Erebus. A deep darkness and shadow – a place between Earth and the underworld of Hades. Recorded in Greek mythology as a place of eternal suffering, a featureless and lightless world of terror.
I stood upon the waters of the infamous Northwest Passage. Gazing about me and struggling to recognise my way back to the hamlet of Ulukhaktok. The small Inuit township on Victoria Island, a place I called home for a period of several weeks.
The island sits to the north of the Northwest Passage, overlooking the famous stretch of water. The Inuit have long and detailed oral history of encounters with Europeans. Some rumoured meetings with survivors of polar expeditions, others, of uncovered graves. Wooden beams from uncovered ghost ships have also been scavenged and repurposed, most found as structural features in homes of industrious Inuit – heirlooms patched into the quilt of living history.
When I was young, I was captivated by tales of adventurers at the ends of the Earth. Pioneering men seeking discomfort far away from home. Each seeking their own fate and fortune. One such tale stuck with me.
A tale of men who wandered for days on end. Taking shelter behind formations of solid ice, thrust up from the sea. Hunkered and huddled together to avoid the stinging and deathly bite of the arctic wind. Faces gnarled and twisted from frostbite, barely recognisable. Their thoughts no longer coherent and logical. They were doomed in an alien world. Leaving their stricken ships behind, they took their chances on finding land. The small chance of salvation. Some of them resisted, but eventually they all succumbed to the cold and were taken by the darkness.
In 1846, Sir John Franklin set off on the doomed expedition to find the Northwest Passage. Under the command of Franklin, two ships set sail from England with a combined crew of 134. Near King William Island, deep in the Canadian arctic, the ships became engulfed in ice.
On April 22, 1848, 105 survivors left the ships in an attempt to reach solid ground on foot. None survived.
At the time of commission, the two vessels were labeled the “jewels in the crown of the royal navy” and specially equipped for arctic and Antarctic expeditions. Their thick hulls adept at cutting through sea-ice.
As the frozen ocean hemmed the expedition in, the ice stops the ships in the path. Both vessels were slowly broken apart and sunk to the sea bottom. Forever frozen in purgatory between Earth and hell.
HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.
The script, written by the poetic hand of fate, could not have been any more perfect.
I could not help to think of Franklin during my time in Ulukhaktok. The man himself was endlessly fascinating. I first came across his name while talking to the locals themselves. Over hot tea and bannick, a fried bread dough, an Inuit elder told me the story of Franklin’s first foray into the Arctic – his 1819 expedition to chart the north coast of Canada, just south, across the Northwest Passage from Ulukhaktok.
Franklin’s mission was to chart the area eastwards from the mouth of the Coppermine River. Franklin lost 11 of his 20 men, as well as almost drowning himself. Most died of starvation caused by a lack of proper planning. Blaming deserted and unstocked outposts for their predicament, the survivors were forced to eat lichen. Suggestions of at least one murder and even cannibalism sullied Franklin’s name. To add insult to injury he was even bestowed the moniker of “the man who ate his boots”.
Following his failed Canadian expedition, Franklin was then appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) from 1837 to 1843. At the time, he was considered unpopular because of his progressive views towards the penal colony and the treatment of prisoners. He allegedly wanted to make life for convicts more humane, which did not sit well with the aristocracy.
His history of doomed command never played against him. His command of Erebus sealed his fate, and that of his men.
Like Franklin, the arctic is a complete contrast and list of contradictions. It is simple and yet infinitely complex and ever-changing. The ultimate frontier of human existence, balancing on the edge of the proverbial knife.
As beautiful as you can envisage and as unforgiving as you could imagine. The arctic gives reluctantly with one hand and freely takes with the other. The indigenous people who call this region home have perfectly honed their skills to the environment. Living and thriving where Europeans struggled for centuries.
I stood upon the frozen North-west Passage and thought of Franklin’s doomed expedition. My gaze wandered from the frozen ocean to the island itself. The clouds of snow lazily drifted across the jagged cliffs. Walls of rock eroded and carved from millennia of tidal ice. Beautiful in their simplicity and captivating in their complexity. The endless chiseling by solidified water, hacking and grinding away at compacted earth have created the perfectly imperfect artwork. An immovable object endlessly meeting an irresistible force – the battleground between land and sea. The ocean receding and then returning. Retreating and then attacking. Gnawing and chewing. The rock, providing staunch defence against wave upon wave of never ending attacks. A timeless war waging for eternity. Slowly, the clouds engulf the walls and hide them from view. Their dark silhouettes give way to a deep and endless white horizon. Just like that, it seems like the world had rested and taken a pause from its creation. The world took a sigh and an inhale all at once. Then a long held breath which seemed to go on and on.
In that moment time ceased to exist. I slowly filled my own aching lungs with frigid oxygen. All that is left in the world is my breath and me. The road home disappeared and my mind shrouded just like the walls of rock which once surrounded me, now unseen and hidden from view. As alone as a single dark dot on a plain white page.
Acutely aware of myself, my senses seemed to both increase and go numb at the same time. A surreal and dreamlike sensation. I couldn’t tell what caused the chill down my spine. The layers of insulated clothing kept me warm but also insulated from sensing the environment. There was a fierce wind but I couldn’t feel it, and at some point it stopped completely. I was there, but I was far away, all at once. I was seeing everything from behind my own eyes – a complete and perfect contradiction. The closest thing I could describe to an out-of-body experience.
The long nights all string together to become one endless period of darkness. The world outside is frozen in both motion and temperature. At first glance there is no life and no sound – an environment of stillness. A world of contrasts which at one moment seems dead and lifeless, then the next, chaotic and fierce. As hostile as one can imagine. A place of blinding brightness and terrifying darkness.
Erebus and Terror were named by their naval commissioners to rain shells of explosive armament down on their enemies during the Napoleonic era. However, the ships names seemingly doomed them and their crew to a featureless world of darkness.
The men were deserted in an alien environment. The clouds drifted in and engulfed the crew of the expedition. Clouds gathered about them and slowly stole the world from view. The light eventually giving way to shadows, and then to complete darkness.
With a sigh and a breath, all at once, Erebus took the men from this world and bound them to mythology.