opX: What Really Happened to Franklin?

The Lost Expedition

By Evan Solomon, Photos by Chris Christie/Outpost Magazine

The Fall of Franklin's Men Part 2

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.”

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, fi ve Bibles and a copy of the Oliver Goldsmith novel The Vicar of Wakefi eld. 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 Have 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 reassumes his pose.

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.”

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