By Duncan MacLeod
Day 2: A Most Inhospitable Coast – Victory Point, King William Island (Aug 29)
Our second day of cruising brought us to the north west coast of King William Island in Victoria Strait. We were all excited to go ashore as this is an important location in the story of the lost Franklin expedition. However, as is always the case in Arctic exploration, we were at the mercy of mother nature; a dense fog enshrouded the ship, only allowing a couple hundred meters of visibility so the departure time for our first excursion was in jeopardy of being thwarted. Eventually the decision was made to go ashore but limit the exploration of the island to an area close to where we landed.
King William Island was originally named 'King William Land' for the reigning British King William IV, by John Ross during an expedition in 1830. At the time that it was believed to be a peninsula. During this expedition John Ross’ nephew James Clark Ross established the position of the magnetic north pole. When Roald Amundsen surveyed King William Island between 1904 and 1905, he found that the position of the magnetic north pole had migrated 40 miles northeast of Ross’ established location.
The island was also the location of the first “hard” evidence for the fate of John Franklin and his crew. During the 1857-9 search sponsored by Franklin’s widow, Lady Jane, Lt William R. Hobson discovered a camp left by the Franklin expedition. Inside a stone cairn at the camp was a food tin which contained the infamous “Victory Point Letter”. The letter revealed the horrible truth that the expedition had suffered 24 deaths, including Franklin himself. Such European endeavours, however, are only a blink on the timeline of occupation on King William Island.
Our zodiacs landed on the shore of King William Island and we stepped out on to a beach which consisted of loose limestone slabs which sloped gradually up to a plateau. Desolate, uneven and monochro matic, it is no wonder that Francis Leopold McClintock, who commanded the 1857-9 search, referred to the western shore of King William Island as “A most inhospitable coast”. It is amazing to imagine the Franklin exploration abandoning their ships here and attempting to trek hundreds of miles south hauling sleds loaded with boats, supplies and instruments totaling thousands of pounds.
They must have looked so foolish to the Inuit of King William Island who lived in the Arctic all year and had perfectly adapted to the climate and geography. The archaeological evidence for the first peoples of the dates back 5000 years. After a quick introduction to the significance of the Island in the Franklin story, we walked much further back in time to visit some Thule and Dorset sites. We first came to a small circle of larger flat stones (perhaps two metres across), the remains of a Thule tent circle. Our guide explained that the Thule were the direct ancestors of the modern Inuit and that they existed from around 1000 CE to 1500 CE. This tent, which was located a couple hundred metres in from the shore and several metres above the water, was originally a waterfront property; the older Dorset site, located further and higher inland, was also once at the shoreline. We learned that this is the result of the phenomenon known as isostatic rebounding. During the last ice age, the weight of snow and ice on North America compressed the earth and when the ice retreated, the land sprung back up over thousands of years creating several ridges and new shorelines.
The older Dorset site was much larger than the Thule tent circle consisting of two separate rooms, a central hearth, and a kitchen. Unlike the Thule, who had technologies such as the bow and watercraft, the Dorset culture, which began around 2500 BCE, traveled mostly on foot and did not have technology such as the bow. What is most peculiar is that the pre-Dorset culture a rrived in the Arctic from across the Bering Strait with such technologies as the bow and watercraft, but that knowledge seems to have been lost in the transition to Dorset culture.
We ended our excursion after a quick, and unsuccessful search for some Ptarmigan, which had been spotted earlier. The chill of the zodiac ride back to the ship quickly melted away as we were met with hot apple cider and cookies.
After dinner, we closed out the first official day of exploration with the inaugural “fire-side chat,” a chance to share stories and interesting nautical knowledge. The theme of today’s chat was maritime superstitions and we learned that it is bad luck on a ship to let your glasses touch while performing a “cheers”. It is also bad luck to whistle on a ship as you might inadvertently send signals to raise or lower sails and flags.
Tomorrow we are set to visit Conningham Bay with the hope of seein g Beluga whales and also Polar Bears.
Words and photographs by Duncan MacLeod – Curator, Vancouver Maritime Museum