Guest Opinion: The terror and triumph

Chicago Tribune
Sept. 18
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In 1845, Sir John Franklin set out from England to do what explorers did then and still do today: find a shortcut to shrink the globe. To boost trade. To open markets, create jobs and move goods to customers.

Steep risk. Immense reward.

If you survived.

Franklin, commanding the HMS Terror and its sister ship, the HMS Erebus, had one mission: navigate the Northwest Passage. That’s the treacherous sea route that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through a Canadian jigsaw of islands and year-round heavy ice.

He didn’t make it. The disappearance of the Terror in 1848 was considered among the worst disasters in the annals of British polar exploration. For 11 years, search parties looked for the ships. Eleven years. Nothing. More recently, searchers deployed modern technology — satellite and underwater imaging — to take up the search.

In 2014, the Erebus was found.

Now, the Terror: Earlier this month, officials from the Arctic Research Foundation declared that, acting on a tip from a local Inuit hunter, they had found Franklin’s ship. It had sunk in the middle of Terror Bay (no relation to the ship). Canadian authorities say they’re working to confirm the details of the discovery.

Meanwhile, the first images from the wrecked ship have been beamed from a remotely operated vehicle that maneuvered through an open hatch into the ship.

“We have successfully entered the mess hall, worked our way into a few cabins and found the food storage room with plates and one can on the shelves,” Adrian Schimnowski, the foundation’s operations director, told the British newspaper, The Guardian. “We spotted two wine bottles, tables and empty shelving. Found a desk with open drawers with something in the back corner of the drawer.”

Tables and wine bottles, empty shelving: a frigid museum diorama, preserved for a century and a half. Finding the ship after all these years is a triumph — and a somber reminder of why the description “doomed explorer” has a familiar ring to it.

The discovery of the Terror reminded us of another Arctic adventurer, Sir Robert Falcon Scott and his 1912 trek through the Antarctic. Facing death, huddled in a tent, starving as a blizzard swirled, Scott lamented in letters to his wife that he would never be able to tell her about the details of his astonishing journey. Still, he offered gamely: “How much better it has been than lounging in comfort at home.”

Franklin’s final musings, if they exist, have not been found. Little is known for certain about what happened to the expedition. Some researchers believe that Franklin and his men escaped the icebound Terror, boarded the Erebus and sailed south in a futile attempt to find clear waters, reports. They probably survived for a while after abandoning the ships.

And the Northwest Passage? It continued to defy ships for decades. Famed Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen finally made the first sea crossing of the Passage in 1903 to 1906. It wasn’t until 1969 that the first commercial ship — the SS Manhattan — did the same.

Globalization is a cliche and, in some households, an expletive. We take for granted the easy transit of cargo and people from remote locations on the planet. We shouldn’t. A well-preserved wreck found at the bottom of Terror Bay reminds us of the price we’ve paid. The price they paid.