In the Arctic Seas Part 18

Our equipment consisted of a very small brown-holland tent, macintosh floor-cloth, and felt robes; besides this, each man had a bag of double blanketing, and a pair of fur boots, to sleep in. We wore mocassins over the pieces of blanket in which our feet were wrapped up, and, with the exception of a change of this foot-gear, carried no spare clothes. The daily routine was as follows:--I led the way; Petersen and Thompson followed, conducting their sledges; and in this manner we trudged on for eight or ten hours without halting, except when necessary to disentangle the dog-harness. When we halted for the night, Thompson and I usually sawed out the blocks of compact snow and carried them to Petersen, who acted as the master-mason in building the snow-hut: the hour and a half or two hours usually employed in erecting the edifice was the most disagreeable of the day's labor, for, in addition to being already well tired and desiring repose, we became thoroughly chilled whilst standing about. When the hut was finished, the dogs were fed, and here the great difficulty was to insure the weaker ones their full share in the scramble for supper; then commenced the operation of unpacking the sledge, and carrying into our hut everything necessary for ourselves, such as provision and sleeping gear, as well as all boots, fur mittens, and even the sledge dog-harness, to prevent the dogs from eating them during our sleeping hours. The door was now blocked up with snow, the cooking-lamp lighted, foot-gear changed, diary written up, watches wound, sleeping bags wriggled into, pipes lighted, and the merits of the various dogs discussed, until supper was ready; the supper swallowed, the upper robe or coverlet was pulled over, and then to sleep.

Next morning came breakfast, a struggle to get into frozen mocassins, after which the sledges were packed, and another day's march commenced.

In these little huts we usually slept warm enough, although latterly, when our blankets and clothes became loaded with ice, we felt the cold severely. When our low doorway was carefully blocked up with snow, and the cooking-lamp alight the temperature quickly rose so that the walls became glazed, and our bedding thawed; but the cooking over, or the doorway partially opened, it as quickly fell again, so that it was impossible to sleep, or even to hold one's pannikin of tea, without putting our mitts on, so intense was the cold!

On the 21st I visited our main depot laid out last October; it was safe, but unfortunately had been carried far into Wrottesley Inlet, and only 40 miles south of Bellot Strait.

On the 22d an easterly gale prevented our marching, but we had the good fortune to shoot a bear, so consoled ourselves with fresh steaks, and the dogs with an ample feed of _unfrozen_ flesh--a treat they had not enjoyed for many months.


We coasted along a granitic land, deeply indented and fringed with islands, and found it to be the general characteristic of the Boothian shore from Bellot Strait, until we had accomplished half the distance to the magnetic pole; limestone then appeared, and the remainder of our journey was performed along a low, straight shore, which afforded us much greater facility for sledging.

Throughout the whole distance we found a mixture of heavy old ice and light ice of last autumn, in many places squeezed up into pack; but as we advanced southward aged floes were less frequently seen.

On the first of March we halted to encamp at about the position of the magnetic pole--for no cairn remains to mark the spot. I had almost concluded that my journey would prove to be a work of labor in vain, because hitherto no traces of Esquimaux had been met with, and, in consequence of the reduced state of our provisions and the wretched condition of the poor dogs--six out of the fifteen being quite useless--I could only advance one more march.


But we had done nothing more than look _ahead_; when we halted, and turned round, great indeed was my surprise and joy to see four men walking after us. Petersen and I immediately buckled on our revolvers and advanced to meet them. The natives halted, made fast their dogs, laid down their spears, and received us without any evidence of surprise. They told us they had been out upon a seal hunt on the ice, and were returning home: we proposed to join them, and all were soon in motion again; but another hour brought sunset, and we learned that their snow village of eight huts was still a long way off, so we hired them, at the rate of a needle for each Esquimaux, to build us a hut, which they completed in an hour; it was 8 feet in diameter, 5-1/2 feet high, and in it we all passed the night. Perhaps the records of architecture do not furnish another instance of a dwelling-house so cheaply constructed!


We gave them to understand that we were anxious to barter with them, and very cautiously approached the real object of our visit. A naval button upon one of their dresses afforded the opportunity; it came, they said, from some white people who were starved upon an island where there are salmon (that is, in a river); and that the iron of which their knives were made came from the same place. One of these men said he had been to the island to obtain wood and iron, but none of them had seen the white men. Another man had been to "Ei-wil-lik" (Repulse Bay), and counted on his fingers seven individuals of Rae's party whom he remembered having seen.


These Esquimaux had nothing to eat, and no other clothing than their ordinary double dresses of fur; they would not eat our biscuit or salt pork, but took a small quantity of bear's blubber and some water. They slept in a sitting posture, with their heads leaning forward on their breasts. Next morning we travelled about 10 miles further, by which time we were close to Cape Victoria; beyond this I would not go, much as they wished to lead us on; we therefore landed, and they built us a commodious snow-hut in half an hour; this done, we displayed to them our articles for barter--knives, files, needles, scissors, beads, etc.--expressed our desire to trade with them, and promised to purchase everything which belonged to the starved white men, if they would come to us on the morrow. Notwithstanding that the weather was now stormy and bitterly cold, two of the natives stripped off their outer coats of reindeer skin and bartered them for a knife each.

Despite the gale which howled outside, we spent a comfortable night in our roomy hut.

Next morning the entire village population arrived, amounting to about forty-five souls, from aged people to infants in arms, and bartering commenced very briskly. First of all we purchased all the relics of the lost expedition, consisting of six silver spoons and forks, a silver medal, the property of Mr. A. M'Donald, assistant surgeon, part of a gold chain, several buttons, and knives made of the iron and wood of the wreck, also bows and arrows constructed of materials obtained from the same source. Having secured these, we purchased a few frozen salmon, some seals' blubber and venison, but could not prevail upon them to part with more than one of their fine dogs. One of their sledges was made of two stout pieces of wood, which might have been a boat's keel.


All the old people recollected the visit of the 'Victory.' An old man told me his name was "Ooblooria:" I recollected that Sir James Ross had employed a man of that name as a guide, and reminded him of it; he was, in fact, the same individual, and he inquired after Sir James by his Esquimaux name of "Agglugga."

I inquired after the man who was furnished with a wooden leg by the carpenter of the 'Victory:' no direct answer was given, but his daughter was pointed out to me. Petersen explained to me that they do not like alluding in any way to the dead, and that, as my question was not answered, it was certain the man was no longer amongst the living.

None of these people had seen the whites; one man said he had seen their bones upon the island where they died, but some were buried. Petersen also understood him to say that the boat was crushed by the ice. Almost all of them had part of the plunder; they say they will be here when we return, and will trade more with us; also that we shall find natives upon Montreal Island at the time of our arriving there.

Next morning, 4th March, several natives came to us again. I bought a spear 6-1/2 feet long from a man who told Petersen distinctly that a ship having three masts had been crushed by the ice out in the sea to the west of King William's Island, but that all the people landed safely; he was not one of those who were eye-witnesses of it; the ship sunk, so nothing was obtained by the natives from her; all that they have got, he said, came from the island in the river. The spear staff appears to have been part of the gunwale of a light boat. One old man, "Oo-na-lee," made a rough sketch of the coast-line with his spear upon the snow, and said it was eight journeys to where the ship sank, pointing in the direction of Cape Felix. I can make nothing out of his rude chart.


The information we obtained bears out the principal statements of Dr.

Rae, and also accounts for the disappearance of one of the ships; but it gives no clue to the whereabouts of the other, nor the direction whence the ships come. One thing is tolerably certain--the crews did not at any time land upon the Boothian shore.

These Esquimaux were all well clothed in reindeer dresses, and looked clean; they appeared to have abundance of provisions, but scarcely a scrap of wood was seen amongst them which had not come from the lost expedition. Their sledges, with the exception of the one already spoken of, were wretched little affairs, consisting of two frozen rolls of seal-skins coated with ice, and attached to each other by bones, which served as the cross-bars. The men were stout, hearty fellows, and the women arrant thieves, but all were good-humored and friendly. The women were decidedly plain; in fact, this term would have been flattering to most of them; yet there was a degree of vivacity and gentleness in the manners of some that soon reconciled us to these Arctic specimens of the fair sex. They had fine eyes and teeth, as well as very small hands, and the young girls had a fresh rosy hue not often seen in combination with olive complexions.

Esquimaux mothers carry their infants on their backs within their large fur dresses, and where the babes can only be got at by pulling them out over the shoulder. Whilst intent upon my bargaining for silver spoons and forks belonging to Franklin's expedition, at the rate of a few needles or a knife for each relic, one pertinacious old dame, after having obtained all she was likely to get from me for herself, pulled out her infant by the arm, and quietly held the poor little creature (for it was perfectly naked) before me in the breeze, the temperature at the time being 60 below freezing point! Petersen informed me that she was begging for a needle for her child. I need not say I gave it one as expeditiously as possible; yet sufficient time elapsed before the infant was again put out of sight to alarm me considerably for its safety in such a temperature. The natives, however, seemed to think nothing of what looked to me like cruel exposure of a naked baby.


We now returned to the ship with all the speed we could command; but stormy weather occasioned two days' delay, so that we did not arrive on board until the 14th March. Though considerably reduced in flesh, I and my companions were in excellent health, and blessed with insatiable appetites. On washing our faces, which had become perfectly black from the soot of our blubber lamp, sundry scars, relics of frost-bites, appeared; and the tips of our fingers, from constant frost-bites, had become as callous as if seared with hot iron.

In this journey of twenty-five days we travelled 360 geographical miles (420 English), and completed the discovery of the coast-line of continental America, thereby adding about 120 miles to our charts. The mean temperature throughout the journey was 30 below zero of Fahrenheit, or 62 below the freezing point of water.

On reaching the ship, I at once assembled my small crew, and told them of the information we had obtained, pointing out that there still remained one of the ships unaccounted for, and therefore it was necessary to carry out all our projected lines of search.


During this journey I acquired the Arctic accomplishment of eating frozen blubber, in delicate little slices, and vastly preferred it to frozen pork. At the present moment I do not think I could even taste it, but the same privation and hunger which induced me to eat of such food would doubtless enable me again to partake of it _very kindly_.

I shot a couple of foxes which came playing about the dogs; conscious of their superior speed, they were very impudent, snapping at the dogs'

tails, and passing almost under their noses. I shot these foxes, intending to eat them; but the dogs anticipated me with respect to one; the other we feasted off at our mess-table, and thought it by no means bad; it was insipid, but decidedly better to our tastes than preserved meat.


Captain Allen Young and his party had returned on board on the 3rd of March, having placed their depot upon the shore of Prince of Wales'

Land, about 70 miles S.W. of the ship. Young found the ice in Bellot Strait so rough as to be impassable, and was obliged to adopt the lake route. Prince of Wales' Land was found to be composed of limestone; the shore was low, and fringed for a distance of ten miles to seaward with an ancient land-floe. The remaining width of the strait between this land (North Somerset) and Prince of Wales' Land was about 15 miles, and this space was composed of ice formed since September last; this was the water we looked at so anxiously last autumn from Cape Bird and Pemmican Rock. His party lived in their tent, protected from the wind by snow walls, and, like ourselves, escaped with a few trivial frost-bites. So far all was very satisfactory, the general health good, and the eagerness of my crew to commence travelling quite charming.


Young proposed carrying out another depot to the north-west, in order to explore well up Peel Strait, and would have started on the 17th, but the weather was too severe. The day was spent in a fruitless search for three casks of sugar--a serious and unaccountable deficiency--but, as it was important to replace them with as little delay as possible, Young set off on the 18th, although it blew a N.W. gale at the time, with two men and eighteen dogs, for Fury Beach; failing to find the requisite quantity there, he will go on to Port Leopold.


[19] Petersen conversed with two men who had themselves been up to Umingmak Island.


Dr. Walker's sledge journey--Snow-blindness attacks Young's party--Departure of all sledge-parties--Equipment of sledge-parties--Meet the same party of natives--Intelligence of the second ship--My depot robbed--Part company from Hobson--Matty Island--Deserted snow-huts--Native sledges--Land on King William Land.


Doctor Walker's zeal for travelling was not to be restrained; I therefore gladly availed myself of his willingness to go with a party to Cape Airey and bring back the depot of provisions left there in August last. These trips will delay our spring journeys for a few days.

During my absence from the 'Fox' the weather was often stormy, and temperature unusually low; the mean for the month of February was -36, showing it to be one of the coldest on record. When possible the men were allowed to go out shooting, and obtain fifty or sixty ptarmigan and a hare; a few foxes were taken in traps, and two reindeer were seen.

Yesterday two bears came near the ship, but were frightened away by the dogs. Hobson shot three ptarmigan. To-day I rambled over the hills, the weather being fine, and saw a hare.

_29th._--Continued fine weather. A couple more foxes and a lemming in its _brown_ coat have been captured, and a hare and four ptarmigan shot. This fine bright weather seems to have awakened the lemmings and ermines; their tracks, which were very rarely seen during winter, are now tolerably numerous; foxes appear in greater numbers, probably following up the ptarmigan from the south. The thermometer ranges between zero and -20; it has once been up to +13. When exposed to a noonday sun against the ship's side it rises 50 higher. The earth-thermometer--placed 2 feet 2 inches beneath the surface--which gradually fell until the 10th of this month, has now begun to ascend; its minimum was +1/2; much snow also lay over it, 6 feet deep at this season.

Chapter end

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