Starvation Cove by Ted Johnson
Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea;
Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.
Westward from the Davis Strait ’tis there ’twas said to lie
The sea route to the Orient for which so many died;
Seeking gold and glory, leaving weathered, broken bones
And a long-forgotten lonely cairn of stones.
Starvation Cove is one of the most desolate places on earth. Not a tree, not so much as a hummock to punctuate the horizon in any direction. Ochre coloured shattered and weathered flagstone lies scattered about, left behind by relentless ice that attacked and receded only to attack again over the millennia.
The low shoreline of the Adelaide Peninsula is indented by the occasional shallow bay, but at one spot the elements have carved out a sheltered natural harbour, about the size of a couple of football fields. Except that there is no shelter from the bitter Arctic winds that blow across these ice-clogged expanses eleven months of the year.
Yet here, sometime after the abandoning of the Franklin Expedition’s ships Erebus and Terror in April 1848 at Victory Point on King William Island, half a dozen British sailors, an exhausted and emaciated remnant of the expedition, sailed or rowed a lifeboat into this tiny harbour, nosed up on the beach, and died.
They probably knew that they had reached the mainland of Canada, and that they had covered about 150 nautical miles toward the south and east from Victory Point. On a clear, calm day they might have seen the low-lying south coast of King William Island, about 40 kilometres to the north across Simpson Strait. Here their skeletal bodies remained, dressed in tattered navy-issue woolens, until they were discovered by Inuit, probably in the early 1850’s.
Various search parties scoured the island to the north and with help from the Inuit found artifacts and skeletons but none had found the group at what we now call Starvation Cove. The first report of its existence was picked up by Lt. Schwatka of the US Army and his 1879 sled expedition sponsored by the American Geographical Society. His expedition scribe wrote:
“…we interviewed an old man named Seeuteetuar, who had seen skeletons near the waterline in an inlet…. He had also seen papers scattered…, also knives, forks, spoons, dishes and cans. There was no sled, but there was a boat which was broken up and taken away by the natives, with which to manufacture wooden implements….”
Schwatka visited the cove in June, but found it still covered with snow. He returned later in the summer when the snow was gone, erected a monument and buried the pathetic remains.
In the course of planning our 1998 Back River canoe trip, we learned that the plane that would pick us up at the mouth of the river at the end of our trip would then have to continue north to Gjoa Haven on King William Island to refuel for the long flight back to its base at Baker Lake. Starvation Cove lay close to the planned route. We pounced. Would the plane be able to land on the beach at the Cove, we asked. “We’ll give it our best shot.” came the answer from Ptarmigan Airways.
The day of our pick-up couldn’t have been better; warm, no wind, not a cloud, nor a speck of ice as far as the eye could see. We lifted off from the sandbar where we had ended our paddling and hedge-hopped across the flat and surprisingly verdant barrens, spooking white Whistling swans in almost every tundra pond.
Our pilot knew his stuff. After circling above the cove to scout out a possible landing site, he put the Twin Otter down on the curved sloping gravel beach without a hitch.
We emerged to spend the next hour and a half wandering, looking for some sign of the tragedy that had unfolded there, and for Schwatka’s monument. Himself a Franklin buff, the pilot stuck with us carrying a high-powered rifle against the possibility of a bear attack. A vertebra and some weather-bleached ribs were dismissed by Bill Williams (our expedition doctor) as caribou bones.
The only evidence of human activity were scattered pieces of lumber from a small plywood cabin – a long abandoned Inuit hunting camp – that appeared to have been torn apart by the wind or possibly bears.
Then someone shouted “What’s this?” We gathered around a cluster of what looked like old, extra-thick, symmetric, patio stones half-buried in a line over what is probably a multi-person grave. Certainly not natural, and highly unlikely to have been placed there by Inuit. Although there was no apparent evidence of writing, no message carved in stone, we came away almost certain that this is the last resting place of the sailors who died there a century and a half before.
Indeed, as we stood about the grave for a moment’s respectful silence on that pleasant August day of 1998, one of our group reminded us that it might have been 150 years to the day that they arrived at Starvation Cove.
We could find no sign of Schwatka’s monument, at least the kind of grave marker we would expect to find in the south. Perhaps it was toppled and scattered by the elements or by passers-by. Or perhaps these low-lying slabs are it. Whatever the case, we were privileged to visit one of the most remote historic sites in Canada.