The loss of Franklin and his men was a huge mystery, how could so many men and two state of the art ships just disappear? Search parties scoured the arctic (and in the process charted most of the up til then unexplored regions of the arctic archipeligo, and McClure even technically made it through the passage in his “search” for Franklin) for more than a decade before any real traces of the expedition turned up. Many other expeditions suffered and lost men in the same era of arctic exploration, but none disappeared completely! To this day, there’s a lot we don’t know about how such a well equipped and large expedition could fail so completely and quickly.
Here’s what we’ve found and what we know at this point: The ships spent their first winter at Beechey Island, and all seemed well. The next summer, they travelled south, and were frozen in near King William Island that Fall. They wintered here, and the next summer the ice failed to melt, trapping them for a second winter on King William Island. This alone is not out of the ordinary for arctic expeditions, many ships were frozen in for several years without a great loss of life.
In the summer between the first and second winters at King William Island, in 1847, the crew leave a note in a cairn on King William Island saying “all is well”. After the second winter stuck in the ice, the note is dug up and in the margins someone writes that 24 men have died, including Franklin, and that the crew is abandoning their ships and marching south towards the mainland of North America. It’s important to point out this second note contained several errors, but we’ll get to that.
The crew’s march is a death march, the local eskimo later report seeing dozens of white men dying in their tracks. Some men may have made it all the way to the mainland, but none survive. By the early 1850s it’s likely that all or almost all of the expedition is dead.
McClintock in 1859 finds the note in the cairn on King William Island, a single skeleton, and finally a life boat with two skeletons in it. The contents of the lifeboat add to the mystery- “a large amount of abandoned equipment, including boots, silk handkerchiefs, scented soap, sponges, slippers, hair combs, and many books, among them a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield.” The lifeboat was being man-hauled, but was pointing north, not south. A decade later Hall finds more graves and campsites, all on the King William Island. This is pretty much the extent of the evidence known up until contemporary scientific expeditions.
So, the mysteries- Scurvy, starvation, and cold had killed men on previous and subsequent expeditions, but many expeditions had survived much longer than Franklin’s without anything so catastrophic. In all, the Franklin’s men had spent only three winters in the arctic before abandoning their ships. They were equipped for five.
The mysterious contents of the lifeboat and the inconsistencies in the note point to a deteriorating mental situation. Why would dying men man-haul heavy books and silverware? Why was the boat facing north, were the men trying to return to the abandoned ships?
So, what could the ships tell us?
When scientific autopsies were conducted on the bodies on King William’s Island, it was found that lead poisoning contributed to the deaths of those men. It’s believed the solder on the tins of food was the source, but there are other theories- perhaps the ship’s water system was the source. The men also were suffering from TB and Pneumonia.
Finding the ships could finally help resolve the issue, for instance if there are more bodies on or near the ships then we know some men may have turned around from their march and made it back. Plus finding more bodies would inevitably help our understanding of what killed the men. We could also get more insight into why the men were carrying such strange items in their lifeboat, by seeing the things they chose not to take. And obviously examining more of the food tins, as well as the ship’s water system, might better explain the presence of lead.
More than anything, we don’t know exactly what the ships might tell us, but there’s so little we know as it is, it’d be amazing to find any new bits of evidence.
A member of the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition playing the bagpipes to an Emperor penguin (1904)
Some people say there has never been a good song with bagpipes. To them I say, it’s a long way to the top (if you wanna rock n’ roll).
One of the most well-known sled dog races in the world, the Iditarod is a test of will, survival, and endurance that brings human mushers together with their loyal sled dogs. Let’s take a closer look at the Iditarod, its history, and what truly makes it the Last Great Race on Earth.
A Brief History
While the 1,131-mile route—starting in downtown Anchorage and finishing in Nome—is mainly known for the annual dog sled race, the Iditarod trail actually proved a much more functional, practical use back in the day. The same trail was a popular mail-supply route and was used in the gold rush of the early 1900s, allowing travelers to reach mining towns. In 1925, the trail helped sled dog teams transport precious serum throughout Alaska during the diphtheria epidemic.
Skip to the 1960s. Dorothy Page and Joe Redington Sr., unhappy with how sled dogs were being replaced by motorized snowmobiles, decided to honor the great tradition with a short 50-mile race. But in 1973, Page and Redington chose the path from Anchorage to Nome, giving birth to the now famous race. The trail was chosen in particular for its 1925 diphtheria run.
The race has seen various changes since that first race. More safeguards were put in place for the sled dogs. The record time to win the race—originally 20 days—was shortened to just 9 days in 2002. The biggest change is the addition of an alternate southern route. Each year, the Iditarod alternates between the northern and southern routes, adding even more challenge.
The Team (or Should we Say Pack?)
A team competing in the Iditarod race comprises one musher, a team of up to 16 dogs, and all kinds of gear to stay warm, make food, and survive in the Alaskan wild.
Mushers definitely need to be fit and have strong leg muscles on top of good balance, but the race really requires mental stamina and endurance. It’s a rough, physical journey, riddled with extreme weather and periods of sleeplessness. In fact, aside from the mandatory rest—one 24-hour rest and two 8-hour rests—most mushers push themselves to stay awake and win the race.
Required equipment for the race includes:
- A sleeping bag
- A cooker with fuel for boiling water and cooking food
- An ax
Then there’s the food. Mushers certainly need to eat a lot to sustain themselves in the extreme conditions, but the dogs doing all the running require so much more food. Each dog must consume at least 10,000 calories a day, which translates to nearly 2,000 pounds of food for the team for the whole Iditarod race. Dogs get snacks every few hours and are fed full meals, consisting usually of meat, fats, vitamin supplements, and dry dog food, at each checkpoint.
Awards and Honors
Mushers who participate in the Iditarod split a large cash pot. The first place winner takes the most money and each successive finisher receives a slightly reduced amount. So even if you’re not first, you’ll still receive something.
And then there’s the Red Lantern Award. This is given to the team that finishes last and symbolizes perseverance, pride, and accomplishment. The Red Lantern is often confused with the Widow’s Lamp. Well before the conception of the Iditarod, dog drivers relied on roadhouses that were scattered between destinations. When a musher was on the trail, roadhouses would hang kerosene lamps outside, which helped mushers find their destinations at night and signaled that there was a team still on the trail. The lamp wasn’t extinguished until the last musher reached his destination.
In the Iditarod, the committee extinguishes the Widow’s Lamp only after the last musher has crossed the finish line, signaling the official end of the race. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is truly a sight to behold.