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.