The Arctic adventurer

The search for the lost Franklin expedition has been John Geiger’s lifelong passion.

John Geiger (’81 BEd). Illustration by Jordan Carson.

John Geiger (’81 BA) is an award-winning journalist, historian and adventurer, and a key figure in one of Canada’s most enduring mythologies: John Franklin’s failed search for the Northwest Passage.

The disappearance of Sir John Franklin and his crew in the icy waters of the North has fascinated the Canadian public for 171 years. Franklin, along with 128 crew members and their sturdy vessels — the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror — vanished in 1846 during a failed expedition to find the Northwest Passage. It was believed they’d become trapped in ice near King William Island in what is now the Arctic territory of Nunavut, but the ships and the bodies of most of the crew had never been found.

Under the tutelage of anthropologist Owen Beattie, Geiger became hooked on the Franklin mystery while still a young history student at the University of Alberta. Beattie had spearheaded a 1980s research trip to Beechey Island, where Franklin’s crew was rumoured to have taken refuge after their ships sank. The anthropologist, along with several U of A students and faculty, became global sensations when they exhumed the bodies of two crew members and found them perfectly preserved in ice. In 1987 Beattie and Geiger published Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition, which was a bestseller in Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany.

In 2008, Parks Canada, the Arctic Research Foundation, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS) and others launched a renewed effort to locate the lost Franklin ships. That expedition came up empty, but Geiger — who became president of the RCGS in 2011 — remained certain the ships would be discovered. In 2014 that certainty became a reality.

Geiger was a part of the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition that searched for the Erebus and Terror. On Sept. 9 of that year, the expedition announced that it had found one of Franklin’s ships, and on Oct. 1, Prime Minister Stephen Harper confirmed to the world that the found ship was the HMS Erebus. Less than two years later, on Sept. 3, 2016, the Arctic Research Foundation discovered the Terror south of King William Island.

Though Geiger was not on the ships that discovered the Erebus or Terror, his work with Beattie and the RCGS was critical in advancing the knowledge of the Franklin Expedition and leading to the ships’ discovery. The remains of Franklin and much of his crew have yet to be found, but thanks to Geiger, Owen Beattie and others, one of the world’s great mysteries is slowly coming to a close.

A former editorial board editor at The Globe and Mail, Geiger is a senior fellow at the University of Toronto’s Massey College, as well as chief executive officer of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and Canadian Geographic Enterprises. He was awarded the Polar Medal by the Government of Canada in 2016, and in 2011 he received the U of A’s Distinguished Alumni Award.


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