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No. 10, The Search For Franklin

As we have seen, there have been many trips to the northern top of Canada. Traill sums up:

"From 1848 onward, for a period of some six years without intermission, and intermittently for some eleven years, the search for Franklin was prosecuted -- at first officially, afterwards by private enterprise, at last by Lady Franklin alone. From first to last the number of search expeditions dispatched from this country [Great Britain] and America amounted to as many as thirteen, without reckoning overland journeys, and the Arctic Ocean was entered by no fewer than than twenty-four different vessels ... in the course of this long and fruitless quest."52
The plan that had been struck by Franklin and left with the Admiralty was that he was to go from the western coast of Greenland, west across Baffin Bay (depending on the ice conditions and the wind, the time across would be from 10 to 54 days) to Landcaster Sound and thus to enter the archipelago. (See Map)

If one examines a modern day map of the area, it will show that the eastern end of the North-West Passage is a straight known as Lancaster Sound which separates two islands; to the north, Devon Island and to the south, Baffin Island. Continuing west, in more or less a strait line, one enters Barrow Strait (between Cornwallis Island, to the north, and Somerset Island, to the south). Continuing west, one enters a series of named straits and sounds all running generally east/west, with the last (McClure Strait) being between Melville and Banks Islands with the strait there veering more to the north/west. After this, one would clear the archipelago and into the Beaufort Sea. The whole of this passage is known as the Parry Channel, which, from east to west, stretches approximately 1,000 miles. What is to be appreciated is that this 1,000 miles is covered in ice. In the "summer season," the ice conditions maybe such that a fortified ship could plow through it, taking advantages of any opening that might bring the ship and its occupants closer to its western object.

The above analysis of the North-West Passage, is based on a short study that might be carried out these days. The geographical history of the area, however, in 1845, was not much known. The safe bet, if one was to penetrate this northern archipelago, is to start by entering Lancaster Sound. Everything west of that was just speculation. As had been discovered by previous voyagers, there were smaller sounds or straights leading out of Lancaster Sound, both north and south. This, of course, might be expected in a sea of islands. But, which ones to take? Which ones are simply a bay in these very large islands? And, always, it seems, were mostly blocked up by ice?

As for Franklin, when he started out in 1845, he had discussed certain plans with his superiors at the Admiralty. Enter Lancaster Sound and go west as far as you can go, before the first winter sets in. Then in the "spring" continue west as far as conditions will permit. If stopped up and no progress can be made directly west, then choose one of these channels between the islands that ran either north or south (south, I should think would have been the one preferred). Also it was reckoned that a second winter would likely be spent in the maze of ice, with exploration to continue in the following spring.

Though there is little to go on: Franklin brought his two ships to Beechey Island located in "a bay near the mouth of the Wellington Channel, on the south coast of the much larger insular mass known as North Devon." (See Map) Here they settled in and spent their first winter in the frozen north. The year 1845 did not produce much exploratory work which added to the geographic knowledge of the area. It would appear they were prevented by53 ice of going too far to the west following the Parry Channel. It is suspected they backtracked a distance to find suitable winter quarters, this, as mentioned, was Beechey Island. They were well prepared to deal with this first winter. Traill concisely dealt with the experiences of this first winter: "In the course of 1845-6 the explorers lost three of their number, two seamen who died in January, and a marine, whose death followed a few months later. They were buried on the island ..."54

By the summer of 1846, Franklin and his fellow explorers were back on the job. But which way to go as their route to the west (Parry Channel) was apparently blocked. Franklin's desire was to find a channel that would bring him out of the Parry Channel, one that preferably would bring him south and closer to the northern shores of the North American continent. He found one. It was Peel Sound (since so named) one which separates Somerset Island and Prince of Wales Island. Franklin must have been elated; they were going south and headed in the very direction he wanted in order to fetch up with the northern shores of North America, shores that he had personally explored on two separate overland explorations: 1819-22 and 1825-27. Progress slowed. What exactly the problems were, is not known, nor likely will we ever know. The conditions for navigation (rudimentary in those days) must have been bad. In addition, too, they might have run into "bad weather" with ice forming-up at a surprising rate. We again turn to Traill to describe the last of it:

"... on the 12th of that month [September, 1846] the gallant struggle of the two vessels came to an end, forever. The ice closed immovably round them in lat 70' 5" N. and long. 98' 23", and from that day forward its deadly embrace was never relaxed. For the awful period of 587 days from early September in 1846 until late April in 1848, the hapless crews were held fast in their icy prisons, from which at last the desperate remnant of them broke out only to die."55
The officers and crew of the Terror and Erebus lived on their ships stuck in ice through the winter of 1846/7. Likely they survived this second winter OK, as they had supplies to last. On May 24th, a squad of men off of the Erebus, led by a Lieutenant Graham Gore, left the ship and headed south over ice on sledges. To the south of the ice-bound ships, just 12 miles, was to be found King William Island (a large island of over 5,000 square miles, one, at the time, that was not known to be an island). (See Map) The squad arrived after four days at a point on this island named Point Victory. This point marked the farthest point west which James Ross had reached in his exploration of the area in his ship Victory (1829-33) Ross built a cairn at this point, which Gore's squad discovered and placed within it a one page record of what had become of the Franklin Expedition up to that point.

NEXT -- No. 11, Speculation: What Happened?


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Peter Landry