When the Canadian Coast Guard offers help this summer in the search for the lost ships of Sir John Franklin's polar expedition, its efforts will be only one part of its multi-faceted annual mission to the Arctic.

Its return to the northern waters will also feature work that reflects the changing nature of the life in the area: bigger ships are starting to travel and work there and the coast guard will be moving beacons to make way for the larger vessels.

Searching for Franklin

The Canadian government announced on Aug. 23 that it was launching a search for the two ships involved in Sir John Franklin's doomed 1845 quest for the Northwest Passage.

For full coverage of the Franklin search, visit cbcnews.ca/franklin.

"The one change for us this year is we'll be opening the navigation season by laying all the buoys and checking the beacons," says Bill Noon, one of the captains of the icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

"But in Simpson Strait,

[south of King William Island], we're going to be moving all the beacons to accommodate bigger ships — deeper-draft vessels starting to transit and work in the Arctic. That's a big program for us."

The Sir Wilfrid Laurier sailed north from Victoria in early July. Once out of Juan de Fuca Strait, the icebreaker headed northwest toward the Gulf of Alaska. 

Almost immediately, it began fulfilling one of its goals: as a base for science work.

Beehive of activity

Equipped with two laboratories and accommodation for 25 scientists, the cruise is a beehive of research activity, from collecting water chemistry data and sea floor organisms with a grab-sampler to observing marine mammals and birds to compare distribution and numbers with previous years and relate the data to climate factors.  

Another coast guard task in the Arctic is icebreaking and escorting. That, too, began quickly this year. 

"The Laurier had to break significant ice going into Barrow, Alaska, and also escorted a fishery vessel into Barrow through the ice," says Noon.

Servicing and repairing about 150 navigational aids in the Western Arctic is another focus of the Laurier's Arctic mission. 

Included in this year's work for Sir Wilfrid Laurier is about two weeks searching for Erebus and Terror, the lost ships of the 1845 expedition led by Sir John Franklin in the quest for the Northwest Passage.

That search is in collaboration with the Arctic Research Foundation's vessel, Martin Bergmann, a converted Newfoundland trawler now equipped to support scientific research.

"There's a lot of agencies involved, including Parks Canada searching for the Franklin ships, Canadian Hydrographic Service building charts, Environment Canada doing environmental research, and the Canadian Space Agency doing some satellite work also," says Noon.

"This is going to be flat out, a lot going on. It should be interesting."

Secondary mission

This summer's search for the Franklin ships is one of many missions, says David (Duke) Snider, regional director of the Canadian Coast Guard fleet, Pacific Region.

"It really is secondary to all the other missions we're up there for. It's enabled because we're doing other missions," Snider says.

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A grab sampler bound for the sea floor is launched off the coast guard icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier for scientific work in the Bering Sea. (Brian Case)

One of those other missions is supporting Canadian sovereignty. 

"I think one of the important things is that the red and white coast guard ships are the biggest Canadian flags up there," Snider says.

"In a lot of cases, we are first ships into the areas and the last ships out, so we provide a very clear presence of the Canadian government in our Arctic."

A coast guard presence is important to Arctic communities, Snider says. 

'Symbols of the federal government'

"We are there, and we're symbols of the federal government. Our ships make efforts to touch base with folks, and we open up the ships for visits. We're part of the Canadian fabric, and it's all day-to-day, everyday business.

"There is a massive resupply of Arctic communities that goes on every summer, and without the support of the Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers, some of those deliveries may not occur at all. In some specific communities, only the coast guard's heavy icebreakers are able to get in and effect resupply," Snider says.

The coast guard also responds to environmental incidents. 

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Coast guard missions in the Arctic each summer include resupplying communities and supporting Canadian sovereignty. (Brian Case)

"Our icebreakers are up there carrying additional oil pollution response equipment," Snider says.

"We really are jack-of-all-trades up there."

This summer, there are six Canadian Coast Guard vessels plying Arctic waters, compared with seven last year.  The Amundsen is out of commission this year for engine replacement. 

Five of this summer's coast guard contingent are from the East Coast. The Laurier is the only one from the West Coast. It returns to Victoria in early October.