opX: What Really Happened to Franklin?

The Lost Expedition

The Fall of Franklin's Men 5

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.

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.

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