In the Arctic Seas Part 5

The nets alluded to are set for the white whale or the seal; if for the former, they are attached to the shore and extended off at right angles so as to intercept them in their autumnal southern migration, when they swim close along the rocks to avoid their direst foe, the grampus, or killer, of sailors, the _Delphinus orca_ of naturalists. When the white whale is stopped by the net it often appears at first to be unconscious of the fact, and continues to swim against it, affording time for the approach of the boat and deadly harpoon from behind. If entangled in the net a very short time suffices to drown them, as, like all the whale tribe, they are obliged to come to the surface to breathe.


The killer is also a cetacean of considerable size, 15 to 20 feet in length, but of very different habits; it is very swift, is armed with powerful teeth, and is gregarious. When in sufficient numbers they even attack the whale, impeding his progress by fastening on his fins and tail. In summer they appear in the Greenland seas, and the seals instantly seek refuge from them in the various creeks and inner harbors; and the Esquimaux hunter in his frail kayak, when he sees the huge pointed dorsal fin swiftly cleaving the surface of the sea, is scarcely less anxious to shun such dangerous company. With such stories as these Petersen beguiles the time; I never tire of listening to them, and now amuse myself in jotting scraps of them down.


Snow crystals--Dog will not eat raven--An Arctic school--The dogs invade us--Bear-hunting by night--Ice-artillery--Arctic palates--Sudden rise of temperature--Harvey's idea of a sortie.

{OCT., 1857.}


_3d Oct._--September has passed away and left us as a legacy to the pack; what a month have we had of anxious hopes and fears!

Up to the 17th S.E. winds prevailed, forcing the ice into a compact body, and urging it north-westward; subsequently N.W. winds set in, drifting it southward, and separating the floe-pieces; but the change of wind being accompanied by a considerable fall of temperature, they were either quickly cemented together again, or young ice formed over the newly opened lanes of water, almost as rapidly as the surface of the sea became exposed. During the month the thermometer ranged between +36 and -2. Two more bears and a raven have been seen. A wearied ptarmigan alighted near the ship, but before it could take wing again the dogs caught it, and scarcely a feather remained by the time I could rush on deck.

Our beautiful little organ was taken out of its case to-day, and put up on the lower deck; the men enjoy its pleasing tones, whilst Christian unceasingly turns the handle in a state of intense delight; he regards it with such awe and admiration, and is so entranced, that one cannot help envying him; of course he never saw one before. The instrument was presented by the Prince Consort to the searching vessel bearing his name which was sent out by Lady Franklin in 1851; it is now about to pass its third winter in the frozen regions.


Two dogs ran off yesterday, in the vain hope, I suppose, of bettering their condition,--we only feed them three times a week at present; they returned this morning.

Seals are daily seen upon the new ice, but in this doubtful sort of light they are extremely timid, therefore our sportsmen cannot get within shot. The bears scent or hear our dogs, and so keep aloof; even the shark has deserted us, the bait remains intact. The snow crystals of last night are extremely beautiful; the largest kind is an inch in length; its form exactly resembles the end of a pointed feather. Stellar crystals two-tenths of an inch in diameter have also fallen; these have six points, and are the most exquisite things when seen under a microscope. I remember noticing them at Melville Island in March, 1853, when the temperature rose to +8; as these were formed last night between the temperatures of +6 and +12, it would appear that the form is due to a certain fixed temperature. In the sun, or even in moonlight, all these crystals glisten most brilliantly; and as our masts and rigging are abundantly covered with them, the 'Fox' never was so gorgeously arrayed as she now appears.


_13th._--One day is very like another; we have to battle stoutly with monotony; and but that each twenty-four hours brings with it necessary though trivial duties, it would be difficult to remember the date. We take our guns and walk long distances, but see nothing. Two of the dogs go hunting on their own account, sometimes remaining absent all night.

What they find or do is a mystery. The weather is generally calm and cold,--very favorable for freezing purposes at all events,--for the ice of only three weeks' growth is two feet thick.

I hardly expect any considerable disruption of the ice before the general break-up in the spring, yet we do not trust any of our provisions upon it, nor is it sufficiently still to set up a magnetic observatory, for which purpose the instruments have been supplied to us.

Petersen still hopes we may escape and get into Upernivik, as the sea is not permanently frozen over there before December. I am surprised to hear that eagles have been seen so far north as Upernivik, although it is but twice in twenty-four years that specimens have been noticed there. In Richardson's 'Fauna Boreali Americana' the extreme northern limit of these birds is given as 66; but Upernivik is in 72-3/4.


A few bear and fox tracks have been seen, but no living creatures for several days, except a flock of ducks hastening southward, and a solitary raven.

It is said that Esquimaux dogs will eat everything except fox and raven.

There are exceptions, however; one of ours, old "Harness Jack," devoured a raven with much gusto some days ago. All the other dogs allowed their harness to be taken off when they were brought on board; but old Jack will not permit himself to be unrobed; when attempted he very plainly threatens to use his teeth. This canine oddity suddenly became immensely popular, by constituting himself protecting head of the establishment when one of his tribe littered; he took up a most uncomfortable position on top of the family cask (our _impromptu_ kennel), and prevented the approach of all the other dogs; but for his timely interference on behalf of the poor little puppies, I verily believe they would all have been stolen and devoured! Dogs may do even worse than eat raven.

I have attempted some experiments for the purpose of determining the mean hourly change of oscillation of a pendulum due to the earth's diurnal motion; but as mine was only 11-1/2 feet in length, I failed of any approach to accuracy. The mean of several observations gave 17 47', whereas the change due to our latitude is about 14 30'. A single experiment gave 14 10', and this was the longest in point of time of any of them, the pendulum having swung for thirty-six minutes.


_24th._--Furious N.W. and S.E. gales have alternated of late; the ship is housed over, to keep out the driving snow; so high is the snow carried in the air that a little box perforated with small holes and triced up 50 feet high is soon filled up; this box is supplied morning and evening with a piece of prepared paper to detect the presence and amount of ozone in the atmosphere; it is a peculiar pet of the Doctor's.

At eight o'clock this evening I noticed the falling of a very brilliant meteor; it passed through the constellation of Cassiopeia in a N.N.E.

direction before terminating its visible existence, which it did very much like a huge rocket; the flash was so brilliant that a man whose back was turned to it mistook the illumination for lightning.

_26th._--Our school opened this evening, under the auspices of Dr.

Walker. He reports eight or nine pupils, and is much gratified by their zeal. At present their studies are limited to the three R's--reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic. They have asked him to read and explain something instructive, so he intends to make them acquainted with the trade-winds and atmosphere. This subject affords an opportunity of explaining the uses of our thermometer, barometer, ozonometer, and electrometer, which they see us take much interest in. It is delightful to find a spirit of inquiry amongst them. Apart from scholastic occupation, I give them healthful exercise in spreading a thick layer of snow over the deck, and encasing the ship all round with a bank of the same material.


_28th._--Midnight. This evening, to our great astonishment, there occurred a disruption and movement of the ice within 200 yards of the ship. The night was calm; the reflection of a bright moon, aided by the more than ordinary brilliancy of the stars upon the snowy expanse, made it appear to us almost daylight. As I sit now in my cabin I can distinctly hear the ice crushing; it resembles the continued roar of distant surf, and there are many other occasional sounds; some of them remind one of the low moaning of the wind, others are loud and harsh, as if trains of heavy wagons with ungreased axles were slowly laboring along. Upon a less-favored night these sounds might be appalling; even as it is, they are sufficiently ominous to invite reflection. Cape York has been in sight for some days past.

_29th._--Another heavenly night, and still greater ice disturbance; some of the crushed-up pieces are nearly four feet thick. The currents, icebergs, and changes of temperature, may contribute to this ice action; but I think the tides are the chief cause, and for these reasons: that it wants but two days to the full moon, and that the ice-movements are almost confined to the night, and change their direction morning and evening. Now we know that the night-tides in Greenland greatly exceed the day-tides. One thing is evident--the weather continues calm, therefore the winds are not concerned in the matter.

{NOV., 1857.}


_2nd Nov._--Having observed some days ago that a few of the dogs were falling away--from some cause or other not having put on their winter clothing before the recent cold weather set in--they were all allowed on board, and given a good extra meal. Since then we can scarcely keep them out. One calm night they made a charge, and boarded the ship so suddenly that several of the men rushed up very scantily clothed, to see what was the matter. Vigorous measures were adopted to expel the intruders, and there was desperate chasing round the deck with broomsticks, &c. Many of them retreated into holes and corners, and two hours elapsed before they were all driven out; but though the chase was hot, it was cold enough work for the half-clad men.

Sailors use quaint expressions. The nightly foraging expeditions are called "sorties;" they point out to me the various corners between decks where the "ice corrodes," _i.e._, the moisture condenses and forms frost; a ramble over the ice is called "a bit of a peruse." I presume this indignity is offered to the word perambulation.


There was a very sudden call "to arms" to-night. Whether sleeping, prosing, or schooling, every one flew out upon the ice on the instant, as if the magazine or the boiler was on the point of explosion. The alarm of "A bear close-to, fighting with the dogs," was the cause. The luckless beast had approached within 25 yards of the ship ere the quartermaster's eye detected his indistinct outline against the snow; so silently had he crept up that he was within 10 yards of some of the dogs. A shout started them up, and they at once flew round the bear and embarrassed his retreat. In crossing some very thin ice he broke through, and there I found him surrounded by yelping dogs. Poor fellow!

Hobson, Young, and Petersen had each lodged a bullet in him; but these only seemed to increase his rage. He succeeded in getting out of the water, when, fearing harm to the numerous by-standers and dogs, or that he might escape, I fired, and luckily the bullet passed through his brain. He proved to be a full-grown male, 7 feet 3 inches in length. As we all aided in the capture, it was decided that the skin should be offered to Lady Franklin.

The carcase will feed our dogs for nearly a month; they were rewarded on the spot with the offal. All of them, however, had not shown equal pluck; some ran off in evident fright, but others showed no symptom of fear, plunging or falling into the water with Bruin. Poor old Sophy was amongst the latter, and received a deep cut in the shoulder from one of his claws. The authorities have prescribed double allowance of food for her, and say she will soon recover.


For the few moments of its duration the chase and death was exciting.

And how strange and novel the scene! A misty moon affording but scanty light--dark figures gliding singly about, not daring to approach each other, for the ice trembled under their feet--the enraged bear, the wolfish howling dogs, and the bright flashes of the deadly rifles.

_3rd._--I remained up the greater part of last night taking observations, for the evening mists had passed away, and a lovely moon reigned over a calm enchanting night; through a powerful telescope she resembled a huge frosted-silver melon, the large crater-like depression answering to that part from which the footstalk had been detached. Not a sound to break the stillness around, excepting when some hungry dog would return to the battlefield to gnaw into the blood-stained ice.

On the 1st the sun paid us his last visit for the year, and now we take all our meals by lamplight.


_5th._--In order to vary our monotonous routine, we determined to celebrate the day; extra grog was issued to the crew, and also for the first time a proportion of preserved plum-pudding. Lady Franklin most thoughtfully and kindly sent it on board for occasional use. It is excellent.

This evening a well-got-up procession sallied forth, marched round the ship with drum, gong, and discord, and then proceeded to burn the effigy of Guy Fawkes. Their blackened faces, extravagant costumes, flaring torches, and savage yells frightened away all the dogs; nor was it until after the fireworks were set off and the traitor consumed that they crept back again. It was school-night, but the men were up for fun, so gave the Doctor a holiday.

_12th._--Yesterday I had the good fortune to shoot two seals; they were very fat and their stomachs were filled with shrimps. To-day Young and Petersen shot three more, and many others have been seen. This is cheering, and entices people out for hours daily. There is just enough movement in the ice to keep a few narrow lanes and small pools of water open; the floes or fields of ice are more inclined to spread out from each other than to close. We have latterly been drifting before northerly winds.


_16th._--A renewal of ice-crushing within a few hundred yards of us. I can hear it in my bed. The ordinary sound resembles the roar of distant surf breaking heavily and continuously; but when heavy masses come in collision with much impetus, it fully realizes the justness of Dr.

Kane's descriptive epithet, "ice artillery." Fortunately for us, our poor little 'Fox' is well within the margin of a stout old floe: we are therefore undisturbed spectators of ice-conflicts, which would be irresistible to anything of human construction. Immediately about the ship all is still, and, as far as appearances go she is precisely as she would be in a secure harbor--housed all over, banked up with snow to her gunwales. In fact, her winter plumage is so complete that the masts alone are visible. The deck and the now useless sky-lights are covered with hard snow. Below hatches we are warm and dry; all are in excellent health and spirits, looking forward to an active campaign next winter.

Chapter end

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