Two Trinity alumni help to unravel the mystery of the “lost” Franklin Expedition
By Cynthia Macdonald
The story of the Franklin Expedition is a haunting reminder of nature’s brute power: a moment in time when the naval might of the British Empire was cruelly overwhelmed by the forces of ice, snow and wind.
In 1845, two ships carrying 129 sailors set sail from England in an effort to chart a passage that could facilitate travel from England to the Pacific Ocean. But neither the HMS Erebus nor its companion, the HMS Terror, ever made it. Marooned in pack ice, and ridden with scurvy, tuberculosis and lead poisoning, every single man under the command of Rear-Admiral John Franklin perished.
But the Franklin story is as much mystery as it is tragedy. After 170 years, there are still many questions about what happened to the crew. Over time numerous artifacts have been found, dotting the frozen shores of Arctic islands: buttons, flasks, watches, cutlery, even carpet slippers—all the detritus of a ship that was woefully ill-prepared to contend with the brutality of an extended Arctic voyage.
Gravesites and bodies have also been discovered, some even suggesting cannibalism.Yet, though highly literate (the ships’ library contained more than 1,000 books), the men left very little in the way of a written record, beyond noting that Franklin himself died in 1847. Historians have relied largely on the oral history of the Inuit, many of whom claimed to have witnessed the last sailors struggling in the days before they died.
But what happened to the Erebus and Terror? Until September 7, 2014, that remained the biggest mystery of all.
For Ryan Harris ’95, that day began like many he had spent over the past six years. As a Senior Underwater Archaeologist with the Parks Canada Underwater Archaeology team searching for the shipwrecks, Harris had passed hundreds of hours onboard the Investigator, a Parks Canada research vessel.The boat’s sonar equipment was analyzing the ocean floor, with Harris scanning a computer screen for clues. It was a process he admits was monotonous: “in the Arctic, there’s really nothing on the sea floor. No logs, no manmade structures. Certainly nothing to make you think you were looking at a shipwreck—until you saw one.”
Further investigation revealed it to be the Erebus, on which Franklin himself had sailed.
“When it actually happened it was hard to believe,” Harris says. “We felt elation on the one hand and also quite a bit of relief, because of the huge investment on the part of our department. But we’d always said that if we were persistent, we would be able to find one of these wrecks.”
Although the ships were British, there is something uniquely Canadian about the Franklin narrative.The men ran aground in what is now the territory of Nunavut. Many consider Stan Rogers’ Franklin- themed song Northwest Passage a kind of alternative national anthem; it was quoted by former Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson ’60 in her first official address.
And because Canada is continually challenged by other nations over the question of Arctic sovereignty, victory in this latter-day space race has struck interested observers—such as former Research in Motion chair Jim Balsillie ’84—as particularly sweet.
It’s a victory he played a key role in winning. Best known as a central pioneer of the smartphone era, Balsillie is also passionate about all things Arctic. In 2011, he co-founded the Arctic Research Foundation, a not-for-profit charity to support Canada’s interests in the area.
The ARF steered millions of dollars toward the search, while Balsillie successfully pressed the government for greater assistance, and drew lucrative private partners in as well. Last fall’s success, he says, was “very simply the result of a systemic approach. A confluence of factors helped, including superior technology, and retreating ice. But everything had been ad hoc up to that point, and the searches had been very short. And if you don’t have a dedicated platform—a vessel—well, then you’re all dressed up with no place to go.”
So Balsillie bought the ship himself: a magnificently retrofitted Newfoundland fishing boat called the Martin Bergmann, after a friend and Arctic expert who had died in a 2011 plane crash. “I’ve been involved in philanthropy,” he says, “but to do something this precise, that really fills a gap? It was a great pleasure to do that.”
Harris confirms that without Balsillie’s help, he might have spent even more fruitless years casing the lonely sea bed. Encroaching sea ice always makes the survey season a short one, numbered in mere days or weeks. “But the amount of ground we were able to cover over two years thanks to the Martin Bergmann … ultimately, that ship was instrumental in finding the Erebus.”
The expedition included several craft, including a large coast guard ship and the Investigator, named after another Royal Navy ship sent out in the 19th century in search of Franklin’s party. Unfortunately, the first Investigator sank, too (in 2010, Harris found the wreck).
Finding wrecks, it so happens, is what Harris does—from planes to galleons to ocean liners, some decades and some centuries old. Apart from wrecks, Harris and his team have uncovered other treasures, too—including wooden stakes used by First Nations and determined by carbon dating to be 6,000 years old.
The Calgary native’s love of archaeology took flight at U of T. He initially enrolled in Engineering Science, hoping to pursue his childhood passion, aerospace engineering, but quickly realized that wasn’t his calling and followed a close friend to Trinity. Later, while at grad school in the U.S., he set his sights on a plum (but seemingly unattainable) underwater job with Parks Canada. Eventually, he got it. “It’s the only professional underwater archaeology team in Canada,” he says. “We’re a team of eight, with very little turnover.”
Underwater archaeology combines many jobs in one—it requires a deep sea diver’s courage, a historian’s erudition, an illustrator’s talent and a software expert’s genius. “It’s the Swiss Army knife of trades, that’s for sure,” laughs Harris.
Like their Franklin Expedition forebears, men like Harris and Balsillie are also bold explorers.They return each year to the planet’s upper reaches, animated by competition, curiosity and adventure.
“Both [Ryan and I] are very ambitious, and strive to be the best at what we do,” Balsillie says.“And Trinity gave us the confidence and courage to pursue something the rest of the world might not have immediately noticed was valuable— to see around corners.”
But while John Franklin undoubtedly shared that foresight, he was hobbled by his times. Forced by an unusual cold snap to spend years in the ice—outliving the ship’s three years of provisions—what little we know of his crew’s suffering from cold, disease and starvation is gruesome to contemplate.
And even with all his accomplishments (he is often the first human being to dive unexplored waters), Harris remains in awe of the Franklin explorers. “After all these years, I still can’t feel like I’m in the headspace of what these men went through, the incredible privations that they suffered,” he says. “Today we have the luxury of modern conveniences, such as GPS, radar, and satellite phones— then hot showers when you make it back to the coast guard ship. It’s flattering to make comparisons, but those explorers were men of mettle.They were a different breed altogether.”
Climate change has been another chief focus for Jim Balsillie since the end of his BlackBerry days. He is currently the Chair of Sustainable Development Technology Canada, an organization that funds Canadians’ clean tech projects and coaches the companies that lead them as they move their ground-breaking technologies to market. In 2010, he was appointed to the United Nations High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability. So it’s ironic that, for all its ills, climate change may actually be a regrettable “modern convenience” that makes nautical travel easier today than it was in the age of Franklin.There is simply more open water to sail through now.
Still, unpredictable ice conditions remain a reality in the North. Harris says that these made some of his search years unnavigable: “2008 was good, 2009 was awful; the next three years were good, 2014 was bad.” Ironically, that “bad” year actually worked in the Expedition’s favour, forcing it back south to a previous search area, where the Erebus was eventually found.
When asked about what part Trinity College might have played in all this, Balsillie and Harris have similar reflections. Trinity’s “multidimensional aspect was critical,” says Balsillie, a former commerce student and eventual Harvard MBA. Many of his classmates in the early 1980s went on to stellar careers as well: these included neurosurgeon and Olympic diver Chris Honey ’84, television pundit Andrew Coyne ’83, filmmaker Atom Egoyan ’82, and New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell ’84—with whom Balsillie is said to have played some 10 backgammon games a day when they were students at the College. “We were all competitive, but in different realms,” he says. “There’s a lot to be said about keeping yourself broad in your engagement and understanding of the world, and I wouldn’t have had that if it weren’t for Trinity.”
Harris says the same is true of his own time there. “It was a formative period for a callow youth like me,” he laughs. “I was always impressed by how you could learn so much about other people’s fields of study at Trinity, because it’s such an open, communicative environment.There’s a lot of lateral thinking that takes place there.”
The search for missing pages in the Franklin story is far from over.This summer, the team will return to explore the Erebus, a process that will likely take years. Its bell (used by sailors to mark the passage of time) was recovered and is now undergoing a lengthy period of conservation. But because Balsillie was eager for Canadians to see it immediately, he worked with the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) to commission artists to make a perfect 3D replica.This is now on display at the ROM in Toronto.
It goes without saying that the team has one other important objective: finding the other ship from the 1845 Franklin Expedition. “It’s been stated by the Prime Minister that we’ll continue to look for the Terror, which makes sense because the two ships are historically intertwined,” Harris says. “To preserve and protect the wreck sites for posterity, and share their heritage value with Canadians and people abroad—we have to find that second wreck.”
— Cynthia Mcdonald