GJOA HAVEN, Nunavut -- Stephen Harper's argument for Canadian sovereignty in the Far North took a decidedly historic turn Wednesday as the prime minister dropped in on scientists and coast guard officers hunting for the wreckage of the lost Franklin Expedition.
The effort to locate two 19th-century British exploration ships, which disappeared while looking for the Northwest Passage, has captured the imagination of scholars and adventurers for more than 100 years.
"Why do Canadians remain interested in this? Obviously, it's part of our heritage, part of the history that makes Canada, Canada," Harper said aboard the coast guard icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier, anchored off this remote Arctic hamlet.
"I also think it's because the modern age abhors a mystery."
Subsequent searches for Sir John Franklin's HMS Terror and HMS Erebus ended up mapping much of the northern archipelago that Ottawa claims as Canadian territory, he added.
Optimism is running high among researchers because of the addition of military-grade, side-scan sonar and unmanned underwater vehicles, which are better able to probe the frigid, silent waters around Nunavut's King William Island.
The exploration ships -- the most advanced of their time -- were lost in 1847 with all 129 crew members. Finding them has become a point of national pride, as well as a chance to demonstrate Canada's sovereignty over the region.
Earlier Wednesday, Harper patrolled with members of the Canadian Rangers along the edge of the island after taking part in some target practice on the Arctic tundra Tuesday.
Both the prime minister and newly appointed Defence Minister Rob Nicholson tried their hand at firing the 1950s-era Lee Enfield rifles that are standard-issue weapons for the aboriginal reservists who make up the Rangers.
"It was an honour to patrol with the Rangers... as they work to defend our territory from potential threats, and emergencies and keep our North strong, secure and free," Harper said in a statement.
The prime minister clearly relished the exercise. During target practice, he fired from several different positions, including prone on the ground, sniper-style. The din of the rifles echoed across the vacant limestone and sand landscape.
For a prime minister whose mantra has been to assert and defend Canada's claim to the Arctic, the exercise was as much a political statement as it was a chance to share in the rigours of life in the North.
"Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic. We either use it or lose it," he said in a July 2007 speech that helped lay the foundation for the Conservative government's northern strategy.
The tough rhetoric and thundering military photo-ops, however, have gradually faded with each successive summer tour of the Arctic, which Harper has undertaken religiously since becoming prime minister.
With four cabinet members in tow, Harper and his wife set up camp Tuesday on a remote stretch of beach about 20 kilometres from Gjoa Haven, birthplace of Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq.
Enthusiastic Rangers helped him build an inukshuk, the stone landmark synonymous with the Inuit. They also showed him how to erect a traditional tundra shelter made of animal hide.
As the sun set close to midnight, Harper inspected drying Arctic char hung on string between wooden posts, and watched a demonstration of the lighting of qulliq, an Inuit oil lamp that is set ablaze using the spark of two flint rocks.
National Defence spend $38 million annually on the Ranger program, which on Wednesday marked the induction of its 5,000th member.
A recently released defence science report on the Arctic noted the reserve force does not have training in air-mobile and water-borne operations.
Maj. Andre Salloum said future specialized training is being considered, but it "is in the planning stages."
-- The Canadian Press