More than 170 years since Sir John Franklin embarked on a doomed expedition to discover the fabled Northwest Passage, Sarah Marshall embarks on an intrepid voyage.
A legacy is something every explorer hopes to leave behind them. But the most memorable traces of James Clark Ross’ presence at Port Leopold, on Somerset Island, are two initials and a year, 1849, carved into a rock on a bleak Arctic beach. The letters, E and I, stand for Enterprise and Investigator, two of many ships employed in hopeless attempts to unravel the mystery of missing Royal Navy officer Sir John Franklin, who’d set out four years previously to claim the fabled Northwest Passage trade route for Britain.
It took several decades to find Franklin’s ill-fated vessels: Erebus in 2014 and, more recently, Terror, this past September. With only a few weeks of open water each year, the search posed an enormous challenge to Parks Canada. But fortitude, determination and a spirit of exploration have always shaped the Canadian High Arctic.
So too has ice.
I’ve joined a voyage on the 96-passenger Ioffe, a Russian research vessel whose sister ship, the Vavilov, was involved in the mission to locate Erebus. Staff participants in the ambitious expedition proudly show off commemoration patches sewn onto their uniforms. Completing the Northwest Passage, a shortcut between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, is a tightly scheduled multi-week journey, but I’ve opted for a snapshot of the cruise.
Starting in Resolute, a four-hour charter flight from Edmonton, I’ll spend seven days sailing through historic straits and a patchwork of barren islands where sheer cliffs and sweeping glaciers conceal abundant but shy wildlife.
The residents of Prince Leopold Island show no signs of retiring, though, when we visit the largest seabird colony in the Canadian Arctic. Swooping between serrated ridges, angelic kittiwakes are starry flickers in the indigo heavens. Thick-billed murres huddle along ledges like gossiping old ladies at a bus stop, while fledglings take a tentative sea dip with guidance from their fathers. At every level, it’s ornithological mayhem.
Yet a few nautical miles away, the skies are silent. When we enter fog-shrouded Coningham Bay, buttercream dots in the distance arguably resemble fluffy balls of wool. In reality, there’s nothing cuddly about polar bears. Cruising in Zodiacs (inflatable dinghies) we approach downwind so they can’t detect our scent.
Beluga whale carcasses scatter the shale shoreline; trapped in tides, they’re hunted by both bears and Inuit indigenous people of northern Canada.
As the wind changes, we’re able to slowly creep within 200 metres of a mother and her yearling cub as they lovingly nuzzle and cavort in a display revealing the killer’s softer side.
It’s true: you have to work hard for sightings. Most of these animals are legally hunted by local communities and have an innate fear of humans.
At Maxwell Bay, we spend an hour circling in Zodiacs, edging ever closer to a couple of walruses rolling in the surf. On Devon Island, at Dundas Harbour, a herd of musk ox disappears into a ravine as soon as we come ashore.
Inuit guide Ted conducts our stealth advance in a manner only a seasoned hunter could execute. When John Rae came searching for Franklin in 1854, the Inuit were his most valuable source of information. They spoke of white men on King William Island, and one even wore the gold braid from a naval uniform as a headband.
Startling reports of cannibalism, though, were not well received in Victorian England; Lady Franklin even tried to discredit Rae by asking Charles Dickens to pen damning pamphlets.
Although the final chapter of Franklin’s life remains inconclusive, three of his men were eventually found six feet under at Beechey Island.
On the day we visit, raging winds punish the land. Underfoot, 450m year-old coral fossils are evidence these tectonic plates were once at the Equator. Any warmth has since long gone, and it’s incredible to imagine this as a place of shelter when the sailors overwintered in 1845. We toast their simple graves with a shot of whisky as marauding grey clouds threaten to steal the remains of our day.
During our seven-day journey, I don’t see another ship.
In a few years, of course, that will likely change. This summer, the 1,070-person Crystal Serenity sailed through the Northwest Passage, mass tourism is imminent. Equally controversial is the destruction threatened by climate change. Ironically, the route Norwegian Roald Amundsen eventually claimed through the Rae Strait in 1906 is almost irrelevant. Today, there are multiple northwest passages.
The opportunity for discovery is undoubtedly growing. And so is our insatiable desire to explore – at any cost.
Sarah Marshall was a guest of The Ultimate Travel Company (theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk; 020 3051 8098) which has a 16-day Northwest Passage voyage on the Akademik Ioffe accompanied by polar historian and broadcaster Dr Huw Lewis-Jones. Costing £8,495 per person, the private expedition departs London on August 11, 2017, sailing from Greenland the following day. All meals, drinks and British Airways flights from Heathrow and onward connections are included.
One Ocean (oneoceanexpeditions.com) will operate a 10-day Pathways to Franklin voyage, departing August 14, 2017, costing from £3,933pp.