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Searching the Arctic for traces of the Sir John Franklin expedition

My great-grandmother spoke of finding mysterious objects on King William Island as a young girl. This summer, I retraced her steps.

  • Aug 22, 2016
  • 1,368 words
  • 6 minutes
The members of the Humahuk expedition with the remains of an HBC supply boat Expand Image

This summer, I undertook an expedition to explore sites mentioned in the oral stories of my late great-grandmother Humahuk, who told me many tales related to the fate of the Franklin Expedition (1845-1848). A story she told more than once is of what she saw at a very young age while travelling with her family to the northwest side of King William Island in search of driftwood.

Close to the shore, they came to a small ridge scattered with very small pebble stones. There, Humahuk and her family discovered strange objects that they had never seen, objects that were round like the droppings of an Arctic hare — which turned out to be musket balls — as well as many other artifacts.

Humahuk’s father took one item that he later made into an ice chisel (in later years she learned it had been a dinner or butter knife). As they were looking for more objects they noticed a man-made mound the length of a full-grown person. At the end of it was a stone with strange markings on it. Seeing this, her father became afraid and they made their way down to the shore.

Once at the shore they found more strange objects: wood and a metal chain going into the sea.

Another Inuit story held that a family was camping at the eastern side of Washington Bay when a large number of Franklin’s men appeared, pulling a big wooden boat on a wooden skid. 

I have travelled to the surrounding area three times by ATV in search of the objects that were on the shore. During the summer of 1992, Barry Ranford, a historian from southern Ontario, conducted a survey of the Erebus Bay shoreline in an attempt locate the objects that my great-grandmother described, but neither he nor I covered the many ridges that are in the area, nor have I since. According to Humahuk, there were two small islands nearby the place where they found the objects.

My great-grandmother was very young — about seven or eight — at the time her family made their trip around King William Island, but I’ve always thought her stories were worth investigating. 

After months of preparations that included applying for an archeological permit from the Nunavut Government and securing funding for a camera, camping gear, ATV rental and gas, we were packed and ready to leave Gjoa Haven on July 25.  We were delayed two days by heavy rain, but despite continuing rain we finally set off on July 27 on three ATVs fully loaded with everything we would need to live on the land for the next seven to 10 days. 

Our load contained a four-man dome tent, three air mattresses, 69 litres of gas for the ATVs, one small gas stove with eight litres of fuel, a tool bag with spare bearings for the ATVs, enough food for six days, a fishing rod, a satellite phone, camera equipment, an emergency locater, a metal detector and extra clothing.

The team for the expedition consisted of myself; Jamie Takkiruq, a bright young high school graduate who participated in our 2015 Malerualik expedition and was keen to learn more about the history of the island; and Michael Eleehetook, a high school student who struggled with his work last school year but is very knowledgeable about on-the-land living, having been raised by his aging grandparents, and was also interested to know about the island. 

Below is a diary of our trip. 

July 27

We left Gjoa Haven despite the rain and high winds along the shore and travelled for six hours. Visibility was very poor due to the rain and fog. We stopped on the shore off Todd Island at a place called Booth Point and I told a story or two related to Todd Island and Starvation Cove to my companions. Then we pushed on to James Ross Point, where we camped for the night.

July 28

We got up early to pack and continued along the shore toward Douglas Bay. It was still raining but a bit lighter that the previous day. We crossed many small creeks, getting wet and muddy in the process. We stopped at Peffer River, where one of Franklin’s men was found with a pocket notebook, then continued to Douglas Bay. The rivers there were deep and muddy. We crossed where it was a bit rocky. One ATV got stuck but we were able to pull it out with the other two. After passing the rivers at Douglas Bay we took a shortcut to Peabody Point. 

ATV stuck in the mud during the Humahuk Expedition Expand Image
Getting stuck in the mud was a common problem on the expedition thanks to our unusually wet summer weather. (Photo: Louie Kamookak)

July 29

Peabody Point is rich in history. Before Inuit a large group of Tunnit lived here in stone huts they built on a ridge west of the river. Then it became a summer home for the Inuit before Europeans came to the island. The river supplies a char run every summer. In August of 1923, Danish Explorer Knud Rasmussen, with the help of Arnarulungnuaq, built a Greenland-style stone house using the ruins of the Tunnit huts. That fall, the first fur traders set up a post which operated until 1930 before relocating to Gjoa Haven. We spent the morning touring the site and with the metal detector had a strong reading of metal in the center of Rasmussen’s stone hut and a couple more outside the ruins. In the afternoon we set off in the fog towards Gladman Point, an old Cold War radar site, and camped before reaching Cape John Herschel.

Jamie and Louie with the remains of Rasmussen's stone house at Peabody Point Expand Image
Jamie and Louie with the remains of Knud Rasmussen’s stone hut at Peabody Point. (Photo: Michael Eleehetook)

July 30

An extra rainy day with thick fog and patches of ice in the ocean. We came across many old Inuit tent rings between Gladman Point and Cape John Herschel. One old tent ring read that there was metal. Once at Cape John Herschel we visited the cairn erected in 1979 to commemorate the Franklin Expedition. A short distance from that cairn is the Simpson and Dease cairn, built in 1939. This site also had a high density of Inuit tent rings, where we found a part of a human hip bone. Then, we ventured into Washington Bay. The trail was very muddy; a few times ATVs became stuck. We reached the rivers at the end of the bay and found the water levels very high from the heavy rain we’ve been having. We camped for the night.

Stone tent rings denote a past Inuit encampment Expand Image
A stone tent ring left over from a past Inuit encampment. (Photo: Louie Kamookak)

July 31

By now we were on our last 23 litres of gas with our ATVs three-quarters full. We were still some 25 kilometers from our gas cache, so I made the decision to retreat back to Simpson Strait, where we called for a boat to drop more gas. This decision was not easy. We would have to detour another 12 to 15 kilometers for another possible river crossing. After a good, hot fried char and rice we packed up and travelled until we were not far from Gladman Point, and camped to repair a punctured tire.

August 1

We started out at noon and rode until we reached Gladman Point. We visited an old Inuit site a few kilometers from the Cold War radar site. In this place, an old supply boat for the Gjoa Haven trading post still sits on the shore. It operated from the mid 1940s to the 1960s. A Roman Catholic church built in the late 1950s is also here. All these sites were a great additional learning experience for the students beyond travelling across the island, taking note of the landscape and abundance of wildlife we came across. We continued until we got to Peabody Point, where our emergency gas awaited us. 

Jamie and Michael with the remains of an HBC supply boat Expand Image
Jamie and Michael with the remains of a Hudson’s Bay Company supply boat at Gladman Point. (Photo: Louie Kamookak)

August 2

Finally a sunny day. We had a chance to dry our socks before starting our last nine-hour travel day to Gjoa Haven. We stopped at a few spots along the way to look for any clues related to the Franklin Expedition, but our search was limited by the mud created by our unusually rainy season. 

In the end, I am a bit disappointed about not reaching our intended destination, but very grateful that the two students, Jamie Takkiruq and Michael Eleehetook, were able to travel with me and that I had this opportunity to show them the rich history of King William Island. I hope in the years ahead they will continue searching the land for clues that will help illuminate the fate of the Franklin Expedition. I thank One Ocean Expeditions and The Royal Canadian Geographical Society for their generous support of the Humahuk 2016 Expedition.


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