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On thin ice ... No safety net

I’ve just returned from 16 incredible days at sea traversing part of the Canadian Nunavut Arctic to sail down the North West Passage. Back on terrae firma I am sure the horizon is still lilting from Port to starboard and back. The Internet’s availability was as capricious as the drifting sea ice and snap storms so I’m a little behind in updating this blog. But it's a journey that set me thinking about the very nature of exploration and what it means today?

Sailing North West Passage

Indeed, such was the capriciousness of the weather in the High Arctic above the 70º latitude, one of my great desires for the sea voyage on board the Ocean Endeavour was thwarted by a storm that whipped up icy whitecaps in Queen Maud Gulf, just south of King William Island. The big selling point of the trip was to visit, and I hoped by snorkelling, the wreck site of the HMS Erebus – the flagship vessel of Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to discover the North West Passage. The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich is currently showing exhibits from the wreck that was discovered only back in 2014.

I’ve followed the spine-tingling horror of this expedition for many years. Franklin and 128 men on the HMS Erebus and Terror departed London and were fully expected to traverse the North West Passage. This would entail crossing the Davis Strait from Greenland and sailing west through an archipelago of frozen Arctic islands to reach the Beaufort Sea and Bering Straits … and the ultimate prize of entry into the Northern Pacific Ocean. They were basically looking for a trading short cut between the Arctic and the Pacific.

Franklin & co overwintered trapped in ice off Beechey Island in Lancaster Sound near Devon Island, which is the largest uninhabited island in the world. It wasn’t hard to guess why as our expedition vessel, Ocean Endeavour, sailed by tall forbidding cliffs incised by rows of glacier creating a fortress like appearance to the island. Anyway, on Beechey Island are three graves of the crew of the Franklin Expedition. The island is haunting. Stark and brutal, lashed by winds yet quite beautiful in its wildness. These three poor young men buried here were the first casualties of the Franklin expedition.

Yet undaunted in 1846 the expedition continued sailing south until they became trapped by mountainous ice floes in the Victoria Strait off Prince William. Nobody is quite sure how this drama unfolded yet over the next few years all men were lost. Local Inuit tales told of white men (known as kabloonas in their exquisitely guttural Inuktitut language) wandering around the ice deranged, starving, and resorting eventually to cannibalism. It’s thought by 1850-51 all these men had met a grizzly fate and their ships were eventually sunk within the vice-like grip of the ice.

Such was the power of a storm careening off the Arctic Ocean when we reached the strait where both ships have recently been discovered we were unable to visit. Instead, tantalisingly, one of the marine archaeologists who discovered the Erebus, Marc-Andre Bernier of Parks Canada, showed us the very latest footage of dives around the HMS Terror, which was discovered in 2016. The ship’s wheel still stands, we could see the bell, and even the outhouses on deck – ‘imagine the DNA samples we can get from those,” joked Marc-Andre. Ugh!

The ship was in great condition preserved in the cold waters of the Arctic. “If you could re-float the ship it is almost like it could be sailed away,” said Marc-Andre.

I was disappointed of course not to get a chance to snorkel above the Erebus as it lies in shallow clear water. But it also set me thinking throughout this trip about the changing nature of exploration.

There’s been something of a backlash against Franklin as a somewhat ‘hapless’ sea captain, who was unfit to lead the expedition and was only appointed due to his social position. This is undoubtedly typical of Victorian Britain (and perhaps modern Britain, some may argue, and I’m thinking of the hapless Foreign Secretary) because it was riddled by considerations of class.

But Franklin and all the poor souls who perished were also incredibly brave and adventurous spirits. I think of the poor ordinary seamen who died so awfully on the expedition. Who knows what there circumstances behind why they were there? Perhaps desperately trying to put food on the table in austere times with a good contract offered by the Royal Navy?

Those sailors likely dreamed, officers and men alike, of the glory that would come with achieving such a great feat of discovery in transiting the North West Passage? They key thing is … they had no safety net. No Internet connection to tell the world where they were every day (it took over 160 years to discover their sunken ships) or GPS to call for a helicopter rescue.

To many people the likes of Franklin have been forgotten and overshadowed by the reputations of the new breed of social media explorers. These days I sigh sometimes reading tweets every 10 minutes of the latest ‘twitter-Instagram explorer’ telling me how they are on an utterly pointless expedition to discover Outer Mongolia on roller-skates or they are following an established long-distance footpath that is somehow upgraded to an ‘expedition’. The definition of explorer has truly changed. The outcome has shifted from a desire to discover something about our world to the pursuit of social media stardom followed by a book and lecture tour. Safety nets fully in place. That’s not to say however there is no longer great exploration still ongoing.

I say this, of course, from the perspective of a trip on a comfortable expedition vessel. My own safety net was three meals per day and in the melting sea ice conditions of the Arctic my likelihood of being stuck and having to overwinter in immovable sea-ice, highly unlikely.

Sunset in North West Passage

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This is my occasional blog focusing on my travels and at home in Dartmoor National Parks. All my journeys, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a 4-day schlepp to Pitcairn Island or a 3-week boat journey across Micronesia begin with the local country bus #173 from my home in Chagford to Exeter, where I take the train or bus to London.

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