Inuit historian and teacher Louie Kamookak played a vital role in the discovery of the wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. The two doomed vessels were commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir John Franklin, whose expedition left England in 1845 to navigate and chart the Arctic’s Northwest Passage. The location of the sunken ships, in frigid waters off Nunavut’s King William Island, had long been one of Canada’s great maritime mysteries.
Through amassing stories of Inuit elders, including members of his own family, Mr. Kamookak cross-referenced journals and books about the icebound ships. He read voraciously in order to piece together clues that helped lead Parks Canada to the momentous finding of the wrecks: HMS Erebus in 2014 and two years later, her nearby sister ship HMS Terror.
Mr. Kamookak also developed a theory about the location of Franklin’s body, but didn’t live to learn if he was right. He died of cancer on March 22, age 58, in Yellowknife, more than 1,000 kilometres from his hometown of Gjoa Haven on King William Island.
“Canada has lost a passionate scholar of our Northern history,” wrote former prime minister Stephen Harper in an e-mail. “Louie leaves behind an incredible legacy.”
In recognition of his efforts, in both exploration and the preservation of traditional knowledge, the Royal Canadian Geographic Society (RCGS) gave the title ”honorary vice-president” to Mr. Kamookak in 2016. It’s one of the highest honours the organization can bestow. It also recently established the Louie Kamookak Medal for a noteworthy activity in making Canada’s geography better known to Canadians or abroad, or for advancing the discipline of geography. It will be awarded to Mr. Kamookak posthumously. He was invested as a member of the Order of Nunavut in 2016 and an officer of the Order of Canada last year.
A physically powerful man who could seemingly glide stealthily across the land, Mr. Kamookak was a great hunter and a staunch custodian of his culture. “I come from a long line of high-profile Netsilingmiut people,” Mr. Kamookak told Up Here magazine in 2014. The lineage included his grandfather William (Paddy) Gibson, an Irish Hudson’s Bay Company trader on his mother’s side, who was also interested in Franklin.
In 1931, Paddy Gibson journeyed to the Todd Islets, specks of land in the Northwest Passage. There, his party discovered a complete human skeleton, plus skulls and some bones belonging to Franklin’s men. Paddy Gibson published his findings in The Geographical Journal and The Beaver. Two generations later, his grandson Louie would become more involved in the search for Franklin and his ships than just about any other individual.
Louie Iriniq Kamookak was born on Aug. 26, 1959, during a famine at a seal-hunting camp on the Boothia Peninsula near Taloyoak, formerly known as Spence Bay. He was the second oldest in a large family belonging to George Kamookak, an Inuit hunter, and his wife, Mary. After Louie’s birth his mother was so starved she couldn’t produce breast milk. His first meals were mashed raw seal blubber.
Trained in survival skills from an early age, Louie accompanied his father and grandfather on hunting and fishing trips across the tundra. When Louie was 7, his father took him to see the skeleton of one of the early fur traders, a ne’er-do-well named Russian Mike. Mike, it seemed, had done a lot of fighting and drinking and gotten himself in trouble. The story was that he’d shot his dogs and then himself. Even though most Inuit dislike being around dead bodies, young Louie forced himself to take a good look at Russian Mike’s skull. He observed that the bullet had entered from the top, rather than the bottom indicating murder rather than suicide. An amateur forensic sleuth was in the making.
Formal education began for Louie in late childhood when he went to school for the first time. At 12, a teacher’s lesson about the Franklin expedition sparked a Eureka moment. Louie’s great-grandmother had told him a story about travelling with her family to the north shore of King William Island to cut wood when she was a girl of 6 or 7. On top of a ridge they found strange objects such as forks and spoons but didn’t know what they were. Farther down, a long rope trailed into the bay. When the teacher said some of Franklin’s men died on the land, his great grandmother’s story clicked into place. Louis had long wanted to visit the area. Now there was even more reason to go. He wanted to link the past to the present.
Canada has lost a passionate scholar of our Northern history— Former prime minister Stephen Harper
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Mr. Kamookak accompanied many Franklin searchers around the vast terrain of King William Island. He considered himself to be an explorer but also served as a guide and source of Inuit knowledge. John Geiger, CEO of the RCGS, believes the Franklin search was hampered by a failure to take the Inuit oral histories fully into account. “It’s possible searchers dismissed them because they were unaware of the accuracy of this tradition, that these stories were often retold in exacting detail, word for word,” he said.
Despite a previous lack of government funding for expeditions, and assorted bureaucratic squabbles, in 2008, Mr. Kamookak began working with a team of researchers from Parks Canada. The researchers heeded his advice, proceeding cautiously for several years to finally discover Franklin’s missing ships. When news of their success broke, it reverberated around the world.
At the high school, where Mr. Kamookak worked as a staff support teacher, the phone rang constantly. Russell Potter, a professor at Rhode Island College and author of Finding Franklin, said the attention led his soft-spoken friend to an observation that typified his wry sense of humour. “I’d be harder to find if I had a more common name, but I’m the only Louie Kamookak in the world,” he said.
He did, however, add to the Kamookak clan by fathering five children with his wife, Josephine.
His family was a source of pride, along with his connections to ancestors and the informative names they conferred on geographic locations. One name might translate into “where polar bears pass.” Another might mean “where seals gather on rocks.” Mr. Kamookak recorded this nomenclature, although the names of white explorers often prevailed. Starvation Cove, an inlet on the Adelaide peninsula just south of King William Island, was named for being a gory site where some of Franklin’s men resorted to cannibalism. Inuit lore told of hacked up bodies, and of finding pieces of china, and bones with fragments of wool still attached.
A single note uncovered on land recorded that Franklin died on June 11, 1847, earlier than most of his crew. Weak with cold and hunger, and perhaps driven mad by lead in their supplies of canned goods, they divided up and scattered in hopes of salvation. The remains of two men were found to have been buried, then eventually thrust by permafrost onto the land’s surface. Since 19th century Inuit didn’t bury their dead, but wrapped them in sealskin, the findings seemed to indicate the remains belonged to members of the expedition. A person of John Franklin’s stature, however, probably would have received a more elaborate interment.
“A group of Inuit said they saw the burial of a great chief under the ground, under stone,” Mr. Kamookak told The Canadian Press in 2017. “I believe that Franklin is in a vault on King William Island.”
In a stark, flat landscape of pummelling winters and fleeting summers, it would’ve taken exceptional eyesight and observation skills to discern the crumbled vault of a burial that took place more than 150 years earlier. Able, at a glance, to tell if a bone belonged to a fox or a human finger, Mr. Kamookak possessed such skills. Author Ken McGoogan, recalled travelling with him to rebuild a cairn that John Rae built in 1854 to mark his discovery of the Rae Strait. On the way back in Mr. Kamookak’s 20-foot boat, they pulled onto a sandy beach and climbed a ridge to scan the horizon. Mr. McGoogan wrote: “There was nothing to see. But Louie pointed and whispered “caribou.” Almost invisible against the tundra stood a huge antlered beast more than 100 metres away. Too far, in Mr. McGoogan’s opinion. “But Louie fell to one knee, brought his gun to his shoulder and fired.” Mr. McGoogan was convinced it was a miss but when they arrived at the caribou, Louis was jubilant. “Straight through the heart,” he cried. He skinned the animal, hoisted the carcass on his back, and staggered back to his boat saying, “Meat will last all winter.”
In addition to continuing the search for Franklin, Mr. Kamookak was working on a paper about signs of climate change in the North and planning another expedition for next year. Professor Potter wrote that Mr. Kamookak had noticed that the Lapland longspur, whose distinctive song was familiar, had stopped singing. Mr. Kamookak felt that climate change was also connected to an increase in cancer among Inuit. He spoke of his own illness with few people.
Mr. Kamookak leaves his wife, Josephine, their five children and seven grandchildren.
“Louie was the last great Franklin searcher,” Mr. Geiger said. “He was a gentle man and a teacher of great wisdom, not only for the Inuit, but for all of us.”
John Geiger of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society talks about the Franklin Expedition and how several organizations combined efforts in the months leading up to this week's discovery.
Globe and Mail Update