In the Arctic Seas Part 3

At this season the natives of Godhaab resort here and enjoy the trout fishery,--it is truly their season of harvest: the weather is pleasant, food delicious and abundant, and the labor an agreeable pastime.

{AUG., 1857.}


Some kayaks soon came off to the ship, bringing salmon-trout, both fresh and smoked.

A young Esquimaux, named Christian, volunteered his services as our dog-driver, and was accepted; he is about 23 years of age, unmarried, and an orphan. The men soon thoroughly washed and cropped him: soap and scissors being novelties to an Esquimaux: they then rigged him in sailor's clothes; he was evidently not at home in them, but was not the less proud of his improved appearance, as reflected in the admiring glances of his countrymen.

We now hastened away to the Waigat Strait to complete our coals. When passing Godhaven, the pilot was launched off our deck in his little kayak without stopping the ship! As a kayak is usually about 18 feet long, 8 inches deep, and only 16 or 17 inches wide, it requires great expertness to perform such a feat without the addition of a capsize.

_4th August._--Entered the Waigat yesterday morning, slowly steaming through a sea of glass. Its surface was only rippled by the myriads of eider-ducks which extended over it for several miles: most of them were immature in plumage, and were probably the birds of last year.

After running about 24 miles, towards evening we approached a low range of sandstone cliffs on the Disco shore, in which horizontal seams of coal were seen. Here we anchored, and immediately commenced coaling. It was fortunate we did so, for soon it began to blow hard; and ere noon to-day we were obliged, for the safety of the ship, to leave our exposed anchorage, having however secured eight or nine tons of tolerable coal.

Formerly these coal-seams were worked for the supply of the neighboring settlements, but for several years past it has been found more profitable and convenient to send out coals from Denmark, and thus permit the natives to devote their whole time to the seal-fishery.


The Waigat scenery is unusually grand; the strait varies from 3 to 5 leagues in width; on each side are mountains of 3000 feet in height. The Disco side, upon which we landed, is composed of trap, sandstone appearing only at the beach, and occasionally rising in cliffs to about 100 feet. Upon the moss-clad slopes many fragments of quartz and zeolite were met with. The north end of Disco is almost a precipice to its snow-capped summit, which is 4000 feet high.

_5th._--A pleasant fair wind carries us rapidly northward, passing many icebergs. Our rigging is richly garnished with split codfish, which we hoped would dry and keep; but a warm day in Disco Fiord, and much rain with a southerly gale in the Waigat, have destroyed it for our own use.

It is however still valuable as food for our dogs. I am very anxious to complete my stock of these our native auxiliaries, as without them we cannot hope to explore all the lands which it is the object of our voyage to search. We could only obtain ten at Godhaven, and require twenty more.


_6th._--By Petersen's intimate knowledge of the coast we were enabled to run close in to the little settlement of Proven during the night, and obtain a few dogs and dogs' food. This morning we reached the extreme station of Upernivik, the last trace of civilization we shall meet with for some time. It is in lat. 72-3/4 N. Here Petersen resided for twelve of the eighteen years he has spent in Greenland, and his unlooked-for re-appearance astonished and delighted the small community, more especially Governor Fliescher and his household, who received us with a most hearty welcome.

_7th._--Yesterday, when we hove to off Upernivik, the weather was very bad and rapidly growing worse, therefore our stay was limited to a couple of hours. The last letters for home were landed, fourteen dogs and a quantity of seal's flesh for them embarked, and the ship's head was turned seaward.

It was then blowing a southerly gale, with overcast murky sky, and a heavy sea running. When four miles outside the outer island, breakers were suddenly discovered ahead, only just in time to avoid the ledge of sunken rocks upon which the sea was beating most violently. Many such rocks lie at considerable distances beyond the islands which border this coast, and greatly add to the dangers of its navigation. Being now fairly at sea, and the ship under easy sail for the night, I went early to bed in the hope of sleeping. I had been up all the previous night, naturally anxious about the ship threading her way through so many dangers, uncertain about being able to complete the number of our sledge-dogs, and much occupied in closing my correspondence, to which there would be an end for at least a year. All this over, the uncertain future loomed ominously before me. The great responsibilities I had undertaken seemed now and at once to fall with all their weight upon me.

A mental whirlpool was the consequence, which, backed by the material storm, and the howling of the wretched dogs in concert on deck, together with the tumbling about of every thing below, long kept sleep in abeyance.


One thought and feeling predominated: it was gratitude, deep and humble, for the success which had hitherto attended us, and for some narrow escapes which I must ever regard as Providential.

Yesterday's gale has given place to calm foggy weather. An occasional iceberg is seen. The officers amuse themselves in trying new guns, and shooting sea-birds for our dogs.

Governor Fliescher told me yesterday that for the last four weeks southerly winds prevailed, and that only a fortnight ago his boat was unable to reach the Loom Cliffs at Cape Shackleton, 50 miles north of Upernivik, in consequence of the ice being pressed in against the land.

I fear these same winds have closed together the ice which occupies the middle of Davis' Strait (hence called the middle ice), so that we shall not be able to penetrate it. However, we are standing out to make the attempt.


To the uninitiated it may be as well to observe that each winter the sea called Baffin's Bay freezes over; in spring this vast body of ice breaks up, and drifting southward in a mass--called the main-pack, or the middle ice--obstructs the passage across from east to west.

The "North Passage" is made by sailing round the north end of this pack; the "Middle Passage," by pushing through it; and the "Southern Passage,"

by passing round its southern extreme; but seasons do occur when none of these routes are practicable.

It is very remarkable that southward of Disco northerly winds have prevailed. They greatly impeded our progress up Davis' Strait, but we cheered ourselves with the hope that they would effectually clear a path for us across the northern part of Baffin's Bay.

_8th._--Last night we reached the edge of the middle ice, about 70 miles to the west of Upernivik, and ran southward along its edge all night.

This morning, in thick fog, the ship was caught in its margin of loose ice. The fog soon after cleared off, and we saw the clear sea about two miles to the eastward, whilst all to the west was impenetrable closely-packed floe-pieces. After steaming out of our predicament (a matter which we could not accomplish under sail) we ran on to the southward until evening, but found the pack edge still composed of light ice very closely pressed together.


Having now closely examined it for an extent of 40 miles, I was satisfied that we could not force a passage through it across Baffin's Bay, as is frequently done in ordinary seasons; therefore, taking advantage of a fair wind, we steered to the northward, in order to seek an opening in that direction.

_12th._--We are in Melville Bay; made fast this afternoon to an iceberg, which lies aground in 58 fathoms water, about 2 miles from Browne's Islands, and between them and the great glacier which here takes the place of the coast-line.


We have got thus far without any difficulty, sailing along the edge of the middle ice; but here we find it pressing in against Browne's Islands, and covering the whole bay to the northward, quite in the steep face of the glacier. This is evidently the result of long-continued southerly winds; but as the ice is very much broken up, we may expect it to move off rapidly before the autumnal northerly winds now due, and these winds invariably remove the previous season's ice. All that we know of Melville Bay navigation in August, is derived from the experience of Government and private searching expeditions during eight or nine seasons. My own three previous transits across it were made in this month. The whalers either get through in June or July, or give up the attempt as being too late for their fishing. It frequently happens that they get round the south end of the middle ice, between latitudes 66 and 69 N., and up the west coast of Baffin's Bay late in the season; but we have no accounts of these voyages, nor should I be justified, at this late period of the season, in abandoning the prospect before me, in order to attempt a route which, even if successful, would lengthen our voyage to Barrow Strait by 700 or 800 miles. We have already passed what is usually the most difficult and dangerous part of the Melville Bay transit.

There is much to excite intense admiration and wonder around us; one cannot at once appreciate the grandeur of this mighty glacier, extending unbroken for 40 or 50 miles. Its sea-cliffs, about 5 or 6 miles from us, appear comparatively low, yet the icebergs detached from it are of the loftiest description. Here, on the spot, it does not seem incorrect to compare the icebergs to mere chippings off its edge, and the floe-ice to the thinnest shavings.


The far-off outline of glacier, seen against the eastern sky, has a faint tinge of yellow; it is almost horizontal, and of unknown distance and elevation.

There is an unusual dearth of birds and seals; everything around us is painfully still, excepting when an occasional iceberg splits off from the parent glacier; then we hear a rumbling crash like distant thunder, and the wave occasioned by the launch reaches us in six or seven minutes, and makes the ship roll lazily for a similar period. I cannot imagine that within the whole compass of nature's varied aspects, there is presented to the human eye a scene so well adapted for promoting deep and serious reflection, for lifting the thoughts from trivial things of every day life to others of the highest import.

The glacier serves to remind one at once of Time and of Eternity--of time, since we see portions of it break off to drift and melt away; and of eternity, since its downward march is so extremely slow, and its augmentations behind so regular, that no change in its appearance is perceptible from age to age. If even the untaught savages of luxuriant tropical regions regard the earth merely as a temporary abode, surely all who gaze upon this ice-overwhelmed region, this wide expanse of "terrestrial wreck," must be similarly assured that here "we have no abiding place."


During daytime the strong glare is very distressing, hence the subdued light of midnight, when the sun just skims along the northern horizon, is much the most agreeable part of the twenty-four hours; the temperature varies between 30 and 40 of Fahrenheit.

The drift-ice of various descriptions about us is constantly in motion under the influence of mysterious surface and under currents (according to their relative depths of floatation), which whirl them about in every possible direction.

To the S.E. are two small islands, almost enveloped in the glacier, and far within it an occasional mountain-peak protrudes from beneath.


From observing closely the variations in the glacier surface, I think we may safely infer that where it lies unbroken and smooth, the supporting land is level; and where much crevassed, the land beneath is uneven. The crevassed parts are of course impassable, but, by following the windings of the smooth surface, I think the interior could be reached. Some attempts to cross the glacier in South Greenland have failed, yet, by studying its character and attending to this remark, I think places might be found where an attempt would succeed. Mr. Petersen tells me that the Esquimaux of Upernivik are unable to account for occasional disappearances and reappearances of immense herds of reindeer, except by assuming that they migrate at intervals to feeding-grounds beyond the glacier, the surface of which he also says is smooth enough in many places even for dog-sledges to travel upon. As there is much uninhabited land, both to the northward and southward of Upernivik, I do not see the necessity for this supposition. The habits of the Esquimaux confine them almost exclusively to the islands and sea-coasts.


Melville Bay--Beset in Melville Bay--Signs of Winter--The coming storm--Drifting in the pack--Canine appetite--Resigned to a winter in the pack--Dinner stolen by sharks--The Arctic shark--White Whales and Killers.


_15th August._--Three days of the most perfect calm have sadly taxed our patience. Lovely bright weather, but scarcely a living creature seen.

This afternoon the anxiously-looked-for north wind sprang up, and immediately the light ice began to drift away before it, but it is not strong enough to influence the icebergs, and they greatly retard the clearing-out of the bay. We have noticed a constant wind off the glacier, probably the result of its cooling effect upon the atmosphere; this wind does not extend more than 3 or 4 miles out from it.

_16th._--One of the loveliest mornings imaginable: the icebergs sparkled in the sun, and the breeze was just sufficiently strong to ripple the patches of dark blue sea; beyond this, there was nothing to cheer one in the prospect from the crow's-nest at four o'clock; but little change had taken place in the ice; I therefore determined to run back along the pack-edge to the south-westward, in the hope that some favorable change might have taken place further off shore. The barometer was unusually low, yet no indication of any change of weather. A seaman's chest was picked up; it contained only a spoon, a fork, and some tin canisters, and probably drifted here from the southward, where the two whale-ships were crushed in June, affording another proof of the prevalence of southerly winds. As we steamed on, the ice was found to have opened considerably; it fell calm, and mist was observed rolling along the glacier from the southward. By noon a S.E. wind reached us; all sail was set, the leads or lanes of water became wider, and our hopes of speedily crossing Melville Bay rose in proportion as our speed increased. We are pursuing our course without let or hindrance.

Chapter end

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