English explorer Sir John Franklin traveled with a band of adventurers through North
America, trying to find a northwest passage through Canada in the 1820s. On the cliffs
of Cape Bathurst, they encountered huge clouds of acrid white smoke. The rock and soil
in the region were on fire, and the surrounding waters poisoned with a sulfurous residue.
Amazingly, the sparse vegetation in the area did not burn, and no evidence of volcanic
Franklin named the place the Smoking Hills, and vanished there after a second expedition.
The next people to visit were members of Captain Robert McClure’s party, who were sent
to find Franklin in 1852. Sailors brought some of the smoking rock to the ship, where
they watched it burn a hole in the captain’s mahogany desk.
The land had long been known to Eskimos, who called it “land of the sour water” for the
acidic ponds. The smoke limits plant growth, and animals generally stay away from the
region, except for caribou herds who enter for relief from summer insects.
The Smoking Cliffs have probably been burning for several hundred to several thousand
years. An exothermic reaction producing great heat occurs between the iron pyrite,
sulfur, and bituminous shale that exist in the earth. The created fumes are noxious
because they contain sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, and steam.
This kind of spontaneous ignition of the soil also occurs at other places around the
world. An Englishman noticed smoke coming from a seaside cliff near Weymouth around the
same time that Franklin arrived at Cape Bathurst. The rocks, when stirred around, made
flames large enough to toast bread. The fire burned a few years but only covered about
fifty square feet. Another Englishman reported smoking cliffs in the same area in the