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.”)