It has all the elements you would expect from a chilling mystery: the loss of two ships and 129 men; the discovery of human bones and the possibility there were desperate souls who turned to cannibalism to survive.

So it was for the doomed Franklin Expedition as it sailed into the teeth of the Arctic, never again to be seen until Tuesday when Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced one of the ships had been located 170 years after it had sunk.

Which ship was it, the HMS Erebus or the HMS Terror? No one has said, officially. Was the searching over? Perhaps, but then again the pull of this tragic tale is so strong, so much a part of Canadian history, that to this day people continue to write songs, poems, articles and books about it.

There’s even a blog entitled Franklin Expedition news and views run by British author William Battersby, who wrote Tuesday that “the whole world owes a debt of thanks to the Canadian government and Parks Canada for leading this search …”

“We live in a society where we think we know what [everything] is like,” Mr. Battersby said from London. “And here this event took place, and we lose 129 men, and we can’t explain it. I’ve talked to family of those men, looked at their photographs, read their letters. I see this as an unfinished tragedy.”

Fate and misfortune were onboard as soon as the expedition left Greenhithe, England, in May of 1845. Leading the expedition was Rear Admiral Sir John Franklin, who had already been to the Arctic three times to chart the Northwest Passage.

Sir John Barrow of the Admiralty had asked Sir William Parry if he would captain another go at the Arctic. Parry said no. Barrow got the same response from four other captains. Finally, Barrow went to Franklin, who said he would go back. He was 59.

Historians have noted that Franklin’s two ships were state-of-the-art vessels, with reinforced masts and steam engines. But 65 crew members apiece stretched their limits. Cramped quarters, minus good hygiene habits, led to short tempers and fights. Five sailors were sent home for drinking and swearing when the ships loaded up on supplies in Scotland.

Undeterred, Franklin carried on until he arrived in the Arctic and the two ships stopped next to King William Island. The winter of 1846 was warm enough for the ships to sail on open water. The decision was made to stay put.

Those weather conditions were never the same again for the length of the expedition.

The open water froze over; the ice closed around the ships with crushing force. Groups of men began wandering off in different directions and dying en route to nowhere. Three made it to Beechy Island where they died and were buried.

Researchers have said the majority of crewmen likely succumbed to pneumonia. There was also talk some of the men died of lead poisoning from rations stored in tin cans. And since there were human bones with teeth marks on them, there could have been cannibalism.

Such are the unanswered questions that have brought scientists and archeologists to the Arctic in search of truth from whatever is left beneath the icy waters. Call it the longest cold case in Canadian exploration history. Maybe finding one ship diminishes the mystique.

But now there’s even more to consider, as old exploration tactics give way to new technology and possibilities.

University of Calgary political science professor Rob Huebert was onboard the icebreaker HMS Kingston earlier this month for a discussion on all things Arctic with Mr. Harper. Canada is keen to stand guard for its chunk of the Arctic region. Russia wants its share, too. It placed a Russian flag on the North Pole’s seabed in 2007 and presently has its own icebreaker, the Yamal, in the Arctic keeping watch.

“For the Prime Minister, it is more about protecting Canada’s piece of the Arctic,” Mr. Huebert said. “[Other nations] are mapping the continental shelf, mapping how far the international spread goes. Other countries are trying to claim what is outside the lines.”

Yet another mystery to solve.

CALGARY — The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Sep. 09 2014, 10:18 PM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Sep. 10 2014, 7:10 AM EDT