Merry Christmas from the Northwest Passage

Okay, so we aren’t there at this moment. But we WILL be going back in August. Party on!

DAY SIX: Port Leopold and  Beechey Island

2015: Sept. 10

Spectacular Thule sites greeted
voyagers who went ashore at Port Leopold, at the northeast corner of Somerset
Island. Archaelogist Latonia Hartery identified these dozen dwellings as Thule
whalebone houses built between 600 and 400 years ago.

 A few of us made our way about one kilometer
east along the beach before Jens Wilkstrom, an especially sharp-eyed spotter,
made a long-distance sighting of a female polar bear with two cubs. . . . and
then saw three more of the critters. We poked our heads into an old Hudson’s
Bay Company building that is in decidedly rough shape. Nearby, we saw the hard
rock in which men sailing with explorer James Clark Ross etched a date: 1849. Ornithologist
Mark Mallory stumbled across this rock three years ago, after researching in
the area for the better part of a decade. The rock, overlooking the water a few
yards from the HBC post, also features the letters E and I, referring to the
names of Ross’s ships, Enterprise and Investigator.

In 1848, Ross had agreed to lead a voyage
in search of the lost Franklin expedition. Late in the year, encountering heavy
ice in Lancaster Sound, he put ashore in the sheltered bay of Port Leopold. He
and his men ended up spending eleven months in this location. Ross sent out
sledging expeditions, including one that probed the north end of Peel Strait,
but found no trace of the lost explorer. A number of men also took ill, and
when the ice finally released his two ships, Ross sailed home to England, never
to sail again.

In the early afternoon, the Ocean
Endeavour took us to Prince Leopold Island, where spectacular cliffs soar
straight up out of the water to a height of 250 metres. Graeme Gibson explained
that their inaccessibility enables them to provide a home for more than half a
million birds. The most numerous species are thick-billed murres, northern
fulmars, and black-legged kittiwakes.

On-board ornithologist Mark Mallory,
who holds a Canada Research Chair at Acadia University, supervises a field
station on the top of these cliffs. He described arriving from Resolute in
helicopters and twin otters, and dangling by ropes while attached to the
former. He also pointed out “blinds” in which  scientists shelter while conducting field
studies. The ship sailed back and forth along the cliff face, causing passengers
to marvel while snapping dramatic photos.

Come evening, despite knowing that the
clocks would leap forward one hour, roughly one hundred people turned up for
the screening of an award-winning docudrama based on my book Fatal Passage. Much appreciated.



Sept. 11

 For visiting Beechey Island, the best-known
historical site in the Arctic, the day was perfect: a morning mist gave way to
bright sunshine and then to a cold squall and blowing snow before reverting to
fog. We had anticipated an early morning zodiac cruise into Griffin Inlet north
up Wellington Channel. But spotters could find no wildlife in the area, and choppy
seas made the decision easy for the Kindberg-Reid-M.J. Swan triumvirate: forget
the cruise.

We sailed south down the channel,
passing through the area where, in 1853, Joseph-Rene Bellot lost his life. He
had volunteered to lead a small party north from Beechey Island to where
British Captain Edward Belcher was wintering. As Bellot proceeded, the ice edge
broke off and left him stranded, floating, with two men on an ice floe. Undaunted,
he built a snowhouse in which to shelter. Early in the morning, he stepped
outside alone . . . and was never seen again. Later that day, the foe drifted
to shore and Bellot’s two companions jumped off to safety.

Now, more than 160 years later, we
landed on Beechey in zodiacs and climbed the rocky slope to a series of four
headstones, three of which mark the graves of sailors from the Franklin
expedition. They died here in 1846, and after burying them with due ceremony,
Franklin and 125 men sailed south down Peel Strait to meet their own fate. The
fourth headstone marks the grave of a sailor buried here in 1854, a man from
Robert McClure’s ship, the Investigator. 
He had been rescued from that vessel, which lay trapped in Mercy Bay on
Banks Island, but was already so sick that he did not survive.

After viewing the graves, first
discovered in 1850, passengers hiked slightly more than one kilometer along the
shore to check out Northumberland House. Searchers built it in 1852-53 from the
wreckage of an old whaling vessel. Several memorials and markers here are
tangential. But we saw the Franklin cenotaph, which stands over a marble slab
sent here by the relentless Lady Franklin. It was delivered in 1858 by Leopold
McClintock after an American expedition carried it as far as Disko Bay,

In front of the slab, rusted tin cans
from the Franklin expedition form a cross on the ground. At the rear of the
cenotaph, we saw a wooden two-by-four etched with lettering: J.E. Bernier /
1906. Canadian Joseph Bernier visited here during his multi-year expedition to
assert Canadian sovereignty over the entire Arctic archipelago. 

[Photos + painting by Sheena. Yes, first pic = Fort Ross.]

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