Friday, September 3, 2010

How not to emulate Sir John Franklin

Four months ago I had never heard of Sir John Franklin, the English explorer who almost starved in the Arctic and had to eat his boots, and then returned to that hungry place seeking the Northwest Passage and instead lost his ships and died along with all his crew, and sparked a whole Search-for-Franklin Industry.
Now I find him everywhere.
It is impossible to read the history of Arctic exploration without coming upon Franklin from every direction. He is portrayed as a great explorer, or a slow methodical man, or as an egoist whose bad judgment cost many lives, or as a victim of terrible weather and shoddy lead soldering of tin cans. His second wife, Lady Jane Franklin, is however universally portrayed as loyal, grudge-bearing and tenacious to an extreme when encouraging young men to go off to their deaths in search of her long-lost husband.
Even in the Oval Office, even in the HOME section of yesterday’s New York Times, you will find Franklin, though not by name. President Obama’s desk (in his redecorated Oval Office in strikingly safe and bland colors) is called the Resolute, named for the HMS Resolute, one of the many ships that set sail from England in the mid 19th century to search for Franklin or his remains. In 1854 the Resolute was trapped in the pack ice and abandoned.
The following year, an American whaler, Captain James Buddington, rescued the ship off Cape Walsingham in the Davis Strait, which is very far north ( 66˚N) but not as far north as where your blogger will be next Monday (75˚N), and where the airstrip is so short that I will probably have to jettison my boots in order to lighten the load enough to land.
As for the Resolute, Congress bought the ship, refitted it, and sailed it back to England as a gift to Queen Victoria, who was then giving serious thought to siding with the Confederacy.
Twelve years later the old ship was dismantled and Queen Victoria had several desks made from its seaworthy planks. In 1880 she gave President Hayes this historic piece of office furniture. And it is still there, a rectangle inside an oval.

I bandied this fact to my fellow arctic travelers, assuming that they would shower me with gratitude and adulation for presenting them with yet another little-known fact. This was not the case.
“Don’t you ever go to the movies? It was in National Treasure 2. Duh.”

As we learned so poignantly from Franklin, one question we need to ask when packing for the Arctic is: Are these boots edible? How will they taste when all other options have been exhausted? When the seal blubber has been digested, when the polar bear bones have been licked clean?

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