Science, Tech & Environment

Today's Arctic explorers follow in the footsteps of history

Arctic ice with ship.jpg


Christopher Debicki/Getty Images

On a modern-day expedition to the Hudson Bay, Larry Millman overheard an unusual story about the first white man to live among that region’s native Cree. 

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The story had been passed down among the Cree for generations. The white man was known as Firebeard.

Millman is an Arctic explorer, and a writer, with “an abiding interest in other Arctic explorers who disappeared off the face of the earth.” He says with “very little research,” he determined that in all probability Firebeard was Henry Hudson — perhaps the most daring and determined Arctic explorer of his time.

An ill-fated journey ends in disaster.

In the early 1600s, when navigators were frustrated with sailing all the way around South America in order to cross the Pacific Ocean to Asia, a British trading company hired Hudson to find a shorter route — the fabled Northwest Passage.

“Hudson sets out from England in 1610,” says Millman, “touches Iceland, gets some supplies and heads into the ‘Furious Overfall’ — otherwise known as the Hudson Strait. They thought, because of all the heavy currents, that it was close to the Pacific.”

But it wasn’t close to the Pacific. It was just a long, narrow strait, full of counter-clockwise swirling chunks of ice — and it was much colder than Hudson’s crew ever expected. Soon, their ship got stuck in the ice.

“There's a feeling of complete and utter paralysis,” Millman says. “[Y]ou can’t go anywhere. You can't get your boat to move a bloody inch.”

Millman says the crew wanted to turn around. “There was an interesting democracy among crews of that day,” he explains. “If the crew wanted to head home and the captain didn't, the crew got their way.”

According to Millman, Hudson showed his crew a map, telling them, “We're a hundred miles farther west than any other known expedition! And you want to turn around?”

It didn’t matter. They couldn't turn the ship around. And by November, it was too cold and icy to go on. So Hudson and his crew spent the winter camped on the shore of the frigid James Bay.

“It was just an absolute miracle that they survived the winter,” Millman says.
 The crew was starving and it was freezing cold. Scurvy made their gums bleed and their teeth loose. When the ship could finally sail again, Hudson told his crew they would return to England. But there was a problem.

“Hudson wasn't going in the right direction for England,” Millman explains. “He was heading West, and he should have been heading North — up along the coast and out, the same way they came in.”

“And when one of the members of the crew noticed that certain individuals had cheese, and more food than they themselves had,” Millman continues, “that was the spark that inspired the mutiny.”

The crew threw Hudson (and his young son, who was also a member of the expedition) into a sailboat, and headed back to England.  

Did Hudson survive? Did he live among the Cree and go by the name “Firebeard” or did he freeze to death in the bay?  We don’t know. 

A new kind of Arctic explorer

Fiamma Straneo is an ocean scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. For the past three years, Straneo has returned to the same place where Hudson disappeared. She’s not looking for riches or spices or a route to the Pacific (and none of her crews have ever threatened mutiny).

Straneo is on a new kind of mission. She wants to understand climate change in the Arctic, so she's monitoring the water in the Hudson Strait. 

“When you’re close to land, you just see the entire landscape change,” Straneo describes. “Your entire ship just goes up and down. You look and you think, ‘Oh, there was an island there and now it’s gone.’ Because there are these super-strong tides. The other thing that you see are these really fast currents, which switch every six hours or so. There’s so much mixing and turbulence the water literally boils.”

This is the strait that Henry Hudson may have called the 'Furious Overfall,' with its massive 30-foot tides and swirling currents.

“If you read the old books and the old maps, Hudson Strait is actually indicated with a waterfall — as if the currents were so strong the ships had a really hard time navigating it.”

According to Larry Millman, a couple of early maps exist that show Hudson Bay long before Europeans arrived. They have warnings, like ‘Here Be Dragons’ and ‘Here Be Monsters,’ or indicate a cliff from which ships could fall.

Legends of monsters and the perils endured by Henry Hudson and his crew did not deter Straneo. Like all tenacious explorers, Straneo had a plan and she was determined to carry it out.

“One of the reasons to work in the Arctic is that it's an incredibly important place in the circulation of the ocean and the climate system, and yet we know so little about it,” Straneo explains. “If we think of Hudson Bay and Hudson Strait as a small microcosm in the climate system, then if I can understand how they work — if I know what goes in and I know what comes out — I can put [the data] into a bigger model that has the entire planet, the entire atmosphere — and it’s going to help us predict future change.”  

As the planet heats up, moisture evaporates from warm places like the tropics, and then wind pulls that moist air over the Arctic, where it rains and snows into the ocean. Fresh rainwater is lighter than saltwater, so it sits like a blanket on top of the entire ocean, getting in the way of the ocean’s usual temperature regulation and circulation patterns.

For her research, Straneo puts three chains of instruments down into the water — chains so massive they have to be lowered in with a crane. What looks like a giant, red fishing bobber sits at the top, while the instruments sink down, measuring water salinity, velocity, and temperature.

“I think the most exciting moment was putting everything in the water the first time,” Straneo says. “Just seeing everything disappear. It feels silly, because that's it! You've just chucked thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars into the water. ... Just putting everything in and knowing that if everything goes as planned, you can come back and there will be data — there's something magical about letting go of all the instruments and just sort of walking away and trusting.”

Like past explorers, Straneo’s reward for taking on this challenge is getting to be the first.

“You can go to so many places in the Arctic and be the first person ever making measurements there. When you pull up this instrument that's been in the water for an hour, or for a year, and you look at these data, you think, ‘WOW, nobody's ever seen what goes on under the surface of the ocean here.’ You're sort of hearing a story for the first time.”

Kind of like when Larry Millman first heard the story of Firebeard. Millman left the Arctic with a new story about Henry Hudson. Henry Hudson’s mutinous crew left Henry in the middle of the Hudson Strait.  And Straneo left the Hudson Strait with the data she needed to build a predictive model of climate change in the Arctic.

All of them did something that had never been done before, in a place no one, except perhaps, the native Cree – was meant to survive.

This story was initially created for PRI's Living on Earth by Emily Corwin of Mind Open Media