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In the Arctic Seas Part 10

I found Mrs. Olrik without a fire in her sitting room; it was unnecessary; the windows looked to the south, and the sun shone brightly in upon a profusion of geraniums and European flowers, at once reminding one of home, and refreshing the senses by their perfume and beauty; the merry voices of the children were also a most pleasing novelty. Mr.

Olrik says the past winter has not been in any way remarkable, except for the prevalence of strong winds; April and the early part of May have been unusually cold.

{INTERCHANGE OF PRESENTS.}

_24th._--We did honor to Her Majesty's birthday by dressing the 'Fox' in all her flags, and regaling her crew with plum-pudding and grog. The ice having moved off, we have come into the harbor of Godhavn, as being more convenient and safe. The day has been a busy one: we have completed our small purchases and closed our letters; I have added another Esquimaux lad to our crew, taking with him his rifle, kayak, and sledge. This evening there has been a brisk interchange of presents between us and our Danish friends. I have been given an eider-down coverlet by the Governor, Mr. Andersen; and, by Mrs. Olrik, some delicious preserve of Greenland cranberries, a tin of preserved ptarmigan, and a jar of pickled whale-skin; my table is decked with European flowers, including roses, mignonette, and violets.

With good reason shall we remember Godhavn; we have certainly been treated as especial favorites.

{COALING.}

_26th._--Left Godhavn early yesterday morning, and anchored this afternoon in our old position off the Coal Cliffs in the Waigat; a party of seal-hunters from Atanekerdluk came off to us, and their hunting having terminated successfully, they will assist us in coaling. From these men I obtained much information about this part of the coast; within a range of 20 miles upon the Disco shore there are four distinct coaling places; but at this early season two of them are deeply covered with snow. There is also very good coal at the S.E. end of Hare Island, where it can be easily obtained. The ice in this strait broke up as long ago as the 3rd April; it has all drifted out to the northward, only a few icebergs now remain.

_28th._--Again hastening northward; the business of coaling was very speedily and satisfactorily completed, but the quality of the coals is very inferior. Upon the green slopes our sportsmen found nothing but a few ptarmigan and a hare.

Shortly after running close past the deserted settlement of Noursoak, we arrived off a small bay, and were startled by finding the water had suddenly changed from transparent blue to a thick muddy color, but there was no change in its depth; we were crossing the stream of "Makkaks Elvin," or Clay River, which empties itself into the bay after running through a broad and extensive valley, said to abound with reindeer; this river has its origin in lakes and glaciers in the interior, and the discoloration of the water is probably the chief cause of success in white-whale fishing, which is carried on here in the autumn, as those timid animals will not permit boats to approach them in clear water.

This evening we are crossing Omenak's Fiord, and the land-wind, which here and all along the coast northwards blows from the N.E., has come off to us.

{PROXIMITY OF THE WHALERS.}

_31st._--Lying fast to an iceberg off Upernivik.

The whalers are all within a dozen miles of us, unable to penetrate further north. The season appears forward, and the ice much decayed; but southerly winds prevail, retarding its disruption and removal. Captain Parker, of the 'Emma,' tells me he does not expect to make a north passage this year, and as his experience extends over a period of at least thirty years, I give his reason; it is simply this,--that as during the months of February, March, and April northerly winds prevailed to an unusual degree, therefore southerly winds may now be expected to continue; if he prove a prophet, it will be to our serious hinderance at this critical season. Governor Fliescher says the winter has been mild; there has been but little wind, and that chiefly from the southward.

{JUNE, 1858.}

{KINDNESS OF THE WHALERS.}

_4th June._--We have received much kindness from our friends Captains Parker and J. Simpson, as well as from others of the whaling fleet; the former has generously supplied us with many things we were rather short of, not only in ship's stores, but provisions and coals, and in return I have of course furnished him with a receipt for his owners. Captain Simpson has most handsomely presented the 'Fox' with a sail and yards, which, after some slight alterations, will enable us to add a main topsail to our spread of canvas. For the two days we lay at the iceberg, alongside of the 'Emma,' I made furious attacks upon Captain Parker's beefsteaks and porter; we amply availed ourselves of his hearty welcome.

By the arrival of the fine steam whaler 'Tay,' from Scotland, we have received papers up to 17th April.

This morning we slowly steamed away from Upernivik, threading our way betwixt islands, and ice, for about 30 miles, and now await further ice movement before it will be possible to proceed.

These are called the Woman Islands, so named by the celebrated Arctic explorer John Davis, who visited them in Queen Elizabeth's reign; he found here only a few old women, their frightened lords and more active juniors having effected their escape.

Upon one of these islands a stone was picked up some 30 years ago, bearing a Runic inscription; it was sent home to Copenhagen as a most interesting relic of the early Scandinavian voyagers; but nothing was on it except the names of those men "who cleared this place" (or formed a settlement), and the date, 1135. In all probability their sojourn was extremely short, perhaps only for a single summer. The Esquimaux did not make their appearance for nearly two centuries later.

{DANISH ESTABLISHMENTS.}

After Egede's settlement at Godhaab in 1721, the Danish trading establishments gradually extended along the coast, and Upernivik was one of them; but it appears to have been soon abandoned. During Napoleon's wars all the Danish posts were withdrawn, as the British fleet effectually cut off communication with Europe; but after peace was restored in 1815, the trading posts were again resorted to, and a new settlement formed near the ruins of the old one at Upernivik; it enjoys pre-eminence as the most northern abode of civilized man.

CHAPTER VIII.

'Fox' nearly wrecked--Afloat, and push ahead--Arctic hairbreadth escapes--Nearly caught in the pack--Shooting little auks--The Arctic Highlanders--Cape York--Crimson snow--Struggling to the westward--Reach the West-land--Off the entrance of Lancaster Sound.

{THE 'FOX' NEARLY WRECKED.}

_June 8th._--Yesterday morning we passed close outside Buchan Island; it is small but lofty, its north side is almost precipitous, yet notwithstanding this strong indication of deep water, a reef of rocks lies about a mile off it. I happened to be aloft with the look-out-man at half-past eight o'clock as we were steaming through a narrow lead in the ice, when I saw a rock close ahead; it was capped with ice, therefore was hardly distinguishable from the floating masses around; the engines were stopped and reversed, but there was neither time nor room to avoid the reef, which now extended on each side of us, and upon which the ship's bow stuck fast whilst her stern remained in 36 feet water; the tide had just commenced to fall, and all our efforts to haul off from the rocks were ineffectual. The floes lay within 30 yards of us upon each side. I feared their drifting down upon the ship and turning her over; but fortunately it was perfectly calm, and as the tide fell, points of the reef held them fast. The ship continued to fall over to starboard; at dead low water her inclination was 35; the water covered the starboard gunwale from the mainmast aft, and reached almost up to the after hatchway; at this time the slightest shake must have caused her to fall over upon her side, when she would have instantly filled and sunk. The dogs, after repeated ineffectual attempts to lie upon the deck, quietly coiled themselves up upon such parts of the lee gunwale as remained above water and went to sleep.

[Illustration: The 'Fox' on a Rock near Buchan Island.]

To me the moments seemed lengthened out beyond anything I could have imagined; but at length the water began to rise, and the ship to resume her upright position. Boats, anchors, hawsers, etc., were got on board again with the utmost alacrity, and the ship floated off unhurt after having been eleven hours upon the reef. We had grounded during the day tide and were floated off by the night tide, which upon this coast occasions a much greater rise and fall,--so far we were favored, but the poor little 'Fox' had a very narrow escape; as for ourselves, there was not the slightest cause for apprehension, three steam whalers being within signal distance.

{AFLOAT, AND PUSH AHEAD.}

To-day we are steaming along after the three vessels which passed us last evening and disappeared round Cape Shackleton during the night.

The contrast between our prospects yesterday and to-day fills one with delight,--to be afloat and advancing unobstructedly once more is indeed charming.

_11th._--On the afternoon of the 8th we joined the steamers 'Tay,'

Captain Deuchars; 'Chase,' Captain Gravill, sen.; and 'Diana,' Gravill, jun. After repeated ice-detentions, we have reached Duck Island. Captain Deuchars says there is every prospect of an early north passage; we have had several conversations about the Pond's Bay natives, and their reports of ships, wrecks, and Europeans. There appears to be not only great difficulty, but also uncertainty, in arriving at their meaning; to form an idea of the time elapsed since an event, or the distance to the spot where it occurred, is a still harder task. I look forward to our visit at Pond's Bay with greatly increased interest.

{ARCTIC HAIRBREADTH ESCAPES.}

In August, 1855, when Captain Deuchars was crossing through the middle ice, in latitude 70, he found part of a steamer's topmast embedded in heavy ice; he also saw the moulded form of a ship's side, and thinks the latter must have sunk; the portion of the topmast visible was sawed off and taken to England. It is most probable that the vessel was either H.M.S. 'Intrepid' or 'Pioneer,' as two months later, and 250 miles further south, the 'Resolute' was picked up. About two or three years ago, Captain Deuchars lost his ship 'Princess Charlotte,' in Melville Bay. It was a beautiful morning; they had almost reached the North Water, and were anticipating a very successful voyage; the steward had just reported breakfast ready, when Captain Deuchars, seeing the floes closing together ahead of the ship, remained on deck to see her pass safely between them, but they closed too quickly; the vessel was _almost_ through, when the points of ice caught her sides abreast of the mizenmast, and, passing through, held the wreck up for a few minutes, barely long enough for the crew to escape and save their boats! Poor Deuchars thus suddenly lost his breakfast and his ship; within _ten minutes_ her royal yards disappeared beneath the surface. How closely danger besets the Arctic cruiser, yet how insidiously; everything looks so bright, so calm, so still, that it requires positive experience to convince one that ice only a very few inches, perhaps only three or four inches, _above water_, perfectly level, and moving extremely slow, could possibly endanger a strong vessel! The 'Princess Charlotte' was a very fine, strong ship, and her captain one of the most experienced Arctic seamen. He now commands the finest whaler in the fleet.

{SUPPLY OF PROVISIONS.}

_14th._--We have only advanced a few miles to the northward. The steamer 'Innuit' has joined our small steam squadron. Captain Sutter left Scotland only a month ago: he has very kindly and promptly sent us a present of newspapers and potatoes. Captain Deuchars has also been good enough to supply us with some potatoes and porter, perhaps the most serviceable present he could have made us after our long subsistence upon salt and preserved meats.

_10th._--Once more alone in Melville Bay. The 'Innuit' and 'Chase'

steamed much too fast for us, and the last of the four vessels, the 'Tay,' parted from us in a thick fog yesterday. We have come close along the edge of the fixed ice, passing about six miles outside of the Sabine Islands, and are advancing as opportunities offer. This morning the man who was stationed to watch a nip about a quarter of a mile ahead of the ship, came running back, pursued by three bears--a mother with her half-grown cubs. I suppose they followed him chiefly because he ran from them; and at all events they were very close up before he reached the ship. Another bear was seen about the same time, but none of them came within shot. Rotchies (or little auks) are very abundant. Seals are occasionally shot. I ate some boiled seal to-day, and found it good: this is the first time I have eaten positive _blubber_; all scruples respecting it henceforth vanish.

{NEARLY CAUGHT IN THE PACK.}

_25th._--The land-ice broke away inshore of the 'Fox' on the 19th or 20th, and we found ourselves drifting southward amongst extensive fields of ice. Sad experience has already shown us how absolutely powerless our small craft is under such circumstances. But after many attempts we regained the edge of the fast ice this morning, and steamed merrily along it towards Bushnan Island. When within a few miles a nip brought us to a standstill: here five or six icebergs lie encompassed by land-ice, and apparently aground; one of them juts out and has caught the point of an immense field of ice. There is some slight movement in the latter, but not enough to let us pass through.

Twelve or eighteen miles to the south there is a cluster of bergs, in all probability aground upon our "70 fathom bank" of last September. The ice-field appears to rest against them, as both to the east and west there is much clear water. Exactly at this spot Captain Penny was similarly detained by a nip in August, 1850. Although progress is denied to us at present, yet it is an unspeakable relief to have got out of the drifting ice.

{ARCTIC PERPLEXITIES.}

I have passed very many anxious days in Melville Bay, but hardly any of them weighed so heavily upon me as yesterday. There was the broad, clear _land-water_ within a third of a mile of me, clear weather, and a fair breeze blowing. The intervening nip worked sufficiently with wind and tide to keep one in suspense; it _nearly_ opened at high water, but closed again with the ebb tide. I thought of the week already spent in struggling amongst drifting floes, and was haunted by visions of everything horrible--gales, ice-crushing, etc. Nor was it consoling to reflect that all the sailing ships as well as the steamers might have actually slipped past us. In fact, I must acknowledge that anxiety and weariness had worked me up into a state of burning impatience and of bitter chagrin at being so repeatedly baffled in all my efforts by the varying yet continual perplexities of our position. The only difference in favor of our prospects over those of the past year consisted in our having arrived here two months earlier; but the importance of this difference is incalculable.

The opportunities afforded by the delays to which we have been subjected were turned, however, to some account. Nearly one thousand rotchies were shot; they are excellent eating; their average weight is four ounces and a half, but when prepared for the table they probably do not yield more than three ounces each. A young bear imprudently swam up to the ship, and was shot,--his skin fell to the sportsman, and carcase to the dogs.

Several others have been seen: we watched one fellow surprise a seal upon the ice, and carry it about in his mouth as a cat does a mouse.

{THE ARCTIC HIGHLANDERS.}

_27th._--Lying fast to the ice off the Crimson Cliffs of Sir John Ross.

Yesterday we succeeded in passing through the nip, and by evening reached Cape York. Seeing natives running out upon the land-ice, the ship was made fast for an hour in order to communicate with them. A party of eight men came on board: they immediately recognized Petersen, for they lived at Etah in Smith's Sound when he was there in the American expedition. They asked for Dr. Kane, and told us Hans was married and living in Whale Sound. They all said he was most anxious to return to Greenland, but had neither sledge-dogs nor kayak; hunger had compelled him to eat the seal-skin which covered the framework of the latter. Petersen gave them messages for Hans from his Greenland friends, and advice that he should fix his residence here, where he might see the whalers and perhaps be taken back to Greenland. The natives did not seem to be badly off for anything except dogs, some distemper having carried off most of these indispensable animals. I was therefore unable to procure any from them. These people spent the winter here; they seemed healthy, well-clad, and happy little fellows. One of them is brother-in-law to Erasmus York, who voluntarily came to England in the 'Assistance' in 1851. This man is an _angekok_, or magician; he has a still flatter face than the rest of his countrymen, but appears more thoughtful and intelligent.

Petersen pointed out to me a stout old fellow, with a tolerable sprinkling of beard and moustache. This worthy perpetrated the only murder which has taken place for several years in the tribe: he disliked his victim and stood in need of his dogs, therefore he killed the owner and appropriated his property! Such motives and passions usually govern the "unsophisticated children of nature;" yet, as savages, the Esquimaux may be considered exceedingly harmless.

Of late years these Arctic Highlanders have become alarmed by the rapid diminution of their numbers through famine and disease, and have been less violent towards each other in their feuds and quarrels.

Chapter end

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