Lighting the Kudlik in the Northwest Passage

As a rule, when we sail in the Northwest Passage with Adventure Canada, I end up writing the “official” logbook that goes out to passengers as an illustrated booklet. Towards the end of the year, I like to post a few excerpts. It gets me remembering . . . and excites me about next year.

Day 2: The Erebus Site

We sailed into a blizzard at around 1530 hours. The timing seemed fortuitous. Marc-Andre Bernier, manager of underwater archaeology for Parks Canada, was halfway through a presentation on The Search and Discovery of Sir John Franklin’s Lost Ships. Suddenly we could see for ourselves the kinds of conditions the Franklin expedition encountered in the mid-1840s in relatively tiny, wooden ships. We could see and hardly fail to understand.

Bernier planned to remain with the Ocean Endeavour for the next three days. He would lead us to the site of the wreck of the Erebus and proceed to Gjoa Haven. While outside a gale-force wind gusted to upwards of 50 knots, Bernier talked about Parks Canada search operations over the past eight years. His presence on board – and that of four other federal government agency representatives – emerged as part of a new partnership between Adventure Canada and Parks Canada.

In this first of three presentations, Bernier highlighted the importance of Inuit accounts as relayed through such explorers as John Rae, Charles Francis Hall, and Frederick Schwatka, who relied on interpreters William Ouligbuck, Tookoolito, and Ebierbing. He noted that these accounts “gave us an area, but did not establish a location.” That is why the search required so much time and energy. It consumed eight years, covered an area equal to 215,686 soccer fields, required 322 person-days of field work, and entailed the consumption, roughly speaking, of more than 500 litres of coffee.

The storm continued unabated into the late afternoon, as passengers sat entranced through an Inuit ceremony of welcome. Led by Susie Evyagotailak (who lit the kudlik/ qulliq), John Houston, Louee Okalik and Derek Pottle, it involved no fewer than eight culturalists (all speakers of Inuktitut), and was highlighted by Jennifer Kilibuk, who charmed passengers by combining a song with a drum dance.

The day had begun with an archaeological briefing by Dr. Latonia Hartery, who explained guidelines for visiting any sites or features more than 50 years old, and a talk by the resource historian (yours truly) based on Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage.

Through the afternoon, the blizzard raged. And at evening briefing, what had seemed fortuitous in the morning stood revealed as foreboding: we would not, after all, be visiting Erebus. Expedition leader Matthew James Swan (MJ) laid it on the line. The weather had gotten worse instead of better. On land near the wreck, Parks Canada had built a five-tent campsite that would enable visitors to warm up after snorkeling. Marc Andre Bernier took the microphone to reveal that “three of those tents have been blown off.”

Bernier and his team had also arranged for a Twin Otter to fly in from Gjoa Haven, bringing Inuit historian Louie Kamookak and several elders to interpret the site. But while that plane could handle the expected winds of 35 to 40 knots, the pilot needed at least 1,000 feet of visibility. And the Inuit guardians on the spot said that, engulfed by fog, they had no visibility whatsoever.

Finally, the thought of putting zodiacs into the water when the winds were blowing at more than 25 knots . . . and sending passengers out in what, because of the ship’s location, would be a 40-minute zodiac ride each way . . . no, MJ couldn’t see it: “The zodiacs would just flip.” What about waiting in the vicinity for a couple of days? Bernier explained that, by stirring up sediment, the storm had already rendered that a non-starter. Nobody would be able to see a thing in the water – not for days.

Our leaders were unanimous, their decision ineluctable. We would not be visiting the Erebus site. Like the explorers themselves, as host David Newland suggested, we would have to swallow this disappointment and sail on. And for the first of many evenings, Newland did yeoman service, singing us into the night with The Northwest Passage in Story and Song.

[Pix: Jennifer & Susie, and Marc-Andre Bernier by Sheena Fraser McGoogan; and a favorite image I used in Dead Reckoning: Frederick Schwatka crossing Simpson Strait . . . together with those unsung heroes, Tulugak and Ebierbing.]

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