Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Book sheds light on ship lost in Franklin expedition search

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While the long-running search for Sir John Franklin’s lost ships Terror and Erebus continues after nearly 170 years of mystery and frustration, a new book celebrating Parks Canada’s 2010 discovery of the sunken HMS Investigator details how the stunning Arctic find took place mere moments after the hunt officially began. The Investigator was one of dozens of Royal Navy vessels sent to look for the missing Franklin Expedition in the 1850s.

Underwater archeologist Ryan Harris, part of the team that achieved the feat three years ago in Mercy Bay off Banks Island, N.W.T., first glimpsed the wreck on a shipboard computer screen “just three minutes after they deployed the sonar,” the book reveals. “It was a suspicious feature on the sea floor, something that stood out from the muddy bottom.”

That “something” was a genuine piece of Canadian history, no matter how fast it was found — a triumph duly recognized when the discovery was named one of the world’s top ten archeology stories of 2010. While the Investigator, like every other ship sent to find Franklin, failed in that mission, its captain and crew ultimately found the last link in the fabled Northwest Passage and helped establish British sovereignty over vast stretches of Arctic terra incognita that would, in 1880, be ceded to Canada.

After an epic 1850 voyage from a U.K. dockyard to the far northwest corner of North America, the ship became locked in ice at Mercy Bay and was finally crushed and sank sometime after April 1854, the last time it was seen afloat by British eyes.

And despite the unexpected ease with which Investigator was located at the bottom of the bay in 2010, the richly illustrated volume to be launched next week in Ottawa makes clear that a host of other discoveries are still to come — in scientific labs, in various British archives and at the wreck site itself.

Among the many legacies of the vessel was its impact on the lives of Inuit peoples in the region, whose use of metal and other items from Investigator supply caches significantly influenced life in their communities.

“We’ve only scratched the surface of HMS Investigator,” Harris said in an interview, noting how only 16 artifacts have so far been raised from the ship while “thousands or even hundreds of thousands” of objects remain entombed in silt, and almost certainly in good condition, in the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean.

“You can only imagine what is preserved deep inside the bowels of the ship,” said Harris, listing historical treasures such as botanical and zoological specimens collected by ship scientists, journals and letters kept by sailors, and the well-aged contents of the “spirit locker.”

“We’re very eager,” said Harris, “to make a return visit to the site of the HMS Investigator,” which he describes as the archeological equivalent of a “small floating town” from Victorian-era Britain, and the world’s “singular example of a mid-19th-century Royal Navy polar exploration vessel.”

But intriguing finds have already been made, as detailed in the newly published book — Lost Beneath the Ice: The Story of HMS Investigator — written by Ottawa Citizen columnist and Carleton University professor Andrew Cohen and illustrated with rare historical images and dozens of Parks Canada photographs documenting the successful 2010 search, a series of dives in 2011 and the rescued relics.

Among the highlights are a sailor’s leather shoe and a Victorian-era rifle that might have been used for hunting game after the Investigator became irretrievably frozen in the Arctic ice. But other items recorded or retrieved during the 2011 dive season include a vintage bilge pump and a wooden “horn cleat” — a fixture used for securing rope on a ship’s deck — that testing at an Ottawa lab has shown was made from an exotic, tropical species, the jabillo tree.

That likely means, archeologists have surmised, that the object was carved during ship repairs in Hawaii, a tangible reminder of Investigator’s brief but adventurous life — including a May 1850 storm that badly damaged and nearly sank the ship off the South American coast — before reaching its Arctic endgame.

The Mercy Bay ice refused to release Investigator through three straight winters, and the gathering sense of desperation of Capt. Robert McClure and his crewmen is vividly recaptured in Cohen’s narrative.

The winter of 1852-53 “was a horror,” he writes. “The temperature plunged to -65 degrees Fahrenheit (-54C), the lowest ever recorded by any expedition. The daily ration had been reduced again, and the men were down to one meal a day. Some were found rifling through the previous winter’s garbage heap. Many were weak with scurvy.”

Rescue came on April 6, 1853, with the arrival — on foot over frozen ice — of a Lt. Pim of the Resolute, wintering but not permanently trapped at a nearby island. McClure and his men would trek the distance and eventually return home to Britain in October 1854.
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