The ice is in. The Great Northern Rink that is Canada’s Arctic Ocean may be ever more in peril in these melting times of ours, but it can still fill the imagination of those of us down here in the temperate south of the country with notions of endless ice just waiting for us to show up with our gear. We’ll never skate Baffin Bay or the Northwest Passage; we know that. Doesn’t mean we don’t love the idea that ice-time awaits if we could just get up there. We wouldn’t need much. Sitting on our coats on the shore at Terror Bay, one socken foot in the air, loosening the laces of our Tacks. Hold on a sec, we’re coming. Get us out there on the glassy ice of Simpson Strait, pass us the puck, and we’d be on a breakaway to the Beaufort Sea.
The only time I was up that way it was August, cold enough but unfrozen. We didn’t have our stuff, anyway, no sticks, no skates: that’s not what we were there for. This was a few years ago now, on King William Island in Nunavut, where Sir John Franklin and his crew ended up in the 1840s, abandoning their ships (we think) in Victoria Strait before trying to walk south and, well — dying on the way. We were five of us on our modest adventure, moving mostly on foot, a bit in a small open boat with an outboard.
Tracing some of the territory Franklin covered, we talked a lot about where his ships might be, especially after we met Louie Kamookak, the Franklin historian who lives in Gjoa Haven, the only settlement on King William. He had lots of stories about the land and the people and some good Franklin-search tales, too. He smiled at us when we asked him if he knew where the ships were. I think he had a pretty good idea — he’d been studying the problem for years — though the smile was as much as he divulged to us.
He took us in his boat to see some Franklin sites near Gjoa Haven, graves on an island, a skull sitting out in the weather. We needed a ride to Douglas Bay and he was glad to take us the next day. It was a gorgeous morning on the Simpson Strait, gleaming sun and sky and water, Canadian mainland on the left, the whole flat Arctic distance mapped out to the right. I remember thinking about being in geography and history both at the same moment, fooling around with that idea in my head as we motored along, as I checked, one more time, to see if I could see any lifejackets anywhere in Louie’s boat.
No. None. I didn’t think asking about this was going to help my anxiety but still, I asked. Louie had a drip-coffeemaker aboard that he’d plugged into a generator when we’d beached on the island so that the coffee was brewed by the time we got back from seeing the skull. I liked that; that was smart. But no lifejackets, Louie? He was already smiling his smile that he smiled when I started to ask. I don’t want to die, he said, in a hospital.
Louie has been working with the Parks Canada archeologists who’ve been searching for Franklin’s lost ships over the past several summers and he was happy, he e-mailed this September, when they found one of them. We hadn’t been all that far away, as it turns out, from the wreck that was soon determined to be H.M.S Erebus, Franklin’s flagship. Far to the south, a few of us who’d been up there drinking coffee without lifejackets went to our maps, of course. So close: we’d turned back a mere 80 kilometres + 12 metres of ocean + tons of expert know-how + political resolve + millions dollars of sophisticated marine hardware from finding the wreck for ourselves.
I was as excited as anyone when the news broke. I studied the coppery-coloured sonar images as though I just had to stare and wait for the story of the expedition’s lost years to upload. I got out my Frozen In Time, my Schwatka’s Last Search. I tuned into the press conferences, watched the Prime Minister’s excitement beaming out from Ottawa. I waited for the archeologists to get back up north to dive the wreck. I was thrilled, when they did, to watch them swim cameras past kindlinged decks and corpses of cannon. I was sorry that the divers and the cameras couldn’t stay longer. But the season for swimming in the Arctic was over. The ocean was getting ready to lock itself up for the winter.
Is Franklin’s body aboard Erebus? That’s a big question. If you’ve read David Woodman’s Unravelling The Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony (1991) you’ll be familiar with Inuit accounts of 19th-century hunters climbing aboard an abandoned kabloona ship somewhere off King William Island and seeing the body of a tall man belowdecks. Reports from September’s dive seem to indicate that some Erebus cabins are more or less intact so maybe … But I don’t know. Louie thought that Franklin’s tomb is on King William, up somewhere near Victory Point, and that sounds like sense to me.
The archeologists had just 12 hours underwater in September. No surprise, then, that they can’t wait to get back down to the wreck. The latest word is that they’re thinking of trying it in the spring, through the ice.
In the meantime, we have our questions to get us through the winter months. And these, of course, include the fundamental one that has to be asked every time anyone has the chance to explore a major historical shipwreck: any hockey sticks aboard the ship in question and, if so, how many? Any skates?