Saturday, September 13, 2014

Latitude: 74˚35′N       Longitude: 92˚44′ W
Wind: 35 knots          Speed: 13 knots
Temperature: 3.5˚C (38.3˚F)

The alarm goes. I fumble under the pillow for my headlamp. Cathie doesn’t stir, so I quietly bundle up in my outdoor gear. I go out on deck, but no northern lights. The only lights are the ship’s lights and the lights of Resolute. We are at anchor. One of our cooks’ father passed away, so he is going home to the Philippines. There is an airport at Resolute on Cornwallis Island.  I see Ocean One’s Nate and Liz on the aft deck, standing by the crane, which is about to lift a zodiac into the water. It will take the cook ashore to catch a flight south. He has a long way to go, alone.

I go back to bed.

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When I awake, we are anchoring in Erebus Bay off Beechey Island. Every Arctic traveller wants to go to Beechey. I am particularly excited about this landing. Beechey Island is a notable tourist attraction because it was the 1845-46 overwintering spot of Sir John Franklin’s expedition, and later became the base for Franklin search parties. This is a trip highlight for me. I stand on the deck and snap a dozen pictures. It is another stunningly gorgeous, though desolate place, surrounded by cliffs rising behind rocky beaches.

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I scan the entire shoreline with my binoculars and spot tiny shapes at the base of the enormous cliff at the end of the bay. This is where Northumberland House is, built as a storehouse by Commander Pullen in 1853. Farther to the right just up from the shore I see specs – the four grave markers. I can hardly control myself from giving a whoop of excitement, but am on the bridge and everyone is library quiet. So am I – on the outside.

After breakfast, I give a talk in the presentation room on why Beechey Island is important and what everyone can expect to see onshore.

At 09:00, this is it. We are going ashore. Under a miserably overcast sky, the staff zodiac sets out for Beechey. However, with a 37 knot wind, the waves slosh over the sides. It’s like being in an old movie and someone is off stage throwing buckets of ice water on us. We are totally soaked. John and David sitting across from me are getting iced up. 1-P1120879

We are all laughing hilariously at the situation. I doubt the passengers will think it quite so funny. Just as we near shore, Stefan tells Nate to turn back to the ship.  Back onboard, Stefan announces over the PA system that the shore landing is cancelled. Oh well.

We remain anchored in the bay with the hopes that the wind dies down.

The morning passes. Mark gives a talk on birds and David finishes his previously interrupted talk on bears. After lunch, a polar bear is spotted on the far shore of Devon Island, which makes up the other side of the Erebus Bay and is separated from Beechey Island by a narrow spit.  A bunch of us stand on the bridge with binocs looking at the bear. It is far from the landing spot, but could easily decide to cross the spit or swim the short distance.

Then the sun came out. The wind died down, and the shore landing was on. Yahoo! The staff zodiac heads ashore. What a difference a couple of hours makes. The waves have calmed and the ride is relatively uneventful. The zodiac touches the hallowed rocky beach.

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Everyone is disembarking and I slide up the side to get off. I’m so excited I don’t pay attention to the fact that I haven’t sidled up far enough, plus I am facing the beach rather than the bay.  I swing my legs over the side into the water. But my feet don’t touch the bottom right away. They keep going deeper into the water and the rest of me follows. I am suddenly up to my chest in water, six feet from the shore.  I lean forward to take a step, but the waves push me.

I am shocked at how cold the water is rushing into my boots and up my sleeves and back.

Quicker than you can say “Jack Robinson,” John, in his hip waders, rushes into the water and Stefan grabs me from the zodiac. The life preserver suddenly works. It’s supposed to inflate when it gets wet and it does. Somehow John and Stefan haul me out of the water and I clamber back into the zodiac. Nate is ordered to take me back to the ship. Everyone asks if I’m cold. No, I am too mad at myself to feel cold. I sit a soggy wretch in the zodiac watching Beechey get farther away, as I am zipped back to the ship. I have never felt like a bigger idiot in all my life.

The guests are lined up on the deck waiting to load into the zodiacs, as I climb the gangway and waddle dripping past them. “Into the sauna,” someone says. And I’m about to, although I’m steamed up enough at myself, thinking how I blew my big chance to see Beechey. Then One Ocean Liz offers to get me dry gear. I have the quickest hot shower ever, am dressed and suited up in a red suit and dry green boots in the mud room in less than five minutes. And I catch the last passenger zodiac to Beechey Island. YAY!

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My third attempt to land at Beechey today.  We land before the perpendicular line of four graves – three of Franklin’s men who died that first winter, and a crew member from a later search expedition.  This is it. I grab my camera and head up to where a small crowd stands at a respectful distance from the graves. Latonia and I each talk a bit about the men who are buried there, and how Franklin’s men were exhumed by Owen Beattie, a forensic anthropologist, in 1984.

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His autopsies determined that the men had high levels of lead in their system, which was traced to the lead solder that ran inside the cans when they were sealed and contaminated the food.

With a bear in the vicinity, no one is allowed to walk the kilometre down the beach to where the rescue expeditions had their base. The zodiacs ferried us the short ride to Northumberland House. Mark, who was stationed near the spit to keep an eye on the polar bear still on the far shore, later reported that its footprint was twice his hand span. We  were glad the bear didn’t feel the need to visit.

We arrive at the search base camp it is in the shadow of the towering cliff wall.  Partial stone walls with a few beams are all that remain of the Northumberland House. On the hill behind it, Edward Belcher’s 1854 wooden monument is a tribute to the men who died on the search expeditions.

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Barrel rings, rusted cans, and a sailboat spar scattered about the site are meagre remnants of a once more substantial historic site. Much of it has been taken away as souvenirs. I can’t get over that all that is left of the yacht Mary, left by John Ross in 1850, is the spar. I have a photo of it from 1927 and it is still an substantial hull of a boat on its side in the gravel. It would not have rotted in that time. Dr. Lorris Borden mentioned that on his stop at Beechey in 1904 he stripped a piece of wood from the Mary and had the ship’s carpenter make it into a nice picture frame for him. I suppose many picture frames were made over the last century, as there is nothing left of it.

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It was fascinating to see this historic place. People have felt connected to it for years. There are several more modern monuments near Belcher’s. A couple of government bureaucrats, and famous royals have erected plaques, commemorating their visit or their death. These are not in such great shape either.

1-IMG_1414One monument a pyramid of wooden pieces has a collection of metal tubes in it, containing notes left by visitors. What they say is a mystery, as no one opened them. Interesting to ponder whether they were left to be read or not.

Back on board, John, Andrew and Susie gave a lovely Welcome to Nunavut celebration in the lounge with Susie lighting the soapstone qulliq. Though she explained that her wick was traditional cotton grass, Crisco replaced the seal oil. The lamp light was a warm welcome after visiting such a non-welcoming place.

110914 ROV DND Franklin expedition

Ree explained what the acronyms for the pieces of equipment used to find the Franklin wreck stand for. AUV – autonomous underwater vehicle  – and underwater ROV – remote operated underwater vehicle – We’re not sure exactly what is in the blue cargo box on the Vavilov aftdeck, but it has something to do with the discovery of the sunken ship. The four DRSDC guys on board are mum about the subject. They don’t mingle with us. But we see them in the lounge.

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The scenery is beautiful as we cruise along Devon Island and pass the entrance to Radstock Bay. This was to be our stop this afternoon, but because we spent the day at Beechey, we have to bypass this spot.

After dinner, we enjoyed John Houston’s film Diet of Souls. It was an evening for reflection.

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About Season Osborne

I am a writer with a passion for Arctic history. After finding a photo of Capt. Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, who claimed the Arctic for Canada in 1909, I was inspired to write my master’s thesis on Bernier’s contribution to Arctic sovereignty. This ultimately led to extensive research into Canadian and ‘foreign’ expeditions to the North, which morphed into my recent book, In the Shadow of the Pole: An Early History of Arctic Expeditions, 1871-1912.
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