THE spot Louie Kamookak most wanted to see was one he had heard of when he was seven or so. He and his family were living out on the land then, in the northernmost parts of Canada, in canvas tents, hunting seals. One bedtime his great-grandmother Hummahuk told him a story of her own childhood. Her father had taken her to the north of King William Island to get driftwood, and there on a gravel ridge they had also picked up brown things, dark things: musket balls, spoons, forks, a silver dinner knife. She also remembered a big chain, or a big rope, going from the beach into the ocean. This image intrigued young Louie even more, for at the end of such a chain there surely had to be a ship. It stayed in his head from then on.
On King William Island, just by the North-West Passage, stories abounded of the qallunaat or white men who had come looking for the fabled north route to Asia or, after failed expeditions, for each other. Sir John Franklin had led three voyages; his last, in 1845, ended in the slow loss to the ice of both his ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, and all their crews. Dozens of search parties found no trace of them. Until 2006, almost no people from the south thought to ask the Inuit about their disappearance. But Inuit elders, though they had no written history, knew of many clues.
Mr Kamookak spent his life gathering these. His method was simple. He visited local elders and listened while they spoke. Compared with tales of Amundsen, who had forced a ship through the North-West Passage in 1906, the Franklin stories were weaker, bits and pieces. A mast rising out of the sea, then a whole ship seen against the sunset. One ship sinking quickly, the other staying afloat through two winters. A party of qallunaat dragging a large boat on a sled. Desperate survivors blundering into Inuit tents, their faces black and the flesh gone from their gums. The arrival of white men had brought two of the coldest winters ever known, and cannibal spirits still haunted parts of the coast.
Words on the wind
One scene especially struck him. A hunting party had seen from a distance a ceremony involving white men and big bangs, like gunshots. It seemed to be a burial, but not in the Inuit way of leaving the body out on the land, wrapped in caribou skins, as his great-grandmother had been left. This was the burial of some shaman who, when the hunters ventured near, had turned to a slab of stone. He felt it must have been Franklin, who had died in June 1847: placed in a vault below a tall wooden structure which other Inuit had wrested from the ground for sleds, but which had probably been a cross.In the way of oral history there were no names, no dates. His next job, therefore, was to match the spoken fragments with place-names—Mercy Bay, Starvation Cove—and with texts. He had few of those, but school had got him interested in reading, and one of his grandfathers, a white man who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company, had been a Franklin searcher and written articles about him. He could start there. After a lucky meeting with Cameron Treleaven, an antiquarian bookseller from Calgary, he was sent a whole library of explorers’ accounts. His ramshackle house outside Gjoa Haven, with hot water drawn from a camping stove, also had the best internet connection in town. Here he read and read.
In the summers he also went out on his snow machine or ATV to look for traces left behind. With his trapper’s knowledge, he guided other searchers as he bounced over the rocky tundra and along the shore. He found a few tantalising things: a length of ancient, foreign rope in a circle of stones, and a shaman’s belt on which hung a rusty pair of pocket scissors. Year by year he relived the ordeal of the trudging, starving sailors and the route they might have taken southwards to grassier country, as well as a sense of where the ships had gone down. Instinct, as much as learning, led him to guide the Canadian government searchers to Erebus in 2014 and, two years later, to Terror. The official team had no idea for a while which the first ship was. With a huge grin, he knew at once: Erebus.
By this time he was himself an elder, passing on stories to the young in his deep, emphatic way, always word for word the same. Few things delighted him more than taking students out on the land in the summer, squeezing his bulky frame into a tent, eating dried fish and fried bannock (with Cheez Whiz as a favourite extra), recounting the lore of the past. Some mysteries had been solved but others remained, none more powerful than that burial of the shaman. If it was indeed Franklin it might bring fame to Gjoa Haven, and jobs for the young. It would also allow Franklin’s body to be returned to England, honouring him as an ancestor should be. He always imagined that he had been a good man.
For all his searching, he had never found the spot. But possibly his great-grandmother had. On that same journey when she had found the silver dinner knife, she had seen a mound that was the length of a human, and a stone with strange markings. The others would not go near it, or talk of it. Only her fading memory remained, in words that were blown away across the tundra. For him they were as tangible and forceful as any printed page, in any bound book.