A nail-biter of a yarn about a journey into frozen terrain, in search of evidence of what happened to a British expedition that vanished in 1870:
Our crew of five had left Maine in my sailboat, Polar Sun, more than two months earlier to follow the route of the legendary explorer Sir John Franklin. He’d set off from England in 1845 in search of the elusive Northwest Passage, a sea route over the icy top of North America that would open a new trading avenue to the riches of the Far East. But Franklin’s two ships, Erebus and Terror, and his crew of 128 men had disappeared. What no one knew at the time was that the ships had become trapped in ice, stranding Franklin and his men deep in the Arctic. None lived to tell what happened, and no detailed written account of their ordeal has been found. This void in the historical record, collectively known as “the Franklin mystery,” has led to more than 170 years of speculation. It has also spawned generations of devoted “Franklinites” obsessed with piecing together the story of how more than a hundred British sailors tried to walk out of one of the most inhospitable wildernesses on Earth.
Over the years, I too had become a Franklinite. With morbid fascination, I read all the books I could find on the subject, imagining myself as a member of the doomed crew, and puzzling over the many unanswered questions: Where was Franklin buried? Where were his logbooks? Did the Inuit try to help the crew? Was it possible that a few of the men almost made it out? In the end, I couldn’t resist the urge to go looking for some of these answers myself and hatched a plan to refit Polar Sun so that I could sail the same waters as the Erebus and the Terror, anchor in the same harbors, and see what they saw. I also hoped to complete the voyage that Franklin never did: to sail from the Atlantic into the mazelike network of straits and bays that makes up the Northwest Passage and emerge on the other side of the continent, off the coast of Alaska.
Now, after nearly 3,000 nautical miles—roughly half the journey—my quest to immerse myself in the Franklin mystery had become a little too real. If Polar Sun were iced in, I could lose her. And even if we somehow made it safely ashore, a rescue here could be difficult. And of course, there was also that polar bear.