In the Arctic, They Pulled Sledges for Their Lives

Within Mystic Seaport Museum’s exhibition Death in the Ice: The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition, is a reproduction of one of two sledges used by the crew of the HMS Terror when they abandoned their ship trapped in ice in the Arctic, sometime in the spring of 1848.

The replica sledge in "Death in the Ice: The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition." Photo by Andy Price/Mystic Seaport MuseumThe sledges were built by the crew using planks from the trapped ship. Each sledge held a ship’s boat, which was in turn packed tight with food and equipment needed to survive the fierce Arctic weather. A team of eight men, wearing leather “bridles” across their torsos and attached to the sledge with heavy rope, would haul the vehicle across the snow and ice. The sledge itself could weigh 700 pounds, the dory another 700, plus all the food and equipment packed in it. In total, the weight to be hauled could reach more than 1 ton.

Spending time in the Death in the Ice exhibition, one can imagine the growing desperation of the men on the trapped ships, as they cannibalized their vessels to build what they hoped would be their means of escaping the elements and finding rescue in the third year of their ordeal.

As part of the Museum’s first-ever Ice Festival on Presidents Day weekend (February 16-18), a team of volunteers withVolunteer Bill Salancy sands the replica sledge's two 16-foot long runners in the Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard. Photo by Elissa Bass/Mystic Seaport Museum the Gung Ho Squad designed and built a replica sledge for visitors at the Festival to try and haul. The modern-day sledge is already easier to haul than the original, as it is made from lighter weight fir as opposed to the heavy oak planks of the Terror and Erebus. In all, the reproduction weighs 150 pounds, not including the dory. It has similar dimensions to the originals, but this version has a flat top to accommodate the Museum’s dory while the Franklin crew’s sledge would have had a top to hold dories with curved bottoms.

Museum volunteer RJ Lavallee, who is volunteer coordinator of the Gung Ho Squad, designed the sledge from photos of a sledge created for filming of the 2018 AMC television series, “The Terror.” Museum Rigger Sarah Clement created the bridles. Lavallee and fellow volunteer Bill Salancy worked with Shipyard Maintenance Foreman Scott Noseworthy on the project in the Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard.

Visitors to Ice Festival can show off their sledge pulling talents on the Village Green at 2 p.m. Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.