Northwest Passage, 166 years ago

After being trapped in the Arctic ice for three winters, the search expedition of HMS Investigator had narrowly escaped a catastrophe like that which had happened to the Franklin expedition …

reblogged from June 14, 2013 – [but then, it had read in the title “… 160 years ago…]”

Deutsche Version hier.

Totally exhausted were the men of HMS Investigator, when they arrived at Dealy Island (near Melville Island, today: Canadian Arctic, Nunavut), in the beginning of May, 1853. They had made a long and strenous walk from the Bay of Mercy on Banks Island over the frozen Arctic Ocean, which took them more than 2 weeks. Now they were rescued and got finally enough food and warm clothing on board of the ships HMS Resolute and HMS Intrepid which were frozen in the ice. The men had barely escaped death by starvation and disease. Most were heavily affected by scurvy and had to lay in sickbed; only a few, such as Johann August Miertsching and Samuel Gurney Cresswell, felt something better.

Expedition ships in their winter quarters
Expedition ships in their winter quarters – sketch by Walter William May, 1855

But just three days later, two of them, accompanied by a group of idle sailors from HMS Resolute, started their next walk: 300 miles eastward through the Arctic to HMS North Star near Beechey Island. Lieutenant Cresswell, on behalf of Captain McClure, should as soon as possible bring the news of finding the Northwest Passage, as well as accompany his insane companion Wynniatt, home to England.

19th century's chart of the Northwest passage
19th century’s chart of the Northwest passage

Johann August Miertsching, who also had already felt strong enough for the walk, would have loved to to go with his two companions without hesitation – to return home, after three gruelling winters in the Arctic; but the commanding Captain Kellett from HMS Resolute wanted to have him available: being the only Inuktitut interpreter, Miertsching would be needed in the upcoming journey of the ships to inquire the Inuit on the coasts of Baffinland and Greenland regarding the fate of the lost Franklin expedition.

Musk oxen in defense position - Photo Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service
Musk oxen in defense position – Photo Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

So, instead, Miertsching earned some merits as a successful hunter: “Since we had now so many persons weak and sick with scurvy in both ships, everything was done to provide them with fresh meat, which is the best cure for scurvy; I was asked … by Capt. Kellett to go on the hunt … In May and June we shot muskoxen, caribou, snow hares and ptarmigans…” . Which also brought him some advantage: he didn’t need to spend his time in the stale air of the overheated and wet ships; he camped in a hunting tent instead and could enjoy the clear weather which was still quite cool, but altogether pleasant with many sunny hours.

Franklin Strait
Completely ice-free in September 2012: The Franklin Strait

It is well-known that HMS Resolute and Intrepid could not make it through the Arctic ice and were finally abandoned. But 160 years later, the situation has totally changed. In 2011 already 33 ships took their way through the Northwest Passage, and with the waterway nearly ice-free in the summer of 2012, there will be even a rowing expedition this summer to attempt the project: three Irishmen and a Canadian are planning to cross the 3,000-mile passage in one season, only with the help of their physical strength – the climate change could make it possible. The four men want to start already in early July from Inuvik in the Western Arctic to Pond Inlet (Baffin Iceland). They intend to row, working in shifts 24 hours a day and quoted 2-3 months for the tour. The expedition is sponsored by a alternative and sustainable power production company; it is intended to draw attention on the disastrous consequences of global warming.

About Miertsching and the Northwest Passage you can also read here; more will follow later on this blog. In our book Kanada Länderporträt you can find a special section dedicated to the discovery of the Northwest Passage.

Re-blogged from June, 2013 by Mechtild Opel

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