• Dead Reckoning by Ken McGoogan cover woodcut Ebierbing

    In Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage (above left), Ken McGoogan highlights the contributions of Inuit guides such as Ebierbing (above right) to Arctic exploration in Canada.

In his latest book, Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage, released yesterday by HarperCollins, bestselling author Ken McGoogan sets out to do nothing less than recast the history of Arctic exploration in Canada.

He does so by dispensing with what he calls the “orthodox British framing of the narrative” and delving deeper into the contributions made by Canada’s Indigenous Peoples — above all, those of the Inuit — as well as those of non-British and fur-trade explorers. Although he readily admits in the book’s prologue that other writers before him have drawn attention to the role the Inuit played in exploring the Arctic, McGoogan says that “Until now, nobody has sought to integrate those figures into a sweeping chronicle of northern exploration.”

Two of those figures, both Inuit, feature prominently in the passage below, which has been edited and condensed from the chapter entitled “Ebierbing and Tulugaq Work Magic for Schwatka.”

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Since the mid-19th century, countless investigators — fur traders, sailors, scientists, obsessive amateurs — have added detail and nuance to John Rae’s original report on the fate of the Franklin expedition. In Unravelling the Franklin Mystery, Canadian historian David C. Woodman summed up succinctly: “For one hundred and forty years the account of the tragedy given to Rae by In-nook-poo-zhe-jook and See-u-ti-chu has been accepted and endorsed. As we shall see, it was a remarkably accurate recital of events. But it was not the whole story.”

After 1875, prompted by the death of Lady Franklin, the American Geographical Society decided to send another expedition in search of relics and documents pertaining to the Franklin expedition. Frederick Schwatka, an ambitious lieutenant with the Third United States Cavalry, volunteered to lead it. 

He was brilliant and practical and, despite his lack of Arctic experience, he won the appointment and sailed from New York on June 19, 1878. His five-man party included “Joe” Ebierbing, the Inuk interpreter who had sailed with Charles Francis Hall and others; an experienced Arctic hand named Frank Melms; and two men who  would write books about the expedition — William Henry Gilder of the New York Herald and Heinrich (Henry) Klutschak, a German artist and surveyor who had emigrated to the United States in 1871.

The party set up base camp and spent the winter near Daly Bay, north of Chesterfield Inlet on the coast of Hudson Bay. On April 1, 1879, accompanied by a dozen local Inuit, and with three sledges drawn by more than 40 dogs, Schwatka and his men set out for the west coast of King William Island. Over the next year, while relying on an Inuit diet and travel methods, they reached their target destination by accomplishing the longest sledge journey on record: 4,360 kilometres.

Schwatka spent the summer searching the area from the mouth of the Back River to Cape Felix at the northern tip of King William Island. He found bones and relics that would in winter have been covered by snow. William Ouligbuck Jr. had joined the party, and Gilder would verify what John Rae had asserted — that Ouligbuck spoke all the Inuktitut dialects fluently, and that he “spoke the [English] language like a native — that is to say, like an uneducated native.” He and Ebierbing enabled Schwatka to gather an extraordinary amount of crucial Inuit testimony.

But the man who kept the party fed and flourishing was a locally hired Inuk named Tulugaq, a little-known figure who emerges in accounts of the expedition as singular and irreplaceable. As Matonabbee was to Samuel Hearne, so Tulugaq was to Frederick Schwatka: he was the man who made the journey happen. A superlative dog-sled driver, he was also, above all, a peerless hunter. When the party located a herd of caribou and Ebierbing, that excellent shot, killed eight of them, Tulugaq bagged 12.

Eight times, during this year-long Arctic odyssey, Tulugaq killed two caribou with a single shot. At one point, according to Klutschak, he was set upon by a pack of 30 wolves. He leapt onto a high rock and, knowing that wolves will halt any attack to consume their own dead, “with his magazine rifle began providing food for the wolves from their own midst.” When they were distracted, he made his escape.

But Tulugaq’s courage and skill register most memorably in his dealings with polar bears. At Cape Felix, at the northernmost tip of King William Island, Tulugaq used his telescope to locate a bear on the ice roughly nine kilometres away. He hitched up 12 dogs and, with Frank Melms and a youth, set off at a furious pace. When he drew within 500 paces of the polar bear, the creature turned and fled, making for open water. But Tulugaq had already unleashed three dogs. He then freed three more, and finally the bear had to stand and fight to keep the six dogs at bay.

From 25 paces, Tulugaq fired one shot and then another, but the bear, which stood more than 10 feet tall, scratched at his head, whirled and came charging at him. Tulugaq’s third shot hit the bear in the heart and brought him down. 

Not long afterwards, when the expedition had finished searching Terror Bay and had travelled more than 80 kilometres south, Tulugaq took a dog team to retrieve some goods left behind at the camp. While travelling, he spotted three bears and gave chase as they fled for open water. As they reached it, Tulugaq shot and killed all three of them with five shots. To take their hides, he then led his female travelling companion in hauling the bears out of the water, each of them weighing at least 800 pounds. “For Tulugaq,” Klutschak writes, “nothing was impossible — except transporting the skull of an Inuk.”

Tulugaq was also remarkable for his good humour, his willpower and his perseverance, and when Klutschak writes of sadly parting from him, he freely admits that “for a full year we had been indebted to this man for the fact that the execution of our plans had proceeded so well.” 

What did the expedition accomplish? For starters, on the west coast of King William Island, at a place known as Camp Crozier, Schwatka discovered the remains of Lieutenant John Irving of the Terror, identifiable by the presence of a silver medal for mathematics. He built a cairn at this location and eventually sent the remains to Edinburgh, where they were reburied at an elaborate public ceremony. 

At Terror Bay on that same island, where the Terror was coincidentally found, and at Starvation Cove on the mainland near Chantrey Bay, Schwatka found more remains and evidence of cannibalism. With Ebierbing and William Ouligbuck Jr., he interviewed a number of Inuit, eliciting first-person accounts whose crucial importance is emerging only now, in light of the 2014 discovery of the Erebus.