Kathleen Winter Reflects on the Discovery of a Lost Franklin Expedition Ship and Her Own Time Spent in the Northwest Passage
A nationalistic fervor has been reignited after news broke of the discovery of one of the lost Franklin Expedition ships largely intact yesterday. The mysterious loss of the two ships, Sir John Franklin, and his 128 men during an exploration of the Northwest Passage has been an event that has captured the imagination of Canadians, explorers, writers, and musicians for well over a century, including bestselling author Kathleen Winter. In 2010 she embarked on her own northern odyssey as she journeyed the Northwest Passage with a team of scientists, geologists, historians, and Franklin Expedition enthusiasts. There she transcribed her experience into her first work of narrative nonfiction, Boundless, weaving her own childhood journey of emigrating from England to Canada through the challenges, politics, and emotional landscape of navigating the North.
Kathleen shares her reflections on the discovery of the lost ships, and several beautiful paintings that capture her time in the Northwest Passage:
Thoughts on the Partial Discovery of Franklin’s Lost Ships
I have mixed feelings on reading the Canadian government’s press release about finding remnants from one of Franklin’s lost ships. The impetus behind my book, Boundless, comes from a respect for the what the land is saying, not what governments are saying about it or trying to extract from it. The Franklin expedition has been, from its inception during Britain’s colonial expansion era, about patriotic, chest-thumping glory-seeking; and things are no different now. What I experienced on my voyage through the place we call The Northwest Passage, and what I tried to write, paint, and photograph, contains more questions than answers. The message the land gave me was not nationalistic but global. The words I encountered in the North were made not through patriotic symbols but by rock, sky and water—by people who live in the North, and by the profound animals who possess potent languages of their own.
Historians call our expedition’s departure point, Greenland’s Disko Bay, the last place Franklin was seen by European eyes. Witnesses claimed they saw him with his ship moored to an ancestral cousin of the icebergs we encountered… had Franklin trusted the ice because of its mass and presence, though it was made of frozen water and insubstantial as a dream? Both ice and ship seemed destined for dissolution. Might Franklin have sensed this at the outset?
Later I witnessed Canada’s military presence around Pond Inlet, Dundas Harbour, and other points on our route, and began to see it as inseparable from historical campaigns whose quiet motivations lay veiled behind stories with more public appeal. Canada set much store on publicizing its expensive search for the Franklin wrecks, while quietly using the same search technology to pursue soundings of the Arctic seafloor for data needed by oil consortiums, mineral concerns, and military interests. But the romance of the Franklin story is what has made news headlines.
On our journey, I began to question my own response to the North. Was the mysterious energy of the land real, or was my perception of it a romantic remnant from Franklin’s day? What right had I to hold on to a romance—a lie of old kings and new leaders—to justify centuries of raid masquerading as an eternal hero’s quest? My passage on the ship placed me inside this question. No matter how well-meaning we are as passengers, could we claim to stand apart from questions of invasion, privilege, and trespass?
Yet I felt a thrill—we all felt it—at being among the few southerners who’d ever set foot in what we call the Far North. The notion of beyond, our Meta Incognita, was still part of our consciousness. We were not Bernadette Dean or Aaju Peter, the two Inuk women on our journey who lived in the North and whose people had done so longer than any British explorer with insufficient pantaloons, lost ships, or lonesome graves. How strange to be “beyond known limits” while realizing this very notion was a dream. Even the word “North” began to dissolve: once you were here, that territory became something unnamed, and real unto itself.
We were a moving, borderless collection of our own dreams and imagination, and the territory we call the Northwest Passage acted on us with shifting meanings that altered with the hours. There was a mutability about our time in the tundra, rock, ice: solid forms colluded with each other to act more like thought and water.
Though ancient, the land spoke to us of its own immediate presence, an aliveness insistent and ongoing, until we became part of it. This Northern land, as Aaju Peter and Bernadette Dean tried to explain to me, did not judge people. It treated everyone with the same dignity, and it was up to us to show a reciprocal respect. The earth here in the North, as elsewhere in our world, depends on us to notice this.