James Thomson has been travelling to the Canadian Arctic since 2010 as a naturalist, zodiac driver and polar bear guard aboard expedition cruise ships. This summer, the job gave him the opportunity to join the Victoria Strait Expedition search for the Franklin ships Erebus and Terror aboard the Akademik Sergei Vavilov. His father spent his career as an Arctic archaeologist, and his mother is an Inuit art expert, mythologizing the North for him from an early age. Mr. Thomson has written from five Arctic countries on science, the environment, culture and tourism.
Beechey Island is not a place where humans were ever meant to live. The Inuit and their precursors were able to make a living there after centuries of innovation and adaptation to that specific environment, but Franklin and his men were sorely unprepared when they arrived there in 1845 with the greatest European technology of the time: wool and flannel for clothing, useless boiled lime juice to ward off scurvy, and canned food, devoid of precious vitamin C and riddled with lead, for sustenance.
They spent a cold, dark winter there, and lost three men who should have considered themselves lucky that they did not have to endure what the rest of the doomed expedition did over the following years. Visiting Beechey Island will make anyone shiver, and not just from the cold. The crisp wind over the unwelcoming shards of stone whips into us a reminder that we are not so far removed from Franklin today.
One hundred and sixty-nine years later, I was just across Lancaster Sound from Beechey Island. I sat comfortably in the lounge of the Akademik Sergei Vavilov drinking coffee as I listened to Parks Canada’s lead underwater archaeologist, Marc-André Bernier, recount how our voyage was the most high-tech search for Franklin’s lost ships ever mounted. According to Parks Canada, our technological wizardry was finally allowing us to overcome the hardships of the Arctic.
A few days into the expedition, before we had managed to get our underwater drone in the ocean to begin the search, a letter from the Prime Minister arrived. He praised the Victoria Strait Expedition for the “expansive roster of technological assets” we had brought to the North.
Since finding the ships, the focus has also been on the technological success this find represents. “We’ve done this, obviously, using the latest cutting-edge technology,” Stephen Harper announced at the event celebrating the find. To use the Times of London’s words from 1845, we had once again mustered “the advantages of modern science” to find the remains of men who thought they had the same advantage.
In 2014, the Arctic still takes a toll on our ability to operate. Unpredictable ice conditions forced our leg of the three-ship operation to dodge sea ice for much more time than we spent actually searching for the wrecks. Weeks earlier, ice had also wreaked havoc on our careful plans and forced another ship I was on to abandon a trip north to Resolute and return to Iqaluit.
Ice is just one of many obstacles Canadians will have to respect if we plan to develop the Arctic.
We will also have to contend with its size: While the vast majority of us are snuggled up against the U.S. border, the Arctic represents 40 per cent of our country’s land mass occupied by a third of one per cent of our population. It makes up even less of our infrastructure investment. The one deep-water port on our Arctic coast, in Nanisivik, Nunavut, would be the only site capable of supporting a permanent icebreaker fleet. But seven years after its announcement, the planned port has become an expensive ongoing boondoggle, yet another example of Canada’s uphill battle to control the Arctic.
But the government is eager to remind Canadians that, in Mr. Harper’s words, “Canada’s Arctic is central to our identity as a northern nation: It is part of our history and it represents the tremendous potential of our future.”
In 1845, the real advantage belonged to the people who knew that sealskin is both waterproof and warm, and that vitamin C is plentiful in raw whale blubber. The Inuit saw the abandoned ships not far from where the recent wreck was found, but their testimony was held in little esteem until recently.
Like Franklin, we find ourselves ignoring the people who know the place best as we assert our dominance over a hostile landscape we neither control nor fully understand. Don’t let anyone tell you that finding Franklin means we have arrived as an Arctic nation: We are still much more flannel than sealskin.
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