SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
July 08, 1974
In 1820 a British expedition set off from Great Slave Lake searching for the polar sea. Using its log as a guide, six adventurers retrace the journey and find the specter of the earlier party still hovering over the land
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
July 08, 1974

Haunting The Arctic

In 1820 a British expedition set off from Great Slave Lake searching for the polar sea. Using its log as a guide, six adventurers retrace the journey and find the specter of the earlier party still hovering over the land

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

John Franklin was born in 1786 in Lincolnshire. He fought at Trafalgar, Copenhagen and New Orleans; was commissioned a captain in the Royal Navy; appointed governor of Tasmania; and knighted by George IV. He died on the polar ice pack, in the summer of 1847, having led three expeditions to the Arctic. Franklin is remembered because of these explorations, his name appearing on maps affixed to heights of land, bodies of water and lonely outposts.

Between 1819 and 1827 he commanded two separate parties that between them traversed a thousand hard, virgin, overland miles between Great Slave Lake and the Arctic Ocean, and on the ocean paddled canoes and sailed small boats, plotting the first maps along 1,800 miles of coastline between Beechey Point, in what is now Alaska, and Bathurst Inlet on the central Arctic coast. In the 1840s Franklin was principally responsible (by his own efforts and by those of the men who set out to rescue him) for the discovery of the Northwest Passage, the possible existence of which had driven bold men north for five centuries.

In comparison with other large figures of North American exploration—Coronado, Hudson, La Salle, Lewis and Clark, Mackenzie—John Franklin was personally rather commonplace. He was not a man of exceptional strength or stamina, scientific training or wilderness wit. His men did not seem to follow him out of great love nor be driven by fear and hate of him. He was a nagger. There was a fussy, even priggish, streak in his character. What John Franklin was above all else was the archetypal 19th-century British gentleman-adventurer. His accomplishments stand as a monument to the power of persistence, the efficacy of muddling through.

Today a person contemplating a trip between St. Louis and Portland, Ore. would be unlikely to dig out the Lewis and Clark journals to facilitate planning. However, if one wishes to journey overland from Great Slave Lake to the Arctic Ocean it makes good sense to turn to John Franklin's Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea in the Years 1819, 20, 21 and 22. It is one of the few published volumes dealing with this area. Also, because the central Arctic has changed so little in the past 150 years, the Narrative still contains much pertinent information.

It was for this reason that in the summer of 1973 six of us, having decided to head north, came to John Franklin. (The six were: Dick, John, Ky, Sam, Terry—all in their early 20s—and Bil, twice 20 and then some.) In the beginning we went to the Narrative for information on water conditions, portages, weather and food foraging. The decision to retrace Franklin's route as closely as possible followed. When the planning and reading were finished and we were deep in the same fast water, muskeg and fly clouds Franklin had been in, our association with him and his men took a surprisingly intimate turn. We began to understand the Franklin party, its triumphs and frustrations, aches, pains and pleasures, not just in our heads but in our hides and stomachs. Keeping up with Franklin became a compulsive, competitive objective. In certain peculiar moments it seemed almost as if he and his people were just ahead of us in time and space, that if we could sustain an extraordinary effort we might catch up to them at the next portage.

Franklin left England for the polar sea on May 23, 1819 and did not return for 42 months. His expedition was sponsored by the Admiralty and the Royal Geographical Society. His orders were to get himself to the north shore of Great Slave Lake, which was then on the rim of the known world. From there he was to proceed north, hoping to strike the Arctic Ocean at the mouth of the Coppermine River. He was then to explore eastward along the shoreline, record the latitude and longitude of "every remarkable spot," take temperature readings three times a day and make general observations.

Franklin was assigned three officers: Dr. John Richardson, a surgeon who was also the chief naturalist, and two midshipmen, George Back and Robert Hood. He was to employ guides, interpreters and other men when needed and where he could find them. In the main he was to depend for his provisions on the Hudson's Bay and North West companies, the trading monopolies that maintained outposts across northern Canada.

Franklin and his party arrived on Aug. 30 at York Factory, then the great fur depot on the southwest coast of Hudson Bay. From there, traveling as everyone did in that time and place, by canoe, the group set off for the interior, following the fur-trade route. In late October it was caught by the freeze and wintered at a post on the lower Saskatchewan River. The next June, after the ice broke, the men continued north and reached Fort Providence on the north shore of Great Slave Lake at the end of July. Fort Providence was some 1,900 miles from York Factory but, since existing canoe-trade routes were followed, the trip was considered something of a milk run.

Even if the canoe roads of the fur empire could be found, other considerations did not permit us to paddle from Hudson Bay to Great Slave. With two rather than 42 months available, the best we could do was pick up Franklin's 153-year-old trail at the mouth of the Yellowknife River. We traveled to this rendezvous as it is customary to travel in North America during the summer months—by highway and van. There were certain hardships and annoyances, venial mechanics, exhaust fumes and greasy roadside food, but this trip, too, was a milk run.

When Franklin arrived in July 1820, Fort Providence was the most northerly outpost of the fur trade, sitting on the edge of some of the most inhospitable land in the world. The country to the north is covered by glacier-tortured slabs, dikes and ridges of rock, some rising 1,500 feet above sea level, and by cold, deep waters trapped in basins of rock. Between the water and the rock there is little proper soil, only pockets of glacial sand and muskeg, which floats on top of the permafrost. Surface water is plentiful because drainage is poor and the temperatures are so low there is little evaporation. The rainfall is light, about five inches a year, the same as that in the Arizona desert. This Arctic land is one of the coldest places in the world. The mean (in both senses) January temperature is—17�, and—50� readings can be expected occasionally.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9