The clues are out there, somewhere – hidden in the tundra, or sunk beneath the ice. And the race to find them is heating up. Who will solve the Arctic’s greatest mystery? By Katherine Laidlaw.
Ryan Harris’s eyes burned with the kind of ache reserved for marine archaeologists who’ve spent 100 hours in a little boat, puttering back and forth over a nondescript patch of the Arctic Ocean, searching desperately for anything that doesn’t look quite right.
It was windy, and the launch was pitching back and forth. “A perfect recipe for turning green,” he says. Other than that it was like every other day on the survey line, except that it was the last day of the searching season, so the pressure was on. This was the second year of Parks Canada’s search, and Ottawa had ramped up expectations. Before the team began, Environment Minister Peter Kent spoke excitedly to reporters. “While Franklin perished in the search for the Northwest Passage, it’s part of the story of Canada. It’s part of the magic,” he said. “The sense is that we’re close – oh, so close – and there are big hopes this might be the expedition that locates it.”
So when Harris stepped on to the boat that day, he was eager. The adrenaline was flowing. He took his seat by the sidescan display, straining his eyes to focus on the grainy, golden renderings as the boat jostled him left and right. Hours went by, and nothing, just like every other day. It got dark. Harris knew his boat was expected back at the ship on time – the Coast Guard has its routine, and you don’t mess with it. Still, the sand was running out of the hourglass and – wait. He paused. Rubbed his eyes. Looked again. “Stop!” he called to his coxswain. There was an anomaly on the screen. Something wasn’t quite right. Finally.
The grisly, tragic story of Sir John Franklin, his 128 men, and his lost ships Erebus and Terror, has long fascinated the world. What we know is this: The ships pushed off on May 19, 1845, to search for the elusive Northwest Passage. Aptly named (Erebus is Greek for “darkness”), they were the most lavishly outfitted vessels to head to the Arctic, with enough chocolate, liquor and tinned food to last five years. They held libraries with thousands of books, mahogany writing desks, organs that could play 50 different tunes, and an early kind of camera – the remains of which, if found, could speak volumes about the expedition.
Franklin’s official instructions? Sail from Baffin Bay through to the Bering Strait, to complete a Northwest Passage. The ships made it as far as Victoria Strait before becoming ensnared in ice. The real tragedy starts here – signs of madness and incoherence; increasingly desperate attempts at survival. The vessels were eventually abandoned as provisions ran low. The men set out overland, attempting to walk south. They weren’t equipped to survive for years on end in the Arctic. No one lived.
Over the next decade, 38 ships were deployed by the British to find Franklin and his men, to no avail. Rescuers would uncover a trail of bones, many with the deep knife-marks of cannibalism, across King William Island. They’d find three graves on Beechey Island. A cairn would be found on King William Island in 1859, with two notes on one slip of paper, one saying that everything was fine, and the next, more desperate, saying Sir John had died and the ships were being abandoned. A lifeboat full of nonsensical items – gold watches, chocolate, hair brushes – was carried over the ice on foot by the men, and was found, it’s said, with a uniformed skeleton still standing guard, a loaded rifle in each hand.
Franklin himself has become a legend. The experienced Arctic explorer, whose death aboard the Erebus is recorded in the only written artifact found from the expedition, is immortalized by a bust in Westminster Abbey. And yet, no sign of his grave has ever been located. Lady Jane Franklin, Sir John’s wife and the heroine of the tale, travelled the world fundraising for rescue missions for her husband after the British government tired of its own searches. The searches have gone on ever since.
In 2008, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives had some ground to gain. They’d worked their way to a minority government two years before, thanks to some Liberal missteps and a party merger. But Harper wanted a majority, and he was campaigning hard. He released the party’s platform, The True North Strong and Free, which listed eight priorities, including Arctic sovereignty. Coinciding with that release was a loudly publicized Parks Canada announcement. The government agency would launch its largest search yet for the two ships, committing to three years of scouring the Arctic Ocean’s floor. “We want it to be a Canadian mission,” Environment Minister John Baird said that day. “We don’t want Hollywood to get there first.”
Sitting next to Baird in Ottawa was Robert Grenier, the top marine archaeologist in the country and Parks Canada’s senior underwater archaeologist. He’d been pushing for a publicly funded Franklin search for 23 years and, finally, he’d have a real shot at finding the ships. “Sometimes a tragedy can turn into an amazing gift,” he told the crowd. “That disaster became a trigger for mapping the North of Canada.”
Grenier led the first search, in 2008, and went along on the second in 2010. (2009 was cancelled due to conflicts with the Coast Guard’s icebreaker.) He was a 40-year veteran of Parks, a dive junkie who overcame a fear of water to spend his life searching for wrecks on the ocean floor. “Diving is a born quality. You don’t care if you’re sick or you’re hurting. You want to go,” he says in a thick Quebecois accent. “It’s a case of passion.”
But last year, he handed over the reins of the department, and the search, to Harris, and retired. The Holy Grail had eluded yet another man. “For me, what was important was that finally the search was going on,” he says. “But it’s always a big disappointment, not going to the end of it.”
For Parks, the disappointments have added up. Before each season, around June, the government has hyped the searches to the media. This year, they’d say, will be the year they’ll find the magic. The Parks team would load up their gear and prepare for five weeks on board an icebreaker in anticipation of the six-day rush that the Coast Guard can fit into their schedule.
For a water lover or a wreck-hound like Harris, life on the icebreaker sounds perfect – bunking in with friends, smelling the ocean air, eating the fare of the pastry chef on board. But for those six days, his team goes hard. It’s the only time they get, so they use it. “You wake up, shower, dress, go straight to the boat,” he says. “You come back, download the data, and hit the hay. Repeat.”
The search area Parks initially had in mind is about the size of Ireland, and accessible only when it’s not frozen over. First, in 2008, the team surveyed 65 square kilometres near O’Reilly Island, west of the Adelaide Peninsula. 2010 brought the team to the same area, surveying another 180 square kilometres and, despite one anomaly, finding nothing. Luckily, the failure that year was overshadowed by the discovery of the HMS Investigator – a Royal Navy vessel that got trapped in ice while hunting for Franklin in 1853. The find whipped Parks into a frenzy, despite criticism that the ship’s location was no mystery.
Last year, the team used data from Canadian Ice Service scientists to reconstruct 165-year-old ice patterns. They then moved their focus to the waterways surrounding the Royal Geographic Society Islands just east of Victoria Island. In total, the three expeditions have cost Parks Canada about $300,000.
Parks won’t divulge whether another search is slated for this year, and members of the crew interviewed for this story say they haven’t been told yet what they’ll be doing this summer. But the preservation responsibilities of the ships were signed over to Canada by the British Navy in the ’90s, so you can bet the Harper government will forge ahead. In the meantime, the Nunavut government is keeping a tight hold on the site. It’s now all but impossible to get a permit to conduct a private expedition. None have been approved since 2008, and last year, one American searcher and his de Havilland Beaver airplane were kicked out of the country.
When Peter Carney, an engineer living in the English city of East Sussex, found lead floating in a jar of water he’d collected, he excitedly phoned up his friend William Battersby, a finance man in Cambridge. He’d rigged up a mad-scientist experiment in a spare room. “It worked!” he shouted over the phone. “You know how I was looking for a lead-testing kit? I don’t need one. The water’s got so much lead in it, I can see it! It’s like little flakes of snow!” Their hunch had paid off, for now.
The pair was out to prove that renowned authors Owen Beattie and John Geiger had it wrong in their acclaimed book Frozen in Time. Beattie and Geiger had concluded that Franklin’s men were poisoned by the lead in their cans of food. But Battersby thought something about that wasn’t quite right. So he spent 300 pounds on the full plans of the Erebus and Terror, and set about looking for other answers. He settled on the ships’ steam pumps.
He asked Carney to test whether lead from the steam system might have contaminated the crew’s drinking water. So Carney bought a wallpaper stripper that produces steam and placed it on top of a tool bench. He found a five-foot-long lead pipe. And he got a tank, resembling a fish aquarium, which he put on the floor, linking the tank and the stripper with the pipe. He set up a jar next to the tank that would fill with water as ice in the stripper melted. And then he called Battersby. “How the hell do I test whether the water’s got any lead in it?” Battersby replied, “I have no idea, mate. That’s a bit of a problem, isn’t it?”
But no matter – when the lead showed up in the jar, Battersby wrote up the pair’s findings in the Journal of the Hakluyt Society, a geographic periodical. The independent researcher was convinced he’d disproved the long-held theory that lead had been Franklin’s downfall.
How do two men who live across England from one another end up playing Marie Curie over the phone? Battersby and Carney are part of a hyperactive community of armchair explorers obsessed with the minutiae of Franklin lore. They call themselves the Franklin Mafia, and include a professor from Rhode Island, a Canadian historian, and most of this article’s interviewees. They keep extensive blogs with which they trade theories, detail their expeditions and, in the process, become friends.
Unlike heavyweights like Titanic-discoverer Robert Ballard, who has expressed interest in mounting a Franklin search, this crew isn’t necessarily focused on finding the wrecks themselves – although some have been on expeditions or flown North to participate in documentaries. They arrange overseas visits and meet up for beers to exchange ideas. They’re intent on solving the intellectual puzzle – the why and how behind the bad decisions, poor preparations, and deaths of so many men.
William Battersby was 20 years into an extremely successful career in investment marketing, incessantly travelling the world for clients, when he picked up a book at Heathrow Airport that would change his life. He’d never heard of Sir John Franklin, but he was looking for airplane reading and thought a book on 19th-century explorers would get him through a flight to San Francisco. “There I was, swilling G&Ts courtesy of Sir Richard Branson, over the exact spot where Franklin’s men had met their grisly fate,” he says. The elements of human tragedy – iced in, turning to cannibalism, condemned to die of lead poisoning – hooked him. “The tragedy of these young men dying unnecessarily, and unable to control their slow death, that was one of the things I wanted to understand the most. It’s desperately sad,” says the affable Brit. “And despite the fact that thousands of people have pored over it, I feel I can really create some new understanding.”
Battersby left his job and began to research one of Franklin’s seconds-in-command, James Fitzjames, about whom he would eventually write a biography. He now alternates his time poring over dusty files in the British national archives and describing the eureka moments he’s had in his office shed at the end of his garden. He admits his intense devotion to the Franklin tale is a little weird. “Let’s not beat around the bush, it’s an eccentric thing to do. Other people go off and play golf. I lock myself up for a day with dusty files and go – oh my god, Graham Gray’s granddad went to Australia. And no one cares!”
For his 50th birthday, his three kids made him a cake, complete with Franklin’s head and a picture of a boat with headless skeletons in it. Battersby’s interest shows no sign of waning. “My eventual goal is just to understand it better for myself, and place it on record,” he says. “Franklin and his men entirely succeeded in their mission. They’re still there.”
David Woodman is built like an athlete. He’s got broad shoulders, a wide gait and a narrow-eyed, quiet intensity. A former Navyman and sport diver, he works for BC Ferries and lives in a condo in Port Coquitlam with his wife. They just got back from Barbados, a trip to celebrate their anniversary. Woodman, although you wouldn’t know it to look at him, is also one of the world’s top experts on Franklin. He’s a step ahead of the rest of the Franklin Mafia – Parks Canada’s Harris says Woodman is by far the most credible of the private searchers, and the government frequently consults him.
A self-made historian and the author of one of the most respected books on the expedition, Woodman broke ground when he became the first author to seriously consider the role of Inuit testimony in helping to piece together the mystery. He’s embarked on 10 different expeditions, from 1992 to 2004, using magnetometers and sonar imaging to try to find remains. “All wreck divers want to find a virgin wreck with a skeleton at the wheel,” he says. “But it’s like trying to find two school buses in Vancouver with your eyes closed, going around padding the pavement. It’s going to be tough.”
It’s odd to think that the answer to the biggest unsolved Arctic mystery could be pieced together by a Franklin fanatic who’s spent much of his life working away in his garage, tapping on a keyboard resting on top of a freezer. “Ninety-nine per cent of finding any shipwreck is done in a library,” he says.
Where most historians have been dismissive of Inuit testimony, Woodman still believes that’s what will lead seekers to the buried treasure. He’s got his own theories: that Franklin’s men lived longer than we think, and will be found far further south than most people have been looking. On each of his expeditions, he’s found dozens of anomalies – but none panned out. Yet he’s still hoping.
He’s glib about what compels him. “I actually thought this was going to be fairly easy. I’m a pretty lazy guy,” he says. “I thought I’d have to read about 10 books and maybe two or three years of half-hearted effort to try to find these ships.” He’s not slated to go on any expeditions in the near future, but cheers the work of others. Technology is getting better and cheaper, and the search area is being narrowed every year. He says the discoveries are only a matter of time. “I want them to be found before I die.”
Around 2004, he says, Parks got worried. Higher-ups in the agency were concerned private searches were generating enough publicity that a treasure-hunter was going to find the ships. The Nunavut government cracked down. But Woodman says he values the history behind the discovery and is really just in it for the chase. “I’m not there to steal a piece of it and put it in my basement or something. I’m Navy. They’re war graves to me,” he says.
“This might sound strange,” I say to the woman across the counter. “But I’m not really sure what I’m looking for. Franklin paraphernalia, I know that much.” The archivist laughs. “We get that all the time.”
I’m at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife, a museum and cache of all things Northern history-related. It’s the home of Franklin artifacts like the original headboards of the Beechey Island graves, and still the place Franklin searchers come seeking official permission. Soon, I’m surrounded by yellowed copies of the Illustrated London News, inky 19th-century pages detailing how rescuers returned to Britain unsuccessful and “rather the worse for their perilous voyages.”
There are notes pencilled on these pages, sketching out a timeline. I’m not the first to come looking here, and I won’t be the last. I add some marks to the map I’ve used to guide me through this story. Before long I stop, put the sheets down and walk away. I hear David Woodman’s voice in my head: “There’s no shame in not finding something. The shame is in not looking.”
That might be so. But even if the ships are found, what then? They won’t tell us why Franklin’s men, questionably lucid, headed south with boats filled with objects that didn’t make sense. They won’t tell us where Sir John Franklin himself lies. They won’t tell us why the men were ill-equipped, or how long they stayed alive. As author John Geiger points out, “Finding the ships will be an incredible discovery. But it still won’t solve the Franklin mystery. The mystery is there forever.”