Monday, September 6, 2010

Arctic mystery box linked to Roald Amundsen

So here's a follow-up article that has been picked up across Canada from Montreal to Vancouver.

By Ken McGoogan
Special to the Gazette


An old wooden box excavated from beneath an Arctic cairn is being flown unopened to Ottawa Monday from the Nunavut hamlet of Gjoa Haven.

The Nunavut-government launched the excavation after an Inuit family relayed oral history suggesting that the cairn contained records from the ill-fated 1845 expedition led by Sir John Franklin in search of the Northwest Passage.

But Canadian historian Kenn Harper, who has spent months researching the cairn, says the box will prove to contain records left in 1905 by explorer Roald Amundsen during the first-ever navigation of the Passage.

The box, which measures 14.5” x 11” x 6.5”, will be opened and its contents preserved at the Canadian Conservation Institute.

Harper, author of the best-selling Inuit biography Give Me My Father’s Body, and also Honorary Danish Consul in Nunavut, says the box contains papers that Amundsen buried after spending almost two years in Gjoa Haven tracking the movements of the North Magnetic Pole.

He began investigating the cairn after learning of the claim by descendants of George Washington Porter II, a Hudson’s Bay Company manager based in that hamlet on King William Island.

Harper says that Eric Mitchell of the HBC, the senior man in the territory, dug up the Amundsen records in 1958, with the help of Porter II. The two men found documents that had first been discovered in 1927 by William “Paddy” Gibson, an HBC inspector who reburied them.


Gibson wrote in The Beaver magazine of finding the records, which included a signed photograph of Georg V. Neumayer, a German scientist who had sparked Amundsen’s interest in the North Magnetic Pole.

In 1959 or ’60, Eric Mitchell – who was based at Spence Bay (Taloyaok) – asked Porter II to rebuild a Gjoa Haven cairn that commemorated the 1942 death of Gibson in an airplane crash, and to incorporate the Amundsen records the two of them had recently unearthed.

Harper predicted that the Saturday excavation would turn up an old HBC ammunition box. Andrew Porter, who runs a tourism business in Gjoa Haven, says that just such a box was found three feet beneath the cairn.

Harper says the unopened box contains a metal canister in a bed of tallow. Inside the canister, conservators will find the Amundsen documents in an envelope sewn into an oilskin packet and wrapped in pages from a 1950s Nautical Almanac and an Edmonton newspaper.

Eric Mitchell was not present when Porter II rebuilt the cairn. And Wally Porter remains convinced: “All we know is that records belonging to John Franklin were put in the box,” he said by telephone. “And now we’ve found the box.”

But Harper, who has lived in the Arctic for over thirty years, doubts that any Franklin documents will be found. He believes that oral history has confused Franklin and Amundsen.

Kenn Harper was interviewed by email and posted a guest blog at an Arctic website (http://visionsnorth.blogspot.com) maintained by Rhode Island College professor Russell Potter.