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HMS Terror: How the final Franklin ship was found

How one man’s efforts to build inroads with northern communities helped uncover the second of Sir John Franklin’s doomed ships


 
HMS Erebus and Terror in the Antarctic. (John Wilson Carmichael/National Maritime Museum)

HMS Erebus and Terror in the Antarctic. (John Wilson Carmichael/National Maritime Museum)

Sammy Kogvik remembers the moment he first spotted HMS Terror. It was around seven years ago and the resident of Gjoa Haven, a remote Nunavut community, was riding a snowmobile across the ice in Terror Bay, on the south coast of King William Island in Canada’s High Arctic. He’d just stopped to make sure his hunting and fishing companion, James Klungnatuk, was still safely following in his tracks. As he dismounted, he noticed something unusual off to his left: a heavy wooden pole, about the height of a tall man, sticking bolt upright out of the ice.

“I figured it might be one of the boats that they’ve been looking for so many years,” recalls Kogvik, referring to the two ships—Erebus and Terror—that disappeared in the Northwest Passage nearly 170 years ago, along with the Royal Navy’s Sir John Franklin and 128 of his men. So Kogvik put his arm around the mast and Klungnatuk snapped a picture (Kogvik also gave it a bear hug, lifting himself from the ground). But Kogvik later lost his camera and the two men decided not to tell anyone about the find, lest people think they made it up. Kogvik’s resolve to keep the story to himself hardened after Klungnatuk died in an ATV accident the following year.

Yet earlier this month Kogvik shared his story with Adrian Shimnowski, who runs former BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie’s Arctic Research Foundation (ARF), and eight other crew members aboard the Martin Bergmann, ARF’s research vessel. They are no doubt grateful he did. On Sept. 3, the Canadian Ranger’s tale led the men almost directly to the wreck, which they found in pristine condition in 24 m of water. Even the ship’s windows, save one, are intact.

MORE: How Jim Balsillie plans to sell the HMS Erebus—and the North

It’s a massive find—potentially bigger and more illuminating than the discovery of Erebus two years ago. Even more impressive: the ship’s watery grave was pinpointed not by the latest technology or archeological theories, but thanks to Schimnowski’s years-long efforts to build inroads with northern communities. Put another way: Schimnowski, more of an Arctic handyman than a polar explorer, didn’t necessarily know where to look, but he knew when to listen—and that, seemingly, made all the difference.

On the day of the discovery, Schimnowski and the rest of the Bergmann’s crew were on the way to Cambridge Bay after picking up Kogvik in Gjoa Haven. (After refuelling and bringing aboard more supplies, the Bergmann was scheduled to meet up with a Coast Guard icebreaker and a Navy patrol ship a few days later to look for Terror, further north in Victoria Strait.) As the repurposed fishing trawler chugged through Simpson Strait, Kogvik pointed out local landmarks to Schimnowski: a komatik, a local hunting cabin and a few choice fishing spots. Then, almost as if adding a footnote, Kogvik recounted the story of the ship’s mast. Schimnowski’s eyes widened. He had heard similar stories from other locals about a sunken ship in Terror Bay, including one that said “during the spring when the ice recedes and the sun is setting, you can see the silhouette of a masted ship in the water.”

The North is full of Franklin stories, of course. An accomplished Arctic explorer, Franklin and his men left England in 1845 to chart a route through the Northwest Passage. His two ships were outfitted with the latest technology of the time, including reinforced bows, desalinators and steam engines that could be used to power through ice in an emergency. All of which made it more shocking that they disappeared. Dozens of expeditions were sent to look for Franklin’s men. The clues gathered suggested a horrific tale. Franklin’s ships were frozen in place off the northwest coast of King William Island and Franklin died in the spring 1847, along with several men, according to a note later found in a cairn. The note also said the 105 surviving crew members abandoned the ships in April 1848 and marched south. Some resorted to cannibalism in their most desperate hour.

Running ahead of schedule, Schimnowski and the Bergmann’s crew decided to follow up on Kogvik’s recollection. They entered Terror Bay around 4 a.m. and boarded a five-metre aluminum skiff, which they used to poke around the bay’s low islands with a side-scan sonar—basically guessing where Francis Crozier, Terror’s captain, might have attempted to seek shelter. No luck. As the morning wore on and the wind picked up, the search party returned to the Bergmann and continued on their way. The unmistakable signature of a shipwreck suddenly crawled across the Bergmann’s sonar screen. Daniel McIsaac, the watch, called everyone up to the bridge, yelling, “There’s something you have to see here,” recalls Schimnowski, 40, who is also a Winnipeg artist.

An underwater camera towed over the wreck revealed a ship in near-perfect condition. “It’s all there,” Schimnowski says. “If you raised the ship, pumped out the water, it might float as is.” But because nothing in the Arctic is ever straightforward, the crew lost their underwater camera after it snagged on the ship’s bow—a mishap Schimnowski compared to the one experienced by Kogvik a half-dozen years ago. So the Bergmann headed back to Cambridge Bay and returned with a remote-controlled underwater vehicle. It spotted even more details: the ship’s brass bell, the double-wheeled helm and the davits used to hold Terror’s safety boats.

HMS Terror, found in a bay off King William Island, Nunavut. (Arctic Research Foundation)

HMS Terror, found in a bay off King William Island, Nunavut. (Arctic Research Foundation)

Though the wreck has yet to be officially confirmed as Terror, the discovery is already rewriting the story of Franklin’s failed mission. The fact Terror was tucked into a bay far south of where was it was abandoned suggests Crozier may have sent crew back to retrieve one or both ships after getting word the ice had released its grip. “If I was a sailor stranded in the Arctic, I wouldn’t want to lose the safety my stranded ship provides,” reasons Rear Admiral John Newton of the Royal Canadian Navy, which had three sailors aboard the Bergmann when it made the discovery. If true, the revelation would challenge the current narrative that says Franklin’s men essentially came unglued in the face of incredible adversity. “I think they used their naval discipline,” Newton says.

Others, however, warn it’s still too early to infer anything. Robert Park, a professor of anthropology at the University of Waterloo who played a key role in the 2014 Erebus discovery, says Franklin’s men would likely have headed west, not east, if they’d managed to free the ships of ice in the Victoria Strait. Why? They already knew there was no eastern exit based on contemporary maps, he says. Even so, Terror may hold important clues because, unlike Erebus, there are no stories about Inuit boarding it after it was abandoned. “The holy grail would be finding written documents, which apparently can survive nicely under these conditions,” says Park, who has previously searched Terror Bay by helicopter and looked for a Franklin campsite along its shores.

The events leading to Terror’s discovery raise an obvious question: Why, after so many years, did Kogvik divulge his story to Schimnowski and not Parks Canada or its other federal government partners? “I trust him,” Kogvik says. “But I don’t trust Parks Canada because they like to keep everything secret.” Indeed, there was much grumbling in Gjoa Haven when the 2014 Erebus discovery was first announced at a tightly controlled press conference in Ottawa, nearly 3,000 km away. In fact, the whole 2014 expedition at times smacked of style over substance. It involved uniformed members of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, an expedition cruise ship full of dignitaries and a distracting visit from then prime minister Stephen Harper. More recently, there have been complaints Parks Canada ignored locals who suggested Terror was at the bottom of the Arctic bay that was prophetically named for it. “I don’t think they really took it seriously,” Franklin historian and Gjoa Haven resident Louie Kamookak told the Nunatsiaq News this week. “There’s a lot of modern information of a ship being seen there, under the water, from hunters and also from airplanes.”

Sammy Kogvik of Gjoa Haven. (Arctic Research Foundation)

Sammy Kogvik of Gjoa Haven. (Arctic Research Foundation)

That Schimnowski earned Kogvik’s confidence shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Balsillie hand-picked him to run his Arctic charitable foundation precisely because the soft-spoken Schimnowski had a knack for working with locals and functioned like a “northern Swiss Army knife” on the ground. Schimnowski’s duties include managing the Bergmann and its crew, coordinating with university researchers and Parks Canada archeologists who rely on the Bergmann for their work and performing local community outreach. He’s also overseen the setup of art workshops and science labs in the North that are ingeniously housed in solar-powered shipping containers. It’s hardly glamorous work, but it just paid huge dividends all the same.

Parks Canada archeologists, already aboard the ice breaker CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier, are now expected to make their way to Terror Bay for a glimpse at the latest Franklin find. Meanwhile, Schimnowski, Kogvik and the rest of the Bergmann’s crew planned to wait out poor weather in Gjoa Haven, where there are plans for a big celebratory banquet this week. “I guess you can call it karma,” says Schimnowski when asked why he thinks events unfolded the way they did. “Good things happen when you put people first.” As for Kogvik, the experience has been bittersweet. “We found it and I was very excited,” he says. “But inside I was crying at the same time because I was thinking of my hunting buddy. I wish he was still here to see it, too.”


 

HMS Terror: How the final Franklin ship was found

  1. Finally, someone listened. Native people even prior to John Rae’s explorations said where to look but even a naval cap with the ship’s name on it was apparently insufficient to establish credibility. Even though John Rae obtained credible information and collected several artifacts, his information was ignored for social and political reasons. In spite of having lost one of its best arctic navigators (Crozier), the British navy persisted in it’s belief that it knew better than anyone else.
    One interesting aspect of the story that is largely ignored is that the British navy spent an amount north of 650,000 pounds and failed to find the northwest passage while Dr John Rae accomplished that task for less than 60,000; more remarkably, he went there and returned on foot. Sadly, some of the British seamen were assisted for a time by native hunters but were abandoned when they proved unwilling to learn from example; John Rae on the other hand was pilloried for wearing native clothing and living of the land (i.e. going native). To be sure, a lot of the story has a racial subtext.

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