In August of 2007 a titanium Russian flag was planted at the North Pole in the bottom of the Arctic Ocean by Russian scientists in a submersible. In response politicians in Ottawa started wondering what Canada could do to reinforce its own claim to Arctic waterways. Someone, perhaps Prime Minister Harper himself, got the bright idea of finding the Erebus and Terror, Sir John Franklin's still missing ships.
In my opinion it was a great idea and today makes a great story, the one that I find the most intriguing in the Arctic today
The two ships were named National Historic Sites in 1997, a designation that gave Parks Canada a role in any future decisions about the ships, even though their locations were still unknown. Under maritime law, the ships still belonged to Great Britain, though after they were found ownership was transferred to Canada.
During the past decade Parks Canada led a team of underwater archeologists with support from several different agencies and organizations to survey and eventually find the two ships, solving perhaps the greatest Arctic mystery of our time. The search took several years given the very narrow window in ice cover during late August and early September when such work could be undertaken.
This is the only actual note Franklin or his men left, found by McLintock's men in a rock cairn on King William Island in 1859. The note is just the scribbled writing around the sides. Part describes the progress as expected over the first two years, until the ships were frozen in for the winter of 1846. The second part was added in the summer of 1847 after Franklin himself had died, and the remaining men were setting out to walk south.
Some articles I have read express a hope that a ship's journal may be found, completely preserved in the cold Arctic waters. That could tell a more complete story of the expedition's sad ending. In fact, the condition and location of the Terror already implies an intriguing further mystery, as investigators are now suggesting that the men may have gone back to the Terror where it had originally been abandoned and re-sailed it, anchoring in a sheltered bay for protection where it settled gently on the bottom.
In any case, this is a story we certainly haven't heard the ending of. Britain has now gifted the two ships to Canada and Parks Canada is managing the future of this fascinating National Historic Site.
Once I started reading Ice Ghosts I quickly realized how much the search for Franklinès ships (and Franklin's original expedition itself) had neglected Qauijimajatuqangit or Inuit traditional knowledge. Inuit today, based on several generations of stories from their elders, knew of ancestors who had actually seen the two ships, in the final locations where they went down. There are even stories of ancestors who had talked to some of Franklin's surviving men. But we still largely ignored their knowledge even during the recent search for the ships.
During Franklin's day and the rescue missions which followed him, the prejudice against the Inuit was much more explicit. As Watson writes, "One truth is eternal: Royal Navy prejudice toward indigenous people helped doom the Franklin Expedition, and the arrogant disregard for Inuit knowledge prolonged efforts to find out what happened to Sir John Franklin and the men he led to their deaths".
In spite of that it was Inuit oral history that provided most of the final clues to finding the ships. Louie Kamookak was an Inuit historian living in Gjoa Haven who provided much of the knowledge, after interviewing many elders about their memories. Hopefully we've learned something from this!