‘I think I’ve figured it out’: Author prowls mystery of Franklin expedition

In his new book, Ken McGoogan links parasite in bear meat to explorers’ deaths

Author and Arctic explorer Ken McGoogan in his latest book “Searching for Franklin: New Answers to the Great Arctic Mystery,” writes that he believes infected polar bear meat is what caused the deaths of the crewmen of the shipwrecked 1845 Franklin expedition. (Photo courtesy of Ken McGoogan)

By Madalyn Howitt

For Arctic explorer Ken McGoogan, each trip he takes is a chance to fulfil a quest.

“I almost can’t travel anywhere without some kind of a mission,” he said, speaking by phone from his home in Guelph, Ont.

A former journalist who now sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian, McGoogan has been involved in Arctic exploration for 25 years.

It started after he and late oral historian Louie Kamookak placed a plaque marking the location where explorer John Ray discovered the final link in the Northwest Passage.

McGoogan’s latest mission? Discovering what really happened on Sir John Franklin’s fateful 1845 expedition that led to the shipwrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror and the eventual deaths of everyone onboard.

“It has taken me 25 years and six books to figure out what happened, on top of many visits into the Arctic that all came into play,” he said.

The cover of McGoogan’s latest book, Searching for Franklin: New Answers to the Great Arctic Mystery, depicts a polar bear tearing away remnants of the Franklin wreckages with its sharp teeth, hinting at McGoogan’s theory about what caused the catastrophe that befell Franklin’s last expedition.

So, did polar bears kill the men of the Franklin expedition? Not quite.

“Metaphorically, the polar bears did it, [but] it’s not quite the way it’s depicted there,” McGoogan laughed.

The real culprit? That would be trichinosis, he said.

Searching for Franklin: New Answers to the Great Arctic Mystery is the latest book from Arctic explorer Ken McGoogan, examining what caused the deaths of over a hundred men on the shipwrecked 1845 Franklin expedition. (Image courtesy of Douglas & McIntyre)

Trichinosis is a deadly food-borne disease caused by a microscopic parasite that people can get by eating raw or undercooked meat from animals infected with the parasite.

McGoogan proposes that when polar bears ventured near the stranded wrecks, the crewmen shot them and put the meat into barrels along with their rations. Improper storage led to the meat becoming infected.

“When I put that together, I understood. I felt I had the final missing piece,” McGoogan said.

“The bears were coming there, they were shooting them, putting them into barrels, they thought it was fantastic,” he said.

“They thought, ‘We’re on our way, we got all this extra meat, we’re going to be going all the way to the Pacific Ocean.’ Of course, it didn’t happen that way.

“I think I figured it out. I honestly think that is the answer to it all,” McGoogan said.

While there is no physical proof to support his theory, that could be forthcoming if archeologists are able to retrieve evidence from the sunken wrecks as they have with other artifacts on recent diving trips.

“It’s amazing what they can determine if they get the right piece of evidence,” McGoogan said.

Part of the reason people keep going back to learn more about the mystery of the 1845 Franklin expedition is that it was “such an anomaly,” he said.

Just a few years earlier, an Arctic expedition led by Robert McClure also got stuck in the ice for two years and seven months before he started to take radical measures. But he lost virtually no men, McGoogan said.

In contrast, by the time the shipwrecked Franklin expedition had been in the ice for one year and seven months, dozens of men were already dead including Franklin himself.

The captain went on to be dubbed by many as a hero of Arctic exploration, despite having led multiple disastrous expeditions and ignoring the advice of Indigenous guides along his journeys.

McGoogan challenges that historical depiction in his book.

McGoogan will discuss the book and more about Arctic exploration in Ottawa on Wednesday night at the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

“I just love the whole process [of writing]. There’s a dialogue happening, going back and forth as I write,” he said.

McGoogan, after all, loves an adventure.

“Part of my mission is to make history exciting again.”

Searching for Franklin: New Answers to the Great Arctic Mystery is available from Douglas & McIntyre.

Share This Story

(2) Comments:

  1. Posted by Recognizing Louie Kamookak on

    The article fails to do justice to the essence and depth of Ken McGoogan’s latest book. Central to McGoogan’s narrative is the profound focus on Louie Kamookak’s dedication to researching and exploring the Franklin Expedition, as well as his efforts to preserve Inuit Oral History surrounding it.

    Unfortunately, this critical aspect was overlooked in the article, which instead chose to focus narrowly on less significant details. A thorough reading of the book would reveal the significant collaborative efforts between Kamookak and McGoogan, which were instrumental in bringing this new book to fruition.

    By neglecting these elements, the article missed an opportunity to highlight the truly impactful facets of McGoogan’s work, choosing instead to concentrate on peripheral matters. This oversight not only undermines the book’s depth but also the meaningful contributions of Kamookak and McGoogan’s partnership.

    • Posted by Maq-Pat on

      Very open to reading your article, please link to it. Qujannamiik.


Join the Conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *