Jul 16, 2023
Seeking to solve the Arctic’s biggest mystery, they ended up trapped in ice at the top of the world
Jacob Keanik scanned his binoculars over the field of ice surrounding our sailboat. He was looking for the polar bear that had been stalking us for the past 24 hours, but all he could see was an
Jacob Keanik scanned his binoculars over the field of ice surrounding our sailboat. He was looking for the polar bear that had been stalking us for the past 24 hours, but all he could see was an undulating carpet of blue-green pack ice that stretched to the horizon. “Winter is coming,” he murmured. Jacob had never seen Game of Thrones and was unaware of the phrase’s reference to the show’s menacing hordes of ice zombies, but to us, the threat posed by this frozen horde was equally dire. Here in remote Pasley Bay, deep in the Canadian Arctic, winter would bring a relentless tide of boat-crushing ice. If we didn’t find a way out soon, it could trap us and destroy our vessel—and perhaps us too.
It was late August, and we’d ducked into the bay to ride out a ferocious gale. For more than a week, the wind had raged, sweeping six-foot-thick chunks of frozen seawater down from the polar cap. Some were the size of picnic tables, others as big as river barges.
Here and there, small icebergs jutted skyward like miniature floating Alps. The pieces of this drifting mosaic bobbed around the boat, rasping as they ground against each other and fizzing as they slowly melted and released trapped air bubbles.
Any one of these floes could be the torpedo that pierced our fiberglass hull, so we’d traded watches around the clock, constantly steering the ice away from the boat with long wooden poles the Inuit call tuks. As one day became two, and two became three, the ice slowly closed in like a vise. On day nine, when Jacob and I awoke to find the water between the floes had frozen, it seemed certain we were going to be trapped here for the winter. A cold knot formed in my gut as I wondered if this was how Franklin felt.
If our situation hadn’t been so urgent, its irony would be almost comical. Our crew of five had left Maine in my sailboat, Polar Sun, more than two months earlier to follow the route of the legendary explorer Sir John Franklin. He’d set off from England in 1845 in search of the elusive Northwest Passage, a sea route over the icy top of North America that would open a new trading avenue to the riches of the Far East. But Franklin’s two ships, Erebus and Terror, and his crew of 128 men had disappeared. What no one knew at the time was that the ships had become trapped in ice, stranding Franklin and his men deep in the Arctic. None lived to tell what happened, and no detailed written account of their ordeal has been found. This void in the historical record, collectively known as “the Franklin mystery,” has led to more than 170 years of speculation. It has also spawned generations of devoted “Franklinites” obsessed with piecing together the story of how more than a hundred British sailors tried to walk out of one of the most inhospitable wildernesses on Earth.
Over the years, I too had become a Franklinite. With morbid fascination, I read all the books I could find on the subject, imagining myself as a member of the doomed crew, and puzzling over the many unanswered questions: Where was Franklin buried? Where were his logbooks? Did the Inuit try to help the crew? Was it possible that a few of the men almost made it out? In the end, I couldn’t resist the urge to go looking for some of these answers myself and hatched a plan to refit Polar Sun so that I could sail the same waters as the Erebus and the Terror, anchor in the same harbors, and see what they saw. I also hoped to complete the voyage that Franklin never did: to sail from the Atlantic into the mazelike network of straits and bays that makes up the Northwest Passage and emerge on the other side of the continent, off the coast of Alaska.
Now, after nearly 3,000 nautical miles—roughly half the journey—my quest to immerse myself in the Franklin mystery had become a little too real. If Polar Sun were iced in, I could lose her. And even if we somehow made it safely ashore, a rescue here could be difficult. And of course, there was also that polar bear.
By the time Franklin set sail, the British had been searching for the Northwest Passage for three centuries. Each expedition pushed a bit farther north, sending the mariners’ compasses spinning in circles as they approached magnetic north. Their ships often became trapped in ice during the interminable darkness of the polar winter. Many expeditions ended in tragedy, but none so spectacularly as Franklin’s. According to the British version of the story, the Erebus and Terror were last seen by whalers off Greenland’s coast in July 1845—and never heard from again. A crucial clue emerged 14 years later. A private expedition financed by Franklin’s widow found a note tucked inside a metal cylinder at a place called Victory Point on the northern tip of Canada’s King William Island.
The Victory Point record, as it came to be known, is the most significant written account to emerge from the Franklin expedition. The note contains two separate entries. The first, dated May 1847, says the Erebus and Terror became trapped in ice eight months earlier, 15 nautical miles northwest of King William Island. It ends with: “Sir John Franklin commanding the Expedition. All well.” The second entry was added less than a year later and says the ships were abandoned in April 1848 and that the crew had lost 15 men and nine officers, including Franklin, who died two weeks after penning the first note. It ends by saying the surviving crew, now under the command of Francis Rawdon Crozier, intended to walk toward the nearest Hudson’s Bay Company trading settlement, more than 600 miles to the south. If there was any hope to be gleaned from this desperate note, it was that Crozier was a veteran of multiple Arctic explorations. He’d already endured an expedition that had been trapped in ice and spent time among the Inuit, who had given him the name Aglooka (Long Strider).
Back in London, however, the British had a very different view of the situation. In 1854, five years before the note was found, another account had emerged. John Rae, a Scottish fur trader and explorer, recounted meeting an Inuit named In-nook-poo-zhe-jook who said that a group of 35 or 40 koblunas (white men) had starved to death years earlier, near the mouth of a large river. The Inuit showed Rae dozens of relics they’d collected from the site, including a medal Franklin had received in 1836. But In-nook-poo-zhe-jook also described a camp that bore signs of Franklin’s men having been driven to what Rae called “the last dread alternative”: mutilated bodies, pieces of which still sat in kettles in which they had been cooked.
When Rae shared this grisly account, the English public, inflamed by none other than Charles Dickens, refused to believe the crew had resorted to cannibalism. “The noble conduct and example of such men, and of their own great leader himself … outweighs … the chatter of a gross handful of uncivilised people,” Dickens wrote in his magazine, Household Words. The influence of the famous author was such that most Britons came to believe it was the Inuit who had killed Franklin and his men—not the brutal elements, the unpreparedness of the crew, or just plain bad luck. And as a result, most subsequent reconstructions of the expedition’s final days failed to consider extensive Inuit oral histories that would’ve told a strikingly different story.
When the sunken wrecks of Erebus and Terror were found in 2014 and 2016, respectively, most Franklinites shifted their attention to what would be recovered from them by archaeologists. But I’d heard about one guy living in the far reaches of Canada’s Northwest Territories who was still searching for what he believed to be the mystery’s holy grail: the tomb of Sir John Franklin.
Tom Gross went to bed one night in 1990 and dreamed he found the final resting place of Sir John Franklin. “I dreamed I found him in Toronto,” he said. “I remember thinking: This can’t be right.”
I had tracked down Tom’s number and called him at his home in northern Canada. He told me his Franklin fascination had begun when he’d watched a documentary about archaeologists who’d exhumed three of the crew from gravesites on Beechey Island, where the expedition had spent its first winter in the Arctic. The men’s faces had emerged from the permafrost eerily preserved. “It was like a crazy time warp, where I wasn’t sure if we had stepped back into their time or they had come into ours,” he said. The experience had sent him on a reading jag, absorbing everything he could find on the subject. And then came the dream. When he woke up, Tom decided to plan his first search.
On the phone, he described how over the next 27 years, he’d mounted 40 Franklin search expeditions. In between shifts as a maintenance manager for the Northwest Territories housing authority, he’d covered a mind-boggling 12,000 miles by foot and all-terrain vehicle (ATV) across King William Island. He’d also spent dozens of hours crisscrossing the same area in his own small plane. Unlike many Franklinites, Tom lived in the Arctic. He’d moved to Nunavut 39 years ago and had a child with an Inuit woman. While hunting and trapping with his Inuit friends, he always paid close attention to the stories they told about their ancestors’ encounters with white men, and he became convinced that the Inuit accounts were the key to finding Franklin. Over the past decade, he’d been joined on his searches by Jacob, an Inuit guide and former Canadian wildlife conservation officer.
Tom emphasized the prize wasn’t just finding Franklin but all that would’ve been buried with him. He explained that when the leader of a British expedition perished during such a journey, his burial served as a depot of information left for future explorers to find. Franklin’s tomb might hold the ship’s logbook, which would provide a daily account of the voyage, as well as diaries and letters. The ship had included a naturalist, whose scientific observations may be stashed there, and the men had carried early photographic equipment; conceivably there could be images. “It could be a historical treasure trove,” Tom said.
His most promising lead came in 2004 when an Inuit hunter named Ben Putuguq told him about a rectangular “stone house” that he’d found on the north side of King William. Inside, Putuguq saw four stone vaults. The structure had large black rocks surrounding its doorway and was dug into the side of a ridge, and Putuguq was adamant that it was unlike anything Inuit would build.
For a time, Tom was convinced that Putuguq’s story matched older Inuit testimony collected by an eccentric American explorer named Charles Francis Hall, who’d spent 1860 to 1869 living with the Inuit and gathering hundreds of pages of testimony about the Franklin expedition. An Inuit man named Supunger told him about traveling to the north end of King William Island and stumbling onto a ragged tent, a skeleton of a partially clothed kobluna, and a strange wooden pillar with a decorative ball carved into its base. The wooden pillar, which was especially out of place since there are no trees on the island, marked an area where several large stones were carefully fitted together. Supunger pried open the rocks, revealing a stone vault in which he found a knife, a leg bone, and a skull.
Even with these descriptions, finding a stone structure on King William Island’s rocky expanse would be akin to winning the explorer’s lottery, but in 2015, Tom thought he’d done just that. He and Jacob and two friends were flying in a small plane south of Victory Point, the place where the famous last note was found, when he noticed two black stones on a ridge. “They didn’t belong there,” he told me. “And as I flew closer, I could see a perfectly rectangular structure that was built into the side of the ridge.” He estimated it was roughly 12 by 16 feet.
But in the excitement of the moment, he’d failed to record the coordinates on the plane’s GPS. He and his co-pilot assumed their path would be easy to retrace, but on subsequent flights, the stone structure eluded them, lost in a labyrinth of homogenous gravel ridges shrouded by fog and rapidly changing weather. After several more seasons of searching, they’d systematically ruled out everywhere but a 30-square-mile grid—the area he planned to search during his next trip. “You’re welcome to join us,” he said. “We can always use another pair of eyes.”
In late July, I met Tom, Jacob, and the other members of the search team in Gjoa Haven (pronounced Joe-uh Hay-vin). The only settlement on King William Island, it was named after Roald Amundsen’s ship, the Gjøa, which the Norwegian explorer anchored in the harbor for two years during the first documented navigation of the Northwest Passage, completed in 1906. Many of the settlement’s 1,100 Inuit, who subsist mainly by hunting and fishing, use its original name, Uqsuqtuuq, which means “lots of fat,” referring to the plenitude of sea mammals.
Jacob and Tom are both 62 and seasoned outdoorsmen, capable of operating in the Arctic’s difficult terrain and extreme weather, but the outward similarities end there. Tom is barrel-chested, an eager conversationalist, and favors baseball caps, while Jacob is rawboned, a quiet observer, and seems to live in a fur-lined bomber hat with earflaps. I liked them both right away, and Tom’s enthusiasm was infectious. “I’m positive we’re going to find the tomb,” he told me. “It’s practically a sure thing.”
After packing our gear on ATVs, we set off in a convoy with Jacob leading us through the island’s interior toward Cape Felix, about a hundred miles north. The topography varied between fields of limestone gravel and misty bogs, broken only by the occasional cairn, little stacks of flat stones marking old Inuit hunting routes. Since it was summer and the sun never set, the temperature remained steady, yet the damp air held a permanent chill that kept us bundled in fleeces and rain gear.
It was molting season, and white goose feathers floated in the air all around us like thistledown. Without their plumage, the geese couldn’t fly, and as they ran hither and yon, their honking ever present, we saw a number of scraggly, black-furred arctic foxes in hot pursuit. And I wondered how many of these birds Franklin’s men may have harvested during the summers they spent here on the island.
Late on our second day, we stopped atop a hill marked with a prominent cairn. Jacob said it was likely built by the Thule, Inuit ancestors who lived on this island 800 to 1,000 years ago. Hunters had been using it ever since. “The camps are always on the high places because it’s where you can see the game,” Jacob said. A ring of stones was arranged around the cairn and covered with bright green moss. Jacob explained the stones were used to hold down the corners of the hunters’ sealskin tents, and the moss had been fed by the decomposition of animal carcasses slaughtered here.
During the day, Jacob didn’t say a lot, but in the evening, as we sat drinking tea and watching the sun on its 24-hour circuit around the horizon, he shared bits of his background. He was born on the Canadian mainland, on the shore of the McNaughton River, about 130 miles southwest of Gjoa Haven, the youngest of nine children. His parents adhered to a seasonal calendar, hunting caribou, muskox, and polar bear in the summer; spearing arctic char in the rivers in the fall; and sealing on the coast in the spring. During winter, they lived in igloos, which were lit and heated with seal-oil lamps.
When Jacob was five, Canadian authorities forced the family to move to Gjoa Haven so the children could receive formal education. The family was given a small house and a modest allowance, but the money wasn’t enough to afford the imported food sold at the Hudson’s Bay store, and the hunting around Gjoa Haven was poor. At school, Jacob struggled to fit in. “I had caribou clothes—caribou pants, caribou mitts, caribou everything,” he said. “The kids teased me about it because they had new clothing that came from the south.”
Jacob’s parents would leave Gjoa Haven during summers to hunt, but Jacob remained in the settlement and eventually trained as a conservation officer. His tasks included darting polar bears, measuring them, and taking blood and fur samples. These days, Jacob worked as a hunting guide and served as the president of a local Inuit museum.
That night, we camped at the mouth of a burbling river that drained a chain of large lakes into Collinson Inlet. It was a mild evening, and wispy cirrus clouds curled across the troposphere. Tom sat on a cooler with his “Franklin bible”—a leatherbound journal filled with nearly three decades’ worth of handwritten notes, photos, and sketches.
He flipped the book open to show me drawings of the stone house: four walls and a doorway. The roof was gone, and inside were the four rectangular vaults. “This is what I saw from the air in 2015,” he said. “And it matches exactly with the testimony of Ben Putuguq.”
Tom’s description of the stone house also bears a striking similarity to an important account by a whaler named Peter Bayne, who’d met some Inuit in the winter of 1867-68. They’d recounted to him how two large ships had become icebound off the west coast of King William Island. The sailors set up camp on shore with tents filled with sick and dying men. Most of the dead were buried on a nearby hill, but one man died aboard the ship and was “brought ashore and … not buried in the ground like the others, but in an opening in the rock … and many guns were fired.” The Inuit spoke of “several cemented vaults” that lay inside the tomb, one large and a few smaller ones, which they believed contained only papers. The Inuit account was so detailed that Bayne drew a map that seemed to put the location somewhere near Victory Point.
Around midmorning the next day, Tom led us north, out onto a skinny, hook-shaped peninsula that protruded into a cobalt blue sea. The water was calm and mostly ice free, save for the occasional car-size chunk floating along the shore. As we traversed the sliver of land, a ring of limestone boulders caught my eye—another tent circle. Here, I found a scattering of camp items, including an old ladle, a rusty fox trap, and a few bullet casings.
But there was one item that didn’t fit the picture of an old Inuit camp: a hunk of metal that looked like a brass pipe fitting. It had four openings, three of which had hexagonal heads. One hex head had a section of pipe threaded into it.
“What do you think it is?” I asked Tom.
“I’d say that it looks like a piece of the Erebus or Terror’s steam engine,” he replied.
Jacob and I also found a ball of iron pyrites—used as a fire starter in England in the 1800s. Another member of the team then picked up a wooden tent peg. It measured precisely 16 inches. Jacob said that Inuit didn’t use tent pegs, and when they cut wood, they did it by eye and not to exact measurements.
We assumed these were Franklin artifacts and that we must be close to the stone house Tom had seen from the air. But King William Island has a way of hiding its secrets. For the next four days, we scoured the gravel ridges that extend like bony fingers from Collinson Inlet into the interior, but the terrain was maddeningly uniform. After a while, it felt as if we were traveling in circles—a fact confirmed by my GPS.
Frustrated that our “sure thing” was turning into a wild-goose chase, Tom shifted our efforts west to a place called Erebus Bay.
Two days later, Jacob, Tom, and I sat around a driftwood campfire on the shore of the bay. As the flames crackled, Tom opened his Franklin bible and recited another Inuit account.
In 1866, Charles Francis Hall wrote that he met an Inuit named Kok-lee-arng-nun, who said he’d been invited aboard a ship off the coast of King William Island. The Inuit described the chief of the ship as “an old man with broad shoulders, thick … with gray hair, full face, and bald head” and referred to him as Too-loo-ark (Raven). Tom showed us a copy of a daguerreotype of Franklin. In his pointed, black bicorne hat and long dark overcoat, raven-like seemed a fair description for the British captain. The ship was anchored in a large bay, where “a great many, many men on the ice had guns + many had knives with long handles,” and they stretched in a line across the bay, where they drove caribou onto the ice and “killed a great many.”
After he finished reading, Tom asked, “What would the Inuit do if they came to hunt on King William Island and found white men killing all the game?” He was looking at Jacob, but his friend said nothing. Having lived among the Inuit for most of his life, Tom was used to such silences and answered his own question. “The Inuit shamans would have put a curse on Franklin’s men,” he said. “I’m convinced that the Inuit may have once known where Franklin’s tomb is located, but they didn’t want it to be found because it was cursed.”
Jacob remained silent. He stared at the steam rising from his boot liners, drying by the fire. After Tom went back to his tent, Jacob looked at me. “When I was a kid, my mom told me to never talk about shamans,” he said. “It’s bad luck.”
A month later, surrounded by the ice in the middle of the Northwest Passage, I had bigger concerns than our failed search. After we left King William Island, Jacob joined our crew on Polar Sun to help guide us through a situation just like this. But given the amount of ice, there wasn’t much anyone could do except hope for a southeast gale that might blow all the ice out of the bay. Instead, the wind blew northwest. Hard. And every day, more and more ice crowded into the bay, threatening to crush Polar Sun. Or perhaps worse, drive her up onto shore out of the water, where she would reside forevermore as a blight on this magnificent landscape—and a monument to my own hubris.
And then, just when we’d all but lost hope, we caught the break that had eluded Franklin: The freezing temperatures gave way to a blazing midday sun that seemed to light a fuse in the mass of ice encircling our boat. Every few minutes, the bay echoed with the sound of melting chunks shattering and crashing into the water. Two days earlier, we had tied a line around a large floe, which had protected us from the swirling chunks. Now, without warning, a huge piece of ice broke off, spawning a wave that caused the boat to shudder as if we had been rammed by a whale.
“It’s time to go,” Jacob said calmly as he began pulling in lines and Polar Sun’s first mate, Ben Zartman, started the engine. While Jacob and I perched on the bow, tuks at the ready, Ben drove us into a basin of open water the size of a swimming pool. But we were still blocked by ice.
Ben revved the engine. “Whoa, slow down!” I yelled. But Ben didn’t hear—or didn’t care to hear. The boat hit the ice with a sickening crunch that lifted the bow out of the water. She tipped on her side; then all 17 tons of her slid backward into the basin, leaving a black streak of paint on the ice. But Ben’s aggressive ramming worked. A tractor-trailer-size chunk had broken loose, opening a narrow lead.
For the next two hours, we followed one tiny channel after another as we threaded our way south into James Ross Strait. When Polar Sun finally escaped into open water, my relief was tempered by the knowledge that we still had 2,100 nautical miles to go—the equivalent of crossing the Atlantic Ocean—and any day, the pack ice could blow down from the Beaufort Sea and pinch off our escape through the Bering Strait.
We pushed Polar Sun hard fleeing west across the central Arctic as summer came to an end. The night returned, but a gray curtain of clouds hung over the sky, and we couldn’t make out any stars. I wanted to soak in all the natural beauty of this place, sights Franklin would’ve noted. We saw pods of shimmering white beluga whales, a dozen or more traveling below the surface in a perfect arrow formation, and huge huddles of walruses, their countless round faces and long tusks bobbing in the frigid sea. Gulls constantly circled the boat, swooping in front of the bow with the daring of fighter pilots. We also saw other vessels, including the Canadian icebreaker the Henry Larsen and a huge red ship that sailed a grid pattern, presumably in search of offshore oil deposits.
Finally, we rounded Alaska’s Point Barrow and made the turn south toward the Bering Strait, the unofficial finish line of the Northwest Passage. As we crossed the Chukchi Sea, I received a satellite text from my wife: “Have you heard about Typhoon Merbok?” she asked. The National Weather Service was calling it “the strongest storm in over a decade.” A typhoon in the Arctic, I thought; you can’t make this up.
We anchored a few miles off the coast of Point Hope, Alaska, to ride out the gale-force winds and 11-foot swells. As the wind screamed in Polar Sun’s rigging, I passed the time reading about Franklin and revisiting the eternal question of what happened to him and his men.
Of the 105 men who abandoned ship in April 1848, the remains of only about 30 have been located to date. So, what became of the rest? In the 1870s, some Inuit told an American whaler that they’d met a group of white men years earlier on the Melville Peninsula, nearly 300 miles east of King William Island. The white men were led by a chief who wore a uniform with three stripes on his sleeve. The Inuit testified these strangers had stashed papers inside a cairn, and as proof of the encounter, they displayed a silver spoon that bore Franklin’s crest.
Around that time, another Inuit presented a sword to a trader at a Hudson’s Bay Company outpost, reporting that a “great officer” of the Franklin expedition gave it to him in 1857 as thanks for taking care of his men over the winter.
Was Crozier the “great officer” who may have hung on into the mid-1850s? In some ways, this struck me as the saddest part of the Franklin story, that Crozier, or someone, made it through a decade of Arctic winters, only to die just short of reaching a trading post and the chance to make it back home. In that moment, riding out the last of the typhoon, I believed I understood what their longing for home must’ve felt like.
Polar Sun slid into Nome’s inner harbor at 7:30 p.m. on September 20. After 110 days and 5,877 nautical miles, I had mixed feelings about the expedition coming to an end. Part of it was that Jacob wasn’t there to help me tie up at the public dock. He’d left the expedition after we escaped from the ice. He was probably already hunting caribou out in the same lands where we had searched for Franklin’s tomb. But before he’d left the ship, Jacob had dropped a bombshell: “I know where Franklin is buried,” he said. “Tom thinks we already looked there, but we didn’t.”
Jacob pointed on a map to a spot a few miles from where we’d been searching. There it was.
The location, he explained, had been passed down as family lore from ancestors who’d traveled to the north end of King William Island to collect driftwood, which they used for making spears, knife handles, and dogsleds. Long ago, his great-grandmother had found a grave on a gravel ridge. Whether it was the “stone house,” he couldn’t say. But on the ground nearby, she had found a scattering of musket balls and prune pits—objects that she and her people had never seen before.
For whatever reason, Jacob had waited to tell me until there was nothing I could do with the information. When I pressed him as to why, he smiled and said something to the effect that maybe I’d return to Gjoa Haven someday, and we could continue the search—with Tom, of course. But I wondered if it might also be that he doesn’t actually want to find the tomb. One night, while sitting in the cabin of Polar Sun, as I stoked the woodstove, Jacob turned to me and said, “It’s bad luck to mess with dead people’s things.”
Later, I called Tom and told him what Jacob had said. “What’s the location?” Tom asked. I told him. There was a long pause. “We already searched there,” he said. Another pause, “Maybe we’ll search there again next year.”LeftRightLeftRightLeftRightLeftRight