Ice Ghosts – The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition

If you’ve never read a book about the missing Franklin Expedition, Ice Ghosts is a good place to start. Because at least you’ll get the answer to the question: where are the Erebus and Terror?

Paul Watson’s book is comprehensive, spanning 170 years. The first half focuses on early expeditions to look for Franklin. From 1847 to 1895, 36 expeditions went to look for Franklin and his men.

The second half, from 1967 onwards, was fresher for me since I had just devoured Ken McGoogan’s Dead Reckoning, which you can read about here.

As much as I wanted to skip through the 150 pages about the distant past, Watson’s context is important because it’s a reminder that people and politicians have been squabbling over the Franklin expedition for almost 200 years. It’s a reminder that the Inuit, who had a pretty good idea what happened, were ignored and marginalized for nearly the same amount of time. It’s a reminder that the High Arctic, even now, is dangerous and still has some mysteries. It’s a reminder that exploration and success takes hard work. It seems unlikely the ships would have been found without 170 years of practice runs.

If you weren’t paying attention or had no interest in the Franklin Expedition, it would have seemed that finding the Erebus in 2014 and two years later, the Terror, was no biggie. The Erebus was right there, under 9 metres of water. Visible, even, on good days. The Terror was in Terror Bay, right where Inuit have been saying for decades. No prob right? The first half of Watson’s books reminds us that no, this was an insanely difficult, hazardous and ongoing task.

Technology may have changed. Bureaucracy hasn’t, if more recent expeditions to look for Franklin’s ships are any proof.

“The soldiers survived on basic combat rations that included powdered potatoes, preserved ham, and canned meat, along with tinned juice, vegetables and fruit, assorted soups, bread, flour, tea and sugar. The Arctic supplement consisted of two chocolate bars and a package of cocoa powder. Things hadn’t changed that much for troops slogging it out in the High Arctic since Franklin’s day, except the Canadian rations excluded an important Royal Navy comfort: alcohol,” Watson writes.

We’re not good at learning. Politicians and bureaucrats haven’t been the best about outfitting Arctic expeditions since Franklin’s time. The highers ups still make decisions they know nothing about when it comes to living in the arctic: “When Canadian military planners pushed food services to toss in some fresh eggs and oatmeal, the Teletype response pointed out dryly that standard RP4 ration packs are designed for combat and they express disbelieve that the ref{erenced} project requires more a more concentrated effort than combat.”

Nevermind that the divers were spending their days in arctic waters in a wetsuit and that extreme cold saps one’s will to live. The combo of cold temperatures and under nourishment are extremely dangerous, as so many past expeditions have shown.

Franklin and his expedition has always been subjected to differing opinions and disagreements, since the moment the man himself was selected to go up north and find the Northwest Passage. Every decision since then has been fraught with infighting. The fighting hasn’t stopped with the finding of the missing ships.

“Now that the Erebus and Terror are no longer missing, experts can focus on solving the bigger mystery of how two of history’s most storied ships ended up far south of where they were abandoned, standing upright at the bottom of the Arctic seas,” Watson writes.

“After more than a century and a half, the Franklin Expedition hadn’t lost its power to rile people up,” Watson notes. “Inuit have always known that working together is essential to survival. That same spirit of cooperation will be the key to solving the complex Franklin mystery …”

I like to think we’ll never really know why Franklin’s men made the decisions they did to abandon ship, or what ultimately killed them all. It’s the mystery that’s interesting, not the truth of the matter. It was so long ago, I’m not sure the truth really matters. Then again, I’m not a scientist. 

Paul Watson was at Event 37 (North as Never Before) at the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival.

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