Out of the Northwest Passage: Following in Franklin’s Footsteps

Out of the Northwest Passage: Following in Franklin’s Footsteps

Northwest Passage was sought for centuries. In pursuit of a
time-saving sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the
waters of the
Canadian Arctic
, scores of mariners returned home baffled, or
perished as their ships were trapped or smashed up by the
relentless ice.

In 1845 British explorer Sir John Franklin attempted the passage
with a crew of 129, sailing from England on HMS Erebus and HMS
Terror. The ships became ice-bound and had to be abandoned before
sinking without trace. The men sought a route to safety across the
frozen Arctic on foot. Every one of them died in the endeavour.

It was not until 1854 that Orkney-born
explorer and surgeon John Rae completed the puzzle, discovering the
last portion of the Northwest Passage and learning the fate of
Franklin’s expedition. Rae met Inuit hunters who told him they’d
seen two ships stuck in the ice, that the men on board had
abandoned them, and that the ships had foundered near King William
Island. But the ships were never located, and over the years the
sea and ice pushed them further south under the water.

For 169 years people searched for Franklin’s ships until they
were finally located; HMS Erebus in 2014 and HMS Terror in

I was on Adventure Canada’s 17-day expedition cruise, Out of the
Northwest Passage, on which we would pass the locations at which
Franklin’s expedition ended, as well as experience the Canadian
Arctic. Extending nearly 1.5 million square kilometres, it’s an
adventurer’s paradise; icy and treeless, but rich in history,
culture and wildlife, with stunning views that few humans get to
see. Our expedition was to take us to its heart.

The winter’s first snow fell around us as our journey got
underway. We’d just received the historic news that Franklin’s ship
Erebus had finally been located, kilometres further south than the
point reported by the Inuit hunters all those years ago. And we
were about to sail right over the top of where it sat on the sea
floor, apparently in good condition.

It was around 2am, the wind screamed down the water as I stood
with explorer Milbry Polk, on deck in the dark, whisky in hand, to
toast Franklin and his lost crew with a drop offered to the sea, as
we sailed over the spot where Erebus lay beneath us.

had started in Edmonton, where we boarded a chartered
flight to Kugluktuk, an Inuit community at the mouth of the
Coppermine River on the Coronation Gulf. There the temperature
hovered around two degrees celsius as we transferred in Zodiacs
(inflatable boats) to our ship. A trustworthy and comfortable
vessel, the
Ocean Endeavour
carries 198 passengers and can explore the
Arctic during the summer months, weather and ice dependent.

Franklin sailed east to west in search of the Northwest Passage,
but we were travelling the opposite way. We knew where we going,
after all. Our route would take us through the Bellot Strait, the
narrow channel separating the northernmost tip of continental

North America
from Somerset Island, to Beechey Island, across
Baffin Bay, and then down
‘s west coast.

We sailed through the night, along the Queen Maud Gulf, past
King William Island and then through the Simpson Strait towards
Gjøa Haven, where the first person to reach the South Pole,
Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, honed his survival skills.

In the Inuktikut language, Gjøa Haven is called “Uqsuqtuuq”,
meaning a place with plenty of blubber. Amundsen was stranded here
from 1903 to 1906 and learnt the Inuit ways that helped him to beat
Captain Robert Scott to the South Pole in 1911.

Our first landing was at Anderson Bay, where we surfed ashore on
Zodiacs in a biting wind. The land was flat and boggy, but it felt
good to be trekking in the fresh Arctic air, and we found
interesting fossils, including sea fans and coral.

Then a storm let rip, with winds whipping up to 45 knots
(83kph), and huge waves throwing our ship about like a toy. Our
planned landing at Gjøa Haven was cancelled. It was bitterly
disappointing but as our leader, Jason, explained: “This is an
expedition, and things can change at the last minute in the face of
ice, wind and snow – or the presence of a polar bear.”

The old adage “safety first” has never rung more true; the
guides had to make hard decisions and convey them to our group of
excited passengers who were eager to go ashore. The storm raged for
two days as we continued north, keeping watch for bears, walrus and
whales. Less ice due to global warming means that whales can travel
further north, and are becoming more common in the Arctic, which is
warming twice as fast as the rest of the earth, with an impact on
the whole planet’s climate.

At Beechey Island we spent the night anchored in Erebus and
Terror Bay (named after the ships) and went ashore the following
morning. It’s a chilling place where we were greeted with snow a
metre deep.

Franklin’s party overwintered here and wooden headstones mark
the graves of three of his men. The piercing wind ripped across my
face as I trudged through the snow to the graves, and the ruins of
Northumberland House, a small structure that had been built from
salvaged timber by a search party looking for Franklin, in case he
and his lost party might find shelter there.

Back on board, the following morning we were woken by news of a
polar bear on an ice floe ahead of us. It was a thrilling sight
watching it leap across the ice, and then dig a hole and curl up in
a ball for a snooze.

Vast areas of pack ice threatened our landing at the Inuit
community of Arctic Bay, at the top west side of Baffin Island, but
we made it to the tiny, picturesque town and met some of its
inhabitants, many of whom still hunt in the way their ancestors
have for thousands of years, while also making use of the sports
facilities and internet access in the local community centre.

Throughout that night we broke through thick ice on our way
through Lancaster Sound. It banged and bumped against the ship’s
hull as we slowly nudged through it. I wondered just how much
battering the ship could take, until we exited safely, just as the
sun was rising. We sailed along the shore of Devon Island, with its
intimidating cliff faces, to the derelict outpost village of Dundas
Harbour. When the call to go ashore fed through the speaker in my
cabin, I was well rehearsed, and quickly threw on my warm

I slogged through more deep snow to abandoned, dilapidated
wooden houses, where an old stove, decaying arm chairs, tin cans, a
sewing machine and a cast-iron frying pan were some of the rusting
items lying around. Winter here must be tough. A historical report
speaks of one resident who had to fight off a walrus, and then
accidentally shot himself in the head.

We continued north into the wildly windy Smith Sound and over to
Greenland, the world’s largest island, and home to one of the
Arctic’s hardest places to reach, the community of Qaanaaq. Smith
Sound was the main route for explorers searching for the North
Pole. We traced their routes as we approached Qaanaaq down a long
fjord between spectacular towering cliff faces. We sailed
alarmingly close to wondrous icebergs, then anchored while we
waited for a break in the weather. It never came, and so we sailed

A typical example of relatively ordinary life carrying on in the
most inhospitable of situations was Ilulissat (Iceberg), a town at
the mouth of the Ilulissat Icefjord. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage
Site, where we cruised in our Zodiacs to appreciate the massive
icebergs, then visited the bustling town, with its museums, cafés,
craft shops and busy fishing harbour.

My journey drew to an end as our ship sailed towards Sisimiut
and down a long fjord to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland’s primary flight
hub, where we disembarked and transferred to the airport.

It felt uncanny to be heading back to my familiar world with my
head and heart full of the wild, intimidating and inspirational
beauty of the far north. Magnificent scenes from its frozen yet
ever-changing landscapes replayed in my mind’s eye and will long
endure in my memories – how long the ice will last is another

Discover More
All at Sea: Get on Board with Boat Travel