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Adventure Canada voyagers discover Fort Ross

DAY FIVE: Fort Ross
Sept 9 (Pix by Sheena Fraser McGoogan)
The Ocean Endeavour anchored for the night where Bellot Strait meets Prince Regent Inlet. Starting at 8:30 in the morning, we went ashore in zodiacs and made a wet landing at “Fort Ross.” The site, so named by the Hudson’s Bay Company, comprises two weather-beaten wooden buildings. Erected in 1937, this was the HBC’s last-built fur-trade post. Ice conditions made it so difficult to reach that the Company shut it down in 1948, after two HBC men received no communications or supplies for three years. Luckily for them, Inuit hunters turned up occasionally to trade Arctic fox-fur for British goods.
Both HBC buildings have seen better days, but one of them, originally a storehouse, has been restored. We removed the planks that bar the front door and retrieved a key from its “secret” hiding place. Inside we found the old familiar stove, table, chairs and bunk beds. Inuit hunters from Taloyoak shelter here, and also any passing sailors. Polar bears have repeatedly ransacked the second building, originally the manager’s house, and reduced it to an agglomeration of broken windows, peeling wallpaper, and moldy armchairs.
In naming this outpost Fort Ross, the HBC was commemorating the early-1830s voyage of John Ross and James Clark Ross, whose ship, the Victory, got trapped in the ice near the bottom of Prince Regent Inlet. During the second winter of entrapment, in 1831, James Clark Ross sledged overland and marked the site of the Magnetic North Pole on the west coast of Boothia Peninsula. Later, with supplies running low, the Rosses abandoned their ship and led two dozen men north past this location to Fury Beach and beyond.
Besides the two buildings, Fort Ross boasts several sites of interest. The first, to the southwest of the storehouse, is a series of stone-covered graves which contain the remains of at least three Inuit who worked with the HBC. The second is a sturdy cairn erected in 1979 by the descendants of Francis Leopold McClintock, with the help of Stuart Hodgson, commissioner of the Northwest Territories. The cairn, combining concrete blocks and steel rods, was built to last forever  “in proud memory of . . . the discoverer of the fate of Franklin.” McClintock discovered a one-page “Victory Point note,” the only written record ever to surface, and also some dead bodies. But it is difficult to see how his sanitized assessment of the demise of the Franklin expedition – nary a mention of cannibalism – can be regarded as “discovering the fate.”
Another interesting feature of the site is a rough cairn, also called McClintock’s Cairn, that stands at the highest point on a rocky ridge behind Fort Ross. McClintock himself had the cairn built, though the HBC men who lived here for a decade almost certainly rebuilt it. Having scrambled upwards, a few of us stood in the wind gazing out over Bellot Strait, Prince Regent Inlet, and the Fox Islands, so named by McClintock after his own ship. In the winter of 1858-’59, anyone standing here would have been able to see the Fox, locked in the ice not far away; and also a magnetic observatory roughly 200 metres from the ship, “built of ice sawed into blocks,” McClintock wrote, “there not being any suitable snow.”

Afternoon found us plying north through Prince Regent Inlet. We spotted several bowhead whales, a sighting that Deanna Spitzer described as incredibly rare. In the evening, with the Explorers’ Dinner in full swing, we passed Fury Beach. Here, in 1825, Edward Parry was forced to abandon one of his two ships, the Fury, after it was driven onto the rocks and smashed by icebergs. He was forced to leave the ship and most of its considerable stores, and to limp home in the companion ship, the Hecla.
The wreck of the Fury proved serendipitous for John and James Clark Ross. In 1829-30, they spent four winters trapped by the ice in Prince Regent Inlet, and ended up surviving thanks mainly to the provisions from the Fury that remained on the beach. The two Rosses and their men hauled whaleboats from the southern reaches of the Sound to Batty Bay, north of Fury Beach. But they found no rescue ships and retreated to spend their fourth winter at that location. The following August, 1833, they managed to sail the boats out into Lancaster Sound and flag down a passing whaler.
This story surfaced at recap, which was highlighted by an “I am Spartacus” moment dedicated to expedition leader Stefan Kindberg. More than two dozen staff members donned horned helmets and other Viking paraphernalia and identified themselves as The Great Swede Himself. This show of affection and solidarity culminated in a rendition of Abba’s Mama Mia. Let’s call it “unforgettable” and pass on . . . to the costume party? Everyone from Captain James Cook to Jane, Lady Franklin turned out for this one. Much revelry ensued, and American astronaut Charlie Duke won the best-costume contest for coming dressed as himself. Second place ended – are you ready for this? -- in an eight-way tie. 
[Are we going again in 2016? You betcha!]
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.