Sir John's Lost Diaries

Stephen Smith

The wind blows. The sun dwindles. The ice waits.

Illustrations by Jeremy Bruneel.

Off King William Island, Summer, 1846

Sir John Franklin is in a marrying mood that second summer. By the middle of June, he’s made matches for most of the Royal Marines; come July, he turns his attention to the men of Terror’s foretop. Rumours flurry: there’s to be a mass wedding on St. Swithin’s Day, followed by honeymoons for all—staggered through the fall, of course, in order to keep the ships manned. Franklin is said to be taking care of the floral arrangements himself, not to mention working on personalized vows for each couple. If his object is to distract the men from the Arctic’s white monotony, well then, yes, good job. And this, too, is true, the men agree: it’s been months since they’ve seen Sir John so cheery.

But while, to a man, the Marines are flattered by their commander’s attentions, even those who are long since well and fully married, the foretopmen take a pricklier view. The last thing they want after a long day high up in the shrouds is to be worrying about wooing wives.

Henry Sait: “It’s very approoshiated but I’m wedded to my career.”

Samuel Crispe: “Tell you some truth, I have an idea of waiting ’til I have some savings put away. Plus mother would have to meet her.”

George Kinnaird: “Grrrr.”

Harry Peglar: “Someone should say something.”

When the Marines hear the grumbling, they take it personally, as Marines so often do. Sergeant Solomon Tozer, bristling: “You lot don’t know how to take a compliment. Think of the trouble he’s taking, finding us all fiancées. You think he does it for another hobby?”

The wind blows. The sun dwindles. The ice waits. Winter has already begun to close the lit summer days in the lee of King William’s accursed island. Soon Terror and Erebus will be locked again in winter’s long blindness. After summer weeks free of worry the men, whose big concern is the blood slowly freezing in their veins, ask again, how likely is that? “Not very, I don’t think,” Mr. Goodsir, the Assistant Surgeon, tells them, “but let me get back to you.”

“What about a guitar?” says Captain Fitzjames, when the talk turns again to what to get Sir John for his birthday. Captain Crozier nods. “We’ll put it on the list.” Although, of course, they’ve already discussed guitars, and banjoes, guitar lessons, Van Morrison tickets, ruling them all out for one good reason and another. Guitar, Crozier writes anyway. “More ideas. What else?”

You never see the headhunters. You hear them, sometimes, a bump, snow crunch, sneezes. Rarely. They lurk in the gloom. Orders are shoot them if you have to, catch one if you can. Sir John promises a sovereign to any man who can hold one, bind him, keep him.

Sir John still worries. The seals may be beaten, cowed even, but the headhunters—he has a feeling the headhunters are coming back. It’s more than a feeling: he knows they will be.

“Cowing the seals,” he tells himself, “is twice the work of sealing the cows.”

He lights a new cigarette from old, lapses into gangster dreams starring Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre. Pretending a Tommy gun with cradling hands, he massacres the cabin with a raw laugh from a sore throat.

The ache of loneliness. The asthma of responsibility. The arthritis of command. The whooping cough of… actual whooping cough. Dr. Stanley suggests a cigarette cure. “Let’s try that,” he says. “Can’t hurt.”

“Righty-o,” says Sir John. “Can I put on my shirt?”

The Men Who Stop Looking at the Sky don’t tell anybody they’ve stopped looking at the sky: that’s important to say.

Autumn, 1846


Stephen Smith

Stephen Smith has written for the Globe and Mail, Toronto Life, Canadian Geographic, Outside, Quill & Quire, West End Phoenix and the New York Times Magazine. He lives in Toronto and at


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