Friday, September 9, 2011

BBC Article on Franklin Expedition

I was interviewed last week by the BBC on the Franklin Expedition - does that put me in the exulted stratosphere of now being considered an "expert"? Whooot! - and here is the resulting article by Kate Dailey.

I'm pleased to see she interviewed my friends, and true experts on this, William Battersby and Russell Alan Potter, as well as Marc-Andre Bernier of Parks Canada and Ron Carlson.

Franklin expedition: Will we ever know what happened?

By Kate Dailey

BBC News Magazine

The Franklin expedition was last seen near Greenland in July 1845.

Canadian explorers have drawn a blank in the latest hunt for the remains of Captain Sir John Franklin's fatal expedition, 160 years after he took 129 men deep into the Arctic. But will the mystery of the doomed crew ever be unravelled?"

In 1845, Capt Franklin, an officer in the British Royal Navy, took two ships and 129 men towards the Northwest Territories in an attempt to map the Northwest Passage, a route that would allow sailors to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific via the icy Arctic circle.

Stocked with provisions that could last for seven years, and outfitted with the latest technology and experienced men, the two ships - HMS Erebus and HMS Terror - were some of the biggest, strongest, vessels ever to make the journey.

But the men vanished into the frozen Arctic, leaving a few clues but no explanation as to what went wrong.

The first search party set off in 1848 and searches involving teams from Canada, the UK, and the US have continued ever since. Last week, representatives from Parks Canada announced the results from their search this summer, which proved unsuccessful.

Captain Sir John Franklin had sailed the Arctic three times prior to his fateful trip "What people have been looking for has changed. We've given up looking for survivors, we've given up looking for bodies. Now we're just looking for any answers," says William Battersby, who wrote the biography of James Fitzjames, the captain of the Erebus.

"The extraordinary thing is that despite all this effort, after 160 years and by thousands of people, we still don't know where the ships are, and what happened on the expedition, or what happened to most of the men."

Scattered remains

Explorers have found rock cairns with messages from sailors who abandoned ship. They've taken oral history from Inuit people whose ancestors saw the ships get stuck in giant ice floes. In several cases, they've dug up the bones and preserved bodies of the ship's crew. But they've found no ships, no logs, and no sign of Franklin himself.

In subsequent years, a rough sketch of the troubles emerged. During the first winter, the crew disembarked, travelled south to hunt. Franklin left a reassuring message in a rock cairn, signed "All well". A month later, he was dead.

A year later, the crew returned to the cairn and updated the note. By that time, 15 sailors had died.

"If it had just been that, it would have been one of the biggest disasters of Arctic exploration," says Ted Betts, a Toronto lawyer and author of the blog Franklin's Ghost. But it wasn't just that.

From that time on, things only got worse. The men, sickened from scurvy, tuberculosis and lead poisoning, got weaker and weaker. They reportedly abandoned ship in 1848, only to meet a cold death elsewhere.

In 1859, an explorer sent by Franklin's wife travelled to the spot where the ships had been abandoned. He didn't find the Terror or the Erebus. Instead, he found a small whaleboat, full of books, chocolates, and the skeletons of two sailors.

The boat, says Russell Potter, professor of English at Rhode Island College, was pointed towards where the abandoned ship once sat.

"Maybe they weren't trying to get away, but to get back to their ship and die in comfort," he says. "It's a very poignant arrangement."

Two other locations offered a concentrated amount of remains, says Battersby. "They do seem to be associated with men who just abandoned ship, gave up hope of ever being rescued, and sadly, gradually, cannibalised the bodies of their comrades."

A few fully-preserved corpses have been found in the snow as well. But the bodies of others, including Franklin, are missing.

"They simply disappeared. It's like Apollo 13 went around the moon and never came back again," says Battersby.

"They never had a date of death, a place of death. They're immortals who are trapped between life and death. Are they ghosts? How long did the last one live? We just don't know."

Desolate and desperate

For Ron Carlson, a Chicago architect and licensed bush pilot, it's easy for him to understand why, after all these years, the ships are still missing - and how desolate the last days must have been for men on that doomed ship.

"It's vast. When I flew, I could look out over Victoria Strait and see 50 miles of ice pack in all directions," he says. "It's like the surface of the moon, but without any marks."

The broad and punishing size of the search area dwarfs the high-tech equipment and meticulous research used by the Parks Canada team, and the other explorers before them.

The fate of the ships inspired artwork, music and literature, including this sketch by Owen Stanley "Both of the ships were caught in the ice for two years but slowly drifting south in a very large body of water," says Marc-Andre Bernier, chief of underwater archaeology services at Parks Canada.

That could mean that the ships are hundreds of miles apart. "For us, it's just as important to know where they're not," he says, so that future searches can start fresh.

For sailors on the Terror and Erebus, the barren landscape and dim prospects possibly only added to an increasing sense of foreboding.

"It seems very clear from several sources that the men on these ships suffered from terrible lead poisoning, which leads to depression," says Battersby, who read the records from an earlier trip by the Terror to the Arctic.

"The account of the Terror's voyage of that year says how bad the atmosphere was, how demoralised people were and how depressed they all were."

Battersby believes that the ships themselves, which had an internal pipe system to melt ice and provide fresh water, was the source of the poison.

Finding the ships could prove this theory. It would also bring to a close a search first launched in the time of Queen Victoria. But it wouldn't end the mystery.

"It's really just the beginning," says Betts. The papers, artifacts, and infrastructure will provide a whole new raft of information and leads - and more fodder for followers of the Franklin expedition's sad fate.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Arctic airship deal signed

Hmmmm.... Now where have we heard this idea before?

I certainly hope these well-intentioned folks have studied their history.

Arctic airship deal signed

The idea has been floating around for years, but a deal between a northern aviator and a British manufacturer could finally see giant airships sailing through Arctic skies within three years.

"It’s been the next big thing for a long time," said Rolf Dawson of Yellowknife-based Discovery Air, which recently signed an agreement in principle with the United Kingdom’s Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) to develop and bring in the first specially adapted airships to the land of bush planes and ice roads.

"We’re working toward a commercial agreement which will stipulate how many aircraft we’re going to commit to buying, what the timing of the delivery and what the payment terms are going to be."

Airship boosters have long suggested that using lighter-than-air craft to haul equipment and supplies could change the economics of development in remote areas.

Airships require neither ice roads nor runways. Both are expensive to build and increasingly tough to maintain in the warming northern climate. Airships use far less fuel than planes and have massive lift capacity. The HAV design can haul 50 tonnes — about twice the payload of a Hercules airplane.


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Artifacts recovered from HMS Investigator

Well, looks like another season passes and nothing further on the Erebus and Terror front, but perhaps we are getting closer and closer as each acre is painstakingly ruled out year after year.

Not a complete lost summer by any respects. Especially since some artifacts have been recovered from HMS Investigator, including a musket, some rigging, some sheathing, and the sole of a leather shoe.

Talk about being, um, frozen in time!!

Divers find Northwest Passage discovery artifacts

CBC News Posted: Sep 1, 2011 11:16 AM CT Last Updated: Sep 1, 2011 1:59 PM CT

A musket and other artifacts from HMS Investigator, the ship abandoned in the Canadian Arctic in 1854 during the hunt for Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition, have been recovered by divers. The ship is credited with discovering the Northwest Passage.

Shoes, a musket, a copper sheet, and parts of the ship’s rigging were among the items brought up over nine days this July from the wreck discovered last summer in Mercy Bay, off Banks Island in the Northwest Territories. Divers were lucky enough to find the usually ice-covered bay largely open water during the expedition.

John Franklin's party disappeared while searching for the Northwest Passage in 1848 following their captain's death partway through the expedition. Their ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, haven't been found, despite numerous searches.

HMS Investigator, captained by Robert McClure, was sent in 1850 to search for Franklin's crew and their ships.

After more than two years trapped in the ice at Mercy Bay, crew members were rescued by a Royal Navy sledge team, who took them to another ship.

In the end, McClure and HMS Investigator succeeded where Franklin failed — they are credited with finding the Northwest Passage.

Marc-AndrĂ© Bernier, the Parks Canada scientist who led the expedition, said that “to dive on that shipwreck that is literally frozen in time... with artifacts on the deck” was the highlight of his career of more than 20 years.

Archeologists photographed and mapped the ship using sonar and video to determine its state of preservation.

"Although the hull is basically survived up to the main deck, the main deck is a litter of timbers,” Bernier said at a news conference.

The ship continues to be damaged by ice, he said, but there was a lot of sediment within the interior of the ship.

“This is basically the best conditions to preserve artifacts,” he added.

The buried artifacts were left untouched, but about 16 lying outside and on the deck were recovered because they were exposed, and researchers feared they could become damaged before an expedition could return to the site.

Bernier said the most exciting was the copper sheeting, which protected the ship's hull from marine organisms. That's because the copper can be chemically tested and compared to copper found at other sites to figure out whether those pieces originally came from HMS Investigator, or compared to the copper on other ships.

He added that some of the items, such as the shoes, are of interest because they appear to include waterproofing or other modifications for use in the Arctic.

The collected artifacts included copper sheathing that protected the hull of the ship - considered by archeologists to be the most important find. Chris Rands/CBCResearchers also conducted land surveys as part of the expedition, collecting an inscribed wooden barrel top, an arrow and a tin can near a cache linked to Robert McClure, the captain of HMS Investigator.

They identified four new archeological sites, including a small aboriginal camp and rock cairn.

At one point, the researchers responded to a search and rescue call that brought them near a previously known archeological site believed to have been used as an observatory by Franklin's crew between 1846 to 1848. There, they checked up on the site and collected artifacts that included bottle glass, copper nails, twine or rope, tent canvas, and pieces of tobacco smoking pipes.

Franklin search to continue: Kent
However, as previously announced, they did not manage to locate HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, Franklin's long-lost ships, in the third year of a three-year hunt for them.

Environment Minister Peter Kent gave his assurances that government-funded expeditions will continue to visit the Arctic each summer to continue the search and map the Arctic waters that are becoming increasingly ice-free and navigable.

"Certainly, I can assure you that this will be an ongoing project," he said.

Kent noted that while HMS Investigator was trapped in a bay, where it stayed put, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror may have drifted very long distances to two very different sites, based on Inuit oral history indicating their locations.

Bernier said the area that needs to be searched is enormous, but that large swaths are ruled out each year.

"We are getting closer because we have covered more territory," he said.

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror are considered by Parks Canada to be National Historic Sites, Bernier added.

"They are the only National Historic Sites for which we don’t know the location," he said, adding that the department has the mandate and the responsibility to find them.