Captured by the Franklin Mystique

Originally published on OttawaCitizen.com

The ship emerges from the ocean gloom. It is a mysterious and captivating image.

HMS Erebus journeyed with Sir John Franklin into the Canadian Arctic in search of a northwest passage and it is on the cover of a new book about the discovery of that fabled vessel.

The accounting, packed with pictures, is the work of John Geiger, the head of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, and veteran science journalist Alanna Mitchell.

The Franklin expedition of 1845 to 1848 ended in mystery with all 129 hands lost. Over the years, people looked for clues to little avail, until, in 2014, an expedition led by Parks Canada, aided by Inuit oral tradition, found the remains of Erebus, a discovery hailed around the world.

For Geiger, the hunt for Franklin has been a part of his life seemingly forever.

“I have had this relationship with the saga starting in my early 20s when I (as a young journalist) became involved with Owen Beattie (who is an anthropology professor at the University of Alberta). He was looking at applying forensic methodology to the Franklin mystery by looking at human remains to see if there was some evidence as to what their health was like.”

The hook bit deeply into Geiger.

“I was working at the Edmonton Sun. I broke the story of the preserved bodies being exhumed. Owen and I developed a close relationship and we began to collaborate, writing the book Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition. Subsequently we wrote a second book on the Arctic on the James Knight expedition, the only other one to vanish with no survivors.”

Geiger went on three separate field seasons, each lasting weeks, in the Arctic as a result of his collaboration with Beattie.

“It was a great collaboration. Frozen in Time has taken on a life of its own. It’s still in print in numerous languages. It’s one of those books.”

Over the years he has spoken often about Franklin, including at the prestigious Explorers Club in New York.

“Franklin has always been part of my life and journey.

“Of course, you can imagine my thrill and excitement when the society was asked to be involved in the Parks Canada effort to locate Erebus and Terror. It was a great opportunity for the society to do what we have always done.”

The connection to the Franklin mystery goes way back for the Royal Canadian Geographic Society. The very first issue of the magazine, now called Canadian Geographic, in 1930 had a very substantial piece on the Franklin Expedition.

“We have always had an interest, because it is a story about geography, about exploration — it’s who we are.

“We were delighted to get involved in the Victoria Straits Expedition and we can hold our head up high. We were up there. We had a ship that had a role in the search.

“We came back and did what the society does so well, which is broad public outreach and educational outreach. We have produced lesson plans available in three languages: English, French and Inuktitut.”

The magazine issue on the Franklin discovery was second largest selling issue ever.

The Royal Canadian Geographic Society and Geiger also became embroiled in a controversy over the former Conservative government’s treatment of scientists and the politicization of the Arctic, which has distracted from the joy of discovery, and accusations of stealing some thunder from government scientists.

Still, with some scars on his back, Geiger remains “proud of our role.

“There was never any doubt as to the leadership of that expedition. I don’t think any organization has done more to celebrate the role of Parks Canada than the RCGS. We have given the dive team two society medals. We have highlighted their exploits. We are not trying to hog attention.

“We are a non-profit. We have a very important mission. We have worked with Liberal governments on projects and Conservative governments on projects and now we have a Liberal government. Hopefully we’ll be working with them.”

It has been discouraging for the society, he says, because many of the fellows of the organization are leading scientists.

“We are concerned about issues related to the integrity of science. We certainly had no problem interviewing dive team members about their research. We quoted and celebrated them. We also produced a special medal given to more than 200 people who participated, from cooks to the leaders of the mission.

“That’s what we do. We celebrate great moments in Canadian geography and this was definitely one of them.”

There is another boat out there, somewhere.

“Everyone has a theory. Mine has always been that HMS Terror is in Victoria Strait, in the so-called northern search area. Inuit oral tradition suggests one of the ships was damaged and sank really quickly.”

But so far it has not been found.

Geiger believes that Parks Canada will push hard to find Franklin’s other boat.

“They have a plan and, given the excitement globally about the Erebus find, there may be others interested in Terror. Parks Canada feels a sense of urgency about finding the other boat.”

Whether the RCGS is on board for the long haul is another matter.

“We are a small organization. It was a real risk for us to get involved. I would hope we would continue to share this story with Canadians.”

The discovery has raised the profile of the society, he says.

“I also think it’s good for geography. Geography is so fundamental — in this incredible period of globalization and movements of people, we need to understand where Canada stands in the world. Physical geography is one thing, but geography goes well beyond understanding the globe and where countries are. It also involves human geography and where people live.

“This is a golden era for geography.”

The prevailing wisdom these days is to leave the wrecks, such as Erebus, under the water, Geiger says, where the site can remain pristine and undisturbed. After all, people died on that boat.

“There are other ways to document the site.”

But, with no doubt a glint in his eye, he added: “Can you imagine the excitement around being able to look inside the boat? It would be a global attraction.”

Franklin’s Lost Ship: The Historic Discovery of HMS Erebus

John Geiger and Alanna Mitchel (HarperCollins)

In Town: The Royal Canadian Geographic Society Annual Fellows Dinner, featuring special guests Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson, will be held Nov. 18 starting at 5 p.m. at the Canadian Museum of History. For tickets and information: rcgs.org

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