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View from Alaska highlights indigenous contribution to Arctic discovery

(Fairbanks Daily News-Miner)
Feb. 25, 2018

FAIRBANKS — For Arctic history enthusiasts, there’s never been a more exciting time. The recent findings of the two lost vessels of the Franklin Expedition, last seen sailing from Greenland in 1845 in search of the Northwest Passage, made global news. Meanwhile, historians have been producing an unending stream of books bringing us new and, in many ways, deeply revised understandings of the era. Keeping up with developments has become nearly impossible.
Thus, we’re at a good point to revisit the entire arc of this history and grapple with the new findings and what they mean, particularly in regards to Sir John Franklin and his men. This is the task Canadian author Ken McGoogan masterfully accomplishes in his newest book, “Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage.”
McGoogan, a highly adept Arctic historian, seeks with this book to lay out the entire story of efforts of finding the Passage, from the 16th century to Roald Amundsen’s first navigation of it early in the 20th century, as well as the recovery of Franklin’s ships in the 21st.
In digging through the many nautical and overland journeys undertaken by Europeans, McGoogan explains, a common theme emerged. Native peoples, especially the Inuit, were often the heroes who saved expeditions that would otherwise have come to ruin. Of equal importance was how various explorers interacted with Natives. Those who observed and learned from the region’s inhabitants and adopted their methods generally succeeded in their efforts. Others, convinced that European technology and knowledge were inherently superior to local wisdom, often didn’t.
Martin Frobisher was the first to seek the Northwest Passage, setting out from Britain in 1576. The English merchants who financed his journey were seeking a shortcut to Asia. Over the next three centuries locating that route would be an objective pursued by many. McGoogan recounts this trip, as well as other early explorations, including that of the ill-fated Henry Hudson, namesake of Hudson Bay.
For nearly 250 years, exploration of the region was driven by the fur trade, with the search for the Passage a secondary concern. McGoogan documents the importance of Native guides and assistants who were crucial to the success of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Among them was Thanadelthur, a multilingual Chipewyan woman who served as a de facto diplomat, and Dene leader Matonabbe, who guided Samuel Hearne, the first European to reach Canada’s Arctic coast.
The British Admiralty took up the cause of discovering the Passage early in the 19th century, throwing a nearly endless supply of men and money at the objective in the following decades. In 1845, after a handful of previous attempts, the Franklin Expedition was sent forth with two modern ships, 129 men, and absolute confidence of success. They headed north of Canada and vanished. From the few bones later found it became apparent that the last survivors resorted to cannibalism in their final desperate days.
It’s here that the recent locating of the ships has drastically altered what is believed to have happened. But as McGoogan highlights, if more value had been placed on Inuit reports than on one hastily scribbled note, we would have known sooner both where the ships were and what befell the men.
The narrative that held for a century and a half was that the ships were iced in off the northwest coast of King William Island. Franklin and several others died on board. The rest abandoned the ships in 1848 and headed south, hoping to reach Hudson Bay. They starved to death before ever coming close.
This theory was based on the one written document ever found, a note detailing the plan that was recovered by Leopold McClintock in 1859. The problem is, it contradicts what Inuit in the region told searchers. They spoke of the ships moving further south, of boarding them and discovering at least one corpse, and of accidentally sinking one ship themselves in Queen Maud Gulf, southwest of King William Island.
This information was initially gathered by John Rae, who was mapping the Arctic coast in 1854 and happened upon a group of Inuit who told him these stories. They reported that at least some of the men were still alive as late as 1850, and also provided the first accounts of cannibalism.
McGoogan hails Rae as the greatest of British Arctic explorers, noting that more than any others — especially the obstinate Franklin — Rae fully embraced Native ways. He carefully learned from everyone he met along his overland travels and thrived where Franklin’s men died. Yet history turned on him. Victorian England, buoyed by Franklin’s widow Jane, refused to believe good British sailors would resort to eating each other. Rae was disgraced. McClintock was credited with learning the expedition’s fate. For the next 150 years searches for the vessels focused on where the note was found.
Then in 2014, one of the shipwrecks, the Erebus, was discovered submerged in Queen Maud Gulf. The other, the Terror, was located in Terror Bay off southwestern King William Island. They were both exactly where the Inuit had told Rae they were.
This changes the story dramatically. McGoogan writes that it’s now believed some of the survivors re-boarded the ships and made another effort at pushing through. The sailors’ demises appear to have been far more drawn out and complicated than long believed. Searches of the wrecks will hopefully shed additional light.
There is far more in this book than just a revision of the Franklin calamity. McGoogan covers numerous voyages, some well known, others largely forgotten, always with an eye on the role Natives played. Summarizing Hearne’s successful early explorations, McGoogan writes, “Europeans would be wise to apprentice themselves to the Native peoples who had lived there for centuries — a strategy that eluded many who followed.”
Most importantly, McGoogan shows how the search for the Northwest Passage isn’t just a part of European history. It’s equally a part of Inuit history. While plenty more is found here, this long overdue recognition is his book’s most significant accomplishment.
(To read as printed in the newspaper click here.)

Ken McGoogan
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Voyage to the Erebus meets Arctic reality

Snorkeling was back on the agenda. Last September, when we boarded the Ocean Endeavour to sail west Out of the Northwest Passage with Adventure Canada, we expected to don wetsuits and go snorkeling over the wreck of John Franklin's Erebus. The Arctic had other ideas. Click on this link to see the article I wrote as it appears on the website of Geographical Magazine, complete with sidebars. For those who crave more, below is a slightly longer version. Photos by Scott Forsyth, courtesy of Adventure Canada.

On Day Two of our voyage with Adventure Canada Out of the Northwest Passage, we sailed into a blizzard at 1530 hours. Marc-Andre Bernier, manager of underwater archaeology for Parks Canada, was halfway through a presentation in the Nautilus Lounge on The Search and Discovery of Sir John Franklin’s Lost Ships.  Suddenly, on the 137-metre Ocean Endeavour, which weighs almost 13,000 tons, we could see for ourselves the kinds of conditions the Franklin expedition encountered in the mid-1840s in two small wooden ships (the larger HMS Erebus was 32 metres, 372 tons). We could compare and begin to appreciate.
During the next couple of days, before debarking in Gjoa Haven, Bernier planned to lead a visit to the site of the Erebus, where some of us would go snorkeling. While outside the wind gusted to gale-force (upwards of 50 knots), Bernier talked about Parks Canada search operations over the past eight years, and of the ongoing battle in the Canadian Arctic between capital-H History (as extended narrative of human achievement) and Geography (the natural world). Regarding recent discoveries, he highlighted the contributions of Inuit accounts relayed through such explorers as John Rae, Charles Francis Hall, and Frederick Schwatka, who relied on interpreters William Ouligbuck, Tookoolito, and Ebierbing.  
Before he finished, Bernier explained that these accounts “gave us an area, but did not establish a location.” That is why the search, which turned up Erebus in 2014,  had required so much time and energy. It consumed eight years, covered an area equal to 215,686 soccer fields, and required 322 person-days of field work. It also entailed the consumption of  500 litres of coffee.
The storm raged unabated into late afternoon.  And when Bernier finished presenting, he hurried up onto the bridge to confer with his fellow decision-makers. For the past 24 hours, four men (and occasional visitors) had huddled frequently around the map table: Bernier, the ship’s captain, Adventure Canada expedition leader Matthew James Swan, and David Reid, assistant expedition leader.
None of the four liked it, but Geography was having its way with History. Geography had taken the form of ice, heavy seas, and gale-force winds, while History was seeking to extend the narrative of the Franklin expedition by bringing adventure tourism to the wreck of the Erebus. To that end, we were sailing with a full complement: 197 passengers, 37 Adventure Canada staff, and 124 ship’s crew. Besides Bernier, we had four Parks Canada people. AC staff included six Inuit culturalists, two Canada Research Chairs, two medical doctors (in addition to the ship’s doctor), a marine biologist, an archaeologist, a geo-morphologist, two photographers, an Arctic-expedition leader, an activist film-maker, a seabird biologist, an author-historian (yours truly),  a botanist, a singer-songwriter, a team of videographers, two divers from Ocean Quest, which leads scuba-diving adventures . . . .  according to MJ Swan, this was a Dream Team.
The plan, Swan told me, was to sail the Ocean Endeavour through a narrow channel to anchor among the islands off Adelaide Peninsula. In groups of thirty, passengers would take a 40-minute zodiac ride to an island near the Erebus site.  There, in a collection of heated tents, they would meet underwater archaeologists from Parks Canada, and also Inuit guardians and elders flown in from Gjoa Haven, among them historian Louie Kamookak. Then, having relinquished any instruments that could record geographical coordinates, they would ride to the Erebus site in zodiacs, where some would be able to snorkel above the wreck, others could view from zodiacs using viewing buckets, and still others would watch on-screen as an ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) visited the vessel. We were bidding to make History.
Geography laid out a different plan.  As the ship sailed toward the channel (in width, 0.3 to 0.6 nautical miles), the wind blew 30 to 35 knots, gusting to 40, and the swell reached 1.5 metres.  If among the islands the wind fell to 15 or 20 knots, Swan said later, he stood “ready to make an attempt.” But the open channel, verified by the Canadian Hydrographic Service, ran north-south, and the wind was blowing from the northwest, which meant the islands near the site would afford no protection.  Then fog engulfed the entire region, grounding all flights.
At evening briefing, Swan and Bernier relayed the bad news. We would not be visiting the Erebus site after all. Swan said that the thought of putting zodiacs into the water when the winds were blowing at more than 25 knots . . . sending out passengers on a 40-minute zodiac ride each way . . . no, he couldn’t  see it: “The zodiacs would just flip.” Bernier revealed that at the Inuit guardians’ five-tent campsite, “three of those tents have been blown off.” He had arranged for a Twin Otter to fly people in from Gjoa Haven, but the pilot needed at least 1,000 feet of visibility and that did not exist.
What about lingering for a couple of days? Speaking from experience, Bernier said that these wind-and-wave conditions would have stirred up sediment so badly that at best the wreck would become visible in three days. And if the storm continued, we might have to wait a week. Meanwhile, the ship’s captain was concerned about the ice in Peel Sound, along our projected route. On the preceding voyage, Into the Northwest Passage, the Ocean Endeavour had followed a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker through that ice. The slow pace of progress meant the voyage been cut short at Cambridge Bay, where we boarded the ship. During the past 36 hours, the wind had blown that sea ice westward, opening up a north-south channel along Boothia Peninsula. If we delayed too long, that channel might close.
“I’m all about adventure,” Swan said later, “and extending my comfort zone. But not when it means putting people in jeopardy.  We will not put our clients, our ship’s crew, the vessel itself, or the environment, in any sort of danger. Of course we’re disappointed. But also we’re inspired. We’re motivated. We’ll try again next year.”
“I expect to find human remains,” Marc-Andre Bernier said next morning in response to a question about diving on the Erebus. “Most likely bones, skeletons.” He noted that Inuit testimony speaks of at least one body on what would appear to be Erebus, and added that he had seen flesh on bones before. Many artifacts on Erebus are covered in sediment, he said, “and if sedimented, the remains could be very well preserved.” Bernier cited the example of a wreck from 1770, the HMS Swift, which researchers located in Patagonia: “They found a complete skeleton in uniform.”
Since discovering the Erebus in 2014, Bernier said, Parks Canada has conducted more than 250 hours of diving – “open water, through the ice, and now we’re setting up to dive from a barge.” That barge had recently arrived in Gjoa Haven. The top of the Erebus is just 10 feet below the surface of the water, and that has facilitated the initial exploration of the ship.
“Some of the deck planks are gone,” Bernier said, “and in some instances we have been able to peek inside to the lower decks.” Using state-of-the-art technology and computerized graphics, the underwater archaeologists have been able to create a three-dimensional, grid-system map of the wreck. From the headquarters of the Royal Marines, they have recovered shoes, ceramic pestles, and medicine bottles reused as shot glasses. Parks Canada has established a protected zone, a national historic site 10 kilometres square, around the Erebus.  The Inuit guardians at the site, where three tents had blown down, were now being evacuated.
The Erebus is not badly preserved, Bernier said, but the Terror,  discovered in 2016, “is in phenomenal condition.”  Researchers identified a ship’s boat, a 23-foot cutter, sitting on the ocean floor directly under the davits designed to release it. They found two outhouses sitting on the top deck. He took a beat and, to laughter,  said: “Imagine all the DNA samples in there.” Bernier said that the window over the officer’s mess is partly open. So far, the team has collected about ten hours of video, and the next step will be to introduce Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) into the ship.
Just before lunch, despite the wind, many passengers went out on the top deck as we sat anchored off the southwest coast of King William Island. Those men who, in the late 1840s, abandoned Terror, struggled along this coastline. On his 1857-59 expedition, Leopold McClintock found the skeleton of one of the men who died here, and identified him as Thomas Armitage.  Late in the afternoon, with the wind still wailing at more than 20 knots, MJ made it official: we would attempt no landing here. The sun came out and the Ocean Endeavour set off eastward through Simpson Strait, bound for Gjoa Haven.
In Gjoa Haven, the little kids stole the show. Five to seven years old, they emerged in pairs,  jigging out into the centre of the high school gymnasium. Within seconds, some of us visitors were dabbing at our eyes. These innocent children were dancing so earnestly, trying so hard, that it was beautiful -- one of the most beautiful moments of this Arctic voyage.
We had arrived off Gjoa Haven, in the heart of the Northwest Passage, the previous evening. Population in the 2016 census: 1324. When morning dawned, we could see it, snow-dusted in the sun. MJ had passengers into zodiacs by 0830. On shore, having accomplished our first “wet landing” -- rubber boots required -- we split into half a dozen groups, said hello to one of the local guides, and headed out to explore the town. While making for the Amundsen cairn on the hill, apparently the only group to do so, we saw the Martin Bergmann tied up to a dock. Last year, while sailing on that ship, searchers found HMS Terror.
Following our Inuit guide, George Bachmann (“like in BTO”), we waded through the occasional snow drift and got to see where, on the hills around us, Amundsen placed magnetic instruments in a bid to locate the ever-shifting Magnetic North Pole. He never quite managed, though starting in 1903, he spent two winters here in Gjoa. While wandering through town, George pointed out “the house of Amundsen’s grandson,” and revealed that he himself is “married to the great granddaughter” of that explorer.  Along the way, we deked into the hamlet office, where we admired a massive bust of Amundsen and some impressive soapstone carvings.
We gravitated to the high school – the sixth set of passengers to arrive in ten days – and enjoyed Inuit hospitality. We saw drum-dancing, we heard throat-singing, and we announced the winners of both writing and art-making competitions.  Then came those beautiful children. Outside, the wind had picked up. The zodiac ride back to the ship, pounding through six-foot waves, reminded us why, when confronted with such treacherous conditions, Adventure Canada prefers to avoid putting zodiacs in the water.
Back on the Ocean Endeavour, assistant expedition leader David Reid, who lived in the High Arctic (mostly Pond Inlet) for more than two decades, walked us through life in an Arctic village. He noted that Nunavut occupies one fifth of Canada’s land mass, but has a population of little more than 37,000.  Villages rely on supply ships for necessities, although First Air provides most of them with three to five flights a week. Expectations to the contrary, he said, the Arctic does not get much snow, not compared with, say, Montreal. In terms of precipitation, the High Arctic is a desert. Snow that does fall just tends to stay a lot longer.
On Day 11, on the north coast of Baffin Island, David Reid pointed towards a peak he identified as Polar Sun Spire, and noted that its north face wall is well over 4,300 feet high (Toronto’s CN Tower is 1,800 feet). With his company, Polar Sea Adventures, Reid has led 12-day ski trips through this area. Base jumpers climb the glacier that runs up behind the peak to the top. They “enjoy 19 seconds of free fall”, he said, before they open their chutes to land on the ice. They do this in spring, during the period of 24-hour daylight. We had sailed into Sam Ford Fjord, one of the most dramatic locations not only on Baffin Island but in all of Canada: sheer granite cliffs soaring skyward out of the water to as high as 3,500 feet, and glaciers sparkling in the sun. The fjord takes its name from an Inuk linguist who died in a helicopter crash.
After lunch, Reid gave a talk about Bear Witness, a four-person expedition he led around Bylot Island – a first-ever circumnavigation on skis.  Last April and May, when most of us were living “normal lives,” he and three companions spent 29 days hauling their gear over 540 km in temperatures that fell to 35 degrees below zero Centigrade. They flew from Ottawa to Pond Inlet and then travelled clockwise around Bylot, the 17th largest island in Canada.  Reid brought four dogs to guard against polar bears, which meant hauFling, in addition to all their own gear and food, 120 pounds of dog food. Next time he will bring two. Officially, Reid took on the challenge to celebrate Canada 150 -- the sesquicentennial. In response to a question from the audience regarding travel in such a remote area, he suggested that “it’s good to scare yourself a little bit so you know that you’re alive. It’s exhilarating.”
Two days later, at evening recap, Reid announced that he had chosen his next project. As an emigrant Scot (born 1965) who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company, and lived two decades among the Inuit in the High Arctic, Reid feels a special affinity for 19th-century explorer John Rae.  In a bid to assert History in the face of Geography, he will reprise Rae’s 1854 expedition – the one on which he discovered both the final link in the first navigable Northwest Passage and the best-known fact about fate of the Franklin expedition (cannibalism among some later survivors).
This will mean traveling on skis or snowshoes roughly 650 km from Repulse Bay to the west coast of Boothia, where at Point de la Guiche, Rae built a cairn. Reid will organize and undertake this three-person John Rae Expedition to raise funds for the restoration of the Hall of Clestrain in Stromness, Orkney, where Rae was born. He will set out from Repulse Bay on March 31, 2019.  Now, on the Ocean Endeavour, we celebrated Reid’s announcement with a rousing rendition of Stan Rogers’ classic tune Northwest Passage. And sailed on towards Davis Strait and Greenland.
Ken McGoogan
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Dead Reckoning tracks Northwest Passage through Oakville

Faithful readers (hi, Mom!) will find the above photo vaguely familiar.
That's because a flipped version turns up on the cover of Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage. It says here that the book's author is heading for Oakville, and is not to be missed. More precisely, Our Ken will be presenting to the Canadian Club of Halton at the Oakville Conference Centre on February 22.  He tells jokes, shows slides, waves his arms -- what's not to love?
Ken's latest book challenges the conventional narrative of the Northwest Passage which emerged out of Victorian England and focuses almost exclusively on Royal Navy officers. By integrating non-British and fur-trade explorers and, above all, Canada’s indigenous peoples, Dead Reckoning drags the story of Arctic discovery into the twenty-first century.
Because Ken voyages regularly in the Passage with Adventure Canada, you never know what might pop up on the screen. Here's a cairn we chanced upon one August in Pasley Bay. 

At first I dreamed that this might be it: the cairn James Clark Ross built on Boothia Peninsula in 1831 to mark his discovery of the North Magnetic Pole. Turned out the ruins of THAT cairn lie a few hours march away. Henry Larsen built THIS cairn during his eastward voyage in the St. Roch. He did so to mark the gravesite of the ship's cook, who died aboard ship in this bay.  So that's the kind of thing might surface.

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.