What I was re-reading were the proofs for Stop Me If You've Read This One, that collection of my Prairie Lite columns from my daily newspaper job in North Dakota, roughly 2005 to 2008. That may have been one of the most enjoyable jobs I ever hated, because daily newspaper work is a total grind, and I'm a tad lazy. Just a tad. I learned a lot, wrote a lot, and have not too many regrets about what I wrote.
I've attached one of the columns you'll see in "Stop Me," when it comes out toward the end of April. I was thinking of this story only last week, when I pulled out the book for another look.
Long Time No See
I broke a North Dakota rule this winter: Never read about cold during a cold winter. I read Frozen in Time, an account of the Franklin Expedition of 1845-48 send to find and map the Northwest Passage.
The Franklin Expedition came to my attention years ago, when I watched a documentary about the Royal Navy's attempt to explore islands near the Arctic Circle and find the fabled Northwest Passage. In the nineteenth century, Great Britain spread its influence globally until nothing was left to explore except the frozen north. Supremely confident, the navy planned to fill in the last blank spots on the map.
There's no more bleak place in the world than the islands of northern Canada. Few go there. In the 1840s, Inuits sometimes passed through the area in summer, but no one stayed. It was too inhospitable. Inuits were not then, and are not now, foolish.
Into this region came the ships, well-provisioned for a three-year expedition to a place everyone else had the good sense to avoid. Entering from the east, Sir John's task was to complete the mapping of the region begun earlier, and exit to the west, into the Bering Strait.
The expedition utilized a new technology: canned food. The ships carried 8,000 tins of canned goods, plenty for a three-year exploration. By the 1840s, everyone knew that lime and lemon juice would prevent scurvy, that dreadful and often-fatal disease of the deepwater sailor. The expedition had taken that into account, too. No detail was too small to escape notice.
What no one anticipated were colder than normal summers in the region. The Terror and the Erebus sailed into Lancaster Sound in 1845 and vanished. By 1847, the ships still hadn't popped out of that western end. Where were they?
In years to come, several expeditions were mounted to find Franklin and his 128 men. The rescue expeditions proved as dangerous as the initial voyage. Gradually, the story came out - how the ships were finally trapped and choked in pack ice, with what remained of the crew forced ashore, where they suffered and died. Some tried to travel to a Hudson's Bay Company post 2,000 miles away, nothing but a forlorn attempt by desperate, starving men. The shocking deaths involved cannibalism, madness, and probably enough despair to circle the earth two or three times.
In recent times, Canadian scientists took an interest in the sad story. Mounds of empty tin cans from the Franklin Expedition had been found, giving testimony to the highly probable cause of death by lead poisoning. Researchers discovered that the primitive cans were soldered in a way that allowed the lead to seep inside. Add that to scurvy, and the sailors probably never knew what hit them.
In the early 1980s, anthropologist Owen Beattie of the University of Alberta led a team of scientists to tiny Beechy Island, where three graves of Franklin Expedition members had been located years earlier. Beattie received permission to exhume the bodies of two sailors and one Royal Marine who died in that first winter of 1846, when things weren't desperate yet. Beattie needed tissue samples to test for lead content.
Over the course of several summers, Beattie and his scientists dug up those crew members, X-rayed and autopsied them right there on Beechy Island. Because they were buried below the permafrost, the corpses were in astoundingly good condition.
Here's what struck me about the whole experience. Here's what I can't forget. One of Beattie's scientists was Brian Spenceley, a great-great nephew of John Hartnell, who died January 4, 1846, and was buried on Beechy Island.
When the scientists opened Hartnell's coffin for the first time in 140 years, Spenceley looked on the body - not the skeleton - of a long-dead uncle. Hartnell's eyes were half open. In the photographs, he looked not quite alive, but not quite dead.
Beattie described the emotional experience of studying the bodies, and the extreme reverence the team used in its scientific work. When the scientists finished, the bodies were reburied carefully. Everything was replaced the way it had been, before anyone interrupted the men's long sleep on Beechy Island.
And there was Brian Spenceley, with a story no one else in the world could tell. On Beechy Island, he had the awesome privilege of gazing at someone no one else has ever seen: a truly distant relative from another era. Frozen in Time is a hard book to forget.
This morning, I looked up the book on Amazon, where it's easily purchased (I have an older edition). I wasn't surprised to note that it's now available in ebook format. You'll hardly ever read a more fascinating - if morbid - book than Frozen in Time.