Photo: Daniel Scott
Two British naval ships belonging to the renowned explorer Sir John Franklin - lost 165 years ago while navigating the famed Northwest Passage - are once again at the centre of an intense search.
Not only has the Canadian government sent a Parks Canada icebreaker into a three-week expedition into the waters near Gjoa Haven, but local Inuit in the remote Arctic hamlet are also touting the possible excavation of some alleged lost journals.
Organisers today hope to unearth these ancient journals - believed to have been buried in an ancient cairn by Inuits some time over the past century - which may offer clues to the whereabouts of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, which set sail from England in 1845 under Franklin’s command.
Before becoming trapped in the ice, the state-of-the-art ships were part of a mission to discover the elusive Northwest Passage between Europe and Asia via the Arctic archipelago, now part of Nunavut in Canada.
The official dig for the alleged artifacts on King William Island is near to where the Franklin ships are believed to have been abandoned; it is hoped that the journals will shed light on the vessels’ location.
Although Franklin’s 129-man crew left two messages in the Arctic at a cairn for any rescue mission, according to naval protocol, the details of their last position was either never recorded or has yet to be found.
Inuit brothers Andrew and Wally Porter from Gjoa Haven - a hamlet with a population of just a few hundred people - claim that their grandfather, George Washington Porter, buried the papers 60 years ago for prosperity.
“He had been given them by a priest, who in turn had received them from a nomadic Inuit,” said Andrew, who runs a local café. “Following the discovery of the Investigator, and the renewed interest in Franklin and his lost ships,” added Wally, “we felt the time was right to reveal our family’s historical treasure.”
The British Admiralty’s reward at the time Franklin and his men disappeared - 20,000 pounds sterling or 100,000 dollars (the equivalent of a million pounds today) - sparked one of the greatest rescue efforts in naval history. Even this summer Parks Canada searched for the boats, encouraged by its discovery earlier this year of HMS Investigator, a British naval ship sent to locate Franklin before also becoming stuck in ice farther along the Northwest Passage at Mercy Bay.
“If this did turn out to be the lost journals, it would be thermonuclear,” said Aaron Spitzer, a history expert for the Inuit-run Cruise North Expeditions Company, which visits isolated, internet-less hamlets in the region. “I am finding it ridiculously cool that there is this renewed interest and not just from grey-faced academics in ivory towers in England, but genuine grass-roots interest among the aboriginal northerners,” he said. However, Spitzer, who is also editor of the political magazine, Up Here, added a caveat, “There have been false leads many times before.”
Dugald Wells, a former Arctic engineer and president of Cruise North Expedition, believes only 10 per cent of the waters in this expansive region are reliably charted. Indeed, another touring ship ran aground in the region last week.
“You definitely have to be open to the possibility that Franklin’s journals could turn up, even after this time, and it would be great to know where these ships are,” he added. “At the same time, mysteries are good too.”