Okay, so we aren't there at this moment. But we WILL be going back in August. Party on!
DAY SIX: Port Leopold and Beechey Island
2015: Sept. 10
Spectacular Thule sites greeted voyagers who went ashore at Port Leopold, at the northeast corner of Somerset Island. Archaelogist Latonia Hartery identified these dozen dwellings as Thule whalebone houses built between 600 and 400 years ago.
A few of us made our way about one kilometer east along the beach before Jens Wilkstrom, an especially sharp-eyed spotter, made a long-distance sighting of a female polar bear with two cubs. . . . and then saw three more of the critters. We poked our heads into an old Hudson’s Bay Company building that is in decidedly rough shape. Nearby, we saw the hard rock in which men sailing with explorer James Clark Ross etched a date: 1849. Ornithologist Mark Mallory stumbled across this rock three years ago, after researching in the area for the better part of a decade. The rock, overlooking the water a few yards from the HBC post, also features the letters E and I, referring to the names of Ross’s ships, Enterprise and Investigator.
In 1848, Ross had agreed to lead a voyage in search of the lost Franklin expedition. Late in the year, encountering heavy ice in Lancaster Sound, he put ashore in the sheltered bay of Port Leopold. He and his men ended up spending eleven months in this location. Ross sent out sledging expeditions, including one that probed the north end of Peel Strait, but found no trace of the lost explorer. A number of men also took ill, and when the ice finally released his two ships, Ross sailed home to England, never to sail again.
In the early afternoon, the Ocean Endeavour took us to Prince Leopold Island, where spectacular cliffs soar straight up out of the water to a height of 250 metres. Graeme Gibson explained that their inaccessibility enables them to provide a home for more than half a million birds. The most numerous species are thick-billed murres, northern fulmars, and black-legged kittiwakes.
On-board ornithologist Mark Mallory, who holds a Canada Research Chair at Acadia University, supervises a field station on the top of these cliffs. He described arriving from Resolute in helicopters and twin otters, and dangling by ropes while attached to the former. He also pointed out “blinds” in which scientists shelter while conducting field studies. The ship sailed back and forth along the cliff face, causing passengers to marvel while snapping dramatic photos.
Come evening, despite knowing that the clocks would leap forward one hour, roughly one hundred people turned up for the screening of an award-winning docudrama based on my book Fatal Passage. Much appreciated.
For visiting Beechey Island, the best-known historical site in the Arctic, the day was perfect: a morning mist gave way to bright sunshine and then to a cold squall and blowing snow before reverting to fog. We had anticipated an early morning zodiac cruise into Griffin Inlet north up Wellington Channel. But spotters could find no wildlife in the area, and choppy seas made the decision easy for the Kindberg-Reid-M.J. Swan triumvirate: forget the cruise.
We sailed south down the channel, passing through the area where, in 1853, Joseph-Rene Bellot lost his life. He had volunteered to lead a small party north from Beechey Island to where British Captain Edward Belcher was wintering. As Bellot proceeded, the ice edge broke off and left him stranded, floating, with two men on an ice floe. Undaunted, he built a snowhouse in which to shelter. Early in the morning, he stepped outside alone . . . and was never seen again. Later that day, the foe drifted to shore and Bellot’s two companions jumped off to safety.
Now, more than 160 years later, we landed on Beechey in zodiacs and climbed the rocky slope to a series of four headstones, three of which mark the graves of sailors from the Franklin expedition. They died here in 1846, and after burying them with due ceremony, Franklin and 125 men sailed south down Peel Strait to meet their own fate. The fourth headstone marks the grave of a sailor buried here in 1854, a man from Robert McClure’s ship, the Investigator. He had been rescued from that vessel, which lay trapped in Mercy Bay on Banks Island, but was already so sick that he did not survive.
After viewing the graves, first discovered in 1850, passengers hiked slightly more than one kilometer along the shore to check out Northumberland House. Searchers built it in 1852-53 from the wreckage of an old whaling vessel. Several memorials and markers here are tangential. But we saw the Franklin cenotaph, which stands over a marble slab sent here by the relentless Lady Franklin. It was delivered in 1858 by Leopold McClintock after an American expedition carried it as far as Disko Bay, Greenland.
In front of the slab, rusted tin cans from the Franklin expedition form a cross on the ground. At the rear of the cenotaph, we saw a wooden two-by-four etched with lettering: J.E. Bernier / 1906. Canadian Joseph Bernier visited here during his multi-year expedition to assert Canadian sovereignty over the entire Arctic archipelago.
[Photos + painting by Sheena. Yes, first pic = Fort Ross.]