Look Small then Look Big

The ice strips marched in from Lancaster Sound.  We watched them in awe and frustration.  Twenty knots of wind blew down the wide channel, yet these strips, rather than follow the course of the wind and be of no concern to us, edged across the wind and sea fetch, in to the Beechey Island anchorage where Rosehearty lay secure.  In the wheelhouse, we tracked the ice for 2 hours.  “I have ze impression,” said Germaine, our Canadian ice pilot, “zat we are in a gyre.”  It appeared that the ice was being dragged in to the bay from the Sound, and then pulled in a counter-clockwise direction along the 10 meter depth contour line, and ultimately pushed to the far reaches of the bay.  Rosehearty was anchored just outside this 10 meter contour.  “It’s high tide in an hour, we’ll see if this current reverses itself and flushes the ice back out in to the sound,” said Hutch.  High tide came and went but the ice continued its resolute march toward us.  At 2330 we started engines,  heaved up anchor, and moved around the floe to re-anchor in ice free water.  By this time the wind had freshened to around 30 knots.  Richie and I were on the bow operating the windlass for the pick up and the drop.  Exposed skin hurt, gloved hands became numb.  We huddled behind the genoa furler to find a small lee while Hutch picked his way through the ice to our new anchorage.  We were cold, but imagine how Captain John Franklin and his men felt in the fall of 1845, when the decision was made to anchor the exploration ships Terror and the Erebus in this bay and spend the winter – locked in ice, waiting for the thaw in spring, in order to continue their efforts to be the first to complete the transit of the Northwest Passage. 

The Franklin expedition of 1845 was the best funded and best equipped expedition in the history of Arctic exploration.  24 officers and 108 sailors set out from England to be the first to sail from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, thereby opening shorter and more lucrative trade routes between the far east and Europe and affording the crew a share of the sizeable reward of twenty thousand pounds sterling offered by the crown.  The Terror and Erebus were Hela-class bomb ships of 380 tons, stoutly built and both veterans of the war of 1812.  They had been retrofitted with steam engines and could travel at 4 knots without sails.  For operations in ice they had retractable rudders and propeller shafts.  They carried enough food for 3 years, had fine cutlery, a library, and as much coal as they could fit into their bilges.  They wintered where Rosehearty lay at anchor.  Three sailors died during this stopover but in the spring the ships set out once again, but they only succeeded in traveling a few hundred miles before the ice grabbed their ships and locked them in place.  More crew died.  Those that lived, abandoned the ships and set out on an overland journey south, in the hopes of finding help in the sparsely populated but relatively well mapped wilderness of the Northern Territories.  Oral histories of the Inuit peoples indicate that the sailors may have seen these indigenous local nomadic hunters.  But as far as scholars can tell, there was no contact.  What we do know is that all 129 men perished, the last 30 or so in a place now referred to as Starvation Cove.  After more than 150 years of searching, the doomed ships were finally discovered in 2014, on the bottom but in pristine condition as far as wrecks are concerned, about 300 miles from where we are anchored today.  “After a lot of debate, treasure hunting, and forensic analysis,” explained Ken during our shore expedition, “most historians have concluded that a combination of pneumonia, tuberculosis, scurvy, starvation, exposure, and lead poisoning killed the crews of the Terror and Erebus.”  Sitting on a large rock listening to the explanation, the boss looked at Ken and said dryly, ”Tell me the good news!”  We all laughed but Ken pressed on, “The good news is that the many search and rescue missions that were sent out to find Franklin ended up surveying and mapping this vast archipelago, allowing us to do what we are doing now.”  He paused to let that sink in.  “But there is a bit of bad news: more men and ships were lost searching for Franklin than were lost in the expedition itself.”

The shores of Beechey Island are made up of flat, shingly rock.  High cliffs sweep down on to a narrow isthmus that connects Beechey Island with Devon Island.  Blocks of pack ice are aground on the beach.  Hugo runs Wolfie up on to shore between two enormous slabs; the RIB crunches to a stop and we all remove our life jackets and step onto the beach.  We start at the Franklin Memorial, a series of different structures dedicated to Franklin and his men as well as to the subsequent rescue expeditions that used this bay and these shores to stage their missions.  The remains of the Northumberland House, erected by one of the search parties in 1852, are visible.  We read the various plaques, look out at the bay and try to imagine.  From the Franklin Memorial we walk two kilometres.  There are no trees or shrubs of any kind; we see the graves from a long way off.  There are four graves.  Three belong to men from the Terror and Erebus expedition who died during that first winter and one to a sailor from a subsequent search mission.  The stones are loose under our feet, though just below the surface, the permafrost layer is hard.  In the 1980s the bodies of the three sailors buried here were exhumed for forensic analysis; the pathologist who conducted the studies remarked how well preserved to the bodies were due to the stable temperatures of the permafrost layer in which the men were buried.  Low clouds scud across the bay.  Rosehearty appears and disappears in fog and mist.  There is a chill in the air.  Ethan opens his backpack and produces hot tea.  He has sugar and a spoon for stirring but apologizes for having forgotten the flask of milk that Renee’ had prepared.  We accept this mild hardship in light of the more significant challenges of those who were here before us. 

Ken radios the tender and we leave this site and travel to the eastern side of the bay, which is part of Devon Island.  The scene is remarkably different here.  An enormous alluvial plain stretches out to the horizon.  Small lakes, created by thawing ice and snow, dot the landscape.  Dry stones give way to soft, squishy bogs, and significantly, to color – lichen, moss, small flowers.  The more you look, the more you see.  “Look small, then look big,” advises Ken, encouraging us to go “macro” first, and then widen our gaze. 

“Musk Ox graze these areas,” Ken continues.  “There is fresh water and food.”  A few minutes later I find a large vertebrae bone which Ken confirms is from a Musk Ox.  “Look on the side of those hills,” he continues.  We strain in to the distance.  “Those brown shapes – there are three of four of them, moving.  They’re musk ox.”  At the end of our walk, Ken stops, and I hear that welcome, “Oh wow!” that I first heard when he stumbled upon the Inuksuk cairn in Admiralty Sound.  He picks up a curved plank of weathered wood and points to the nails protruding from it.  “This is Franklin era shipbuilding technology.  Square headed hand forged nails – either from the Franklin expedition or one of the rescue missions.”  At the end of our walk, I pick up a round stone.  It stands out because every other one of the countless stones on the beach are flat.  Looking at it more closely I see the undeniable impression of coral – “A coral fossil, here??!!” I ask Ken.  “Fossilized brain coral,” he says with a slight smile, “At some point a very long time ago, these may have been more temperate, tropical seas.”  What a day for the Rosehearty team – the ghosts of Franklin, tiny forests, and coral reefs on the 75th parallel of the world.




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