Paul Watson, an award-winning journalist, tells a fascinating story of a voyage, a decades-long search and a final discovery.
“Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition”
by Paul Watson
W.W. Norton & Co., 384 pp., $27.95
One of the world’s most famous expeditions sailed from England in May 1845. Led by Sir John Franklin, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus and 133 men headed for Canada’s Arctic and the mythic Northwest Passage. They carried food for a five-year mission. By late July the boats had reached the west side of Greenland, where they encountered a whaling crew, and then continued west. No Englishman would ever see them alive again.
Nor would any Englishman see the boats until their rediscovery in 2014 and 2016, near King William Island, about 1,000 miles from where the whalers had seen Franklin. Many Inuit, however, had seen the boats and men, knew their story well, and had passed it down for decades. What the native people of the north knew would be key to the modern searchers who located the Erebus and Terror.
Award-winning journalist Paul Watson was on board the boat that found the Erebus. His account of the discovery, as well as the entire history of the Franklin Expedition is the focus of his newest book, “Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition.” Divided into three parts, it tells the stories of the voyage, the initial search, and the discovery of Franklin’s ships.
The author of “Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 31, at Town Hall Seattle, $5 (townhallseattle.org or 206-652-4255).
Despite the mounting evidence of failure — that is, a lack of any evidence of Franklin’s expedition — the Royal Navy refused to search for its missing men. Bickering, infighting, and skepticism of outside experts were to blame. Finally in 1850, the Royal Navy authorized search teams, who found tantalizing clues — cairns, equipment and a pile of meat tins — but neither ships nor men.
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Not until 1859 did searchers find the men. By this time they were dead, scattered across more than 120 miles of King William Island. Also on the island was a cairn. Buried in it was a copper tube containing a sheet of paper. It told of Franklin’s death in 1847, and that in 1848 the crews had abandoned the boats, which had been icebound for 19 months. It is the only written evidence of the Franklin Expedition ever found.
Five years before this discovery, searcher John Rae had talked with Inuit who lived in the area. They told him of seeing boats and men, still alive. Rae believed the Inuit but didn’t fully understand or realize the importance of what he learned. Unfortunately, no one else did either, for the Inuit stories told of the fate of Franklin’s expedition, and more specifically of the precise locations of the ships. As so often has happened when nonnative explorers encounter natives, the visitors’ arrogance misled them into thinking that they knew best and that no “primitive” could better understand the land and how to survive.
Watson eloquently shows, particularly through Inuit historian Louis Kamookak and his search to discover what his relatives and elder Inuit knew, that if only the many generations of Franklin searchers had thought to ask, then the great mystery of Franklin might been have solved decades ago. This final section of the book is when Watson’s story shines. It is also what makes his story different and more valuable than most of what comes from the cottage industry of Franklin books.
I have one bone to pick. “Ice Ghosts” contains only three maps. In a book that goes to great detail to provide specific geographic information, the absence of high-quality, detailed maps is an annoying detriment to the tale that Watson tells.