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Canadians discover long-lost ship ‘fundamental’ to Arctic sovereignty

Canadians discover long-lost ship ‘fundamental’ to Arctic sovereignty

Don Martin, National Post · Wednesday, Jul. 28, 2010

MERCY BAY, N.W.T. • The ship whose crew discovered Canada’s Northwest Passage has been found 155 years after it was abandoned and disappeared in this isolated Arctic bay, a historic find and one that may help bolster Canadian claims to Arctic sovereignty.

The wreck of HMS Investigator was detected in shallow water within days of Parks Canada archeologists launching an ambitious search for the 422-ton ship from a chilly tent encampment on the Beaufort Sea shoreline.

“It’s sitting upright in silt; the three masts have been removed, probably by ice,” said Ifan Thomas, Parks Canada’s superintendent of the western Arctic Field Unit. “It’s a largely intact ship in very cold water, so deterioration didn’t happen very quickly.”

Environment Minister Jim Prentice, who arrived at the camp on Tuesday, said that finding a relic linked to the discovery of the Northwest Passage represents a reasserted Canadian claim to Arctic sovereignty.

“It’s fundamental to Canadian sovereignty in the North,” he said in an interview.

“[A]nd the tragic tale of Investigator is one of the most amazing stories of Arctic history. It’s a tale of incredible determination and suffering,” Mr. Prentice said.

The three-masted, copper-bottomed Investigator was found this week after marine archeologists deployed side-scan sonars from inflatable Zodiac boats. Underwater cameras will be used this week to photograph the wreck and divers will be deployed next summer to probe the hull.

The clear Arctic water makes it possible to glimpse the outline of the ship’s outer deck, which is only eight metres below the surface.

Three graves were also found on Tuesday. They are undoubtedly the remains of a trio of British sailors who succumbed to disease in the final months of this ship’s three-year Arctic ordeal.

“In anthropological terms, this is the most important shipwreck in history,” said senior marine archeologist, Ryan Harris. “This was the first contact with the Copper Inuit; it’s a bit like finding a Columbus ship in the Arctic.”

The remains of the 36-metre ship were discovered at the approximate spot 150 metres off shore where it was last visited in 1854 by a passing British expedition.

When master seaman Frederick Krabbe boarded the vessel, it was tilting on its side and half-filled with ice. Aboriginal history records that the Investigator had vanished by the following summer.

Whether the ship had drifted into deep water or out of Mercy Bay altogether had been a source of constant speculation for more than a hundred years.

Solving that mystery — thanks in part to changes in climate, since the first recorded year Mercy Bay was ice-free was the summer of 2007 — puts an ending to one of the Arctic’s greatest marine dramas.

Investigator had sailed from England in 1850 under Captain Robert McClure to join the frantic search for the ill-fated Franklin expedition, entering the Arctic from the western side in hopes of finding Franklin’s two ships emerging from the fabled passage.

But while Investigator probed further east than any other European expedition, the ship quickly became trapped in ice, often hoisted out of the water by 15-metre-high ice ridges or threatened with hull-crushing floes.

The 69-member crew first attempted a route along the southern shore of Bank Island before retreating to head north into what is now McClure Strait in the summer of 1851.

Running into impenetrable pack ice, they sought shelter in this treeless, windswept bay and spent another two winters locked in ice.

With no sign of a thaw and his sailors debilitated by scurvy or weakened by starvation as rations dwindled, Capt. McClure ordered the ship’s crew divided into three parties, two leaving on suicidal attempts to walk to safety while the third would stay aboard in hopes of sailing free later in the year.

But within weeks of his desperate survival plan being implemented, another ship’s officer miraculously appeared on the horizon with word two better-equipped British vessels were also trapped in ice at neighbouring Melville Island.

Capt. McClure gave the order to abandon ship. The crew cleaned the cabins, emptied supplies into a massive cache on the shore, hoisted the Red Ensign and set out for the HMS Resolute where, after spending a fourth winter trapped in ice, they abandoned that ship and set sail to England aboard the HMS Northern Star.

While the captain and his crew walked part of the passage and left their ship behind, British MPs still voted to give Capt. McClure the posted reward of 10,000 British pounds for discovering the Northwest Passage.

Parks Canada had spent months planning the high Arctic search for Investigator, complicated by the logistics of reaching a remote, uninhabited location a four-hour flight northeast of Inuvik. The National Post and Calgary Herald joined the expedition on Tuesday along with a CPAC television network crew.

They will join Mr. Prentice and archeologists for the next three days, exploring the wind-scrubbed northern shoreline of Aulavik National Park, where polar bears roam and the muskoxen population has exploded. A bear fence encircles the camp.

But the payoff from the discovery was worth the complicated effort, said Mr. Prentice, who has been dreaming about finding the wreck since he wrote a book review for a diplomatic magazine of B.C. author Bryan Payton’s acclaimed account of the Investigator’s fate, The Ice Passage.

“This is one of the most important shipwrecks in Canadian history because Investigator carried Capt. Robert McClure, who discovered the western entrance to the Northwest Passage,” Mr. Prentice said after he was informed of the discovery.

“I’m elated,” he said. “It’s a special moment linking our past and future in the Canadian Arctic. It was the first contact between Arctic people and European explorers and it couples high tech with the oral history of the Inuit people.”

The expedition will not stop with the wreck’s discovery. Electronic scanners will be deployed on land to search for buried artifacts and graves this week.

While the giant cache of supplies taken off the ship has been largely removed over the decades, other areas around the Investigator’s final resting place will be searched for archeological remains.

Parks Canada is prevented by law from exhuming the remains found on Tuesday, but it’s possible British authorities may remove the bodies for a burial in England.

Large amounts of copper and other metal from the Investigator found their way into Inuit culture, Mr. Prentice noted. Copper siding from the ship was apparently used so extensively that in some cultures, they became known as the Copper Inuit.

The year of banner discovery may not be over for Parks Canada archeologists. With sea ice at record low levels, they will set sail in August to search for the Franklin expedition’s two ships, the Erebus and the Terror.

National Post

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