Photographer Renan Ozturk surveys Canada’s Pasley Bay from atop the mast of Polar Sun. He and writer Mark Synnott were attempting to navigate the Northwest Passage when their boat became trapped in a maze of ice floes. With winter approaching, much like the ill-fated Franklin expedition, they risked being stranded in the Arctic.
Below Article is taken from
Naional Geographic Magazine - August 2023 issue
An Arctic Mystery
BY MARK SYNNOTT
PHOTOGRAPHS BY RENAN OZTURK
PUBLISHED JULY 25, 2023
Jacob Keanik scanned his binoculars over the field of ice surrounding our sailboat. He was looking for the polar bear that had been stalking us for the past 24 hours, but all he could see was an undulating carpet of blue-green pack ice that stretched to the horizon. “Winter is coming,” he murmured. Jacob had never seen Game of Thrones and was unaware of the phrase’s reference to the show’s menacing hordes of ice zombies, but to us, the threat posed by this frozen horde was equally dire. Here in remote Pasley Bay, deep in the Canadian Arctic, winter would bring a relentless tide of boat-crushing ice. If we didn’t find a way out soon, it could trap us and destroy our vessel—and perhaps us too.
It was late August, and we’d ducked into the bay to ride out a ferocious gale. For more than a week, the wind had raged, sweeping six-foot-thick chunks of frozen seawater down from the polar cap. Some were the size of picnic tables, others as big as river barges.
Here and there, small icebergs jutted skyward like miniature floating Alps. The pieces of this drifting mosaic bobbed around the boat, rasping as they ground against each other and fizzing as they slowly melted and released trapped air bubbles.
Any one of these floes could be the torpedo that pierced our fiberglass hull, so we’d traded watches around the clock, constantly steering the ice away from the boat with long wooden poles the Inuit call tuks. As one day became two, and two became three, the ice slowly closed in like a vise. On day nine, when Jacob and I awoke to find the water between the floes had frozen, it seemed certain we were going to be trapped here for the winter. A cold knot formed in my gut as I wondered if this was how Franklin felt.
H.M.S. Erebus in the Ice
A 19th-century painting imagines the fate of one of Franklin’s two ships. In 1859 a note was found on Canada’s King William Island, describing the death of Captain John Franklin and the crew’s intention to trek more than 600 miles toward a trading post.
PICTORIAL PRESS LTD/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
If our situation hadn’t been so urgent, its irony would be almost comical. Our crew of five had left Maine in my sailboat, Polar Sun, more than two months earlier to follow the route of the legendary explorer Sir John Franklin. He’d set off from England in 1845 in search of the elusive Northwest Passage, a sea route over the icy top of North America that would open a new trading avenue to the riches of the Far East. But Franklin’s two ships, Erebus and Terror, and his crew of 128 men had disappeared. What no one knew at the time was that the ships had become trapped in ice, stranding Franklin and his men deep in the Arctic. None lived to tell what happened, and no detailed written account of their ordeal has been found. This void in the historical record, collectively known as “the Franklin mystery,” has led to more than 170 years of speculation. It has also spawned generations of devoted “Franklinites” obsessed with piecing together the story of how more than a hundred British sailors tried to walk out of one of the most inhospitable wildernesses on Earth.
Over the years, I too had become a Franklinite. With morbid fascination, I read all the books I could find on the subject, imagining myself as a member of the doomed crew, and puzzling over the many unanswered questions: Where was Franklin buried? Where were his logbooks? Did the Inuit try to help the crew? Was it possible that a few of the men almost made it out? In the end, I couldn’t resist the urge to go looking for some of these answers myself and hatched a plan to refit Polar Sun so that I could sail the same waters as the Erebus and the Terror, anchor in the same harbors, and see what they saw. I also hoped to complete the voyage that Franklin never did: to sail from the Atlantic into the mazelike network of straits and bays that makes up the Northwest Passage and emerge on the other side of the continent, off the coast of Alaska.
Now, after nearly 3,000 nautical miles—roughly half the journey—my quest to immerse myself in the Franklin mystery had become a little too real. If Polar Sun were iced in, I could lose her. And even if we somehow made it safely ashore, a rescue here could be difficult. And of course, there was also that polar bear.
Blasted by spray, first mate Ben Zartman (at right) and crewman Rudy Lehfeldt-Ehlinger hoist Polar Sun’s main sail in heavy seas. The crew faced many harrowing challenges during the voyage from Maine to Alaska, including dodging submerged drilling platforms, a collision with a beluga whale, and riding out remnants of Typhoon Merbok in the Bering Sea.
Synnott was joined by his wife, Hampton Synnott (at left), a U.S. Coast Guard–licensed captain who helped crew Polar Sun for part of the voyage. “Navigating in the Arctic is incredibly nerve-racking,” she says. “Picking our way through ice chunks and maneuvering around bergs that can calve or flip at any moment—you spend your life on boats avoiding these situations."
Armed with a shotgun to ward off polar bears, Synnott visits the graves of three men from the Franklin expedition who perished on Beechey Island during the winter of 1845-46. Explorers searching for Franklin found the graves and a large rock cairn but no note explaining which way the ships had headed. In the 1980s, a team of forensics experts exhumed the three bodies and determined that the mariners died from a combination of tuberculosis and pneumonia.
By the time Franklin set sail, the British had been searching for the Northwest Passage for three centuries. Each expedition pushed a bit farther north, sending the mariners’ compasses spinning in circles as they approached magnetic north. Their ships often became trapped in ice during the interminable darkness of the polar winter. Many expeditions ended in tragedy, but none so spectacularly as Franklin’s. According to the British version of the story, the Erebus and Terror were last seen by whalers off Greenland’s coast in July 1845—and never heard from again. A crucial clue emerged 14 years later. A private expedition financed by Franklin’s widow found a note tucked inside a metal cylinder at a place called Victory Point on the northern tip of Canada’s King William Island.
The Victory Point record, as it came to be known, is the most significant written account to emerge from the Franklin expedition. The note contains two separate entries. The first, dated May 1847, says the Erebus and Terror became trapped in ice eight months earlier, 15 nautical miles northwest of King William Island. It ends with: “Sir John Franklin commanding the Expedition. All well.” The second entry was added less than a year later and says the ships were abandoned in April 1848 and that the crew had lost 15 men and nine officers, including Franklin, who died two weeks after penning the first note. It ends by saying the surviving crew, now under the command of Francis Rawdon Crozier, intended to walk toward the nearest Hudson’s Bay Company trading settlement, more than 600 miles to the south. If there was any hope to be gleaned from this desperate note, it was that Crozier was a veteran of multiple Arctic explorations. He’d already endured an expedition that had been trapped in ice and spent time among the Inuit, who had given him the name Aglooka (Long Strider).
Back in London, however, the British had a very different view of the situation. In 1854, five years before the note was found, another account had emerged. John Rae, a Scottish fur trader and explorer, recounted meeting an Inuit named In-nook-poo-zhe-jook who said that a group of 35 or 40 koblunas (white men) had starved to death years earlier, near the mouth of a large river. The Inuit showed Rae dozens of relics they’d collected from the site, including a medal Franklin had received in 1836. But In-nook-poo-zhe-jook also described a camp that bore signs of Franklin’s men having been driven to what Rae called “the last dread alternative”: mutilated bodies, pieces of which still sat in kettles in which they had been cooked.
Some of Franklin’s men sat for daguerreotypes before leaving England in 1845. Many were hardened veterans of daring expeditions. Francis Rawdon Crozier (top row, far left), second-in-command, had survived being stranded in the Arctic on a previous voyage. After Franklin’s death he took command, but the details of what happened next remain unknown. From top left: Francis Rawdon Crozier, James Reid, James Fairholme, Edward Couch (middle row) James Fitzjames, Charles Hamilton Osmer, Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte, Charles Des Voeux (bottom row) Graham Gore, Henry Foster Collins, Harry D.S. Goodsir, Stephen Stanley.
PHOTOS: RICHARD BEARD, NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, GREENWICH, LONDON (CROZIER); RICHARD BEARD, BRITISH NAVAL NORTHWEST PASSAGE EXPEDITION, 1845-48, SCOTT POLAR RESEARCH INSTITUTE, UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE (ALL OTHERS)
When Rae shared this grisly account, the English public, inflamed by none other than Charles Dickens, refused to believe the crew had resorted to cannibalism. “The noble conduct and example of such men, and of their own great leader himself … outweighs … the chatter of a gross handful of uncivilised people,” Dickens wrote in his magazine, Household Words. The influence of the famous author was such that most Britons came to believe it was the Inuit who had killed Franklin and his men—not the brutal elements, the unpreparedness of the crew, or just plain bad luck. And as a result, most subsequent reconstructions of the expedition’s final days failed to consider extensive Inuit oral histories that would’ve told a strikingly different story.
When the sunken wrecks of Erebus and Terror were found in 2014 and 2016, respectively, most Franklinites shifted their attention to what would be recovered from them by archaeologists. But I’d heard about one guy living in the far reaches of Canada’s Northwest Territories who was still searching for what he believed to be the mystery’s holy grail: the tomb of Sir John Franklin.
Tom Gross went to bed one night in 1990 and dreamed he found the final resting place of Sir John Franklin. “I dreamed I found him in Toronto,” he said. “I remember thinking: This can’t be right.”
I had tracked down Tom’s number and called him at his home in northern Canada. He told me his Franklin fascination had begun when he’d watched a documentary about archaeologists who’d exhumed three of the crew from gravesites on Beechey Island, where the expedition had spent its first winter in the Arctic. The men’s faces had emerged from the permafrost eerily preserved. “It was like a crazy time warp, where I wasn’t sure if we had stepped back into their time or they had come into ours,” he said. The experience had sent him on a reading jag, absorbing everything he could find on the subject. And then came the dream. When he woke up, Tom decided to plan his first search.
On the phone, he described how over the next 27 years, he’d mounted 40 Franklin search expeditions. In between shifts as a maintenance manager for the Northwest Territories housing authority, he’d covered a mind-boggling 12,000 miles by foot and all-terrain vehicle (ATV) across King William Island. He’d also spent dozens of hours crisscrossing the same area in his own small plane. Unlike many Franklinites, Tom lived in the Arctic. He’d moved to Nunavut 39 years ago and had a child with an Inuit woman. While hunting and trapping with his Inuit friends, he always paid close attention to the stories they told about their ancestors’ encounters with white men, and he became convinced that the Inuit accounts were the key to finding Franklin. Over the past decade, he’d been joined on his searches by Jacob, an Inuit guide and former Canadian wildlife conservation officer.
Read the full findings at
Naional Geographic Magazine - August 2023 issue
An Arctic Mystery
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