In the Arctic Seas Part 14

_18th._--For 25 miles last evening we ran unobstructedly down Peel Strait, but then came in sight of unbroken ice extending across it from shore to shore! It was much decayed, and of one year's growth only; yet as the strait continues to contract for 60 miles further, and it appeared to me to afford so little hope of becoming navigable in the short remainder of the season, I immediately turned about for Bellot Strait, as affording a better prospect of a passage into the western sea discovered by Sir James Ross from Four River Point in 1849. Our disappointment at the interruption of our progress was as sudden as it was severe. We did not linger in hope of a change, but steered out again into the broad waters of Barrow Strait. However, should Bellot Strait prove hopeless, I intend to return hither to make one more effort before the close of the season.

We are now approaching Port Leopold, where it is necessary to stop for a few hours to examine the state of the steam launch, provisions and stores, left there in 1849, as adverse circumstances may oblige me to fall back upon it as a point of support.


_19th._--At anchor in Port Leopold; it is perfectly clear of ice; we arrived here in the night. How astonishingly bare the land looks; it is more barren than Beechey Island, whilst the rock contains far fewer fossils! On this day nine years ago the harbor and sea continued covered with ice, and the ships ('Enterprise' and 'Investigator') were unable to escape. At some period since then the ice has been pressed in upon the low shingle point; it has forced the launch up before it, and left her broadside on to the beach, with both bows stove in, and in want of considerable repairs, but the means are all at hand for executing them.

We tried to haul her further up, but she was firmly imbedded and frozen into the ground. Many things appear to have been covered with the loose shingle, bags of coal and coke just appearing through it scarcely above high-water mark. Amongst the missing articles is the steam-engine.

Although the flag-staff upon the summit of North East Cape is still standing, the one erected upon this point and almost the whole of the framing of the house lies prostrate. The provisions appeared to be sound, but were not generally examined. The whale-boat we removed from Cape Hotham was landed here, and a record of our proceedings added to the many which have accumulated here during the last ten years. Some coke and a few things useful to us and merely decaying here were taken on board, and by evening we were again speeding onward with augmented resources, and the confidence inspired by a secure depot in our rear; buoyed up moreover by the joyful anticipation of soon reaching the goal of our long-deferred hopes.


_20th._--Noon. Exactly off Fury Point. There is one large iceberg far off in the S.E.; no other ice in sight! I would have landed at Fury Beach to examine the remaining supplies there, but a snow shower prevented our distinguishing anything, and a strong tide carried us past before we were aware of it.

We _feel_ that the crisis of our voyage is near at hand. Does Bellot Strait really exist? if so, is it free from ice?

A depot of provisions is being got ready to be landed, should it be practicable for us to push through and proceed to the southward.


_21st._--On approaching Brentford Bay last evening packed ice was seen streaming out of it, also much ice in the S.E. The northern point of entrance was landed upon by Sir John Ross in 1829, and named Possession Point; we rounded it closely, and could distinguish a few stones piled up upon a large rock near its highest part--this is his cairn. As we passed westward between the point and Browne's Island, through a channel a mile in width, a close pack was discovered a few miles ahead; and it being past ten o'clock, and almost dark, the ship was anchored in a convenient bay three or four miles within Possession Point. Here our depot is to be landed, therefore we shall name this for the present _Depot Bay_; a very narrow isthmus between its head and Hazard Inlet unites the low limestone peninsula, of which Possession Point is the extreme, to the mainland.

To-day an unsparing use of steam and canvas forced the ship eight miles further west; we were then about half-way through Bellot Strait! Its western capes are lofty bluffs, such as may be distinguished fifty miles distant in clear weather; between them there was a clear broad channel, but five or six miles of close heavy pack intervened--the sole obstacle to our progress. Of course this pack will speedily disperse;--it is no wonder that we should feel elated at such a glorious prospect, and content to bide our time in the security of Depot Bay. A feeling of tranquillity--of earnest, hearty satisfaction--has come over us. There is no appearance amongst us of anything boastful; we have all experienced too keenly the vicissitudes of Arctic voyaging to admit of such a feeling.

At the turn of tide we perceived that we were being carried, together with the pack, back to the eastward; every moment our velocity was increased, and presently we were dismayed at seeing grounded ice near us, but were very quickly swept past it at the rate of nearly six miles an hour, though within 200 yards of the rocks, and of instant destruction! As soon as we possibly could we got clear of the packed ice, and left it to be wildly hurled about by various whirlpools and rushes of the tide, until finally carried out into Brentford Bay. The ice-masses were large, and dashed violently against each other, and the rocks lay at some distance off the southern shore; we had a fortunate escape from such dangerous company. After anchoring again in Depot Bay, a large stock of provisions and a record of our proceedings were landed, as there seems every probability of advancing into the western sea in a very few days.


The appearance of Bellot Strait is precisely that of a Greenland fiord; it is about 20 miles long and scarcely a mile wide in the narrowest part, and there, within a quarter of a mile of the north shore the depth was ascertained to be 400 feet. Its granitic shores are bold and lofty, with a very respectable sprinkling of vegetation for lat. 72. Some of the hill-ranges rise to about 1500 or 1600 feet above the sea.

The low land eastward of Depot Bay is composed of limestone, destitute alike of fossils and vegetation. The granite commences upon the west shore of Depot Bay, and is at once bold and rugged. Many seals have been seen; a young bear was shot, and Walker took a photograph of him as he lay upon our deck, the dogs creeping near to lick up the blood.


The great rapidity of the tides in Bellot Strait fully accounts for the spaces of open water seen by Mr. Kennedy[15] when he travelled through, early in April. The strait runs very nearly east and west, but its eastern entrance is well masked by Long Island; when half-way through both seas are visible. As in Greenland, the night tides are much higher than the day tides; last night it was high water at about half-past eleven; as nearly as we can estimate, the tide runs through to the west, from two hours before high water until four hours after it; that is, the flood-tide comes from the west! Such is also the case in Hecla and Fury Strait; in both places the tide from the west is much the strongest. I am not sufficiently informed to discuss this subject, but infer the existence of a channel between Victoria and Prince of Wales' Land. The rise and fall is much less upon the western side of the Isthmus of Boothia than upon the east, and it likewise decreases, we know, in Barrow Strait, as we advance westward.

_23rd._--Yesterday Bellot Strait was again examined, but the five miles of close pack occupied precisely the same position as if heaped together by contending tides; considerable augmentations were moreover seen drifting in from the western sea. Finding nothing could be effected in Bellot Strait, we sought in vain for the more southern channel which should exist to form Levesque Island: we did, however, find a beautiful harbor, and are now securely anchored in its north-west arm; I have named it after the gentleman whose former island I have thus reluctantly converted into the northern extreme of the Boothian Peninsula, and consequently of the American continent. The south-western angle of Brentford Bay is still covered with unbroken ice.

This evening we all landed to explore our new ground. Young and Petersen shot some brent geese; Walker saw two deer, but he was botanizing, and had no gun; others were seen by some of the men, and followed, but without success.


I enjoyed a delightfully refreshing ramble, a mile or two inland, through a gently ascending valley, then two miles along the narrow margin of a pretty little lake between mountains, beyond which lay a much larger one, four or five miles in diameter; this farther lake was only partially divested of its winter ice. Here the scenery was not only grand, but beautiful; there was enough of vegetation to tint the craggy hill-sides and to make the sheltered hollows absolutely green; deer-tracks and the foot-prints of wildfowl were everywhere numerous along the water-side. I saw two decayed skulls of musk oxen, and circles of stones by the little lake, doubtless at some remote period the summer residence of wandering Esquimaux; hence I infer that fish abound in the lake, and that this valley is a favorite deer-pass.

But the contemplation of these objects, although agreeable, was not the object of my solitary ramble; I came on shore to cogitate undisturbed in a leisurely and philosophic manner. We hoped very soon to enter an unknown sea; discoveries were to be made, contingencies provided for, and plans prepared to meet them.

Yesterday Petersen shot an immense bearded seal; it sank, but floated up an hour afterwards. This animal measured 8 feet long, and weighed about 500 lbs. We prefer its flesh to that of the small seals, and its blubber will afford a valuable addition to our stock of lamp oil for the coming winter.

_25th._--In Depot Bay. We remained but twenty-four hours in Levesque Harbor; a change of wind led us to hope for a removal of the ice in Bellot Strait, therefore I determined to make another attempt.


When off the table-land, where the depth is not more than from 6 to 10 fathoms, and the tides run strongest, the ship hardly moved over the ground, although going 6-1/2 knots through the water! Thus delayed, darkness overtook us, and we anchored at midnight in a small indentation of the north shore, christened by the men _Fox's Hole_, rather more than half-way through.

For several hours we had been coquetting with huge rampant ice-masses that wildly surged about in the tideway, or we dashed through boiling eddies, and sometimes almost grazed the tall cliffs; we were therefore naturally glad of a couple or three hours' rest, even in such a very unsafe position. At early dawn we again proceeded west, but for three miles only; the pack again stopped us, and we could perceive that the western sea was covered with ice: the east wind, which could alone remove it, now gave place to a hard-hearted westerly one.

All the strait to the eastward of us, and the eastern sea, as far as could be seen from the hill-tops, is perfectly free from ice, whereas in the direction we wish to proceed there is nothing but packed-ice, or water which cannot be reached. Bitterly disappointed we are, of course; yet there is reasonable ground for hope; grim winter will not ratify the obstinate proceedings of the western ice for nearly four weeks.


Last evening's _amusement_ was most exciting, nor was it without its peculiar perils. With cunning and activity worthy of her name, our little craft warily avoided a tilting-match with the stout blue masses which whirled about, as if with wilful impetuosity, through the narrow channel; some of them were so large as to ground even in 6 or 7 fathoms water. Many were drawn into the eddies, and, acquiring considerable velocity in a contrary direction, suddenly broke bounds, charging out into the stream and entering into mighty conflict with their fellows.

After such a frolic the masses would revolve peaceably or unite with the pack, and await quietly their certain dissolution; may the day of that wished-for dissolution be near at hand! Nothing but strong hope of success induced me to encounter such dangerous opposition. I not only hoped, but almost felt, that we deserved to succeed.


Two plans were now occupying my thoughts, both of them resulting from the conviction that we should probably be compelled to winter to the eastward of Bellot Strait: the most important of these plans is that of finding some series of valleys, chain of lakes, or continuous low land, practicable as an overland sledge-route to the western coast, along which we may transport depots of provisions this autumn; for it is certain that the strong tides will prevent Bellot Strait being frozen over till winter is far advanced, and its surface will afford us no means of passing westward with our sledges.

The other plan, and that which we are now about to execute, is to land a small depot of provisions 60 or 70 miles to the southward, and down Prince Regent's Inlet, in order to facilitate communication with the Esquimaux either this autumn or in early spring.

This precautionary step became so necessary in the event of the west coast presenting unusual difficulties, that I determined to carry it at once into execution. Quitting the "Fox's Hole," and resting for one night in Depot Bay, we sailed thence on the 26th; a fine breeze carried us rapidly southward along the coast of Regent Inlet; there was but little obstruction; occasionally it was necessary to pass through a stream of loose ice; but we saw little of any kind, compared to the experiences of Sir John Ross in 1829.


About dusk (nine o'clock) much loose ice to the southward prevented our making any attempt at further progress; we therefore anchored off the coast--in Stillwell Bay, I think--about 45 miles from the Depot Bay.

Here the depot, consisting of 120 rations, was landed. I observe that it has only been on penetrating into Brentford Bay that we have found the primary rocks washed by the sea; the coast-line both north and south, as far as, and beyond our present position, is a low shore of pale limestone, destitute of fossils; we can, however, see granitic hill-ranges far in the interior.

On the 27th we commenced beating back to the northward, tacking between the land and the ice which lay about 15 miles off shore. Towards night the wind greatly increased, and the ship, under reefed sail plunged violently into the short, swift, high seas; we also felt quite as uneasy and restless as the ship, in our great anxiety to get back and ascertain what changes were likely to be effected by the gale.

_28th._--To-night the weather is more pleasant; the keen and contrary wind has given place to a gentle, fair breeze, the swell has almost subsided, no ice has been seen to-day, and the night is dark and unusually mild. I can hardly fancy that the sea which gently rocks us is not the ocean, and the soft air the breath of our own temperate region!

The delusion is charming.


_30th._--Yesterday after anchoring in Depot Bay I walked over to Possession Point, to visit Ross' cairn. I found a few stones piled up on two large boulders, and under each a halfpenny, one of which I pocketed.

Upon the ground lay the fragments of a bottle which once contained the record, and near it a staff about 4 feet long. Having calculated upon finding the bottle sound, I was obliged to make an impromptu record-case of its long neck, into which I thrust my brief document, and consigned it to the safe custody of a small heap of stones, the staff being erected over it.


It was dark before I got on board again. The strait had been reconnoitred from the hills, and was reported to be perfectly clear of ice! This morning we made a fourth attempt to pass through; but Bellot Strait was by no means clear; the same obstruction existed which defeated our last attempt, and in precisely the same place. Returning eastward, we entered a narrow arm of the sea, nearly a couple of miles to the west of Depot Bay, and anchored in a small creek perfectly sheltered and land-locked, at the foot of a sugarloaf hill.[16] The temperature is falling; last night it stood at 24.


[15] Mr. Kennedy discovered this important passage when in command of the 'Prince Albert' in 1851.

[16] Subsequently named Mount Walker.

Chapter end

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