[Detail of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror from John Wilson Carmichael’s ‘Erebus’ and the ‘Terror’ in New Zealand, August 1841 (1847) x]
“Because once bitten by the Franklin ‘bug,’ there’s really no cure, other than to search where one can, as often as one can…” — Russell A. Potter, Finding Franklin: The Untold Story of a 165-Year Search
I’ve never been to the Arctic latitudes. Never watched an iceberg collapse into the ocean with a rumble like the dawn of doomsday, never struggled to sleep beneath a sun that fails to set. I’ve never had frost bitten fingers, never known pangs of genuine hunger or the aches of a vitamin-starved body turning against itself. The closest I’ve come to battling the ice is when I’ve scraped it off my window or steered my car into the slide on a winter road.
But I too search for Franklin.
My infection with what Professor Potter terms ‘the bug’ occurred in 2007 or 2008, when I first read The Terror by Dan Simmons. As much as the fictionalized version entertained me, it was nothing to the fascination the true events inspired. I began reading everything I could find about the expedition, and about Arctic exploration in general. The errant tides and hidden shoals of life knocked me off course for a time, preoccupying me with matters closer to home. But the fascination never faded. Now, after Parks Canada’s successful searches for Erebus and Terror, after AMC’s exceptional adaptation of Simmons’s novel, I have fully relapsed: my infection with the Franklin “bug” is worse than ever. This blog is my simple attempt to cope with the symptoms.
What is it about the Franklin Expedition that has held me enthralled for so many years? After all, I’m hardly an adventurer: as a writer-turned archivist-turned-writer again, my brushes with peril have mostly come through the written word, or the occasional paper cut. Yet I’ve always been drawn to stories of survival, of endurance in spite of overwhelming odds. Perhaps it is because I wish for that kind of bravery. Perhaps it is because, like many others who revel in such tales, I use my imagination to place myself in the same straits as the people I read about, and I wonder: how would I fare in such a situation? Would it bring out the best of my qualities, or the worst? Could I control my fear and keep a level head? Could I survive?
But of course the story of the Franklin Expedition is not one of survival. It has all the fixtures of a great tale of endurance, but its ending is unsatisfactory: tragic, confusing, incomplete. And that, I think, is why it fascinates. There are so many examples throughout history of the odds being beaten, of courage and tenacity triumphing over unimaginable suffering, that the loss of 129 men and two well-provisioned ships seems like an aberration, one that demands an explanation, if not a reckoning. We can accept danger in our tales of heroic human endeavors, we can accept the privations and the reminders of life’s fragility: but we cannot accept total loss. What went so wrong in this case, we ask, that bravery and the sheer will to survive were insufficient to carry at least some of these doomed men through?
So I go searching, in the comfort of my temperate latitude. I trek through books and articles, maps and images: and I write down my thoughts. I don’t expect to make any significant contributions to solving the mystery that surrounds the fate of Franklin and his gallant crew, as much as I might dream of it: and I do. My intention with this blog is simply to summarize, share, and ponder. As I immerse myself in all the scholarship produced by 170 years of searching, I will write about elements that I find interesting or perplexing; I will make connections, conduct a little research, and in my own way try to piece together a picture of these men, their expedition, and the world of polar exploration that surrounded them. In doing so, I will no doubt make mistakes or incorrect assumptions, ask questions that have already been answered, and write about topics that have already been explored by minds more knowledgeable than my own. But that’s okay. This is my journey with Franklin and his crew, and what I write here is only meant to express my thoughts and impressions as I travel in my imagination to King William Island’s barren shores.
I may never have a chance to venture there in body, though I would very much like to. I may never have an opportunity of seeing Franklin relics in person, or digging through the archives of the Polar Research Institute, or paying my respects to the mortal remains of Le Vesconte or Goodsir that rest now in the monument in the chapel of the Royal Navy Hospital in Greenwich: all things I desperately aspire to do. Life’s course is full of growlers: leads close up and best intentions go astray. But as Professor Potter noted in Finding Franklin, armchair searchers are welcome to make this journey and discover what they may. I cordially invite you to join me on my search.