Stranded in the Arctic: A 21st-Century Retracing of the Doomed 1845 Franklin Expedition


August 12, 2023: A herd of 300 beluga whales swims in the shimmering blue waters of Radstock Bay. From an Airbus H145 helicopter, 450 metres below, off Devon Island in Nunavut’s Qikiqtaaluk region, I enjoy a panoramic view of that extraordinary sight.

The belugas—scattered like snowflakes—aren’t alone. As Quark Expeditions pilot Adam Williams swings the helicopter back toward the cutting-edge 2021-launched Ultramarine ship, I marvel at a pod of narwhals. Their long tusks protrude surreally as they head for the estuary.Lucas Aykroyd

During transcendent moments like these, it’s tempting to feel like human technology is triumphing over nature’s power in the Canadian High Arctic. Wrong call. “In the Footsteps of Franklin,” the theme of my two-week expedition cruise, is about to take on added meaning.

Due to a triple whammy of sea ice, high winds and devastating wildfires across the Northwest Territories, the 238 people aboard Ultramarine—101 guests, 104 crew members and 33 expedition staff members—will soon find themselves stranded in vast, desolate Lancaster Sound. This scenario has an eerily familiar ring.Lucas Aykroyd

In 1845, Sir John Franklin—a 59-year-old veteran polar explorer and ex-Tasmania governor—was dispatched by the British Admiralty to complete the Northwest Passage. Tragically, the captain failed to find the fabled trade route to China and India with HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, his state-of-the-art, Antarctica-seasoned ships.

Instead, Franklin and his 128 officers and seamen were never seen alive again after crossing Baffin Bay from Greenland. Trapped in pack ice off King William Island, they died victims not only of freezing, scurvy and starvation, but also of Victorian hubris. Not dressing in moisture-wicking furs or using lightweight dog sleds, like the Inuit, doomed their survival hopes.

Starting in 1848, more than 30 futile rescue expeditions were launched. The unsolved mystery of the missing ships transfixed the 19th-century public and endured for 170 years. My own Franklin fascination stems from a haunting diorama portraying the expedition at the now-defunct Royal London Wax Museum in my native Victoria, British Columbia.Lucas Aykroyd

After embarking on this Quark voyage on July 31 from Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, I soon realized that our itinerary, while not necessarily deadly, is far from set in stone.

Captain Korney Polikarpov takes Ultramarine further north than planned, up Greenland’s west coast, due to Baffin Bay ice conditions. We catch an early glimpse of death in the fog-drenched fishing hub of Nuuk, the capital of Greenland (with a population of 20,000). The national museum’s highlight is the 500-year-old Qilakitsoq mummies, discovered in 1972 naturally preserved with seal and caribou skins, and displayed respectfully today in low light.Lucas Aykroyd

When we reach Disko Bay on August 4, Ultramarine historian Ross Day notes, “This is where the Franklin expedition’s last letters home were mailed in July 1845.” Near Ilulissat, burgeoning with curly-tailed Greenland dogs, I’m struck by the majesty of the Davis Strait icebergs.

The Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, calves more than 35 cubic kilometres of icebergs annually, the most anywhere outside Antarctica. On a zodiac tour, the magic hour between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. sees cathedral-like bergs evocatively illuminated and adorned with ice caves, giant blue seams and trickling waterfalls. After navigating through ice floes back to the ship, hot chocolate is a welcome finger warmer.

After a smooth two-day passage across Baffin Bay, plot twists kick in. Sea ice nixes a stop in the Inuit hamlet of Pangnirtung. Alternative plans to visit Pond Inlet and then Arctic Bay to clear Canadian customs—233 kilometres apart—fall through for the same reason. Instead, we must travel all the way to Resolute, Nunavut—our intended terminus.Lucas Aykroyd

Four long days at sea don’t drive us to cannibalism à la Franklin’s unfortunate men, thankfully. (Scottish explorer John Rae presented evidence of cannibalism, based on Inuit testimony, in his 1854 report to the Admiralty, sparking outraged denials from both Franklin’s widow and novelist Charles Dickens.)

Despite endless grey skies above Lancaster Sound, gloom dissipates when I’m devouring dishes like lobster bisque and blackened Cajun duck breast. Or sweating in a sauna with floor-to-ceiling ocean views. Or soaking up Pierre Berton’s 1988 Canadian bestseller The Arctic Grail in the library.

Quark’s expedition staff gives colourful presentations on topics like seabirds, geology or Inuit archaeology daily. And Ultramarine’s sophisticated system of stabilizers and thrusters minimizes the rocking from 1.5-metre swells.Lucas Aykroyd

Still, unpredictable conditions keep causing turmoil. We squeeze in an Arctic Bay visit, applauding a traditional Inuit drum dance and examining whalebone carvings at the heritage centre. Yet a highly anticipated landing at Beechey Island—home to three Franklin expedition members’ graves—eludes us due to high waves and marauding polar bears on the shoreline.Lucas Aykroyd

Port Leopold on Somerset Island, though, provides a memorable taste of Franklin’s history. Sir James Clark Ross wintered at this onetime trading post with HMS Enterprise and HMS Investigator while searching for his lost colleague, and a beach boulder handsomely engraved “E.I. 1849” commemorates that fact.Lucas Aykroyd

When wildfires force Yellowknife’s evacuation, our plan to fly from Resolute to Calgary via the Northwest Territories capital is kiboshed. A six-day odyssey at sea ensues, with constant waves (and flight cancellations) buffeting us along Baffin Island’s east coast until we reach Iqaluit, the only accessible airport.

The mental grind of uncertainty finally lifts. We’ve escaped, unlike Franklin’s men—although we’ve also borne first-hand witness to the 21st-century climate emergency. The journey ends eight days later than planned, the longest such extension in Quark’s history.Lucas Aykroyd

Upon arrival in Nunavut’s capital, expedition leader Jake Morrison offers a stark summary. He says, “We have travelled approximately 7,800 kilometres together. This is similar to the distance between Vancouver and London, England.”

Parks Canada investigators who tapped into Inuit Qauijimajatuqangit (oral history) famously discovered Erebus and Terror in 2014 and 2016 respectively, near King William Island. They’re still scouring the wrecks. There’s a long way to go before that historical record becomes as vividly clear as those belugas and narwhals in Radstock Bay.


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