Marble Island appears out of the sea like an iceberg, a pure white chunk of rock shimmering in the distance like a mirage. Approaching it, about an hour’s boat ride from Rankin Inlet, you’ll find it to be solid and tangible, but it still looks out of place: white quartzite streaked with veins of pink, topped with thick patches of purple fireweed, surrounded by water that appears turquoise. “You’ve got this great big blue sea, then all of a sudden you have this island of white rock sticking out of the ocean and it’s just all white,” says Rankin Inlet photographer Doug McLarty. “It’s not like any other rock around.” Marble Island is the largest of a small group of four islands—Marble, Deadman’s Island, Quartzite Island and Mittilik Island—at more than 11 kilometres long and seven kilometres wide. But its geology is its least mysterious trait.
Rankin Inlet resident Harry Ittinuar was eight years old the first time his father brought him to the island and told him the legend of the woman who created it. “We had to crawl in respect to the old lady’s story—the legend,” he says. “I remember at the time he told us if we don’t crawl, we’re going to have bad luck throughout our lives.”
Had the curse befallen them, they wouldn’t have been its first victims. Shipwrecks surround this little outcrop in Hudson Bay, and researchers hope to solve its mysteries before the evidence disappears.
While working on her master’s thesis in 2009, anthropology student Ashley Sisco interviewed a historian from Rankin Inlet who relayed a story told to him by an elder, Taguniak Kappi. The legend tells the story of a husband and wife travelling past Rankin Inlet when the woman announced she had to pee, but her husband didn’t want her to urinate in the water because it would anger Sedna, the goddess of the sea in many Inuit legends. The woman then wished ice in the distance would turn into an island so she could pee on the land. Sedna heard her and decided she would create the island in exchange for the woman’s life.
When the couple reached the ice, the woman got down on her hands and knees and crawled to distribute her weight and keep from breaking through. But after holding her pee for so long, the woman exploded and when her body fluid touched the ice, it turned to rock. In respect for the woman, visitors have to crawl up the island to keep the rock from turning back into ice.
Farley Mowat called snow the fifth elemental—an addition to the ancient Greek belief that the world was influenced by four elementals; Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Considering the significance of snow in the lives of Inuit, it’s no wonder ice lies at the foundation of Marble Island’s creation story. Starkly white and in complete contrast with the geology of the surrounding mainland coastline, it’s easy to believe the rock was once made of ice. But it’s more than legend that makes Marble Island such a mysterious place. And now modern technology could shed new light on old secrets.
James Knight was well into his 70s when in 1719 he began his search for the Northwest Passage. He had spent the previous 40 years as a Hudson’s Bay Company employee, working his way up from a carpenter to eventually being named a member of the London Committee, the HBC’s Board of Directors.
Knight was an experienced Arctic traveller with a reputation for being indestructible.
When he said he could reach the passage—and the rumoured treasure he sought there—via Hudson Bay, no one questioned his proposal. The HBC gave him two ships, the Albany and the Discovery, and Knight set sail in June, 1719.
Knight landed at Marble Island equipped with everything from a housing frame and bricks to a stove complete with coal. “They were very well prepared to overwinter there,” says John Geiger, president of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and co-author of Dead Silence: The Greatest Mystery in Arctic Discovery, which he wrote with anthropologist Owen Beattie. “All the clichés that are thrown at European explorers, that they were sort of unprepared, Knight was not typical of them.” Yet despite his preparedness, every man on the expedition died, including Knight himself.
In 1989, Geiger and Beattie began the first of four seasons of archaeological work on Quartzite Island, the location of Knight’s overwintering site. In addition to the structure, the team found evidence of good hunting conditions and ample food supplies.
“The food remains that we found in and around the building that they had constructed showed they had been very successful in hunting native fowl and species, so they were well prepared, one would have thought, for a winter there and yet they obviously didn’t survive,” Geiger says.
But the real mystery lies in what the team didn’t find. Not a single grave was found for any of the 40 men who died on the expedition. “There were some fragmentary human remains, apparently European in origin in and around the structure, but not bodies, not skeletons, not substantial remains,” Geiger says.
There are many theories about what could have happened, the simplest being that a large number of the men left Marble Island for the mainland where they got lost and died. But to this day no one knows for sure. By the time another whaling ship arrived on the island a few years later, there was no one left to tell the tale. “It’s just speculation, we really don’t know,” Geiger says. “There isn’t enough information to really understand what became of them.”
Adding to the mystery are the reports that Inuit made use of materials found on the expedition’s two ships after the men perished, meaning the men seemed to have abandoned the vessels before they sank.
The disappearance of Knight and his men adds to the island’s otherworldly reputation, but it isn’t the only example. People who visit the island come away changed, says Sisco, who journeyed to the island in 2006 as part of her thesis project. “I don’t want to sound cheesy, but it is transformative to go there. It really was a profound experience,” she says. “There is a heaviness in the air that you can feel. You can feel some of the stories almost, and the presence of some of the people that have been there and the impact that they’ve had.”
For Geiger, that feeling was exemplified when a huge thunderstorm tore through their campsite one night. Thunderstorms are rare in Nunavut’s Kivalliq region and Geiger’s archaeology team was camped on one of the highest points on the island when the storm hit. “We had a horrific thunderstorm, middle of the night, that to this day I find it kind of unnerving to think about just how severe it was,” he says.
Long before Knight arrived, the rich waters around Marble Island attracted Inuit hunters seeking whale, walrus and seal for thousands of years. The islands are littered with signs of ancient occupants, including kayak rests, stone tent rings, food caches and graves.
In the mid-1700s, HBC whalers began using the sheltered harbours at Marble Island and by the 1860s, whalers from New England and Scotland were regularly using the island as an overwintering site to hunt bowhead whales.
Marble Island’s popularity and traffic didn’t make it any less dangerous. Both of Knight’s ships were shipwrecked at Marble Island, as were two New Bedford whaling ships, the Orray Taft, which sank on September 14, 1872, and the Ansel Gibbs, which went down in October that same year.
Because it sank in shallow water, visitors to Marble Island can still make out the outline of the Orray Taft in low tide, making it a special highlight of the boat tours formerly hosted by Ittinuar and his wife, Sally Cormier-Ittinuar. The couple operated their company, Unainak Tours, for about 11 years, bringing visitors to Marble Island who came from as far away as France and Australia. “It’s amazing the different kinds of people we brought there,” Cormier-Ittinuar says.
Despite Marble Island’s importance to the history of the HBC, the whaling era and Inuit, it hasn’t received much academic attention, says Dr. Kimberly Monk, a maritime archaeologist specializing in shipwrecks. Monk is also a research fellow with the University of Bristol (UK), and currently a visiting scholar with Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.
Nearly ten years ago, Monk began researching an archaeology project that would examine the maritime culture of Marble Island, including the Knight expedition.
So far, the project has been put on hold, but for archaeologists, the information that could be gathered at Marble Island is as precious as the gold Knight had been searching for—especially when it comes to shipwrecks.
Little is known about the particular design of Knight’s ships, Monk says. Record-keeping in the early 1700s was sporadic at best and there have been few underwater archaeological studies of 18th century shipwreck assemblages. What is known is that Knight’s ships were brand new and the journey to Hudson Bay was actually the Discovery’s maiden voyage, the ship having been completed in 1718. The Albany was built in 1714.
“Looking at these two ships and how they were built, how there were fitted and particularly as they were fitted for Arctic expedition, would be a huge boon for learning about 18th century ship construction, beyond of course the cultural elements of these ships and the men who served on them,” Monk says.
And while some underwater archaeological work has been conducted at Marble Island, Monk says advances in technology, such as 3D multi-beam sonar, remotely operated vehicles (ROV) and laser scanning, have revolutionized the information gathering.
“There is much more to be done,” Monk says. “Modern technology will allow us a better view of these sites and probably a better recording, much more accurate recordings of not only shipwrecks, but related maritime infrastructure.”
Not only would an archaeological project on Marble Island potentially provide new information on the Knight expedition, it could also create opportunities for local Inuit, Monk says. In addition to providing support and receiving training from the archaeology team, the project could boost tourism in Nunavut’s Kivalliq region. But the clock is ticking. The passing centuries and a warming climate are both taking their tolls on the ships.
The water around Marble Island also seems murkier as the years go on, Ittinuar says. Thirty years ago, someone looking into the water at low tide could clearly make out details of the Orray Taft. “At low tide on a nice sunny day, we were able to really see the outlines of the port holes and the hatches and the mast and so on. It’s a lot harder to see the outline of it now and it’s a lot deeper into the mud now,” he says. “From what I’ve been told, the temperatures are a lot different now from years ago, from the ‘70s and ‘80s. It’s been changing a lot.”
Climate change could also allow destructive species, including teredo navalis, also known as the naval shipworm, to enter waters previously too cold for them to survive.
The worm, cursed by underwater archaeologists the world over, is a type of wood-boring saltwater clam with a special appetite for shipwrecks. Like other species moving north as the climate warms, the naval shipworm could one day make its way into Hudson Bay, Monk warns.
The mysteries endure, but the clues that could solve them won’t be around forever. “Time is of the essence to record these sites before that information is lost,” Monk says.