I spent an awful lot of time this winter reading books about the Franklin Expedition; it's no wonder I look back at the past few months as being gloomy and depressing. It's not a happy story: In 1845, Captain John Franklin, two British ships, and 127 officers and sailors entered the Arctic sea in a quest to complete the Northwest Passage. They vanished almost without a trace. Search and rescue efforts began in 1848, but it was almost a decade later before a few paltry clues were discovered: A few gravestones on one island; a cryptic note buried in a cairn of stones on another; a scattered trail of bones; silverware and buttons offered up by the Inuit, who also told tales of a company of starving white men marching towards Canada, dying along the way.

Franklin's ships -- the Erebus and the Terror -- were frozen in the ice off of King William Island in 1846. "Wintering over" was expected on these kinds of journeys; it was also expected, however, that the ice would thaw in the spring and allow the ships to continue on. This didn't happen in the spring of 1847 or 1848. In desperation, with more than 20 sailors, including Franklin himself, already dead, the men abandoned the ships in April 1848 and attempted an overland march towards the Canadian mainland -- hundreds of miles away. As the men had to know, this effort was doomed to failure. They were desperately low on provisions, and happened to have landed in a part of the Arctic were game was particularly hard to come by -- not that any of these British seamen would have been capable of downing a caribou, or waiting out a seal, anyway. They were all probably showing signs of scurvy, as it had been at least a year since they'd had any kind of fresh food (other than their daily dose of lemon juice, which had long since lost its effectiveness). And, although they may not have known the reason, they were also all probably suffering from botulism poisoning (from improperly preserved canned goods) and lead poisoning (from those same cans, and also from their stored water supply).

The journey -- their one hope of survival -- would have been grueling even had they been in top physical condition. In hopes of finding open water, and in expectation of having to navigate a large river before reaching the outpost, they had to bring along a number of the ship's lifeboats. These were heavy, heavy things, weighing close to a thousand pounds a piece, and they were tied onto heavy wooden sledges, and filled with provisions -- food, stoves, tents, utensils, and, strangely, books, papers, and furniture -- and with those who were too sick to walk. The men were strapped into harnesses and had to haul the sledges behind them across the ice and snow, maneuvering around crevasses and hoisting over pressure ridges as they went. It was summer, but it was still very cold; for protection, they wore wool sweaters and canvas coats, materials singularly unsuited for exertion in frigid temperatures. As the men sweat, their sweaters absorbed the moisture, which then turned into ice. Their very clothes probably weighed sixty pounds. They had a similar problem at night; they slept in wool sleeping bags, which absorbed the condensation from their breath and became completely waterlogged. The nights were probably worse than the days.

All that work was in vain. Not one man made it to Canada, much less one hundred men in boats. A handful of skeletal remains were found, some showing evidence of cannibalism. No written records, apart from the one letter noting Franklin's death and the abandoning of the ships in 1848, remain. Not even the ships themselves have been found. They were, apparently, finally crushed by the relentless ice and sank beneath the Arctic waters.

The decades-long search for survivors of the Franklin expedition led to extensive surveying and mapping of the Arctic coastline -- more geographical and scientific knowledge than the success of the expedition itself would have generated. The Northwest Passage was finally navigated by Roald Amundsen in 1906; however, due to the pack ice, it has never been the viable trade route the world hoped it would be.

Amundsen was also the first to reach the South Pole, in 1911 -- about a month before the Polar party led by Robert Falcon Scott. Amundsen used sled dogs, skis, and a native understanding of navigating the ice to accomplish his goal. Scott -- who, like Franklin, was one of the heroes of British polar expedition, which will give you a clue of how the story ends -- disliked sled dogs, and attempted to reach the Pole by motor sledge (the gasoline froze) and ponies (ill-suited for the job). Eventually, he and four other slogged to the Pole on foot, hauling their sledges behind them. To see the Norwegian flag planted there, and to read the note left by Amundsen, was disheartening indeed, and made the prospect of the journey back a grim one. They were beset by blizzards and incipient scurvy. One man suffered a head injury, collapsed in the snow, and died; another, Titus Oates, realized that his weakness was hindering his companions. "I am just going outside," he said one morning, "and may be some time," and he walked out into a raging blizzard, never to be seen again. The remaining three slogged on, but finally stopped a mere eleven miles from the food depot that would have saved them, and could go no further. Months later, a party of those left behind at base camp found their bodies frozen in their tent. They removed the journals and letters from the tent, zipped it up, and buried it in the snow. Then they went back to camp and waited for their relief ship to arrive, so they could leave Antarctica and inform the world what had happened to their polar heroes.

I'm not sure why these stories captivate me so much. Certainly it's not because they appeal to any kind of explorer spirit in me; I hate being cold, and I wouldn't last more than a few hours in a tent in my own backyard. Or maybe that's why, after all -- because it's so easy to see, with hindsight, the mistakes that led to the Franklin disaster, and the errors in judgment that led to Scott's party's demise -- but it's easy, too, to admire these men, who retreated to the ends of the earth, beyond any hope of rescue should crisis occur, and endured privation beyond imagination, all in the hope of a little bit of glory.

My favorite books on the subject: The Terror by Dan Simmons (a novel about Franklin's expedition, with a supernatural twist that sometimes feels unnecessary -- weren't things bad enough without introducing a demonic polar bear? but which also provides explanations for "what happened" more satisfactorily than any of the non-fiction books I read); The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (which ends with the bitter observation that "If you march your winter journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin's egg."); The Coldest March by Susan Solomon; Endurance by Caroline Alexander (I stopped before bringing up Shackleton, but his story, and the photos in this book, are amazing); A First Rate Tragedy by Diana Preston.

Although -- maybe you shouldn't dive in to these books just now. It is spring, after all.


aimee said...

I find it interesting to read "tragic" non-fiction stories like that of Franklin. I don't know exactly why either because it always leaves me disheartened and depressed for a short while but I think it is good to see everyone makes mistakes and that sometimes bad things have to happen so good things can come of it. I'll try to remember these stories next winter...