opX: What Really Happened to Franklin?

opXpedition: Team Outpost, headed by the CBC's Evan Solomon, heads north to King William Island to investigate the secrets of Franklin's famed doomed voyage

Story by Evan Solomon, Photos by Chris Christie/Outpost Magazine

The Fall of Franklin's Men Part 1

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.

stone cairn

A stone cairn stands watch over the open water of the Northwest Passage. Franklin never saw this view.

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.

Louie Kamookak
Louie Kamookak, who guided the expedition

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.

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.

human bones

“These are human bones. That’s a hip, that’s part of a spine, a leg and a shoulder.”

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.”

king william island

King William Island

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 descendents 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.”

“More graves?”

“Yes. Five more.”

“Five?” Can Louie confirm what Charles Francis Hall first heard more than a century ago?

“And something else I found.”

“What?”

“A human skull.”

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