Very Magnetic North

Uncovering an epic failed expedition, and its hold on the Canadian psyche

For more than 150 years, explorers, ­scientists, archeologists and maritime scholars searched for the lost ships from Sir John Franklin’s last expedition. It was an exploration conundrum of the highest order, played out on the vast, icy and forbidding landscapes of the Arctic Islands in the Canadian North. Few outsiders ventured into this cold expanse, leaving the land and the sea ice for the Inuit who had inhabited the area for generations. But people kept looking for evidence of Franklin’s demise, searching archival collections for clues, revisiting the documentary records from the many searching expeditions sent north to find clues of Franklin’s fate, walking the coastlines and, later in the story, using advanced scientific equipment to scour the sea bed. The goal remained the same from the late 1840s on: to find HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.

Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition recounts the unfolding of this grand Arctic tale, the best known of all of the Arctic exploratory adventures and one documented in dozens of books over the years. But Vancouver author Paul Watson, a highly regarded journalist, writer and photographer, has something vital to add to this sometimes-controversial account of the final discovery of the lost ships—a scientific and cultural achievement of considerable importance and, for stodgy old Canada, a minor sense of adventure and political intrigue. Watson himself is part of the story. He accompanied the icebreaker CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier on the 2014 search effort, the expedition that discovered Erebus and touched off a flurry of activity that subsequently led to the identification of the resting site of Terror in 2016. Watson’s reporting on the 2014 events, which focused on efforts by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government to use the discovery for political purposes, led to a contretemps with his employer, the Toronto Star, the paper’s refusal to publish his critique of the government and the journalist’s subsequent resignation.

The story of the final discovery—a uniquely Canadian account of the tangled relationships among government and academic archeologists, Parks Canada, Arctic philanthropist and tech-entrepreneur Jim Balsillie, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the positioning of the search for Franklin in the Conservative government’s ambitious northern agenda, and the intervention of the Prime Minister’s Office in the announcement of the discovery—made headlines, largely through the writing and actions of Paul Watson. He fought hard in the initial news cycle and through his award-winning BuzzFeed article, as he does again now in Ice Ghosts, to give credit to the scientists and scholars and to Balsillie’s support for the searching expeditions, and to explain the interventions of the RCGS and the PMO. More generally, he situates the Franklin search in the broad context of Arctic exploration, the multi-generation effort to find the remains of the expedition, and Inuit engagement with and understanding of the Franklin story.

Ice Ghosts is actually a series of smaller books. The first recounts the familiar story of John Franklin’s 1845–48 effort to navigate the long-sought—but ice-clogged and treacherous—Northwest Passage across the top of continental North America. This is a subject that attracted widespread attention at the time, transfixed the world in the years that followed and continued to attract attention and effort. Every few years, from the 19th century on, intrepid explorers, armchair adventurers, scholars and biographers have added to the impressive pile of books on Sir John Franklin—a celebration of, and preoccupation with, monumental failure that mirrors the fascination of Australians and New Zealanders with the military debacle at Gallipoli in World War One.

One of the best works on the subject is the one by anthropologist Owen Beattie and John Geiger, Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition. Geiger himself played a significant role in the public debate about the discovery when, as CEO of the RCGS, he was aboard one of the ships involved in the 2014 search, and was subsequently pushed into the forefront by the Government of Canada in announcing the discovery. To others involved, he was given undue credit for playing a significant role in the find; he was the controversial co-recipient of the Polar Medal for the discovery.

Earlier searches for the Franklin ships, too, appear to have encompassed political intrigue, controversy about financial contributions to the exploration effort and struggles for recognition. Watson’s second “book” focuses on the effort by the Royal Navy and others, including the Hudson’s Bay Company, to search for the missing Franklin ships. This campaign was aided by the unflagging persistence of Lady Franklin to determine her husband’s fate, secure for him recognition as the first to complete the Northwest Passage and otherwise memorialize his contributions to Arctic science and marine exploration. The British government, and various privately funded expeditions, headed into the Arctic, ostensibly to find Franklin and his crew and, when the passage of time made the lost party’s survival unlikely, to continue the effort to map the Arctic Islands and find the Northwest Passage. Intense debates raged about the fate of the crew and, after evidence was found of their demise, the cause of death (including a prolonged debate about the possibility of lead poisoning, botulism and cannibalism).

The third element brings the story up to date. It begins with an account of Inuit oral history, particularly that shared by the storyteller Hummahuk, of the lost outsiders and physical evidence of their disaster. It gives considerable attention to the work of Louie Kamookak, whom Watson describes as “an Inuk detective,” who listened to stories from elders about the missing European explorers. Watson uses Kamookak’s life history and his interest in the Franklin expedition as a window into the world of Inuit cosmology, oral tradition and the transmission of cultural knowledge. He also documents the reluctance of outside researchers to give credence to Inuit stories about the fate of Franklin and his men, and shows that they erred in not listening carefully to what the Inuit had to say. Watson then picks up the efforts by Parks Canada, the government of Nunavut and academics to solve the Franklin mystery. He follows the complicated web of science, discovery, journalism (Peter Mansbridge factors into the account) and politics in the effort. Watson also devotes considerable attention to the efforts of philanthropist/entrepreneur Jim Balsillie and the business leader’s struggles with the government of Canada over the search effort.

It is this last segment where Watson is at his best. His portrayal of the Inuit is careful and respectful. He gives Louie Kamookak and his community credit for their knowledge of the area and their effort to solve the puzzle. He shows how Balsillie got drawn into the search and decided to invest millions, and how the RCGS became involved. He does a nice job of explaining how and why Parks Canada came to play a leading role, and recognizes the often-ignored contributions of academic and government archeologists. Watson describes the 2014 expedition (in which he took part), as well as the 2016 search effort, as a mini-adventure story, and conveys much of the frustration, indecision, guesswork and excitement of the two discoveries. The manner in which Watson follows Louie Kamookak through the discovery to the subsequent ceremonies is both intriguing and heartwarming. The glimpses of Inuit history, culture and knowledge sharing stand as an effective counterpoint to the rivalries and difficulties that accompanied some aspects of the broader search effort.

If the discovery of the resting sites of Erebus and Terror represented an excellent blend of sustained government and academic effort, Inuit cultural understanding, private philanthropy and scientific discovery, the post-2016 debates reflected less favourably on Canadian politics. Fortunately for the country’s reputation—but unfortunately for the reader—Ice Ghosts is designed for international audiences and therefore Watson does not devote a great deal of effort to explaining these political dynamics. He does not even cover the struggle over recognition—Kamookak was, with Nunavut archeologist Doug Stenton and marine archeologist Ryan Harris, a recipient of the Polar Medal, as was Geiger—although Watson does refer to the “ugly squabble” that followed the find. To give the author his due, he is focused unerringly on the search for Franklin’s expedition. For the full political story, readers are encouraged to look at Watson’s “The Wreck of HMS Erebus: How a Landmark Discovery Triggered a Fight for Canada’s History,” posted on BuzzFeed on September 14, 2015.

This is not the last we will hear of the Franklin expedition. Like an inexhaustible historical well, the Franklin story will continue to spawn more books about Sir John, Lady Franklin, his persistent second wife, the many explorers who ventured northward to find the expedition and their remains, and more. One hopes that Louie Kamookak (who just received the Order of Nunavut) will share more of the stories that he has held and honoured for so long. Stenton and his longtime collaborator Robert Park’s version of the events of the final discovery, along with that of Ryan Harris, deserve a wide audience. The fascinating role of Jim Balsillie, and his transition from BlackBerry entrepreneur to Arctic philanthropist, is recounted in Ice Ghosts, but there is much more to the story, which has tinges of Canadian nationalism and a business-government to and fro.

The interest in the Franklin expedition is, at one level, akin to the American preoccupation with the lost flight of aviator Amelia Earhart, which continues to the present day. For generations, uncertainty about the last stages of the Franklin expedition bewildered observers. How far did they travel? Where were the ships finally stopped? What happened to the last of the expedition members? Now the main questions have been answered. Is a mystery still fascinating when it is no longer a mystery? Not many whodunits start by identifying both the victim and the murderer.

Another mystery about the Franklin expedition continues to endure: why do Canadians care so much? In 1979, I had the good fortune to start a master’s of history program at the University of Manitoba. I was attracted to the university, in part, because the renowned Canadian historian W.L. Morton was teaching a graduate level course on northern Canadian history, one of the few in the country. In many respects, Morton was even better than expected. He was kind, generous with his time and one of the greatest gentlemen, in the traditional meaning of the term, in the Canadian academy. His course—which consisted of an expedition-by-expedition narrative of the exploration of the Far North—was the opposite of what I expected (and wanted), however. In fact, the course ended before we got to the Klondike Gold Rush, one of the defining events in post-contact history of the North. I could not, for the life of me, figure out why this distinguished scholar devoted so much time to what was, to me, an antiquarian exercise. Each class was devoted to a single Arctic expedition, with the emphasis on overland journeys. To my mind, the detail was exquisite but the relevance to northern Canadian history was minimal, at best.

My view of Arctic exploration has not changed much since that time. I understand the curiosity and the humans-against-the-Arctic-elements piece. These are grand adventure tales, in the long tradition of stories from the fringes of the British Empire that filled the pages of the school readers for generations of English-language children. I simply do not see the historical relevance, particularly to Canada. The major actors were British mariners, looking for work and career advancement in the post–Napoleonic Wars doldrums that undercut prospects for naval fame. The imperative to search for the Northwest Passage, initially a desperately sought-after trade route to Asia, was reduced by climate and geography to a scientific and topographical curiosity, one that centred on Franklin and his colleagues as exemplars of the spirit of the empire.

The subsequent interest in the Franklin ­expedition, particularly as a piece of Canadian history, puzzles me. Canada provided the landscape and a few Inuit participants and some Hudson’s Bay Company actors. Otherwise, Canadians played a limited role. The islands that Franklin and other British mariners mapped were claimed for the British and remained as British territory until their transfer to a reluctant Canada in 1880. Canada then largely ignored the vast region for several generations, relying on the lack of international pressure to protect the region. To put it bluntly, Canada was not much interested in the region until after the Second World War and then primarily for reasons of sovereignty, continental defence, and a growing and intrusive sense of responsibility for the Inuit in the region.

There are other explorers, without the mystery and the mass death, that are more important to the evolution of Canada: Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye, David Thompson, Alexander Mackenzie and Robert Campbell. But it is the mariners—Martin Frobisher, Captain James Cook, Captain George Vancouver and, of course, Franklin—who appear to hold greater appeal to readers. One failed expedition—mass death in an Inuit homeland that had sustained indigenous people for centuries—seems an unlikely focus for such a sustained national effort and, after 2014, quite extensive celebration. The Franklin expedition demonstrated that Europeans struggled to survive in the Far North, had difficulty navigating the waters and failed, tragically, to adapt when their expedition ran into extreme difficulties. This seems, in sum, an odd episode to turn into an iconic example of Canadian history in the North.

Ice Ghosts is a fine book. Paul Watson is a gifted journalist and he works hard to give a sense of place and circumstance, and paints evocative word pictures of the northern landscapes, people and communities he encounters. Perhaps he could say a little less about the cold weather, although that is certainly the lived reality of the region, particularly for visitors from the South. Whatever the merits of the national and international obsession with Arctic exploration, it is always nice to see a writer weave together the past and present and to do so in a thoughtful and insightful manner. Canadians will continue their effort to make sense of the Franklin expedition. Ice Ghosts is a significant contribution to this ongoing, if somewhat strange, ­preoccupation.