Real Arctic Adventure

People in this area have done all manner of interesting things. Take Mike Yarascavitch of Bolton, who in 1992 accompanied Barry Ranford of Orangeville to the Arctic to retrace part of the land journey made by crew members of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845 Arctic expedition.

The Franklin Expedition

This is probably one of the biggest Arctic mysteries, fascinating people since that time.  In fact, the Royal Museums Greenwich deemed it “the worst disaster in the history of British polar exploration”. The expedition’s purpose was to find the Northwest Passage through Arctic waters and also record magnetic information as a possible aid to navigation. Franklin departed with two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror , three years’ worth of supplies and 128 crew members and officers.  He and his first officers and some sailors were already experienced in the Arctic and the ships were fitted with the latest technology. After they stopped for more supplies in Greenland and also were seen by some whaling ships in Baffin Bay, no Europeans ever saw or heard of them again.  In 1848 his widow convinced the British admiralty to start what is claimed to be the most extensive search effort in that navy’s history. Only a few bodies and no trace of the ships were ever found at the time. Thereafter “finding Franklin became nothing less than a crusade.” In the end about thirty expeditions went out to search for Franklin and his crew. Even the paranormal was consulted!

Fast forward and the intense interest in solving this mystery has never stopped. Scores of books have been written on the subject, and clues have emerged from international exploration and research. By 1850, the first relics from a campsite, as well as three bodies, were found on Beechey Island. In the mid 1850’s local Inuit reported groups of white men who had starved to death, and even engaged in cannibalism, shocking Victorian mores. The Inuit also had artifacts like silver cutlery belonging to Franklin. On King William Island in 1859 notes were found in two cairns documenting abandoning the ships, Franklin’s and other crewmembers deaths, and survivors’ decision to march south to the mainland. A lifeboat on runners sheltering two human skeletons and more relics was later located. The crew eventually all died of exposure, scurvy, lead poisoning (from early attempts at sealing canned food), and starvation.

Charles Francis Hall made two trips in the 1860’s where he and two Inuit guides, Ipirvik and Taqulittuq, collected hundreds of pages of Inuit recollections. Among the commentary was the fact that some survivors re-manned a ship and sailed further along the coast before it sank, with some crew surviving to 1851. Other accounts also claimed two crew were seen in the Baker Lake area of now mainland Nunavut between 1852 and 1858. Over following years periodic finds of relics and bodies continued to be made, including by writer Farley Mowat near Baker Lake in 1948.

Even Canada’s former Prime Minister Stephen Harper was caught up in the fervour. The Canadian government revived efforts to find Franklin’s two missing ships in 2008, relying a lot on Inuit history. By 2014 the Erebus was located in good condition under shallow water near King William Island by Parks Canada and other partners, and in 2016 the Terror was located down the coast. So significant was the find, that even Queen Elizabeth II expressed her congratulations! Mike comments he was personally emotional with these finds. The ships are now protected national historic sites.

The Local Expedition

Barry was also bitten by the mystery of the Franklin Expedition bug.  He taught photography at Humber College back in the 1980’s and one of his students was Mike. Barry had asked him to join this trip in 1990. Barry has sadly passed away, but Mike remembers him and his great enthusiasm in them both planning and sharing in this adventure.

Barry was very interested in all things Franklin Expedition and had amassed an extensive collection of Polish, American, Inuit and British books, dating as far back as 1881 in the Polish case. This collection provided the basis for their research for the trip clues and route.

How did they prepare? They both trained physically one and one half years ahead of time by carrying heavy weights and walking fifteen kilometres per day. Mike did all the calculations for food and fuel needed for the four weeks of the trip. Barry planned the trip arrangements and initial course including the Inuit guides to bring them to their starting point. Mike spent many years camping to test out equipment and food packages. 

The trip was self-financed by both men. It took three airplane rides to get there via Yellowknife in the North West Territories. The ultimate destination was Gjoa Haven, King William Island’s only town, named for Swedish explorer Roald Amundsen’s ship. From there, their Inuit guides, George Kanona and Elijah Takkirug, took them on a bone jarring two and one half day four-wheeler ATV trip to the starting point, where they were left, to meet up again at a pre-arranged pick up point four weeks later.

Unlike the crew who dragged their supplies overland in ships’ lifeboats, Mike and Barry had rigged an easier two wheeled “cart” for hauling. The original plan was to follow the shoreline, but they ended up going due south and to places no European had tread before.

Despite being better provisioned, clothed and equipped than the crew of the Franklin Expedition, much of what they experienced paralleled the original challenges. King William Island is very barren with little wildlife or plant life on it, something the expedition crew sadly would have found out too. Mike describes the immediate feeling of desolation and being very alone. Also immediate was the problem of getting reliable compass bearings through magnetic variations caused by being so close to magnetic north, and the compass requiring almost two minutes to settle. They walked against constant winds. Muskegs posed another problem, causing the men to sink deeply with every step and even lose boots! They tried to seek out moraines and glacial till to enable walking 15 kilometres per day. At that time of year, the Arctic daylight did not end, but sleeping “at night” was easy as they were very tired.

Most seriously into the trip Mike became very ill with what he thought was pneumonia and at best could only walk a “parking lot length” at a time before having to stop and catch his breath. It became evident he would have to take some days to rest. With no outside communication possible in this predicament, there was thought of leaving him in the tent (like some of Franklin’s men under lifeboats), while Barry carried on and sought help. The good news was Mike felt better after several days. With rest and antibiotics which Barry had the forethought to bring. As a result, there was no need for Barry to travel several weeks alone to seek help.

Finds made

While Mike rested, Barry would circle the camp in day trips and it was on one of these forays a major find was made. He found three skulls and five jawbones, previously undiscovered, along with bones, buttons, shoe soles, pipes and a comb. A shocking revelation to both men was the evidence of cannibalism in the distinctive cutmarks left on bones! Sketches and photos were made to benefit future research on the site. Barry later went back several times accompanying formal digs on the site.

Mike says the experience was “life changing” in finding his physical and mental limits. It enabled him to do a lot of soul searching. In the end, it taught him the importance of a positive attitude!

Written by: Diana Janosik-Wronski | Photography by: Mike Yarascavitch

Author: LivingSpaces

Share This Post On

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

16 − four =