Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Canada searches for Sir John Franklin’s rescue ship

Franklin Expedition Map (hi-res) Based on British Admiralty Chart of 1927
Showing the Various Positions in Which Relics Have Been Found [map]. Scale not given.
In: North West Territories and Yukon Branch of Dept. of the Interior.
Canada's Western Arctic Report on Investigations in 1925-26, 1928-29, and 1930. Ottawa: 1931.

From Mary Ormsby, TheStar

The HMS Investigator never found the doomed Franklin expedition and sank, as did Franklin’s Terror and Erebus

It was 1850, and Sir John Franklin, a famed, seafaring explorer, was overdue in England by three years. He was lost in the Arctic with 128 crewmen and two cutting-edge, steam-propelled vessels, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, and the government wanted answers.

The Royal Navy ordered Robert McClure to try and find them.

As a rescuer, McClure failed spectacularly. He never spotted the Franklin expedition. The ship he commanded, HMS Investigator, was ice-bound in Mercy Bay for two years. And amid questionable leadership, McClure abandoned ship.

Yet McClure, who was himself rescued by another British ship, ultimately sailed up the Thames a hero for doing what Franklin could not: he charted and then traversed (by ship and sledge over ice) the Northwest Passage.

Though their lives diverged dramatically — Franklin and his men died on frozen tundra while McClure was knighted and showered with cash — the legacies of both are bound by a watery historical note: their ships lie on the ocean floor beneath Canada’s Arctic Archipelago.

But maybe not for long.

For the first time in 160 years, a search party will look for the sunken Investigator, which a team of Canadian scientists, archeologists and surveyors believe might be easier to spot than Franklin’s elusive tandem.

If the Investigator is found, Inuvialuit oral history will be validated for knowing where the intact ship sank, says Parks Canada marine archeologist Ryan Harris.

“We believe the HMS Investigator is still in Mercy Bay, (and) I’m more sanguine that we are going to find Investigator than I am about Erebus and Terror.”

Harris will be leading the underwater search off Banks Island in late July.

“We have more specific information to go on,” continues Harris, referring to Inuvialuit testimony and a large, on-shore trove of artifacts coined “McClure’s Cache.”

The exploration is part of a two-pronged Parks Canada plan. A team will spend 12 days looking for Investigator in Mercy Bay at the northern tip of Aulavik National Park, and then they will resume an ongoing Canadian quest to locate Terror and Erebus further south, off O’Reilly Island, for three weeks in August.

Franklin’s missing ships are designated a national historic site wherever it is, exactly, they rest — and they may not be near each other.

The Franklin expedition virtually disappeared into Canada’s unforgiving north during its 1845 quest to find the Northwest Passage, a Victorian horror story that’s haunted imaginations ever since. A trail of skeletons, a handful of relics, notes in a cairn and Inuit tales of starving, desperate men staggering to their doom are the only clues to the maritime mystery.

For both Parks Canada expeditions, side-scan sonar systems will be used to find objects superimposed on the ocean floor. If something merits a closer look, a small, remote-operated vehicle will be dropped in the water to shoot video — no human divers are going in. Canadian Hydrographic Service personnel will be on hand, too, using sonar waves to map the ocean floor which, at Mercy Bay and O’Reilly Island, is virtually uncharted.

That mapping of virgin ocean floor may also bolster Canada’s push to assert sovereignty over its Arctic waters, a politically charged area with claims from countries including Russia and the United States.

Harris’s optimism about Investigator is also buoyed by survivor accounts of their entrapment in the ice, accounts that include detailed journals kept by McClure and his ship’s surgeon, along with detailed sketches drawn on site by naval officer Samuel Gurney Cresswell.

Meanwhile, the Inuvialuit recollection of the Investigator’s sinking is promising because ships tend to drop straight down and stay put, Harris says. However, the depth of the bay is critical: deep is good, shallow is not. Heaving, rafting ice can destroy a vessel if it’s too close to the surface and scour it clean of historical clues.

The second part of the Investigator project is to study “McClure’s Cache” — the emergency provisions left behind, a common Royal Navy practice at the time to assist ships in distress. However, this cache functioned as a valuable supply depot for the Inuvialuit, the indigenous people of the area.

Banks Island is home to 40,000 musk oxen — the largest isolated population in Canada — along with wolves, Arctic foxes, lemmings, endangered Peary caribou and polar bears. Trees are absent and plant life is scarce, with the tallest stems only a few centimetres high, said Ifan Thomas, Parks Canada’s superintendent for the western Arctic and lead archeologist in the cache study.

So when rare materials such as wood, extra rigging, barrels, small boats and rope were piled up on shore, Inuvialuit used some of it: the cache “became a forest where there wasn’t a forest,” says Thomas, lead archeologist in the land study.

Thomas notes that for about 50 years, local hunters and trappers made annual journeys to McClure’s store of goods. Though its existence has long been known, it hasn’t been thoroughly or scientifically examined. Thomas hopes material salvaged from the ship might have been stored at the cache and may provide more information regarding the whereabouts and condition of Investigator.

There are also at least two grave sites near the cache, possibly three.

All three ships are in desolate, inhospitable regions heavily encased by ice and difficult to reach even with modern technology and transportation — and, to date, lightly studied and mapped. Harris says it’s unlikely anyone has tried to find Investigator because, until recent years, Mercy Bay has “almost never thawed” — it’s 74 degrees north and carved into Canada’s westernmost archipelago island — with towering, frozen cliffs for much of the year and floes so thick icebreakers don’t often challenge nearby McClure Strait for access.

Just getting to Mercy Bay will be a logistical feat. The Investigator party will fly in with all supplies on a Twin Otter equipped with tundra tires (to land on permafrost and not get stuck). It’s nearly a five-hour flight from Inuvik to a park spot called Polar Bear Cabin, then a 30-minute helicopter ride to the search site.

Besides fresh water and food, all equipment will be flown in: Zodiac boats, fuel, generators, tents, cooking gear, scientific gizmos and electric fencing to keep curious polar bears away from the campsite. But all that is for naught if the thick ice prevents the Zodiacs from manoeuvring.

“It’s the most ephemeral window of just a couple of weeks a year where it might open up enough to survey,” says Harris, who adds that the forecast for this summer is good, with ice breaking up earlier than usual.

As to the location of the Erebus and Terror, their resting places are just part of the puzzle shrouding the fate of Franklin’s men, none of whom were found alive.

Does Harris have any inkling of where the Erebus and Terror are — or how far apart they might be?

“I only wish we did,” says the marine scientist, a member of Parks Canada’s first search party in 2008. In 2009, the second of three-planned expeditions was scrapped when no icebreaker was available.

“We’re fairly confident we’re looking in the right direction, but it’s a big ocean. A discovery could happen at any point (or) it could be years before we’re lucky enough to find it.”

The Parks Canada team will use Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier for three weeks in August for their Franklin research around O’Reilly Island, south of King William Island where the lost captain died in 1847.

Like the Inuvialuit helping the Investigator project, Inuit testimony has shaped the O’Reilly Island operation, with information that one ship drifted further south than previously believed.

“Various Inuit stories are full of rich detail of actually coming on board one of the ships as it was trapped in ice,” Harris says, noting that the Inuit reported seeing a sailor dead in his bunk. “There was some evidence it had been re-manned by at least a small skeleton crew and it was probably abandoned again.”

Harris said the locals saw this ship — it’s unknown if it was Erebus or Terror — after crews fled it and likely encountered the starving sailors somewhere along their final, fatal march. That ship later sank with the Inuit recalling its masts projecting above the ice-choked water.

The Canadian team, like many other Franklin searchers before it, hope to uncover more clues about the 1845 expedition. A cairn note stated the captain was among two dozen who’d died by 1848 but nothing is known about the 100 or so who trekked south, presumably to horrific deaths, without food, heat, water or much sunlight.

There’s an international interest in finding Franklin’s wrecks as a way to track climate change.

English polar expert Peter Wadhams, a professor of ocean physics at Cambridge, said if ship journals sank with Erebus and Terror, the impeccable record-keeping of British sailors would likely provide reams of Arctic weather and navigational data.

“Amazingly, printed paper seems to survive being in the ocean,” Wadhams says in an email, noting that newspapers recovered from the Titanic are still readable. (Harris says paper cartridges for gunpowder and musket balls were recovered in excellent shape from a 17th century wreck in the St. Lawrence.)

“If the ships are found and their logs contain weather information, this will be valuable for understanding climate change in the Arctic over the interval of 160-plus years,” Wadhams continues, noting pencil entries would be hardier than ink on paper.

A century and a half ago, the English climate was good for McClure.

He was given a perfunctory court martial upon his 1854 return, then pardoned, and then rewarded with 10,000 British pounds — a fortune shared among him and his crew. Though McClure’s decisions during his failed rescue of the Franklin team were criticized — it was suggested he wanted sick crew members to die in order to save dwindling food supplies for the healthy — he was promoted to vice admiral and sought other adventures abroad.

But he never returned to the Canadian Arctic, the place of his greatest triumph and, possibly, his greatest dread.

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