Axidava

Fugitives From The Arctic Seas

It was the 18th of July before the aspects of the ice about us gave me the hope of progress. We had prepared ourselves for the new encounter with the sea and its trials by laying in a store of lumme [an Arctic bird], two hundred and fifty of which had been duly skinned, spread open, and dried on the rocks as the entremets of our bread-dust and tallow.

My journal tells of disaster in its record of our setting out. In launching the “Hope” from the frail and perishing ice-wharf on which we found our first refuge from the gale, she was precipitated into the sludge below, carrying away rail and bulwark, losing overboard our best shot-gun, Bonsall’s favorite, and, worst of all, that universal favorite, our kettle,—soup-kettle, paste-kettle, tea-kettle, water-kettle, in one. I may mention before I pass that the kettle found its substitute and successor in the remains of a tin can which a good aunt of mine had filled with ginger-nuts two years before, and which had long survived the condiments that once gave it dignity. “Such are the uses of adversity.”

Our descent to the coast followed the margin of the fast ice. After passing the Crimson Cliffs of Sir John Ross it wore almost the dress of a holiday excursion,—a rude one, perhaps, yet truly one in feeling. Our course, except where a protruding glacier interfered with it, was nearly parallel to the shore. The birds along it were rejoicing in the young summer, and when we halted it was upon some green-clothed cape near a stream of water from the ice-fields above. Our sportsmen would clamber up the cliffs and come back laden with little auks; great generous fires of turf, that cost nothing but the toil of gathering, blazed merrily; and our happy oarsmen, after a long day’s work, made easy by the promise ahead, would stretch themselves in the sunshine and dream happily away till called to the morning wash and prayers. We enjoyed it the more, for we all of us knew that it could not last.

This coast must have been a favorite region at one time with the natives,—a sort of Esquimaux Eden. We seldom encamped without finding the ruins of their habitations, for the most part overgrown with lichens, and exhibiting every mark of antiquity. One of these, in latitude 76° 20′, was once, no doubt, an extensive village. Cairns for the safe deposit of meat stood in long lines, six or eight in a group; and the huts, built of large rocks, faced each other, as if disposed on a street or avenue.

The same reasoning which deduces the subsidence of the coast from the actual base of the Temple of Serapis, proves that the depression of the Greenland coast, which I had detected as far north as Upernavik, is also going on up here. Some of these huts were washed by the sea or torn away by the ice that had descended with the tides. The turf, too, a representative of very ancient growth, was cut off even with the water’s edge, giving sections two feet thick. I had not noticed before such unmistakable evidence of the depression of this coast: its converse elevation I had observed to the north of Wostenholme Sound. The axis of oscillation must be somewhere in the neighborhood of latitude 77°.

We reached Cape York on the 21st, after a tortuous but romantic travel through a misty atmosphere. Here the land-leads ceased, with the exception of some small and scarcely practicable openings near the shore, which were evidently owing to the wind that prevailed for the time. Everything bore proof of the late development of the season. The red snow was a fortnight behind its time. A fast floe extended with numerous tongues far out to the south and east. The only question was between a new rest, for the shore-ices to open, or a desertion of the coast and a trial of the open water to the west.

I climbed the rocks a second time with Mr. McGary, and took a careful survey of the ice with my glass. The “fast,” as the whalers call the immovable shore-ice, could be seen in a nearly unbroken sweep, passing by Bushnell’s Island, and joining the coast not far from where I stood. The outside floes were large, and had evidently been not long broken; but it cheered my heart to see that there was one well defined lead which followed the main floe until it lost itself to seaward.

I called my officers together, explained to them the motives which governed me, and prepared to re-embark. The boats were hauled up, examined carefully, and, as far as our means permitted, repaired. The “Red Eric” was stripped of her outfit and cargo, to be broken up for fuel when the occasion should come. A large beacon-cairn was built on an eminence, open to view from the south and west, and a red flannel shirt, spared with some reluctance, was hoisted as a pennant to draw attention to the spot. Here I deposited a succinct record of our condition and purposes, and then directed our course south by west into the ice-fields.

By degrees the ice through which we were moving became more and more impacted, and it sometimes required all our ice-knowledge to determine whether a particular lead was practicable or not. The irregularities of the surface, broken by hummocks, and occasionally by larger masses, made it difficult to see far ahead, besides which we were often embarrassed by the fogs. I was awakened one evening from a weary sleep in my fox-skins to discover that we had fairly lost our way. The officer at the helm of the leading boat, misled by the irregular shape of a large iceberg that crossed his track, had lost the main lead some time before, and was steering shoreward, far out of the true course. The little canal in which he had locked us was hardly two boats’-lengths across, and lost itself not far off in a feeble zigzag both behind and before us; it was evidently closing, and we could not retreat.

Without apprising the men of our misadventure, I ordered the boats hauled up, and, under pretence of drying the clothing and stores, made a camp on the ice. A few hours after the weather cleared enough for the first time to allow a view of the distance, and McGary and myself climbed a berg some three hundred feet high for the purpose. It was truly fearful; we were deep in the recesses of the bay, surrounded on all sides by stupendous icebergs and tangled floe-pieces. My sturdy second officer, not naturally impressible, and long accustomed to the vicissitudes of whaling life, shed tears at the prospect.

There was but one thing to be done: cost what it might, we must harness our sledges again and retrace our way to the westward. One sledge had been already used for firewood; the “Red Eric,” to which it had belonged, was now cut up, and her light cedar planking laid upon the floor of the other boats, and we went to work with the rue-raddies as in the olden time. It was not till the third toilsome day was well spent that we reached the berg that had bewildered our helmsman. We hauled over its tongue and joyously embarked again upon a free lead, with a fine breeze from the north.

Our little squadron was now reduced to two boats. The land to the northward was no longer visible, and whenever I left the margin of the fast to avoid its deep sinuosities, I was obliged to trust entirely to the compass. We had at least eight days’ allowance of fuel on board; but our provisions were running very low, and we met few birds, and failed to secure any larger game. We saw several large seals upon the ice, but they were too watchful for us; and on two occasions we came upon the walrus sleeping, once within actual lance-thrust; but the animal charged in the teeth of his assailant and made good his retreat.

On the 28th I instituted a quiet review of the state of things before us. Our draft on the stores we had laid in at Providence Halt had been limited for some days to three raw eggs and two breasts of birds a day, but we had a small ration of bread-dust besides; and when we halted, as we did regularly for meals, our fuel allowed us to indulge lavishly in the great panacea of Arctic travel, tea. The men’s strength was waning under this restricted diet, but a careful reckoning up of our remaining supplies proved to me now that even this was more than we could afford ourselves without an undue reliance on the fortunes of the hunt. Our next land was to be Cape Shackleton, one of the most prolific bird-colonies of the coast, which we were all looking to, much as sailors nearing home in their boats after disaster and short allowance at sea. But, meting out our stores through the number of days that must elapse before we could expect to share its hospitable welcome, I found that five ounces of bread-dust, four of tallow, and three of bird-meat must from this time form our daily ration.

So far we had generally coasted the fast ice; it had given us an occasional resting-place and refuge, and we were able sometimes to reinforce our stores of provisions by our guns. But it made our progress tediously slow, and our stock of small shot was so nearly exhausted that I was convinced our safety depended on increase of speed. I determined to try the more open sea.

For the first two days the experiment was a failure. We were surrounded by heavy fogs; a southwest wind brought the outside pack upon us, and obliged us to haul up on the drifting ice. We were thus carried to the northward, and lost about twenty miles. My party, much overworked, felt despondingly the want of the protection of the land-floes.

Nevertheless, I held to my purpose, steering south-southwest as nearly as the leads would admit, and looking constantly for the thinning out of the pack that hangs around the western water.

Although the low diet and exposure to wet had again reduced our party, there was no apparent relaxation of energy, and it was not until some days later that I found their strength seriously giving way.

It is a little curious that the effect of a short allowance of food does not show itself in hunger. The first symptom is a loss of power, often so imperceptibly brought on that it becomes evident only by an accident. I well remember our look of blank amazement as, one day, the order being given to haul the “Hope” over a tongue of ice, we found she would not budge. At first I thought it was owing to the wetness of the snow-covered surface in which her runners were; but, as there was a heavy gale blowing outside, and I was extremely anxious to get her on to a larger floe to prevent being drifted off, I lightened her cargo and set both crews upon her. In the land of promise off Crimson Cliffs such a force would have trundled her like a wheelbarrow: we could almost have borne her upon our backs. Now with incessant labor and standing hauls she moved at a snail’s pace.

The “Faith” was left behind and barely escaped destruction. The outside pressure cleft the floe asunder, and we saw our best boat with all our stores drifting rapidly away from us. The sight produced an almost hysterical impression upon our party. Two days of want of bread, I am sure, would have destroyed us; and we had now left us but eight pounds of shot in all. To launch the “Hope” again, and rescue her comrade or share her fortunes, would have been the instinct of other circumstances; but it was out of the question now. Happily, before we had time to ponder our loss a flat cake of ice eddied round near the floe we were upon; McGary and myself sprang to it at the moment, and succeeded in floating it across the chasm in time to secure her. The rest of the crew rejoined her only by scrambling over the crushed ice as we brought her in at the hummock-lines.

Things grew worse and worse with us; the old difficulty of breathing came back again, and our feet swelled to such an extent that we were obliged to cut open our canvas boots. But the symptom which gave me most uneasiness was our inability to sleep. A form of low fever which hung by us when at work had been kept down by the thoroughness of our daily rest; all my hopes of escape were in the refreshing influences of the halt.

It must be remembered that we were now in the open bay, in the full line of the great ice-drift to the Atlantic, and in boats so frail and unseaworthy as to require constant baling to keep them afloat.

It was at this crisis of our fortunes that we saw a large seal floating—as is the custom of these animals—on a small patch of ice, and seemingly asleep. It was an ussuk, and so large that I at first mistook it for a walrus. Signal was made for the “Hope” to follow astern, and, trembling with anxiety, we prepared to crawl down upon him.

Petersen, with the large English rifle, was stationed in the bow, and stockings were drawn over the oars as mufflers. As we neared the animal our excitement became so intense that the men could hardly keep stroke. I had a set of signals for such occasions which spared us the noise of the voice; and when about three hundred yards off the oars were taken in, and we moved in deep silence with a single scull astern.

He was not asleep, for he reared his head when we were almost within rifle-shot; and to this day I can remember the hard, careworn, almost despairing expression of the men’s thin faces as they saw him move; their lives depended on his capture.

I depressed my hand nervously, as a signal for Petersen to fire. McGary hung upon his oar, and the boat, slowly but noiselessly sagging ahead, seemed to me within certain range. Looking at Petersen, I saw that the poor fellow was paralyzed by his anxiety, trying vainly to obtain a rest for his gun against the cut-water of the boat. The seal rose on his fore-flippers, gazed at us for a moment with frightened curiosity, and coiled himself for a plunge. At that instant, simultaneously with the crack of our rifle, he relaxed his long length on the ice, and, at the very brink of the water, his head fell helpless to one side.

I would have ordered another shot, but no discipline could have controlled the men. With a wild yell, each vociferating according to his own impulse, they urged both boats upon the floes. A crowd of hands seized the seal and bore him up to safer ice. The men seemed half crazy; I had not realized how much we were reduced by absolute famine. They ran over the floe crying and laughing and brandishing their knives. It was not five minutes before every man was sucking his bloody fingers or mouthing long strips of raw blubber.

Not an ounce of this seal was lost. The intestines found their way into the soup-kettles without any observances of the preliminary home processes. The cartilaginous parts of the fore-flippers were cut off in the mêlée and passed round to be chewed upon; and even the liver, warm and raw as it was, bade fair to be eaten before it had seen the pot. That night, on the large halting floe, to which, in contempt of the dangers of drifting, we happy men had hauled our boats, two entire planks of the “Red Eric” were devoted to a grand cooking-fire, and we enjoyed a rare and savage feast.

This was our last experience of the disagreeable effects of hunger. In the words of George Stephenson, “The charm was broken, and the dogs were safe.” The dogs I have said little about, for none of us liked to think of them. The poor creatures Toodla and Whitey had been taken with us as last resources against starvation. They were, as McGary worded it, “meat on the hoof,” and “able to carry their own fat over the floes.” Once, near Weary Man’s Rest, I had been on the point of killing them; but they had been the leaders of our winter’s team, and we could not bear the sacrifice.

I need not detail our journey any farther. Within a day or two we shot another seal, and from that time forward had a full supply of food…. Two days after this, a mist had settled down upon the islands which embayed us, and when it lifted we found ourselves rowing, in lazy time, under the shadow of Karkamoot. Just then a familiar sound came to us over the water. We had often listened to the screeching of the gulls or the bark of the fox and mistaken it for the “Huk” of the Esquimaux, but this had about it an inflection not to be mistaken, for it died away in the familiar cadence of an “halloo.”

“Listen, Petersen! Oars, men!” “What is it?” and he listened quietly at first, and then, trembling, said in a half-whisper, “Dannemarkers!”

I remember this, the first tone of Christian voice which had greeted our return to the world. How we all stood up and peered into the distant nooks; and how the cry came to us again, just as, having seen nothing, we were doubting whether the whole was not a dream; and then how, with long sweeps, the white ash cracking under the spring of the rowers, we stood for the cape that the sound proceeded from, and how nervously we scanned the green spots which our experience, grown now into instinct, told us would be the likely camping-ground of wayfarers.

By and by—for we must have been pulling a good half-hour—the single mast of a small shallop showed itself; and Petersen, who had been very quiet and grave, burst into an incoherent fit of crying, only relieved by broken exclamations of mingled Danish and English. “’Tis the Upernavik oil-boat! The ‘Fräulein Flaischer!’ Carlie Mossyn, the assistant cooper, must be on his road to Kingatok for blubber. The ‘Mariane’ (the one annual ship) has come, and Carlie Mossyn——” and here he did it all over again, gulping down his words and wringing his hands.

It was Carlie Mossyn, sure enough. The quiet routine of a Danish settlement is the same year after year, and Petersen had hit upon the exact state of things. The “Mariane” was at Proven, and Carlie Mossyn had come up in the “Fräulein Flaischer” to get the year’s supply of blubber from Kingatok.

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