opX: What Really Happened to Franklin?

The Lost Expedition

By Evan Solomon, Photos by Chris Christie/Outpost

The Fall of Franklin's Men 3

“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.

franklin bones

“Louie, this doesn’t look like the other animal bones. What is it?”

“You shouldn’t pick that up,” he says.

“Why?”

“Looks human.”

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.

 Arctic Human Skull
 Human skull found by Louie Kamookak

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.”

Walking back to our camp, we stumble across more relics, this time a small wooden box lying on the ground.

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.

arctic trekking

“He’s not going to make it,” I say to Kevin as we walk ahead and try to work on a plan.

“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.

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