Northwest Passage (9)

We were heading into the area where one of Franklin’s two ships was found in 2014 and where an active search was underway in the hopes of finding the second ship.  So far, no results had been reported and the summer window for underwater surveys would soon be ending.  Finding the HMS Erebus two years ago was a huge news story in Canada, with the initial announcement coming from the Prime Minister’s office.


Sunrise, James Ross Strait

As the rising sun painted the morning clouds with gold and pink, we moved through James Ross Strait with King William Island on our starboard side. We then entered Rae Strait (see map below) which is named after Dr. John Rae, one of the great Arctic explorers of the 19th Century.  During a trek in 1854 searching for Franklin, Rae traveled north along the coast of Boothia Peninsula and discovered that King William Land was actually an island with a strait separating it from the North American mainland.  That fact made it a key piece of the Northwest Passage.   Fifty years later, Roald Amundsen would use Rae’s discovery by taking a route through the strait—now known as Rae Strait—and becoming the first to navigate the entire passage.


Lord Franklin’s Fatal Expedition

King William Island also was the key to the mystery of Lord Franklin’s fate.  During that 1854 search, Rae turned up a number of artifacts from the ships and stories from the Inuit told of white men trekking south, starving, and dying.  His reports back to Britain included this rather delicate phrasing:

“…from the mutilated state of many of the bodies, and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative as a means of sustaining life.” 

The report horrified England’s Victorian society and especially Lady Franklin who refused to believe the reports of cannibalism.  The full story of Rae and his exploits can be found in Kevin McGoogan’s book, “Fatal Passage.”

We stopped for an afternoon at Gjoa Haven, a small settlement on the southern tip of King William Island.  It is also a historic location in the saga of the Northwest Passage.  Roald Amundsen overwintered here during his successful first-ever transit of the Northwest Passage.  He was hemmed in by ice for 22 months but finally completed the voyage 3 years after his start in 1903.


The Bell of HMS Erebus, Submerged to Prevent Oxidation (photo from Parks Canada)

The village has an excellent museum that now hosts the ship’s bell from the Erebus which was found in September 2014, 30 feet below the surface.    And that evening, in fact, we would pass even closer to the Erebus (red arrow on map above) after departing Gjoa Haven.  We wondered how the search for Franklin’s other ship, the Terror, was going at its undisclosed location nearby.

The next day the ship’s captain altered our route to find a pack of sea ice that reportedly had pieces large enough to hold small groups of people who might want to walk on it.  The irony was escapable: Just over one hundred years ago, Amundsen was stuck here for 22 consecutive months because the sea ice was so thick.  On the same route today,  it was necessary to go out of your way to find some.


Coming Upon a Field of Sea Ice

As we first approached the icee zone, an impressive cloud formation was building overhead.  But two hours later we were enveloped by a heavy fog.  Nevertheless, the landing was still on and we eagerly boarded the zodiac.  Surprisingly, the ice was not at all slippery.  The rough surface provided sufficient traction to walk about without any difficulty.  The thick fog added a mystical quality to the surroundings.


View of the Ship from Platform of Sea Ice


Zodiac Maneuvers through the Fog


Sea Ice Sculpture

Just five days later, the research team looking for the HMS Terror anounced that it had been found in a King William Island bay which, amazingly, is already named Terror Bay!  We had been no more than 10-15 miles away from that spot as we headed west from Gjoa Haven.  (An interesting historical footnote.  Among its various exploits, the HMS Terror had been with the British fleet in 1814 that bombarded Fort McHenry in Baltimore, an event that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the lyrics for the “Star Spangled Banner.”)

Northwest Passage (8)


Departing Fort Ross, we entered Bellot Strait, a narrow channel that would take us into Peel Sound where we would resume tracking the route of John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition and learn more about his extraordinary wife, Lady Jane Franklin, and her unceasing efforts to galvanize the British public, the British Government, and many others on behalf of her missing husband.


Bellot Strait with the northernmost tip of the North American continent on the left

Bellot Strait, separating Somerset Island from the Boothia Peninsula (see map below), is named after Joseph Rene Bellot, a young French naval officer who offered his services to Lady Jane Franklin to serve on a rescue mission that she was personally organizing. (For a detailed English account of Bellot’s Arctic experiences, consult this article.  For French speakers wishing a more complete exposition, obtain a copy of the book by Nadine and Jean-Claude Forestier-Blazart.)



Sunset, Peel Sound, after exiting Bellot Strait

On Bellot’s first trip, as second in command, he discovered what others had missed, the strait that now bears his name and the key to one variant in the routes through the Northwest Passage.    But the expedition failed to find any trace of Franklin, largely because the ship’s captain ignored Bellot’s advice to head south.  Had they done so, they likely would have found the evidence discovered by others 7 years later.  Bellot’s habit of volunteering for the most dangerous tasks led to his death on his second voyage in 1853.  He offered to lead a small group on a dangerous trip through a treacherous stretch of sea ice to deliver dispatches to another ship.  On the third night, he fell into the freezing water and disappeared.

On our own voyage, we were beginning to learn that it was impossible to predict what would happen on any given day.  The next morning started early with  a 7:00 AM encounter with several pods of beluga whales close to the shore of a narrow inlet.


Pod of Beluga Whales

A little later we would have our own encounter with an abandoned vessel, albeit one of little historical consequence .  A 21-foot runabout with forward console and twin outboards was spotted upside down on the shore of a small bay.  Several storage containers were scattered along the shore as well.  Two Zodiacs were sent out to investigate while a pod of Beluga whales cavorted in the shallow waters about 700 yards away.


Recovery Team Assessing Abandoned Boat

The recovery team prepared the mystery boat for loading it aboard and transporting it to the next village while the ship’s naturalists and photographer hiked down to get a close look at the Belugas.


Nathalie Michel, ship photographer (in red), gets close to the belugas

My photograph (above) using Nikon D810 with 70-200mm with 1.7 extender eqiuvalent to 340mm.


Beluga Whale with Calf

Nathalie’s photograph above, using Nikon D4s with 80-400mm telephoto at 80mm (there’s a lesson here–get close when you can).

Later, we rode zodiacs into a different bay to observe a number of polar bears picking over the skeletal remains of Beluga whales on the shore.  Live Belugas moved contentedly through the shallow waters seemingly oblivious to the fate of their relatives on the shore.


Polar Bear with Cub

At day’s end, with the recovered boat securely lashed down on the foredeck, we headed south in the direction that Lady Franklin repeatedly implored the leaders of search expeditions to explore.  She, like Bellot, was ignored by almost all of them, who seemed to think other routes held more promise.  (Canadian author Ken McGoogan has written the best book about her, “Lady Franklin’s Revenge.”)  She, more than any other person, was responsible for sparking the massive search effort as well as Franklin’s legacy.


(From James P. Delgado, Across the Top of the World, 1999, p.113)

We were heading toward the area where one of Franklin’s two ships was found in 2014, (red arrow in map above) although the specific underwater location has not been revealed, apparently to preserve its integrity.  We did know, however, that an active search was currently underway to find the second ship.  So far, no results had been reported although the summer window for underwater surveys would soon be ending.

Next:  The Mystery of Franklin’s Disappearance Solved (mostly)….

Northwest Passage (7)

Prince Regent Inlet, one of the several choices now available for transiting the Northwest Passage, is packed with historical locations some of which date back almost two millenia.   It is also brimming with potential for wildlife sightings.  However, we were also experiencing some heavy weather with strong winds and choppy seas, so the plans for a landing at Fury Beach to observe the 191st anniversary of the scuttling of the HMS Fury had to be—well, scuttled.  (Those interested in further details about the Fury and Edward Parry’s search for the Northwest Passage can find more here.)



Polar Bear, Unimpressed by our Little Armada

But Plan B turned out pretty well.  A sheltered bay was located that included a polar bear walking along the beach.  Zodiacs were launched and the bear cooperated by staying put, relatively close to the shore.  It was working on a carcass of an unidentified animal and as long as we didn’t get too close, it seemed uninterested in us.


(Tight Crop, Nikon D810 with 70-200mm f/2.8 and 1.7x tele-extender, handheld, 1/200th sec. @ f/4.8, ISO 800)

That evening, our ship hosted the crew of the s/v Vagabond, a 47-foot sailboat especially fitted for overwintering in the Arctic.


S/V Vagabond

We had passed them a few days earlier and our captain arranged for them to come aboard for a presentation on their research work and what life is like living on a small boat in the Arctic winters.  It was an unusual crew, Eric Brossier, his wife France, and their two charming daughters aged 6 and 8 years old.  Their main activity is data gathering for a variety of research institutions on a wide range of topics.  They also derive income from providing logistical support for filmmakers, photographers, and others.  More on the Brossier family can be found here.

Later that day, another Zodiac run took us to Fort Ross, the site of an abandoned outpost of the Hudson’s Bay Company.


This outpost was built in 1937, abandoned 11 years later

The organization has a long history in North America, dating back to 1670.  The original land grant was equivalent to 40% of the total land area of modern Canada.  Known first as the dominant fur trader in North America, it is now a major international retailer, owning such subsidiaries as Saks Fifth Avenue.  More about the company’s history can be found here.


HDR image of interior of living area

Approaching the southern tip of Somerset Island the next day, another Zodiac excursion took us into Hazard Inlet.


Overlooking Hazard Inlet

 Here we had our first chance to walk on tundra, something akin to stumbling across an enormous sponge with hidden crevices and random sogginess.  Over a thousand years ago, small populations of both the Dorset and subsequently the Thule cultures lived here long ago.  The Dorset people arrived in the Arctic as early as 500 BC and were displaced by the Thule (arriving between 900-1100 AD).  The Thule are the ancestors of the modern Inuit inhabitants of the Arctic.  Scattered archaeological remains of the settlements could still be seen, including gravesites with skeletal remains forced to the surface by cycles of freezing and thawing over the eons.  We were starting to notice a theme of the difficulties humans have had surviving in this harsh environment.

The tundra seems hospitable to the small flowering plants scattered about.  They were already fading in anticipation of the approaching winter, but aging boulders were festooned with colorful displays of lichen.


Lichen on Boulder


Next up:  Bellot Strait, named after a charismatic French explorer who searched in vain for the lost Franklin Expedition



Northwest Passage (6)

Beechey Island 

Warning: Historical Narrative Ahead!

It was early morning and the ship was moving cautiously through the gloom of Lancaster Sound.  A light rain driven by a brisk wind pelted the foredeck but our eyes were riveted on the hulking island that lay ahead of us.  We were now in the waters of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago following the track of 19th century explorer Sir John Franklin who had searched for the elusive Northwest Passage 160 years ago.  Our goal today was to land on Beechey Island, and we all knew this was where his ill-fated expedition had begun to unravel.


Scouting Team Heads to the Shore of Beechey Island (8:45 AM)

Even today, transiting the Northwest Passage is not a routine undertaking.   What Franklin and his 129 crew members were attempting in 1846 would not be accomplished for another 60 years. The environment here is far less hazardous now than it was then. In fact, it is much different than it was 10-25 years ago.

What sets Franklin’s attempt apart from the many other failures was the enormity of his disaster.  The full story still is not known but the two ships and all 129 aboard essentially vanished.  As numerous search expeditions gathered clues over the next decade, it became apparent that the two ships had been trapped in the ice, were abandoned, and the survivors had begun an agonizing and horror-filled death march through a frozen and merciless landscape in a vain attempt to find help.  It was not until 2014 that one of the ships was found; the other was still missing although we knew an active search was underway several hundred miles to the south (see red arrow on map below).


Ruins of Northumberland House, built in 1853-54

The image above shows the remains of a supply depot constructed to support the massive rescue effort for Franklin and his crew.  The depot quickly proved its value in 1854 for the crews of the supply ship that sank offshore and four other ships that had been trapped in the ice and were abandoned.  (One of the latter four, the Resolute, eventually broke free on its own, was found 18 months later by an American ship, was refitted, and given back to the British.  Two decades later, wood from the decommissioned Resolute was used to make 3 desks, one of which was a gift from Queen Victoria to the US President.  It is still in the Oval Office.)


Gravesites of Three Members of Franklin’s Crew

It was on Beechey Island that the first clues to Franklin’s fate were found by a search party six years after he disappeared.  Remains of several small structures and other relics showed they spent their first winter here.  More ominously, the gravesites of three of his crew members indicated that problems had already occurred (see image above).  But 126 men and the two ships were unaccounted for and their prospects were grim.  It was now 3 years after their supplies would have been exhausted.   And the barren landscape surrounding the gravesites hinted at the horrors that faced the crew at that point.


Map of Franklin’s Route

(From James P. Delgado, Across the Top of the World, 1999, p.113)

Some 40 expeditions were launched in the search over the ensuing decades and little by little, more clues were uncovered.  Today, much more is known but key elements remain a mystery.  The Zodiac ride back to the comfort of our ship was subdued as we tried to imagine how different the conditions were in those days.  We had yet to even encounter a piece of sea ice.


Sea Ice, North of Somerset Island in Barrow Strait (4:30 PM)

As if reading our minds, the captain decided to alter the route to give us a glimpse of sea ice conditions (see image above). It stretched for a number of miles but was neither as thick nor as expansive as one would have encountered only ten years ago.  We would experience sea ice only one more time and that also would require a substantial route deviation.


Evening, Barrow Strait (10: 20 PM)

As we left Barrow Strait and headed south into Prince Regent Inlet which separates Brodeur Peninsula and Somerset Island.  We would learn more about Franklin’s fate in the coming days as we neared the area of the  Franklin expedition’s terrible finale.

To be continued….

Northwest Passage (5)

After departing Greenland, we sailed across Baffin Bay during the night heading toward Lancaster Sound.  By the early 19th century, two hundred years after the ice-choked Sound had blocked the Bylot and Baffin expedition (see previous post), every effort to penetrate its waters had ended in failure.


Sunrise, Baffin Bay, Approaching Lancaster Sound (4:08 AM)

But finally, in August 1819, Edward Parry led an expedition into Barrow Strait, the eastern entrance to the Arctic Archipelago and reached a point beyond Lancaster Sound that would turn out to be the half-way point of the Northwest Passage. The onset of the sea ice blocked further progress, however, and they overwintered on Melville Island.  In February, they made an overland trek westward some 80 miles or more to find a location where the sea resumed.  Even so, the spot was so thick with sea ice it required digging down more than 14 feet before reaching sea water. It immediately flowed up almost to the surface of the ice convincing them they were right.  Six months later, their ships trapped at Melville Island were able to break free of their ice and Parry sailed home to a hero’s welcome.  He had gone far further than any European but the Northwest Passage remained unconquered.

Our goals today were far more modest and, unmolested by any pesky sea ice, we entered Dundas Harbor on Devon Island at the eastern entrance to Lancaster Sound.  We had reached the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.


Approaching Dundas Harbor, Devon Island (9:28 AM)

The skies were now clear, but a low hanging fog provided a mysterious quality to the planned landing area for the Zodiacs.  As we neared the island, the sun and fog combined to create a stunning example of a “fog bow.”


“Fog Bow,” Duindas Harbor

This phenomenon is similar to a rainbow, except the much smaller water particles of fog make it (according to a lengthy technical description) virtually impossible to see the colors that characterize a rainbow.

When the fog cleared, Zodiacs carried us to the shore and a nice hike over a hill to the site of an abandoned post of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.


Abandoned RCMP Post, Devon Island

From the crest of the hill, one can imagine why this spot might have been selected back in the 1920s as an outpost for Canada to assert its sovereignty over its northern territory.  However, the easy weather of August (actually above freezing when this image was made) is deceiving.  Over the following decades it was sporadically abandoned on several occasions, no occupation lasting more than a few years.  It was last occupied in 1951, and the buildings are slowly deteriorating.  Two grave sites of individuals who had been assigned there served as a grim foreshadowing of what we would encounter tomorrow.

Northwest Passage (4)

I must apologize for the temporary pause in posts about this trip, but the past week has been a mad dash to finish the downloading, selecting, and starting the printing of images for an upcoming Open Studio event that will happen (gulp!) in less than four weeks.  I have about a dozen prints to take over to my framing guys tomorrow and I hope they don’t have a backlog of other requests because I still have another 12-15 to go.  I am wondering if I was a little rash in promising to feature the Artic in this year’s show.


Evening Clouds, Baffin Bay

Enough complaining!  Time to resume the story.  The weather turned gloomy as we left Ilulissat and continued north up the western coast of Greenland.  It would turn out that cloudy weather is the norm here, but landscape photographers find that can often bring opportunities.


Light Rain, Baffin Bay, West Coast of Greenland

We were now entering Baffin Bay, named after one of the early European explorers who searched for the Northwest Passage.  We were following the track of Robert Bylot’s and William Baffin’s 1616 expedition that pushed to a point (770  45’)   that  would not be matched for another 157 years.  On that voyage, Baffin provided the first maps of the shoreline we were now passing.  The conditions they encountered that summer as they threaded through the pervasive sea ice were far different than what we were experiencing 400 years later:

“Our shrouds, ropes, and sails were so frozen, that we could scarce handle them.”

Source: James P. Delgado, “Across the Top of the World,” p. 41.


Once Upon a Time, A Glacier was Here

Unlike Bylot and Baffin we still had seen no sea ice and, as we passed along the coast, we saw valley after valley that not long ago had been funnels for glacial ice sheets terminating in the sea.  The glaciers are barely visible now, only the debris-filled moraines left behind as they retreat.  Today, those valleys only have a stream of meltwater coursing down the moraine as the glaciers continue to lose ground.

The next day we stopped in Kullorsuak, a small Inuit village where we disembarked (via Zodiacs) to see demonstrations of traditional hunting and fishing as well as a start-to-finish butchering of a recently killed seal.  We were given the opportunity to sample the very fresh, raw seal’s liver but I graciously allowed the person next to me to enjoy the portion that I was offered.  I will also omit photographic evidence of these activities in accordance with my policy of censoring images of a disturbing nature. The Inuit here, as elsewhere, have been interweaving the practices of western society into their culture. Pallets of Coca-Cola and kids checking their iPhones were as common as the numerous sled dogs who remain a key means of transport during the long winters.


Leaving Kullorsuak at Sunset

(Note houses on right side)

Our last day in Greenland was spent near Savissavik, cruising in Zodiacs among grounded ice bergs in a so-called “iceberg graveyard.”  The low hanging clouds and light rain created a primeval mood as we passed between scores of ice monuments, sculpted into bizarre formations by nature’s elements. My favorite was the 40-foot tall speciman with three arches shown below.


Rare Triple-arched Ice Berg, near Saviisavik, Greenland

Next: Across Baffin Bay into the heart of the Northwest Passage

Northwest Passage (3)



Iceberg, Ilulissat Fjord (Estimated height: 100 feet)

Icebergs!  That’s why everyone comes to Ilulissat, Greenland 220 miles inside the Arctic Circle and the site of the Ilulissat Icefjord named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. The fjord is the “sea mouth” of Sermeq Kujalleq, one of the few glaciers through which the Greenland ice cap actually reaches the sea.  The melt water from most of the others flows to the sea via streams, rivers, or waterfalls.  Moreover, it is one of the fastest and most active glaciers in the world, producing more calf ice than any glacier outside Antarctica.


Detail of Reflections from Iceberg

We would be there for less than 14 hours but managed to arrange for a 2-hour cruise through a good part of the navigable fjord then a 3-mile (round-trip) hike to a promontory that overlooked the fjord.


Black and White Image, Iceberg in Ilulissat Fjord

For a close-up view of the icebergs, we joined about ten others on a small fishing boat and set out for the fjord under a brilliant blue sky.


Ilulissat Fjord (Estimated height: 75 feet)

Birds wheeled by the boat as we motored through the frigid water and we caught a glimpse of two humpback whales in the distance.  Occasionally, groups of harp seals popped up to check us out.


Humpback Whales, Ilulissat Fjord

The actual face of the glacier is many miles up the fjord and boats cannot get past the jumble of stacked up icebergs which are grounded, unable to float out to sea, until they have melted to a smaller size.  Those shown here are the smaller ones that have floated free.  Our walk would take us to an overlook of the fjord where the larger ones are stacked up on each other.  But the only way (for a tourist) to see the face of the glacier is by helicopter, something we did not have time for.


Fall Colors, Arctic Tundra overlooking Ilulissat Fjord

The walk, mostly along a wooden boardwalk, took us on a scenic route over the tundra which golden yellow in its fall colors.  The boardwalk was necessary to protect the boggy tundra which could not withstand the impact of frequent hikers. After about a mile we came to a steep hill that would afford us a spectacular view of the fjord.


Overlook of Ilulissat Fjord

Our vantage point in the image above is situated about 150 feet above the ice immediately below us. It was difficult to believe that the mountains of ice and snow in  the distance were icebergs that had broken free of the actual glacier which was still many miles up the fjord to the left.


Panorama of Ilulissat Fjord

The image just above is a six-image photomerge taken from the spot where the person in the previous image was standing and looking to the left.  It was hard to leave this spot, but we didn’t want to miss our ride back to the boat in order to continue a journey that had only just begun.