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Finally found: The ships of a doomed arctic expedition

Listening to the locals and thinking creatively. That’s how Adrian Schimnowski and his crew found HMS Terror, one of two ships that went missing in 1848 with all 129 crewmembers while searching for an Atlantic-to-Pacific passage through the Canadian Arctic.

“They Forged the Last Links With Their Lives”: Sir John Franklin’s Men Dying by Their Boat During the North-West Passage Expedition, painted by W. Thomas Smith in 1895.

The worst loss in the British Navy’s history of polar exploration, the demise of the Franklin Expedition — the disappearance of its two ships, the deaths of all hands and rumors of cannibalism among them as they struggled to survive the brutal winter — had stumped historians for nearly 170 years. “Great discoveries are made when you jump outside the box and outside traditional thinking,” Schimnowski says.

For four summers, the waters west of King William Island had been the focal point of the search for the Terror, but the three-master — with a double-planked hull, 20-hp steam engine and steel-sheathed bow — eluded searchers. Schimnowski thought it might be time to steer a new course, one informed by the memories and experiences of the Inuit who live on and around King William Island. They shared some of their oral history with him — stories of men and women who had looked west across Terror Bay at sunset and seen the silhouette of a sailing ship.

One of Schimnowski’s own crewmembers, Sammy Kogvit, from Gjoa Haven on King William Island, told him of going fishing with a friend six or seven years earlier and seeing something poking out of the ice as they crossed Terror Bay. On close inspection, it turned out to be a mast.

Kogvit took a picture of it, but he lost the camera, and then his friend drowned on a hunting trip when his snowmobile broke through the ice. Inuit frown on telling stories as fact unless they are backed with solid evidence, Schimnowski says. Kogvit’s evidence — the photo and his friend’s corroboration — had been lost, so he kept the sighting to himself until he joined the crew of the 65-foot research vessel Martin Bergmann and befriended its captain, Schimnowski, who believed him.

Parks Canada, a partner with the Arctic Research Foundation, Schimnowski’s employer, had assigned the Martin Bergmann to search for the Terror in Erebus Bay, where archaeologists thought the 102-foot ship and the expedition’s flagship, HMS Erebus, might have drifted while trapped in ice north of King William Island in September 1846.

On a hunch and the strength of the Inuit stories and Kogvit’s tip, Schimnowski diverted to Terror Bay on the south side of King William Island. “They take this stuff seriously,” he says of the Inuit. There are no trees in the Arctic, so when Inuit find a landmark they take note and remember. “It helps them navigate through storms and get home,” he says.

This sketch of the Terror is from the narrative Capt. George Back wrote during his 1836-37 Arctic expedition.

Operating side-scan sonar from a 16-foot aluminum launch, the Bergmann crew surveyed the bottom of Terror Bay for two hours Sept. 3, with no results. It was cold. They hadn’t eaten breakfast. “We were ready to give up the search and come back a week later,” Schimnowski says. They loaded the launch onto the Bergmann, positioned the research vessel 1,300 feet west of its original track into the bay and started to motor out with the depth sounder scanning a 30- to 40-foot swath to map a safer, deeper pathway for their return. “We [motored] right over the wreck,” he says.

The Terror was sitting level and almost perfectly intact in 80 feet of water, Schimnowski says. The ship’s location suggests the crew may have been able to free both of the Franklin Expedition ships and sail them south after at least two years immobilized in ice north of King William Island.

The expedition encountered a couple of tough years in the Arctic with no summer thaw and no relief from the cold, the brutal storms and the pack ice, Schimnowski says. From his own experience, he says storms in the region — 70 degrees north latitude, far into the Arctic Circle — sweep through with 140-knot winds and 40-foot waves. “You feel like you’re on the edge of the world,” he says. “You have to be in tune with the environment and work with the environment, or you won’t survive.”

This from a man who grew up in Churchill, on Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba, where his father worked as a meteor­ologist for the Canadian weather service.

Schimnowski says the Terror’s pristine condition may mean that after losing so many men to cold and starvation, expedition leaders decided to anchor and batten her down for the winter, or perhaps scuttle her, consolidate crews on the Erebus and keep sailing south.

In September 2015, the crew of Parks Canada’s 35-foot research vessel, Investigator, was towing a sonar in Queen Maud Gulf off the Adelaide Peninsula, 62 miles south of where the Terror lay, when they found the Erebus in 36 feet of water. The ship had been stripped of provisions and most usable gear, as if the crew had abandoned her and set out overland on a long trek to what they hoped would be safety. Schimnowski says historians suspect they were headed for Chantrey Inlet and Back Fish River, which would lead them south to a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post.

Schimnowski says further exploration of the wrecks could yield artifacts or documents shedding light on what happened to the ships and to the men who crewed them, how they responded to events and what their plans were to reach safety.

A diver sets a biological sampling quadrant on the port side of Terror’s well-preserved hull.

The discovery of the Terror and the Erebus is the culmination of eight major Parks Canada-led expeditions to find the ships, which included sonar scans and underwater ROV surveys of hundreds of square kilometers of the Arctic seabed, Parks Canada says. The recent efforts pale beside those undertaken in the immediate aftermath of the vessels’ disappearance, when, according to Parks Canada, more than 30 official searches were launched between 1848 and 1854, 12 major ones in 1850 alone.

Searchers found no trace of the ships or crew until 1859, when Lt. William Hobson of the steam yacht Fox, a vessel privately chartered by Lady Jane Franklin, wife of expedition leader Sir John Franklin, found a somber message in an empty food tin beneath a pile of stones on Victory Point, King William Island. The message said both ships had become trapped in ice north of the island in late 1846 and remained stuck for two winters.

Meanwhile, Franklin had died on June 11, 1847, and 24 crewmembers, including nine officers, had perished, as well. The message went on to say that on April 22, 1848, the remaining 105 crewmembers (inexplicably) had abandoned the ships, which were carrying three years’ worth of provisions, and proceeded on foot down the west side of the island. The discovery of the Terror and the Erebus south of King William Island suggests the crew may have returned to the ships, freed them and sailed them south before abandoning them for good.

None of the crewmembers survived, all presumably dying of starvation, disease or exposure. Between 1859 and 1949, search parties and others found skeletal remains of at least 30 men on the southern and western coasts of King William Island, and on the Arctic mainland, “the great majority being scattered surface finds rather than burials,” writes Simon Mays, an archaeologist and human skeletal biologist, in a 2011 study of one of the skeletons in The Journal of Archaeological Science.

Inuit told 19th century search parties of cannibalism among the crew during their final desperate throes, stories that are supported by the research of Mays and others. Bones recovered from King William Island show knife marks consistent with cannibalism, and in a June 2015 study, published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, Mays took a second look at 35 bones found at Booth Point and Erebus Bay on King William Island. They appeared to have been broken and their ends “pot polished” from rubbing against a cooking pot, suggesting they had been boiled to extract marrow.

Historians long thought that disease — scurvy, tuberculosis and lead poisoning from sealant in the 5,000 tin cans of provisions — may have caused the men’s demise. Analysis of the skeletal remains, however, have shown that disease among Franklin’s crew was no worse than that of other Arctic expeditions.

The expedition was well-founded. The Erebus and the Terror were built as Royal Navy “bomb vessels,” which carried a 3-ton mortar mounted on a rotating platform near the bow. The ships’ framing was stoutly built to withstand the mortar’s recoil and reinforced for polar exploration. The hulls were double-planked, the bows sheathed in steel plate, and both were fitted with steam engines. The ships sailed with triple-strength canvas. HMS Terror went to the Arctic with George Back in 1836-37, and both ships sailed to the Antarctic with James Clark Ross in 1839-1843.

Parks Canada and Canadian Coast Guard personnel survey the wreck in Terror Bay, Nunavut, with side-scan sonar.

Franklin was an experienced explorer, having completed two expeditions to the Arctic to chart northern Canada’s mainland coast. On the first of those expeditions, in 1819-22, he lost 11 of 20 men to starvation. Franklin’s second-in-command on the 1845 expedition, Francis Crozier, captained the Terror and had been that ship’s master on Ross’ four-year Antarctic expedition. He would have taken command after Franklin’s death.

“He was a great captain and respected by all his men,” Schimnowski says. “He probably had a bigger plan than just leaving the vessels. We just don’t know that yet.”

Schimnowski is eager to see what further exploration of the Terror and Erebus wrecks uncovers. “Whatever we find from this point on,” he says, “is going to change and rewrite history.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue.