Flowers and Butterflies

The failure to communicate with H.M.S. “Discovery” in the autumn had
to some extent disarranged our plans. Communication was absolutely
necessary to ensure co-operation, and the sooner it was effected the
better, for our consort had as much sledging work to get through as
she could possibly complete in the season.

Robeson Channel had to be crossed, and the rugged northern shore of
Greenland explored in search of land poleward. Petermann’s Fiord
had not yet been traversed, and Lady Franklin Sound might possibly
open northwards, and afford a favourable route for the “Discovery’s”
sledge-crews to penetrate as far as the shore of the Polar Sea.

The short travelling season in the far north is limited on the one
hand by the lingering cold of winter, and on the other by the summer
thaw of the surface snow and the renewed motion of the ice. As soon,
therefore, as travelling was at all possible, a dog sledge was got
ready to carry despatches to our sister ship. Two energetic young
officers and Niel Petersen the Dane were detailed for this duty.
On the morning of 12th March everyone in the ship gathered on the
floes to see them off. Their team of nine dogs carried the “Clements
Markham” down the smooth ice of our exercise mile at a gallop, and in
a few minutes the red and white sledge pennant with its crossed arrows
was lost to sight amongst the hummocks off Cape Rawson.

Three days passed in preparing the ship for spring, and the low
temperature and strong wind made us think anxiously of our absent
messmates, but we never for a moment supposed that they would suffer
anything more than the recognised hardships of sledging in bad weather.

On the evening of the third day, our heavy winter awning had just been
taken down from over the deck, and the men were coming inboard after
their day’s work, when some one caught sight of the dog sledge coming
back to the ship. There were but two men running alongside, and they
came on silently, without the usual joyful signalling that marks a
returning party. Poor Petersen lay on the sledge, marvellously changed
in three days, mottled with frost-bite, and apparently dying. His
companions had succeeded in carrying him back to the ship only just in
time. They themselves were much fatigued, and their fingers raw with
frost-bites incurred in attempts to restore Petersen’s frozen limbs.
When they had slept, as only tired men can, we heard their story.

They had not been a day away when Petersen found he had greatly
overrated his strength, and became unable to assist in the heavy work
of guiding the sledge along the steep incline under the cliffs,
lowering the dogs and sledge down precipitous places, and hauling
them up again. Next day he was badly frost-bitten, for a cramped and
enfeebled man cannot long resist strong wind and a temperature of
minus 34°. It was impossible either to proceed or retreat without
risking his life, and the breeze freshened, so that they could not
pitch the tent. The only course left was to dig a pit in the snow,
which was, fortunately, somewhat hardened by the wind. So they at once
set about shovelling out a hole, and when it was six feet deep they
excavated it below till they got a space eight feet square. It took
six hours’ hard labour before they were able to move Petersen, wrapped
up in the tent and tent robes, into it, and cover the top closely in
with the sledge and drifting snow. But once well covered in, and the
sledge lamp lit, they had the satisfaction of seeing the temperature
rise to 7° above zero. But Petersen could not be warmed. They made
tea for him—he could not take it; pemmican disagreed with him; and a
little soup was made from the Australian meat carried for the dogs. By
turns they chafed his limbs for hours at a time, and thawed his frozen
feet under their own clothes, Eskimo fashion, then swathed feet and
hands in their flannel wrappers, and lay close on either side trying
to warm him; but in a very short time, although he said his feet were
warm and comfortable, they were found frozen so hard that the toes
could not be bent, and the whole process had to be gone through again.
For a day and a night they struggled in this way against the fatal
cold, and then, fortunately for them, the wind lessened, and leaving
provisions and fuel, dogs’ food, and all that could be dispensed with,
behind, they took the only course open to them, and struck out for
the ship. The only possible road was the one they had come, and it
was rugged in the extreme. On the left rose high cliffs banked with
treacherous snow, and on the right rounded and broken ice piled in
towers and pinnacles upon the shore. In some places round headlands
it was utterly impossible to get the sledge safely past with the man
and tent robes lashed on it, and one had to help him round as best he
could, while the other held in the eager dogs and tried to guide the
sledge. The poor brutes were so anxious to get back to the ship that
constant halts were necessary to disentangle their harness, no easy
task with frost-bitten fingers. The last headland was the worst. In
spite of every effort the sledge slipped sideways, then upset, and
rolled down into a deep ditch, turning over three times as it went,
and dragging the dogs after it. When it was at length got out, a
comparatively smooth road lay before them, and they drew up alongside
the ship, most thankful that their comrade was still able to recognise
the friends that crowded round him. For days the poor fellow lay in
a very uncertain state. Severe amputations were unavoidable, but he
rallied wonderfully for a time, and when the main detachments of
sledges left the ship we bade him a hopeful good-bye.

Five days passed before the weather became calm enough for a second
attempt southward, but on the 20th the dog-sledge again started for
the “Discovery.” The settled weather that favoured our travellers this
time, enabled us to take active measures to prepare our sledge crews
for their coming work. Each day a pair of crews left the ship for
practice with their sledges, and thus a store of pemmican, bacon, &c.,
was deposited at Black Cape to help forward the Greenland division of
sledges from the “Discovery.”

Before breakfast on 1st of April a man came down with a report that
a large white animal had just been seen a quarter of a mile from the
ship. This seemed a very extraordinary piece of news, for our walking
parties had scoured the whole country, sometimes as much as thirteen
hours away from the ship, without finding even a track of game, and
had as yet brought nothing on board except one small white feather
from the breast of a ptarmigan or snowy owl.

The general opinion at first sight was that the date added a peculiar
significance to the story, but at any rate it was advisable to lose
no time in seeing whether the mysterious animal was sufficiently
“materialised” to leave any tracks. Accordingly two of us took our
rifles, and sure enough we found a large wolf track at the spot
indicated. For hours we patiently followed the marks. They took us
a long circuit shoreward. There appeared to be three animals, but
we could not be certain, for the track often doubled on itself. All
at once an unpleasant suspicion flashed across us—could it be that
anything had happened to our travellers, and that we were following
their dogs in mistake for wolves? The tracks were very large,
measuring as much as six inches long by four and a-half wide, and
the centre nails were long, and turned outwards. While we debated,
our suspicions were set at rest by a loud howl, not as prolonged as
a black Canadian wolf’s, but wolfish certainly, for there was no
mistaking the fierce misery of the note. He had caught sight of us,
and, as usual with his species, given a view halloo. Presently we saw
him, three hundred yards off—a gaunt, yellowish white beast—cantering
along at a swift slouching gait. When we stopped, he stopped. We lay
down, and one of us rolled off on the snow out of sight, and made
a long detour in hope of surprising him, but he seemed to know the
range of our rifles to a nicety, and at length we saw him canter off
southwards unharmed by the long shots we sent after him. As we walked
back, we could not but wonder what had induced wolves to come north
into a desert where for miles and miles there was not so much as a
stone above the snow. The mystery was soon explained. Tracks of four
hunted musk oxen were found a couple of miles off. No doubt the wolves
had driven them from some southern feeding-ground. They travelled so
rapidly that our hunting party despatched after them failed even to
catch sight of them.

The discovery that there was some game in the country was a very
cheering one. If it was not a land flowing with milk and honey, it
was at any rate not so bad as it might be, and we went back to our
sledging preparations with a hope that we should fall in with either
the wolves or the oxen during our travels.

The weather was now sufficiently settled to warrant the departure
of the main travelling parties. It was arranged that they should
consist of two separate divisions of eight-men sledges. Lieutenant
Aldrich, with the sledge “Challenger,” would explore the shore to the
north-west in search of land trending northward. He would be supported
by Lieutenant Giffard’s sledge, the “Poppie,” which would travel with
the “Challenger” to a distant point, re-provision her there, return
to Floeberg Beach, and then carry out depôts of food and fuel for the
“Challenger’s” homeward journey.

The northern division, under the command of Captain Markham, would
consist of his sledge, the “Marco Polo,” and Lieutenant Parr’s, the
“Victoria,” supported by the “Alexandra,” commanded by Mr. White,
and the writer’s own sledge, the “Bulldog.” In addition to these, a
four-man sledge led by Briant, a petty officer of H.M.S. “Discovery,”
would help us forward for three or four days. The routes of both
detachments lay together as far as Cape Joseph Henry. At that point
the northern parties would replenish their stores from the supporting
sledges and from the large depôt of pemmican placed there in the
autumn, then, leaving the land, endeavour to force a passage due
northward over the floes. Meantime, a depôt for their return would be
carried out by the “Bulldog,” and left at some suitable spot at Cape
Joseph Henry. Owing to the impossibility of depositing autumn or,
indeed, any other depôts, sledge-travelling _away from a coast_ has
never yet been carried to any distance. We looked upon this attempt
in the light of a more than doubtful experiment. It nevertheless
promised a higher northern latitude than the coast-line route. When
we compared notes amongst ourselves after we had started, one or two
thought that N. lat. 86° might be attainable, but the majority drew
the line at 85°.

[Illustration: CAMP OF SLEDGE PARTY.]

On the morning of 3rd April all hands mustered for the last time on
the floes beside the ship. The final preparations were complete,
and our seven heavily-laden sledges lay ranged in a line, with
their knotted drag-ropes stretched on the snow. When every point in
their dress and outfit had been carefully inspected, the men closed
together, and joined heartily in the short service read by the
chaplain. All felt the serious nature of the work they were about to
undertake, but nevertheless looked forward to it eagerly. Then the
order was given, and the sledge crews took their places—fifty-three
men and officers in all. A little group of twelve only remained by the
ship, every one of them regretting that it was not their duty to share
hard work and exposure with their messmates. With three cheers the men
took leave of their comrades and of the gallant little ship that had
so well sheltered them, and the whole detachment moved forwards. The
last to leave us was the Captain. He walked on a little while with
each sledge, giving us a few words of advice or encouragement before
he bade us God-speed.

LOOKING SOUTH, MARCH, 1876.—p. 50.

Quarter of a mile north of the “Alert” a field of polar floe had
been pushed on shore, and split up into a number of floebergs, with
lanes and streets between them. This view of our winter quarters was
obtained from the top of one of the fragments. Beyond the ship Cape
Rawson may be seen forming the western portal of Robeson Channel,
while away across the strait the snowy hills of Greenland make the

For a mile or more the sledges crept slowly along in the same order as
they had started, dragging through the snow with much difficulty. The
whole depth of the runners buried in the soft snow made them pull, as
one of the men said, “like a plough with a cart-load on it.” The two
leading sledges pulled the heaviest, though the weight per man was
about equal in all. They carried specially-built boats, wonderfully
light in proportion to their size, weighing respectively 740 and 440
lbs., but difficult to manage, because they distributed the weight
over the whole length of the sledge. Every time a sledge stuck, it
took a united effort with a “One, two, three, haul!” to start it
forward again. Soon, in order to save the men, it became necessary to
double-bank the sledges—that is to say, two crews pulled one sledge
forward and then walked back for the other. Even the sledges without
boats pulled very heavily. We could not but confess that the
labour was harder than we had expected, but if others had gone through
it we could. Crews loaded with exactly the same stores as ours, and
pulling the same 240 lbs. a man, had accomplished all the longest
journeys on record. Every ounce of weight on each of the seven sledges
had been carefully thought over. Not so much as an unnecessary screw
was carried. The sledge-rifle, for example, had four inches cut off
its barrel and all the brass-work removed from its stock. Both men
and officers knew that no reduction was possible unless the number
of days’ travel was curtailed, or some other change made in the
well-tried arrangements of their successful predecessors. On one
point, however, our parties deviated from precedent. Tea instead of
rum for lunch was most decidedly an improvement.

We camped early on the first day’s march. The spot selected was a
little bay inside one of the curious hook-shaped promontories of the
coast. The process of camping is a simple one. When camping-time
comes, an officer goes on in advance and selects a flat piece of
snow—a spot where it is soft for about six inches down is best. Then
the sledge halts. Everything is unpacked. The cook of the day lights
up his stearine lamp under a panful of snow for tea. The tent, with
its poles already secured in it, is pitched, with its door away from
the wind, and secured by ropes to the sledge at one end, and to a
pickaxe driven into the snow or ice at the other; then a waterproof is
spread over the snow inside, and over it a robe of duffle, a material
like close blanket. The sleeping-bags and haversacks are next passed
in, and the men, beginning with the innermost—for there is not room
for all at once—change their snow-saturated moccasins and blanket
wrappers for night pairs carried in the haversack. Moccasin, worsted
stockings, and blanket wrappers all pull off together, frozen hard
into one snowy mass about the foot. Meantime others are “banking up”
snow all round the tent outside. Nothing adds more to the warmth of
the tent than thorough “banking up.” In about an hour from the time
of halting, every one, except the cook, is packed inside his bag.
All wear close-fitting Berlin wool helmets, enclosing head and neck,
and leaving only the face exposed; the men call them “Eugénies,” for
they were the thoughtful gift of the Empress. The cook soon gives
notice that tea is ready, and each man sits up in his bag and gets his
pannikinful, softening his biscuit in it as it cools to a drinkable
temperature. After tea comes half-a-pound of pemmican—a peppery
mixture when one’s lips are blistered with hot and cold pannikins,
and cracked with sun and frost. An ounce of preserved potato is
warmed up with it, and greatly improves its flavour. When the cook
has trimmed his lamp for the morning, and scraped out the pannikins,
his duties are over, and he changes his foot coverings, wriggles into
his bag, and squeezes himself down next the door. Finally, about half
a wine-glassful of rum with a little water is served out all round.
This, however injurious under other circumstances, helps to tide over
the chilly moments when one’s frozen clothes melt, and acts much as a
bellows does to a feeble fire. The heads soon disappear into the bags,
and everyone goes to sleep as fast as the cold and cramp in his feet
and legs will let him.

The hardships of sledging are made up of innumerable small worries.
For the first two or three days we were all plagued with cramp; we
could hardly bend up our knees to tie a moccasin or put on a foot
wrapper without being obliged to kick out suddenly, overbalancing
ourselves and our neighbours into a general mêlée, like a row at
Donnybrook Fair. When the men began to get warm in their bags, muffled
remarks about the cramp gradually gave place to smothered snores that
would last till morning, and then the performers would wake with a
firm conviction that they had never slept at all. On our first night
of spring sledging the temperature fell to minus 35°, and many lay
awake with the cold. Four nights afterwards it was nearly ten degrees
colder, but the tents were better banked up and the under robes and
coverlet better laced together; some of us, moreover, had discovered
that turning the mouth of the bag under and lying on it greatly
increased the warmth. The officer is the outside man at the end of the
tent away from the door. It is his duty to call the cook the first
thing in the morning. It is no easy thing to wake at the right hour
when the sun shines impartially all the twenty-four. The watch is
often consulted two or three times before five o’clock comes. Then the
cook turns out, lights his lamp, has a pipe, sets some snow melting,
and scrapes down cocoa for breakfast; afterwards he walks in over his
sleeping companions, and brushes down the snowy festoons of frozen
breath hanging from the tent.

[Illustration: THE DAY’S MARCH DONE.]

Cocoa and pemmican are disposed of soon after seven. The frozen
blanket wrappers and moccasins that have served for a pillow have to
be got on again, and about eight the sledge is again ready to start.
Packing is cold work, and everybody is anxious to be off and get up a
little warmth with exercise.

In our next day’s march we visited the snow-house built by Petersen
in the autumn, and found its roof level with the snow. A fox had
taken up his quarters in it, and made very free with the dog biscuit.
That night we camped near a conspicuous mass of ice on the shore of a
small island. The spot afterwards became a well-known landmark. Partly
by accident, and partly because the striking piles of ice made a
definite point to march for, the numerous shorter sledge parties often
halted there for lunch or camp. Upon one such occasion the drawing
reproduced in this book was obtained (Plate No. 12). The floeberg
itself was not a very large one, but it afforded an excellent example
of the structure of polar floe. We could not but wonder what enormous
force had pushed it upwards on the sloping beach till its flat upper
surface stood forty feet above the floes around it. The lower half was
made of what may be called conglomerate ice, the upper was stratified
with the usual white and blue layers—white where the ice was spongy
with air-cells, blue in the denser layers between. High overhead might
be seen a section, in olive-tinted ice, of what had once been a summer
pool, and on top of all, like sugar on a cake, lay last season’s snow,
slowly condensing into ice.


The great stratified masses of salt ice that lie grounded along the
shores of the Polar Sea are nothing more than fragments broken from
the edges of the perennial floes. We called them floebergs in order to
distinguish them from, and yet express their kinship to, icebergs—the
latter and their parent glaciers belong to more southern regions.
Partly because it was a conspicuous point to push on for before
halting for lunch, the floeberg on Simmon’s Island became a familiar
landmark in the many trips of the supporting sledges across Black
Cliff Bay; and the chill hour while tea was preparing was often spent
in speculating on the enormous force required to push the huge square
mass so high on shore.]

A day’s march beyond the island and its floebergs we came to a spot
where many traces of game had been seen in the autumn, but after a
long search, while the sledges halted to take in a depôt of pemmican,
we only found one hare track, and it led down over the crest of an
inaccessible cliff, so we returned to camp empty-handed. During the
night we reflected that it was a pity to lose nine pounds of fresh
meat without another effort; so in the morning, while the sledges were
packed, we walked along the floes to a point under where the tracks
had been lost, and by carefully searching the crest of the cliff with
a telescope the tracks were discovered and traced downwards, along
narrow ledges and abrupt slopes, to a sheltered nook, half way down
the cliff, that looked utterly inaccessible to anything but a bird.
There, in her sanctuary, poor pussy sat, in fancied security, till
the rifle brought her tumbling downwards to the floes just as the
last sledge reached the spot. This solitary hare was the only fresh
food procured by our northern sledge-crews. From henceforth they were
beyond the limits of game, and in this one condition our parties
differed widely from those whose precedent they were attempting to
follow. The longest journeys ever accomplished were made by Sir
Leopold M’Clintock and Lieutenant Meecham. The former obtained
forty-six head of game, including eight reindeer and seven musk oxen;
the latter no less than seventy-seven head, including nine deer and
four oxen.

Our party was now reduced to six sledges. The seventh returned, as
had been arranged, carrying with them a man who had been an invalid
since the day after leaving the ship. From this point the road lay due
northward over floes half-a-mile wide, with hedges of hummocks between
them. The surface looked smooth enough, but it was only a crust over
soft snow, and broke under one’s weight into slabs most uncomfortable
to travel over. Nothing can exceed the monotony of sledge-travelling.
Day after day the same routine is gone through; day after day the
same endless ice is the only thing in sight. A dark stone projecting
above the snow on a cape we were approaching was the only coloured
thing in sight for two whole marches, and it had a most disagreeable
fascination for our eyes. In order to compensate for this blankness
of scenery, every man had been advised to decorate the back of his
holland overall with such devices as seemed good to him. Accordingly
the back view of our sledge-crews was an extraordinary spectacle.
One man’s back bore a large black anchor with the motto “Hold fast,”
another displayed a complicated hieroglyphic savouring of Freemasonry.
Here was a locomotive engine careering over a beautifully green sod,
and on the next back a striking likeness of the Tichborne claimant
bespoke the bearer’s admiration for the “distressed nobleman.” Here,
again, was an artistic effort which had cost its author many a week
of painstaking execution, but neither he nor anyone else could tell
what it was. Union-jacks, twelve-ton guns, and highly mythical polar
bears, were of course common. These decorations were most useful in
identifying the various men—no easy matter when all were dressed
alike, and every face was swollen and blistered with sun and frost,
and blackened with stearine smoke.

On 7th April, some difference of temperature in the still air treated
us to a display of mirage. Almost all day long, as we marched
forwards, the conical mountains of Cape Joseph Henry raised themselves
up in pale shadow against the sky, and spread out into great flat
table-lands, spanning the valleys with bridges, and constantly
flickering into new shapes.

[Illustration: PLATE XIII.—ON THE NORTHERN MARCH, APRIL 8, 1876.—p. 60.

On the sixth day’s march of the united northern and western parties
from the ship, this sketch was outlined in pencil while the sledges
passed across a floe, little if at all under one hundred and fifty
feet in thickness. Like most heavy floes, its edges were piled with
rubble ice, cemented and smoothed off with snow-drift, showing
a perpendicular wall outside, but sloping inside to the general
undulating surface. The easiest road lay right across it, and with
the aid of picks a natural gap in its walls was soon converted into
a practicable path. The united crews of the “Bulldog” and “Marco
Polo” are hauling the latter sledge down through the gap, while the
“Challenger’s” and “Poppie’s” have just reached the spot with the
first of their sledges.]

On the seventh day’s march we crossed a floe so much raised above its
fellows that it got the name of “The Castle.” Its surface was about an
acre in extent, and, judging from its height over the water, it could
not be less than one hundred feet—perhaps one hundred and fifty—in
thickness. It was walled in all round by lines of _débris_, piled upon
its edges and cemented together with snow, perpendicular outside, but
sloping inwards, so that the inside looked like a vast saucer. The
easiest road for the sledges lay right across it. Several breaches
occurred in its walls, and with the aid of picks they were soon made
practicable. A sketch made as the boats passed across represents a
scene familiar to many of our sledge parties, for “Castle Floe” was
subsequently crossed on no less than thirteen separate occasions
(Plate No. 13).


Sunlight amongst the ice is often very beautiful, but at the same time
very inconvenient. It had already peeled our faces, now it attacked
our eyes. Every crystal of snow reflected a miniature sun, and the
path of the rays seemed literally sown with gems, topaz and sapphire
generally, but here and there a ruby. Similar colours, but with a
curious metallic lustre like oil on water, tinted the fleecy clouds
overhead, and the sun itself was almost always surrounded by circles
similar to those seen round the moon in winter, but exquisitely
rich and brilliant in rainbow-hued colour. No painter could hope to
produce the faintest resemblance to such effects. The light was in
fact altogether too bright for mortals, and we could only face it
with goggles on. The gem-like gleams especially produced a quick pain
in the back of the eye that considerably lessened their æsthetic
effect. The officers, who have to travel well in advance and climb
hummocks to find a road for the sledges, cannot wear goggles
continuously; vapour from the eye freezes on the inside of the glass,
and it requires the keenest sight to detect differences of level and
distance in the white blank of the prospect. On our eighth day’s
journey a faint mist took away all shadow from the ice, and though a
man might be seen several hundred yards off, it was quite impossible
to tell whether the next step was up or down, into a hole, or against
a hummock. That day, pioneering was done rather by touch than sight.
When the fog lifted, we found ourselves close to Cape Joseph Henry,
and next forenoon the depôt left there in the autumn was transferred
to the advancing sledges.

Half-a-mile northward from the depôt, a bank of snow, evidently the
accumulation of ages, sloped down from a small hill to the sea. In
one place a great slice of the bank had broken bodily from the mass
above, leaving a deep crevasse. This was bridged over and completely
concealed, except in two places, where the roof had fallen in and
exposed its perpendicular walls of green ice streaked with layers
of earth and sand. The bank was in fact a miniature “discharging
glacier,” the only one yet met with on this coast. A few yards below
the openings, the bridge was strong enough to bear the heavily-laden
sledges of the western parties. Their course lay through the valley
to the left, for though the snow on shore was in many places soft
and deep, a short cut across the isthmus promised better travelling
than the crush of floes round the cape. The prospects of the northern
party were less encouraging. Looking northward from the hill over the
crevasse, an icy chaos spread to the horizon. Mirage every now and
then raised lines and flakes of distant pack into view, but all as
rough and rugged as the ice-floes at our feet.

The detachments separated on 11th April. We of the supporting sledges
bade both good-bye with three cheers, and watched them slowly wind
out of sight amongst the hummocks, the one to the westward, the other
poleward; and as we retraced our steps on the return journey, their
“One, two, three, haul!” came faintly to us across the ice.

Meantime, our friends in the “Discovery” had passed the winter in
not a little anxiety about our fate, Their efforts to communicate
in autumn were no more successful than ours, and as spring slipped
by and no news came, the suspense increased. Could it be that the
“Alert” had penetrated beyond the range of communication, or that any
disaster had happened to her? It had been arranged that at the latest
a party would reach the “Discovery” from her before the 1st April,
and now March was nearly gone. News, however, was close at hand. The
dog-sledge, “Clements Markham,” had gallantly fought its way southward
past the steep cliffs of Robeson Channel, and when, on 24th March,
its crew rounded Cape Beachy and left the last of the cliffs behind
them, they knew their troubles were over. Next day they came to a
recent sledge-track, and the dogs at once struck out like hounds on a
fresh scent. The last promontories were soon passed, and as Discovery
Bay opened out, a cheer from the galloping sledge brought a crowd
of figures racing from the ship to meet it. In a moment all were
shaking hands in a storm of questions. Where was the “Alert”?—had she
passed “Navy Opening” or got to “President’s Land”?—and what were the
prospects polewards?

The arrival of the dog-sledge was a signal for the immediate departure
of the “Discovery’s” sledging parties. A dog-sledge was despatched
south-eastward to “Hall’s Rest” to ascertain how far the stores left
by U.S.S. “Polaris” could be utilised. Then two eight-men sledges, the
“Sir Edward Parry” and the “Stephenson,” under Lieutenant Beaumont
and Dr. Coppinger, started for the north coast of Greenland, calling
at Floeberg Beach on their way, and being there joined by Lieutenant
Rawson’s sledge, the “Discovery.” They left the “Alert” on 20th April,
and two smaller sledges helped them across Robeson Channel, and then
left them to follow the rugged coast that we could see stretching
far eastward to Cape Britannia. Another division of sledges, with
Lieutenant Archer and Sub-Lieutenant Conybeare, pushed northward
through Lady Franklin Sound, hoping to find it opening northward like
Robeson Channel, and perhaps affording a smooth and direct route to
the shores of the Polar Sea for next year’s parties.

The “Discovery” had passed a winter little, if at all, less severe
than ours, but in one respect she had been more fortunate. No less
than thirty-three musk oxen were secured in the autumn, and thus a
supply of good fresh meat was issued twice a-week during the winter.
Her routine and amusements were almost identical with our own, but we
heard with surprise of her skating rink, and of dramas performed in
a snow-built theatre on shore, where a temperature many degrees below
zero obliged the actors to appear muffled to several times the size of
ordinary stage heroes.

After a short rest, our dog-sledge returned to the “Alert,” and
reached her just a day too late to give the western and northern
parties news from the “Discovery.” She was then at once despatched to
pioneer a “high-road” to Greenland across the narrowest part of the
channel in advance of the “Discovery’s” detachment. From this time the
arrival and departure of sledge-crews was a matter of daily occurrence.

Numerous supporting sledges, now travelling invariably in the hours
called night, arrived from Greenland or Cape Joseph Henry, filled up
with stores, and left again, each fully occupied with its own work,
and only catching an occasional glimpse of what the others were doing.

It was while all were thus actively employed that sickness—the one
sickness of the Arctic regions—appeared amongst us. No one with
medical experience of the disease can read the sledge journals of
former expeditions without recognising numerous indications of scurvy.
Our parties, more than five hundred miles north of where Franklin
was lost, and in an unexpectedly colder and more lifeless climate,
had no greater safeguards than their predecessors. Accordingly, each
sledge-crew that returned to the ship showed fresh examples of the
exhaustion, swollen and sprained ankles, stiff knees, and bruised
and painful legs, only too familiar to Arctic travellers. Petersen,
already maimed by frost-bite, was its first victim. He died on 14th
May, and on the 19th the few remaining on board carried him to his
grave. A spot on the top of a small hill, half-way between the beach
and the beacon on Cairn Hill, was chosen, because a long heavy slab,
suitable for a tombstone, lay there. The ground was frozen as hard as
rock, and it took three days’ hard work with pick and gunpowder to
dig a grave three feet deep. The slab, afterwards rough-hewn by his
messmates, and an oaken tablet covered with brass, marks where he lies.

[Illustration: PETERSEN’S GRAVE.]

As the season advanced, signs of approaching summer began to appear.
On 19th May, the temperature, for the first time in nine months,
rose above freezing. Icicles formed from the projecting angles of
the floebergs—and it may here be remarked that icicles, though very
common in Arctic pictures, are rare in reality, for they only form
in the brief interval between winter and summer, and last but a week
or ten days. Signs of returning life began to multiply. A sledge
party, returning from Cape Joseph Henry on 21st May, brought in two
ptarmigan, snow white, but for one solitary brown feather on the hen.
On 4th June, one of us found a little brown caterpillar creeping on
some uncovered stones, and saw a flock of birds that looked like
knots. In some places the snow was softening into discoloured patches,
in others it was gradually leaving the ground. Light snow often fell,
but the tiny star-shaped crystals evaporated without wetting the brown
slate of the hill-tops. There was as yet no water in the ravines, but
it was plain that the thaw was at hand. A sledge party that got back
to the ship on 7th June experienced very unsettled weather, and had
to wade through a good deal of soft slushy snow sometimes knee deep.
The travelling season was fast drawing to a close, and our extended
parties had evidently little time left for their return. Just before
tea-time on 8th June, those of us who happened to be on board were
startled by hearing Lieutenant Parr’s voice in the captain’s cabin.
He had come alone, and we soon heard his tidings. The whole northern
detachment was broken down with scurvy, and could not reach the ship
without assistance, and that must be immediate. Five men were already
helpless on the sledges. He had left them near Cape Joseph Henry,
twenty-two hours before, and had marched in the whole way.

There was neither time nor occasion to hear more. Every soul capable
of pulling at once got orders to man relief sledges. A dog-sledge,
laden with immediate necessities, started in advance to cheer them
with the news that help was near.

It was advisable to follow Lieutenant Parr’s footprints, for, once off
the track, the distressed party might easily be passed. He had called
at Snow-house Point, hoping to find lamp and matches that would enable
him to get a drink in the tent pitched there to assist returning
parties, but a wolf had gnawed the tent ropes, and it lay flat on the
snow. Near Castle Floe the tracks crossed and re-crossed in a complete
maze, for there he had all but lost his way in a treacherous fog. A
short halt was necessary to rest and feed the dogs, then we pushed on
as before. At length, twenty-three hours after leaving the ship, we
caught sight of a figure seated beside a loaded sledge, and resting
his head upon his hands; then two others staggered up, helping a third
between them; and a moment after, six men slowly emerged from among
the hummocks dragging up a second sledge. The wind blowing from them
towards us prevented them hearing our first shout, but they soon saw
us, and with a faint cheer limped forward, poor fellows, to meet us.
For a time our hearts were in our throats, and no one could speak
much. Hardly one of them was recognisable. The thin, feeble voices,
the swollen and frost-peeled faces and crippled limbs, made an awful
contrast to the picked body of determined men we had seen march north
only two months before. Four lay packed amongst the tent robes on the
sledges—only four, for one had died soon after Parr left them. He was
a private in the marine artillery, and belonged to the “Victoria”
sledge. Poor Porter—George, as the men called him—had been one of the
strongest and most energetic of the party. They had dragged him on
the sledge thirty-nine days—others had been on longer—and his death
greatly depressed both crews. They buried him deep in the ice
not far from their camp, and had made one day’s march southwards when
we met them. The place was only a mile off, so, when the wants of the
survivors had been attended to, we walked back to see it. Sunlight
streaming through low clouds of drifting snow made it difficult to
see far, but we soon recognised the little mound on the side of a
floe-hill. A rough cross, made of a sledge-batten and a paddle, and
with a text written on it in pencil, stood at the head. They could do
no more for him. Perhaps the sketch reproduced in this book (Plate No.
14) may serve as a humble memento of our shipmate’s grave, the most
northern of any race or of any time.

[Illustration: PLATE XIV.—THE MOST NORTHERN GRAVE, JUNE, 1876.—p. 65.

A little mound of ice on the side of a floe-hill, and a rough cross
made of a sledge batten and a paddle, mark our shipmate’s grave—the
most northern of any race or time.]

The first symptoms of scurvy appeared amongst the men only a few days
after the auxiliary sledges had quitted the party on the northward
march; and before the expenditure of half their provisions obliged
them to turn back, they had three men on the sledges, and half the
detachment crippled with stiff knees. Instead of finding the floes
increase in width as they left the land, they met with nothing worthy
of the name of floe. Their road lay across endless hummocks of crushed
fragments, piled on each other and drifted over with snow. One half
the party worked in advance, slowly hewing a road with their pickaxes.
The remainder toiled after them, hauling up each of the three sledges
in turn. On 12th May they reached their most northern point, north
latitude 83° 20´ 26´´, a little less than four hundred miles from the

Considering the helpless state of the majority, we could not but
think them most fortunate in being able to regain the land before
even the strongest of them lost the strength and courage that carried
their message to the ship. Looking at them as they staggered feebly
along, panting at every breath, we forcibly realised the probable
fate of those large parties from Franklin’s ships that remain to
this day unaccounted for. Since reaching the depôt at Cape Joseph
Henry, the men had had ample supplies of lime juice, and nothing
now remained but to carry them to the ship before the disruption of
the pack. Immediately after falling in with them, the dog-sledge
had been sent back again to carry the news of their whereabouts to
the relief parties led by the Captain, and in a few hours it again
reappeared, carrying a pleasant surprise for the invalids—four Brent
geese, swinging by the necks from the back of the sledge. A camp, to
break the journey to the ship, had been formed at a little bay in
Black Cliffs, where the geese had been shot, and in a few minutes two
of our invalids that could best bear the journey were packed on the
sledge, and whirled off towards it behind the willing dogs. The main
relief parties were soon in sight—two sledges, manned in great part
by officers, Captain Nares himself pulling in the drag-ropes of the
leading sledge. Thus reinforced, three marches carried the whole party
back to the ship. The first instalment reached her by dog-sledge on
12th June. Next day, when Flagstaff Point was rounded, and the yards
and masts of the ship were again in view, the “Marco Polo” sledge went
in front. Her officer and three men had throughout steadily refused to
be treated as invalids, and now, hoisting their sledge pennant and the
Union Jack they had so gallantly carried to the most northern point
ever reached by land or sea, they led the way alongside the ship.

Such results as were obtained by the northern party have been greatly
lost sight of in the painful interest connected with the cause of the
scurvy, a subject which it would be altogether improper to enter upon
here. But the effort to penetrate across the polar pack has proved
other facts besides the necessity for a change in sledge diet. The
attempt was never a hopeful one, but if it had not been made, no one
would have been satisfied that it was impossible. If the men had been
able to march as far every day after the scurvy appeared as they did
before it—in other words, if the scurvy had not broken out—they would
have reached only twenty-seven miles further north. The Pole lay 435
miles from their most advanced depôt. Their total distance marched
was 521 geographical miles, so that under impossibly favourable
circumstances—if they had been able to travel in a perfectly straight
line, pulling a single sledge, and with ice as smooth as a lake, they
would have succeeded in reaching the Pole and half-way back again, a
conclusion which would be neither satisfactory nor instructive. If
a comparatively unbroken ice-cap exists, and if its surface affords
better travelling than its broken margin, it is possible that some
future expedition may yet find it lying nearer Cape Joseph Henry,
and travel over it to 84° or 85°, but certainly not to the Pole. The
broken condition of the floes is inexplicable; perhaps a small island
or bank exists to the northward. Those who choose to think so have two
facts to hang their faith on: a hare track was found thirty miles from
the land, and the depth of the Polar Sea at the furthest camp was only
seventy fathoms.

When the northern party arrived on board the ship, they found her very
different to what they had left her. The thawing snow had been thrown
off her upper deck, and the banking up round her sides had almost
disappeared. A deep pool of not very clean water lay all round the
ship, and in order to get on board it was necessary to cross a bridge
some twenty feet long made of poles and planks. The tide rose and fell
in this pool, showing that the ice in which the ship was imbedded was
actually supported like a bridge between the shore and the floebergs;
in fact, so fixed was the ship that, when the snow banking sank a
little more, the tide might be seen rising and falling against the
torn and ragged planking of her sides. Other pools of water lay on
the floes, especially in the neighbourhood of floebergs. Cracks, too,
were opening in every direction, and though there was as yet no motion
in the pack, it seemed as if it only wanted a strong wind to set it
grinding and roaring as it did in autumn. This state of affairs,
together with the two following even more important considerations,
made us very anxious about Lieutenant Aldrich and his crew. He had a
good store of lime juice laid out in depôt for his return journey,
but, with the experience of the northern party before us, we could
hardly hope that his crew would be free from scurvy when they reached
it. And again, we knew, from the reports of his auxiliary sledge, that
he had penetrated far to the westward across an absolute desert of
deep snow, which, if once softened, would effectually bar his return,
and cut him off from assistance.

In many places round the ship the snow was softening rapidly, so much
so that spots once hard enough to walk on were now totally impassable.
Even snow-shoes, which had proved most useful on the march to the
rescue of the northern party a week before, now balled so much under
the heel, and shovelled up such a weight of slush, that they could not
be used.

On clear days the depôt at Cape Joseph Henry was visible with a good
glass from the top of Cairn Hill. As long as it could be seen we knew
that the party had not reached it, and a most anxious watch was kept
on the little flickering miraged spot. Up to the 18th June no change
occurred, and then Lieutenant May and his indefatigable dogs went
off to try and find some trace of the missing party. On the 25th the
suspense came to an end. It was Sunday morning, and shortly after
service the news came from Cairn Hill that both Aldrich’s sledge and
the dog-sledge were in sight. The two tents pitched on the floes near
Mushroom Point could be made out plainly. They were evidently encamped
for the day as usual. Their homeward march would not begin till
evening, so at 7 p.m. everyone that could left the ship to meet them.
Rounding a low point, we came on them suddenly. The “Challenger” led
the way with colours flying and sledge-sail set. Her officer and the
last man left of his crew—a stalwart, light-hearted teetotaler—hauled
in her drag-belts. One man, unable to walk, lay muffled on the sledge,
the others kept up as best they could, taking turns on the dog-sledge.
They had turned back from a point two hundred and thirty geographical
miles to the westward, and had travelled, there and back, over seven
hundred miles of coast-line, but had found no shore leading poleward.
On their outward journey, as they passed each successive cape,
another and another came into view, till, on rounding a headland in
north latitude 83°.7, they found the shore-line bending off to the
southward. At this spot, since called Cape Columbia, a slaty cliff
sloping downward to the floes formed the most northern point of the
new world. For miles on either side the shore was lifeless, but
there on the slope of the cape, amongst the stones and snow, they
found a little Arctic poppy, with its tiny yellow petals withered
into lines and folds of green. Beyond Cape Columbia it was sometimes
hard to tell where the land ended and the frozen sea began; here and
there, banks of sand and gravel were bare of snow, but when you dug
into them with a pick there was deep ice beneath. On the left lay a
monotonous, snow-clad shore rising into irregular mountain groups,
and on the right, perennial floes, worn into mounds and valleys.
They still followed the shore-line, till, on their forty-fifth day’s
journey, they found themselves further south than the winter quarters
of the ship. Then they came to the limit of their provisions. There
was only enough left to carry them back to their farthest depôt.
And so, recovering in succession each of the little piles of stores
deposited on their outward journey, they retraced their footsteps
along this shore that no other human eyes than theirs had ever looked
on. For a week before the dog-sledge met them their state was even
worse than we had feared. The snow that bore them on their outward
way had softened; every step sank a different depth in it, sometimes
to the knee, sometimes to the waist. The men broke down one by one,
strength and appetite failed them, and every motion of their swollen
and stiffened limbs was an agony. They would haul the sledge five
or six yards forward, and then stop for want of breath. With fifty
miles of bottomless snow before them, it was no wonder some of them
began to think their prospects hopeless, and wanted to be left behind
rather than burden the others with their weight. But the sight of the
dog-sledge put new life in the party. Its four strong men and six
plucky dogs soon got them over their difficulties. Now they were safe
and close to the ship, and knees grew straighter than they had been
for many a day; those who could walk at all required an order to keep
them on the dog-sledge. There was amongst them an ex-member of the
“Bulldog” sledge, who had impressed himself specially on his former
sledge-mates by one peculiar trait—he never could see a joke till
hours after it was made, and then his sudden roars of laughter would
sometimes wake the whole crew from their first sleep. The poor fellow
was now amongst the worst, but he insisted on being helped into the
drag-belts, and staggered alongside the ship in harness. Thus ended
the spring sledging.

For another month hunting parties scoured the land, and two sledges
tried to find an overland route to the “Discovery” in case our ship
should suffer in the disruption of the pack; but so far as the
“Alert” was concerned, the exploring work of the year was over. Of
the “Discovery’s” proceedings we yet knew little. We had heard that
Lady Franklin Sound had proved a mere inlet. No news had reached us
from the North Greenland detachment, but the shore that we could see
from our mast-heads and from the hills of Floeberg Beach was long and
deeply indented, and its extreme limit at Cape Britannia was far to
the east, but little to the north.

The summer disruption of the pack was now evidently close at hand,
and it was therefore necessary to come to an immediate decision
about the future. We had men in both ships who had passed many
winters in “whalers,” and they were unanimously of opinion that the
“Alert” had little if any chance of ever leaving her winter quarters.
Those with knowledge of naval Arctic work thought otherwise. The
“break-up,” when it did come, would probably give us a choice of three
alternatives—namely, to advance, to stay where we were, or to retreat.
As for advancing, in some very favourable season we might perhaps
get the ship about twelve miles further westward and five further
north, but this was the very utmost that could be hoped for; and for
all purposes of northward extension our present position was just as
good. Any advance along the shores of Greenland was utterly out of the
question, for the eastward motion of the pack threw its chief pressure
on that shore. What, then, would another year at Floeberg Beach enable
us to accomplish? Assuming, against all precedent, that our crew
would completely recover and be as strong as ever they were—assuming,
too, that the whole force of the Expedition, guided by the experience
already gained, could be launched northwards over the floes, there
could even then be no hope whatever of adding one degree to our north


Under such circumstances, retreat, if possible before the relief ship
was despatched from England, became a duty. There was one objection
to it that was often joked about, but of course never seriously
entertained—“The public will not be satisfied unless you stay one or
two more winters, or at least lose a ship.” We little knew how very
near we should be to doing both.


On June 14th, the northern detachment, with the relief sledges sent
to its assistance, returned to the ship from its ten weeks’ march
over the polar floes. The detachment had started northward seventeen
strong, but only four remained able to pull in the drag-belts, and of
these one was the officer in command. Frost-peeled and sun-burnt, with
stiffened knees, and faces and clothes stained with stearine smoke,
these four led the way alongside the ship, flying the Union Jack they
had carried a month’s hard march beyond every predecessor.]

Summer at Floeberg Beach was an affair of weeks, almost of days. The
turning-point came silently and quickly—not in quite the demonstrative
fashion some of us expected, with an abrupt bursting forth of ravines
and a general rush of torrents to the sea, but still suddenly.
Three-fourths of the snow disappeared as if by magic, and the dark
patches of bare land grew broader and broader every day. In some
places the earth passed at once from frozen rock to dust; in others
marshy spots formed, and there the whole ground was cut up into
the hexagonal bosses that form a very striking feature in Arctic
foregrounds. A view of Floeberg Beach from Cape Rawson (Plate No. 4),
sketched on 18th July, gives an idea of how the land looked in summer.
Even near the shores it is never altogether free from snow. Permanent
drifts lie in the hollows, and from the crests of the cliffs at Cape
Rawson a great bank several hundred feet in height sloped downward
to the “mud flats” below. Trickling streams cut their way vertically
down through the snow or flow in tunnels under it, then wind across
the marshy flats, and end in some of the ravines that intersect
the land like Lancashire “cloughs.” For great part of the year the
ravines are merely more or less deep grooves in the monotonous
undulating whiteness, but in summer they hold brown foaming torrents
rushing between steep undermined banks of snow, quite unfordable if
deeper than the knee. These are the rivers of the country, but they
cannot run out to sea, like ordinary streams; the grounded pack-edge
prevents them; so they expend much of their energy in destroying the
green one-season’s ice, filling the lagoon between barrier bergs and
beach. The snow was no sooner off the land than the flowers were in
bloom—not very gorgeous specimens certainly, but still flowers, and
with more than their share of tender sentiment, as might be seen
by many bright little nosegays gathered for our invalids by the
rough hands of messmates. First came close clumps of magenta-tinted
saxifrage, with scarcely a trace of a leaf, and fading as fast as it
bloomed; then tiny yellow _Drabas_, and white coltsfoot, and woolly
willow catkins; and later, when the sorrel leaves, each as large
as a sixpence, began to get red and tasteless, the yellow poppies
appeared, and with them the delicately-tinted strawberry-like flowers
of _Dryas octopetala_. Plants were of course few and far between—for
example, four men searching all day could just gather one plateful
of the valuable sorrel. All, too, were on the most Liliputian scale,
seldom more than an inch above ground, but with immensely long roots.
Sometimes, as we sat sketching or picking sorrel, a mosquito or two
would present themselves, but they did not bite like their brethren
of the Greenland settlements. A small sort of dragon-fly was not
uncommon near pools, and now and then a small brown butterfly, an
_Argynnus_, or, more rarely, a yellow _Colias_, would flit by, looking
somewhat incongruous amongst the rocks and snow. Birds soon became
comparatively plenty; graceful grey tern fluttered about over cracks
in the floes, and dipped into the pools for the little shrimps that
came to the surface; flocks of knots, exceedingly wild and quick of
wing, were commonly seen wading about in marshy places. A pair of
snowy owls reared a brood on the cliffs of the north ravine. The
parents supplied an excellent dish, and the young ones were made pets
of. One of them, called “Mordecai” on account of his Asian profile,
became a great favourite in consequence of his quaintly gluttonous
habits. A few king-duck and Brent geese chose Grant Land as a safe
nursery for their coming broods. Stringent game laws were enacted, in
order that they might not be frightened away before they had made up
their minds on the subject. We altogether underrated the sagacity of
these creatures. Birds accustomed to winter perhaps on our own shores
would of course be familiar with man, but we hoped they might take us
for Eskimo armed with bows and arrows, and we were not at all prepared
for their accurate knowledge of the range of Eley wire cartridge in
our Guy and Moncrieff “central fires.” All were not so well informed,
however. One day, an officer wandering about the “mud flats” was
brought to a standstill by the extreme stickiness of the ground, and
was endeavouring to extract his boot from a muddy place, where it
had stuck fast, when a pair of geese, impelled by most convenient
curiosity, flew round him once or twice, and lit within a hundred
yards, then, stretching out their necks straight in front, walked
deliberately up till there was less risk of missing than of blowing
them to fragments. These birds no doubt come north in search of safety
for themselves and their broods during the nursing season, for the
moulting of both parents, just before the young are able to fly,
leaves them peculiarly defenceless. Later on, when the Expedition was
on its way southward, two of our sportsmen encountered a large flock
thus deprived of their pinions, and secured no less than seventy birds
in fourteen shots.

_A propos_ of shooting, the following curiously improbable personal
incident is perhaps worth narrating:—One evening, shortly before the
ship broke out of winter quarters, I took my rifle and went shoreward
to try and find a hare, but, after a long search, was returning
unsuccessful, when I happened to discover a king-duck swimming about
in a small lake; there was little chance of hitting her, but she would
at any rate give an excuse for a shot. After trying for twenty minutes
to get within moderate range, it was plain that there was nothing for
it but to walk straight up through the crunching snow; but the bird’s
patience was exhausted, and she rose on the wing a good hundred yards
off. In sheer annoyance and chagrin I fired, when, most unexpectedly,
out flew the feathers and down fell the duck. On going to pick her up,
marvelling greatly at the Munchausen-like luck of the shot, and hoping
that the hole was not through the best part of the bird, what was
my amazement to discover that she was not only alive, but perfectly
unhurt. Turn her over how I would, there was not a speck of blood on
the feathers, or a scratch on any part of the body. At last the secret
was discovered; the bullet had clipped the pinions off one wing, and
the fall had stunned the bird. She afterwards lived some time in
captivity in a hen-coop, and laid two eggs.

We had not spent many days roaming over our newly uncovered lands,
before we began to suspect that tracks of game were, in our part
of the Arctic regions at any rate, extremely misleading. On the
way northward, whenever the ship came to a standstill amongst the
floes, men and officers often made hurried visits to the shore, and
invariably came off with the stereotyped report that “traces of game
were numerous and recent.” We found so many traces and so little
game that the phrase acquired an inverted meaning, and passed into a
proverb, but the discrepancy remained unaccounted for. At Floeberg
Beach tracks of game were certainly numerous enough. The hard frozen
mud at the margins of every pool showed footprints of birds, often
so sharp and distinct that “rubbings” with pencil and paper were
easily made of them, and sometimes in relief where dust had filled
the impression and ice evaporation afterwards lowered the mould. In
some places tracks of musk oxen were abundant, and of every size,
from the little round footprints of calves to the broad hoof-marks of
full-grown animals; but there was absolutely no way of telling when
or in what numbers the game had been there. Once frozen, a footprint
may last indefinitely, especially if protected by snow; and, for aught
we could prove to the contrary, some of the tracks may have been as
old as the celebrated mammoth frozen up in the Siberian mud. On 5th
July, however, those who contended that the tracks were practically
fossil were confounded by the appearance of three musk oxen on a
hill-top beyond the north ravine. Their discoverer instantly sent off
news to the ship, and, very judiciously, waited patiently till the
arrival of assistance rendered their escape impossible. A few mornings
afterwards, a fine bull walked innocently down to the beach near the
ship, and was forthwith slaughtered. Being a good specimen, and close
at hand, he was transferred to the naturalist, and he now represents
his species in the British Museum.

All through the earlier weeks of July the pack gave warnings of
approaching disruption. Decided motion first occurred on 16th, and
on 21st the old familiar sound of “breaking plates” came from the
offing, and with a loud crack the ship suddenly righted herself from
the heel towards shore, which had slowly increased during the winter.
Nevertheless, as long as it remained calm no important movement was
likely to occur, except at high tide. We were, therefore, still able
to extend our hunting expeditions to several days from the ship. It
was not the search for game only, exciting as it was, that made these
late trips interesting. Our hunters enjoyed a privilege that has
rarely fallen to the lot of any discoverers in either past or recent
times—they traversed a shore never before trodden by the foot of man.
Everywhere south of the steep cliffs of Robeson Channel some vestiges
of humanity were discoverable; a broken sledge-runner, a chipped
flint, or a musk ox bone broken to extract the marrow, told us that
wandering Eskimo had been before us; but from the cliffs northward
all traces ceased—no savage hunter had ever disturbed the ice-borne
boulders of Floeberg Beach to fasten down his tent of skins, or form a
rough hearth for his travelling camp, and no sledges but our own were
ever launched towards the icy horizon beyond—

“We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.”

Yet though there was no trace of man or his doings, Nature had left
deeply significant records of her own to tell the history of the
land. The neighbourhood of the ship was rich in such evidences. No
one could walk over the broad “mud flats” half-a-mile inland from the
ship without being convinced that the land had risen from the sea at,
geologically speaking, no very distant period. Shells similar to those
still living in the sea two hundred feet below lay strewn in abundance
on the fine sand. Here a pair of valves, enormously thickened to bear
the crush of ice, there a whole bed of slighter shells, still covered
with their brown filmy skins, and connected by their gristly hinges.
The mud itself was so salty, that where it dried in the sun a white
briny coat formed on its surface. Stems and roots of laver sea-weeds
were sometimes picked up, but the most interesting and eloquent
witnesses of the past were the splinters and logs of drift-wood that
lay imbedded in the mud, or scattered along the crests of these raised
beaches. The wood was easily recognised by the microscope as the wood
of pine trees, and though probably very many centuries old, was often
so apparently fresh as to smell woody when cut. It was not for us to
conjecture when or where that wood had grown, or how it had drifted to
its present elevated site; but we could not help thinking that it told
of a time when the shores, though perhaps far more deeply laden with
glaciers, were washed by a less ice-bound sea.

At one o’clock in the morning of 23rd July, the pack broke from the
shore under the influence of a strong wind, and left pools of water
outside our barrier bergs, but the ice still crushed close on Cape
Rawson, and when the wind lessened, all closed in. Again, on the
evening of 26th a space of water formed outside the bergs, and in
order to be ready when an opportunity for a rush southward should
offer, we set about breaking a channel through the floes between the
ship and the nearest gap in the wall of grounded bergs. The ice was
far too thick for even our longest and heaviest ice-saws, but with
the aid of three hundred pounds of gunpowder, judiciously disposed
in torpedoes made of tin cans and lime-juice jars, it was shattered,
piece by piece, and as each mass broke off and floated free, it was
pushed out to seaward by the united efforts of the whole crew wielding
levers and ice-poles.

While we lay waiting for a path southward to open, we could not but
look forward to the ordeal before us with a good deal of anxiety. Once
round Cape Rawson, there would be no turning back. Thirty miles of
shelterless cliff must be passed before we reached Lincoln Bay, and
for the whole of that distance the ship would have to run the gauntlet
through a mere fissure between a perpendicular wall of ice-foot, and a
moving, irresistible mass of floe eighty feet and more in thickness.
If fortune did not favour us, the destruction of the ship was certain,
and every preparation was made to meet such an eventuality. Provisions
and sledges were piled on deck ready to launch on the floes, and
notes and sketches and carefully-selected specimens were packed into
the smallest possible bundles, so that they could be pushed hastily
into a pocket if it should be necessary to desert the ship. Early
on the morning of 31st, an unusual sound awoke us; a strong breeze
whistled and sung in the rigging overhead, and a low vibration, like
the bass notes of an organ, filled the ship. It came from our heating
boilers—steam was being got up. On deck one glance round told us that
the time had come. A long black canal of water skirted the coast as
far as we could see towards Cape Rawson, and the rush through it must
be made now or never. Screw and rudder were already down in their
places, and the sails “bent,” ready to be loosed. A few strong charges
of gunpowder shook the ship from her icy bed. The order “full speed
ahead” was given. The screw flung a stream of foaming water over the
ice, and the ship moved slowly forward into the channel blasted for
her. Then, as she swung round under steam and sail through the narrow
portal in the wall of bergs, we caught our last glimpse of Floeberg
Beach. Shadows of clouds chased each other down over the brown slopes.
The headstone of Petersen’s grave stood out like a solitary human
figure, and a piece of canvas fluttered on a pole over “the doctor’s
garden,” where mustard and cress were just beginning to appear above
ground. Our tall cairn on top of the hill remained in sight for a few
minutes longer, then the bend of the coast shut it from view. At full
speed we flew past the well-known headlands so often painfully rounded
with tired crew and heavy sledge, past the ice-rounded rocks of Cape
Rawson, the tower-like buttresses of Half-way Cliffs, and the dark
precipices of Black Cape; but before we got to Cape Union our career
was cut short—the angle of a floe lay right across our narrow path,
and we had to wait in anxious inactivity till the next tide moved it
off and let us slip past. All that night and next morning, the floes,
closing in behind us, literally hunted us along the coast from one
little hollow of the ice-foot to another. Over and over again the ship
had to be pushed and wriggled through desperately narrow gaps to avoid
the closing floes behind her. Several times there was so little space
to pass that our boats, hoisted high up at the davits, scraped along
the perpendicular wall of ice-foot. The accompanying etching is from a
sketch made near midnight on 2nd August, looking back along our track,
but no sketch can convey an idea of the chief feature of the scene—the
majestic and irresistible motion of the ice-fields.


Two days later, when we lay walled in by bergs in “Shift Rudder Bay,”
we could look back past Cape Beechey into the strait from which we had
escaped, and watch the tight pack of ice islands streaming south from
Robeson Channel into Hall’s Sea, without the distracting influence
of immediate danger, and we one and all came to the conclusion that,
as an impressive example of magnificent and imposing force, no other
natural phenomena could equal it. Our little vessel went very near
leaving her bones on the shores of this same bay. When we reached it,
the ice was closing in. A line of grounded bergs lay along the beach,
with a gap in it just large enough to admit the ship. Into this we
thrust her, feeling thankful for so good and opportune a shelter, but
unfortunately the gateway of our castle had no portcullis to close
behind us, the ice followed us in, and, foot by foot, forced the ship
up on the ice-foot, heeling her over and damaging her rudder. At four
in the morning the pressure suddenly relaxed, and the ship fell two
feet, but remained imprisoned. For days not a patch of water was to be
seen, though the whole pack moved south with one tide and halted with
the next. On 8th August it blew a gale, and the ice swept past with
increased speed. One large, dome-shaped fragment of polar floe crushed
through our gateway, and though it grounded long before getting near
the ship, the pressure behind was so enormous that it continued to
advance, shovelling round lumps of ice as big as a house on either
side of it, and rising out of the water as it did so, till it came
against the side of the ship. Now we were nipped in earnest. First
a rattle on deck, exactly like a hail-storm overhead, as the pitch
cracked and flew out of the seams; then a crunch as the ship yielded,
then an interval, and then another horrible vibrating crunch—for
downright unpleasantness, not even the tear of a shot through a ship’s
timbers can compare with such a sound—but the decks did not buckle
up under our feet, and the sides did not collapse. The “Alert” was
evidently not fated to be destroyed in that way. Nevertheless, when
the crush ceased, her position was far from comfortable; she was
raised four feet by the stern and completely imprisoned in a citadel
of bergs, apparently as hopelessly walled in as she well could be.
There might be oceans of water outside, but how was she to get out?
One chance only remained. It might be possible to make our jailor
berg float by digging off the whole top of it; so all hands set to
work, and for three days all that gunpowder, pick, and shovel could do
was done. Time was everything, for the tide fell lower every day. At
last our enemy gave up the fight, floated up, turned partly over, and
sailed out through the gate, considerably smaller than when he came
in. Victory came just in time; the ice opened before us across the bay
and down the coast. Ice navigation is never very rapid work, every
mile has to be fought for. We were only twenty-five miles from the
“Discovery,” but it took two days of sleepless activity to accomplish
that distance, and it was late on the evening of the 11th when we
rounded Distant Cape and caught sight of our sister ship.

You may also like