Out of the Deep Freeze

Article excerpt

The cold, dry climate of the Canadian Arctic has a way of preserving for centuries the perishable remains of man's doomed explorations in that forbidden zone. Ironically, the written records of these journeys were sometimes lost as well, lying in the obscurity of family libraries and uncataloged collections. However, the richest trove of such "Arcticiana" has come to light in recent years thanks to McGill-Queen's University Press in Montreal.

The McGill-Queen's Arctic booklist includes the fields of anthropology, Inuit oral history, natural science, and biography. But it is the journals and sketchbooks of the nineteenth-century explorers that form the backbone of its Arctic series.

No name is more closely linked to the fabled quest for the Northwest Passage than that of British admiral Sir John Franklin, who - on his fourth Arctic voyage in 1848 - lost his life along with all the 137 men under his command as he tried to poke through the ice-choked channels above North America. However, it was his second Arctic expedition thirty years earlier that set the pattern for the vainglory and ill planning that was to kill him later. Three surviving journals from this expedition were recently published together as a collection by McGill-Queen's: Arctic Artist: The Journal and Paintings of George Back, Midshipman with Franklin, 1819-1822; To the Arctic by Canoe, 1819-1821: The Journal and Paintings of Robert Hood; and Arctic Ordeal: The Journal of John Richardson, the Surgeon-Naturalist with Franklin, 1820-22. Together they form a knuckle-whitening trilogy of stiff-upper-lip reporting of such feats as an eleven-hundred-mile solo trek through the dead of winter, Arctic Sea navigation in a frail birch-bark canoe, and subsisting for months on rock lichen, putrified reindeer bone marrow, and old shoes.

This journey, three years by snowshoe and canoe from Hudson's Bay to the Arctic Ocean and back via Athabasca and Great Slave lakes, might be called the first truly Canadian expedition, being composed of Englishmen, French voyageurs, Inuit, Iroquois, Dene Indians, mixed-blood metis, and even an Italian. It is unique also in having been documented by four participants including Franklin, whose original journal was lost in a swamped canoe but later reconstructed in rather stilted language from the other three sources. …

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