Out of Canada: History and Geography Are Still at Odds in the Canadian Arctic. during a Voyage to the Icy North, Ken McGoogan Comes Up against the Conflict between What Humans Seek to Achieve and What the High Arctic Will Allow

By McGoogan, Ken | Geographical, December 2017 | Go to article overview

Out of Canada: History and Geography Are Still at Odds in the Canadian Arctic. during a Voyage to the Icy North, Ken McGoogan Comes Up against the Conflict between What Humans Seek to Achieve and What the High Arctic Will Allow


McGoogan, Ken, Geographical


On day two of our voyage 'Out of the Northwest Passage', we sailed into a mid-afternoon blizzard. Marc-Andre Bernier, manager of underwater archaeology for Parks Canada, was halfway through a presentation on The Search and Discovery of Sir John Franklin's Lost Ships.

Suddenly, on the 137-metre Ocean Endeavour, which weighs almost 13,000 tons, we could look out and see the kinds of conditions the Franklin expedition encountered in the mid-1840s in two small wooden ships. We could see, compare, and appreciate.

Within the next two days, Bernier proposed to lead a visit to the site of the recendy discovered HMS Erebus. While outside the wind gusted to gale-force (upwards of 50 knots), he talked about the Parks Canada search operations over the past eight years, and of the ongoing battle in the Canadian Arctic between 'History' (as an extended narrative of human achievement) and 'Geography' (the natural world). He highlighted the contributions of Inuit accounts relayed through such explorers as John Rae, Charles Francis Hall, and Frederick Schwatka, who relied on interpreters William Ouligbuck, Tookoolito, and Ebierbing.

Before he finished, Bernier explained that these accounts 'gave us an area, but did not establish a location.' That is why the search, which turned up Erebus in 2014, had required so much time and energy. It consumed eight years, covered an area equal to 215,686 football fields, and required 322 person-days of field work. It also involved the consumption of 500 litres of coffee.

MAKING HISTORY

The storm raged unabated into late afternoon. And when Bernier finished presenting, he hurried up onto the bridge to confer with his fellow decision-makers. For the past 24 hours, four men (with occasional visitors) had huddled frequently around the map table: Bernier, the ship's captain, Adventure Canada expedition leader Matthew James Swan, and David Reid, assistant expedition leader.

None of the four liked it, but as so often before, Geography was having its way with History. Geography had taken the form of ice, heavy seas, and gale-force winds, while History was seeking to extend the narrative of the Franklin expedition by bringing adventure tourism to the wreck of the Erebus. To that end, we were sailing with a full complement: 197 passengers, 37 Adventure seen flesh on bones before. Many artefacts on Erebus are covered in sediment, he said, 'and if sedimented, the remains could be very well preserved.' Bernier cited the example of a wreck from 1770, the HMS Swift, which researchers located in Patagonia: 'They found a complete skeleton in uniform.'

Since discovering the Erebus in 2014, Bernier said, Parks Canada has conducted more than 250 hours of diving on the ship--'open water, through the ice, and now we're setting up to dive from a barge.' That barge had recently arrived in Gjoa Haven. The top of the Erebus is just ten feet below the surface of the water, and that has facilitated the initial exploration of the vessel.

'Some of the deck planks are gone,' Bernier said, 'and in some instances we have been able to peek inside to the lower decks.' Using state-of-the-art technology and computerized graphics, the underwater archaeologists have been able to create a three-dimensional, grid-system map of the wreck. From the headquarters of the Royal Marines, they have recovered shoes, ceramic pestles, and medicine bottles reused as shot glasses.

Parks Canada has established a protected zone, a national historic site 10[km.sup.2], around the Erebus. The Inuit guardians at the site, where three tents had blown off, were now being evacuated.

The Erebus is not badly preserved, Bernier said, but the Terror, discovered in 2016, 'is in phenomenal condition.' Researchers identified a ship's boat, a 23-foot cutter, sitting on the ocean floor directly under the davits designed to release it. They found two outhouses sitting on the top deck. …

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