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How a routine mapping mission led to finding the Franklin shipwreck

Scott Youngblut is the hydrographer-in-charge on the Coast Guard icebreaker Sir Wilfred Laurier, which found a shipwreck this week.

Hydrographers surveying Arctic among team that found lost shipwreck

A sea floor scan reveals one of the missing ships from the Franklin Expedition in an image released in Ottawa on Tuesday September 9, 2014. (Parks Canada/Canadian Press)

Burlington scientist Scott Youngblut ​set in motion one of the most important archaeological finds in Canadian history when he set out on a routine task for his Arctic mapping research.

He is one of several Burlington-based scientists at the Canada Centre for Inland Waters who are part of the Arctic research expedition that made the discovery of one of the wrecks from the Franklin expedition. 

It always is thrilling for us to work in the Arctic; it’s the frontier of charting and mapping.- Scott Youngblut, Hydrographer-in-charge

Youngblut is hydrographer-in-charge with the Canadian Hydrographic Service on the federal agency's summer's northern expedition. He needed a helicopter to take him to a nearby island to place a GPS unit to aid in accurately positioning the boats for the surveying work and had some empty seats.

He invited along two archaeologists for the flight – Nunavut’s director of heritage, and a University of Waterloo archaeologist. While Youngblut installed his GPS, the team roamed the island. The helicopter pilot came across an artifact from one of the ships that altered the expedition’s search.

First find since 1879

It was the first artifact from the two lost ships found since 1879, said Douglas Stenton, Nunavut’s director of heritage.

The mapping and search efforts happen alongside each other in the North, with scientists joined by researchers from Parks Canada.

With the artifact found, combined focus turned to searching the area for more evidence of the wrecks.

The searchers used a remotely operated underwater vehicle to find the wreckage, taking images of it with sonar. They’re not sure at this point which ship they’ve found, but they believe it's the HMS Erebus or HMS Terror, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Tuesday.

Only 10 percent of the Arctic waterways are mapped to modern standards, Youngblut said Wednesday from the ship, anchored near Gjoa Haven in Nunavut.

“It always is thrilling for us to work in the Arctic; it’s the frontier of charting and mapping,” he said.

But this particular mission became slightly more thrilling. The find is huge.

“How anyone could work in the Arctic and not realize the importance that it has for Canada and our history…” he said. “All of us there in that Burlington office know the story and know the importance.”

Youngblut and five other scientists from his agency are on the Coast Guard icebreaker ship the Sir Wilfred Laurier, which found the shipwreck on September 7. Another three scientists from the Canadian Hydrographic Service are on the Royal Canadian Navy’s HMCS Kingston, another ship part of the northern search. Of those nine, six are based out of the Canadian Centre for Inland Waters in Burlington, including Youngblut.

It just happens that the folks that are here now, we’re the lucky ones.- Scott Youngblut, hydrographer-in-charge, Canadian Hydrographic Service

The federal agency uses technology to map and provide 3-D charts of Canada’s waterways and seabeds.

The scale for the Burlington-based Central and Arctic region hydrographers is huge.

“We do all the navigation charts and related mapping upriver of Montreal, all of the Great Lakes and all of the Arctic archipelago,” Youngblut said. “It’s a vast, vast area.”

Some of Youngblut’s regular surveying played a role in the find. 

Lucky ones

Youngblut raves about the earnest collaboration between so many agencies to make this happen: his agency, Parks Canada, the Coast Guard, and the list goes on.

And he credits a huge cast of explorers with the discovery. The missions that came before, the scientists who searched in years past.

“It just happens that the folks that are here now, we’re the lucky ones,” he said.

Youngblut thinks he’ll be extending his northern sojourn.

“I was scheduled to come home on the 15th but I suspect we’ll be staying a little bit longer now,” he said.

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