Friday, October 20, 2023

Tracking the Franklin Expedition

Tracking the Franklin Expedition of 1845: The Facts and Mysteries of the Failed Northwest Passage Voyage

by Stephen Zorn

McFarland & Co., $39.95

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

The history of those who've written about about the Franklin expedition includes a long list of people who, while motivated by their fascination with the story, didn't "quit their day jobs." From Richard Cyriax (public health officer), to May Fluhmann (musician and telegraph operator), to Stephen J. Trafton (banker), most of those who have contributed to the larger story have been true amateurs -- that is, lovers of their subject -- rather than academically-trained historians.

To this list we can now add Stephen Zorn, a lawyer and journalist, as well as a former government official in Papua New Guinea. His book is different from most of its precursors, though, in that it does not propose any new single all-explaining theory of what happened -- on the contrary, it seeks rather to suss out the probable from the plausible, the established facts from the speculations, and (among the speculations) which stands on firmest ground.  Zorn bases his approach on what he calls a "quantum theory of history," one which readily allows that there are some uncertainties that simply can't be resolved. And, while I know of no Franklin-related mystery that is quite as uncertain as is Schrödinger's hypothetical cat (which is both alive and dead at the same time), it's a provocative model for an approach which takes uncertainty as a given, and resists (for the most part) the urge to hypothesize it away.

Zorn begins with the "known knowns" (a wry reference to the late Donald Rumsfeld's word salad about certainty), as good a brief summary of the whole Franklin mystery in a nutshell as any I've read. And then, one by one, it's on to a more detailed account of the same, giving important background on each figure in the expedition, and all that we know thanks to more than a century and a half of searching. He organizes the next few chapters around the classic cruxes: did Franklin consider sailing to the east of King William Island (or was he even aware that such a route existed); what routes Crozier considered as he reached his decision to desert the ships; whether or not they returned to them and when; and lastly the possible causes of their eventual demise. In that, I think that he's quite right that starvation and exhaustion, with a little help from their friends scurvy, lead poisoning (a factor certainly in the illness of some if not an all-encompassing explanation), along with exposure to the elements, were more than sufficient causes.

It's an excellent précis and guide to the full spectrum of the known unknowns of Franklin's last expedition, and it has the great advantage that it draws from and cites the large body of new work and understandings that has come from members of online communities such as the Remembering the Franklin Expedition Facebook group (also acknowledged in McGoogan's new book), as well as the latest archaeological and forensic studies. This makes it an excellent starting point for the newfound Franklinophile, to whom I would almost unreservedly recommend it.

My only caveat there is that, at several junctions in the narrative, Zorn goes out of his way to discredit Franklin personally, at one point referring to him as "the most lethal commanding officer in the history of the Royal Navy's Arctic service." He also asserts, quite incorrectly I feel, that Crozier's expressed reluctance to go to Erebus to dine with Sir John was a sign of personal animosity of some kind, and from which he also infers (again, incorrectly) that "Sir John was less than universally respected." The collected letters of the officers -- which Zorn draws from elsewhere -- clearly refute such a view; every single officer, and several other men of lower rank, speak with unstinting praise of his command, Crozier prominent among them. When, earlier in 1845, Crozier learned from James Clark Ross that he would most likely sail as second-in-command to someone else, he replied "I am quite ready to go second to our kind friend Sir John – with none else save and except yourself and Captain Parry would I go." There's nothing in any others of his letters to suggest that his view of Franklin changed.

Still, setting that issue aside, Zorn's book is in every other respect a breath of much-needed fresh air in a room in which sometimes, not out of ire but out of the great passion for the subject we Franklinites share, the discussions become too heated.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Searching for Franklin

Searching for Franklin: New Answers to the Great Arctic Mystery

By Ken McGoogan

Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre

$38.95 CAD

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

Readers of the Arctic Book Review will be familiar with Ken McGoogan's many books that touch upon aspects of the Franklin expedition, perhaps most notably with Fatal Passage, a book which singlehandedly revived the reputation of Dr. John Rae, the brilliant Scottish surveyor and explorer who discovered the first direct evidence of Franklin's fate. Since then, both with Lady Franklin's Revenge and Dead Reckoning, McGoogan has greatly expanded our understanding not only of some of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering behind the heroic veneer of exploration, but also of the significant and lasting role of Indigenous peoples as guides and explorers in their own right.

So it would be an understatement to say that Searching for Franklin has been keenly anticipated by all who have taken an interest in the many and varied aspects of that famously lost explorer, the present reviewer among them. The approach of the book is somewhat different from what I'd initially expected, but by the end it succeeds in offering compelling new insights into the mindset of Franklin and other explorers of his era, along with a suggestive hypothesis as to the demise of his final expedition.

The book opens in conversation between McGoogan and Louie Kamookak, the late Inuit historian and friend to both of us, as well as to many others who went to King William Island in search of insight into the fate of Franklin and his men. It's great to hear Louie's voice again, resonating with that of his people and their ancestors, and lively with an often-humorous irony about the assumptions and obsessions of the various "Franklinites" he'd met through the years.

From there, we proceed to a lively retelling of events from Franklin's departure in 1845 through to Rae's and McClintock's discovery of what were to be, for a time, the final known traces of his lost men; it's a story that will be familiar to readers of McGoogan's earlier books. This sets the scene for the central portion of the book, which focuses not on Franklin's last command but his first, the Coppermine Expedition of 1819-22. The main theme here is of Franklin as 'the man who wouldn't listen' -- at least when it came to advice from his Dene guides -- which is surely a fair criticism. Of course, Franklin's deafness was not his alone; the entire apparatus of the British Admiralty and the Empire in general was quite hard of hearing when it came to Indigenous voices and knowledge.

The following chapters touch on several sundry aspects of the Franklin mystery, from the box dug up from under the Paddy Gibson memorial in Gjoa Haven (which some believed held Franklin records, but turned out to be full of sand), some chapters from the peculiar career of Franklin searcher Charles Francis Hall, and then finally to the discoveries of Franklin's ships in 2014 and 2016. After a brief detour to Jens Munk ('the second-worst disaster' of Arctic expeditions), we return to the Coppermine expedition and its key figures, particularly the Dene leader Akaitcho. Franklin, of course, comes off none to well in these histories -- I'm reminded of why, in his novel A Discovery of Strangers, Rudy Weibe has the Dene give Franklin the nickname "Thick English" -- but it was a bit frustrating as a reader to see so many of the remaining pages turn without a return to the story of the 1845 expedition.

It's just then, though, that McGoogan offers his own theory as to the surprising loss from among their numbers that clearly affected Franklin's men in their icebound ships: that eating improperly-prepared polar bear meat led directly to their death and disappearance. While it's entirely plausible, there's no direct evidence of the expedition having killed or eaten a bear --- indeed, they seemed poorly equipped for hunting of any kind. McGoogan cites an example of a bear killed by Akaitcho and eaten by Franklin's men in 1821; the Dene themselves did not eat bear meat. And yet the Inuit certainly do, and have for millennia; I've enjoyed it myself at a community feast in Clyde River. As long as the meat is well-cooked, the risk of trichinosis is relatively low, though of course one can't eliminate it entirely.

In his concluding chapter, McGoogan offers a sharp rebuttal to those who have, over the intervening years and today, hailed Franklin as a polar hero. He certainly had his flaws and limitations -- but then so do most "heroes" when you look closely at them. His sins seem in large part to be the common ones that nearly all Royal Navy commanders shared, among them insufficient trust in Indigenous knowledge, while his merits -- such as the love and loyalty he inspired in his men -- were his own. That said, I'm sure his reputation can stand a little correction; as Margaret Atwood once wryly observed (in a quote mentioned in the book), "every age has created a Franklin suitable to its needs." Perhaps this is the one for ours; only time will tell.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

The Search for Franklin: An Irish Connection

The Search for Franklin: An Irish Connection

By Kevin Cronin

Reviewed by Frank Michael Schuster

Appearing at first glance as a coffee table book due to the unusual landscape format and the quality of the cover and the printing in general, Kevin Cronin’s book turns out to be a self-published book of no more than 75 pages, but with excellently reproduced illustrations, photographs, maps and charts on almost every page. The book is clearly a labour of love.

In it, the author describes concisely but ironically -- and very appealingly -- his experiences in the Arctic in general, and on the trail of Sir John Franklin's last expedition lost in the ice in particular. The Dublin-chartered accountant discovered his love of the sea early, spending his holidays as a child with his grandfather in County Cork, Ireland, at and on the sea. In the mid-1980s, he accompanied Irish adventurer Paddy Barry on his Atlantic crossing in a Galway Hooker, a historic cargo sailing vessel.
After this adventure, in 1997 he and Paddy Barry and Jarlath Cunnane attempted to repeat Ernest Shackleton's legendary 1916 crossing (not 1913, as stated in the book) from Antarctica to South Georgia in a converted boat of the Endurance, which had sunk in the Antarctic ice. The undertaking came to an end when the replica of the James Caird capsized in the stormy polar sea. That didn't stop Cronin from continuing to embark on polar adventures with them, circumnavigating the North Pole from 2001-2005. In the process, he passed through both the Northwest and Northeast Passages in the sailing vessel Northabout, which was built by Cunnane. Irish filmmaker John Murray, who was there for the crossing of the Northwest Passage, filmed this as part for a film about John Franklin's expedition. This brought Cronin into contact with that story, which obviously fascinated him. 

They had met Dave Woodman and Tom Gross on King William Island during their transit of the Northwest Passage. Since the Northabout, after reaching Alaska, cruised in the North Pacific in 2002-2004 before taking on the Northeast Passage, Murray and Cronin decided to join the next expedition planned by these two well-known Franklin searchers and researchers in search of Franklin's missing ships. The two set off from Dublin via London, Edmonton and Yellowknife to Goja Haven in 2002 with little besides their camera equipment as hand luggage.  After Tom Gross had received them, the journey was to become even more adventurous, as they continued with two snowmobiles. Driven by two local Inuit, one pulled a sled with the tents and the rest of the equipment, the other the box of the magnetometer with which they wanted to scan the frozen sea in Willmot & Campton Bay west of Skull Island, because Dave Woodman was convinced after his analysis of Inuit tradition that one of Franklin's ships must have sunk in the vicinity. 
There was actually not enough room for Cronin, Gross and Murray. They therefore sat down in the box, which turned out not a great idea.
“The journey was bone-crushing”, Cronin writes:
The space in the caboose was not adequate for three people, and on one of our rest stops I examined the other gear-laden sled to see if we had another option. With some adjustment to the cargo I found that I could make a groove along the top of the sled that could accommodate me lying corpse-like on the top of the load. […] Tom helpfully pointed out that if the sled tipped over, I would be squashed. […] I had ample time to contemplate how and why I was finding myself in this mad situation as the sled heaved and roled under me and the wind and snow pummeled me unmercifully. Shur, what else would you be doing? (pp. 21-2)
This passage is just one example of the author's lively and amusing style. One certainly learns more about the results of this expedition from Woodman's field reports (for example), but here the expedition's everyday life comes alive. Caribou hunting or the building of igloos are described briefly but very vividly, as is life in a tent, which is anything but easy. How a night on King William Island in a tent designed for Irish rather than Arctic weather becomes an adventure the moment nature calls and you need to pass water, for example, Cronin also tells us. These are things you don't find in the classic expedition naratives of the 19th century, and hardly ever today. 

The search with the magnetometer in 2002 and the subsequent closer examination of the hotspots found in the recordings in 2004 did not lead to the discovery of HMS Erebus, because she lies on the seabed not to the west but to the east of Skull Island, and therefore remained undiscovered for another decade. They later found that the expedition's camp was scarcely a mile away from where Erebus sank -- within sight, so to speak.

Nevertheless, Kevin Cronin remained passionate about the Franklin Expedition even after the discovery of the two ships in 2014 and 2016, and he joined Tom Gross' search for Sir John Franklin's grave in the summer of 2018. After his previous experiences on the subject of getting around in the Arctic, he decided to prepare himself and practice driving an ATV (all-terrain vehicle) in advance. Therefore, he signed up at a Quad Adventure Centre in March 2018.
“I found the experience hair-raising but valuable. […] I consoled myself by imagining that the actual terrain on KWI could not be as bad as this artificial course that was especially designed to be as demanding as possible. It was worse!” (p. 49)
The way he writes about his expedition is fun to read, even if Franklin's grave has not been found, neither then nor later.

Those who are hoping for new insights into the Franklin expedition may wish to look elsewhere, but those who enjoy beautiful, amusing and entertaining books and are looking for a first-person idea of what it's like to travel through the polar regions will greatly enjoy reading this modest publication.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Coming soon!