Why we're still infatuated with stories about the Northwest Passage

When Sir John Franklin set out to find the Northwest Passage in 1845, he never returned. From that mystery, began the stories. But why do we keep coming back to these Franklin stories? What do they say about us? And what does it mean today to seek a Northwest Passage?

'We as a country have kind of embraced this myth of the Northwest Passage,' says author

Naval Officer and explorer Sir John Franklin left Britain in 1845 and travelled past Greenland into Arctic waters north of what’s now the Canadian mainland. But Franklin and 128 crew members on two ships were never seen again. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images )

Pamela Hakongak Gross said she remembers going out on the tundra with her dad to look for relics from the Franklin expedition. 

Gross is now the Minister of Education and the Deputy Premier of Nunavut. And as she told CBC IDEAS, she grew up hearing her dad and his friends share theories about what happened to the expedition that had originally set out to find the Northwest Passage in 1845 and then disappeared.

Pamela Hakongak Gross is the Deputy Premier of Nunavut representing Cambridge Bay — a remote community along what became known as the Northwest Passage. (Elections Nunavut)

When she was 17, she joined him on one of his trips searching for relics. They travelled by quad, a kind of all-terrain vehicle, across Nunavut's tundra. 

"I grew up quadding and being out on the land, travelling, since infancy," Gross said. "For me, being outside is a happy place. Travelling our tundra, our beautiful landscapes."

Gross said they found a location on King William Island where there were old musket balls and the bottom of a broken wine bottle or glass – and that it was likely where the expedition had hosted their scientific observatory during their time in the Arctic. 

"Just to find anything out on the tundra is always fascinating," she said. "It's so amazing to be a part of. And it's a memory that I'll share forever with my dad." 

Gross's modern-day encounters with the Franklin Expedition are part of a plethora of stories about the Northwest Passage. They're stories that seem to be inherently fascinating, particularly for Canadians, since they take place in the northernmost reaches of what's now Canada.

But the question of why these stories are so appealing, and how they shape our conceptions of the Northwest Passage, has a multitude of answers. 

'Intrigued by a mystery'

These days, sea travel through the Arctic archipelago can be done with relative ease. But for centuries, European expeditions had been setting out to find the Northwest Passage, a route from the Atlantic to the Pacific over the top of North America.

One of those expeditions was led by Sir John Franklin. 

Franklin left Britain in 1845 and entered the Arctic with a crew of 128 men on two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. The crew and ships then disappeared. 

British explorer Sir John Franklin entered the navy as a petty officer. ( Hulton Archive/Getty Images )

"Who isn't intrigued by a mystery?" said Janice Cavell, adjunct research professor at Carleton University, who said that part of this story's appeal lies in the questions that surround it. 

Though the Franklin expedition was only one of several that sought a Northwest Passage, Cavell said that there's a particular focus on this expedition because so little is known about what happened to the ships and crew. 

The stories told about these expeditions in the 19th century also shaped how people thought of them. "It was a quest or an epic," said Cavell, noting that the British public would read about the latest installment of the search in their newspapers.

Franklin's wife, Lady Jane Franklin, also led an effort for her late husband to be recognized as the official discoverer of a Northwest Passage, said Cavell. There were rival claims for who should get the credit, Cavell said, but Lady Jane Franklin took action to cement Franklin's claim in the public consciousness. 

This 1800 portrait is of Lady Jane Franklin, aged 22. She was married to Sir John Franklin in 1828 and he was knighted one year later. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In Cavell's paper, "Who Discovered the Northwest Passage?", she writes about Lady Franklin's success in having her late husband recognized with a statue that depicted him, "at the moment when he announced to his crew that the passage's existence was confirmed."

Though it's possible that moment existed, said Cavell, it's not probable: "It's likely very much a part of the myth that Lady Franklin created around her husband."

An iconic Canadian song 

For many Canadians, the idea of searching for a Northwest Passage is familiar because of the song Northwest Passage, written by Canadian singer-songwriter Stan Rogers more than a century after the Franklin expedition disappeared. 

Released in 1981 on an album with the same name, the song's chorus references Franklin's search for the sea route, but the verses connect the idea of an impossible quest to more everyday struggles. 

The song has stayed popular for years. In 2005, when CBC Radio ran the show 50 Tracks: the Canadian version, Northwest Passage was voted the fourth greatest Canadian song. 

Chris Gudgeon, author of An Unfinished Conversation: The Life and Music of Stan Rogers,  said the song's emotional power is what draws people to it, and even though its many fans often think of it as a kind of anthem, it's really a song about failure. 

"I think it's really interesting that we as a country have kind of embraced this myth of the Northwest Passage," Gudgeon said. "Our myth is about a kind of impossibility and a kind of failure. And I think that's really curious."

"It's maybe failing in terms of not achieving a stated goal," he added, "but they succeed in the fact that they try."

Inuit knowledge essential to finding wreck sites 

In 2014, after years of searching, Parks Canada located the wreck of Franklin's ship, the Erebus, south of King William Island.

Jonathan Moore, the acting manager of the underwater archaeology team at Parks Canada, said that Inuit knowledge of a ship in a specific region was key to narrowing down a search area. 

The ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror used in Sir John Franklin's expedition to discover the Northwest Passage. This 1845 image is by Illustrated London News. (Photo by Illustrated London News/Getty Images)

"In the case of what later turned out to be the Erebus, we had information from Inuit in the 19th century that identified an area or a zone, in a place called Ugjulik, or the place where there are bearded seals," said Moore.

The Terror was located two years later, in Terror Bay just off King William Island. Moore said it was modern knowledge shared in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, that led to locating the second wreck. 

"By 2013 we had received information from the community [of Gjoa Haven] of a wreck in Terror Bay," said Moore.

"But it really wasn't until 2016 when that local knowledge actually led to the discovery of the Terror in Terror Bay, as it turns out, quite coincidently, with the information provided by Sammy Kogvic."

Kogvic said he came across a shipwreck in that area several years prior, but hadn't shared the information because he thought it wouldn't be believed.

The stories continue

After 2019, the pandemic put further exploration of the wrecks on hold, but Moore said they plan to return and continue their work as soon as possible.

With the finding of the wrecks comes the possibility of finding documentation or other clues on board that could help shed light on what happened to Franklin and his crew. 

The bell from the HMS Erebus ship sits in pure water after being recovered in Ottawa on November 6, 2014. Parks Canada and the Inuit Heritage Trust have come to an agreement on how the artifacts from the ill-fated Franklin expedition will be preserved and studied. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Moore said that the Terror in particular might hold this possibility because furniture in the captain's cabin is intact, including the captain's desk and cabinetry. 

"The interior space is blanketed in silt, so it has every appearance of being what we would term a preservation environment," he said. 

"We cannot of course be absolutely certain about the preservation of written material, papers and such, on either wreck," he said, "but every indication is that it's a possibility." 

Guests in this episode:

Pamela Hakongak Gross is the Minister of Education and Deputy Premier of Nunavut.

Janice Cavell is an Adjunct Research Professor of History and Northern Studies at Carleton University.

Chris Gudgeon is the author of An Unfinished Conversation: The Life and Music of Stan Rogers.

Jonathan Moore is the acting manager of the underwater archeology team of Parks Canada.

*** This episode was produced by Menaka Raman-Wilms. Menaka is the host of The Decibel, the daily news podcast from The Globe and Mail.

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