. The temperature is dropping and it starts to spit rain. We pull up our hoods and follow along.
In his black rubber boots and blue parka, Louie moves slowly, as if he’s walking on broken glass. For a moment, I don’t appreciate his plodding technique and mistake it for a physical limitation. Louie is a bulldozer of a man, whose power has been slightly diminished by the heart surgery he had a year ago. At 47 years of age, his thick black goatee is speckled only slightly with grey and his eyes are dark and deeply set, alternating between a distant thoughtfulness and a sudden, mischievous alertness. You can actually see it happen when he reveals information about one of his discoveries, or when his full mouth bends like the half coil of a rope into a wry smile. “Don’t step on a body,” he says, with a wink.
The five of us—Outpost editor-at-large Kevin Vallely, photographer Chris Christie, cameraman Richard Fitoussi, photojournalist Stephen Smith and myself—are Louie’s physical opposite, all thin as fish skins with hopped-up anticipation that comes with the start of any expedition. We are swathed in the latest high-tech gear, boots, packs and breathable rain jackets, built for speed. There is a long history of people like us visiting the Arctic and we know the trope. “Crazy kabloonas,” the Inuit call us, white men who bring Southern agendas to a North they neither fully understand nor appreciate.
Our kabloona plan is, admittedly, crazy, but at least somewhat original.
We want to follow what most believe are the final, desperate footsteps of the remaining crew of the Franklin tragedy. That’s why we’re here.
Through this Arctic August, our gang of five is investigating the fall of Franklin’s men. Retracing their footsteps. Looking for clues. Beset in ice for two years, the crew eventually abandoned their ships, the Terror and Erebus, in April of 1848 and made for King William Island. By this time, Franklin was dead and the remaining crew of 105 came under the command of Captain Francis Rawdon Crozier, an Irishman afflicted by self-doubt and a broken heart.
They arrived on the northwest point of King William Island and began to make their way south toward the mainland. What happened to them along the way remains the greatest of all Arctic mysteries. Did they die of starvation? Cold? Scurvy? Or was it madness induced by lead poisoning from poorly tinned food that shattered the command structure and drove some men to cannibalism? No one knows. What we do know is that some men eventually arrived here, at the Todd Islands, and never made it off.
We want to follow what most believe are the final, desperate footsteps of the remaining crew of the Franklin tragedy. That’s why we’re here.
In its day, the loss of the Franklin crew was much like the Titanic, capturing the public’s attention. Franklin’s wily and indomitable widow, Lady Jane, led a lifelong campaign to spur the British and American governments to spare no expense searching for her husband, often playing one against the other. More than 30 missions were sent out, most failing to find a thing. Ironically, the by-product of all this searching was the mapping of much of the Arctic. Eventually, however, evidence emerged that confirmed the worst: Franklin and all his men had died.
Modern archaeologists and scientists have explored key parts of King William Island and found many more artifacts, but none of the experts have strung it all together in one long traverse. We hold on to hope, naive and romantic as it is, that if we can keep up a steady walking pace of 25 kilometres a day for just under two weeks, we’ll cover enough ground to find something others have missed. But as Louie demonstrates, the Arctic rewards patience, not speed. What makes him move so gingerly across the land has little do with his fitness but with bones. There are thousands of them, scattered so thickly across the Todd Islets that they are almost a form of local vegetation. Instantly we are alight with urgency.
“What’s this, Louie?” I ask, pointing to a long white shard covered lightly with orange and black lichen.
“Caribou,” Louie replies, his eyes scanning the ground before him. “Rib bone.” I’m disappointed, but like an annoying kid in the back seat of a car, not discouraged. “And this one?” I say, pointing to the ground. “Or how about that one! That looks like a leg.” “Seal. Both of them.”
Louie lumbers on, eyes methodically scanning the ground. From a distance Kevin calls out. “Louie, take a look at this!” An experienced hiker and explorer who has spent months in the North, Kevin suddenly finds himself caught up in the sense of imminent discovery. “What do you think this is? It looks old.”
Trundling over, Louie identifies the bone as the shoulder of a caribou. Kevin’s face tightens in embarrassment. After a dozen more false alarms, we all realize it is better to simply shut up and follow Louie. Our error is stereotypically kabloona. We have planned an expedition to discover remains from the Franklin voyage without bothering to study human anatomy. In all our careful planning, the thought of actually finding human bones had never occurred to us. But as the novelist William Faulkner once said about the South, the past is never past, and up here, the saying has literal meaning. Nothing in the North disappears, it simply goes missing. The Arctic is a desert, and the combination of low moisture and deep cold makes conditions excellent for preservation.
The bones we find might be five or 500 years old; there is no easy way to discern them. Since the Middle Ages, Inuit hunters around the polar cap have been digging up woolly mammoth tusks and selling the ivory. Just weeks before we arrive, a 15,000-year-old mammoth carcass was dug up in Siberia. Scientists are excited by the prospect of harvesting the soft tissue for DNA samples that might later be used for cloning. This is what makes the Arctic an archaeologist’s dream, the frozen twin of the hot desert, but with one remarkable difference: the Arctic excavates itself.
Imagine that, if every year, for three months, 10 feet of sand in the Egyptian Western desert simply disappeared.
What artifacts, tombs and structures would be revealed? It would be a treasure trove. That is exactly what happens in the Arctic when the snow melts, and it’s why the Franklin voyage is even more troubling. Why hasn’t more been found? Where did it all go? Other than one note found in 1859, giving scant details about Franklin’s death and the subsequent abandonment of the ships, no journals have ever been recovered. Out of 129 men lost, fewer than 40 skeletons have been accounted for. Staring at bones on the Todd Islands and not realizing if they are from the lost crew or from last year’s caribou kill is as frustrating as it is humiliating. Franklin’s error. Like so many kabloonas before us, we have to rely on Inuit help.
“This is it,” Louie says, after we’ve walked for 10 minutes. He stops at a small circle of rocks three feet in diameter. At first it looks innocuous, just another bit of Arctic detritus. But as we look closer, we see that in the centre of the circle there are bones. Even to our untrained eyes these look different than the others. Pointing down, Louie fluently identifies them.
There is a moment of awed silence. Louie says: “I believe this is one of the graves from the Franklin expedition.”
“Who else knows about this?” I ask, assuming we must be in the midst of a well-known archeological site, or at the very least, a crime scene. He shakes his head. “No one. Since Hall wrote about it in 1878, it’s never been seen before, except by me,” he says. “And now you.”
Charles Francis Hall, an eccentric American, became an important figure in the search for Franklin. Like many in his time, the fate of the Franklin voyage mesmerized him. Despite the fact that he had never been north of the Great Lakes, the Cincinnati-based publisher believed that he had been chosen by God to go to the Arctic to find the lost sailors. In 1860, away he went. Twelve years after the Franklin crew went missing, Hall thought many must still be alive and living with the Inuit. He lived among the Inuit for five years, even learning their language, in hopes of obtaining some key evidence.
When told of five white men whose remains were found on the Todds, Hall came to investigate.
He discovered one skeleton that was later determined to be that of Lieutenant Le Vesconte (of the Erebus). Hall interred it. In 1931, a local King William Islander, Charlie Gibson, came here to search for remains and found another skull. Were we looking at the grave that Hall interred, or was this something else entirely? “How do you know it is a Franklin grave?” Kevin asks. “Maybe it is an Inuit body from a different time?”
The Inuit don’t bury their dead like this, Louie explains. They don’t mark off graves with rock or bother to dig them into the ground. In the old days the dead were simply wrapped up and left behind.
But on the Franklin voyage, Louie says, this was typical. Dig as deeply as possible into the permafrost.
Collect stones and place them around a shallow grave and then—he points his finger—mark the head, the north end of the grave, with a black stone. English style, not Inuit. Louie suggests that over the years the permafrost has heaved the bones and slowly, through the thaw and the freeze, shrunk the grave circle to what we see. A flock of eider ducks flashes over our heads and turns toward the strait.
“These islands have never been fully explored,” Louie says. “There are other remains here, I know.”
We drop to our knees to get a closer look, but don’t touch anything. Without archaeological permits we can do nothing but observe. It is almost unbearable. If this is a Franklin grave, then it is a significant historical find. Would it not be better to collect the bones and send them to a university for identification? With climate change making this place more accessible, what stops someone from simply stealing these bones and selling them on the lucrative antiquities black market? Understandably, the Nunavut government has stringent rules about the excavation of relics. If these are Inuit remains, there will be questions about desecration, rights and religion.
If they are British remains, the descendants may have to be contacted.
But the politics of bones should not leave a crucial find like this, literally, out in the cold.
“What do you think is just below the surface?” Louie asks mischievously, sensing our mounting frustration. “A button, some cloth, a note maybe?”
It is as if the answer to the mystery of the Franklin voyage is suddenly right in front of us, and yet all we can do is record the exact location on our GPS and take pictures. As if in consolation, Louie tells us that this is the first time pictures of these bones will ever be shown in public. And then his eyes light up.
“I want to show you more.”
“Yes. Five more.”
“Five?” Can Louie confirm what Charles Francis Hall first heard more than a century ago?
“And something else I found.”
“A human skull.”
Four days earlier, as our team gathers at the Ramada Hotel near the Edmonton airport, there is no talk about death, only survival. Ours.
With two weeks of hard hiking in front of us, we assess our gear, our food, and perhaps most importantly, each other. We have never all met in person and so, amid the handshakes, there’s some quiet sizing up.
The West Coast members, Kevin and our photographer Chris, bring the most experience. Both are world-class extreme athletes and explorers, and possess the kind of durable affability that serious travellers prize above all else. You know if things get hairy, they won’t panic or spook the group. I’m doubly relieved to find out that Kevin has two young kids the same age as mine, which means that, as hard core as he is, he will not be reckless. Chris and Kevin causally chat about past trips, how they didn’t sleep for three days on some extreme race or how they bivouacked on the side of a sheer cliff in the freezing cold.
“I remember punching the air all night, just to keep my blood going,” Kevin says cheerfully, describing a situation that would qualify as complete terror for most people.
“Yeah, I know the feeling,” Chris laughs, cleaning a lens for his camera. I look at Stephen blankly. There is no sense pretending that our experience matches theirs. Next to them we feel like two pasty-faced librarians who consider jay walking an extreme sport. Maybe we should tell them about the time I got stuck in Toronto’s rush hour traffic, punching the horn just to keep from being late?
Or how Stephen ordered a coffee at Starbucks that was really seriously boiling and almost burnt his lip. “I know the feeling!” I would chime in heartily, as if we share a deep understanding of real danger. Stephen and I are writers and journalists, not veteran hikers. We are passionate to connect with the Franklin story, not repeat it.
Richard, our cameraman, is the youngest on the trip and has just come back from filming for four months in Afghanistan. It was his second tour there with Canadian Forces and he was almost killed. At 33, he is used to hard travel. I shouldn’t be worried about him, but he’s fidgety and quiet. “Everything OK?” I ask. “I got some blisters while I was breaking in my hiking boots,” Rich says, showing us his heels. “Any advice?” “Let them dry out and lay off the boots until the hiking starts,” Kevin says. “You should be fine.”
I make a small note in my diary about this exchange. The one rule about any hike is, take care of your feet. Two weeks earlier in a beer league hockey game, I fractured the radial bone in my right elbow. Though I have only limited mobility in the arm now, I’d take this injury over a blister any day. For all of Kevin’s outward optimism, I see that he too has registered this moment. “We have a lot of stuff to pack,” Kevin says, changing the subject. “But with two food drops we shouldn’t exceed 70 pounds each.”
“Looks like a crime scene,” he says, narrowing his eyes and letting his thoughts run aloud.
I swing a pack on my back. Seventy pounds is heavy but reasonable. As long as the food drops work out, it shouldn’t be a problem.
From Edmonton we fly through Yellowknife and then, as we cross the Arctic Circle and enter the days of endless light, we milk run north through the northern Inuit communities. In Cambridge Bay we watch the diamond mine engineers get off and scramble toward waiting helicopters. In Taloyoak we learn that yesterday’s flight was delayed because a muskox wandered onto the runway. On the final flight to Gjoa Haven on King William Island, we get talking to an RCMP officer,
Chris, who is on his way from Surrey, B.C., to do a month stint in the North. “What are you guys doin’ up here?” he asks from across the aisle. Perhaps it’s an unconscious reaction against the pending sense of isolation, but the farther north you go, the more talkative people get. We tell him about our interest in tracing part of the Franklin voyage and how the mystery still remains unsolved. It’s obvious that he’s intrigued. “So no account was left behind by anyone, no journals?” “No,” I answer. “Everything we know has been pieced together from bits of evidence.”
It’s a long flight and I can’t help but unload some more Franklin facts on him. My wife has warned me about this tendency, candidly informing me that I’ve become a serious Franklin nerd. “Bones have been found that show definitive signs of cannibalism, which jibes with Inuit oral history,” I go on, closely watching the officer’s eyes for signs of glazing.”
And in the mid-1980s, a Canadian academic named Owen Beattie exhumed some bodies from Franklin’s crew buried earlier on another island and discovered high levels of lead in their bodies.” “Lead?” “Beattie believes the canned food the crew used was badly soldered,” Stephen says, picking up the story. “Combined with scurvy and cold, the crew went mad from lead poisoning. But other evidence paints an even stranger picture.” “Like what?” This is the opening I was waiting for.
I ask Chris to examine a sketch of a grisly discovery made on the west side of King William Island in 1859 by English searchers led by Francis McClintock. Beached on the shore was a 27-foot lifeboat that had been dragged over the ice from one of Franklin’s ships. Inside a dead man sat upright, still fully clothed and perfectly preserved by the cold. In each hand the man clutched loaded shotguns. A strange collection lay at the man’s feet: 40 pounds of chocolate, eight pairs of boots, five Bibles and a copy of the Oliver Goldsmith novel The Vicar of Wakefield. At the other end of the boat, curled up in a ball, was another crew member, also frozen solid. Police training immediately kicks in.
“Looks like a crime scene,” he says, narrowing his eyes and letting his thoughts run aloud.
“One guy is clearly tryin’ to defend the boat. From an animal? From other crew members? Hard to tell. Died with his fingers on the triggers. That shows real fear. He couldn’t have starved because there is so much food in the boat. And the boots? Why eight pairs? Was he hording them? The Bibles are also strange. What good would they be? Is it a statement? You said some crew members had turned to cannibalism. Did these guys split off from that group? Whatever happened, I would say there was a fight of some sort.” As Chris has just discovered, solving the Franklin riddle is addictive.
We have been piecing together a similar theory, that the remaining crew abandoned the ice-bound ships under Crozier’s command, and then, on King William Island, desperation set in and they mutinied. Groups split off from each other, eventually resorting to pitched battles over supplies and perhaps over command. Inuit testimony suggests that COO Crozier eventually led 40 men south, perhaps the only ones who agreed to remain under his shaky authority.
The Arctic has a long history of driving men to mutiny, going back to 1611 when Captain Henry Hudson’s crew kicked him and his son off his own ship, setting them adrift the frigid waters of Hudson Bay, never to be seen again. Charles Francis Hall, the man who first found the bones on the Todd Islands, met an equally treacherous fate, poisoned to death by his own doctor. As the plane drops down to the bare gravel of the Gjoa Haven runway, we are still swapping theories.
“I’m gonna check the police files to see if the RCMP has anything on this,” Chris says, clearly infected with the Franklin nerd virus. “You never know.”
It is a surprisingly warm 15 degrees in Gjoa Haven (pronounced Joe Haven) and our contact and operator, a genial Newfoundlander named Charlie, drives through town in his pickup truck. The town is built around a deep, sandy harbour where families are busily fishing from the floating ice pans, pulling in huge Arctic char. We stop to watch. Most people cast using rods, one kid so casually that he sits on his BMX bike and pulls a fish onto the beach without ever getting off his seat.
Others, mainly older men, kneel down on the ice, one hand slowly jigging a line through a hole, the other poised skyward, holding a six-foot-long wooden spear tipped with a point and two barbs. There is a kind of coiled stillness in this pose that is no longer found in a city. No one waits like this where I come from. For some reason, all I can think about as I stare at the men is the mobile hanging from the ceiling in my son’s room. Suddenly a line jumps and I’m startled out of my reverie.
A spear jets down and up like a piston and a 15-pound char is now impaled on its point, the silvery sides glinting in the 24-hour light. Without a word, the hunter flicks the fish onto the ice beside two others he has caught and re-assumes his pose.
I never expected to make a find like this, literally stumbling over human remains in the middle of the Arctic. Whose jaw is this? Part of the Franklin crew? Will we ever find out?
The great Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen once said that adventure is just bad planning and here in Gjoa Haven, the town Amundsen himself founded, our adventure truly begins. We plan to stay here for a day and then head out on all terrain vehicles to the northwest tip of the island 130 kilometres away, where Franklin’s crew first came ashore from their ships. We assume our hike will begin there. Bad planning. The men Charlie has lined up to take us say it’s impossible.
“Terrain is too rough. You’ll never get there. Machines will break down.”
For the next three days we try to find alternatives—rent a plane, a helicopter or more ATVs—but no one will take us over to the other side of the island. We are stuck, left to go over our gear, clean our guns and watch the wind tear at the tops of the white cotton grass. Killing more time, we visit the RCMP station, where Chris, now in uniform, pulls out a thick dossier on the Franklin search called the Expedition Intelligence file. It has pictures of various artifacts, bones and notes from several other people who have poked around over the decades.
“Not much new in here,” he says. “Maybe you guys will add something—that is, if you ever leave.”
Nonetheless, he records our proposed route and lends us an emergency beacon. “One of you guys breaks down out there,
I’ll make sure you don’t become another Franklin.” Our frustration begins to mount, but at the very least our situation prompts a blip in the local economy. We are inundated with artists who sell us various soapstone carvings of Inukshuk and muskox. There is some gentle haggling over the price, but not too much. After all, with a bag of potato chip selling for seven dollars at the Northern Co-op and a half a watermelon priced at $44, the art is the best bargain in town.
“I just want to meet the person who buys that watermelon.”
“How do you like sleeping in a graveyard?”
Louie points to the place where we plan to pitch our tents and smiles. After examining five more gravesites, all likely from the Franklin voyage, Louie leads us over to the human skull he found. I have adopted his technique of moving slowly and scanning the ground, and suddenly spot something interesting. It is a strangely shaped bone, half buried in the sand, which seems vaguely familiar. Carelessly, I pick it up.
“Louie, this doesn’t look like the other animal bones. What is it?”
“You shouldn’t pick that up,” he says.
Immediately, I put it back down and we all bend over to take a closer look.
“It’s a jaw bone,” Louie says finally. “See the holes for the teeth. Not caribou for sure. Definitely human.”
Another stunned silence. I never expected to make a find like this, literally stumbling over human remains in the middle of the Arctic. Whose jaw is this? Part of the Franklin crew? Will we ever find out?
The discussion turns political as Louie complains that there is no funding for projects like his, which are crucial to preserve Canadian history. Perhaps my article might help stir up some support. Make people care about those who died mapping out our land. In the year 2000 Louie showed some other bones on the Todds to the well known Canadian marine archaeologist James Delgado, in the hopes that the ensuing press would kick start some funding for a serious excavation. Delgado called this an “important discovery,” but the story simply died and nothing happened. At last I understand Louie’s agenda.
As if to underscore his point, Louie leads us to the human skull. It lies half buried in the sand, unmarked and unprotected, a sad metaphor for his life’s work. We can feel the ghosts of Franklin’s men in the blowing wind, calling out to be heard. I mark the site with our GPS and Chris takes photos. There is nothing else we can do except try to raise a voice when we get home.
The rain picks up and we head to our tents, hunkering down for a cold night of no darkness.
After a warm breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, Louie takes us back across the strait to Peabody Point, our new start point. With all the travel difficulties, our plan now is to hike the south shore of King William Island, where many of the Franklin crew died. But the weather turns nasty and, once again, we are forced to wait. Even Louie decides not to risk going out on the water until it clears and he pitches his canvas tent beside ours.
It is a study in contrast, kabloona and Inuit. Our tiny dome tents are cold and stuffed with sleeping bags and gear. The material is highly flammable, so we have to light our stoves outside in the rain to boil our dehydrated food. We shed plastic and paper that we have to keep lightening our pack. Louie, on the other hand, sleeps on warm caribou hides in his spacious canvas tent.
“Warm, light and best of all, free!” he says to us, holding up the skins. He lights a propane stove until it is so warm inside he doesn’t need his parka. For food he throws out a long net and within an hour he has two char and white fish. He cleans them in minutes, cutting off fat fillets from the skin.
“Got to learn to live off the land,” he says as we go ahead and cut open a bag of dehydrated stew. “Never know how long you might be stuck.” He looks out at the weather. “Could be a day or a week.”
Assuming the role of teacher, he shares some survival tips with us. To get oil for a lamp, cut off the bottom of the fish stomach and boil it until the oil rises to the surface. Seal meat yields oil by simply pounding the flesh. If stuck for drinking water, dig a hole five or six feet from the water’s edge. The sand should filter out the salt. We listen to Louie and eat his fish. He shares everything.
We have heard there are some ancient stone ruins from the Tuniit people nearby and go out to find them.
The terrain alternates between razor-sharp limestone eskers and marshy tundra, cut by deep lines from splits in the permafrost. People often call the Arctic barren, but it is actually teeming with life. Besides the bigger game like caribou, muskox, wolf and fox, yellow saxifrages burst up haughtily from the terrain, their delicate petals holding on resolutely against the wind. Red mountain sorrel, a good source of vitamin C, covers the tussocks while beside the countless vole and lemming holes pioneer plants like river beauty cluster. There are several species of ground squirrels, one even called The Franklin.
Another, the siksik, hibernates in the winter and only awakens during the time of 24-hour light. It is the only species in the world to never know darkness, a form of adaptation that strikes me as singularly optimistic.
“Here they are,” Louie says, pointing to a series of round stone structures. Once again, no one has bothered to excavate these thousand-year-old Tuniit ruins, which, in any other place, would classify as an important historical site. I notice Louie is apprehensive and stays carefully back from the site. I think about the story of the Inuit drilling holes in the Tuniits’s heads. As a child Louie’s father took him here but gave him a stern warning.
“It’s okay to look at it,” Louie says, “but my Dad said this place is haunted. I’d still be scared to touch anything.”
In 1923, the Danish ethnographer Knud Rasmussen actually spent a season living here and built his own stone shelter nearby. He was the first white person to believe the Inuit culture warranted genuine study. “He’s my hero,” Louie says as we gaze down at the collapsed ruin of Rasmussen’s stone shelter. “He came to listen to the Inuit, to help keep our culture.” And then the ultimate compliment: “If he was looking for Franklin, we would have found him years ago.”
Finding wood so far above the treeline is always worth noting. Why did someone not use this as fuel or for a tool? Once again, Louie provides an explanation. “It’s a coffin for a baby, from the ‘40s or ‘50s,” he says without a hint of sentiment. “Fox probably took the body away.”
When infant mortality rates were high, this was apparently a typical way for Inuit families to bury their children. Wood was valuable then and using it for burial was an act of deep honour and sorrow. I imagine the Inuit family walking this land in grief and finally setting their dead baby down on the empty tundra. I can almost hear the wind and see their backs turning as they walk away. Is there a word in Inuktitut to describe this act of hollow sorrow? I search my mind and realize there is not one in English. The desolation here can swallow a whole language.
The weather worsens. We put in a call by satellite phone to Charlie in Gjoa and he tells us that our food drops never materialized, so we can’t unload some of the weighty food in our packs and instead have to carry everything. Our packs weigh more than 100 pounds each, a demoralizing bit of news. We should stay here with Louie and wait the weather out, but I’m worried if we don’t go now, the whole hike will collapse. Kevin agrees and we make up our mind to leave. Louie looks at us quizzically. “My father would call you crazy kabloonas right now,” he says as we shake his hand. “But you have to follow your mission.”
Within minutes of staggering out onto the tundra, Louie Kamookak disappears behind us in the fog and rain. The next few days of marching are a combination of exhilaration and pain. The land is stark and beautiful, but the heavy packs take a toll. As we soak up the place that swallowed the Franklin men, our cameraman Richard begins to break down. The blisters on his feet are open again, and with every step, he tears his feet up further. We have to stop frequently to treat them with moleskin and duct tape, but it’s a losing battle.
“He’ll have to be evacuated. But from where?”
We consult our map. Twenty-five kilometres ahead, at Gladman Point, there is a Cold War-era DEW Line station, once manned by the military. There is also a cabin there, left open for hunters to use during the winter. If we can limp Rich to the cabin, perhaps Charlie could get someone to come out on an ATV and transport Richard back to Gjoa Haven. Richard is embarrassed by his condition, but agrees with our plan.
“Can you make it, Rich?”
He nods grimly and hobbles along, crossing freezing rivers and rocky terrain. For Rich, this is agony and we admire his perseverance. Even the pros are finding this a hard slog.
“Heaviest bag I’ve ever carried,” admits Kevin. The waist strap buckle on my pack snaps under the strain, forcing all the weight onto my shoulders. As if enjoying our struggle, the Arctic decides to punish us further. A strong headwind blows up and it begins to rain, again. Despite the difficulty of the day, I discover that my spirits are, perversely, buoyant. I love this kind of hard marching, the self-sufficiency of it, the challenge of overcoming pain. Next to the parade of concerns and stresses in the city, the simplified challenges here are a relief. Eat. Walk. Sleep. Managing that holy trinity becomes religion and we the monks.
After 11 hours of exhausting hiking we finally arrive at the DEW station.
It is a hideous, otherworldly structure of two huge white domes and a tower that looks like it was dropped from outer space. Two falcons circle overhead, squawking angrily at our intrusion. The cabin is, predictably, nothing more than a filthy, dark box, with two fetid mattresses. Garbage and graffiti are the only decorations. Rich doesn’t care. His feet look like sushi and he can’t feel his right leg. He limps inside and collapses on a mattress.
The rest of us cook up a much-needed hot dinner and make new plans. First we call Charlie on the satellite phone and arrange for an ATV party of Canadian Rangers from Gjoa to come and evacuate Rich. Then we ask about our food drop. Charlie assures us that if we push on ahead a food drop is still possible. With that in mind, we decide to leave most of the food and gear in the cabin with Rich. We will press forward at full speed toward the west coast and Erebus Bay, where McClintock found the two dead men in the boat. There will be food there. Guaranteed.
I leave the cabin to go get some water for coffee. As soon as I walk out the door, I sense something. Fifty feet away I spot a huge white wolf. He locks his eyes onto mine and for 10 seconds we both stand still, staring at each other. There is no fear on either part, just a mutual curiosity. Which one of us doesn’t belong at an old Arctic DEW station? I don’t have a camera and instead of simply letting the moment pass, I yell into the cabin.
“Wolf! Quick. Right outside.”
Chris, Kevin and Stephen bolt out, and the commotion ends the standoff. With an unhurried, loping stride, the wolf heads off into the distance without a backward glance, as if to show his supreme indifference to whatever power we might imagine we have.
“Remember, Rich, this is the very, very last resort. Just a precaution.
There are no polar bears here anyway, so relax.” With lighter packs and a healthy crew, our pace over the next two days increases dramatically. If we can put in enough kilometres we still might be able to make up for all the delays and hit Erebus Bay. As we march across the tundra we are kept company by the wildlife: caribou, Arctic hare and huge flocks of molting snow geese waddling hysterically around the tundra ponds, waiting for their flight feathers to grow back. Plovers scurry in front of us trying to distract us from their nests with their broken wing display.
We pass near the coastline where a seaman from the Terror, named Henry Peglar, was found, his head buried in his hands. While the animals own this island, the Franklin tragedy maps it.
To the south we watch the majestic Northwest Passage, open water that for three centuries men have died trying to find. Franklin never experienced this view because he tried to sail down the west coast of King William Island, where the pack ice never melts. It wasn’t his fault. Maps at the time suggested that King William was not an island but a peninsula. Sailing down the east side, Franklin believed, would be a dead end, a seemingly innocuous error that doomed the whole voyage.
But even with the right maps, navigating the passage is no easy job. It wasn’t until 1944, 39 years after Amundsen first made it through, that the RCMP vessel St. Roch became the first ship to sail the passage in one season. And today it is still a feat worth bragging about.
A supply company runs ads of an ice breaker with copy that reads, “We did something Franklin couldn’t—travelled the Northwest Passage for our customers. We’ll go the distance for you too.”
With the race to discover natural resources in the North and climate change making the route more accessible, I wonder how soon it will be until the waters here finally do become the busy shipping lane the British once dreamed of. More than 150 years after Franklin lost his life trying to claim this territory for Britain, the battle over the Arctic is just heating up. These thoughts are rolling around in my head as we bang across an esker at the end of another long day. Suddenly, I see some huge black shapes in the distance.
“What are those?” I ask, pointing in the distance. “Muskox!” Five hundred metres away a summer herd of 12 muskoxen is grazing. We drop our packs and move downwind toward them to get a closer look.
As we approach, the bull raises his head and stares stonily out from beneath his long, curvaceous horns. The rest of the herd will respond to his cue and for now he waits to see if we are a genuine threat. He is as majestic as a Roman general on parade review, his long, black guard hairs falling like a cloak over his legs. Patches of his warm under fur, his qiviut, shed off of him and it looks as if his uniform has been carved up in battle.
We’ve seen the fur on the ground as we hiked and know that Inuit will collect it like manna, and then sell it. Qiviut is the warmest, softest wool in the world and when it’s spun is more expensive than that of the pashmina from Kashmir goats.
As we stare at the muskox, the dusky sun on the horizon breaks through the clouds, stretching our shadows out into an almost infinite distance. All expeditions have one moment that borders on religious, when the world seems to stop and everything coalesces into a feeling of completeness. It is a moment that erases the pain in your legs, the difficulties of planning and any sense of past or future.
In his classic book, Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez talks about the Inuit concept of nuannaarpoq: taking extravagant pleasure in being alive. For the first time since our arrival in the Arctic, we truly understand that. We bask in it until suddenly the bull shakes his head and the animals bolt away from us at a gallop. An hour later, with our tent set up, we phone Charlie back in Gjoa to get news on Rich.
“They still haven’t got to him,” he tells us. “The ATVs can’t get through.”
Rich has been alone in the cabin for two days. Shit. “What about our food drop?” Kevin asks anxiously.
We have only brought enough food for three days of hiking and we are already running dangerously low. Without the drop, we have to turn back. “It’ll get there,” Charlie insists. “Push on.”
It is the turning point. We don’t trust that our food will actually be waiting for us at the drop in Washington Bay, 30 kilometres ahead. If we push on we risk running out of food and we’ll have a long, hungry, four-day trek back. Also, we have to check on Rich. There is really no choice. We head back to the DEW station.
We arrive a day and half later only to find that Rich’s rescue team has finally arrived: two ATVs pulling sleds.
The driver of one is a thickly set, 50-year-old Inuit named Paul Ikuallak. He is an experienced army ranger and he also happens to be Roald Amundsen’s great grandson. “Took us almost three days to get here,” Paul says. “Got two flat tires.” We ask him about the food drop and he laughs. No chance. “You guys are better off walking back home.” And that’s exactly what we do. Pack our bags and start to hike back to Gjoa Haven. Paul puts Rich on the back of a wooden sled and pulls him along behind. It’s almost midnight and we’re already bedded down in our tents. Paul, who had left us earlier to go hunting, finally returns, a caribou tied to the front of his ATV.
We pass by the Todd Islets one last time on our way back to meet Louie. I think about all those human bones still lying there, waiting to be identified.
Paul guts the animal, cutting first down the belly and around the legs, and then asks me to help him pull off the hide. It rips off evenly. Then he cuts off the head and takes the entrails out. His knife punctures the bowel and shit pours out on the ground. For some hunters this is a sign of a sloppy job, but Paul doesn’t seem to mind. “How many animals have you killed in your life,” I ask. “Don’t know,” he answers. “Six, seven hundred.” After 20 minutes, the animal is quartered and left under a tarp. Every part of the caribou, except the head, will be used for meat and clothing.
In the morning Paul offers us some coffee and pieces of raw caribou, sliced strait off the bone. Both are delicious. The raw meat tastes like carpaccio. As we eat, Paul talks to us about how he used to hide his relationship to Amundsen. “People might think I wasn’t real Inuit. Treat me differently.” But now he is proud of the lineage. Two years ago, during the 100th anniversary celebration of Amundsen’s voyage, Paul hosted a visit from Amundsen’s granddaughter, the Norwegian ambassador and the governor general of Canada. His place in history was finally out in the open.
In the days following, as we make our way back toward Gjoa Haven I think about Franklin’s error. Was he a hero or just a fool, as it’s now stylish to conclude?
I try to measure the man against what I now know. In his lifetime, Franklin commanded three trips into the Arctic, two by land and one by sea. All of them were, to various degrees, disastrous. Franklin managed to lose more men than all other expeditions over the next century put together. Certainly he was arrogant, never learning to hunt himself and never adopting the more pragmatic Inuit survival skills—such as building igloos instead of carrying canvas tents, wearing animal clothes instead of wool, eating raw seal and caribou meat for vitamins.
And his decision to follow the Admiralty’s faulty maps and force his boats into the pack ice west of King William Island speaks of a fatal lack of imagination. But it seems too easy to judge Franklin harshly. All explorers are, to a certain degree, romantic amateurs, bounding off to unknown regions that they can never fully prepare for. They have, by necessity, a disposition toward risk and uncertainty, but at heart they are profoundly conservative. To allay the constant dangers of the unknown, an explorer will clutch with fierce blindness to whatever assumptions he has made in building his mission.
As they say in scuba diving, plan the dive and dive the plan. After all, at a crucial moment, changing course can be mistaken for panic and that is the explorer’s most feared enemy of all. Franklin simply persevered. They followed their plans and let fate decide the rest. Of all people, Amundsen, that patient, stubborn explorer, understood this dynamic all too well. Looking through Franklin’s eyes, he wrote, “In these regions one is often compelled to act very much against one’s will.”
We pass by the Todd Islets one last time on our way back to meet Louie. I think about all those human bones still lying there, waiting to be identified.
Against these symbols of Franklin’s failure, I pause to gauge our own. We did not reach the west coast of King William Island to see the place we described so vividly to our RCMP friend. And instead of marching for 250 kilometres, we only made it about 180. Our plans collapsed, just like Franklin’s. He went looking for a passage through this unforgiving land and discovered, instead, a place he could never leave, a land that is more than just a way through, but a world unto itself. If that is Franklin’s error, we made it every day.
- Evan Solomon is a Canadian journalist and broadcaster. He led Team Outpost on this expedition to Nunavut to try to trace the story of Franklin’s lost ships. Since this story first appeared in Outpost, both the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were discovered by a team from Parks Canada in 2014 and 2016. And sadly, the warrior for Inuit history, Louie Kamookak, passed away in 2018. We’d like to sincerely thank his family for his tremendous help with this story. He was amazing.