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Missing Amundsen photo turns up in Yellowknife museum

Here's the "final answer" as reported in The Gazette. . . .


A Yellowknife heritage centre holds the final answer to questions raised by the opening of an Arctic "mystery box" excavated from a cairn in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut.

The wooden box, according to those who opened it Friday in Ottawa, contained no items related to Arctic explorers Sir John Franklin or Roald Amundsen. Officials from the Canadian Conservation Institute and the Nunavut government said the box, excavated at the beginning of September, contained only bits of a cardboard box, plus "pieces of newspaper, and what appeared to be tallow" beneath sand and rocks.

Yet a retired Hudson's Bay Company manager, Eric Mitchell, had said that in the late 1950s, the wooden box contained an inscribed photograph left by Amundsen in 1905. He knew this because he helped put it there. So where did that photograph go?

The Nunavut government launched this month's 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.

Researchers, dubious about the Franklin claim, tracked Eric Mitchell to northern Ontario. Mitchell said that, with his co-worker George Washington Porter II, he dug up the Amundsen deposit in 1958. The two men found a photograph first discovered in 1927 by William "Paddy" Gibson, a Hudson's Bay Company inspector who reburied it. Gibson wrote in The Beaver magazine of finding the signedphotoof GeorgV. Neumayer, a German scientist who had sparked Amundsen's interest in the North Magnetic Pole.

Mitchell put the photo in the wooden box, and asked Porter II to rebuild a Gjoa Haven cairn that commemorated the 1942 death of Gibson in an airplane crash, incorporating the Amundsen-related photograph. This Porter did.

In recent months, descendants of Porter, apparently confusing Amundsen and Franklin, convinced Nunavut government archaeologists to excavate the cairn, suggesting there were Franklin artifacts buried under it. Though the box turned out to contain no artifacts when it was finally opened last Friday, the archaeologists and conservationists working on the project nevertheless promised this week to release an update "once the contents of the box have been further analyzed and assessed." They said nothing about the Neumayer photograph left by Amundsen.

But according to Gjoa Haven resident Louie Kamookak, who is the grandson of Paddy Gibson, another Hudson's Bay Company man dug up the photograph in the late 1970s, while once again repairing the cairn.

Kamookak said that this man, worried about deterioration, took the photo to Yellowknife, where it ended up at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.

That centre has confirmed that the archives has the photograph in its Nunavut collection, and that it contains the inscription: "Best wishes for success in exploring the North Magnetic Pole, to his friend Roald Amundsen."

Ken McGoogan, author of several books about Arctic exploration, has just published How the Scots Invented Canada.
Ken McGoogan
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Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.