Sunday, January 31, 2021

Frosty Morning

 The weather remains cold here, and this morning we woke to frost rather than more snow.  In fact it looks like hoarfrost in the distance.  Of course I can't get out there to get closer pictures, but it was pretty for a couple of hours anyway.

The big maple tree out on the golf course caught my attention first.

The line of pines down the east side of my view was also heavily coated.

Even the small twigs of the trees in our yard were coated and looking white.  It all reminded me of two previous occasions when I've seen really heavy hoarfrost glistening in the sun.  I may dig out pictures of those times to share.


I'm now reading a great book on the search for Franklin and his ships, Ice Ghosts, by Paul Watson.  I like the writer's style and I'm finding some strongly expressed contradictory perspectives on Arctic exploration that simply make the story more interesting.  Was Franklin really fit to lead that 1845 expedition?  Why didn't Arctic explorers have the common sense to seek help and advice from those who lived there?  Was it British arrogance that decorated our Arctic towns, islands and waterways with names from Victorian England?

It all makes the whole story ever more fascinating.  Watson was actually on the icebreaker CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier which led the expedition that found the Erebus.  He tells us the inside story of finding the Terror two years later as well.  Most of the book is devoted to describing the century and a half of searches for Franklin, the story of which Watson brings right up to 2016.  

I've gained the information to write my series of posts on the Arctic from online historical sources.  But there are lots of books on the Arctic and its explorers.  Of all those this is the one I chose to read, and I recommend it to you for a good read.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Zooming and Grow Lights

 Yesterday I delivered my first ever presentation via zoom, for the Thornbury Library.  It was on the waterfalls of the Beaver Valley and Owen Sound area.  We have one of the best collections of waterfalls in the whole province around here.  My talk was recorded by the only other participant, the technician at the library, and will eventually be made available on YouTube, once she's done all the editing.  It went well so I'm thinking of more things like that that I can do.

In the meantime, Mrs. F.G. ordered a set of shelves and some grow lights to go on them, so she can start some seeds.  She used to do this, and I made the original set of grow light shelves, a work of art at the time.  But technology has changed so these shelves will have fancy new LED lights.  Today I put them together with a bit of her help.  I was already half-way done when she took the first picture.

It took a little bit of figuring to decide which post and which clip fitted where, but in the end it went together remarkably well.

Of course that doesn't mean I got the shelves level on the first try.  I had to redo each level at least once!  And doing it in a wheelchair was just a little awkward at times.  Thank goodness I had my seatbelt on!

The little black clips looked fiddly and flimsy, but once they were pushed onto the poles they were secure, and once all levels were on the whole thing was secure.

Then we tried out the wiring to make sure Mrs. F.G. knew how to put it together when she got the whole thing downstairs.

It worked well, but with a really bright weird pink light which is presumably good for plants.

Mrs. F.G. took it downstairs easily (it was quite light and on casters so it could roll around) and got it set up with the lights and seed trays on the first two shelves - looks good.  We're having a rare and very cold sunny day outside.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

And More Ice

We're having a slight January cold snap today, down to -9°C, not really cold actually.  But the fresh snow continues to fall so there's at least 16" on top of the planter now, deep fluffy snow that's no good for making snowmen unfortunately.  But it would be great for xc skiing or snowshoeing.  Today I'm working on the Tallurutiup Imanga, the Quttinirpaaq and such.  In the meantime a further selection of ice pictures from down at the harbour, courtesy Mrs. F.G.

Take care


Wednesday, January 27, 2021

More Winter

It's been a week since I shared pictures of our continuing winter here.  The weather continues cold and snowy.  One day last week we actually went out for hot chocolate (the Tim's variety) and a couple of donuts.  We then went down and sat by the harbour to have our winter snack.

Not cold enough for any solid ice, though that might change this week, but certainly way too cold for fishing, at least in my mind!

But obviously some would disagree with me.

We drove over to the other side of the harbour to see how things were looking there - looking like winter!

Both the bay and the sky were dark grey that day.

With various ice formations along the shore.

Here at home it's been snowing for a day or more, piling up light fluffy flakes that mound the snow deeper now.  We've got over a foot in sheltered spots that aren't affect by the wind much, 2 feet where it drifts and only 6" where the wind blows - but 3 foot snowbanks out front where it's been plowed or shovelled.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Searching for Franklin

In 1845 Sir John Franklin set sail in the largest and best equipped expedition ever sent to the Arctic, determined to map the remaining gap among the islands and waterways of the Northwest Passage.  We later learn from the only note he ever left, that he entered Lancaster Sound and proceeded west without trouble until he ran into ice.  After spending the first winter on tiny Beechey Island (where three graves were later found) he turned south down Peel Sound between Somerset and Prince of Wales Islands and emerged into the southeast corner of McLintock Channel.  So far so good.  Beechey Island is now a National Historic Site and a popular stop for today's cruise ships.

The ships he took, the Erebus and Terror, were well suited to the trip.  They were 'bomb ships', built extra strong to withstand the shock of firing cannons, and then strengthened further to withstand the ice.  They had steam engines added for this trip. They had already been to the Antarctic on an earlier trip.  These two ships become a big part of the Franklin story, which we will pick up on later.

We do not know exactly where Franklin got frozen in the ice, but he did, and spent two years there.  Whether he sailed south and got trapped or got trapped and the ships moved south with the ice pack is unknown.  Even though these sailing ships had auxillary steam engines, they were no match for the power of the ice.  In any case, as we now know the ships remained frozen throughout the summer of 1847, bringing the risk of starvation ever closer.  Sir John himself died in June of 1847.

As a point of interest we have lots of paintings and drawings of the Erebus and Terror, some totally fictitious, and some accurate because the artists painted the ships while seeing them in London.  None of the artists were actually on the trip though.

We do know the approximate route Franklin followed, based on the one note he left.  Crossing from Greenland he entered Lancaster Channel south of Devon Island, and made a circuit to the north around Cornwallis Island before settling on Beechey Island for their first winter.  The next summer they sailed south through passages that were open that year (but not for several later years when searchers got there).  The trip ended where the bright pink line on the map ends above, near the northwest corner of King William Island.  

It was along the west shore of that island where most of the later evidence of the failed trip was found, including abandoned food, supplies, equipment and food, as well as skeletons.  Two of the skeletons were found in a small boat, with two loaded guns.  It appeared that some sailors died as they walked on their trek away from the ships, falling down in their tracks.


By early spring of 1848 the 105 men remaining abandoned ship and moved to the shore of King William Island, hoping to trek south to the mainland.  All of them starved to death, never asking the native Inuit for help.

The missing expedition set off the biggest burst of arctic exploration ever and Lady Jane Franklin became the biggest influence, cultivating a huge public following as she pushed England to find her husband or his fate.  In the following two decades at least 30 expeditions set sail in search of the missing Franklin.  

In 1848 the Admiralty sent out three searches, all of which proved unsuccessful.  Richardson and Rae (more about Rae later) approached overland from the south but ended up far west of Franklin's location.  John Ross sailed from the east but got frozen in ice far to the north.  Henry Kellet sailed around South America, up past Alaska and approached from the west.  None found any evidence of Franklin or got close to where we later learned the ships were lost.

Lady Jane Franklin

At this point Lady Jane Franklin upped her crusade to have her husband found, or his fate determined, even funding expeditions out of her own modest fortune.  The result was all the Arctic expeditions of the following years.  In 1850 alone 20 vessels set out to find Franklin, though none of them were successful.  Numerous voyages occurred in succeeding years.

Notable was Robert McClure's expedition which entered the Arctic from the west.  Although McClure and his crew spent four years locked in the ice in Misery Bay on the north shore of Banks Island, (he was heavily criticized for his management of the trip) he did discover the Prince of Wales Strait far to the northwest of Franklin, which became a key alternate route through the Arctic.  At the time he was given credit for discovering the Northwest Passage, even though a key part of this route, below Melville Island, was ice-clogged and impassible. 

McClure and crew were rescued by Henry Kellet, mentioned above, and he was knighted and rewarded for his discovery. But he had to abandon his ship the HMS Investigator, only found in 2010 during the recent Parks Canada search for Franklin's ships.  The Prince of Wales Strait is a popular alternate route today as the Arctic climate warms and there's less summer ice cover.

Wreck of the HMS Investigator

John Rae returned to the Arctic in 1854, approaching from the south overland, to the base of the Boothia Peninsula.  Here he encountered Inuit who had among them a gold hat band, obviously a relic of the Franklin expedition.  He offered to purchase any other relics, and soon ended up with several.  One of the artifacts was a silver plate with "Sir John Franklin" engraved on the back.  As well Rae learned of skeletons found by the Inuit and reports of a group of white men who had starved to death a few years earlier.  

John Rae

In his search Rae followed the shoreline south, east and north of what was then called King William Land, showing it to be an island.  The water to the east of the island is now known as Rae Strait.  In so doing it has been argued that Rae discovered the last link in the navigable Northwest Passage, the other main route used today.   He received an award for finding out the fate of the Franklin expedition, but because of his reports of possible cannibalism, which was abhorrent to the English, he was never awarded a knighthood, nor statues, and was not recognized as the discoverer of the Northwest Passage, unlike Franklin himself. 

It was over a decade after Franklin disappeared, in 1859, when the men of the McLintock expedition, building on the information Rae had established, found a note from Franklin buried in a cairn on King William Island. This is so far the only written record of the Franklin voyage, telling us that Franklin died several months before his men abandoned ship.  Thus any allegations of cannibalism could not apply to him, which was a relief to Lady Jane.

Several later expeditions pursued the fate of Franklin, right into the 20th century.  Notable are trips by Charles Frances Hall and Frederick Schwatka, both Americans, in the 1860s and '70s.  Both of these men relied on, and documented, Inuit advice and stories, including some by natives who had actually met members of Franklin's group.  The reports of those expeditions provide much of the detailed information upon which modern searches for the two ships has relied, as shown in the map below.

This final map shows the approximate locations where the Erebus and Terror were apparently caught in the ice northwest of King William Island, as well as the two sites on the south side of King William Island where the ships have ultimately been found, based on 19th century information sources, largely Inuit testimony.  The route around the east side of King William Island is the last 'missing link' in the Northwest Passage, as Victoria Strait to the west of the island is normally impassible with ice.  I will devote a full later post to the ultimate finding of the Erebus and Terror, in the past few years.


After these five posts I'm going to take a break and go back to my regular blog posts, before we return to the Arctic today with a further five posts.

In the meantime, a neighbour referred us to a series of videos on the Arctic under the title 'Canada Over the Edge'.  We found them on the Smithsonian Channel on YouTube, and have really enjoyed them.  I recommend the ones on the High Arctic and the Central Arctic.  You'll have to search for them on YouTube.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Overland to the Arctic

There was a long gap between the Baffin/Bylot expedition in 1616 and the first explorer to reach the Arctic overland, Samuel Hearne, travelling as a fur trader on behalf of the Hudson Bay Company in 1770.  Alexander Mackenzie did the same, but working for the Northwest Company following the Mackenzie River in 1788.  

Then there's an interruption again as the Northwest Company and the Hudson bay Companies feuded over the fur trade further south.  The HBC eventually won, with British connections and more money and took over the NWC in 1821.  The Hudson Bay Company is still around today, mainly as a department store chain. 

At the same time the British Royal Navy was embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars.  When these ended and the Royal Navy was looking for other challenges to keep itself busy, Arctic exploration from England began anew.  In 1819 two expeditions were sent out, one led by John Franklin and one by William Parry.  Franklin was to approach the Arctic coast from the south via the Coppermine River, and Parry was to sail from the east into Lancaster Sound.  Four years later Franklin led another overland expedition, this time going down the Mackenzie River.

First we turn to the stories of Samuel Hearne and Alexander Mackenzie.  Hearne joined the Hudson Bay Company in 1766, working out of Churchill as a fur trader.  Stories about natives to the northwest using copper had been heard for some time, but when a visiting native arrived at Churchill with lumps of copper, it was apparent that someone should go and investigate this.

Hearne and natives on the Coppermine

The story of Hearne's first two journeys is about his reluctantly learning to travel and live off the land as the native Indians did.   The small number of white fur traders nearly starved on both trips, walking on snowshoes and carrying heavy packs.  Ultimately, having learned his lesson, Hearne went alone on his third trip with a group of Chipewyan guides led by one with the name Motonabbee.  It took them six months of walking to reach the Coppermine River, using a group of Motonabee's wives as cooks and 'beasts of burden'!  But they never found significant deposits of copper.

Near the mouth of the river they stopped by an Inuit camp hunting caribou.  In the middle of the night the normally peaceful native Indians accompanying Hearne fell on the Inuit, killing them all in what would become known as the Massacre at Bloody Falls.  The attack reflected centuries of conflict between the Copper Indians and the Copper Inuit who both frequented the area.  Hearne successfully returned to Churchill after walking some 5000 miles.

Hearne's Travels

Hearne reached the Arctic coast but did not explore along it.  However, by travelling north from Hudson Bay he had proven that no western-heading water route to the Pacific existed.  The copper turned out to be just a few small lumps, so no booming copper mine emerged, but both the river and the settlement at its mouth were named Coppermine after the native use of the area.

Alexander Mackenzie, whose name is much more known to Canadians, was the next explorer to reach the Arctic coast, but he did so by mistake.  He had been searching for a route to the Pacific.  Another fur trader, but an employee of the North West company, he headed down the waterway from Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca in 1788, hoping to reach Cook Inlet in Alaska.  Finding the Arctic Ocean instead he named the river the River Disappointment.

On the other hand, this was the man who 5 years later did successfully reach the Pacific, by way of the Peace River, and an upper stretch of the Fraser.  Warned by natives that it was impassible downstream on the Fraser River (think Hell's Gate!), he headed over the Coast Mountains instead, emerging on the Bella Coola River at Bella Coola, the first white man to reach the Pacific overland.  The famous Lewis and Clark expedition in the U.S. was 12 years later.


Thus we come to the British Naval Officer, John Franklin, the next explorer, more than two decades before he was frozen in the ice on his final voyage.  The British Navy was looking for things to do after the end of the Napoleonic Wars and decided to get back into arctic exploration.  By this time there was no reasonable expectation of finding an easy ice-free Northwest Passage, but it was still a story that intrigued the public and might help the navy's reputation.  And Franklin was looking for a personal challenge that would enhance his own reputation.

In fact Franklin's two trips to the Arctic coast in 1819 and 1823 were what won him his heroic reputation and a knighthood, not his later unsuccessful voyage.  On these occasions Franklin was sent not in a ship but overland.  He first followed Hearne's route to the mouth of the Coppermine, and explored east and west along the Arctic coast, the first white man to do so.  

Franklin had had access to Hearne's journals, and had received personal advice from Mackenzie, but it wasn't enough.  Perhaps the Royal Navy relied too much on promises of support from the Hudson Bay Company.  In any case the locals later criticized Franklin for his poor planning and organization.  Unfortunately the expedition didn't get very far along the coast, lapsing into starvation, as the caribou migration had been unusually early that year.  Eleven out of 20 men died on this expedition, and the others only survived by eating the leather of their boots.

Franklin had taken an evangelical religious book along for daily reading, and he later wrote that it had provided great comfort in his times of enormous distress.  In any case the public showed geat interest in his story when he returned home, seeing him as a 'hero who had  survived with Christian fortitude'. Three years later he travelled down the Mackenzie River to the Arctic coast on a trip that was much successful, perhaps because provisioning was handled by the Hudson Bay Company rather than the Royal Navy!

William Parry

While Franklin was exploring from the south the Royal Navy sent Captain William Parry from the east.  Franklin and Parry knew each other, and the two separate efforts were seen as a major joint effort by the Royal Navy.  Parry didn't give up in Lancaster Sound but pushed his was west through the ice, through Barrow Strait and into Viscount Melville Sound, the farthest west anyone had reached by ship.  Perhaps 1819 was a relatively ice-free year.  Together with McClure Strait to the west this route became known as Parry Channel, one of the modern routes through the Northwest Passage now that ice conditions are moderating.  

They wintered on Melville Island, frozen in for 10 months, 3 months in total darkness, and survived temperatures that reached -54°F!  They only floated free in early August 1920 and barely made it out of the Arctic before the ice froze around them.  But it was the most successful expedition in search of the Northwest Passage yet, and they only lost one man. 

Viscount Melville Sound is the body of water underneath the word 'Parry', south of Melville Island.
Viscount Melville was Lord of the Admiralty.

Going back to our overland explorers, John Simpson came next, travelling north a decade after Franklin.  His goal was to fill in the two gaps in shoreline mapping, to the west and east of Franklin's trip.  Simpson did this successfully,  He travelled down the Mackenzie the first summer, mapping as far west as Point Barrow.  Then he travelled down the Coppermine the following year and explored east as far as the base of the Boothia Peninsula, surveying as he went.

Thus the entire Arctic coast had been mapped to the mouth of the Back River in the east by overland explorers and Parry had mapped the Northwest Passage as far as Melville Island by sea.  There remained the 500 mile gap between these routes, the unknown blank in the middle of the Arctic map.  This was the area that Franklin targetted in his fateful voyage of 1845.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Early Arctic Explorers

I've divided the Arctic explorers into three groups, first the very early explorers who sailed between 1576 and 1616, second a group who approached overland from the south in later years, and finally those who came in search of the frozen Franklin after 1845.

Martin Frobisher sailed in search of the Northwest Passage three times, between 1576 and '78, never getting further than the southern end of Baffin Island where Frobisher Bay is named after him.  During his first voyage he got distracted by thinking he had found coal.  At one point his fleet was blown into what is now Hudson Strait, but Frobisher named it Mistaken Strait, thinking it would not provide a route west.  Instead he believed the narrow Frobisher Bay (which went nowhere) would be the route.

His third voyage was a fleet of 15 ships no less, in search of the 'coal'.  Gathering a good supply he sailed home with his valuable cargo, only finding out on his return to London that it was worthless rock.

Frobisher was followed by John Davis a decade later in 1586.  Again he got little further, but he did give his name to Davis Strait, between Baffin Island and Greenland.  Each of these explorers and the many to follow added a small piece of the mapping that was eventually to lead to an understanding of the northwest passage.

One can picture the sailing captains and English cartographers examining maps and notes from previous voyages, attempting to fill in more of the Arctic map.  This is said to be Davis and 3 colleagues.  All the early explorers were seeking an easy passage to the Pacific Ocean and the East Indies.

Davis was followed by Henry Hudson, who in 1610 sailed into Hudson Strait and hence discovered Hudson Bay, exploring it before being locked in ice for the winter.  Sadly his men mutinied in the spring and set Hudson and seven others adrift in a small boat; they were never seen again.  However, it could be said that Hudson's discovery was more successful than any further north, as Hudson's Bay became the route ships used to the first fur trading fort of the Hudson Bay Company, at York Factory in 1684.  It operated until 1957!

Hudson Bay, a large saltwater extension of the Arctic Ocean in central Canada.
York Factory was at the mouth of the Nelson River.

(Hudson had been even more successful further south when he was sailing earlier under the Dutch flag, for he it was who sailed into the Hudson River and claimed 'New Amsterdam' for the Netherlands - now the site of New York City.)

Returning to the Arctic though, we find Robert Bylot and William Baffin sailing in 1616.  Bylot had been first mate on Hudson's voyage into Hudson Bay, and only narrowly escaped death on returning to England where he was tried for mutiny.  But it was said that his navigation skills were what enabled the crew to return to England safely after the mutiny, and he was pardoned.

He sailed with Baffin into what is now labelled Baffin Bay, the large body of water between Canada's Arctic and Greenland north of Hudson Strait.  They circled further north than anyone else would for another 236 years.  It was so far north that their mapping wasn't believed, but centuries later it proved to have been extremely accurate.  They also discovered that Lancaster Sound was not merely an ice-choked bay, but a channel leading further west - the channel that would eventually become the easterly end of the northwest passage.

William Baffin

Baffin was the one who got the credit back in England, perhaps because he was of higher class while Bylot was only working class.  Both got islands named after them, but Baffin's was considerably larger!

It only took these early voyages for the British to realize that there was no easy ice-free route to the Pacific, and they diverted their efforts further south on the globe.  All these explorers ran into walls of ice that prevented them from sailing further.  Of course we have no accurate mapping of ice coverage at this time, but climate scientists do talk of a 'Little Ice Age' about these centuries.  It may have been that ice coverage was simply much worse than explorers sailing into the area found 200 years later.

Next we look at explorers who approached from the south, following the fur trade routes overland,  starting over 150 years later.  Many of you have probably read at least a little about Sir John Franklin, the (in)famous Arctic explorer whose two ships, the Erebus and Terror, got frozen in the ice in 1847, leaving him and his entire crew of 129 men to starve to death.  But few who read those stories realize that Franklin first reached the Arctic overland, as the first explorer to map part of Canada's northern mainland coast.

Personally I find it very ironic that the best known Arctic explorer, and the one most honoured by the British, led the expedition that was a total failure!

Friday, January 22, 2021

Waterways and Islands

I have debated which comes first, the maps or the explorers and others for whom features on the map of the Arctic were named.  Historically the explorers come first, and the names of islands and waterways come second, but to understand the stories you pretty well have to know the names of where these people went.  I hope a little of that made sense, so here we go.

This is the one of the best general maps I have found of the islands and waterways of the Canadian Arctic.  It also shows some of the communities, but not all, and still uses English names for most of these.

I encourage you to follow along as we sort out where the Northwest passage actually is.  The first explorers did not get past Baffin Island, blocked in by a wall of ice between Bylot Island and Devon Island, an area now known as Lancaster Sound.  Try to find this spot, north of Baffin Island, as a starting point, where Dundas Harbour is shown on the map.

Later more successful explorers made their way west past Somerset Island and turned south opposite Cornwallis Island (where you see the hamlet of Resolute).  Prince Regent Strait did not take you anywhere, just down the west side of Baffin Island into the mostly dead-end Gulf of Boothia.

At this point we may be better to turn to this map, which provides greater detail for the central Arctic.  The body of water west of Somerset Island and east of Prince of Wales Island is Peel Sound, which changes to Franklin Strait as you emerge out into the (usually ice-clogged) MClintock channel.  You can see this in the map above, and you can see the ice pattern today in the satellite image in the previous post.  Are you following me so far?

It would make sense based on the map to go straight south through Victoria Strait into Queen Maud Gulf, but that route has proven to be an icy barrier.  In fact ships have almost always had to detour around the east side of King William Island, taking them through Ross Strait, Rae Strait and the unlabelled Simpson Strait out into Queen Maud Gulf from the east.  From here ships headed west through Dease Strait and onward through Coronation Gulf, Dolphin and Union strait out into Amundsen Gulf.  Check out the first map to see the rest of this route.

Sorry for all the detail here, but it will make the stories in the future posts more meaningful if you take a moment to trace out this route now.  The following map showing routes followed by much later explorers provides a good summary and shows how recently Arctic exploration finally succeeded.

Amundsen was the Norwegian explorer who first made a complete voyage through the Northwest Passage, sailing on the route I have described (in blue).  He stayed two winters on the east side of King William Island, in what he described as 'the finest little harbour in the world'.  He called it Gjoa Haven after his ship the Gjoa.  Larsen was the first to sail through the Northwest Passage in both directions, (shown in red and yellow), sailing in the diesel-powered St. Roch, a ship specially built for arctic patrols of the RCMP.  Larsen was an RCMP office in the Arctic for 20 years.

The second route followed by Larsen is notable, for it has become the northern route of the Northwest Passage.  Clogged with ice during most early exploration years, today it is much more likely to be open water and passable.  It proceeds west from Lancaster Sound where others usually had to turn south, passes south of Cornwallis and Bathurst Islands, turning south at Melville Island to head down the Prince of Wales Strait and out into Amundsen Gulf.  Certainly a simpler and a little shorter route, but less interesting for the cruise ships that are taking adventurous travellers north today.

The Victorian Era Names

You probably have the impression by now, that this is a landscape of names transferred from Victorian England.  And you would be right.  Most Arctic mapping occurred during all the expeditions sent out to search for Franklin during the mid to late 19th Century.  The most popular category of names are those of the explorers themselves.  Next, there are a number of royal names, and after that a scattering of other English Lords, often associated with the Admiralty.

Starting with Baffin Island, we also have Bylot Island, Frobisher Bay, Davis Strait and Hudson Bay all named after the earliest explorers.  Later we add Franklin, Ross, Rae, Simpson and Dease Straits, also all named after Arctic explorers.  Royal references are first generic, as in Prince of Wales Strait and Prince of Wales Island, as well as Coronation Gulf, and then specific as in Victoria Island and Queen Maud Gulf.  

If you do not recognize Queen Maud, she is the youngest daughter of King Edward VII, and reigned as Queen Consort of Norway as the wife of King Haakon VII from 1905 to 1938.  The Gulf was named after her by Roald Amundsen, himself a Norwegian (so she was his queen), during his voyage noted above.

Other names we find include names of English Lords, as in Somerset and Devon Islands, English Naval figures such as Viscount Melville, Lord of the Admiralty, or expedition sponsors such as Lancaster and Booth.  In a rare bow to science the westernmost island in the Arctic is Banks Island, named after Joseph Banks, the great British naturalist who sailed with to the south Pacific with Captain Cook in 1768.

This has been a somewhat dry and detailed post, but I hope it helps you as we move on to more interesting stories.


After posting and reading yesterday's post, I thought it was far too detailed and academic, so I'll try to keep it simple!  But after all, I was an academic, so this is my style.  It's been very much like preparing lectures, but I hope you get something out of it.  I certainly have!

I'll repeat the map from the first post here if you want to refer to it.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Canadian Arctic

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I have been reading about early Canadian explorers, and so far I've focused my interest on the Canadian Arctic, including the tragic story of Captain John Franklin and his doomed men.  It astonishes me when I think about it that I did not learn a single thing about all this in school, certainly one of the most interesting stories to be told about Canadian history.

This is my own personal project this winter and it's been a good one for me.  I'm not a historian, so I'm just reporting on what I have learned in my reading.  I should add that doing all this has been excellent pain medication.  It distracts me completely from my chronic nerve pain.  Obviously I am totally dependent on using maps and illustrations from the internet in doing this.  I do so knowing it's for a legitimate educational purpose.  I am particularly indebted to both Wikipedia and the Canadian Encyclopedia.

So I'm going to share the very superficial knowledge I've gained with you, and tell you about the Canadian Arctic.  As I've written these posts, they keep expanding, so I've broken it into two groups, first five posts on Arctic exploration. and secondly 4 or 5 posts on the Arctic today which I'll post later.  If you're not interested just rejoin us after a week or so.

Arctic Exploration.
This is actually the best map I have found for naming the waterways and islands 
of the Canadian Arctic.  It may be worth referring back to as we follow our story.

This is the map that got me interested, from the Canadian Encyclopedia article on 'Arctic Exploration'*.  As you can see, there were many sailors who explored the Arctic, starting in the late 1500s.  Detailed mapping has continued right until today.  Unfortunately there's no legend with this map, but I'll refer to it as we go.  It told me at a glance that there was a lot more to learn here than I thought.  You can also clearly see the two main routes that became the Northwest Passage.

It goes without saying that this part of the world was settled by indigenous people for thousands of years before the English got interested.  The poorly known pre-Dorset culture spread into the area from the west as early as 3000 BCE, followed by the Dorset peoples.  They were followed by the Thule people from about the 13th century onwards.  These are best understood not as waves of newcomers migrating into the area, but as changes in culture within the people over time.  Only a few remnants of the Thule culture remain, mainly as stone building foundations, but this is a topic about which I still need to read a lot, so apologies for the brief mention.  We'll come back to discuss the Inuit today later in this series..  All modern Inuit are descendants of the Thule; the term 'Eskimo' is no longer favoured.  

The modern European interest in the area was primarily an interest by the English in finding a route to the orient, a 'northwest passage', rather than the typical interest in colonialism as elsewhere in the world, and as far as I've read there were no 'hostile natives', nor any massacres.  (The only reference I've seen is to the Bloody Falls Massacre on the Coppermine River in 1771.  This was a massacre by natives, of natives.  About 20 Copper Inuit were killed by a group of Copper Indians accompanying the explorer Samuel Hearne, who you'll meet soon.)

The stone foundation of what is thought to be a Thule house.

Two main factors shaped the physical reality of arctic exploration.  The first was the polar climate, specifically the ice; the second was the geography of waterways, islands and peninsulas that shaped the ultimate northwest passages.  

The Arctic ice basically defined where sailors could go and where they couldn't.  The first few explorers actually gave up when faced with the sight of 6 or 8 foot thick ice extending into the distance.  And remember, these were sailing ships; they couldn't just turn around in a narrow channel and go back the other direction.  Ship after ship was frozen in and spent the winter stuck in the ice; some spent 2 or 3 winters.  Indeed it's not much of an exaggeration to say that more than half the later effort put into Arctic exploration was in the form of rescue operations to find ice-bound ships of earlier explorers.

The Arctic ice pack extending to the horizon.

In fact, the ultimate successful navigation of the Northwest Passage did not come until diesel ships were available, Roald Amundsen being the first captain to do so in 1903-06.  It took him 3 years to do it, spending two winters frozen in the ice.  Even coal-fired steamships could not do it; they couldn't carry enough coal!

We'll encounter many stories of ice and cold later in these posts, indeed it's always there, not just in the background but in the foreground, defining the navigational choices sailors made.  But first the other factor, the geography of waterways, islands and peninsulas,

Nunavut, the eastern Canadian Arctic.
(Shaded in light brown)

Take a close look at the pattern of islands and the mainland.  This map shows you the barriers than sailors coming from the east faced.  As you can see, Baffin Island blocks the entire east end of the Arctic, sailors had to choose to go around the south or the north end of this island.  Going around the south would seem natural, but it never worked.  The main channel led into Hudson Bay, the route used so heavily by the Hudson Bay Company, but otherwise a dead end.

Going past the south end of Baffin Island and turning north into Foxe Basin leads to two dead ends.  The first is the narrow east-west strait named after the Fury and Hecla, two ships that were frozen in there in 1821.  It has proven to be ice-clogged more often than not.  The second, at the south end of Somerset Island, is a very narrow strait that is characterized by strong changeable currents making it impossible for sailing ships.  The first crossing of this strait didn't occur until 1937.  So sailing ships were left having to go around the north end of Baffin Island, through the waterway today known as Lancaster Sound. 
Satellite image of Canadian Arctic

You need to carefully compare this satellite image to the map above to keep the islands straight.  On the right you can see the north half of Baffin Island, with open water across its northern end through Lancaster Sound.  Similarly the southern  channel on the left half of the map, abutting the mainland, is open water.  These two areas are part of what later became the Northwest Passage. But even in recent years the area beyond Lancaster Sound is often choked with ice, as shown.  This is where the Northwest Passage was most difficult to explore and where Franklin got frozen in.  It formed a block to all early exploration.

And this image is taken in the summer!  After the first three centuries of exploration it had become very apparent that there was only a two-month summer window when the Arctic could be navigated at all.  Ice was the dominant factor constraining arctic exploration.  It was this large area of ice that delayed early arctic exploration for 200 years.


* Unfortunately I haven't figured out yet how to embed links here in the new version of Blogger as I'd like to, so you'll just have to look up the links yourself if you want to pursue them.  The 'link' function doesn't work for me.