To find the hand of Franklin

John Brannen
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Recalling the 2010 discovery of HMS Investigator, sent to rescue Franklin from ill-fated Northwest Passage expedition

Part one of a three part series recalling the discovery of HMS Investigator and the continued search for Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin and his ships

Ryan Harris remembers hearing the haunting Stan Rogers tune about the Arctic while growing up in Calgary.

Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage / To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea / Tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage / And make a northwest passage to the sea.”

It was a song that would later inspire him.

For Harris, now a senior marine archaeologist with the underwater archaeology service in Parks Canada, it’s now his mission to find Franklin, his ships and any clues to the ill-fated expedition.

In 2010, one of the biggest Franklin-related discoveries of the century occurred when Harris and his team found a ship that was sent to find and rescue Franklin and his crew, HMS Investigator.


A Prelude to the Arctic


While this discovery caught the attention of the federal cabinet and the nation as pictures of the well preserved wreck were splashed on television and newspapers, Harris has spent a lot of time elsewhere.

“I’ve dived at Lake Minnewanka in Alberta where a power dam covered a 19th century village in water,” said Harris. “It’s a diver’s dream location.”

He said the Parks Canada diving team is best known for an underwater archeological find that took place in Red Bay, Labrador in 1978. The government agency calls it one of the most comprehensive marine archaeological projects ever undertaken in Canada.

“The area was a major centre for 16th century Spanish Basque whaling ships,” said Harris. “We’re talking industrial scale. It was our job to continue to explore, assess and evaluate just what happened and how to preserve it.”

After decades on the job, he revels in his role as an underwater archeologist and enjoys the thrill of the dive.

“An underwater site can tell us things about the past we wouldn’t otherwise know,” said Harris. “Some sites serve as repositories of well preserved artifacts, with some pristine condition. Canada’s rich maritime history and three oceans provide plenty of opportunity for discovery.”

Within Parks Canada, the agency itself decides what underwater archeological projects to take on.

“We try to determine a meaningful project and get approval,” said Harris. “We’ve enjoyed support of government for our current and ongoing project involving the search for Franklin’s ships.”

While the search commenced in 2007, Harris and his team have covered 1,200 sq. kms, no small feat in the harsh and challenging Arctic. Indeed, many of the challenges in searching for Franklin’s ships are the challenges of Parks Canada.

“When we’re there, we constantly have to manage precious resources such as food and water while watching ice floes that can fill a bay almost overnight.”

But while the Parks Canada search is taking place in the 21st century, Franklin took on these challenges over 150 years ago.  


A Northwest Passage to the Sea


It was 1845 and the expanding British Empire sought a sea route to Asia to ease trade and commerce. It would be 70 years before the Panama Canal appeared which left only two options: southwest towards Antarctica or northwest through the Arctic. Proximity and politically, the latter was the only option.

Two ships, the HMS Erebus and Terror led by the seasoned sailor Sir John Franklin set out to finish what had been started centuries earlier: map the Northwest Passage.

But what happened next, once Franklin’s ships reached the maze of the Arctic, remains a mystery.

“There have been a number of searches over the years with a lot of conflicting stories,” said Harries.

He noted historian David Woodman who argued that Inuit testimony had been marginalized throughout early searches for Franklin and his ships.

“We weigh a lot of information, including the Inuit accounts of the expedition. Sometimes it’s written as first or second hand second accounts,” said Harris. “It’s a lot of testimony to sift through.”

On Twitter: @NGNewsJohn

Organizations: Parks Canada, British Empire

Geographic location: Arctic, Passage, Calgary Beaufort Sea Canada Lake Minnewanka Alberta Red Bay Asia Panama Canal Antarctica

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