August 31st

Day 4: Overwhelmed by wind and History – Beechey Island

Nature strikes again!

The Iöffe sailed through the night north through Prince Regent Inlet and into Barrow Strait, a much wider and unprotected body of water than we have previously seen. Some time during the night, wind picked up to 19 m/s or 35 knots, which we learned at breakfast is classified as a gale. The waves tossed the ship up and down, side to side, cresting and breaking all around us. It was not so bad that people or objects were falling over, but it certainly made walking down the halls in a straight line difficult.

As you can imagine, rough seas and open, inflatable boats do not mix well together. Therefore we had to forego our morning excursion to Port Leopold and instead we continued sailing through the morning and i nto the afternoon to the next destination of Beechey Island. To pass the time onboard the ship we were treated to some excellent presentations. First was an introduction to Polar Photography by One Ocean Expedition’s resident photographer Mark Tatchell, who explained some of the basic concepts of photography and how to adjust aperture, exposure time, and light sensitivity to take the photos according to the conditions of the photo.

Our second presentation of the day was by the VMM’s very own Executive Director Ken Burton, who gave us an introduction to the presence and roll of the RCMP in the Canadian Arctic. Much of the RCMP action in the Arctic was as a reaction to the incursions of foreign whalers, and explorers such as Roald Amundsen and Knud Rasmussen. There was also an effort by the RCMP to prevent Americans and other countries from killing hundreds of muskox and taking their skins. So beginning in the 1920s, the RCMP set up several detachments at several locations along the eastern entrance to the Canadian Arctic establishing a protective chain exerting Canadian sovereignty.  Tomorrow we intend to visit Dundas Harbour on Devon Island The question of who can claim ownership over the Arctic remains a contentious issue to this day and will become further complicated by the increased traffic through the Northwest Passage due to climate change.

Resident historian Katie Murray presented the later history of the quest for the Northwest Passage from the 1800s to the 1900s. The knowledge of the various British Naval expeditions into the Arctic prepared us for our afternoon excursion to Beechey Island, a key location for anyone interested in the history surrounding John Franklin and the Passage.

HMS Erebus, Terror and the crew of the Franklin expedition spent their first winter on the small, windswept island. It was here that the first casualties of the expedition wer e suffered. John Torrington, John Hartnell and William Braine died and were buried here in that first winter. An early blow to the campaign, foreshadowing future disaster. Subsequent expeditions searching for Franklin in the early 1850s examined the evidence left on Beechey Island and even used it as a base of operations.

Beechey itself is hauntingly beautiful. We landed at the beach, which rises quickly up to the site of the graves before rising more steeply to the bottom of the sheer rock faces of the island extending hundreds of feet high. After a toast to those explorers who braved the Northwest Passage, we walked to one end of the tiny island where we saw the remains of a cairn built by Franklin and his men during their first winter in the Arctic. The evidence of the cairn, which was reportedly built of 600 food tins, is now marked by a ring of moss, lichen and other growths, intermingled with a handful of rusted tin scraps. We then got back in the zodia cs to cruise down to the other end of Beechey Island where we were able to see the remains of Northumberland House. This was a storehouse built during the 1852-54 search for Franklin, commanded by Edward Belcher. Memorials to Arctic explorers are also located here including one to Franklin, his men, and Joseph René Bellot.

Tomorrow we sail further along to sites on Devon Island. 

Text and images by Duncan MacLeod - Curator, Vancouver Maritime Museum