Voyage to the Erebus meets Arctic reality

Snorkeling was back on the agenda. Last September, when we boarded the Ocean Endeavour to sail west Out of the Northwest Passage with Adventure Canada, we expected to don wetsuits and go snorkeling over the wreck of John Franklin’s Erebus. The Arctic had other ideas. Click on this link to see the article I wrote as it appears on the website of Geographical Magazine, complete with sidebars. For those who crave more, below is a slightly longer version. Photos by Scott Forsyth, courtesy of Adventure Canada.

On Day Two of our
voyage with Adventure Canada Out of the Northwest
, we sailed into a blizzard at 1530 hours. Marc-Andre Bernier,
manager of underwater archaeology for Parks Canada, was halfway through a
presentation in the Nautilus Lounge on The
Search and Discovery of Sir John Franklin’s Lost Ships
.  Suddenly, on the 137-metre Ocean Endeavour, which
weighs almost 13,000 tons, we could see for ourselves the kinds of conditions
the Franklin expedition encountered in the mid-1840s in two small wooden ships
(the larger HMS Erebus was 32 metres, 372 tons). We could compare and begin to

During the next
couple of days, before debarking in Gjoa Haven, Bernier planned to lead a visit
to the site of the Erebus, where some of us would go snorkeling. While outside the
wind gusted to gale-force (upwards of 50 knots), Bernier talked about Parks
Canada search operations over the past eight years, and of the ongoing battle
in the Canadian Arctic between capital-H History (as extended narrative of
human achievement) and Geography (the natural world). Regarding recent
discoveries, he highlighted the contributions of Inuit accounts relayed through
such explorers as John Rae, Charles Francis Hall, and Frederick Schwatka, who
relied on interpreters William Ouligbuck, Tookoolito, and Ebierbing.  

Before he
finished, Bernier explained that these accounts “gave us an area, but did not
establish a location.” That is why the search, which turned up Erebus in 2014,  had required so much time and energy. It
consumed eight years, covered an area equal to 215,686 soccer fields, and required
322 person-days of field work. It also entailed the consumption of  500 litres of coffee.

The storm raged
unabated into late afternoon.  And when
Bernier finished presenting, he hurried up onto the bridge to confer with his
fellow decision-makers. For the past 24 hours, four men (and occasional
visitors) had huddled frequently around the map table: Bernier, the ship’s
captain, Adventure Canada expedition leader Matthew James Swan, and David Reid,
assistant expedition leader.

None of the four
liked it, but Geography was having its way with History. Geography had taken
the form of ice, heavy seas, and gale-force winds, while History was seeking to
extend the narrative of the Franklin expedition by bringing adventure tourism
to the wreck of the Erebus. To that
end, we were sailing with a full complement: 197 passengers, 37 Adventure
Canada staff, and 124 ship’s crew. Besides Bernier, we had four Parks Canada
people. AC staff included six Inuit culturalists, two Canada Research Chairs,
two medical doctors (in addition to the ship’s doctor), a marine biologist, an archaeologist,
a geo-morphologist, two photographers, an Arctic-expedition leader, an activist
film-maker, a seabird biologist, an author-historian (yours truly),  a botanist, a singer-songwriter, a team of
videographers, two divers from Ocean Quest, which leads scuba-diving adventures
. . . .  according to MJ Swan, this was a
Dream Team.

The plan, Swan told
me, was to sail the Ocean Endeavour
through a narrow channel to anchor among the islands off Adelaide Peninsula. In
groups of thirty, passengers would take a 40-minute zodiac ride to an island
near the Erebus site.  There, in a collection of heated tents, they
would meet underwater archaeologists from Parks Canada, and also Inuit guardians
and elders flown in from Gjoa Haven, among them historian Louie Kamookak. Then,
having relinquished any instruments that could record geographical coordinates,
they would ride to the Erebus site in
zodiacs, where some would be able to snorkel above the wreck, others could view
from zodiacs using viewing buckets, and still others would watch on-screen as an
ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) visited the vessel. We were bidding to make

Geography laid
out a different plan.  As the ship sailed
toward the channel (in width, 0.3 to 0.6 nautical miles), the wind blew 30 to
35 knots, gusting to 40, and the swell reached 1.5 metres.  If among the islands the wind fell to 15 or
20 knots, Swan said later, he stood “ready to make an attempt.” But the open
channel, verified by the Canadian Hydrographic Service, ran north-south, and
the wind was blowing from the northwest, which meant the islands near the site
would afford no protection.  Then fog
engulfed the entire region, grounding all flights.

At evening
briefing, Swan and Bernier relayed the bad news. We would not be visiting the
Erebus site after all. Swan said that the thought of putting zodiacs into the
water when the winds were blowing at more than 25 knots . . . sending out
passengers on a 40-minute zodiac ride each way . . . no, he couldn’t  see it: “The zodiacs would just flip.”
Bernier revealed that at the Inuit guardians’ five-tent campsite, “three of
those tents have been blown off.” He had arranged for a Twin Otter to fly
people in from Gjoa Haven, but the pilot needed at least 1,000 feet of
visibility and that did not exist.

What about
lingering for a couple of days? Speaking from experience, Bernier said that these
wind-and-wave conditions would have stirred up sediment so badly that at best
the wreck would become visible in three days. And if the storm continued, we
might have to wait a week. Meanwhile, the ship’s captain was concerned about
the ice in Peel Sound, along our projected route. On the preceding voyage, Into
the Northwest Passage, the Ocean Endeavour had followed a Canadian Coast Guard
icebreaker through that ice. The slow pace of progress meant the voyage been
cut short at Cambridge Bay, where we boarded the ship. During the past 36
hours, the wind had blown that sea ice westward, opening up a north-south
channel along Boothia Peninsula. If we delayed too long, that channel might

“I’m all about
adventure,” Swan said later, “and extending my comfort zone. But not when it
means putting people in jeopardy.  We
will not put our clients, our ship’s crew, the vessel itself, or the environment,
in any sort of danger. Of course we’re disappointed. But also we’re inspired.
We’re motivated. We’ll try again next year.”


“I expect to find
human remains,” Marc-Andre Bernier said next morning in response to a question
about diving on the Erebus. “Most likely bones, skeletons.” He noted that Inuit
testimony speaks of at least one body on what would appear to be Erebus, and
added that he had seen flesh on bones before. Many artifacts on Erebus are
covered in sediment, he said, “and if sedimented, the remains could be very
well preserved.” Bernier cited the example of a wreck from 1770, the HMS Swift,
which researchers located in Patagonia: “They found a complete skeleton in uniform.”

Since discovering
the Erebus in 2014, Bernier said, Parks Canada has conducted more than 250
hours of diving – “open water, through the ice, and now we’re setting up to
dive from a barge.” That barge had recently arrived in Gjoa Haven. The top of
the Erebus is just 10 feet below the surface of the water, and that has
facilitated the initial exploration of the ship.

“Some of the deck
planks are gone,” Bernier said, “and in some instances we have been able to
peek inside to the lower decks.” Using state-of-the-art technology and
computerized graphics, the underwater archaeologists have been able to create a
three-dimensional, grid-system map of the wreck. From the headquarters of the
Royal Marines, they have recovered shoes, ceramic pestles, and medicine bottles
reused as shot glasses. Parks Canada has established a protected zone, a
national historic site 10 kilometres square, around the Erebus.  The Inuit guardians at the site, where three
tents had blown down, were now being evacuated.

The Erebus is not
badly preserved, Bernier said, but the Terror, 
discovered in 2016, “is in phenomenal condition.”  Researchers identified a ship’s boat, a
23-foot cutter, sitting on the ocean floor directly under the davits designed
to release it. They found two outhouses sitting on the top deck. He took a beat
and, to laughter,  said: “Imagine all the
DNA samples in there.” Bernier said that the window over the officer’s mess is
partly open. So far, the team has collected about ten hours of video, and the
next step will be to introduce Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) into the ship.

Just before
lunch, despite the wind, many passengers went out on the top deck as we sat
anchored off the southwest coast of King William Island. Those men who, in the
late 1840s, abandoned Terror, struggled along this coastline. On his 1857-59
expedition, Leopold McClintock found the skeleton of one of the men who died
here, and identified him as Thomas Armitage. 
Late in the afternoon, with the wind still wailing at more than 20
knots, MJ made it official: we would attempt no landing here. The sun came out
and the Ocean Endeavour set off eastward through Simpson Strait, bound for Gjoa


In Gjoa Haven, the
little kids stole the show. Five to seven years old, they emerged in
  jigging out into the centre of
the high school gymnasium. Within seconds, some of us visitors were dabbing at
our eyes. These innocent children were dancing so earnestly, trying so hard,
that it was beautiful — one of the most beautiful moments of this Arctic

We had arrived off
Gjoa Haven, in the heart of the Northwest Passage, the previous evening.
Population in the 2016 census: 1324. When morning dawned, we could see it, snow-dusted
in the sun. MJ had passengers into zodiacs by 0830. On shore, having
accomplished our first “wet landing” — rubber boots required — we split into
half a dozen groups, said hello to one of the local guides, and headed out to
explore the town. While making for the Amundsen cairn on the hill, apparently
the only group to do so, we saw the Martin Bergmann tied up to a dock. Last
year, while sailing on that ship, searchers found HMS Terror.

Following our
Inuit guide, George Bachmann (“like in BTO”), we waded through the occasional
snow drift and got to see where, on the hills around us, Amundsen placed
magnetic instruments in a bid to locate the ever-shifting Magnetic North Pole.
He never quite managed, though starting in 1903, he spent two winters here in
Gjoa. While wandering through town, George pointed out “the house of Amundsen’s
grandson,” and revealed that he himself is “married to the great granddaughter”
of that explorer.  Along the way, we
deked into the hamlet office, where we admired a massive bust of Amundsen and some
impressive soapstone carvings.

We gravitated to
the high school – the sixth set of passengers to arrive in ten days – and
enjoyed Inuit hospitality. We saw drum-dancing, we heard throat-singing, and we
announced the winners of both writing and art-making competitions.  Then came those beautiful children. Outside,
the wind had picked up. The zodiac ride back to the ship, pounding through
six-foot waves, reminded us why, when confronted with such treacherous conditions,
Adventure Canada prefers to avoid putting zodiacs in the water.

Back on the Ocean
Endeavour, assistant expedition leader David Reid, who lived in the High Arctic
(mostly Pond Inlet) for more than two decades, walked us through life in an
Arctic village. He noted that Nunavut occupies one fifth of Canada’s land mass,
but has a population of little more than 37,000.  Villages rely on supply ships for necessities,
although First Air provides most of them with three to five flights a week.
Expectations to the contrary, he said, the Arctic does not get much snow, not
compared with, say, Montreal. In terms of precipitation, the High Arctic is a
desert. Snow that does fall just tends to stay a lot longer.


On Day
11, on the north coast of Baffin Island, David Reid pointed towards a peak he
identified as Polar Sun Spire, and noted that its north face wall is well over
4,300 feet high (Toronto’s CN Tower is 1,800 feet). With his company, Polar Sea
Adventures, Reid has led 12-day ski trips through this area. Base jumpers climb
the glacier that runs up behind the peak to the top. They “enjoy 19 seconds of
free fall”, he said, before they open their chutes to land on the ice. They do
this in spring, during the period of 24-hour daylight. We had sailed into Sam
Ford Fjord, one of the most dramatic locations not only on Baffin Island but in
all of Canada: sheer granite cliffs soaring skyward out of the water to as high
as 3,500 feet, and glaciers sparkling in the sun. The fjord takes its name from
an Inuk linguist who died in a helicopter crash.

lunch, Reid gave a talk about Bear Witness, a four-person expedition he led
around Bylot Island – a first-ever circumnavigation on skis.  Last April and May, when most of us were
living “normal lives,” he and three companions spent 29 days hauling their gear
over 540 km in temperatures that fell to 35 degrees below zero Centigrade. They
flew from Ottawa to Pond Inlet and then travelled clockwise around Bylot, the
17th largest island in Canada.  Reid brought four dogs to guard against polar
bears, which meant hauFling, in addition to all their own gear and food, 120
pounds of dog food. Next time he will bring two. Officially, Reid took on the
challenge to celebrate Canada 150 — the sesquicentennial. In response to a
question from the audience regarding travel in such a remote area, he suggested
that “it’s good to scare yourself a little bit so you know that you’re alive.
It’s exhilarating.”

days later, at evening recap, Reid announced that he had chosen his next project.
As an emigrant Scot (born 1965) who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company, and
lived two decades among the Inuit in the High Arctic, Reid feels a special
affinity for 19th-century explorer John Rae. 
In a bid to assert History in the face of Geography, he will reprise
Rae’s 1854 expedition – the one on which he discovered both the final link in
the first navigable Northwest Passage and the best-known fact about fate of the
Franklin expedition (cannibalism among some later survivors).

will mean traveling on skis or snowshoes roughly 650 km from Repulse Bay to the
west coast of Boothia, where at Point de la Guiche, Rae built a cairn. Reid
will organize and undertake this three-person John Rae Expedition to raise
funds for the restoration of the Hall of Clestrain in Stromness, Orkney, where
Rae was born. He will set out from Repulse Bay on March 31, 2019.  Now, on the Ocean Endeavour, we celebrated
Reid’s announcement with a rousing rendition of Stan Rogers’ classic tune
Northwest Passage. And sailed on towards Davis Strait and Greenland.


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