A search is set to begin in northern Manitoba this month for two ships that were lost in the Battle of Hudson Bay, a little-known but significant northern conflict from 1697.

A team of explorers with the Fara Heim Foundation is preparing to travel to where the Hayes River meets Hudson Bay to search for British and French warships that were lost more than three centuries ago.

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Johann Straumfjord Sigurdson is a co-leader of the Fara Heim expedition group, which hopes to depart for Hudson Bay as early as next week. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

"It's the largest naval engagement that ever took place in Arctic North America. It's one of the top 10 battles ever in Canada, and it just is unknown," said Johann Straumfjord Sigurdson, a co-leader of the expedition group.

The expedition team is aiming to depart as early as next week, weather permitting, to search for the French vessel Pélican and the Hampshire, a 60-metre British Royal Navy warship.

"It will be just awesome if we could find cannons lying on the bottom, because if you find bunches of those, we've found a ship," said fellow co-leader David Collette.

In 1697, France and England were fighting over control of North America and the fur trade.

That fall, French-Canadian Capt. Pierre Le Moyne D'Iberville arrived in Hudson Bay in his ship, the Pélican, in a bid to win control of the region for France.

3-hour battle

As D'Iberville's ship approached York Factory, a trading post located in what is now northern Manitoba, it was met by three British warships.

"He's fabulously outgunned, trapped in the mouth of the river, and he has two choices — give up and surrender or fight — and he chooses to fight," Sigurdson said.

Both sides lobbed cannon fire at each other for about three hours, but then the Pélican fired a shot to the powder magazine of the Hampshire. The British warship exploded and sank.

"D'Iberville's ship, the Pélican, was so badly damaged he had to run it aground in order to save his crew, because he's sinking," Sigurdson said.

Still, D'Iberville's crew took York Factory as a result of the battle, giving France control of Hudson Bay for the next 16 years.

Collette said the Fara Heim expedition team will use magnetometers, satellite photographs and side-scan sonar in its quest to find the Pélican and the Hampshire.

"The Hampshire has never been found, never been dove on, and never been recovered," he said.

"It's got a lot of metal on that ship, and with the magnetometer, a big hunk of metal will shine like a bright light."

'Naval warfare off the Prairies'

Peter Macleod, a pre-Confederation historian with the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, said he'll be watching the Hudson Bay expedition with great interest.

"Who couldn't be intrigued by something like this? Naval warfare off the Prairies!" Macleod said.

"I hope it will encourage Canadians to realize … there's a whole series of naval battles fought off the coast of Manitoba — something most Canadians just don't know and are astonished to discover."

The expedition will focus on two areas: the mouth of the Hayes River, where the remains of the Hampshire may be located, and the neighbouring tidal flats for the Pélican.

The Fara Heim Foundation has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $23,500 for the trip, which has been sanctioned as an official flag expedition of the internationally known Explorers Club.

Only eight backers have pledged $435 as of Tuesday afternoon, but the team will go ahead with the expedition regardless, using its own money.

The team is planning to record its adventures for a documentary and an educational package for high school history teachers.