An Arctic accident

Even before we were grounded, I had my life-changing moment, when a man in Gjoa Haven said he had an item that might interest me: the lost logbook of Lord Franklin

REUTERS; PABLO S./ DANNY CATT

To distract my fears when the Clipper Adventurer ran aground on Aug. 27 on an uncharted rock in Nunavut’s Coronation Gulf, I asked on-board geologist Marc St-Onge if he knew what kind of rock it was. As an instructor with the Canadian tour company Adventure Canada, St-Onge had told passengers the history of every rock we had encountered in our expedition through the fabled Northwest Passage. This was a gabbro sill, a submerged version of formations that rose around us onshore. “I think,” he said, “this one will be well charted after this little incident.”

As it turned out, the Coast Guard icebreaker Amundsen, deployed to rescue us from 500 miles west on the Beaufort Sea, was full of geologists mapping the ocean floor to assess the environmental impact of proposed deepwater drilling. They had barely begun when they got our distress call and found themselves drafted to rescue duty. While they shared their couches and chowder with us, they conducted soundings and began mapping the rock that had until now evaded every Arctic chart leading back to Lord Franklin and beyond. Research team member Steve Blasco told Clipper Adventurer passengers, “You’re part of the charting.”

By the time of the grounding, we had already been through a life-changing journey. Our route west from Greenland crossed from the land of the polar bear to that of the grizzly. The land is littered with bones of seal, caribou, goose and fox. It is studded with artifacts and hidden messages that continue to tell secrets of lost Arctic expeditions, and once you tune in, they reveal themselves in the star-studded tundra. In Pasley Bay I found a wooden peg stuck in the ground. It lay a distance from detritus that historian Ken McGoogan explained was likely left in 1941 by crew members on the St. Roch, wintering through its first navigation of the Northwest Passage. I showed the peg to Aaju Peter, our Greenlandic-Canadian Inuit guide, who said it had secured a rack for drying caribou skin. “They would have learned how to do that from the Inuit,” she said, laying down her rifle and finding four more pegs; “We still use these to this day.” Farther west in Bathurst Inlet there stand, hidden behind a lone willow, stones that appear to mark an unknown, European-style grave. When I showed them to the expedition’s anthropologist, Kenneth Lister, he speculated it might be the grave of a whaler, as the area has long been known as a beluga ground.

But these findings were minor compared with what happened next. In Gjoa Haven, a hamlet of fewer than 1,000 located on King William Island, I met a man named Wally Porter who told me of another hidden object, an artifact so stunning it could prove the biggest discovery in 160 years of Arctic history. I stood alone in the George W. Porter Centre while the others visited a small museum inside. It was one of those moments you take to reflect away from the crowd. Wally Porter came up to me and said, “Too bad you won’t be here next week.”

“Why?”

“About 60 years ago Father Henry got a hold of Franklin’s logbook.”

I stood in my old raincoat and rubber boots. (This had been a wet landing, one of many on our expedition, since few northern hamlets have any kind of wharf.) The impact of what Wally Porter had just told me electrified me. I think it’s safe to say the 1845 Franklin logbook would be the Holy Grail of Arctic exploration history.

“How did he do that?”

“An old Inuk guy handed the documents to the priest. He made them waterproof. He wrapped them in canvas material that had wax in it, then put it in a metal container and buried it in the ground here in Gjoa Haven, he and my grandfather. My grandfather was the Hudson Bay manager, George Washington Porter. Only one uncle, Chester Porter, was aware, and he kept it secret until last year. Next week we’re going to excavate it.”

Wally Porter gave me copies of two documents. One is a copy of an agreement between the Porter family and solicitors they have hired to help them claim the Franklin logbook as part of Gjoa Haven’s cultural heritage. The other, written by historian David Pelley under contract with the Nunavut government, outlines a meeting the family held last November with two Nunavut lawyers and a member of Nunavut’s department of culture, language, elders and youth. It includes assent to sign a temporary custody agreement ensuring the Franklin papers remain property of the family while being treated at the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa.

“We’ve been waiting,” Wally Porter told me, “for the right time.” With the Harper government’s focus on Arctic sovereignty, he said, his family felt uncovering the Franklin papers would be a way of securing Gjoa Haven’s status as a historic cultural centre. “The government is trying to focus more on the Northwest Passage other than just monitoring it.” The important thing for his community, he said, is that the logbook stays there instead of being taken from local people. “I feel like telling you this now.”

I decided to share the information with Ken McGoogan. Author of four books comprising the Arctic Discovery Quartet, McGoogan has written extensively about the Franklin expedition. I felt this news should be published, and it seemed to me he would be the best person on board to place the story in its right context. I saw him in the local co-op store and called him aside. I told him where to find Wally Porter, and in less than two hours McGoogan had filed a beautifully written, concise account to the Globe and Mail.

What happened next, or didn’t happen, reflects what I sense is a deeper history of the Canadian Arctic. The Globe, citing incredulity, did not print the story. Its editors apparently decided the oral history of an Inuk family was not believable enough to warrant mention, despite an ancient oral tradition or the fact that the location of Gjoa Haven, a mere 100 miles from Victory Point where Franklin’s expedition became icebound, makes it reasonable to suppose the logbook might have arrived there. Indeed, a wooden box has now been excavated and was flown unopened on Monday to the Canadian Conservation Institute, where it is to be examined and preserved. While there is speculation it may instead contain papers left by Roald Amundsen from the first successful trip through the passage in 1905, Wally Porter says he remains convinced they are Franklin’s papers.

The relationship between Inuit and non-Inuit knowledge about the Arctic cannot have been any more important historically than it is today. On Aug. 30, writer Noah Richler attended a Parks Canada teleconference briefing journalists on the completion of its 2010 Arctic Survey, whose findings included the HMS Investigator lost in 1853 during its attempt to find Franklin. Richler says Ryan Harris, who led the Investigator search, said of underwater soundings, “They know more about the surface of Mars than this area, which is quite telling.” Our ship was aground even as he spoke, and within days a second ship, carrying diesel to northern communities, ran aground just off Gjoa Haven.

Any scientist will tell you that findings depend on questions we ask, and on our openness to information from all sources. As a passenger on the Clipper Adventurer, I began to glimpse how important it is that Canada assume a broader attitude to how we gather Arctic knowledge. The word sovereignty can mean supremacy, or it can expand to include an idea of government that arises through a deserved authority; an authority born of reverence for the land, its people, its magnificence.

Before we were grounded on that rock, we stopped at Beechy Island, one of the most important sites in Arctic exploration. The last known whereabouts of Franklin’s party, it became headquarters for many of the expeditions that later searched for him. The island is a study in desolation, a lowland of stones on which stand graves of three of Franklin’s men. Your heart sinks when you see what they must have endured. The Clipper Adventurer travels with guns, and our gun bearers formed their perimeter. We looked at the graves, but as we prepared to walk overland, a ship’s observer spotted a young polar bear heading for us. As we returned to our Zodiacs, the bear covered nearly two kilometres. The Zodiacs had to relay us in several trips, with the bear coming closer. It was a fragile moment in which we realized the gun bearers would have to load their guns. I prayed that the bear would live. Aaju Peter knelt on the beach as it came toward her. It was about one kilometre away by this time, and she began singing an Inuit song to let the bear know he should not be afraid, that we were leaving him alone on his island with the graves. She sang holding her rifle, and when our last Zodiac left the beach, Adventure Canada’s Matthew Bradley-Swan said, “That’s the closest a polar bear has ever come to us on land.”

As we departed, the bear sniffed the stones where we had stood. We left him alone with the stones, the graves, the Arctic night that holds light luminous: light that belongs to the rest of the world if we recognize it for what it is. Canada’s Arctic is a place of sapphires and energy, power and true sovereignty, deeply important to our collective future. How we listen to it and to its original inhabitants may determine our salvation or our doom. The uncharted rock on which our ship ran aground is just one fragment of an entire world we have yet to perceive.

Sign in to comment.