opX: What Really Happened to Franklin?

The Lost Expedition

By Evan Solomon / Photography by Chris Christie

The Fall of Franklin's Men 4

“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.

tundra oxen
 Grazing Muskox

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.

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