Beechey Island whiteout inspires Dead Reckoning video

Scenes from September, voyaging Out of the Northwest Passage with Adventure Canada.

Day 8: Beechey Island

For visiting Beechey Island, the best-known historical site in the Arctic, the day was perfect: cool and overcast. We went ashore in zodiacs and climbed the rocky, snow-swept slope to the graves of the first three sailors to die during the 1845 Franklin expedition. The men perished here in 1846 and, given that Sir John was famous for his sonorous sermons, we can be sure he buried them with due ceremony. Franklin and 125 men sailed on south down Peel Sound in their two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, to meet their own fate.

On Beechey, in the 1980s, forensic scientist Owen Beattie autopsied the bodies of Franklin’s men, John Torrington, William Braine, and John Hartnell. At the gravesite, archaeologist Latonia Hartery vividly described the process. A fourth sailor was buried here in 1854 – Thomas Morgan, a man from Robert McClure’s ship, the Investigator. He had been rescued from that vessel, which was trapped in Mercy Bay on Banks Island, some distance west, but was already so sick that he did not survive.

After viewing the graves, first discovered in 1850, most passengers hiked 1.6 kilometres along the shoreline to check out Northumberland House (now a ruin). Searchers built it in 1852-53, mainly from the wreckage of an old whaler. They deposited supplies for the use of Franklin, should he return this way, and also for any later searchers. Several later memorials and markers placed here are of tangential interest.

But on the ground behind the remains of the house, we saw tin cans from the original expedition, filled with stones and lined up to form a cross. Also, we saw a wooden two-by-four etched with the name of another explorer: “J.E. Bernier / 1906.” Canadian Joseph Bernier visited here during his multi-year expedition to assert Canadian sovereignty over the entire Arctic archipelago.

Finally, here too we saw what’s usually called the Bellot monument, which features a marble slab sent from England by Lady Franklin. It was installed to the memory of the Franklin expedition by Leopold McClintock in 1857. Four years before that, while anchored nearby, Joseph-Rene Bellot had volunteered to trek north along the ice of Wellington Channel to deliver a message. He took two men. The ice broke off as they walked and they spent the night in a tent on a large ice floe. Come morning, Bellot stepped outside the tent . . . and never reappeared. Obviously, he had slipped off. The other two men waited until the floe returned to shore and jumped off to safety . . . . and sorrow.

Back on the Ocean Endeavour, Dr. Andrew Breshnehan — always merry and bright — gave an insightful talk on Circumpolar Health. Later, while in the Nautilus Lounge we studied an image of the Beechey Island graves, passenger Keith MacFarlane introduced a moment of silence with a moving tune on the bagpipes. And later still, a number of staffers – David Newland, Julie Bernier, Daniel Freeze, Lynn Moorman, Julie Knox, Gay Peppin, Dr. Andrew – went the extra mile to organize an unforgettable book launch for Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage. They made the author mighty grateful.

[You can check out the dazzling, 3-minute, Beechey Island book-launch video by clicking here.]

[Pix by Sheena Fraser McGoogan]

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