Searching For Franklin

The Twin Otter gunned its engines and rose up like a helicopter. The head wind at Erebus Bay was absurd. It was so powerful that no plants could grow over a few centimeters tall—flattened and hiding in the cracks between the broken pavement of shale. We flipped over stones and found astonishing fossils of Mesozoic sea creatures. But nothing lived here now. When we found the bleached skeleton of a polar bear, intact from nose to tail, we realized that nothing had even around here to feed on its carcass.

The northwest coast of King William Island was as desolate as desolate gets. Even the Inuit avoided it: they called it “the back of beyond.”

We went up there in 1994 to film an amateur historian searching for Sir John Franklin. In 1845 Franklin left England with two ships to go searching for the Northwest Passage to the Orient. Sir John took 129 men aboard the “bomb ships” Erebus and the Terror. The hulls were double planked with tropical hardwood and clad with metal to withstand the ice. The ships had steam engines, hot water pipes, canned food to last for years. The finest navy in the world expertly refitted the Erebus and The Terror to comfortably withstand at least two high Arctic winters. They were even stocked with a library and costumes for pantomimes to pass the days of darkness.

But the ships and the men disappeared. It was like NASA losing a mission to the moon.

The hopes of an empire sailed with those men, so it was bad enough that the glory of the Passage was never realized. But then no one ever found a diary, a journal, a log book—nothing, except for one piece of pre-printed Navy-issue paper with notes scribbled in the margin in 1848: it said Franklin was dead and that 105 men, now under the command of Cpt. Francis Crozier, were going to try to escape the Arctic on foot. Ever since, people have been trying to figure out where they went.

Barry Ranford was a high school art teacher from Palgrave, Ontario, who caught the Franklin bug in the 1980s. Ranford was the envy of “The Franklin Mafia:” a worldwide cult of enthusiasts obsessed with the Franklin mystery. In 1992 Ranford traversed the shore of Erebus Bay for weeks, dragging his supplies in a gardening cart, eyes fixed to the ground. Just before it was time to leave he found a skull, bleached and weathered to the same colour as the shale. And then his eyes adjusted to reveal more. The skeletons were strewn around, disjointed and mismatched, splotched by lichen, just like the rocks. There were bits of boot leather and clumps of navy blue wool. Splinters of wood and scattered iron bolts. Pieces of 11 separate skeletons in all: it was an incredible find.

Ranford was a loner–an irascible and determined man, with the eye of an artist and the tenacity of an explorer. But he was also desperately unhappy and surprisingly bitter. He lived alone in an old gristmill that he converted into a beautiful house. He sunk a turbine into the millrace to generate his own electricity. And along a wall in his den was his incredible collection of Franklin books. Searching for Franklin became an industry in 19th century. Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane, kept pressure on the navy for decades, first to rescue her husband, then to bring home his remains. To her the family honour was at stake. Franklin had tried to find the Northwest Passage before. In 1819 he went overland, lost 11 of his 20 men and almost starved to death himself. When a rescue party found him, he was eating his own boiled boots.

Admiral Franklin was in his mid 60s when the Navy finally tapped him to take the Erebus and the Terror through the passage. There were mutterings in the salons of London: he was the wrong man for the job. Lady Jane’s husband had been previously, disgracefully recalled as the Lt. Governor of Tasmania. She knew that Franklin’s reputation could use some polishing. Finding the passage to the Orient would make him a national hero.

Instead, this time, he led every one of his men to their deaths.

In the late 1840s, after Franklin was not heard from, the search parties started sailing out. Eventually, over 50 rescue expeditions would go looking for Sir John. In England every would-be rescuer came home and released a bestseller. And those bestsellers were what lined Ranford’s walls.

When he greeted me at his home Ranford was open and smiling, but also sharp and pugnacious: an uncomfortable mix of enthusiasm and bad temper. He was short, grey-blonde, with a clenched jaw and a thick moustache like a prospector. If CBC was going to do a story on him, he wanted to be paid. He wanted us to chip in on the cost of a Twin Otter and food. I said that could work, so he pushed for more. He was with his friend John Harrington, an affable teacher from Georgetown who was caught in the swirl of Ranford’s passion, but didn’t share his friend’s penchant for unease and confrontation. He reminded Ranford that he was getting some good press here—he shouldn’t ruin it.

The year before, in 1993, an entire scientific team went to Erebus Bay to do a proper analysis of the bones Ranford found in 1992. The scientists were able to confirm that they were Englishmen. And what’s more, they discovered knife cuts slicing into the marrow—signs of cannibalism.

Ranford’s lonely discovery hit the worldwide news, except he didn’t get much credit, because this was in the hands of the scientists now and in the newspapers they were the heroes. Ranford could not accept that he had to share his sailors. He felt shoved aside. Those bones were his. So in ’94 he was going back and taking us to prove that he could find more.

On King William Island, after the plane left, we unpacked our tents in the ridiculous wind. We dumped our camera cases inside before inserting the poles, so the tents didn’t get blown across the island. Once they were up the wind billowed them like sails. The first night was deafeningly loud.

And the next morning was very cold. It was July and a snowstorm came howling through. Our cameraman Hans was sitting outside, bundled with his back to the wind, having a smoke and tending his Coleman stove. “Morning,” he said, laughing, making coffee.

Ranford and Harrington shared their tents with an archeologist they brought along named John Macdonald. Ranford needed Macdonald so he could confirm and mark his discoveries—properly plot out the sites and catalogue the remains. Make it official.

On that first full day, after the snow stopped and wind ebbed, we made the walk to the Schwatka Site, where Ranford believed the Franklin survivors had set up a shore camp for the sick and dying. It wasn’t as much a discovery as a rediscovery. Frederick Schwatka, an American who went searching for Franklin, was there in 1879. He buried all the remains he could gather.

It was a strange experience, arriving there, because I couldn’t see anything unusual. The day was grey and bleak, and so was the Arctic Ocean just to our north. The vista was low-lying shale interspersed with patches of tundra grass and squat, wind-pummeled willows as small as bonsai trees. There was very little colour, and not a lot of contrast. And then I realized I was almost standing a skull.

In the 115 years since Schwatka’s visit foxes had burrowed around the burial site, digging up some leg bones, the skull and the crown of someone else’s cranium. Soundman Chris Davies found a bright white molar. Reporter Carol Off found a gnarled chunk of navy blue serge, tangled with bits of tundra grass that had crept through the woolen layers.  Someone else found a brass button.

John Macdonald told us to leave everything where it was. He needed to pace out a grid and flag each artifact, then transcribe it all to a chart. We had to step carefully, to make sure we didn’t crush anything vital. Ranford pointed out a third skull that looked like a grey ostrich egg. It had blown around on the rocks so violently that the face was smashed off.

But Macdonald alone wasn’t a scientific team—he was a single contract archeologist and Ranford was clearly in charge. Ranford wasn’t much interested in protocol—he picked up artifacts and turned over bones. If this had been a crime scene the whole thing would have been compromised.

Still, Ranford had the ability to see things that weren’t there anymore. He led us to the slightest rise of land and walked the oval perimeter of where a hospital tent must have been. In the Arctic, they say, your footprints can last for decades. Once Ranford showed us it was obvious—you could see the impression left behind by the gathering of the dead and dying. Around the circumference there were boulders to anchor the tent ropes.

And right outside where the tent would have stood there was more wool, in orderly clumps of darkened blue. If you separated the layers you could see the original indigo. We realized the gruesome truth that this was where the corpses were laid and left. Most probably starved, after suffering through scurvy. I thought back to the crew list and how one could have walked along a row of bodies, marking off the names. Now there was nothing left but their uniforms.
In the spring of 1858 a Lt. William Hobson almost killed himself trying to find Franklin, making an arduous search across the ice by sledge, in the same area near Erebus Bay. Hobson was the one who found a six-foot high stone cairn containing the note from Crozier that the men were going to try and make it out on foot. And then he discovered a 1400-pound lifeboat—the biggest lifeboat he had ever seen, dragged inland and abandoned. There were two skeletons inside, one to the fore and the other aft, held intact by their uniforms. In one man’s pocket a copy of a popular novel, “The Vicar of Wakefield.” And strewn across the bottom of the boat were slippers, cigar cases, tools, tea, chocolate, silverware, crystal and a collapsible mast. Hobson was stunned by what these men had attempted to escape with. They must have gone insane with desperation.

And here we stood, near the same place. By midweek the wind had all but died and the 24-hour sun shone bright. Pleasantness overtook King William Island. Ducks floated on the lakes and we could see foxes in the distance raiding nests for eggs. Our camp had withstood the weather and we now aired out the tents. Someone broke out cigars and a bottle of Scotch, to toast the sailors whose remains will forever rest here, like the bodies of soldiers left on a foreign battlefield. It was easy for us—we knew our plane was coming. We could play tourist at this site of such hardship. Inuit oral history says that summer never came in the years Franklin’s men were marooned here. They never had a night as calm and warm as this.

Ranford called me to his tent. He was in there with John Harrington, with maps laid out on the floor. Ranford’s arm was tied up in a sling—he had broken it before he left Ontario and he must have been in a degree of pain. But that didn’t make me any more sympathetic when he tried to bilk me for more money. He had another find but it was going to cost me extra to see it. Harrington looked at him like he was crazy and scolded him for being so calculating. Ranford was quiet for a moment, thought better of his scam, then decided to show us anyway.

We walked off in a new direction, to a gathering of Inuit tent rings. In one of the rings was a stacked set of fat iron bolts, presumably from one of the ships. In another was a smashed-open cast iron strong box with naval insignia. In the accounts of the men who went searching for Franklin there were stories of Inuit who handed over pocket watches, service medals, knives and forks and spoons. One hunter had a plate with Franklin’s own monogram. Some Inuit paddled kayaks with carved wooden paddles, in a land with no trees. It was obvious they had scavenged what they could use.

King William Island had been littered with the things the sailors carried. But no one can really write the epitaphs of Franklin and his men. And we won’t know anything until someone finds one of the ships, or Franklin’s grave, or another cairn with a note or a journal—something that can tell us why it went so horribly wrong.

Ranford said it would all be different if just one man had survived, maybe bunked in with some Inuit, worked his way east, lived out the winters until he could hail a whaling ship. But Ranford also said he hoped the truth would never be found. It was like it would ruin it for him—like he preferred to piece a story together himself, imagining the bravery, the hubris and the misery.

After our story aired I spoke to Ranford once more. He laughed off what we had done. We had interviewed Margaret Atwood, Pierre Berton and Mordecai Richler, who had all written about Franklin and the malleability of his story. Atwood said the British Empire regarded him a hero in the late 1800s, but a century later he was a fool. She said it would change again—maybe another generation would think of Franklin as a mystic.

Ranford was having none of that. The truth was his to find out—on one else’s.  He planned to keep going back up there until he satisfied himself, till he found what he was looking for. And that was the last I heard from him.

A few years later John Harrington called to tell me Ranford had killed himself.

John Harrington kept going back to King William Island, searching for more clues. In all he’s made ten trips and he’s found bits of ship’s tackle and some parts of lifeboats. He went back one April to mark an anniversary at Victory Point, by Crozier’s cairn. But the weather socked in—a vicious winter storm that John says would’ve killed him if he hadn’t been saved by a tough northerner from Cambridge Bay. John is taking a break now, but he hopes to get back there one day.

The Inuit told of a sunken ship whose mast was sheared off by the ice. And there is another story of a boat frozen into a floe, carried away by the High Arctic currents. People have gone up there with magnetometers, to try and locate the steam engines. And there’s another theory that the concrete listed on the expedition’s manifest was used to make a crypt for the Admiral. Hundreds of people have gone looking and come up empty. Hundreds more will try.

But no one found more than Barry Ranford. That’s his legacy. It’s just that what he achieved might not have been enough.