Part-time Minocqua resident, history buff and adventurer Ron Carlson has embarked on a chilly mission at the Arctic to solve an aging mystery behind the whereabouts of the remains of some unfortunate souls.
More than 160 years ago, Captain Sir John Franklin departed England with two ships and 128 men in search of the Northwest Passage in the Arctic.
The men were never heard from again.
Carlson has taken it upon himself to find the tombs of these men as well as the ship's papers, which would reveal details of the expedition.
According to Carlson's blog, in 2003 he traveled to King William Island, Nunavut, to research and study and has since been focused on searching for relics of the doomed Franklin Expedition that departed England in 1845 and disappeared in the region.
"The ships were former bomb vessels and they were re-outfitted for Arctic expedition - they were looking for the Northwest Passage," Carlson said. "Now what I am actually looking for is Sir John Franklin's tomb."
Carlson is convinced that Franklin's body is well preserved for a number of reasons.
"My theory is that if his tomb is there, there is a good chance he is in a coffin, buried," Carlson said. "The first three men that died a few years before - they were preserved and were autopsied about 20 years ago. What I am hoping to find is him in his uniform and the ship's papers."
It is the ship's papers that would be a gold mine of information for any scholar wanting to know the details of what happened on that voyage more than 150 years ago.
"There are two sets of ship papers with all sorts of conditions up there in the 1800s that would be very valuable," Carlson explained. "The story, day-by-day of what happened, would be in those papers."
Carlson flew out of the Lakeland Airport last Thursday and headed north, where he will eventually settle in Cambridge Bay at his fuel base.
However, Carlson will spend most of his time this summer gathering information at King William Island, located in the Canadian province of Nunavut.
"The place where this all happened is King William Island," Carlson said. "On the north side there is a place called Victory Point - that's where the men came on land. They lived on ships for a year or two and abandoned them and started their death march. There are all sorts of things I could find, including other graves."
The relics Carlson looks for are thought to be well-preserved because they are frozen 10 out of the 12 months of the year.
"July and August is the only time to get up there because it is 60 below otherwise," Carlson said.
Studying the expedition
Always interested in Arctic history, Carlson first became enamored by the Franklin Expedition when he picked up a book about a different voyage made by Charles Francis Hall.
"My interest started 15 years ago," Carlson recalls. "I picked up a book by Chauncey Loomis about a famous American explorer, Charles Francis Hall. He was up there 10 years after on his own expedition and was murdered. Loomis, the author, solved the murder. I wondered, 'Who are these Franklin men?' No one has found anything and there is a lot up there."
Carlson is aware that danger looms in the Arctic because he has been in near-death situations in the region on previous trips. He recalls two situations that were especially terrifying.
"There is moderate risk up there. We had two close death experiences - once with engine failure. We had to sit on top of the plane with guns when a particular polar bear wouldn't go away. Another time I almost lost my wife in a plane. I was doing a fuel cache and she was on the plane and she got sucked out into the tide with the plane. We were barely able to get back."
Carlson does not go on his trips without the proper equipment. His gadgets are high-tech and expensive. The plane he flies, called the DeHavilland Beaver, is especially impressive. It has the capability to fly for many hours at a time with its three belly fuel tanks totalling 95 gallons, plus wingtip tanks on each side totalling another 42 gallons.
In addition, Carlson added a 35-gallon stand-alone tank which is strapped down in the cabin. The plane is equipped with tundra tires which are perfect for Carlson's purposes. He also has a monitor in the cockpit of the plane (used in police cars) for thermal scanning while coupled to a separate Garmin GPS system.
When not exploring the north, Carlson enjoys spending time in northern Wisconsin. He and his wife, Ruth, own Kodiak Lodge on Fence Lake.
"We call it Kodiak Lodge because I used to hunt on Kodiak Island in Alaska, Carlson said. "When I was in Alaska I came around a river and saw a sea plane 15 years ago. When I saw that, it all started from there."
Carlson is a registered architect in Illinois, where he owns a large commercial interior designing firm. He employs more than 40 people in the company. He will be welcomed back in August by Ruth and his four children.
"I'm going to be up there for two months - working, doing scanning, really trolling from an altitude of 3,000 feet on the shoreline and inland," Carlson explained. "The plan is to go back next year with an archeologist to do ground recon of the targets I find with the thermal scanners. It will be a two-phase process."
Readers can follow Carlson's journey on his blog, "In Search of Franklin" at http://bushpilothc.blogspot.com.
Dan Hogan can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.