THE HIGH ARCTIC: MAY 5, 1859
As the sledge bumped and slid across the frozen ground of the Arctic, Lieutenant William Hobson’s eyes swept the surrounding area searching for signs of the lost expedition led by Sir John Franklin. Cakes and slabs of ice piled up along the shore separated the snow-covered land from the frozen sea. Hobson, however, kept his gaze fixed on a pile of rocks in the distance, close to the shore. No accident of nature, that rock pile was a cairn, and Hobson hoped that other explorers, perhaps even Sir John Franklin and his men, had deposited records or notes in it, the usual practice in the Arctic. For many days, Hobson had followed a faint trail of scattered relics and broken bones to this spot. Little did he realize that the quest to discover the fate of Franklin, upon which he and his captain, Francis Leopold McClintock, had embarked, was about to reach its climax.
Pulling apart the top of the cairn, Hobson found a small tin canister. He opened it and reached inside to pull out a rolled-up sheet of yellowed, rust-stained paper. As he read it, Hobson realized that these were words from beyond the grave and that in the sparest of sentences, they told what had happened to the lost Franklin expedition:
25th April 1848. H.M. Ships Terror and Erebus were deserted on the 22nd April, 5 leagues NNW of this, having been beset since 12th Sept. 1846. The officers & crew consisting of 105 souls under the command of Captain F.R.M. Crozier, landed here.
Sir John Franklin died on the nth June, 1847 and the total loss by deaths in the expedition has been to this date 9 officers & 15 men.
Captain & Senior Officer
And start on tomorrow 26th for Back’s Fish River
Captain H.M.S. Erebus
THE SEARCH FOR FRANKLIN
In 1845, Erebus and Terror, commanded by F.R.M. Crozier and James Fitzjames, had sailed from Britain under the overall command of Captain Sir John Franklin, a veteran of three Arctic expeditions, to map the last unknown waters of the Canadian Arctic archipelago and to complete the transit of the elusive Northwest Passage, for which the English had been searching for nearly three centuries.
Most of the Northwest Passage had been mapped by the Royal Navy and explorers from the Hudson’s Bay Company, but the last link— a blank spot on the map—remained. So what was envisioned by the British as the final Arctic expedition set sail under the experienced Franklin and his crew, many of them also veterans of Arctic forays, in two well-equipped ships, “to forge the last link.” But after entering Lancaster Sound from Baffin Bay in the summer of 1845, Erebus and Tenor were never seen or heard from again.
For more than a decade, thirty-one expeditions, both public and private, British and American, searched in vain for Franklin. Tantalizing clues—three graves on a small Arctic beach, relics bought from the Inuit, and disturbing stories told by the Inuit of ships trapped in ice, of men struggling to march overland and dying along the way, and of cannibalism and murder—filled the years of searching, but no conclusive evidence—wrecked ships or records of the Franklin expedition— had been found. Lady Jane Franklin, wife of the missing explorer, pushed the British government to keep on looking, even after a large search expedition in 1854 ended with the loss of several ships: “The final and exhaustive search is all I seek on behalf of the first and only martyrs to Arctic discovery in modern times, and it is all I ever intend to ask.”
An engraving of Fox trapped in the Arctic ice. Vancouver Maritime Museum.
But Britain had sacrificed much to search for Franklin, and now, in 1854, was caught up in an expensive war on Russia’s Crimean Peninsula. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine summed up what Britain had gained, at great cost: “No; there are no more sunny continents—no more islands of the blessed—hidden under the far horizon, tempting the dreamer over the undiscovered sea; nothing but these weird and tragic shores, whose cliffs of everlasting ice and mainlands of frozen snow, which have never produced anything to us but a late and sad discovery of depths of human heroism, patience, and bravery, such as imagination could scarcely dream of.”
In April 1857, the British government informed Lady Franklin that they had “come, with great regret, to the conclusion that there was no prospect of saving life, [and] would not be justified… in exposing the lives of officers and men to the risk inseparable from such an enterprise.” But the determination of Lady Franklin and her years of urging on the search for her missing husband and his men touched many heartstrings. So, when the British government gave its final refusal, Lady Franklin made a public plea and raised nearly £3,000 to send out her own search expedition. She bought the steam yacht Fox, a 120-foot, Scottish-built vessel, from the estate of Sir Richard Sutton, a master of the traditional hunt who had named the ship for his favorite quarry.
Lady Franklin placed Fox under the command of Captain Francis Leopold McClintock, a veteran of two Arctic voyages in search of Franklin. At his direction, shipyard workers stripped off the fancy fittings of the yacht, strengthened the hull with extra layers of planking to protect it from the ice, enlarged the boiler, sheathed the bow in iron “until it resembled a ponderous chisel set up edgeways” and braced the hull to keep it from being crushed when frozen in for the winter in the pack ice. McClintock explained: “Internally she was fitted up with the strictest economy in every sense, and the officers were crammed into pigeonholes, styled cabins, in order to make room for provisions and stores; our mess-room, for five persons, measured 8 feet square.”
The Illustrated London News also described Fox: “There is very little ornament about her, but what she has is in wonderfully good condition. The Fox has three slender, rather raking masts, is of topsail schooner rig, and small poop aft. She is rather sharp forward and her bows are plated over with iron… She looks not unlike a bundle of heavy handspikes, iron pointed at each end, for fending off drift ice.”
McClintock and his officers and crew all volunteered their services without pay. For two long years they would endure hardship, cold, near shipwreck and three deaths on their quest to find Franklin.
Fox steamed out of Scotland on June 30, 1857, but when she reached the Canadian Arctic, was stopped in Baffin Bay by the early onset of winter and was trapped in the ice. There was nothing to do but dig in and wait, drifting with the ice pack. It was an occasionally harrowing eight-month ordeal, in which the boredom of confinement gave way to the terror of moving ice. After drifting 1,194 miles, the chance to escape came at last in late April. As Fox fought for eighteen hours to be free, ice constantly struck the hull, causing “the vessel to shake violently, the bells to ring, and almost knocked us off our legs.” McClintock commented, “I can understand how men’s hairs have turned grey in a few hours.” The ice, when it hit the stern, wrenched the rudder and stopped the propeller: “deprived of the one or the other, even for half an hour, I think our fate would have been sealed.”
Once free of the ice, Fox headed to Greenland for more supplies. After sending letters home to explain why they would be gone longer than planned, McClintock and his crew turned west again for the Canadian Arctic. In the Arctic archipelago, McClintock explored the shores of Somerset Island and Bellot Strait before anchoring Fox near the eastern entrance to the narrow strait. With the ship frozen in for the winter, McClintock prepared to sledge west over the ice and land to reach King William Island, where a few years earlier, Hudson’s Bay Company explorer Dr. John Rae had met some Inuit who told him about men whose ships, trapped in ice, had been abandoned. The men, trekking south, were starving and many had fallen on their march. Some had resorted to cannibalism. The Inuit had a number of items belonging to the dead men that Rae bought from them, including the personal effects of several of Franklin’s officers and Franklin himself. The story, when it reached England along with the “relics,” excited great interest and horror. Now McClintock, Lieutenant William Hobson and Sailing Master Allen Young would head off in three separate parties to search the region to see what they could find.
On his journey, McClintock learned from Inuit that two ships had been trapped by ice near King William Island, that one had sunk in deep water and that “all the white men went away to the large river, taking a boat or boats with them, and that in the following winter their bones were found there.” The Inuit had salvaged steel and wood from the doomed expedition, and as McClintock pushed farther south, he found Inuit who had in their possession silver spoons and forks “bearing the crests or initials” of Franklin and some of his officers, as well as “uniform and other buttons” and wood from a ship. They told McClintock about a ship, pushed onto shore by the ice, where they had gathered their treasures.
McClintock continued on to King William Island, where he and his party found more relics, and finally, on May 25, “when slowly walking along a gravel ridge near the beach, which the winds kept partially bare of snow, I came upon a human skeleton, partly exposed, with here and there a few fragments of clothing appearing through the snow.” McClintock also recovered a notebook that yielded up a few sentences about abandoning the ships and ended with a scrawled: “Oh death, whare [sic] is thy sting?” He found a hairbrush and comb, and from the fragments of the uniform, deduced that it was the skeleton of a steward or officer’s servant from the Franklin expedition. As McClintock stood looking at the bones, he recalled the words of an old Inuit woman he had questioned: “They fell down and died as they walked along.”
When McClintock headed north, back up King William Island to return to Fox, he made a last poignant discovery: a ship’s boat, laden with equipment and spare clothing, and two more skeletons, one wrapped in clothing and furs. After loading up a small quantity of items—silverware and ship’s instruments—McClintock continued his search for the wrecked ship. Instead, he found a pile of goods, stashed on the shore by the Franklin expedition. Plucking more relics from the pile, McClintock travelled back to Fox, arriving on June 19. When warm weather returned in July, McClintock reassembled the steam machinery laid up for the winter, and Fox set off for home.
McClintock, Hobson and the crew of Fox reached England in September 1859 with relics of the doomed expedition and the “last note.” The tiny yacht, its commander and crew made headlines around the world. Parliament rewarded Fox’s crew with a payment of £5,000, and in 1860 the Queen knighted McClintock. Subsequently promoted to admiral, McClintock enjoyed a long career, serving as commander of the West Indies and the North American station for the Royal Navy and as an honored Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society before his death in 1907.
Fox outlived McClintock by five years, a surprising fact considering that most ships have short lives, particularly those that work in the Arctic. Sold to Danish owners in 1860, the tough little steamer carried supplies up and down the Greenland coast for the next fifty-two years. The end for Fox came when she went aground on the west Greenland coast in June 1912. After getting off and returning to Qeqertarsuaq (Disko Island), the damaged Fox was discovered by surveyors to be beyond repair. And so the famous ship, stripped of her fittings, was beached in a small cove near the harbor entrance. There, lying half submerged on the starboard side, the hulk slowly deteriorated.
Even in death, however, Fox attracted visitors drawn by the vessel’s fame. Arctic explorer Donald MacMillan photographed the wreck in 1926, dismasted but still solid, though the local Inuit had been salvaging loose wood from the hull. Accounts of visitors to Qeqertarsuaq mentioned the wreck through the 1930s, but in 1931 and 1934, visiting naturalist Tom Longstaff boarded the hulk to find it breaking apart. He pulled two oak treenails from the hull as souvenirs. In 1940, Fox finally broke apart when a spring storm swept into the harbor and smashed up the deteriorated hull, leaving, one account reported, “only parts of the metal engine” behind.
FOX AT QEQERTARSUAQ
The cold spume of the sea sprays over the deck as the bow of Mary West buries itself in a wave. The wind whips around, chilling us to the bone, as we stand clustered on the small deck of the fishing boat. We’re two hours out of Aasiaat, a mainland port, making our way to Qeqertarsuaq, sailing across the waters of Disko Bugt, a bay that cuts into the western coast of Greenland above the 69th parallel. Icebergs, large and small, fill the sea, most of them towering above our deck. It is the height of the brief Arctic summer, and yet the temperature hovers just above 30° F.
Qeqertarsuaq, a small port community of a thousand, is more than two hundred years old. Founded by Danish traders and whalers, it was named Gødhavn, or “good harbor,” by them. Later known as Lievely, it became a major port of call for Danish, British and American whalers working in Arctic waters. Now known by its original name of Qeqertarsuaq, the settlement survives on fishing, hunting, tourism and the presence of the Arktisk Station—the Danish Polar Scientific Station of the University of Copenhagen. Founded in 1906, it remains a center for Arctic research, hosting two hundred visiting scientists a year. It will be our home for the next week as we venture out to find and dive on the wreck of Fox.
We’ve traveled to this remote spot in search of a famous shipwreck for The Sea Hunters. This is our northernmost adventure. The team includes Mike Fletcher, his son Warren (our dive co-coordinator and underwater cameraman), land cameramen Marc Pike and camera and soundman John Rosborough. We rendezvoused in Iqualuit, the capital of Nunavut, where we took a small chartered plane across Baffin Bay to Aasiaat, where we boarded Mary West for the last leg of a thirty-six-hour trip.
Aasiaat, a small coastal settlement, allows the team to either familiarize, or in some cases, like mine, to refamiliarize, ourselves with the Arctic. For me, that involves a walk to the harbor front where Inuit hunters and fishermen are busy butchering fish and seals. One of the great delicacies of the Arctic is raw fresh seal—or so I’ve been told, somehow having missed this treat on previous northern expeditions. But now, standing on the shores of Aasiaat, with John Rosborough pointing a running camera right at me, how can I refuse the bloody chunk of fresh seal liver that the cheerful hunter is offering me?
With a smile, I pop the oozing morsel into my mouth, slowly savoring each chewy bite. I must look like I really enjoy it, because my gracious host cuts off a bit of fresh seal blubber and hands it to me. It truly is an honor and a gift not to be refused, so I pop that in, too, finishing off my snack by smacking my lips and licking the blood and glistening fat off my fingertips. He offers me another bite, but I politely decline with “Thanks, I’ve already had a big lunch.” We both laugh. Feeling fully reintegrated with the Arctic and like I’ve just swallowed a glass of oil in which sardines have been soaked, I rejoin the rest of the crew for the voyage across Disko Bay.
Qeqertarsuaq is a beautiful town, nestled against high cliffs that at present are carpeted with a summer bloom of grass and flowers. The tops of the cliffs are capped with snow, and in the distance, the solid mass of a glacier that covers the center of the island gleams in the sunlight. The houses, built on the crests of the rocks that line the coast and on the small bay that forms the harbor, are a well-kept array of brightly painted red, blue, green, orange and yellow buildings. Some of them, like the Qeqertarsuaq Museum, are old, dating to the nineteenth century. The museum, formerly the home of the inspektor, the government official in charge of this coast, was built in 1840. Solidly constructed of heavy beams atop a stone foundation, its red walls now contain displays that tell the history of the settlement’s Inuit and Danish inhabitants.
Here, we meet the museum’s director, Elisa Evaideen, and Karl Tobiassen, “an old Greenlander” who knows where all the wrecks on the coast are. Karl points across the harbor to a small cove, known to the locals as K’uigssarssuak, and says that that is where Fox ended her days. More surprisingly, he also tells us that, on the way in, we’d passed a small island, Qeqertaq, where a tall, red-painted metal stack stands as a navigational marker. It is the smokestack or funnel of Fox, taken off the wreck and recycled. Nothing goes to waste in the Arctic.
With the help of our host, the Arktisk Station, and its director, Bente Jessen Graae, we borrow an inflatable boat to reach the wreck site. We refill our dive tanks every day at the local fire hall (there are no dive shops north of 60 degrees). All this helps us to take advantage of the rare opportunity to dive down into history beneath the waters of the Arctic. Pulling into K’uigssarssuak’s small cove, we realize we will not have to search for the wreck—the tip of Fox’s boiler rises out of the water at low tide. Wedged into the rocks, just where we’ve tied up our boat, are Fox’s hawse pipes, the iron sleeves that once protected the wooden hull from the anchor chain. Pulled free of the wreck after Fox broke up, they were probably left here for salvage and then abandoned, just like the boiler. Wooden hull planking lies on the beach, nearly perfectly preserved. Close by is a section of Fox’s wrought-iron propeller shaft. I’m worried that the hulk, which broke apart in 1940, has been picked away and that nothing but the boiler remains. There’s only one way to find out, though. Pulling on our thick dry suits to keep out the freezing water and our heavy gear, Mike, Warren and I step off into the numbingly cold water and drop down to the bottom to see what remains of Fox.
James Delgado beside the smokestack or funnel of FOX, now serving as a navigational marker in Qeqertarsuaq harbor in Greenland. Mike Fletcher.
The rocks that surround the resting place of Fox are worn and rounded by the ice, and covered with slippery seaweed. We follow the rocks down to the sand and gravel seabed, 16 feet below. The cold bites into me, right through the thick layers of the dry suit and the protective “woolies” beneath it. My lips and cheeks, the only bare skin exposed to the sea, throb with the cold, then quickly turn numb.
The water is relatively clear, and ahead we see the ship’s boiler, completely submerged at high tide. Lying in the sand next to it are the shattered remains of the stern: broken timbers, twisted bronze bolts and a massive iron yoke that once reinforced the rudder. Nearby, a large iron pulley, part of the ship’s steering apparatus, lies atop fallen timbers. We swim past the boiler as Warren films the scene. The boiler has been torn free of its mount in the hull and dragged here to the stern, probably by the ice that buries the wreck each winter. The thick iron is ripped and part of the boiler gapes open, exposing the fire tubes inside it. Coal-fired heat once flowed through those tubes to make the steam that powered Fox, but now they lie cold and dead in the shattered remains of the shipwreck. Trailers of weed drape the boiler, and small fish dart into the protection of the dark boiler as we swim by.
The keel and keelson that formed the sturdy backbone of Fox lie before us, along with the collapsed starboard side of the hull, partially buried in the sand and the mats of algae that blanket the bottom of the cove. The current sweeps through the wreck, exposing brief glimpses of dark oak, rusted iron, and the shrouded shapes of frames (the “ribs” of the ship) and planks. As Mike and Warren videotape the wreck, I work quickly with a measuring tape and use a pencil to make notes and draw what I see on a sheet of frosted Mylar taped to a plastic clipboard. My notes, together with the video images and the photographs I am also taking, will help us to assemble a map of the broken-up ship, replicating on paper what we see in the gloom of the cove. I am particularly keen to capture as much information as possible because Fox’s plans vanished many years ago.
Astonishingly, half of Fox survives, pressed into the seabed by years of ice pushing into this small cove. It is an unexpected boon. The ice has flattened the curving side of the hull, shattering the thick layers of planks that formed it and wrenching the bolts out of the timber. And yet much survives, telling us a great deal about the ship. One of the keys to Fox’s survival in the Arctic was the original hull laid down in the Aberdeen shipyard of Alexander Hall & Company. From what remains, I can see that it was formed from diagonally laid planks of Scottish larch, fastened with thick bronze bolts to make a tightly sealed hull with the strength of an interwoven basket. Over these planks, McClintock had the shipyard fasten two layers of thick planks to sheath the hull against the ice. Splintered and torn, one layer of these planks remains in place, held on by the stubs of tough oak treenails that pegged them to the hull. The hull itself was formed from thick curved frames of oak, tightly spaced to make an almost solid wall of wood. Rows of iron stanchions were set into the hull at McClintock’s suggestion to brace Fox against the crushing pressure of the ice.
But as I examine and document these sturdy features, Warren Fletcher finds a reminder of the exquisite handicraft of the yacht builders. Lying loose on a section of the hull is a small, beautifully lathed and decorated deadeye from the ship’s rigging. Deceptively strong despite its delicate carving, it has that extra touch that befits a gentleman’s yacht. Somehow, perhaps because its lignum vitae wooden heart was stout, the deadeye was kept when many other “decorations” were stripped off for the difficult Arctic voyage.
The steam engine’s parts lie scattered nearby. As I swim over them, I think of the famous voyage of 1857-59. At the end of the expedition, as the crew prepared to leave their frozen berth and make their way home with the news of the fate of the Franklin expedition, the steam engine lay stowed in the hold, disassembled to keep it from cracking in the freezing months of winter. The ship’s engineer had died, so McClintock had to put the engine back together and fire it up to escape the Arctic. Looking at the scattered pieces of machinery lying on the timbers of the hull like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, I am reminded of what a talented and determined man Francis Leopold McClintock was.
Over the course of a week, we make more dives, sometimes surfacing in the bright twilight of the midnight sun as we work around the clock to gather as many images and as much information as we can. We may not only be the first but perhaps the only team of divers, and me the only archeologist, to visit Fox at the bottom of the sea. Even in the twenty-first century, this is a distant, hard to reach spot.
After surfacing on my final dive, I look out at the wind-whipped waters of Qeqertarsuaq’s harbor. Ice is drifting in, in small chunks, and the sun has gone, replaced by gray skies. Snow dusts the cliffs above the settlement. Winter is on its way, and soon the wreck will again be covered by many feet of ice. Slowly, inexorably being ground away by the forces of winter, Fox is returning to the elements in the Arctic where she gained international fame and spent most of her working life. It is a perfect grave for this polar explorer, and as I float over it, I think of Sir John Franklin’s epitaph, carved in marble over his empty crypt at Westminster Abbey:
Not here: the white North has thy bones; and thou,
Art passing on thine happier voyage now
Towards no earthly pole.