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One Warm Line: The Northwest Passage

Sir John Franklin's ship discovered

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, September 10, 2014.

Yesterday, the Canadian government announced they had found a sunken ship off King William Island in what was, at one point, considered the Northwest Passage. It is assumed beyond all reasonable doubt it is either the HMS Erebus or the HMS Terror, the two ships used by Sir John Franklin in 1845 to locate and map this passage, long assumed to exist but never, somehow, located. Franklin's expedition met with disaster, Franklin died in 1847, and at some point men started leaving the two ships frozen in ice and headed south, apparently hoping to reach rivers and hit a settlement or two in Canada. Sounds like a plan.

A faint hope at best, they somehow decided to lessen the chance of success by hauling a heavy wooden whale boat overland, and that filled with some food and actual useless crap like books. They didn't get far, and when the boat was found later defended by skeletons, the absurdity of the effort was the first thing that occurred to the search party.

There were a lot of search parties, and northern Canada, land and sea, bears their names. Even Americans felt the need to be heroes and well-financed expeditions from the English speaking world were all over Northern Canada for decades searching for the two ships and their crews. If any of these expeditions happened to discover and map the Northwest Passage, which would make them wealthy beyond measure, never occurred to these selfless explorers.

The Northwest Passage was viewed as the shipping route between northern Europe and Asia, specifically Russia and Japan. In its absence, shipping had to go between London and China or San Francisco around either the South African Cape of Good Hope, not all that easy and a long trip, and the genuine horror of Cape Horn at the bitter end of South America, much further south and nearly touching Antarctica, famous for its horrendous currents and storms and the grave of many, many ships and men over the centuries. Once fortunate enough to have survived, there was the small matter of the entire Pacific Ocean to cross. So, you can easily imagine that the Northwest Passage, viewed as a narrow strait of open water wending its way among the northern islands and pack ice, horrific though it may be, would be a much better choice. It became much like the myth of Eldorado, Eden, and cold fusion in its time. The Panama Canal and steam power and then travel through the air erased the need of civilization. But it sure held attention as a profit maker.

Roald Amundsen, the first to the South Pole, was the first to traverse the existing Northwest Passage about 60 years after Franklin tried, although it took him well over a year. When he came to King William Island, Amundsen stuck to the eastern and southern narrow passage between it and the mainland. Franklin's expedition had tried the north and west side of King William. Amundsen was also the first to the North Pole, although that was by plane. Peary and Cooke's and Byrd's competing claims have been well debunked. Close, but no cigar.

But, even Amundsen, the one guy who did it all and first, is hardly remembered today, his penalty for beating the English speaking world. His competitor Robert Falcon Scott is recalled and idolized as a spectacular failure just as Amelia Earhart would be and Custer had been. There is weird romance in heroic incompetence. Amundsen once said that adventures were the fate of the incompetent. Much to that. But not the needed sound byte nor the heroic attitude the media demands, then or now. Franklin's fiasco has it all.

So far, the found ship is just a side radar graphic, but it's clear as a bell and looks to be in excellent shape, resting on its keel. In such cold water even paper can survive and be revived to reveal the writing upon it. Given the hypothesized and likely fate of the crew - starving, somewhat mad from lead poisoning and boredom, turning on each other and to cannibalism, ignoring the ways of the Inuit and sticking to procedures both pointless, British, and way out of place - it will be satisfying if their own voluminous words can be examined, and not just lonely tombs or a stone cairn with a note attached, or a whale boat of the dead and pointless.

Stan Rogers, who wrote the remarkable and haunting "Northwest Passage" sung acapella, would be happy to know Franklin's one warm line endured.