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If Any Living Inuk Knew

If Any Living Inuk Knew

Louie Kamookak has been on a 40-year quest to solve the Franklin mystery—for himself and for his people.
By Ashleigh Gaul
Sep 09
From the December 2014 Issue

This past September, with the first snows of freeze-up, hunters were pulling their boats up on shore for the winter, and the community of Gjoa Haven was planning a feast—a pretty low-key party: some char, some caribou, the local accordion band The Gjoa Boys, and an award presentation to 10-year-old Charlie Qirqqut, who’d saved his friend from drowning in July.

And then in Ottawa, PM Stephen Harper made an announcement: one of the wrecks of the long-lost Franklin expedition had been found near Hat Island, about 180 km from Gjoa Haven, after 166 years of searching. 

Suddenly, the community feast was also hosting an official Franklin delegation. MP Leona Aglukkaq (a Gjoa Haven girl herself) was there, handing Qirqqut his certificate, and several national and international media outlets were crammed into the community hall, snapping shots. The first sonar photo of the wreck—“Canada’s moon shot,” said The Toronto Star—projected on a wall already covered with posters of explorers the way other community gyms display pennants. Huge news for a small town: in a blog post for the New Yorker, Canadian Adam Gopnik put the discovery in American terms. “It’s as if someone had found, in a single moment, the hull of the Titanic, the solution to the mystery of the lost colony at Roanoke, the original flag of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and the menu for the Donner party’s last meal.” Now, Gjoa Haven, CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier Captain Bill Noon told Gjoa Haven—very much already on the map—“is on the map.”

And then someone noticed Harper hadn’t credited any local Inuit in his official statement, and suddenly Louie Kamookak, a high school special ed. teacher, found himself in the spotlight. Hadn’t Kamookak been researching and guiding search parties—without government support—along the route of the Franklin expedition for decades? Hadn’t he consulted with Parks Canada workers, who found the ship, for several years? If, as all the headlines read, Inuit had known where the ship was all along, why did it take 166 years to find it? If any living Inuk knew, it would be Kamookak. 

Kamookak is a living library of Central Arctic oral history—maybe the only one of his generation—but he doesn’t feel comfortable being its spokesman. He’s no academic and he won’t bloviate. Yes, Inuit knew where the ships were, and finding the Erebus, he says, “is bigger than the Titanic…But it’s not my mission,” he adds.

“I’m looking for Franklin.”

“Franklin was a good man!”

“Franklin was a good man!” yells Kamookak, over a headwind and blowing snow. There’s a polar bear in town—there were tracks on the baseball field—and we’re headed out to his cabin, to check on a caribou cache nearby.

Kamookak seems tall, though he’s not. Deep-voiced and wry, he’s got the defiance of the autodidact in him, and the disregard for popular opinion. He likes to talk while he drives—it’s the closest he’ll ever come to debate—and as we veer off-road with a couple backpacks full of antiquarian books, he touches on hard topics: troubles with researchers, the politics of the Erebus find, the mass disdain for Franklin, growing steadily since Pierre Berton questioned the commander’s hero status in his 1988 book, Arctic Grail. In fact, John Franklin might have been a rigid, aging Victorian, who only took the position because his wife lobbied for it, and Lady Franklin was a powerful woman. Margaret Atwood summed up the growing collective scorn for Franklin in a 1994 CBC interview: “He was a dope.” 

Kamookak disagrees. “He’d been on two expeditions, to the Coppermine and Mackenzie rivers,” he says. “He knew how to communicate with Inuit.”

We park the red Honda outside a heap of plywood near a small char pond, unofficial address: “101 DEW Line Trail.” Outside, it’s dump material. Inside, it’s a masterpiece of jury-rigging, powered by solar panel, heated with expired fuel, and equipped “with the best internet access on King William Island.” He pumps the Coleman stove for tea water and continues: “There’s a story that says the leader of a great ship died, there were shots and [his men] put him in the ground. That leader was a great shaman.”

I think about what Atwood said next: “After we’ve had Franklin the dope for a while, undoubtedly we’re going to get a different Franklin. People will say, ‘Wait a minute now, Franklin wasn't such a dope. Really, he was a mystic.’”

“Of course,” says Kamookak, “for Inuit, way back, every story had to have a shaman involved.”

Most of what Kamookak knows about storytelling comes from his great grandmother, Hummahuk. Hummahuk was a Boothian matriarch—you’ll find a faded photo of her, tattooed and smiling in a floral dress, on many a Gjoa Haven wall—and Kamookak travelled with her until he was nine. At night, she told him fairy tales.

“A mound, and at the end of the mound, there was a rock with markings on it. The mound was the length of a human, and because it was the length of a human, they were afraid to go near it.”

“I come from a long line of high-profile Netsilingmiut people,” he says—including a great shaman on his father’s side—and William ‘Paddy’ Gibson, an Irish Hudson’s Bay trader (and Franklin scholar in his own right) on his mom’s side. He was born in 1959—a famine year—near modern-day Taloyoak, at a seal-hunting camp. His mom was so hungry she couldn’t produce breast milk that year, and the children’s first meals were mashed, raw seal blubber.

By the time Kamookak was born, Netsilik Inuit covered a huge hunting territory, from the Boothian Peninsula to King William Island, and as far south as Back River. Two groups—the Utjulingmiut and the Utkuhikjalingmiut once dominated the area. But a few generations before Hummahuk, two ships of white men arrived on King William Island; and a Boothian shaman cast spells to keep the animals away from them. “The Innuits (sic) never knew such very cold weather” as that year, said witnesses shortly after. Starvations thinned the tribes and the Netsilingmiut saw an opportunity to expand: they moved west and pushed out the stragglers.

One night in the canvas tent, when Kamookak was nine, Hummahuk told a story: “She was very young,” remembers Kamookak. “I think she was about six or seven.” That summer, she travelled with her father down the north coast of King William Island. “People hardly went down that coast back then,” he says. “It was filled with ice. The only purpose in the world to go down there was to get driftwood to make kayaks and stuff.  Close to the ocean, they came to a ridge with real fine gravel. And they started finding stuff on the ground: metal and round muskets. They found spoons and forks, and Hummahuk’s father grabbed a dining knife and made an ice chisel out of it.”

The wood and metal from Franklin's ships was resurfaced in new forms of Inuit tools. Photo Riley Veldhuizen

And then they saw it: “A mound, and at the end of the mound, there was a rock with markings on it. The mound was the length of a human, and because it was the length of a human, they were afraid to go near it.”

“In later years, the missionaries came and started burying people. My great grandma realized it was a grave she saw.”

That was the last summer Kamookak spent with Hummahuk. “The next year, the plane came and took us to school and she died.” (Later on, Kamookak would search the Boothian Peninsula for her grave, but she’d been laid out the traditional way—uncovered, unburied—and the land took every trace of her body.) Meanwhile, he forgot about the story. 

Then one day, when he was 12, Kamookak’s teacher gave a lesson on the Franklin expedition. He learned about two ships, carrying 134 sailors, that left England in 1845 and got trapped in thick ice two years later—two cold and unusually barren years later—near King William Island, never to be seen again. The captain was dead but no one knew where his body had gone. 

Hummahuk’s story was real.

Igloolik Inuit have a creation myth for white people, and Rosie Iqallijuq once told it to Encounters on the Passage author Dorothy Eber.

“There was once a girl, Uinigumasuittuq,” said Iqallijuq, “who was married to her dog ... She gave birth to six babies [and] two were half-white half-dogs.” The two half-white half-dogs—one boy, one girl—were set in the ocean in the sole of a kamik, and returned, generations later, in search of their mother. That’s why white people are always collecting bones. 

In 1848, England declared Franklin officially missing and offered a £10,000 reward for  “any information leading to the discovery of what happened to the Franklin expedition.” Over the next six years, public and private funders would devote £760,000 (more than $100 million in today’s currency, much of it donated by Lady Franklin) to the mission. In 1850 alone, 12 expeditions travelled the Northwest Passage, from the east, west and south, searching for lost ships and men. They found very little, apart from an 1846 note, written by officer James Fitzjames, declaring “All well,” and updated the following year with some devastating news: Franklin and 23 crew members were dead, and the remaining 105 men were abandoning ship and marching to Back River. A trail of skeletons, lifeboats and impractical items—porcelain teacups, silver spoons, curtain rods—led down the west coast, ending at the entrance to Back River.

Meanwhile, Inuit were also reeling. In the winter of 1853-4, eastern and western Inuit held a conference at Pelly Bay (now Kugaaruk), to swap stories of first contact. They traded wood and metal objects. A Netsilik man said he’d fed and sheltered four qallunaat for a winter—their skin was black and the meat above their teeth was gone; others told the same story but with slight variations: there were 10 men, maybe, or 40. One man found gold and paper on the Adelaide Peninsula—useless objects, so he gave them to his children and they ripped them up and tossed them into the wind. There were many stories of ships trapped in ice; one was filled with dead bodies and apparently sank in the shallow waters of Utjulik, an area about the size of Southern Ontario, south and west of King William Island.

Photo Riley Veldhuizen

In-nook-poo-zhe-jook, another Netsilik man who attended the conference, met Franklin searcher John Rae, also in Pelly Bay, in 1854. The Inuk described a gruesome scene and Rae relayed it directly to England: a long day’s sled trip from Back River, Inuit had seen about 35 corpses—some in tents, some under an overturned boat, some out in the open air. They’d been eating fish, geese, and, judging by “the contents of the kettles,” each other. The Admiralty paid Rae his £10,000, but Victorian England used the occasion to hurl racial slurs at the colonies. To Charles Dickens, the testimonies of the last living people who’d seen Franklin alive were “the chatter of uncivilized people.”

From there, the eyewitness accounts get blurry. The next investigator to focus on Inuit oral history arrived 10 years later, via  Cincinnati businessman Charles Francis Hall. Inspired by Rae’s accounts of packing light and travelling with Inuit, Hall convinced himself that some of Franklin’s men had “gone native” too, and were living among the locals. He hired two guides—a Baffin husband and wife team—and travelled five years, from Repulse Bay to King William Island.

Hall conducted the only systematic survey of what Inuit knew; it’s the only reason we can say, with any legalistic certainty, that locals saw the men and the ships—because Hall created a written record. But by the time he arrived, Inuit worlds had changed. Utjulingmiut, who’d had the most contact with Franklin’s men, were dying off. Some eyewitnesses were gone, or had grown too old to remember. And by 1864, more than 40 ships had gone through the waters near King William Island.  The question, “Umiak-soamik taekkolaung-ilasse im-mane?”—Have you seen any large ships lately?—produced a confused tangle of stories, involving many aglookas—sailors—a few eshemutas—captains, and many, many umiaqs—large ships. 

“They’re never found in the water, they’re always found in the library—because you have to know where to look first...I wasn’t about to go out there and stick my head in the water.”

Sure, Hall heard many stories of debris washing up on a group of islands called Shartoo, “the flat place.” He’d also heard the wreck itself had been pillaged there, and sank, “but not so bad...the topmasts were above water.” But on Hall’s (often inaccurate) maps, there was no Shartoo, only O’Reilly Island, southeast of Hat Island, in the Royal Geographical Society Islands. Naturally, these direction markers were nonsense to Inuit, as were “miles,” and “feet,” and “years,” and “Franklin” and “England.”

In 1927, when the British Admiralty printed a map collating evidence collected to date on the lost Franklin ships, it colour-coded Inuit evidence blue, and qallunaat evidence red. “The information shown in blue,” it was noted underneath the map, “is based upon the various Eskimo reports obtained by … explorers, and is probably not altogether trustworthy.”

“There’s a saying amongst the group of people who look for shipwrecks,” says David Woodman, who revisited and helped reinterpret the Hall testimonies for his 1991 book, Unravelling the Franklin Mystery. “They’re never found in the water, they’re always found in the library—because you have to know where to look first.” That’s good news, Kamookak jokes, “because I wasn’t about to go out there and stick my head in the water.”

Actually, Kamookak did start in the only library available to him in Gjoa Haven in 1971: the elders. And the first thing he learned, as a teenager, “was to start listening more...I started getting more stories from the elders”—not official interviews (Kamookak can count the amount of formal interviews he’s conducted in his lifetime on his two hands), “just visiting. Asking. Getting more stories. And the elders got the hang of me that I would listen to many stories.” Franklin was his main point of interest, but he said it didn’t matter “if it was a Franklin story or a if it was a legend or if it was a life story, I was always there to listen.”

Given the choice, he might have been an academic, but Kamookak finished high school in Grade Nine. (“I just had the bad luck to be an in-between year,” he says. “The students ahead of me were sent to Inuvik for residential school. And the students behind me were sent to Yellowknife. But my age group, they told us, ‘You’re too old to go to school.’ So we were done.”)

Instead, he went to field school—on the trapline. From age 16 to about 20, 21, he and his dad ran 500 snares west from Gjoa Haven, all the way to King William Island’s southernmost tip. By the time he left to take a job at the Polaris zinc mine near Resolute, he knew every ghost story and skeleton on the south coast.

He spent every out-rotation on his ATV or snow machine, cutting through the middle of King William Island to the northwest coast, where the stories had told him there was a vault, with a wooden cross, and large, flat stones. Later on, when he started a family and took a job at the housing corporation in town, he followed the same process: consult the testimonies, travel the land—documenting place names, artifacts, skeletons and cairns along the way—return to the elders, ask them “what do you think of this or that?” Years into his research, he ran into an elder he’d known his whole life, at the Hunters and Trappers office. There happened to be a map behind them, and it tripped the elder’s memory: he’d seen the vault too, and beside it, he’d found a long, rusty, copper rod. Kamookak's knowledge deepened, year after year.

It also broadened, as he established a name for himself as a local Franklin authority. In the mid-‘90s, a Calgary-based antiquarian bookseller, Cameron Treleaven, got stranded with a friend near Collinson Inlet, on King William’s west coast; he had to be choppered back to town. Hamlet-locked and bored, Treleaven called Kamookak, and they’ve been friends ever since. Treleaven sent Kamookak a first edition of Hall’s journey, and a library of other books to bring him into the international conversation.

“I remember telling them, ‘You should look down near the mouth of Back River.’”

In the meantime, Kamookak’s guided Hay River’s resident Franklin fanatic, Tom Gross, on several trips; and in 1999, he tracked the route of John Rae—Rae Strait—with Fatal Passage author Ken McGoogan. (McGoogan and Kamookak chatted recently about collaborating on a biography, but Kamookak says, “I might do it independently.”) Treleaven came on that trip, and another, in 1998, to Victory Point, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Franklin’s disappearance.

Then one winter in 2004, Kamookak found them: long, flat rocks, four-by-12 feet across, “ideal to cover the vault.” He logged their location and planned to return in the summer.

But then he got sick—spent four months in an Edmonton hospital getting open heart surgery, then eight months later, had a tumour removed from behind his right eye. His family lost their house, and they moved out to 101 DEW Line Trail. “People in town were saying it was the curse of Franklin; that I was getting too close.” He shrugs. “I haven’t gone back.”

Instead, in early 2006, he and a few collaborators, including some  French and British researchers and Parks Canada underwater archaeologist Robert Grenier, submitted an International Polar Year project proposal. It describes a helicopter survey and sidescan sonar trawl of an area west of King William Island, guided by local knowledge. Kamookak won’t say why the project never happened (“It’s political.”), but in 2007, he found himself in Parks Canada headquarters in Ottawa. A new government was elected, and it was sympathetic to the search. 

“Hummahuk once told me, ‘Remember these stories'...because people from the south are going to be interested in what happened to those men.”

Early August this year, Kamookak was returning home from a medical trip to Edmonton when he saw the young man sitting next to him was reading a Franklin book. “A new guy on the search,” he says, “doing some homework on the plane.” He struck up a conversation: “I’m from Gjoa Haven,” he said. “I’m Louie.” (Silence.) “Kamookak.”

“Then he recognized me,” says Kamookak—and led him to Ryan Harris, who’s been heading Parks Canada’s search since 2008. Harris and his team were headed to Cambridge Bay, where the main research ship, the Martin Bergmann, is docked. “Before they left,” says Kamookak, “I remember telling them, ‘You should look down near the mouth of Back River.’”

Actually, the team intended to search farther north, closer to Victory Point, where the ships were first locked in ice in 1846. But just like that summer for Franklin and his crew, Victoria Strait was too ice-choked to navigate. Forced to abandon their original plan, Parks Canada and its partners—including major donor and BlackBerry magnate Jim Balsillie—travelled south instead, to Utjulik. Several expeditions have searched there before; most notably David Woodman, with a magnetometer, between 1998 and 2004. But not with such high-tech sonar equipment.

And then a couple of serendipitous things happened. A helicopter pilot on another project—assisting federal hydrographers charting the sea bed—offered a few extra seats to GN archaeologists. They stopped off on Hat Island. There, the helicopter pilot stumbled on an iron fitting—part of a boat-launching davit—with the broad arrow of the British Admiralty. The research boats shifted the search area, and two days later, a near-perfect image of the intact ship appeared on Ryan Harris’ sonar screen. 

In the end, a lot of collaboration, a lot of technology, a lot of money and a lot of dumb luck found Franklin’s lost ship.

It took about three weeks for Parks Canada to identify the ship as the Erebus. During that time, the Facebook page, “Remembering the Franklin Expedition,” exploded. Followers placed their bets on which ship it would be, along with essay-length justifications of their choices. The popular bet, hands down, was the Terror. Kamookak hid his reasoning (“He holds his cards close to his chest,” said a friend.), but added one word to the debate: “Erebus.” 

“Hummahuk once told me, ‘Remember these stories,’” says Kamookak’s cousin, Jerry Arqviq, “because people from the south are going to be interested in what happened to those men.”

He tries to remember: “My mom talked about how her step-parents used to help out a lot, helped Franklin to survive in the Arctic…”  He pauses. Something’s not right. “She said her parents used to take care of people that might need help to survive, like the whalers.” He gives up. “There are so many stories about the Franklin ships, and before and after them, I think people are starting to get them mixed up with Amundsen.” (Amundsen’s not as sexy as Franklin, Gjoa Haven’s visiting Norwegian scholar, Tone Wang, tells me sulkily—“probably because he didn’t screw up”—but he docked in Gjoa Haven’s harbour for two years and had much more contact with Inuit.)

“People get lost out there. When they come back, they say it’s almost like they couldn’t remember where they were, like everything gets the same. The landscape.”

I decide I don’t care if it’s a Franklin story, or if it’s about Amundsen or if it’s a legend or if it’s a life story. I just go visiting.

At the heritage centre, Jacob Keanik tells me how his grandfather  took a piece of Amundsen’s boat and sewed it to his little boy’s clothes, as a sort of amulet, “to get him to be a wise sailor.” Keanik is also related to Hummahuk, and also heard the story of the grave, but in his version, Hummahuk found plum pits as well as musket pellets.

Down in the old part of town, near the beach and the old Hudson’s Bay trading post, everyone tells me to go visit Tommy Porter. In 1973, Porter was working as a baggage loader for Northward Aviation; he looked out the window near Parry River, south of Cambridge Bay, and saw a ship in the water. “The pilot pointed out the bow—he’d seen it before. It was real shallow. And he told me not to tell the people we were flying back to Cambridge Bay.” 

Ex-mayor Michael Angottitauruq says he knows a place where white men made bonfires on the sand with seal oil. Elder Matthew Tiringaneak says his ancestors boarded Franklin’s boats. 

Rick Dwyer’s a Scottish ex-Bay boy, but he went on a few Franklin searches of his own, guided by his Inuit wife Martha (now deceased). He says he knows where you can dig in the sand for beads from the Back expedition, and he’s got a photo of a crevasse where Inuit say human bones are piled. He once found a 1792 Edinburgh coin in a grave on Todd Island. He also swears he saw a sasquatch out there, near the entrance to Back River.

The stories are mysterious, but not all reliable: in 2010, local Wally Porter told some GN archaeologists that Franklin’s logbook was buried under a cairn commemorating Kamookak’s grandpa, trader Paddy Gibson. Porter said he heard the story from his own grandpa, George Washington Porter. “I wrote a number of letters to the Nunavut government,” says Kamookak, “saying there’s nothing there, I’ve got tape recordings of elders that all say there’s nothing there.” It was no use. The cairn was destroyed, the box exhumed, Porter was flown to Ottawa for the opening, and there was nothing in the box. The cairn was never rebuilt, and Gibson’s commemorative plaque is still missing. “And,” Kamookak says, “that was one of the last historical things in the area.”

Next summer, several new Franklin-themed cruise expeditions are already booked solid, a few locals will be college-trained in tourism, and Kamookak’s thinking of resuming his search for Franklin’s grave (and maybe this time, asking for a little funding). “Curse or no curse,” he says, “I’m going back.”

We start packing up the books, getting ready to head back to town, but the blizzard’s raging full-force, and the polar bear’s still out there. Too windy to check the cache. “Doubt your plane will land,” he says. “Curse of Franklin.”

“People ask me why I want to find Franklin’s body so bad.” I hadn’t—Jerry Arqviq had told me Louie used to try to get him out searching, saying, “If we could just find this [grave], it would really help the people in the community. Get work for the younger people, get them back on the land.” I thought it was reason enough.

Kamookak’s still looking at the blizzard. “People get lost out there,” he says. “When they come back, they say it’s almost like they couldn’t remember where they were, like everything gets the same. The landscape.”

“In the same way that when we go search for people, we find their snow machine and now we’re hopeful we’ll find that person...I think about [Franklin’s] wife, that if she were alive today, I know she’d hope that we would find his body.” 

“Anything else?”

“I want Canada to be able to return his body to England.”

“Anything else?” 

“I want to prove my great grandma’s story was right.”