In the Arctic Seas Part 17

_5th Dec._--Cold, windy weather, with chilling mists from the open water in Bellot Strait. We can seldom leave the shelter of the ship for a walk on shore, and, when we do, rarely see even a ptarmigan.


_12th._--Very cold weather: thermometer down to -41, and the breeze comes to us loaded with mist from the open water, causing the air to feel colder than it otherwise would. Bellot Strait has become a nuisance, not only from this cause, but from the strong winds--purely local--which seldom cease to blow through it.

The seal nets have produced nothing; and as there are no seals, we no longer wonder at not seeing bears. Three foxes have been trapped and a hare seen. Our canine force numbers twenty-four serviceable dogs and six puppies; but these, I fear, will not be strong enough for sledging by March. The monotony of our lives is vastly increased by want of occupation, and confinement, by severe gales, to the ship for five days out of every seven. The general health is good, but there is a natural craving for fresh meat and fresh vegetables--in great measure, perhaps, because they cannot be obtained; but a well-filled letter-bag would be more welcome than anything I know of.


_26th._--Upon four days only during the last fourteen has the weather permitted us to walk. I allude to the wind as the obstacle to our exercise; for temperature, when the air is still, is no bar to any reasonable amount of it. Three or four coveys of ptarmigan have been seen, and of these I shot one brace. The cold increases: thermometer has fallen to -47-1/2, although blowing a moderate gale at the time, and the atmosphere dense with mist.

Our Christmas has been spent with a degree of loyalty to the good old English custom at once spirited and refreshing. All the good things which could possibly be collected together appeared upon the snow-white deal tables of the men, as the officers and myself walked (by invitation) round the lower deck. Venison, beer, and a fresh stock of clay pipes, appeared to be the most prized luxuries; but the variety and abundance of the eatables, tastefully laid out, was such as might well support the delusion which all seemed desirous of imposing upon themselves--that they were in a land of plenty--in fact, _all but_ at home! We contributed a large cheese and some preserves, and candles superseded the ordinary smoky lamps. With so many comforts, and the existence of so much genuine good feeling, their evening was a joyous one, enlivened also by songs and music.

Whilst all was order and merriment within the ship, the scene without was widely different. A fierce north-wester howled loudly through the rigging, the snow-drift rustled swiftly past, no star appeared through the oppressive gloom, and the thermometer varied between 76 and 80 _below the freezing point_. At one time it was impossible to visit the magnetic observatory, although only 210 yards distant, and with a rope stretched along, breast high, upon poles the whole way. The officers discharged this duty for the quarter-masters of the watches during the day and night.

{JAN., 1859.}


_1st Jan., 1859._--This being _Saturday night_ as well as _New Year's Day_, "Sweethearts and Wives" were remembered with even more than the ordinary feeling. New year's eve was celebrated with all the joyfulness which ardent hope can inspire: and we _have_ reasonable ground for _strong hope_. At midnight the expiration of the old year and commencement of the new one was announced to me by _the band_--flutes, accordion, and gong--striking up at my door. Some songs were sung, and the performance concluded with "God save the Queen;" the few who could find space in our mess-room sang the chorus; but this by no means satisfied all the others who were without and unable to show themselves to the officers, so they echoed the chorus, and the effect was very pleasing. Our new year's day has been commemorated with all the substantials of Christmas fare, but without so much display,--less tailoring in pastry, not quite so much clipping of dough into roses, and anchors, and nondescript animals, &c., &c. The past week has been cold and stormy; it now blows strong, and the temperature is -44.

On the 29th a few fresh tracks of animals and a ptarmigan were seen: yesterday I saw three ptarmigan. December proved to be an unusually cold month, its mean temperature being -33; and it was rendered more than ordinarily dark and gloomy by continual mists from Bellot Strait. This open water adds seriously to the drawbacks of a spot already sufficiently cheerless, gameless, and "wind-loved."


_9th._--Another week of uniform temperature of -40, and confinement to the ship by strong winds; the atmosphere is loaded with enveloping mists which impart a raw and surprisingly keen edge to the chilling blasts, blasts that no human nose can endure without blanching, be its proportions what they may. It is wonderful how the dogs stand it, and without apparent inconvenience, unless their fur happen to be thin. They lie upon the snow under the lee of the ship, with no other protection from the weather.

To-day, the winds being light and temperature _up to_-30, we enjoyed walks on shore, although the mist continued so dense as to limit our view to a couple of hundred yards.


I learn from Petersen that the natives of Smith's Sound are well acquainted with the continuation of its shores considerably beyond the farthest point reached by Kane's exploring parties, but unfortunately no one thought of getting them to delineate their local knowledge upon paper. They spoke much of a large island near the west coast called "Umingmak" (musk ox) Island, where there was much open water, abounding with walrus, and where some of their people formerly lived.[19]

Esquimaux exist upon the east coast of Greenland as far north as lat.

76; how much farther north is not known. They are separated from the South Greenlanders by hundreds of miles of ice-bound coasts and impassable glaciers.

Many centuries ago a milder climate _may_ and probably _did_ exist, and a corresponding modification of glacier and a sea less ice-encumbered might have rendered the migration of these poor people from the south to their present isolated abodes practicable; but to me it appears much more easy to suppose that they migrated eastward from the northern outlet of Smith's Sound.

_21st._--More pleasant weather since my last entry; and although last night the temperature fell to -47, yet it has generally been mild; once it rose to -14, but amply made amends by falling to -38 within twelve hours. We have enjoyed much of the moon's presence for the last ten days, but now she is waning and hastening away to the south. Daylight increases in strength and duration, consequently we walk more, and see more, and the winter's gloom gives place to activity and cheerfulness.

Several ptarmigan, three or four hares, a snowy owl, and a bear-track, have at various times been seen. Young has shot four ptarmigan, and I have shot a couple more and a hare, and the men have trapped two foxes.

On board the ship the preparations for travelling take precedence of all other occupations.


_26th._--Part of the sun's disc loomed above the horizon to-day, somewhat swollen and disfigured by the misty atmosphere, but looking benevolent withal. I happened to be diligently traversing the rocky hill-sides in the hope of finding some solitary hare dozing in fancied security, when the sun thus appeared in view, and halted to feast my eyes upon the glorious sight, and scan the features of our returning friend. Hope and promise mingled in his bright beams. Again I moved upward, and with more elastic step; for now the sun of 1859 was shining upon all nature around me.

{FEB., 1859.}

_2nd February._--A lovely, calm, bright day, and beautifully clear, except over the water-space in Bellot Strait, where rests a densely black mist, very strongly resembling the West Indian rain-squall as it looms upon the distant horizon. The increasing sunlight is cheering, but void of heat, and the mercury is often frozen. A few more ptarmigan have been shot.


Our remaining serviceable dogs, twenty-two in number, have been divided with great care into three teams of seven each; the odd dog is added to my team, as my journey is expected to be the longest. The different sledge-parties will now feed up their dogs without limit, so that the utmost degree of work may be got out of them hereafter.

January has been slightly colder than December, mean temperature being -33-1/2, but there has been rather less wind.

_8th._--All will be ready for the departure of Young and myself upon our respective journeys upon the morning of the 14th.

Mr. Petersen and Alexander Thompson accompany me, with two dog-sledges, and fifteen dogs, dragging twenty-four days' provisions. My object is to communicate with the Boothians in the vicinity of the magnetic pole.

Young takes his party of four men and his dog-sledge; he will carry forward provisions for his spring exploration of the shores of Prince of Wales' Land, between the extreme points reached by Lieutenants Osborn and Brown in 1851.

On the 3d I walked for seven and a half hours, and saw two reindeer, but could not approach within shot. Young examined the water-space in the strait, and finds it washes both shores, but extends east and west only about one mile. The Doctor has seen a seal and a dovekie sporting in it.

For the last four days strong winds and intense cold have prevented us from rambling over the hills, besides which the minor preparations for travelling have given us more occupation on board.


James Pitcher has got a slight touch of scurvy; his gums are inflamed; and now it comes out that he dislikes preserved meats, and has not eaten any since he has been in the ship! He has lived upon salt meat and preserved vegetables, except for the very short periods in summer when birds could be obtained. He is rather a "used-up" old fellow, too much so for our severe sledge-work, therefore is one of the few who will remain to take care of the ship. That he should have retained his health for seventeen months, under the circumstances, speaks well for the wholesomeness and quality of our provisions, and the ventilation and cleanliness of the ship.

_10th._--Extremely cold, with dense mists from the open water. Yesterday eight ptarmigan and a sooty fox were seen. We have consumed the last of our venison; it supplied us for three days. We are drinking out a cask of sugar-beer, which is a very mild but agreeable beverage; we make it on board.

_Sunday night, 13th._--To-morrow morning, if fine, Young and I set off upon our travels. He has advanced a portion of his sledge-load to the west side of the water in Bellot Strait, having been obliged to carry it overland for about a mile in order to get there. I have explored the route to the long lake, and find we can reach it without crossing elevated or uncovered land. I saw two reindeer, and Young saw about twenty ptarmigan.


The mean temperature of February up to this date is -332, being an exact continuation of January. I confess to some anxiety upon this point, as hitherto the winter has been unusually severe, and the journeys to be performed will occupy more than twenty days. Besides, we shall be earlier in motion than any of the previous travellers, unless we are to make an exception in favor of Mr. Kennedy's trip of 30 miles from Batty Bay to Fury Beach, between the 5th and 10th January, during which time the lowest temperature registered was only -25. Should either Young or myself remain absent beyond the period for which we carry provisions, Hobson is to send a party in search of us. A sooty fox has been captured lately.

_15th._--A strong N.W. wind, with a temperature of -40, confines us on board. One cannot face these winds, therefore it is fortunate that we did not start, the ship being much more comfortable than a snow-hut.

{MAR., 1859.}


_20th March._--Already I have been a week on board, and so difficult is it to settle down to anything like sedentary occupation, after a period of continued vigorous action, that even now I can scarcely sit still to scribble a brief outline of my trip to Cape Victoria.

On the morning of the 17th February the weather moderated sufficiently for us to set out; the temperature throughout the day varied between -31 and -42-1/2. Leaving Young's party to pass on through the strait, I proceeded by way of the Long Lake, which I found to be 10-1/2 geographical miles in length, with an average width of half a mile.

We built our snow-hut upon the west coast, near Pemmican Rock, after a march of 19 or 20 geographical miles. We always speak of _geographical_ miles with reference to our marches; six geographical are equal to seven English miles.

On the following day the old N.W. wind sprang up with renewed vigor, and the thermometer fell to -48; the cold was therefore intense.

On the third day our dogs went lame in consequence of sore feet; the intense cold seems to be the principal, if not the only cause, having hardened the surface-snow beyond what their feet can endure. I was obliged to throw off a part of the provisions; still we could not make more than 12 or 18 miles daily. We of course walked, so that the dogs had only the remaining provisions and clothing to drag, yet several of them repeatedly fell down in fits.


For several days this severe weather continued, the mercury of my artificial horizon remaining frozen (its freezing-point is -39); and our rum, at first thick like treacle, required thawing latterly, when the more fluid and stronger part had been used. We travelled each day until dusk, and then were occupied for a couple of hours in building our snow-hut. The four walls were run up until 5-1/2 feet high, inclining inwards as much as possible; over these our tent was laid to form a roof; we could not afford the time necessary to construct a dome of snow.

Chapter end

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