Arctic Passage

PBS Airdate: February 28, 2006
Go to the companion Web site

Welcome to the future. PBS digital.

NARRATOR: It was the most ambitious expedition of its day.

One of Britain's most renowned explorers, Sir John Franklin, and 133 officers and crew set off to conquer the most perilous waterway in the world. Their mission: to be the first to sail from the Atlantic to the Pacific through Canada's icy Northwest Passage.

FRANCIS SPUFFORD: It felt as if it was the domain of death, the far limits of what humans could do.

NARRATOR: This was the holy grail of Arctic exploration and it should have been the British Navy's ultimate achievement.

But instead, two great ships with the best 19th century technology headed into the polar ice and seemed to vanish.

For 150 years the reason for the loss of the Franklin Expedition remained a mystery.

Now, a team of investigators has uncovered an extraordinary trail of clues that raises troubling new questions. Could it be that the men actually survived the ice only to turn on each other?

ANNE KEENLEYSIDE: I think this evidence is strongly suggestive of cannibalism among these Franklin crew members

NARRATOR: What was it that wiped out one of the most technologically advanced expeditions in 300 years of polar exploration?

The story of the Franklin expedition can finally be told.

Arctic Passage: Prisoners of the Ice. Right now, on NOVA.

What would you ask an oil company?

What is being done to make us less reliant on oil? That's a question. Um, if we're going to keep our dependency on oil primarily for the coming years, the initial future years, where's it coming from?

Google is proud to support NOVA in the search for knowledge. Google.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute serving society through biomedical research and science education. HHMI.

And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

NARRATOR: A spring morning in 1845. At the offices of the British Admiralty Sir John Franklin, a seasoned naval Captain, receives final orders before setting off on a daring voyage of exploration.

OFFICIAL: "Now Sir John, this is the plan . . ."

NARRATOR: His destination the Northwest Passage—one of the last unexplored waterways in the world and perhaps the most perilous.

OFFICIAL: "And then attempt to turn south or southwest into these uncharted waters. We have every faith in you, Sir John."

NARRATOR: At this time, the only way to reach Asia is to make an arduous journey around Cape Horn—a trip that can take six months.

The British believe that there is a shortcut—a passage through Northern Canada that may shave months off the trip.

But after 300 years of trying to penetrate the Arctic ice, no ship has ever sailed all the way through.

JOHN FALKINGHAM: It's a puzzle, it's a matrix, like a maze; the winds are blowing the ice around, the currents are pushing the ice. And for a ship to traverse that was next to impossible.

NARRATOR: This expedition will be the19th attempt by the British Navy to punch through the passage. And this time they're pulling out all the stops.

John Franklin is one of Britain's most experienced Arctic explorers.

At age 59, he may be too old for such a voyage. But finding the passage has been his lifelong dream, and his wife, Lady Jane Franklin, has given him her blessing.

SIR JOHN FRANKLIN: "Helmsman! South-southwest thirty degrees, please."

NARRATOR: He and his second, Francis Crozier—another veteran explorer, will lead the largest and most technologically advanced Arctic expedition ever mounted: 134 men on board The Terror and the Erebus, a pair of modified warships.

Already among the sturdiest in the fleet, each has been radically altered for duty in the Arctic.

Shipwrights reinforced their superstructures. And added iron plates to the bow. They installed a locomotive steam engine turning a screw-shaped propeller—a new invention that will allow the ships to power through the ice as never before.

BENEDICT ALLEN: You can sense the extraordinary confidence of people who'd push back the frontiers of nature, through the glories of the industrial revolution, this might that they suddenly had at their disposal. And so they built up this force of two great ships reinforced by steel, and this would be their fortress.

NARRATOR: Also on board a new technology designed to eliminate the hunger and sickness that often plagued long voyages. A 19th century invention that promised to feed the men as if they were back in London -- canned food.

SIR JOHN FRANKLIN: "We will never starve again. It will nourish us through winter, spring, and summer."

NARRATOR: On an earlier Arctic expedition Franklin and his crew had to hunt and scavenge for nourishment. Eight of them died of starvation and he himself barely survived.

SIR JOHN FRANKLIN: "We scraped lichen off rocks and boiled it up with scrag ends and bits of bones—Arctic potage!"

NARRATOR: The story of his brush with death earned him a wry nickname: "the man who ate his boots."

But this time out he intended to keep his shoe leather on his feet. So they loaded the ships with more than 30,000 pounds of fresh meat and vegetables preserved in cans. This would be the first expedition to rely so completely on this revolutionary food source.

Each night Franklin and his officers could look forward to a proper meal served at his well-appointed Captain's table.

And for the men, solid food and plenty of diversions, including an organ and a library of more than 1000 books.

RUSSELL POTTER: The great quantity of material may have seemed frivolous, but it was really a matter of survival. If you didn't give the men something to do if you didn't keep them occupied there was just no way they were going to survive the rigors of an extended Arctic voyage.

NARRATOR: The two ships set sail from London in May of 1845.

According to reports filed by Franklin in July, both ships made an uneventful crossing and docked in Greenland to take on additional supplies.

From there five men returned to England and others posted letters home.

A young Lieutenant, James Fitz-James wrote to his brother's family praising Franklin.

LIEUTENANT JAMES FITZ-JAMES: "You have no idea how happy we all feel. We are very fond of Sir John. He is anything but nervous and fidgety. He is full of life and energy and kindness. We will toast his health when we reach the other side. Everyone believes we will make it through in a season, though I hope that we are forced to stay at least one winter in the ice."

NARRATOR: On July 28, 1845, the expedition passed a British whaling ship as they headed into the passage. The captain of that vessel reported that Franklin's men were in high spirits, confident that they were about to make history.

In the end, the expedition would be remembered not for its discoveries, but for the disaster it would become when the ships sailed into the polar ice never to return.

When the first winter passed with no word from the men The Admiralty was not worried.

But when the second winter passed Lady Jane Franklin began to urge the Royal Navy to send a search party.

LADY JANE FRANKLIN: "Now if an expedition were to leave this spring, it would give them the opportunity to search the route that my husband was instructed to follow."

NARRATOR: Franklin's superiors dismissed her concerns, believing that the men could survive for at least 3 years in the ice. But as the third winter approached, the Navy's confidence began to waver and in 1848 the first of many search parties left England for the passage. The Royal Navy also offered the staggering sum of 20,000 pounds for the rescue of the crew.

By now, the apparent failure of the expedition was the talk of London. And it shocked Victorian England to the core.

In three centuries of polar exploration, no expedition of this size had ever been lost. More than any other, this attempt should have succeeded. The men had every advantage. What could have happened? Were the ships crushed by the ice? Was the crew struck down by some disease? The Royal Navy even feared that the men might have been attacked by the Inuit, whom they viewed as savages.

For 150 years, the cause of the disaster remained a mystery.

But a century-old collection of artifacts, historical weather reports, and even forensic evidence are providing new clues.

RUSSELL POTTER: It's amazing that we can tell this story at all. It's so fragmentary, the evidence so scattered. It's taken a tremendous amount of work; different people working in different disciplines to piece this puzzle together. And as we have done so, as the picture of what really happened has begun to emerge we've realized what they couldn't, and that's that they were basically doomed from the start.

NARRATOR: The first hint that the Franklin expedition carried the seeds of its own destruction was a discovery made in 1850 on Beechey Island—a rocky little outcropping just 300 miles into the Passage. Today there's a tiny Inuit community called Resolute nearby. But in Franklin's day the area was an uninhabited wasteland.

For Historian Russell Potter, Beechey Island remains a vital link to the past and still holds important clues.

RUSSELL POTTER: Ever since I first heard the Franklin story and just grasped the sense of the tragedy there, Beechey Island has been the magnet for me—the one place where you could stand and know that you were standing in Franklin's footsteps.

NARRATOR: Today, he's making the long and difficult trip to the place where the abandoned remains of a campsite once stood.

RUSSELL POTTER: They found signs that tents had been erected, a place where a smithy or anvil had been set up, even some attempt to build a garden up on the shingle.

NARRATOR: As the first winter approached and the sea turned to ice, Franklin apparently anchored his ships at Beechey Island. The men then spread out onto the land where they spent at least 7 months waiting for the summer thaw. Some of the telling items found at Beechey include hundreds of empty food cans, a chronometer, a pair of snow knives, and a pair gloves left out as if to dry in the sun.

But searchers also found something disturbing. A row of graves belonging to three men who were members of Franklin's crew.

RUSSELL POTTER: Thus sayeth the Lord of Hosts, consider your ways. Sitting here with these graves we know they were here. Just a very, very haunting and haunted place.

NARRATOR: The original headstones, which have since been replaced, did not note the cause of death. But the most common killer on long voyages was scurvy—a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency. However, the expedition carried 9300 pounds of lemon juice to ward off the disease, leaving historians to wonder if some new killer was at work, something that could have caused the loss, not only of these three men, but of the entire expedition.

JOHN GEIGER: At Beechey Island you have the remains of three members of the expedition and almost certainly preserved remains so that this opens up the possibility of understanding the medical reasons behind the disaster.

NARRATOR: No modern investigator examined the graves until 1984 when the Canadian government gave permission to a team of forensic scientists to exhume the bodies.

The scientists hoped that the corpses would be well preserved by the ice but nothing prepared them for what they uncovered.

JOHN GEIGER: It was such a profoundly moving experience and also one of shock, really, or amazement, that these sailors from the last century—there they were. You could see their eye lashes you could see their eye color, you can get a sense almost of the personality of these characters.

It's as if they had stepped forward in time to sort of answer very important questions that needed to be asked.

NARRATOR: At the gravesite, the forensic team performed autopsies and discovered that the men had died of tuberculosis. It was a common and deadly disease of the day but not virulent enough to wipe out the entire crew.

To Franklin, the loss of these young men may have been upsetting but not necessarily alarming. For a group of this size traveling through such harsh conditions, cut off from civilization, some loss of life was nearly inevitable.

If anything, the large number of empty food cans found at the campsite suggested that most of the men were surviving and had made it safely through that first winter.

But searchers were puzzled by the number of usable items left behind. It suggested that the men had departed suddenly. What could have caused them to abandon the camp in a hurry? Perhaps they had no choice.

JOHN FALKINGHAM: If there's any explanation to why Franklin had to take off so quickly without leaving any notes behind, the ice was maybe blown tight against Beechey Island, and he was waiting and waiting. And then all of a sudden the winds turned around and the ice moved off to the south. If he saw that one opening he'd want to grab it right away, that was his escape.

NARRATOR: The ice would have been their main worry. So the minute he had the opportunity, Franklin would have hoisted anchor and headed deeper into the passage. And that's where later expeditions made a series of troubling discoveries—evidence that Franklin and his men had become stuck once more in the ice.

John Graves has a unique window on the Franklin mystery. He oversees a collection of Franklin artifacts recovered from the Arctic now preserved at the National Maritime Museum in London.

This mysterious trail of personal effects once lay scattered over hundreds of miles of ice and snow and were recovered throughout the 1850s.

JOHN GRAVES: There was this succession of search expeditions that went out to the Arctic looking for Franklin and his crew. Little by little they started to bring back some of the artifacts you see here. And basically it's all we have, really, to try and piece together what happened to Franklin and his men.

NARRATOR: The first group of items in the collection were discovered by Dr. John Rae in 1854. He was a Canadian explorer on a surveying mission. Traveling overland, he encountered a group of Inuit who had in their possession several small objects that Rae realized must have belonged to the missing expedition.

JOHN GRAVES: They include these two pieces from a telescope, this small wooden container, this brass match case, a pocket knife with a bone handle and this small leather working tool.

NARRATOR: This wasn't cast-off garbage like most of the debris found at Beechey Island. These were personal items that Franklin's men would not have discarded willingly.

JOHN GRAVES: These items recovered from the Inuit was the first hint that something terrible had happened to the Franklin expedition.

NARRATOR: The Inuit told Rae that that they had seen ships trapped in the ice and white men on foot walking south. But Rae couldn't figure out where they'd seen the men. They had no maps and their directions seemed vague.

But that wasn't the worst of it. The Inuit also told Rae that some of the men had turned to what they called "the last resource"—cannibalism.

In England, the report was not well-received.

JOHN GRAVES: The Admiralty, frankly, refused to believe the Inuit testimony. It was thinking the unthinkable, basically, and so subsequent, such expeditions were dispatched to try and uncover the truth.

NARRATOR: By the time of Rae's discovery, almost ten years had passed since Franklin left England. The Admiralty had privately concluded that there was no hope of ever finding survivors. But Lady Jane Franklin remained determined and she financed search parties of her own.

Then, in 1858, Leopold McClintock, one of the men she hired to search for her husband, landed on King William Island, where he and his men made two important discoveries. The first: an abandoned boat. The boat had been mounted on a sled and was rigged with harnesses for pulling by the men. It was loaded with equipment and personal effects. And a pair of skeletons.

The second find lay 20 miles farther up the coast of the island: a written note protected by a metal can and placed inside a carefully constructed pile of stones called a cairn. A single page that gave haunting testimony as to the fate of the men.

RUSSELL POTTER: It began with the standard admiralty form, the message "all well Sir John Franklin commanding."

NARRATOR: It was dated May of 1847 and it noted that the ships had been stuck in the ice since September of 1846. The current position was given as 70 degrees North, 98 degrees West, the northern tip of King William Island. Apparently, this is where the expedition had ground to a halt.

Franklin had probably sailed west from Beechey for about 75 miles before turning south into a channel called Peel Sound, which led to King William Island.

For Franklin, these were uncharted waters. But he and the Royal Navy believed that this route to the south was the key to the passage.

Peel Sound opens into a network of channels that eventually leads all the way to the Bering Strait and the Pacific Ocean.

JOHN FALKINGHAM: To Franklin, that would have been a very, very tempting route to take, particularly if it was open, free of ice. And Peel Sound, we know today, is very, very changeable from year to year. One year it can be completely wide open, another year it can be choked up with ice so that it's impassable even by modern ships.

NARRATOR: What Franklin didn't know is that polar ice funnels down from the North through what is now called McClintock Channel—eventually piling up at the southern end of Peel Sound.

Franklin couldn't see that icy impasse when he turned south. But once he ran into it, he may have been unable to escape.

JOHN FALKINGHAM: At the bottom end, at the south end of Peel Sound, is where he runs into that huge stream of Arctic Ocean polar ice. That is probably where he met his demise.

NARRATOR: At the South end of Peel Sound, the ice may simply have outflanked the Erebus and the Terror. At least that's what an addition to the note found on King William Island indicated.

RUSSELL POTTER: Around that message in the margins was written a second far more disturbing message.

NARRATOR: Dated 1848—more than a year after the original note was written, Francis Crozier, the captain of the Terror added in the margin that the ships were still trapped in the ice in the same location.

They hadn't moved in nearly two years. What had gone wrong? Usually the polar ice melts during the summer. Could it be that this time, the ice simply didn't melt?

JOHN FALKINGHAM: The nightmare scenario is that I'm never going to get out of this ice. I'm facing another long winter. It's going to get dark. It's going to get very cold. And here I am out on this ice that's still moving around. I don't know where this ice is carrying me.

NARRATOR: No previous polar expedition had ever reported a summer so cold that the ice didn't break up.

That anomaly puzzled polar scientist Roy Koerner. Recently, he set out to learn just what kind of weather Franklin had to contend with during that fateful year. Koerner and his team regularly drill down into the Arctic ice cap, retrieving samples that they can use to understand temperature patterns from other eras.

At most latitudes, ice is impermanent. But north of the Arctic circle, it tends to hang around. Even for thousands of years.

Koerner retrieved a sample from more than 100 meters below the surface. By counting ice layers and by analyzing the chemical content of the core, he zeroed in on a section that he could date back to the late 1840s. He hoped it might be able to tell him more about the conditions that Franklin's men faced.

ROY KOERNER: The reason ice cores give the history of the climate in the past is that everything that happens on the surface is preserved as the ice gets buried. If the surface of the snow melts, the water percolates down and it forms these ice layers. The more it melts the more ice layers and the thicker the ice layers.

NARRATOR: Koerner found that within the 1840s ice core there was simply no sign of the transparent ice layers that form when snow melts.

Koerner had once before seen another ice core like this, dated from the early 1970s. In that case he had actual weather reports to compare it to and he learned that the ice from the '70s had formed during a very cold period of almost permanent winter.

ROY KOERNER: The point to make on this core is the absolute near absence of any signs of melting whatsoever, none of those clear layers at all. Just bubbly ice that is formed from compression of snow that doesn't melt in the summer.

NARRATOR: The finding convinced him that Franklin faced similar conditions when much of the sea ice had not melted at all.

For an expedition hoping to sail the passage with 19th century technology, the conditions would have been deadly.

ROY KOERNER: If it's a cold summer that ice isn't going to go out and open up. The channels are ice-infested still. The ships that they used in those days; they don't have the power to get through even modest ice.

NARRATOR: Koerner's evidence confirmed that Franklin and his men had encountered freak weather conditions—more severe than previous explorers had ever reported. Worse than that, Koerner's ice core showed that this period of extreme cold likely lasted for five long years.

This terrible run of bad luck trapped the men in the wilderness. But there was even worse news.

Also written in the margin of the note another entry read: "Sir John Franklin died on the 11th of June 1847." It continued: "The total loss by deaths in the expedition has been to this date 9 officers and 15 men." They were still living on their ships and probably had plenty of food, but a mysterious killer now stalked their ranks.

CREW MEMBER: "They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters, these see the works of the Lord and his wonders in the deep, for he commandeth and raiseth the stormy wind which lifteth up the waves thereof. They mount up to the heaven. They go down again to the depths. Their soul melteth away because of trouble. They reel to and fro and stagger like a drunken man..."

RUSSELL POTTER: It's clear from everything we know he was a beloved commander. He'd been in the Arctic before and only one other officer had. I think that his presence was a tremendous reassurance to everyone there and his loss would have been a terrific blow.

CREW MEMBER: " that the waves thereof are still. Then are they glad because they are quiet."

NARRATOR: Sir John Franklin died even before the first search expeditions left England. In that year Lady Jane continued to write poignant letters to her missing husband, unaware that she was already a widow.

LADY JANE FRANKLIN: "I desire nothing but to cherish the remainder of your days, however injured and broken your health may be. I live in you my dearest."

NARRATOR: Three years after the expedition left England, the commander and 20% of the 128-man crew lay dead. Already it was one of the deadliest disasters in the history of polar exploration.

The final entry on the note said that the men had abandoned the safety of their ships and were now walking south.

In that brief note, second in command Francis Crozier testified to a terrible truth. The expedition lay in ruins and the chances of anyone getting out alive were rapidly fading.

FRANCIS SPUFFORD: The whole plan for traversing the Northwest Passage, depended on being able to sail through it. They didn't have a plan for getting away, except by sailing out. They didn't have, for example, lightweight sledges adapted to the terrain. All they had was what was on the ship, that lavish factory full of Victorian contrivances and-and good ideas.

NARRATOR: The boat they'd converted into a sled was filled with the crew's personal possessions as it was later found by a search party led by Leopold McClintock. It's estimated to have weighed a staggering 1,400 pounds.

After three years marooned in the Arctic, dying one-by-one, their overland escape attempt must have been an act of desperation. The nearest outpost lay 600 miles to the south—a daunting distance to travel by foot especially with so much gear in tow.

RUSSELL POTTER: This boatload of strange relics of Victorian culture. The Vicar of Wakefield, prayer books, The New Testament in French, carpet slippers, chocolate, tea, button polishers, buttons, silver plate and utensils. All of the detritus of this inner culture of the ships that they'd tried to take with them.

BENEDICT ALLEN: You can imagine these people desperately wanting to carry their precious world with them. But everything they trusted was now going to become not an advantage but a problem so that they were burdened now by their numbers, they were burdened now by the weight of their stores, and above all burdened by the fact that they didn't know what to do with the land they were now suddenly totally dependent on.

NARRATOR: It would have been murderously difficult to haul such a heavy load through the snow. At some point, they apparently abandoned it on the west coast of King William Island, and it's there that the trail of clues runs out.

RUSSELL POTTER: Based on this trail of evidence the Admiralty decided that Franklin's men had simply starved to death trying to walk out of the wilderness, and for more than a century that was the official narrative. But there were eye-witnesses, as it turns out, people who actually saw Franklin's men in this last extremity and their story is quite different from the official Admiralty version.

NARRATOR: In 1869, an American journalist, Charles Francis Hall, found these eyewitness when he spent five years in the Canadian Arctic, often living with Inuit families.

CHARLES FRANCIS HALL: "Can you ask him where these people came from, what direction they were walking from?"

NARRATOR: He met dozens of indigenous people who retained detailed memories of Franklin's crew and their ships.

Hall carefully recorded their testimony. But once again, it was discounted by the British, who considered the Inuit to be unreliable.

Russell Potter has made a new study of Hall's notebooks, digging them out of an archive at the Smithsonian where they'd been hidden away for more than 100 years.

RUSSELL POTTER: Hall was just a very diligent man. He trusted the Inuit. He believed in their stories. He carefully corroborated one story with another to try to see how accurate that was likely to be. It matches very well with the physical evidence we have. It really is a highly accurate and amazingly well preserved oral tradition.

NARRATOR: The Inuit told of an abandoned camp. A tent place, as Hall translated it.

And it was a grisly site.

RUSSELL POTTER: They gave him a very vivid description of this place. They had seen tents on the land, bodies inside the tents, abandoned equipment.

NARRATOR: The Inuit placed the location of the camp somewhere on King William Island—the same island where the abandoned boat and the note had been discovered.

They described the bodies they saw there. The said that the faces were black - a symptom of frostbite. They also said that the insides of the men's mouths were black as well. And that could only mean one thing. Three years into their Arctic journey, scurvy was ravaging the men.

The British Navy had long known that lemon juice could stave off the disease. But what they didn't know is that the active ingredient, Vitamin C, loses its potency over time. By 1848 the men would have begun to suffer the terrible effects of the disease.

DR. SUNDEEP DHILLON: The first symptoms of scurvy are a sort of a general lassitude and a weakness and it mainly effects the gums. They become swollen, they become purple, the slightest touch means they bleed very, very easily. As it develops, the bleeding goes on everywhere, you can get bleeding into your eyes. You get bleeding into your muscles and this is particularly painful. The main muscle that you are using to try and pull this sled through the snow and you've got this agonizing bleeding into the muscles and into the joints, so it would have just slowly but horrendously killed them.

NARRATOR: The men would have recognized the symptoms of scurvy. But they wouldn't have recognized the symptoms of an even more insidious illness that may have been affecting them.

While performing autopsies on the three young sailors buried on Beechey Island, the investigators also removed hair and bone tissue for later analysis.

In a Canadian laboratory scientists found something surprising in those samples. Levels of lead 6 to 10 times higher than normal. Enough to cause severe lead poisoning.

Where did it come from?

Some suggested that the lead levels could have been caused by the industrial air pollution of Victorian England. But Anne Keenleyside, a Canadian anthropologist, decided to examine the evidence from a new angle.

First, Keenleyside's test confirmed the extraordinary levels of lead in the bodies.

ANNE KEENLEYSIDE: They were so high that these individuals would have almost certainly been suffering from serious physiological and neurological problems.

NARRATOR: Then, using a process called X-ray fluorescence, she discovered the lead concentration was higher in soft, spongy bones than in other places in the body. It was a vital clue because soft bones like the vertebrae, regenerate themselves every few years.

ANNE KEENLEYSIDE: These individuals were exposed to this lead over a fairly recent period of time before their death. So this was short-term exposure, from some source on the expedition.

NARRATOR: Based on her finding, researchers took another look at the clues found at Beechey. They found that the food cans had been sealed with solder—a soft metal compound that contains lead. Chemical analysis showed that the lead in the cans matched the lead found in the bodies.

JOHN GEIGER: It was like a fingerprint that was found in the bodies in the organs, in the tissues, in the bone and that was the smoking gun.

NARRATOR: Apparently the lead had contaminated the food, causing lead poisoning—a deadly illness. Symptoms include fatigue, confusion, and paranoia. Not enough by itself to cause death, but if the men were weakened by illness, the poison would have been a devastating complication.

JOHN GEIGER: When you combine lead and scurvy you suddenly have this tag team undermining the health of the crewmen. It really was a recipe for a mass disaster.

NARRATOR: And the key ingredient in that recipe? The very technology that was meant to keep them alive.

SIR JOHN FRANKLIN: "We will never starve again. It will nourish us through winter, spring, and summer."

NARRATOR: In the autumn of 1848, the 4th winter in the Arctic, the window for escape was rapidly closing.

As the men became weakened by hunger and disease the bonds between them began to unravel.

RUSSELL POTTER: It's clear from the Inuit testimony that at this point the traditional discipline is beginning to break down. The men are separating into different groups, possibly hostile to one another. Some are heading back to the ships, some camped on the land, some walking out by their own directions. None of them under the traditional central command that the Navy would expect. It's really the beginning of the end for them, everyone is trying to find their own solution.

That breakdown in morale was starkly apparent from Inuit testimony describing an incident that took place on a one of the ship still trapped in the ice off the coast of King William Island.

An elderly woman reported to Hall that a man from her village had come upon a group of survivors on board that vessel.

INNUIT WOMAN: "The Inuit went to the ship all alone. He said there were men there. He said they had black faces, black hands, black clothes on, were black all over. This Inuit was very alarmed because they would not let him get away. Then a captain came out of the cabin and put a stop to it."

CAPTAIN: "Leave him!"

INNUIT WOMAN: "Then the Captain took this Inuit down with him into his cabin. He told him to look over to the land where there are men living in a big tent. He said neither the Inuit nor any of his people must ever go there."

CAPTAIN: "You must not go there! You must go, go, go. Do not come here!"

NARRATOR: The Inuit were not told why some of the men were living separately but in 1994, human bone fragments discovered on King William Island suggested one chilling possibility.

Ann Keenleyside tested these bones as well and found that they also contained lead from the food supply, linking them to the Franklin Expedition. Then she examined the surface of the bones under a powerful electron microscope.

ANNE KEENLEYSIDE: We saw very distinct cut marks. These were quite different from animal tooth marks. These look like very definite cut marks as if they were made by some kind of a knife or metal blade.

NARRATOR: Keenleyside then plotted the pattern of the cut marks on a skeleton.

ANNE KEENLEYSIDE: A lot of the cuts were located in the vicinity of the joints. Some of the bones that would have been covered by a lot of flesh or soft tissue. We also found cuts, interestingly, in the bones of the hands and feet. And the hands and the feet are probably the most human aspects of the body apart from the face. And the fact that we were finding cuts in those locations suggested to me that perhaps these individuals were intentionally removing those more human aspects of the body. I think this evidence is strongly suggestive of cannibalism among these Franklin crewmembers. I don't see any other possible explanation that would account for those cut marks.

NARRATOR: Keenleyside's tests finally corroborated the Inuit accounts of cannibalism, recorded both by the Canadian surveyor, John Rae, and the American Journalist, Charles Hall—the same testimony despised and discounted by the British for over a century.

According to other Inuit eyewitnesses, not all of the men stayed on or near the ships. In Hall's records are the words of two elderly Inuit called Takita and Owa who described an encounter with a small band of men walking south on the polar ice.

INUIT MAN: "We were out sealing when we saw something on the ice. As they drew nearer we realized it was white men. They asked us for food."

CREW MEMBER: "Can you help us? We need food—"

INNUIT MAN: "The officer also signaled that two ships lay in the ice to the north. Then he made the motion of falling sideways, whistling and blowing. It was the sound of a ship being crushed in the ice."

CREW MEMBER: "They are broken. We are very hungry."

NARRATOR: The Inuit stayed for the night and gave the men some seal meat. But they were on a hunting expedition and had to leave the next day.

INNUIT MAN: "Early next morning we set off. Their leader tried to make us stop. But we were in a hurry and did not know the men were starving."

CREW MEMBER: "Stop! Stop! Stop!"

RUSSELL POTTER: The Inuit simply packed up and left. But when you think about it that seems like a terrible thing but it's really an act of self- preservation. There's no way that a small band of Inuit, even the most skilled hunters, could have kept alive30 starving men in the middle of that landscape. There just wasn't enough food even for their own families. They didn't really have any choice.

NARRATOR: In recent years, a few skeletal remains have turned up along a thirty-mile stretch of King William Island.

These bones tell the grim tale of what may have happened to those who never gave up trying to walk to safety.

At first they buried their dead in makeshift graves but then weakened by cold and hunger the rest simply died and were found where they fell. After such a long struggle, when death finally came, it may have felt like a welcome release.

BENEDICT ALLEN: In the Arctic you feel like the elements are not passive, you feel like you are involved in some malevolent force. When you experience extreme cold for the first time, it's like a glove closing around you. You feel like you don't want to fight, you want to give in, you want to close down your senses. After a time, it's almost as if the cold has seeped through to your heart. I don't mean your physical heart I mean your soul, your very being, because you feel like no longer fighting. Once you've given up that fight, you just want to sleep, you just want to become part of that oblivion.

NARRATOR: The final report in Hall's notes came from an Inuit hunter who claimed to have found four white men half-dead on the ice, sometime around 1851. He sheltered them for the winter. When the spring came they gave him an officer's sword as a gesture of thanks.

Then they said goodbye and headed for home, never to be seen again.

Piece by piece throughout the 1850s, news of the relics uncovered by the search parties made its way back to Britain. In 1859, 14 years after Franklin left England, the search was officially called off.

Lady Franklin never gave up her hope that some members of the expedition may have survived, even though she had learned from the note that her husband was dead.

LADY JANE FRANKLIN: "What secrets may be hidden within those wrecked or stranded ships, we know not. What may be buried in the graves of our unhappy countrymen or in caches not yet discovered, we have yet to learn, and thus left in ignorance and darkness with so little obtained. Can it be fitting to pronounce that the fate of the expedition has been ascertained?"

For years historians and scientists have searched for clues to the fate of the Franklin Expedition and at last their evidence taken together offers a plausible answer to this enduring mystery. After sailing south through Peel Sound, Franklin's men became trapped in the ice off King William Island.

They tried to walk south to safety but exposure, lead poisoning, and scurvy crippled them. Those who could made it back to the ships to wait for rescue that never came. Another group camped nearby, possibly ostracized from their brethren for having resorted to cannibalism. Two years later some Inuit encountered a group of thirty men walking south.

These men died one by one along the coast of King William Island. Finally, after six years lost in the Arctic, four men were still trying to make it home when they encountered a group of Inuit.

RUSSELL POTTER: I think it's fairly clear that this expedition just wasn't prepared for some of the things that could happen. They hadn't planned to hunt or live off the land, they didn't have any provision for doing so. They had made a lot of assumptions about what would work and how they would get through and they were extraordinarily optimistic assumptions as it turned out, and I think that's what makes it so tragic

NARRATOR: Britain's hopes of being first to sail all the way through the polar ice died with Sir John Franklin and his crew. But the lost expedition did help to complete the map of the Arctic. Franklin's trail led search parties into uncharted waters that turned out to be the long-sought link between the Atlantic and the Pacific—finally proving the existence of the Northwest Passage.

Coming up, the quest for the Northwest Passage continues. More than 50 years later, one man and a small crew tried once again to conquer the deadly ice maze.

ROALD AMUNDSEN: What has not been accomplished with large vessels and brute force, I will attempt with a small vessel.

NARRATOR: What did they learn from Franklin's tragedy and what would this unforgiving land hold for them?

The Arctic Passages continues right now on NOVA.

On NOVA's Website, retrace the Arctic Passage expeditions on our interactive map. Explore a history of cannibalism, build an igloo online, and more. Find it on

PBS will return in a moment.

NARRATOR: Roald Amundsen was one of the greatest polar explorers in history. In 1911 he won the race to the South Pole famously beating a much larger expedition led by Britain's Robert Scott. Amundsen succeeded thanks to vital lessons he'd learned 8 years earlier during his first great adventure—a voyage through the Northwest Passage.

This ice-choked waterway across the Canadian Arctic had defeated every previous attempt to sail through it, killing many brave explorers over the centuries. Then, in 1903, Amundsen devised a novel approach and set out to beat the Passage once and for all. He led his men into uncharted waters, braved the cruel Arctic winter, and forged a powerful bond with the native Inuit who helped him become a master of ice and snow.

How was this maverick explorer—with only a handful of companions and a modest fishing boat able to achieve what so many others had failed to do for 400 years? What was the secret behind the record-breaking journey that started it all?

Arctic Passage: Ice Survivor. Right now on NOVA.

Google is proud to support NOVA in the search for knowledge. Google.

What would you ask an oil company?

What is being done to make us less reliant on oil? That's a question. Um, if we're going to keep our dependency on oil primarily for the coming years, the initial future years, where's it coming from?

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute serving society through biomedical research and science education. HHMI.

And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

NARRATOR: On a summer night in 1903 a small fishing boat slipped unnoticed out of Oslo harbor. The man at the helm—a 30 year old Norwegian named Roald Amundsen. He'd set out in search of the fabled Northwest Passage—a long-sought route to the Pacific Ocean that winds through the Canadian Arctic.

The passage was infamous as one of the most perilous waterway in the world. No ship had ever made it all the way though its frozen maze of ice. And many had lost their lives trying.

Yet this lone pioneer believed that he could succeed where the mightiest navies of the world had failed, time and again.

To many, the voyage seemed suicidal, but for Amundsen, this was the fulfillment of a dream that had gripped him since childhood.

As a boy, he'd been drawn to stories of fearless men who pitted themselves against the harsh arctic wilderness. The hero he most revered was Sir John Franklin, the 19th century British explorer famous for his courage in the face of adversity.

Franklin had made several failed attempts to sail the Passage. Each time, he and his men grappled with starvation and other hardships. On his third attempt, his ships became locked in the ice. He and 128 crewmen all died.

Franklin's harrowing experiences didn't dissuade Amundsen. Rather they inspired in him a desire to test himself in the harsh Arctic.

ROALD AMUNDSEN: "Strangely it was the suffering that Sir John and his men experienced that appealed to me most."

NARRATOR: In his day, the Northwest Passage was the great unknown, with its ever-shifting ice pack. Today it remains treacherous and is kept under constant surveillance, tracked by satellite and by reconnaissance aircraft.

The data they collect is a vital lifeline for navigators who must thread their way through an ice maze that is constantly shifting with the wind and currents.

JOHN FALKINGHAM: We provide a daily chart of where the ice is and where we think its going to go. Every day a ship will get a warning of what kind of dangerous conditions are there. We regularly issue ice warnings due to pressure, or ice warnings due to the rapid closing of leads.

Ships get stuck. Ships get stopped. Seventy-five thousand horsepower ice breakers gets stuck in the ice. That's the difficulty of Arctic navigation. It's knowing where the ice, this shifting maze, matrix of ice, is going to be at the time when I want to get my ship through.

NARRATOR: The ice had defeated every previous expedition, but in his tiny ship, Amundsen was determined to conquer it.

TOR BOMANN-LARSEN: He wanted to be a hero who sacrificed something to explore these extremely difficult parts of the world.

NARRATOR: The youngest of four boys, Amundsen was born in Oslo in 1872. When he was only 14, his father, a ship owner, died suddenly. As a consequence, Roald became the focus of his mother's ambitions. She decided he would stay out of the family maritime business and become a doctor instead.

He bowed to her wishes, but in his heart he wanted a different future for himself—a dream he pursued in secret.

TOR BOMANN-LARSEN: Amundsen was a man who very early learned to hide his ambitions. And I think his own mother was the first one he betrayed.

NARRATOR: He spent much of his free time at the city library. While his mother may well have thought he was studying medicine he was actually dissecting accounts of failed expeditions to the Passage preparing for the day when he would become an explorer in his own right.

His studies convinced him that previous expeditions had all suffered from the same flaw. They'd relied on big ships built to bully their way through the ice. And the more he read of the disastrous Franklin expedition the more he became convinced that this brute force method could never succeed, and he burned for the chance to prove that there was a better way.

NARRATOR: Then, in 1888, 27-year-old Fritjof Nansen, a fellow Norwegian, became a National hero when he and a handful of companions crossed Greenland on skis. Nansen's systematic approach was a radical departure in polar exploration. With specially designed equipment, he traveled light and relied on skis to move as quickly as possible.

BENEDICT ALLEN: Gone was the old idea of the siege, where you took your world with you, and set about defeating the place. Instead, Nansen had the approach of a modern mountaineer. You hone your techniques to absolute perfection, you master your environment as well you can, but above all, you remain flexible, both physically, but also mentally.

NARRATOR: Amundsen greatly admired Nansen and wanted to follow his example.

ROALD AMUNDSEN: "Every day my interest grew. Night and day I dreamt of being out in the polar snow and ice."

NARRATOR: But his family obligations prevented him from fulfilling his dream and it seemed that he might never get his chance to prove himself.

Then, when he was 21, Amundsen's mother died—releasing him from the sense of duty that had held him back.

He first began the arduous process of training to become a ship's captain. He spent three years working as a sailor, followed by two years as a mate, to earn the right to command his own vessel.

And he didn't stop there. He also immersed himself in the science of magnetism, hoping to settle a debate about whether the magnetic pole was fixed or shifted over time.

AMUNDSEN: "So for the past centuries, navigators have found their way by using magnetic fields."

NARRATOR: Doubting that he would be able to raise money simply for a trip through the passage, he told backers that his voyage would resolve the controversy once and for all.

Meanwhile, he took many cross-country excursions into the mountains of Norway.

Following in Nansen's footsteps, he was hoping to improve his stamina on skis.

One time, on a trip with his brother, he learned first hand just how unforgiving the icy North can be.

ROALD AMUNDSEN: "We had a north-west storm upon us. The only correct thing would have been to turn around, but our ski tracks were already drifted over, and the weather surrounded us on all sides."

NARRATOR: With blizzard conditions closing in, they became desperate for shelter Amundsen and his brother dug snow caves where they spent a cold, uncomfortable night.

ROALD AMUNDSEN: "When the first daylight came he discovered I was frozen in. The snow had been wet when it fell and had frozen into a compact mass around me. Only after frantic digging was he able to set me free."

NARRATOR: While buried in the snow he nearly suffocated and almost lost several fingers to frostbite. But he learned how dangerous and unpredictable the icy wilderness could be. And he became more determined than ever to master it.

BENEDICT ALLEN: In the young Amundsen, in a way you see the classic young explorer. He's pitting himself against the world in this dangerously self-centered way. He sees almost a romance in the pain he's going to experience.

NARRATOR: Amundsen's forays into the mountains strengthened his resolve to challenge the Arctic.

Eventually he managed to borrow enough money to buy supplies and to purchase a sturdy, square-sterned 29-year-old herring boat called the Gjoa. It was tiny compared to the ships the British had deployed into the passage but that was all part of Amundsen's plan.

ROALD AMUNDSEN: "What has not been accomplished with large vessels and brute force, I will attempt with a small vessel and patience."

BARD KOLLTVEIT: He knew he was going into uncharted waters. And the smaller the ship, the easier it is to handle. So when he was searching for a vessel, he wanted something which he knew was strong enough to withstand considerable ice pressure, but at the same time so small that a small crew would be able to handle this vessel.

NARRATOR: To learn how to manage his small boat in the ice, he studied with fishermen and others habituated to Arctic waters.

BARD KOLLTVEIT: He was looking for people who had an experience coping with ships and with ice to familiarize with the nature, the landscape, the weather, everything up there.

NARRATOR: Amundsen recruited a six-man team of Arctic experts to help him sail his converted fishing boat. But after eight years of preparation, he was deeply in debt.

His creditors threatened to seize the Gjoa. At the eleventh hour, his second cousin came through with the money. And on June 16, 1903, Amundsen and his men quietly sailed out of Oslo harbor under the light of the midnight sun.

The smallest and most daring assault on the Northwest Passage was on its way. That morning in his cabin he wrote:

ROALD AMUNDSEN: "It was glorious. No anxiety, no troublesome creditors, no tedious people with foolish prophecies or sneers. The world seemed again to be full of spirit and delight.'

NARRATOR: Amundsen's confidence was that of a man used to relying on his own resources. Entering the Arctic, he had nothing but a compass, a sextant and a half-mapped chart. He had no radio, no means of calling for help - only the combined instincts and experience of seven men trying to outwit the ice.

BENEDICT ALLEN: This was a group of people who realized that these environments were too big, too great, too strong to defeat. You had to use them, you had to almost do a dance with these elements. And this new form of exploration is not without risks, because you're very vulnerable.

NARRATOR: The Gjoa's journey into the ice maze brought them first to Beechey Island. This was the site where Amundsen's boyhood hero, Sir John Franklin and his men spent their first winter back in 1845.

For Amundsen, being there was an extraordinary experience—a chance to tread in the footsteps of the most famous and catastrophic polar expedition in history.

ROLAND HUNTFORD: He always paid his historic debts. When he came to Beechey Island he says that he sat out meditating about these people who had paid with their lives. That's why he always used to say he was not going to accomplish The Northwest Passage, he was going to complete The Northwest Passage, which had been pioneered by other people before him.

ROALD AMUNDSEN: "I had the feeling I was on holy ground. I pictured the expedition in all its splendor, the English colors flying, the officers in dazzling uniforms, Sir John's clever face full of character and gentleness. He had a word for everyone and was loved by his men. But now sadness hangs over the island. From this point, the expedition passed into darkness and death."

NARRATOR: After the famous British expedition disappeared, the Royal Navy dispatched dozens of search parties throughout the 1850s. Their cartographers filled in many of the blank areas on their maps giving Amundsen an advantage that Franklin never had.

From Beechey Island, the charts offered Amundsen several possible routes. But his own research had convinced him that the key to the passage lay to the south through a notoriously icy channel called Peel Sound.

Amundsen knew that Franklin had become locked in the ice at the end of Peel Sound on the coast of King William Island. But the Norwegian believed that he could avoid that fate. He was betting that his fishing boat, so much smaller and lighter than Franklin's massive ships, would allow him to slip though the ice without getting stuck.

JOHN FALKINGHAM: A small ship can not only squeeze between narrower leads between ice flows, but can also go in shallower areas often where the ice recedes away from the coastline because of the heat generated by the shore. There'll be a narrow lead of open water very shallow, very treacherous but a shallow draught ship like Amundsen had is much more likely to get through that kind of an environment than the big ships of Franklin's era.

NARRATOR: And another reason to turn into Peel Sound—his instruments told him the Magnetic North Pole lay in that direction.

So he steered his ship south into waters where some of the worst pack ice in the Passage was known to collect. For the first 350 miles the journey passed uneventfully. But then Amundsen faced a difficult choice. At the northern tip of King William Island, two routes lay before him. When Franklin reached this point, he had veered to the west blundering right into the path of pack ice flowing down from the north—ice that trapped his ships.

But Amundsen knew something that Franklin didn't. There was another way around the Island—a narrow channel to the east discovered in the 1850s during the search for Franklin.

Amundsen didn't know if this route was open. The men who had found it had passed on a warning—the channel appeared to be very narrow and exceedingly shallow.

JOHN FALKINGHAM: The waters that Amundsen was planning to sail into had never been charted, of course. They knew where the coastlines were, they knew where the islands were, but they didn't know where the rocks were—the submerged rocks. So sailing a ship into that is every mariner's nightmare. The only thing that's worse than hitting ice in a ship is hitting rocks on the bottom, and if the ice can drive you against those rocks, that's a nightmare scenario.

NARRATOR: Now, as the Gjoa crept forward through the ice, the ship's compass grew erratic. It was an encouraging sign that they were closing in on the Magnetic Pole, but it also meant that they were now sailing blind.

ROALD AMUNDSEN: "The compass, which had gradually been losing its capacity for self adjustment, was now useless. We were steering by the stars, like the Vikings."

NARRATOR: For five weeks Amundsen and his men had been sailing through this Arctic labyrinth of ice and islands. Their search for the Northwest Passage was now taking them into uncharted waters. Then one night after dinner an alarming incident occurred.

ROALD AMUNDSEN: "I was writing in my journal when I heard something that chilled me to the bone."

SAILOR: "Fire! Fire! Fire!"

ROALD AMUNDSEN: "In a moment all hands were on deck. A fire had broken out in the engine room, right among tanks holding 2,000 gallons of petrol. We all knew what would happen if the tanks got heated: the Gjoa and everything on board would be blown to atoms like an exploded bomb."

NARRATOR: The fire was out before it caught, but it served to remind the men of how far they were from help of any kind. It was now September—just three months into the voyage. The Gjoa had traveled a remarkable 600 miles, nearly half the length of the Passage. But weather conditions were deteriorating. The Gjoa was still within the dangerously narrow channel when three days after the fire, the first winter storm swept in.

Then Amundsen heard the sound he feared most. The Gjoa had run aground and her hull was splintering on the rocks.

In storm-force winds it was safer to ride out the battering with the sails furled. But Amundsen gave an order that must have seemed foolhardy.


NARRATOR: Raise the canvas.

ROALD AMUNDSEN: "Right, bring up the main"

NARRATOR: He risked losing the mast and the rigging in a desperate effort to use the gale winds to blow the Gjoa off the rocks.

ROALD AMUNDSEN: "Wind came in gusts howling through the rigging. Then we started a method of sailing that none of us is ever likely to forget. The sleet and spray washed over the vessel, the mast trembled¸ and at one thump, worse than ever, and we slid off."

NARRATOR: He had taken an almost suicidal risk with his ship. But he never doubted that it was the only way to save her. His decisiveness reinforced his authority as the unchallenged captain of the expedition.

FRANCIS SPUFFORD: He is as stubborn and fanatical as any of his rivals. You have to be to be his kind of polar explorer because he wants to do, in cold sober fact, what other people are quite content to dream about.

NARRATOR: They survived with the Gjoa intact. But time was running out. There were signs that within weeks the water would be frozen solid. It was time to find a winter harbor.

On the south end of King William Island they found a sheltered bay where the Gjoa could be safely frozen in. They christened their new home, Gjoahaven.

Today, there is a small settlement here—home to more than a thousand Inuit. They live in modern houses and are linked to Canada by a daily supply plane. But in some ways, these people continue to live life according to ancient traditions.

PETER IRNIK: For thousands of years we survived here. We are the igloo society people. You have to be able to know how to hunt and survive from the animals that you hunt here.

You have to know the animal movement, the migration route of the caribou, you have to live with the seasons to know the dangers of the land, as an Inuit.

NARRATOR: Amundsen made camp with the idea that he would try to learn to live off the land like the locals do. He had read accounts from Inuit who had tried in vain to help some of Franklin's stranded men some fifty years before. The Inuit reported that the British sailors lacked basic survival skills.

But even if they had been able to fend for themselves, with 129 men, there were simply too many mouths to feed. The Inuit rarely traveled in groups of more than 20 because that was all this landscape could support.

Three days after his arrival, Amundsen encountered Inuit hunters for the first time. They were members of the Netsilik—a people with very little history of contact with European travelers. Armed with a gun and two words of greeting he approached.

ROALD AMUNDSEN: "When they were 200 yards away they halted. Then there flashed through my mind, heated with excitement of warfare, the word 'teima' and I shouted it at the top of my voice. In a moment we flung away our rifle and hastened towards them, embracing and patting each other. It was hard to say on which side the joy was greater."

NARRATOR: Eventually Amundsen returned with the Inuit to their camp.

ROALD AMUNDSEN: "When we came within sight of the village, the Eskimos began to shout. I could catch only one word, 'kabloona'—white man. It was a strange scene. I shall never forget it. Out in the desolate snow landscape I was surrounded by a crowd of savages, staring into my face and grabbing at my clothes."

"I was suddenly brought face to face with a people from the Stone Age, who as yet knew no other method of making fire than rubbing two pieces of wood together. We came here with all our ingenious inventions and firearms to people who still used lances and bows and arrows. But their tools, apparently so primitive, were as well-adapted to their conditions as experience and the test of many centuries could have made them."

BENEDICT ALLEN: In the Victorian age there was no use talking to the Eskimo. That didn't make you a great explorer. The Victorians wanted to prove that they were better than everyone else, that they had values to export. Perhaps it was a little ignoble to learn from people who ate their meat raw.

In Amundsen there was a totally different mentality. He saw the local people as people who offered the solution to that world.

They belong to that landscape, there's no point in fighting it. It provides them with their food, their shelter, their medicine. It's all about seeing the place simply as a home, simply as a place that offers you everything.

NARRATOR: That night Amundsen slept inside an igloo. The Inuit beside him were naked, covered only by animal skins. Outside it was minus ten. But inside they were comfortable. It was his first lesson in the Inuit art of survival but not his last. After that experience, he threw himself whole-heartedly into the Inuit lifestyle.

Amundsen began to dress in furs as his hosts did. And he encouraged his men to do so as well. And in doing so he learned something vitally important. When he sweated in his old woolen clothes they'd freeze as hard as board. But in loose, light skins with fur he found he was warm and hardly sweated at all. On one of the coldest places on earth, he remained warm and dry wearing only animal skins and fur undergarments. It's a feat that no man-made fabric can quite match.

MICHEL DUCHARME: Even today we still don't have the technology to simulate the same insulation with the same weight. This is Nature that we are not able to surpass.

NARRATOR: Scientists working for the Canadian military wanted to understand the thermal properties of animal skins. Experimenting in a climate chamber, they hoped to understand how the Inuit are able to protect themselves so effectively against extreme cold. Researchers discovered that the Inuits' preferred material, caribou fur, is anything but an accidental choice.

The secret of the caribou skin, or any skin clothing, is trapping air in an effective manner.

Air is Nature's best insulator. The loose fit of animal skins traps air very effectively. But further examination reveals just why the fur is so effective. Each strand of hair is hollow—filled with air yet remains super-resilient because of its tough honeycomb-like structure.

MICHEL DUCHARME: The density of the fur is such that it traps air very effectively. Even if you apply some pressure to it, it will retain its - its characteristic and its insulation.

NARRATOR: The Inuit prefer caribou fur over seal or bear because it is lightweight and has excellent thermal properties.

MICHEL DUCHARME: The genius part of it is they were able to find the animal with the best fur characteristics.

NARRATOR: In his quest to adopt the Inuit lifestyle Amundsen didn't limit himself to wearing furs. He yearned to unlock all the Inuit survival secrets.

ROALD AMUNDSEN: "We set about learning the art of snow hut building. Taking hold of a monster knife with both hands we cut the ice blocks. The snow must not be too brittle as all the blocks will crumble. The hut is built in a spiral like a beehive, so that one layer rests on the previous one and extends a little further forward. Many a snow block did I get on my head when I tried this work."

MICHEL DUCHARME: Snow is full of air. So if you cut blocks of snow and pile them and make a house it provides the best insulation against the environment. It can be minus 50 degrees Celsius outside, minus 60 degrees Celsius outside and inside it's going to be about minus five. Amazing.

NARRATOR: As the long months of winter passed, the Inuits' lessons in Arctic living grew more intricate.

ROALD AMUNDSEN: "Seal hunting begins some time in February when the snow falls heavily and the seal cannot hear the step of the huntsman. They find the seal's breathing holes out on the ice but to detect the seal they must use an ingenious device. They take a bunch of swan's down, and attach a single thread to a hook with two claws. Then they lean forward keeping their eyes riveted to the hole. As soon as the seal comes within yards of the hole the movement of the water sets the swan's down in motion. That is the signal."

NARRATOR: The Inuit were teaching Amundsen to respect the Arctic as they did. Within the frozen landscape that had destroyed the Franklin Expedition, Amundsen now saw a hidden world sometimes teeming with life.

ROALD AMUNDSEN: "In the spring there are fat salmon and reindeer. In the autumn, unlimited cod, and yet in this Arctic Eden those brave travelers died of hunger. They must have stopped here and seen for miles before them the snow covered land and no sign of life. There is not another place in the world so abandoned and bare as this in winter."

NARRATOR: As fruitful as Amundsen's studies with the Inuit were proving his crew began to feel that he was taking things too far, that his fascination with these indigenous people was distracting him from the true purpose of the voyage.

GUSTAV WIIK: The ice is clearing.

NARRATOR: So in the spring of 1904, when the first signs of a thaw appeared in the Bay, the men were anxious to be on their way.

But Amundsen had other plans.

CREW MEMBER: "Should be able to move on in a couple of weeks, maybe a week, if we're lucky."

ROALD AMUNDSEN: "We're not finished here."

NARRATOR: He realized the skills he was learning would give him an expertise in polar survival unmatched by other explorers. Becoming a master of ice and snow had turned into an obsession.

TOR BOMANN-LARSEN: The crew didn't really understand what was going with Amundsen. He likes more to go with the Eskimos. And then he's forgetting his crew and has no interest in his work. He wanted to fight against hunger, coldness, to show his greatness as a man. It's a landscape of death in a way, and he wanted to win over the death.

NARRATOR: One reason Amundsen wanted to stay for another year among the Inuit was to master a skill that had so far eluded him—how to use Inuit sled dogs, the only efficient way for hunters to cover long distances on the ice.

BENEDICT ALLEN: He realizes what the key to exploration for him is going to be and its all going to be to do with energy. With these dogs he could now pass quickly through the landscape. He could get away with so much more. He could choose his time, choose his moment and pass through the landscape that much more effectively.

NARRATOR: During the bitterly cold weeks of the previous March, Amundsen had set out on a 90-mile trip to reach the Magnetic North Pole. He intended to use sled dogs as his means of transport. But he quickly learned that mastering the dogs and sled was far from easy. Especially in temperatures that plunged to minus 60. The experiment soon came to grief.

ROALD AMUNDSEN: "The first hour when we were all fresh, things went very well. But then the difficulties began. It seems as though we were driving the sledge through the sand of the desert. Every little snow drift meant we had to stop. The poor dogs suffered greatly."

NARRATOR: For three days Amundsen pressed on, locked in a battle with the terrain.

Only when the dogs could go no further did he finally admit defeat, dumping half his supplies in the snow and turning for home.

ROALD AMUNDSEN: "I now saw there was little to be gained by going on in this way and decided to turn back. The dogs soon saw which way we were going and we men were all glad we had given up our hopeless task. With the sledge lighter, we did the journey that had taken us two and half days in just four hours."

NARRATOR: The Inuit elders, amused at Amundsen's disastrous journey, let him in on the secret of the Inuit's ability to glide over snow in all conditions. Coat the runners of the sled with frozen moss and water—then with water warmed in the mouth apply fine new layers of ice using a bearskin mitt creating a surface that could run across any snow in the world.

As their second winter wore on it became clear that Amundsen's time in the Arctic was not only changing his life in profound ways, but the lives of the Inuit as well.

He learned that some of his men had bartered with the Inuit for their wives. He reacted by banning the relationships. Gustav Wiik wrote in his journal:

GUSTAV WIIK: "The Boss' mood is as sharp as a razor these days. He walks about sulking like a little child and meddles in things he preferably should stay away from. And from now on we can expect the most peculiar plans and heaven knows what else."

ROLAND HUNTFORD: Amundsen discovered that there was congenital syphilis amongst some of the Inuit which showed of course that they must have been in contact with Europeans. And there were other tensions. He believed that a polar expedition should be absolutely sexless. The whole concept of women ought to be banished.

NARRATOR: Amundsen was an increasingly isolated figure. But while he may not have inspired much affection from his men, he had kept them alive and they were succeeding in their quest.

TOR BOMANN-LARSEN: In the beginning he needs people, he needs support. But later on he's more and more selfish. He don't need them anymore, so he becomes more and more lonely.

NARRATOR: Amundsen's relationship with the Inuit was also growing more complicated.

By now, more than 60 families had joined the camp beside the Gjoa. It was more than the land could support. There were so many mouths to feed, that Amundsen feared a raid on the ships' stores if Inuit hunters ever returned empty-handed.

ROALD AMUNDSEN: "There was a great number of them collected about us. We had to teach them to regard us with the greatest respect. I spoke to them about the white man's power, that we could spread destruction around us, and even at a great distance accomplish the most extraordinary things. It was for them to behave properly and not to expose themselves to our terrible anger."

TOR BOMANN-LARSEN: He became a kind of a king, in his crew of course, but also with the Inuits. He made the laws. He could kill a man if necessary. He was the master, the big chief, the king.

NARRATOR: Amundsen had come in search of the Northwest Passage, but in delaying to learn the secrets of the Inuit, he'd brought his 20th Century world to the Arctic and set in motion changes that could never be reversed.

ROLAND HUNTFORD: They had changed him, but in the same way he understood that he was destroying their life, that he was beginning a process which was going to lead to the destruction of their culture.

ROALD AMUNDSEN: "I believe the Eskimo who live absolutely isolated from civilization are the happiest, healthiest, and most honorable. My sincerest wish is that civilization may never reach them."

NARRATOR: Amundsen had stayed long enough to learn the vital survival skills he'd craved. Now all that remained was to complete the final stretch of the Passage.

CREW MEMBER: "The shoals run across here."

GUSTAV WIIK: "How far?"

CREW MEMBER: "Five miles to the east and the west ..."

NARRATOR: As the pack ice began to break up with the spring thaw Amundsen sent several men overland to scout the route ahead. They reported a dangerous channel of shoals and drifting ice to the south of the island. But they also said that just 90 miles away lay a well-charted waterway that led to the open sea. If this route remained navigable, the Passage was as good as won.

On August 13, 1905, the men set sail from Gjoahaven and headed down the strait that at one point narrowed to just nine miles.

JOHN FALKINGHAM: We call it Simpson Strait now, and it's a very, very narrow channel, and it's very shallow, and there's rocks sticking up all over the place. It's an area that modern ships just totally avoid.

NARRATOR: For Amundsen to navigate through this channel, it was going one way, another, 'round rocks, 'round shallow areas, with very little room to maneuver. This is dangerous. This is dangerous work.

ROALD AMUNDSEN: "The thought that here in these troublesome waters we risked spoiling everything was anything but pleasant. I couldn't get rid of the thought of returning home having failed. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat."

SAILOR: "Boss. Boss. Vessel in sight. Vessel in sight."

NARRATOR: On the morning of the 26th of August 1905, Amundsen had finally gone below to sleep when the crew sighted a vessel ahead and summoned him.

It was a whaler and she was flying the stars and stripes. On her hull were painted the words "San Francisco."

ROALD AMUNDSEN: The Northwest Passage was done. My boyhood dream was accomplished.

NARRATOR: The American commander's greeting was simple: "You must be Captain Amundsen. Congratulations."

TOR BOMANN-LARSEN: Roald Amundsen, as a young boy, is reading about Franklin. And he is saying to himself, I am going to do this where he failed, where his men died. And I am going to make it.

NARRATOR: For 400 years the search for a Northwest Passage destroyed ships, and claimed the lives of hundreds of men.

Amundsen at last had found a route through the Arctic ice pack. But nothing is permanent in the polar region.

Today, a century later, a new force of change is at work in the Passage. One that neither Amundsen nor Franklin could have foreseen. In the last 30 years global warming has dramatically thinned the Arctic ice by as much as 30 percent.

This is what rising temperatures did to one Canadian glacier in less than a decade. Many scientists consider such evidence a stark warning of great changes that will take place globally if temperatures continue to increase.

Researchers now predict that in 50 years time the Arctic will be completely clear of ice in the summer. If that happens the Northwest Passage could become passable. But nevertheless, there is a stark warning for any sailors contemplating a journey into the heart of the ice maze.

JOHN FALKINGHAM: There's no infrastructure available to support those ships yet. No aids to navigation, no search-and-rescue capability. And the gradually reducing ice that we talk about is not a nice smooth thing, it's very dynamic. But there's still going to be those difficult ice years and there's going to be lots of them. It's just that more and more frequently will be the years when there is less and less ice. And that's the real danger for Arctic shipping, is that this illusion of an open Arctic channel will attract people, people who are unprepared, perhaps, to go into the Arctic with ships that are not capable at times of the year when it can be dangerous to do so.

NARRATOR: For the Inuit, increased shipping through their territory will bring even more change to their culture, a process that Amundsen helped set in motion and which accelerated during the century that followed his triumph.

PETER IRNIK: You know, education system came, the Hudson's Bay Company came, to trade with the Inuit. No matter who they were, they all changed the Inuit way of life.

NARRATOR: The Canadian government claimed sovereignty over King William Island and eventually built a settlement for the Inuit at Gjoahaven, ending thousands of years of a nomadic lifestyle.

As for the man who proved the Passage was passable, Amundsen went on to become an even more renowned explorer. In 1908, he set his sights on the last great prize of polar exploration—the South Pole. The British had taken the lead in the race to be the first. But once again their approach was flawed.

Explorers Robert Scott and Earnest Shackelton had each gotten close, in Shackelton's case to within 100 miles of the goal. But both had been defeated, partly because they'd relied on ill-suited techniques—above all hauling sledges laden with thousands of pounds of gear.

Amundsen, on the other hand, applied the lessons he'd learned from Nansen and the Inuit.

On October 21, 1911, with a small contingent of men using skis and dogs to haul a minimum of equipment he set out and 55 days later, on the 14th of December he became the first human being to reach the South Pole. Five weeks later, Robert Scott matched Amundsen's feat, but he and three others died of exhaustion and hunger on the way back.

Beyond Amundsen's unrivaled success as a polar explorer, he led a quiet life. He never married. He lived alone in Norway, in a house filled with Arctic mementos.

TOR BOMANN-LARSEN: He's the biggest man in the world. A kind of an emperor of the Arctic and the Antarctic. Totally famous but also totally alone. Feeling the coldness, the hunger, always the same men around you make a strong impression. The ice had its price. Man is going to win over nature but nature is also going to win over man. The ice and the snow are going inside.

NARRATOR: Nearly 20 years after sailing the passage, at age 55, Amundsen set out to help in the rescue of an airship missing in the Arctic. His plane vanished without a trace. He spent his final hours in the place his heart had called home since boyhood.

On NOVA's Website, retrace the arctic passage expeditions on our interactive map. Explore a history of cannibalism. Build an igloo online. And more. Find it on

NOVA's Arctic Passage is available on videocassette or DVD. To order call PBS Home Video at 1-800-PLAYPBS.

NOVA is a production of WGBH, Boston.

What would you ask an oil company?

What is being done to make us less reliant on oil? That's a question. Um, if we're going to keep our dependency on oil primarily for the coming years, the initial future years, where's it coming from?

Google is proud to support NOVA in the search for knowledge. Google.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute serving society through biomedical research and science education. HHMI.

And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

We are PBS.


Arctic Passage: Prisoners of the Ice
Narration Written by
Chris Schmidt

Produced and Directed by
Louise Osmond

Arctic Passage: Prisoners of the Ice
Anthony Garner as Sir John Franklin
Maureen Bennett as Lady Franklin
Thom Fell as James Fitzjames
Bo Poraj as Francis Crozier

Artic Passage: Ice Survivor
Corey Conradi as Roald Amundsen
Christian Pedersen as Gustav Wiik
Darri Ingolfsson as Godfred Hansen
Inuit People of Gjoa Haven, Nunavut

Additional Direction
Chris Schmidt

Associate Producer
Todd Wendel

Neal Duffy
Chris Rodmell

Neil Ross

Harald Paalgard

Camera Assistants
Chris Stone
Ashley Meneely

Additional Camera
Jason Longo
Nick Manley
Martin Patmore

Sound Recordists
Brian Biffin
Renato Ferrari
John Martin
Adam Prescod
Juan Rodriguez

Dave Hewson

Sputnik Animation
Red Vision

Unit Manager
Marilyn Bennet

Alastair Rogers

Production Coordinators
John Keyes
Rob Topham

Assistant Producer
Rebecca Harris

Senior Assistant Producer
Emily Roe

Production Managers
Lisa D'Angelo
Sandra Clark
Michelle Kimber

Sarah Bird
Susie Catliff

Lizzy Wilson
Steve Kirkby

Sarita Allison
Jane Logan
Amy Price

Art Directors
Pippa Roberts
Andy Brightman

Phil Fegan

Fixer, Norway
Johnny Flaten

Online Editor And Colorist
Mandy Minichiello

Audio Mix
John Jenkins

Archival Material

Special Thanks
Maria Pantages
The New Bedford Whaling Museum
Dr. Russell Potter
The National Maritime Museum
The National Archives of Canada
Jonathan Dore
James P. Delgado
Lawrence Millman
W. Gillies Ross
Roland Huntford
The Community of Gjoa Haven, Nunavut
National Resources Canada
Amundsen's House, Oslo
The Smithsonian Institute
Cutty Sark, Greenwich
Southside House, London
Royal Holloway University of London

Exhumation Stills Courtesy of
Professor Owen Beattie/University of Alberta

Executive Producer for ITN
Julian Ware

NOVA Series Graphics
yU + co.

NOVA Theme Music
Walter Werzowa
John Luker
Musikvergnuegen, Inc.

Additional NOVA Theme Music
Ray Loring

Post Production Online Editor
Spencer Gentry

Closed Captioning
The Caption Center

NOVA Administrator
Dara Bourne

Eileen Campion
Olivia Wong

Senior Researcher
Barbara Moran

Production Coordinator
Linda Callahan

Unit Managers
Lola Norman-Salako
Carla Raimer

Richard Parr

Legal Counsel
Susan Rosen Shishko

Post Production Assistant
Alex Kreuter

Associate Producer, Post Production
Patrick Carey

Post Production Supervisor
Regina O'Toole

Post Production Editor
Rebecca Nieto

Post Production Manager
Nathan Gunner

Supervising Producer
Stephen Sweigart

Producer, Special Projects
Susanne Simpson

Coordinating Producer
Laurie Cahalane

Senior Science Editor
Evan Hadingham

Senior Series Producer
Melanie Wallace

Managing Director
Alan Ritsko

Senior Executive Producer
Paula S. Apsell

An ITN Production for WGBH/NOVA and Channel Four.

Additional production for NOVA by Zerkalo Inc.

© 2006 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved

Arctic Passage

Back to the Arctic Passage homepage for more features on the Franklin and Amundsen expeditions.


About NOVA | NOVA Homepage | Support NOVA

© | Created September 2006