'Ghosts' In The Arctic: How The Long-Lost Franklin Expedition Was Found | WYPR

'Ghosts' In The Arctic: How The Long-Lost Franklin Expedition Was Found

Mar 21, 2017
Originally published on June 16, 2017 10:11 am

The last time I talked with Paul Watson, I reached him aboard a Canadian Coast Guard Icebreaker in the Arctic, via satellite phone.

"The captain was glaring at me because we talked for a long time," Watson remembers with a laugh.

That was three years ago, and Watson, a columnist for The Toronto Star, was alongside archaeologists who had just located one of two sunken ships lost in the Franklin Expedition, back in the 1840s.

"It's chilling really to look at it," Watson told me. "The ship is almost completely intact. The only thing that's missing is her three masts, which presumably had been sheared off by moving ice over the years."

Sir John Franklin led the ill-fated expedition of two British crews that vanished while seeking a passage through the ice over the top of the world.

In the years that followed, expeditions from Britain and America went searching for the missing ships. "They interviewed Inuit hunters, people who had traveled widely in the area, and asked them what they knew," Watson explained. "And there were consistent stories of essentially a ghost ship which had floated on ice southward and separated from where the two ships had been abandoned, imprisoned in ice."

Watson says he hadn't been terribly interested in the Franklin expedition before he embarked on that expedition. "I wasn't expecting anything to happen," he admits.

But that all changed when a helicopter pilot — who was on the lookout for polar bears — spotted a large iron object leaning against a rock. It turned out to be a winch from one of Franklin's ships.

"It really seeps into your blood," says Watson. There are people who've spent their lives searching for the lost ships, he says: "I became one of those people obsessed with the mystery at that moment of discovery."

Watson's new book is called Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition.


Interview Highlights

On Franklin's wife, Lady Jane Franklin

She was extraordinarily assertive, and literally forced the admiralty — which was the body that oversaw the great Royal Navy in the Victorian era — literally forced them to go looking for her husband and his lost men. ... They kept saying: It's too early, it's OK, they have enough food, and you needn't worry ma'am.

She had an inkling, as others did, that something had gone wrong, and she persisted — even to the point of writing a very personal letter to the then-president of the United States, Zachary Taylor. It's extraordinary the way she both plays on politics and on matters of the heart to try to persuade the president of the United States to help her go looking for her husband.

On how she finally got the U.S. to help

The card that she played effectively with the U.S. government in her letter was the Russians — which is interesting because we're back, sort of, to that discussion even today in the Arctic — in other words: If you can help me find my husband and his men, you may find the Northwest Passage and that wouldn't be such a bad thing, because if you don't do it, the Russians or the British might beat you to it.

An expedition was eventually sent to help the British, but the commander was explicitly told by the Navy: Don't waste too much time looking for Franklin, we're more interested in finding the Northwest Passage.

On what became of the Franklin crew members who left their ships and trudged across the ice to land in hope of rescue

Skeletons have been found, numerous artifacts have been found — not Sir John Franklin himself — and there are people who believe ... that Sir John may in fact be buried up there still. The obsession with Southerners [people who live south of the Arctic] has been in finding those ships because there are artifacts to be found, perhaps human remains, perhaps even notes sealed in a way that they could still be legible — so archaeologists, historians, have been focused on finding those wrecks.

On listening to the Arctic

The Arctic has something to tell us ... And I'm getting perhaps a bit spiritual here, but the Inuit especially believe that there are spirits of their ancestors, there are spirits that live in the sea, that walk the land, and if you disrespect them, you will suffer greatly for it. ...

The first book I wrote was a book called Where War Lives, and it's a war memoir, and in it, I describe a moment where I believe the spirit of a dead American soldier on the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 spoke to me and — so I'm open to the possibility. ....

But when you stand alone, as I have, out on the ice and you're alone with the world, you have a very strong sense of something around you that you don't understand. It's a very real power that comes over you.

Radio editor David McGuffin, radio producer Gabriela Saldivia, and web producer Beth Novey contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a kind of ghost story next. It's the backstory of a discovery. Three years ago on this program, we placed a phone call to the journalist Paul Watson. He was on an icebreaker, a ship in the Arctic with the aid of a helicopter its crew is conducting a search.

PAUL WATSON: The helicopter pilot was walking the shoreline with a shotgun slung over his shoulder because his job is to watch for polar bears. And he spotted something leaning against a rock.

INSKEEP: It was a metal piece of a sailing ship. It led the searchers to find the nearby sunken remains of a ship from the Franklin expedition. Two British crews seeking the Northwest Passage through the ice over the top of the world had vanished in the 1840s never to be seen again.

Paul Watson was a witness to one of the discoveries in a century-and-a-half search for signs of Sir John Franklin and his men trapped in the Arctic ice. Watson has now written a book called "Ice Ghosts" so we called him back.

WATSON: Great to talk to you again. The last time, I believe, it was over a crackly satellite phone. The - I was on the bridge of an icebreaker, and the captain was glaring at me because we talked for a long time.

INSKEEP: Oh, was there like a minute-by-minute phone charge?

WATSON: I think the government squeezes them, like, what's with this long satellite phone call? I don't know what it is.

INSKEEP: Watson talked anyway in that call three years ago. There was so much to say about the lost ship underwater all that time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WATSON: It's chilling to look at it. The ship is almost completely intact. The only thing that's missing is her three mast which presumably had been sheared off by moving ice over the years.

INSKEEP: What was it like to be present then for the end of a more-than-century-old search for something in the Arctic?

WATSON: I'll be honest. I went on that expedition. I was the only journalist, and I wasn't expecting anything to happen. And when they did make a discovery, you know, it really seeps into your blood. I wasn't terribly interested in the Franklin expedition before that, but it became an obsession. You know, when you read the book "Ice Ghosts" you'll meet several people who have spent their whole lives trying to figure this mystery out. And I became one of those people obsessed with the mystery at that moment of discovery.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking the first person who was obsessed for very personal reasons with figuring out the mystery was Sir John Franklin's wife. Who was she?

WATSON: An extraordinary woman, Lady Jane Franklin. As a girl, she was the shy one in the family. And yet as a woman, she was extraordinarily assertive and literally forced the Admiralty which was the body that oversaw the great Royal Navy in the Victorian-era - literally forced them to go looking for her husband and his lost men when they kept saying it's too early. It's OK. They have enough food, and you needn't worry, ma'am.

She had an inkling that something had gone wrong, and she persisted even to the point of writing a very personal letter to the then-president of the United States Zachary Taylor. And it's extraordinary the way she both plays on politics and on matters of the heart to try to persuade the president of the United States to help her go looking for her husband.

INSKEEP: Did she get the U.S. government as well as the British government involved then?

WATSON: She did. Now, the card that she played effectively with the U.S. government was the Russians, which is interesting because we're back sort of to that discussion even today in the Arctic. In other words, if you can help me find my husband and his men, you may find the Northwest Passage and that wouldn't be such a bad thing because if you don't do it, the Russians or the British might beat you to it.

An expedition was eventually sent, but the commander was explicitly told by the Navy don't waste too much time looking for Franklin. We're more interested in finding the Northwest Passage.

INSKEEP: But remember what Paul Watson said. Out there on the water amid the great Canadian islands and floating ice an obsession can take over. Nineteenth-century searchers looked in spite of themselves. Years after the two British ships disappeared, searchers found a pile of stones on an island with a message inside. It said the crew had left their ships trapped in ice. Sir John Franklin's men had walked across the ice to land hoping somehow to make it home.

Was any trace ever found of that 100 or so men who went trudging across the ice and across islands?

WATSON: Skeletons have been found, numerous artifacts have been found, not Sir John Franklin himself. And there are people who believe among them, Inuit, that Sir John may in fact be buried up there still. The obsession with Southerners has been in finding those ships because there are artifacts to be found, perhaps even notes sealed in a way that they could still be legible. So archaeologists, historians have been focused on finding those wrecks.

INSKEEP: The obsession with Southerners meaning people south of the Arctic, most of us?

WATSON: That's right. I mean, when you're in the Arctic, people refer to Southerners as, you know, they're the outsiders. And something that I think is important for modern readers of this story is that the Arctic has something to tell us - us, being Southerners. And I'm getting, perhaps, a bit spiritual here, but the Inuit especially believe that there are spirits of their ancestors. There are spirits that live in the sea that walk the land, and if you disrespect them, you will suffer greatly for it.

INSKEEP: So when you were on that ship, that icebreaker, on the mission that ended in discovering one of the sunken vessels. Did the Arctic speak to you?

WATSON: You know, the - people can think you're crazy for saying it - but it did speak to me. You know, the first book I wrote was a book called "Where War Lives." It's a war memoir, and in it I describe a moment where I believe the spirit of a dead American soldier on the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 spoke to me. So I'm open to the possibility.

I've had an experience which I can't shake which makes me think that there's something we don't understand. When you stand alone as I have out on the ice and you're alone with the world, it's a very real power that comes over you.

INSKEEP: Paul Watson is the author of "Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt For The Lost Franklin Expedition." Thanks very much.

WATSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NORTHWEST PASSAGE")

STAN ROGERS: (Singing) Oh, for just one time, I would take the Northwest Passage to find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea tracing one warm... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.