My planned trip for summer 2023 is to canoe the Horton river in the Canadian north. This will be my 5th river in that region which is testimony to its beauty and wildness.
The Horton is one of the most remote rivers, so getting there can be logistically challenging, and not cheap, but it's famed for its beauty, the quality of the fishing, and abundant grizzlies.
SOME NOTES ON JOHN FRANKLIN
Sir John Franklin’s disappearance with his two ships and 135 officers and men in 1845-1847 while trying to find the North West Passage, is one of the greatest catastrophes in the history of exploration, and one of the greatest mysteries. Tantalising glimpses have been found by the many parties that went looking for him – messages in cairns, skeletons on the tundra and graves exhumed, but nothing conclusive.
This fascinating story has been well chronicled, and expeditions are still mounted to try and find the wrecks of his ships and other traces. It’s thought that the officers of the Erebus and Terror would undoubtedly have taken the log books and journals with them when they abandoned their beset vessels and carried them until they were too weak to walk any further. One day they might be found, but until then the mystery remains.
Less well documented are Franklin’s earlier expeditions to Canada and elsewhere. He was a brave, and by all accounts a very charming man, with a great deal of naval experience. He fought in the battles of Trafalgar and New Orleans, made the first circumnavigation of Australia with Matthew Flinders in 1800, made a failed expedition to the North Pole, plus two land expeditions on the Canadian tundra. He was also the Governor of Tasmania for several years.
Modern historians have made much of Franklin’s weaknesses. He was overweight, unfit, and by the end, too old (59 on his last, doomed expedition.) His heart was weak and his circulation poor, and by the standards of the time he was peculiarly sensitive: he trembled whenever a man had to be flogged and disliked bloodshed to the point of not swatting mosquitoes.
However he spent at least 7 winters in the North, passing the dark, freezing days on ships or in crude huts, so he can’t have been as soft as all that. Nevertheless he was a strange choice of leader for land expeditions. He couldn’t hunt, canoe or trek, and was totally out of his element, where his physical weaknesses would be more of a handicap.
FRANKLIN’S FIRST LAND EXPEDITION
On the first of these land expeditions Franklin was instructed to descend the Coppermine River and explore the coast. Western explorers had visited the mouths of the Mackenzie River and the Coppermine River 500 miles to the east, but everything between these two points was a mystery. It was hoped that Franklin might be able to provide vital information about the Northwest Passage’s viability.
Franklin over-wintered at Fort Enterprise in 1821-22, and in early June he crossed to the Coppermine, and descended it to the Arctic Ocean negotiating its many fearsome rapids and canyons. They then canoed for 500 miles eastwards, charting the coast, and hoping they might meet the ship of William Parry who was trying to find a route through the pack ice to Foxe Basin, coming from the opposite direction. That didn’t happen, and by the middle of August they realized that it would be too stormy to return to the Coppermine, so decided to walk across the tundra from Bathurst Inlet to Fort Enterprise 450 miles away.
Winter came early that year, and the caribou had already moved south. They had no food supplies left, so were forced to eat a barely nutritious lichen called tripes de roche, their leather items like moccasins, or the putrid carcasses of dead animals. By the time they reached Fort Enterprise in October, 11 of the 20 men were dead from starvation or exhaustion. There were incidences of cannibalism, men were murdered, and others shot ‘in self defence’.
On his return to England, Franklin became a hero, despite the great loss of life, and having contributed little to geographical knowledge. The public was fascinated by the sensational elements of the story, with its starvation, murder, despair, and the sheer misery of the struggle to survive. He became known as ‘the man who ate his boots’, and his book ‘Journey to the Polar Sea’ was a best seller.
Two years later he made a more successful land expedition down the Mackenzie River, exploring the coast east and west of its mouth, including 1600 miles of virgin territory. This time he completed the expedition without a single casualty.
The huge area of tundra to the west of Hudson Bay, was named the Barrens or Barren Lands by the first explorers to visit the area. (See my Page on Across the Barrenlands) While the rocky, treeless wilderness may not be to everyone’s taste, it’s actually nowhere near as sterile and lifeless as the name implies. It’s actually a land that’s full of wildlife and beauty. Millions of geese, ducks and other birds visit it in the short summer, the pristine rivers and lakes rivers are full of large trout, and Grizzly bears, wolves, muskoxen, wolverines, and huge herds of caribou make it one of the last great wildernesses in the world. A handful of canoeists visit the region every year, and return again and again, captivated by its magic. One suspects that more would be tempted if it wasn’t for the plagues of black fly and mosquitoes that can make life extremely uncomfortable!
Like elsewhere in the Arctic, this region is experiencing great change. Caribou numbers are falling fast, mineral deposits are
becoming more accessible and the permafrost is thawing.
SOME GOOD READS ON FRANKLIN, AND THE SEARCH FOR THE NORTHWEST PASSAGE
'FATAL PASSAGE.' KEN McGOOGAN
'FROZEN IN TIME' THE FATE OF THE FRANKLIN EXPEDITION' JOHN GEIGER AND OWEN BEATTIE
'THE MAN WHO ATE HIS BOOTS: SIR JOHN FRANKLIN AND THE TRAGIC HISTORY OF THE NORTHWEST PASSAGE.' ANTHONY BRANDT