I have a fascination with the Canadian north. What has made men and women trek to some of the most inhospitable land on earth? I’ve read the fictional works of Jack London and the real-life triumphs and tragedies of men like Ernest Shackleton and Captain John Franklin, the latter of whom is featured in Franklin’s Lost Ships, The Nature of Things’ season finale.
The news that one of Franklin’s ships, the Erebus, was discovered last year after being missing for 170 years was a discovery that excited and entranced me, and Franklin’s Lost Ships doesn’t disappoint in its exploration into how the Erebus was found. In 1845, Capt. Franklin and 129 men set sail from England aboard two ships—the HMS Erebus and Terror—headed for the uncharted waters of the Arctic. None survived. Graves and notes left by crew members have been found since, along with Inuit tales handed down through generations detailing what happened, but the ships remained tantalizingly out of reach.
Thursday’s documentary not only details the six-year search Parks Canada has been on for the duo National Historic sites, but the story of how Franklin and his crew ran into trouble in the first place. Franklin was a decorated war hero, but had failed in earlier overland mission to find the Northwest Passage. On his last mission, he not only had enough food to last three years, but warships Erebus and Terror had been fitted with central heating and propellors. It was expected that the elusive Northwest Passage would be traversed and mapped without problem.
Experts like Ryan Harris and Marc-André Bernier of Parks Canada, John Geiger of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, historian Huw Lewis-Jones and authors Ken McCoogan and Dave Woodman breathe life into the tale with help from re-creations, explaining not only how last year’s adventure was undertaken with state-of-the-art sonar and satellite maps paired with the last coordinates left by the crew before they perished.
Franklin’s Lost Ships is also a story of British arrogance, of a society that preferred—in the 1800s—to ignore Inuit reports of cannibalism among the crew and reports of one ship locked in the ice and sinking while another was carried south. In fact it was those stories, and luck, that caused last summer’s mission to be a success. Incredible footage of Erebus looming up in the murk, covered in seaweed and dwarfing the divers around her is dramatic stuff. But that’s just the first chapter in the story; future dives will venture inside the ship to search for documents, film and bodies for a more accurate telling of what truly went wrong during Franklin’s last expedition.
Franklin’s Lost Ships airs as part of The Nature of Things on Wednesday at 8 p.m. on CBC.