LONDON -- It is described as "one of the greatest calamities to befall the nation." It produced the most vexing and enduring mystery in the history of Arctic exploration.
The catastrophe befell Sir John Franklin and the crews of his two ships, the Terror and Erebus, 129 men in all. They sailed from here in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage through the Arctic to the Pacific and Asia. The remains of six men were all that was ever found, though dozens of of expeditions have searched for them.
The ships were never located.
Now two men think they have solved the mystery, Lt. E. C. Coleman of the Royal Navy, and Wayne Davidson, a Canadian weather forecaster from the high Arctic village of Resolute.
This summer they will return together to two places. Each man has his own interpretation of how the disaster played itself out. Each is guided by his own experience: knowledge of the time-honored procedures of the Royal Navy in Lieutenant Coleman's case; a familiarity with the Inuit lore in Mr. Davidson's.
Their motives are different. Lieutenant Coleman wants to find Franklin because it seems fitting to him that a fellow Royal Navy officer should do so. Mr. Davidson is acting on behalf of the large family of the Inuit, which he has joined through marriage. Neither he nor his wife, who takes part in the search, has any deep admiration for the lost English explorer or sympathy for the enterprise he personified: the opening and exploitation of the Arctic by whites.
They are trying to achieve honor and credence for the collective memory of the people who inhabited the Arctic almost since before history began, who dwelled in, visited, named all the places white men later "discovered" and named after their own kind.
In Victorian times, locating the remains of Sir John Franklin was a romantic quest, fired by the spirit of adventure and exploration that suffused that age and by the immense respect for him in the Royal Navy. The Admiralty offered a $100,000 reward, which would be worth nearly $1.5 million today. Forty expeditions, over a decade, went on the search.
The Royal Navy declared Franklin dead in March 1854, after an employee of Hudson's Bay Company,Dr. John Rae, said Inuits told him they had seen white men walking on King William Island, then later found their bodies. Dr. Rae bought a small silver tray from them with Franklin's name engraved on it.
After the Navy gave up, Lady Jane Franklin, the admiral's wife (he was promoted posthumously), financed private expeditions. One of them, led by Capt. Leopold M'Clintock, found a note in a cairn on King William Island. The note, written by a crew member, said Franklin had died on June 11, 1847.
It also said their two ships had become locked in the multiyear ice in Victoria Strait nine months earlier, off King William Island. After Franklin's death, Capt. Francis Crozier, the second-in-command, took over and almost a year later, on April 22, 1848, abandoned the trapped ships.
Bones left behind
He and the 105 remaining crew are thought to have trekked down the island. The last sign of them, some bones and remnants of a ship's boat, were found at Starvation Cove, on the lip of North America across Simpson's Strait from King William Island.
But these were unidentifiable. Of the six members of the expedition identified, three were buried on Beechey Island, and the bones of three others were found on King William Island.
The fervor for finding Franklin and his ships, or determining what happened to them, has continued through the years for a small but ever-renewing group of explorers, archaeologists, historians and Arctic scientists.
The adventure has also become imbedded in the oral histories of the Inuit. Their stories, never given much credence by Europeans in the past, might finally unravel the mystery of Franklin's calamitous encounter in the north.
"The best thing that could come of this," said Mr. Davidson, "is to show what the Inuit are capable of. . . . Their stories could complete the history of the Arctic."
Mr. Davidson will be returning to a place he visited in May, where he said he found evidence of a European camp. He is sure it is a Franklin site.
"The Inuit for a long time knew about the site near omanek [a heart-shaped place]," he said. "It includes ship's masts standing up from the ground, some cut down or burned for fuel."
The Inuit kept the location secret, he said. "Some of them still believe there is a prize. It took me quite a time to convince them that though there may be some money in the find, the Queen of England was not going to give them ten thousand pounds."
Lieutenant Coleman is kind of a latter-day Victorian himself, with a spade-shaped beard, a voice that is a friendly drum and a manifest sense of English rectitude and exceptionalism. He is 50, a recruiting officer for the Royal Navy in Lincoln.
It occurred to him a few years back while writing a book on the Royal Navy that it would be a good and glorious thing if Franklin were to be found by a fellow Royal Navy officer.
Lieutenant Coleman first ventured into the Arctic in the summer of 1990 when he tried, but failed, to cross King William Island south to north with two Inuit guides. On that visit he realized, "I was the first Royal Navy officer up there since 1859," the year of M'Clintock's expedition.
He returned last year and was deposited by helicopter on the northwest shore of King William Island.
This is one of the bleaker places in the world, given to sudden temperature shifts and freezing fogs. It is low-lying, spotted with millions of small lakes and ponds. One does not walk across it so much as pick one's way along, avoiding the swampy muskeg.
With no prominent landmarks, it is easy to get lost, which Lieutenant Coleman did three times. Compasses are thrown off by the proximity to the north magnetic pole. "Often the needle would point to my rifle," he recalled.
He ran out of food and spent six days in an enforced fast before he was finally taken off in a small plane. He was on King William Island from July 16 to Aug. 11.
While there, he came across two mounds near Cape Felix on the northwest tip of the island, about 15 miles north of where Captain Crozier fled his ships for the land. These, he believes, were made by men who formed them by scraping up the shallow earth that covers the Arctic permafrost. They were then covered with stones.
"The mounds are between 90 to 100 feet long, and about 15 feet high," he said. "They are made of soil in a place where there is little else but rock."
Lieutenant Coleman believes the mounds would be the kind of tombs Captain Crozier would have built. He came from Northern Ireland, where such formations are common, for this was how the ancient Celts buried their dead. Lieutenant Coleman also reasons Crozier created these because they would be recognized for what they are by other searchers from Ireland or Britain, but not by the Inuits.
When Lieutenant Coleman returns to King William Island later this summer, two people from Britain's Scott Polar Research Institute will be with him, Maria Pia Casarini, a biographer of Lady Jane Franklin, and the Arctic scientist Peter Wadhams, former director of that prestigious institute in Cambridge. Both are positively disposed toward Lieutenant Coleman's theory.
Also on the expedition will be James Savelle, an archaeologist from Quebec's McGill University; Pierre Sauvadet, of the Polar Society of France; Mr. Davidson; and Dr. Clive Holland, a historian at Scott Polar.
They will examine the mounds with ground-penetrating radar.
After the expedition completes its work on King William Island, it will go to the Davidson site. This is somewhere on a direct line north between King William Island and Resolute.
Mr. Davidson is supported by Dr. Holland. The historian said that in addition to ships' masts, Mr. Davidson has found rows of rock pillars, about hand-high, at his site. These, he said, "are the same as many other Europeans did in the [the dark of the] Arctic winter. You had to follow a rope suspended between pillars to find your way back to the ship. They are not an Inuit thing."
Dr. Holland and Mr. Davidson reason that after Crozier ordered the 105 men off the ice-locked ships, they disbanded, with some moving north, possibly in hopes of running into whalers operating in the open straits. "There is precedent for this kind of dispersal in British Arctic exploration," Dr. Holland said, "to maximize the chances for survival."
Mr. Davidson will not say where he will be taking the expedition. And he is cagey about what he hopes to find.
The first time he went there, in May, "there was just too much snow on the ground," he said. But sometimes he gives himself away. Either that or his imagination gets the best of him.
"I believe Franklin is dead in his ship," he said. "He was left in it. The ship is the biggest, the toughest mystery."
Then, in an offhand manner, he added: "I think we've found it, by the way."