Sunday, March 25, 2018

AMC's The Terror

It's a scene that, though made slightly fanciful, brings together all the elements of the essential mystery of the search for Sir John Franklin and his lost ships: a white explorer, working through an interpreter, asks a "Netsilik man" if he has seen any white men, especially the one they know as "Aglooka." Only here, there's a twist: out of a fur pouch onto a caribou skin come three of the infamous Dageurreotypes of Franklin and his officers (here showing, of course, the actors who portray them in the series: CiarĂ¡n Hinds as Franklin, Tobias Menzies as Fitzjames, and Jared Harris as Crozier). With no hesitation, the Inuk informant points to the third and last portrait: that, that one, that's Aglooka.

It's hard to imagine a better way to set the stage for a series that, like the novel by Dan Simmons on which it's based, builds a tissue of horrific fiction around the armature of historical fact. For those of us who already find the factual story endlessly fascinating, a certain additional suspension of disbelief will be required. We'll have to let go of our idealized version, for instance, of Franklin, and let Hinds's masterful performance of Sir John as an ambitious commander who throws caution to the winds, take its place; our Fitzjames will, as Menzies portrays him, be less whimsical than the lively young fellow evident in his letters home; our Crozier, above all, will be darker: feeling that his sense of the perils of the ice is not being taken seriously, he turns to drink and grim warnings: "Our situation is more dire than you may understand." Jared Harris's performance is, so far, the highlight of the series for me; no other actor I know so perfectly combines -- and balances -- darkness and light. All these new characters, though drawn differently from the way we've seen them before, serve this show's narrative as faithfully as the original officers served their nation's Navy.

I won't be giving any spoilers here -- though I will be doing an episode-by-episode recap and commentary on Canadian Geographic's website -- but I will say that, despite the fact that its horror is of a different and more fantastical kind, the show captures the bleak realism of Franklin's ill-fortune with remarkable clarity. Part of this is thanks to an excellent production crew and visual effects team, who worked magic with the look and feel of the ice, as well as having the expert advice of ship-modeler extraordinaire Matthew Betts which has made the structure and shape of both ships remarkably accurate, far more so than your usual "Master and Commander" fare. And these three actors, along with a brilliant supporting cast, well portray the essential human drama at the core of it all -- it's not "man vs. ice" but "man vs. man vs. himself vs. ice" -- a far more psychologically vexed formula, even before we meet the horror.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Louie Kamookak, 1959-2018

Louie at Victory Point at the 150th anniversary of Crozier's Landing in 1998
In all the recent history of the revival of interest in the fate of the Franklin expedition -- a period which could well be said to encompass the past forty years or more -- there's really only one man whose presence links it all together: Louie Kamookak. He guided numerous parties to sites vital to the history of Franklin, Rae, and other key figures, from the days of the Franklin Probe, through to Dave Woodman's searches, the first Parks Canada search with Robert Grenier, the St Roch II expedition with Ken Burton, Ken McGoogan's re-tracing of Rae's surveys, and beyond. He was there for the recent rediscovery of both of Franklin's ships, and was personally brought to the site of HMS "Erebus" by Parks Canada to perform a traditional ceremony of remembrance. His work preserving Inuit oral traditions extended far beyond the Franklin story; he was the central contact for the Inuit Heritage Trust's work on traditional Inuit place names in the region around King William Island (Qikiqtaq), and helped to collect numerous oral histories of all kinds from the Gjoa Haven elders. He was just as much at home with younger Inuit, guiding them on expeditions on the land that retraced traditional routes and knowledge. And, when news of the Franklin ships' finding raced round the world, Louie was there too. At the school, where he worked, the phone started ringing off the hook, leading him to the wry observation that he'd be harder to find if he had a more common name, but "I'm the only Louie Kamookak in the world."

And now the world has lost him. Not many knew of it, and Louie himself kept fairly quiet, but his cancer diagnosis had everyone around him worried. His Facebook posts, as always, were mostly about family, and every morning all of us who knew him answered to his ready Ublaakut! On March 14th, scarcely a week ago, he posted a rare comment on his illness, which was only to mention that he'd had a good night's sleep after chemo, "another blessing from the Lord." Throughout his illness, as with his earlier bouts with heart disease, Louie's Christian faith was his comfort and his foundation, and placing his trust in God, he weathered more storms than most. The strength of his belief never wavered, even when things became dire, and so the news of his passing came as a shock to his friends, who somehow had hoped that he would always be among us.  His work, his legacy, lives on, and always will -- for even those who never met him will not forget his generous, curious, friendly spirit, which was shared throughout the world via today's technologies. His like will not be seen again.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Ranford Relics in the Nunavut Collection

(Photo courtesy Logan Zachary)
In a sad side-note to the story of Franklin searches in the twentieth century, a significant number of artifacts collected from the Erebus Bay area were found in Barry Ranford's basement after his death in September of 1996 and that of his son in 2012. Ranford, who in many ways was responsible for re-invigorating public interest in Franklin in the early 1990's, had first walked the shores of King William in 1992; a year later, an archaelogical team led by Anne Keenleyside and Margaret Bertulli did a proper study of the site, and the bones which gave confirmation of Inuit accounts of cannibalism. Ranford, ever a maverick, didn't worry too much about archaelogical protocols, and had been known to pick up, and sometimes pocket, small items. These, along with some human remains he also collected, weren't known about until after his death, and until last week I'd had no idea what had become of them. Thankfully, his family did the right thing and brought them to the Canadian Museum of History, which then transferred them to the Nunavut collection, established when the territory came into being in 1999.

As those following the story in the Nunatsiaq News and other sources will know, Nunavut has yet to secure full funding and make a final site selection for its own archival facility; in the interim, its collections are stored in two places: in Winnipeg (art) and at the Canadian Museum of Nature (archaeological materials). And it was at the latter's storage and conservation facility that, in the company of a fine fellowship of Franklinites, I was finally able to see these materials in person. They have been carefully preserved and tagged, but the location is given simply as NgLj-2, even though that's far from certain. Without a clearer sense of where precisely they were found, the story that these artifacts have to tell is incomplete, and subject to wide conjecture. Archaeology, in a deep sense, is about reconstucting a story -- so imagine if, say, instead of James Joyce's "The Dead," we had only a few scraps of manuscripts, a bit of typescript, and notes, none with page numbers or dates to show how the story evolved. It would be at best a ghost of a story.

It's my understanding that Doug Stenton has been working on these materials in an effort to sort out what specific sites they are most likely from; I certainly wish him luck. But for now, simply seeing these relics was a powerful experience, a reminder of the fragility of human life and endeavor.

(With thanks to Scott Rufolo of the Museum of Nature for our behind-the-scenes tour, and to Alex Stubbing of GN Heritage for permission to share these images, and this story).