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Chasing history through the Northwest Passage

Voyaging in the Northwest Passage with Adventure Canada. We're going to do it again next August.  Photos by Sheena Fraser McGoogan.

DAY THREE: Gjoa Haven
Monday, Sept. 7
 Exhilarated. The word surfaced again and again as people arrived back from Gjoa Haven. Were they excited by the zodiac ride through choppy waters? No, one woman answered. The teenagers! the young people who drove the cultural presentation and subsequent entertainment at the community centre. All those teenagers, square-dancing to country and western swing. Their madcap, exulting energy. And the other activities – the mayor’s welcome, the chance to sample bannock, the hike round town – also contributed hugely.
We had gone ashore after a morning of talks and workshops, and then a convivial lunch featuring guests from the community. This Inuit settlement (population 1200 to 1300), soon to become home to a new Franklin Expedition Centre, arose with the arrival of Roald Amundsen in the Gjoa (1903) and the subsequent establishing of a Hudson’s Bay Company post (1927).
Local news surfaced out front of the cultural centre: the Gjoa Haven cairn is being rebuilt. The original was destroyed in 2010 after a report (false, as it turned out) that it sheltered documents relating to John Franklin.  Louie Kamookak, hailed for contributing to the 2014 discovery of Erebus, is overseeing the reconstruction of the town landmark. Kamookak was out on the land when we reached Gjoa, but there stood the evidence, half-completed. And Kenneth Kaloon, one of the young men (born 1993) who guided visitors around town, affirmed that Kamookak was supervising the rebuilding of the cairn. [Within days of our visit, he had completed this task.]

Most passengers from the Ocean Endeavour, having debarked from zodiacs onto a floating pontoon, hiked through town and climbed a hill to see a wooden memorial erected by the Norwegian government in honour of Roald Amundsen. The first explorer to navigate the Northwest Passage from one end to the other, Amundsen had lingered in Gjoa Haven to take magnetic observations of the ever-shifting North Magnetic Pole, pin-pointed in 1831 by James Clark Ross. In the late afternoon, looking out over Gjoa Haven, it was easy to see why Amundsen had described this bay as “the finest little harbor in the world.”
Come evening, voyagers capped an eventful day with a viewing of Franklin’s Lost Ships, a stellar documentary about the 2014 discovery of Erebus.
DAY FOUR: Bellot Strait
Tuesday, September 8

Coningham Bay and Bellot Strait. Where to begin? Lovers of wildlife got a rush out of the zodiac cruise into the bay. They returned from an early afternoon excursion exclaiming. Amazing! Fantastic! Polar bears! One voyager declared that the best moment came when a big male swam across the narrows and climbed out in front of the zodiac. Absolutely wonderful, said another passenger. I don’t need to see them up close. For that, I can look at the photos by the professionals. But to see them out in their natural habitat . . . that really is fantastic.
Veteran staffers had worried that the swell would prevent the outing. But the wind dropped as the ship approached the bay and away went the zodiacs. Later, not long after 5 pm, the ship entered Bellot Strait, a thirty-six-kilometre-long channel, roughly 1.5 kilometres wide, which traces the northern extent of the North American continent. Both sides of the strait turned up animals. We saw polar bears climbing around on the rocks. We saw eighteen or twenty muskox on a high plateau. Graeme Gibson spotted one hard-to-see Arctic fox. He was telling me about this when harp seals swam past on the starboard side, and sea mammal expert Deanna Spitzer took to the microphone to keep us informed.
All the land north of this strait is Arctic archipelago. By the time we passed Sibley Point, the northernmost extension of the Canadian mainland, jutting in from starboard, geologist Marc St. Onge was dashing back and forth across the top deck, leading a number of enthusiastic followers. He explained that the strait is an east-west transect through Boothia Uplift. Some of these rock structures date back 395 million years to the formation of the Pangea supercontinent.
Before any of this, we heard from assistant expedition leader David Reid on polar bears and veteran journalist Aaron Spitzer on the political structure of Nunavut. As to history, the strait was discovered and mapped in 1852 by William Kennedy, who named it after his second-in-command, Joseph-Rene Bellot, a great favorite of Jane, Lady Franklin. At one point, as I stood alone on an upper deck, I found myself imagining these two guiding dog sleds through these environs when they were covered with ice.
At the western end of the strait we had just navigated, they debated which way to go. Bellot wanted to turn south down the Boothia coast, as directed by Lady Franklin. But Kennedy prevailed and the men proceeded west and north . . . and ended up exploring areas that had already been searched. If they had gone south, they would almost certainly have reached the northeast coast of King William Island and learned what had happened to the Franklin expedition.

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.