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Tales to be told about search for Franklin Expedition

Dr. Martin Magne can be excused if he feels a little like Indiana Jones these days. The keynote speaker at this year's Dr.
Dr. Martin Magne

Dr. Martin Magne can be excused if he feels a little like Indiana Jones these days.

The keynote speaker at this year's Dr. Bob Ewert Memorial Lecture and Dinner, Magne was among those who discovered the two ships that made up the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, solving a 170-year-old mystery.

In 1845, explorer Sir John Franklin set sail from England with two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, in search of a Northwest Passage across what is now Canada's Arctic. The ships and crews, adding up to 24 officers and 110 men, vanished and dozens of search expeditions set sail to try to find them.

In September 2014, an expedition led by Parks Canada discovered the wreck of the Erebus, in the south of Victoria Island in Nunavut. Two years later, the Terror was found in Terror Bay further north.

The discoveries are considered among the most significant archaeological finds in Canadian history. For Magne, they were among the highlights of his career.

"It's a huge international story," Magne said in an interview. "It was incredible."

Finding the ships was an adventure in its own right. Even in this era of high technology and heavy-duty icebreakers, venturing into the high Arctic is not for the faint of heart.

"You didn't know what the heck the weather was going to do," Magne said. "They could be in the Sir Wilfred Laurier, which is a monster Coast Guard icebreaker in oceans where the sea in storm is breaking over the bow. It's just phenomenal types of weather."

Despite lasting questions about the way Franklin's expedition was conducted, Magne noted signs of good seamanship in the discoveries.

Magne said the Erebus was found in a shallow area - about 15 metres - protected by a reef and suspects the site was deliberately chosen to protect the ship from building ice. Similarly, he said there is no way the Terror could have been brought to where it was found by ice flow.

"They must have been remanned after abandonment and brought into those locations," he said.

Moreover, he said the ships were found along the same longitude despite being found about 80 kilometres apart.

"You plot them on a map and Terror is almost exactly north of Erebus," Magne said. "It's almost like 'okay, here's what we're going to do guys: So when we get together later, let's each set up at this longitude."

Magne also noted it looks like the Terror was well-sealed in accordance with admiralty instructions, which include sealing the doors with tar. It could contain a treasure trove of historic items.

"What they were able to see is all the windows are intact except one, all the doors look to be closed and all the hatches look to be closed so conceivably there are records and officers logs and so on, on board, that will say what happened," Magne said.

Magne said the expedition was in part a victim of bad judgment.

"When you're up there and the ice is starting to close in, someone had to make a decision. Do we stay, do we go back again and try and turn a corner left where we saw water three days ago? Who knows?

"At some point in time, the wrong decision was made, not so much seamanship as circumstantial decision making. But these weren't inexperienced guys. Franklin had been on two other expeditions overland, the people that they engaged had experience in the Arctic, they weren't greenhorns.

"But what they didn't know was that they were in what's known now as the Little Ice Age. The climate was getting colder, the climate was not likely going to be, at that time, what it was 15-20 years before. They didn't have that kind of understanding about climate change and cyclical climatic events."

The Ewert dinner, which is largest fundraiser for the Northern Medical Programs Trust, is set for April 8 at the Civic Centre. Tickets can be purchased online at