In the Arctic Seas Part 8


I went out with a lantern to see the nip,--it certainly was awe-inspiring; no one in his senses could avoid reflecting upon the inevitable fate of a ship if exposed to such fearful pressure. It is now spring tides.

_19th._--All yesterday the lane remained open; in the evening it closed with but slight pressure; yet as the opposing fields of ice continued to move in opposite directions, all jagged points were brushed off, and the debris thus formed between their edges presented a heaving surface of ice-masses,--an ice river. On the separation of the floes, mass after mass forced itself up to the surface, until at length all the submerged ice had risen, except such as had been forced quite under their edges.

One seldom meets with a cleanly fractured floe-edge, they are usually fringed with crushed-up ice or newly formed sludge.

_23rd._--Seals and dovekies are now common; the latter have already made considerable advances towards their summer plumage.

Yesterday there was a very heavy S.E. gale; it blew so furiously, and the snow-drift was so dense, that we could neither hear nor see what was going on twenty yards off; at night the ship, becoming suddenly detached from the ice, heeled over to the storm; until the cause was ascertained we thought the ice had broken up and pressed against the ship. It was not so; but when the weather moderated we found that there had been heavy pressure upon the edge of the floes,--so much, indeed, that the lane of water was now within 70 yards of the 'Fox;' and that ice 4-1/2 feet thick had been crushed during the storm for a distance of about 50 yards.


_25th._--Strong N.W. winds lately, the ship rocking to the breeze, and rubbing her poor sides against the ice, producing a creaking sound which is far from pleasant. More ice squeezing, and a further inroad upon our barrier; it has yielded slightly, nipping the ship, inclining her to port, and lifting her stern about a foot. Occasional groanings within, and surgings of the ice without.

Our boats, provisions, sledges, knapsacks, and equipment are ready for a hasty departure,--beyond this we can do nothing; as long as our friendly barrier lasts we need not fear, but who can tell the moment it may be demolished, and the ship exposed to destruction? I am scribbling within a foot of the sternpost--in fact, there is a notch in my table to receive it; and I sympathize with its constant groanings; the ice allows it no rest.

_27th._--Strong N.W. gale with a return of cold weather. We have drifted 39 miles in the last forty-eight hours! The lane is open; the whole pack appears to have plenty of room to drift, and, I am happy to add, is taking advantage of it,--so much so that the smaller pieces floating freely in the lane can hardly go at the same pace. Our remaining winter companion, the iceberg, was in sight a few days ago, far away to the N.W.; it may be still visible from aloft, but these March gales cut so keenly, that the crow's-nest is but seldom visited.

_31st._--Another N.W. gale; it is also spring tides, and this conjunction makes one fearful of ice movement and pressure; but it seems as if the pack had more room to move in, as it does not close much.

Seals are often shot, bear tracks are common, and narwhals are frequently seen migrating northward. The bears must prefer the night-time for wandering about, else we could not help seeing them; we often find their tracks within a few hundred yards of the ship.

Although the last, yet this is the coldest day of the month--the thermometer down to -27. The mean temperature for March has been unusually high, -3; whilst Lieutenant De Haven's was -17.

Notwithstanding that heavy S.E. gales have three times driven us backward, yet we have advanced 100 miles further down Davis' Straits.

{APR., 1858.}


_6th April._--To-day we enjoy fine weather, the more so since it comes after a tremendous northerly gale of forty-eight hours' duration. Two days ago the friendly old floe, so long our bulwark of defence, was cracked; the lane of water thus formed soon widened to 60 yards, passed within 30 yards of the 'Fox,' and cut off three of our boats. Yesterday morning another crack detached the remaining 30 yards from us, and as it widened the ship swung across the opening; as quickly as we could effect it the ship was again placed alongside the ice and within a projecting point; had it closed only a few feet whilst she lay across the lane, the consequences must have been very serious. Even to effect this slight change of position we were fully occupied for four hours; for the gale blew furiously, and thermometer stood at 12 below zero, and the cold was very much felt; our hawsers were frozen so stiff as to be quite unmanageable, and we were obliged to use the chain cables to warp the ship into safety.

Throughout yesterday the wind continued extremely strong and keen,--fortunately the ice remained perfectly still: our funnels refused to draw up the smoke; so that between the suffocation, the cold, and anxiety lest the ice should move, our Easter Monday was sufficiently miserable. The half of our poor dogs were cut off from the ship by the lane, and continued to howl dismally until late, when the new ice over the lane was strong enough to bear them, and they came across to us.

To-day we have recovered the boats, shot four seals, seen two whales, and much water to the eastward; we are in latitude 67 18' N., and highly delighted with the rapidity of our southern drift.


_10th._--Yesterday evening the setting sun rendered visible the western land, probably Cape Dyer. We have drifted 70 miles in the last week, and are only 18 miles from De Haven's position of escape; but as we are two months earlier, we must expect to be carried farther south.

_12th._--This morning we drifted ingloriously out of the Arctic regions, and with what very different feelings from those with which we crossed the Arctic circle eight months ago! However, we have not done with it yet; directly the ice lets us go, we will (D. V.) re-enter the frigid zone, and "try again," with, I trust, better success.

A gull and a few terns appeared to-day; these are the first of our summer visitors. The temperature improves; yesterday at one o'clock it was +19 in the shade, +15 in the crow's-nest 70 feet high, and +51 against a black surface exposed to the sun.

_16th._--Last night a bear came to the ship, was wounded, but escaped; to-day the tracks were followed up for three miles, the bear found, and again wounded--finally the unlucky beast was shot in the water seven miles from the ship; it was lost in consequence of the rapid drifting of the ice, which ran over the floating carcase.

To-night a dense fog-bank rests upon the water to the southward; its upper edge is illuminated by aurora, showing a faint tremulous light.

_17th._--Another northerly gale; holding fast to the ice with three hawsers; snow-drift limits the view to a couple of miles, so all to the eastward appears water, and to the westward ice.

Last night the ice opened considerably; to secure the ship occupied us for six hours; several of the dogs were again cut off; as the ice they were on was rapidly drifting away, I sent a boat to recover them; it was a difficult and hazardous business, but at length the boat and dogs returned in safety, to my great relief, for it was both dark and late.


_18th._--Yesterday morning when I wrote up my journal, I was hoping to hold on quietly to the floe-edge until the wind moderated, when with clear weather we could take advantage of the openings and make some progress towards the clear sea. We were unable to hold on, for the floe-edge broke away, setting us adrift; some time was occupied in fetching off the boats and dogs,--five of the latter unfortunately would not allow themselves to be caught. As speedily as possible the rudder was shipped and sail set, and before three o'clock the ship was running fast to the eastward! During the night the ice closed, and at daylight scarcely any water was visible; with the exception of a couple of icebergs, all the ice in sight was not more than two days old; it mainly owes its origin and rapid growth to the immense quantities of snow blown off the pack.

It still blows hard, and the thermometer stands at 11. A sudden opening of the ice this forenoon allowed us to run a few miles southward, and then it closed again; we are now surrounded by young ice.

_20th._--We have been carried rapidly past the position where the Arctic discovery ship 'Resolute' was picked up.


Yesterday three bears, a fulmar petrel, and a snow bunting were seen; to-day a fine bear came within 150 yards, and was shot by our sportsmen; as they were standing round it afterwards upon the ice, a small seal, the only one seen for several days, popped up its head as if to exult over its fallen enemy--it was of course instantly shot: we have learnt to esteem seal's liver for breakfast very highly.

It seems hardly right to call polar bears _land_ animals; they abound here,--110 geographical miles from the nearest land,--upon very loose broken-up ice, which is steadily drifting into the Atlantic at the rate of 12 or 14 miles daily; to remain upon it would insure their destruction were they not nearly amphibious; they hunt by scent, and are constantly running across and against the wind, which prevails from the northward, so that the same instinct which directs their search for prey, also serves the important purpose of guiding them in the direction of the land and more solid ice.

I remarked that the upper part of both Bruin's fore-paws were rubbed quite bare; Petersen explains that to surprise the seal a bear crouches down with his fore-paws doubled underneath, and pushes himself noiselessly forward with his hinder legs until within a few yards, when he springs upon the unsuspecting victim, whether in the water or upon the ice. The Greenlanders are fond of bear's flesh, but never eat either the heart or liver, and say that these parts cause sickness. No instance is known of Greenland bears attacking men, except when wounded or provoked; they never disturb the Esquimaux graves, although they seldom fail to rob a cache of seal's flesh, which is a similar construction of loose stones above ground.

A native of Upernivik, one dark winter's day, was out visiting his seal-nets. He found a seal entangled, and, whilst kneeling down over it upon the ice to get it clear, he received a slap on the back--from his companion as he supposed; but a second and heavier blow made him look smartly round. He was horror-stricken to see a peculiarly grim old bear instead of his comrade! without deigning further notice of the man, Bruin tore the seal out of the net and commenced his supper. He was not interrupted; nor did the man wait to see the meal finished.

I had long ago resolved, if we escaped before the 15th, or the 20th April at the latest, to go to Newfoundland to refresh the crew and to refit, even if no damage from the ice should be sustained. In order to do so it would have been necessary for us to visit a Greenland port for a supply of water. We could not have calculated upon much assistance from our engines upon such a voyage, Mr. Brand alone being capable of working the engines, so that ten or twelve hours daily is all the steaming that could have been expected.

But we are still ice-locked, so I purpose going to Holsteinborg in preference to a more southern port, as there we may expect to get reindeer and a small supply of stores suitable to our wants. The whalers sometimes reach Disco in March, Upernivik in May, and the North Water early in June. Unless we should be at once set free, we would not have time to spare for a Newfoundland voyage.



_24th._--Another anxious week has passed. Latterly we have experienced south-westerly currents similar to those which Parry describes when beset here in June, 1819. To-day we have had a strong S.E. breeze, with snow and dark weather. The wind had greatly moderated when the swell reached us about eight o'clock this evening. It is now ten o'clock; the long ocean swell already lifts its crest five feet above the hollow of the sea, causing its thick covering, of icy fragments to dash against each other and against us with unpleasant violence. It is however very beautiful to look upon, the dear old familiar ocean-swell! it has long been a stranger to us, and is welcome in our solitude. If the 'Fox' was as solid as her neighbors, I am quite sure she would enter into this ice-tournament with all their apparent heartiness, instead of audibly making known her sufferings to us. Every considerable surface of ice has been broken into many smaller ones; with feelings of exultation I watched the process from aloft. A floe-piece near us, of 100 yards in diameter, was speedily cracked so as to resemble a sort of labyrinth, or, still more, a field-spider's web. In the course of half an hour the family resemblance was totally lost; they had so battered each other, and struggled out of their original regularity. The rolling sea can no longer be checked; "the pack has taken upon itself the functions of an ocean," as Dr. Kane graphically expresses it.

_26th._--At sea! How am I to describe the events of the last two days?

It has pleased God to accord to us a deliverance in which His merciful protection contrasts--how strongly!--with our own utter helplessness; as if the successive mercies vouchsafed to us during our long, long winter and mysterious ice-drift had been concentrated and repeated in a single act. Thus forcibly does His great goodness come home to the mind!

I am in no humor for writing, being still tired, seedy, and perhaps a little seasick; at least I have a headache, caused by the rolling of the ship and rattling noise of everything.


On Saturday night, the 24th, I went on deck to spend the greater part of it in watching, and to determine what to do. The swell greatly increased; it had evidently been approaching for hours before it reached us, since it rose in proportion as the ice was broken up into smaller pieces. In a short time but few of them were equal in size to the ship's deck; most of them not half so large. I knew that near the pack-edge the sea would be very heavy and dangerous; but the wind was now fair, and having auxiliary steam-power, I resolved to push out of the ice if possible.

Shortly after midnight the ship was under sail, slowly boring her way to the eastward; at two o'clock on Sunday morning commenced steaming, the wind having failed. By eight o'clock we had advanced considerably to the eastward, and the swell had become dangerously high, the waves rising ten feet above the trough of the sea. The shocks of the ice against the ship were alarmingly heavy; it became necessary to steer exactly head-on to swell. We slowly passed a small iceberg 60 or 70 feet high; the swell forced it crashing through the pack, leaving a small water-space in its wake, but sufficient to allow the seas to break against its cliffs, and throw the spray in heavy showers quite over its summit.


The day wore on without change, except that the snow and mists cleared off. Gradually the swell increased, and rolled along more swiftly, becoming in fact a very heavy regular sea, rather than a swell. The ice often lay so closely packed that we could hardly force ahead, although the fair wind had again freshened up. Much heavy hummocky ice and large berg-pieces lay dispersed through the pack; a single thump from any of them would have been instant destruction. By five o'clock the ice became more loose, and clear spaces of water could be seen ahead. We went faster, received fewer though still more severe shocks, until at length we had room to steer clear of the heaviest pieces; and at eight o'clock we emerged from the villanous "pack," and were running fast through straggling pieces into a clear sea. The engines were stopped, and Mr.

Brand permitted to rest after eighteen hours' duty, for we now have no one else capable of driving the engines.

Throughout the day I trembled for the safety of the rudder, and screw; deprived of the one or the other, even for half an hour, I think our fate would have been sealed; to have steered in any other direction than _against_ the swell would have exposed, and probably sacrificed both.


Our bow is very strongly fortified, well plated externally with iron, and so very sharp that the ice-masses, repeatedly hurled against the ship by the swell as she rose to meet it, were thus robbed of their destructive force; they struck us obliquely, yet caused the vessel to shake violently, the bells to ring, and almost knocked us off our legs.

Chapter end

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