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Following Franklin

History, patriotism and geopolitics bound up in the Arctic ice

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper took to the airwaves Tuesday morning and announced the discovery of a shipwreck from the storied Franklin Expedition, the news resonated particularly strongly with two North Shore residents.

Phil Nuytten, an undersea explorer and inventor of submersible dive suits and vehicles, spent years searching for the Franklin wrecks.

And Kevin Vallely has been on two Arctic expeditions following Franklin - one to traverse the Northwest Passage via rowboat and one to trace the footsteps of Franklin's crew as they made a desperate run for safety from their ice-beset ship.

In 1845, Sir John Franklin and 128 men set out from England aboard the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in hopes of finding a lucrative shortcut to Asia through the North. The ships became trapped in ice off King William Island in September 1846 and Franklin died the following June. In a bid to save themselves, the crew began a long march south in hopes of making it to a Hudson Bay trading post but none survived the trek. Only a handful of graves, relics and notes leave clues about what happened.

After it was clear Franklin wasn't returning, his wife pressed officials to launch a search effort and petitioned the Royal Navy to put up a reward for any crew that could find the fate of her husband's expedition. The reward drew the largest ever sea-borne manhunt at that time. That manhunt continued into the modern day, drawing in Nuytten in 1977.

"We spent a couple of years up there doing side scan sonar, very much the same method they used to find the latest wreck," Nuytten said.

In their years of hunting, Nuytten's team came upon another prize - the wreck of the HMS Breadalbane, one of the ships tasked with helping the search for Franklin's expedition. It's also the northernmost shipwreck ever found.

The Breadalbane was crushed by winter ice when the winds shifted in 1853 and sank within minutes. The crew scrambled to get off in time and were saved by a nearby ship on the same mission.

Nuytten had to wait three years before the ice would co-operate with his team, making it down to the well-preserved ship in a precursor to the atmospheric-proof dive suit he invented, the Nuytsuit.

"We cut through about eight feet of ice and opened up a hole," he said. "Down I went and it was an incredible thrill to look back up, because the ice was covered with snow, it was pitch black except for this blinding little square of light."

Nuytten descended into the dark accompanied by a candelabra of lights developed by a National Geographic photographer who was on the expedition.

There was little to see until he reached about 100 metres and caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye.

"I thought 'What the hell was that?' I thought maybe it was a fish and I looked again it was the mast of the Breadalbane," he said. "I could see the whole wreck under the light of this big candelabra and it was absolutely incredible. It was covered with orange and saffron growth like anemones and the hull, because it was copper sheathed, it had this incredible turquoise patina. It was just beautiful sitting down there."

Nuytten stayed on the bottom for more than five hours and only came back up when he realized the condensation from his body was freezing to the inside of the suit. The temperature was -5 C. Important and dazzling as the Breadalbane was, it wasn't the wreck that launched 150 years of search missions and Nuytten carried on. He just returned from his most recent trip to the Arctic last week.

"Coincidentally, I happened to be up there at the same time they were but I was looking on the wrong side of King William Island," he said.

Now that one of the ships has been found, Nuytten said he expects the search for the other ship will ramp up. But because the wreck sites are declared national heritage treasures, it's not as though he can start planning his next trip anytime soon.

"No one can go explore them without six inches worth of paper work from Parks Canada and the various other government offices so it's not likely anyone's going to be up diving on them," he said. "They'll undoubtedly do a very detailed examination and exploration of the wreck using remotely operated vehicles and if we ever get a chance to go there, either with the suits or the manned submersibles, we'd certainly do that."

Vallely described his reaction to the news this week as equal parts elation and bafflement.

"I was stunned, actually. I was super psyched and thrilled to hear it," he said.

Knowing the region and environment as few people do, Vallely believed the expedition would never be found.

"Anything caught in (the ice) would be pulverized, so I was surprised. I really thought the ships were long gone," he said.

In 2007, he joined CBC's Evan Solomon in making a documentary about the archeological puzzle left in the steps Franklin's crew took to their eventual deaths - makeshift graves and human bones unlikely to be from the Inuit.

"It's fascinating to me. It was just palpable. My God, just seeing this 160 years of history like it was nothing. There it was in front of you," he said.

Vallely credits this week's historic find to the work of Louie Kamookak, an Inuit historian and expedition mate who lives in Gjoa Haven, a small settlement about 80 kilometres away from the wreck site. Kamookak spent two weeks each year looking for the ship himself in a 15-foot aluminum boat.

His search has been based on the oral history passed down from his ancestors, some of whom may have had contact with Franklin's crew.

"What the island was called by the Inuit of the region was Island Where Big Ship Sank - it's like, go figure. Maybe we should start looking there," Vallely said.

Shorty after the documentary aired, the federal government began funding the search for the Erebus and the Terror.

The find represents more to Canadian history than closure to an unsolved mystery, Valleley said.

"It was really the loss of his ship and his disappearance that stimulated 30-odd expeditions from east to west across the Arctic and they mapped it for what it is today. Really, it was kind of no man's land and all of these expeditions opened it up," he said.

Franklin's story is now arguably an icon of Canadian culture. As anyone tuned to CBC this week could tell you, it was the inspiration for Stan Rogers' Canadiana folk classic Northwest Passage.

"It could be our national anthem for God's sakes. It really is an important part of Canada," Vallely said.

But the significance of Franklin and the Arctic isn't just for new editions of history textbooks, Vallely acknowledged.

His 2013 trip saw him travel 1,900 kilometres through the Northwest Passage by rowboat.

The trip was meant to raise awareness that carbon-driven climate change was beating back kilometres of ice and making the once impassible Arctic into the viable shipping route Franklin sought.

The first commercial ship to cross the Arctic Ocean in a single season came in the 1980s and in 2013, the MS Nordic Orion became the first bulk carrier to use the Northwest Passage. Sadly appropriate - considering the impact of climate change on the Arctic - it was carrying a load of metallurgical coal destined for Finland it picked had up at Neptune Terminals in North Vancouver.

While the Arctic may seem as Canadian as a Timmy's and awful hockey teams in our own minds, the rest of the world considers the Northwest Passage international waters, giving the discovery geopolitical implications.

"We've got to be up there. We've got to be showing interest in our land in order for people to recognize it to be ours," Vallely said. "You can just go right on through and Canada has nothing to say about it.. .. The Russians know more about our sea floor up there than we do because of their subs."

The political significance of the wreck isn't lost on Nuytten either.

"You can't overlook the importance of both the search and the find in terms of Canada's sovereignty in the Arctic," he said.

"I think Parks Canada, and Mr. Harper to the extent he had anything to do with it, are to be congratulated. It's a hell of a feat and I wish them all the luck in the world."

As for whether this proves the Arctic is ours for the rest of the world to see, Capilano University political science professor Tim Schouls isn't so sure.

"Franklin was on his way from somewhere to somewhere else and wasn't in any way, shape or form interested in establishing a claim for Britain in the North in the first place," he said.

"If there is any stake to a claim in the area, it belongs to the Inuit before it belongs to Canada. Those issues of competing sovereignty need to be worked out."

That may also be a hint at the government's motivations, Schouls said - "Trying to pacify the populations of the North, indicating the Canadian government is interested in investment in infrastructure of all kinds."

In any case, had the Arctic not been disputed, Harper wouldn't be spending his summers there, Schouls added.

But Harper's strategy for the North is more than staking our claim to its shipping lanes and whatever resources may lie underneath the sea floor, Schouls added.

The government also seems to be trying to change the way we think and feel about Canada. The Tories hold an "ideological predisposition toward trying to resuscitate historical narratives that draw Canadian identity more sharply into focus," Schouls said, noting we've already seen it happen with the massive public relations exercise commemorating the War of 1812.

"An attempt to nurture a connection with the past that binds us to romantic and important episodes in our history as Canadians is part of what (Harper) is interested in doing," Schouls said.

"It's an exercise in constructing patriotism."

While that may not quite meet the definition of propaganda, Schouls said we can expect to see footage and images from the Franklin saga in Conservative campaign ads in the run up to next fall's election.

"I do think this particular story will be exploited for political gain in ways that have very little to do with the story itself. The story is full of romance. It's full of intrigue. It's full of tragedy. It's in many ways a reflection of the Canadian psyche itself. Trying to survive in a harsh environment and succumbing to the forces and us as a Canadian people having in many respects to adapt and learn to do the same, often with the help of Aboriginal peoples."