Canadian Researchers Uncover Remains Of Tragic Arctic Expedition

A few days ago we talked about the story of Dr. John Rae, a nearly forgotten Arctic explorer who in 1854 went in search of the missing Franklin Expedition. This was a Royal Navy expedition that set out in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the frozen arctic north of Canada. Rae talked with the local Inuit people and heard the survivors had all died, some resorting to cannibalism before they succumbed to the elements. The public was so shocked that they turned their ire against Rae, whose career was all but ruined.

Now a Canadian research team is investigating the site to try to find out more about what happened. It’s known that the expedition involved two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, and that they came to grief near King William Island in September 1846, where they got trapped in the ice hundreds of miles form the nearest town.

The crew tried walking out, but none made it more than 40 miles. All 129 officers and crew died.

A Canadian team, led by Parks Canada has made five expeditions to find traces of this tragedy. They’ve been focusing their efforts on King William Island, where this year they found some 200 artifacts and human bones. They also scanned 486 square kilometers of seafloor with sidescan sonar in the hopes of finding one of their ships preserved in the frigid waters, but they had no luck.

The artifacts have been brought back to a lab to be studied. They’ve already found evidence that some of the metal objects were reused by the local Inuit. The bones will be returned to the site and given a proper burial next year.

Arctic Explorer Gets Belated Recognition

When I took my family to the Orkney Islands of Scotland last year I saw this curious memorial in St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall. It’s for an Arctic explorer named John Rae. While the name struck a bell, I knew virtually nothing about him.

Most people don’t, and that’s a shame. Rae grew up in the rugged Orkney Islands in the 19th century. Although he trained as a doctor, the wilderness was his true love. He got work with the Hudson’s Bay Company, which owned large swatches of land in northern Canada and made millions off of the fur trade. Rae set off to Canada to work as a surgeon for the company, spending ten years at the remote outpost of Moose Factory.

Rae soon distinguished himself by spending large amounts of time with the Cree and Inuit, learning their languages and customs and gaining their respect for his ability to endure the tough conditions of the Canadians north.

When the Franklin Expedition, a Royal Navy group that was searching for the Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific, went missing in 1845, Rae was the man that was called upon to find them. He spent several years trying to track them down. In the course of his search he mapped many previously uncharted regions and found the Northwest Passage, the very thing the Franklin Expedition had failed to do.

In 1854 he learned from the Inuit that several years before, the last of the Franklin Expedition had died of starvation. The remaining survivors had resorted to cannibalism before they, too, succumbed. The site of the tragedy was deep in the back country and the Inuit refused to take him there.

When Rae filed his report, he was immediately criticized for not checking on the natives’ story himself and for daring to suggest that members of the Royal Navy would eat each other. His reputation was ruined. Even though another expedition did go to the site and concluded that there was strong evidence that the Franklin Expedition had resorted to cannibalism, the damage had been done. Rae died all but forgotten in 1893. Of all the great explorers from the Victorian era, he is the only one not to have been given a knighthood.

Now the Arctic explorer has been given some belated recognition with a new statue in Stromness, not far from where the local Hudson’s Bay Company office used to be. It was unveiled on the 200th anniversary of his birth.

You can learn more about the adventures of Dr. John Rae in this excellent article.

Kiwi sailor sets new speed record for crossing the Northwest Passage

The Northwest Passage has often been a source of endless fascination amongst sailors. For centuries Explorers searched for the route, hoping to find a faster, more efficient, way to reach the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic by sailing through the Arctic, north of Canada. For most of that time, that route was sealed shut thanks to endless miles of ice, but in recent years, warmer temperatures have allowed the route to open to ship traffic for the first time, which has caused a number of daring souls to challenge those treacherous waters.

Amongst the ships making the journey this year was the Astral Express, captained by Graeme Kendall out of New Zealand. Kendall was hoping to complete the voyage that he first attempted back in 2005, but was forced to abandon thanks to thick pack ice. This year, the Kiwi not only finished what he started five years ago, he set a new record in the process.

Kendall’s journey began when he entered the Passage at Lancaster Sound, along the Atlantic side, back on August 27th. It then took him just 12 days to navigate the route to Barrow, Alaska, finishing on Sept. 9th, officially exiting the Passage on to the Pacific side. Those 12 days represent a new speed record for the fastest solo crossing of the passage, and local authorities believe that it may be the fastest of any ship, including those with a full crew.

For Kendall, completing the Northwest Passage is just the first stage of a planned circumnavigation attempt of the planet, which will cover more than 18,000 miles when it is finished.

[Photo credit: Graeme Kendall]

First ever circumnavigation of the Americas ends tomorrow

The Ocean Watch, a 64-foot long rugged sailing ship, is scheduled to arrive back home in Seattle tomorrow after spending nearly 13 months at sea. The yacht, and her four person crew, are about to complete the first circumnavigation of North and South America, a journey of more than 25,000 miles, and in the process, perhaps help us to better understand the health of the oceans as well.

The project is known as the Around the Americas expedition, and until a few years ago, it wouldn’t have even been possible. But, thanks to global climate change, the Northwest Passage has become a navigable waterway, at least for a few weeks each year, and the crew of the Ocean Watch took advantage of that fact last year to complete the first stage of the voyage. After leaving Seattle, the ship sailed north to Alaska, and then proceeded even further north to cross the legendary passage that sits above Canada in the Arctic Ocean.

After making their way through the icy waters of the Northwest Passage the crew turned the ship south, running down the east coast of Canada and the U.S. From there, it was on to the Caribbean, then along the coast of Mexico and on towards South America. The voyage continued all the way to Cape Horn, where the Ocean Watch braved some of the most dangerous waters on the planet as they sailed across the Drake Passage, before turning north once again. The return trip saw the ship hugging the western coastlines of both North and South America. Now, they stand one day away from completing the first ever circumnavigation of those two continents, which will be complete upon their return to Seattle.

The journey wasn’t undertaken just for the pure adventure, although there was plenty of that too. Along the way, the crew, which consists of Captain Mark Schrader, First Mate David Logan, and watch captains David Thoreson and Herb McCormick, have taken a variety of scientific readings about the waters they’ve passed through. The team, which was joined in various stages by guest scientists and educators, hopes to use the data they’ve recorded to examine the impact of climate change on the polar ice caps and coral reefs, as well as the level of acidification in the oceans and the impact of pollution and debris.

This has been an amazing voyage to follow, and the crew is about to earn a well deserved break after months at sea.

[Photo credit: Around the Americas]

Explorers prepare to sail around the North Pole

In a few weeks time, Norwegian explorers Borge Ousland and Thorleif Thorleifsson will set out on a daring expedition in an attempt to become the first people to sail around the North Pole, a feat that has only become possible in recent years thanks to global climate change. The two men will have to successfully navigate both the Northeast and Northwest Passages if they want to accomplish their goal.

Ousland is a well known polar explorer, who has visited both the North and South Pole by skis in his numerous cold weather adventures. Thorleifsson is more at home on the water, being a very experienced sailor, and will be the captain of the small sailing ship they will use on their voyage.

The plan is to set off on June 21st, and sail for the Northeast Passage, which fully opens up for navigation in August. That route runs through the ice filled waters of the Arctic Ocean north of Russia. Once they have completed that part of the journey, they’ll then take on the Northwest Passage, which runs across the northern region of Canada. At one time, both of these routes we considered unnavigable, but thanks to global warming, the ice now breaks up more fully, allowing ships to pass through.

There are a number of obstacles that Ousland and Thorleifsson will have to face on their journey. For instance, the ice flows will be very unpredictable, and they’ll need to rely on satellite imaging to help find their way. On top of that, they’re using a small ship that is quick and light, but won’t allow them to carry too many supplies with them, and although it has been retrofitted with Kevlar to help protect it against the ice, its hull is none too thick. The two men have also had to deal with Russian bureaucracy, which is never an enjoyable prospect, but a similar expedition was halted last year when the ship didn’t have the proper paperwork to pass through Russian waters.

The journey is expected to take four months to complete, and they’ll be covering roughly 10,000 miles in the process. Once they get underway, you’ll be able to follow along with their progress and adventures on Ousland’s blog, which can be found by clicking here.

[Photo Credit:]