Mysterious Cairns

Records of our advance were to be deposited at Lyttelton Island, for
the information of a relief ship which would so far follow us if the
Expedition should remain northward for two winters. Accordingly, on
the morning of 28th July, our ships anchored off Reindeer Point,
Port Foulke. Here we were on ground that must always possess a deep
interest for every Arctic traveller. The southern side of our little
bay shut in the winter quarters from which Dr. Hayes had brought his
ship safely home; out to seaward Lyttelton Island was strewn with
remains of the “Polaris;” and Rensselaer Harbour, famed as the winter
quarters of Dr. Kane, was but thirty miles to the northward. A path,
still plainly discernible, led across a gap in the Doige range to the
deserted Eskimo settlement of Etah; and if any further inducement was
required to make the shore attractive, it was supplied by a little
note on our chart, “reindeer plentiful.”

Our time for exploration was limited, for the ships would weigh anchor
on the return of the main party from Lyttelton Island. Leaving the
ship as soon as possible after breakfast, we landed amongst fragments
of shore ice which still lined the little bay, and travelled inland up
a valley completely bare of snow, and green with saxifrage, willow,
and grasses. A rivulet trickled through some marshy ground in its
centre, amongst treacherous islands of rich-coloured velvety moss,
and occasional broad ripple-marked slabs of red sandstone. The whole
ground was covered with footprints of reindeer, but a gentle wind blew
up the valley, and left little hope of sighting them. Climbing the
hills to the northward to obtain a better view, a broad undulating
table-land lay spread out before us, ridges of plutonic rock, like
low walls, traversed the country from east to west, and here and
there marshy pools, some of them almost deserving the name of lakes,
lay in the hollows, and sent little streams winding towards gaps in
the coast cliffs. Beyond and below the cliffs lay Smith’s Sound, an
unbroken expanse of blue, limited westward by snow-clad Ellesmere
Land between Capes Isabella and distant Sabine. The strait was, so
far, quite open and unencumbered by ice, but away to the northward,
where Hayes’ Sound interrupted the outline of the coast, a long thin
line of pack, the first indication of coming troubles, streaked the
horizon. This was bad news to have to report on our return to the
ship, but there was no help for it. We turned our backs on it, and
struck out inland across the muddy flats in the direction of Foulke
Fiord. The Doige Range looked near enough, but an hour’s hard walking
did not bring it much nearer. Two steep ravines had to be crossed,
as well as a stream, which fortunately was in one place bridged by
a deep snowdrift that afforded firm footing across. At length the
precipitous cliffs of Foulke Fiord were reached at a point close above
the deserted settlement of Etah. Looking down into the fiord, large
flocks of little auks were seen perched in black and white lines along
the ledges.

A small ravine intersects the cliff-edge a little eastward from
the “Aukrey,” and on the brow over it we came upon two structures,
evidently the work of man, puzzling enough at the time, but which
we have since learnt to recognise as Eskimo meat _caches_ or safes.
Each consisted of a pile of stones covering in a long rectangular
chamber, left open at one end, but easily closed by a flat stone which
lay close by. Both stood in a conspicuous position on the top of a
little rise, and were surrounded by lemming and fox marks. A mile
further eastward, the cliffs promised a good commanding position for
a view, but the rough and undulating hill-tops took us a good while
to get over. At length the ascent of the last ridge was commenced,
when suddenly a snow-white object appeared over the brow. It was an
Arctic hare, the first we had seen. He was evidently astonished at
the reappearance of his old enemy, man, and it was not till after
he had made a careful examination of us, standing straight up, full
length, on his hind feet, that he concluded we were to be avoided.
Then off he went, running ten or fifteen paces erect, then a bound or
two on all-fours, then erect again, and finally, when he had run some
eighty or one hundred yards, he stopped for another look, sitting on
his haunches like a dog begging. This time we were ready for him; he
presented a steady mark, and his curiosity was fatal to him. On going
to pick him up, we came on a low wall of stones roughly piled, nowhere
more than two feet high, leading from the cliff-edge on the right, for
about eighty yards inland, to a small shallow tarn; it was apparently
some Eskimo hunting contrivance, possibly to assist in driving small
game to a suitable spot over the cliffs. Amongst the rounded boulders
in the margins of the tarn lay a great number of shed antlers of
reindeer, some of them broken and moss-grown, half-buried in the mud;
others bleached white, but evidently of no great age. The tips of
almost all showed marks of having been gnawed by foxes. Some scattered
antlers were found on other parts of the hills, but were always
numerous round the tarns; every one we met with had horns of various
sizes and ages lying about it.

On reaching the summit we were amply rewarded for our expenditure of
energy. The prospect was truly magnificent. A thousand feet below,
the blue waters of Foulke Fiord lay, rippled with a breeze, under the
richly-coloured cliffs of the opposite shore; further on, the flat
expanse at the head of the inlet, with Alida Lake, and Brother John’s
Glacier of Kane, shaped like a great paw, closed in the valley. Beyond
and above all, a broad white plain, the vast inland ice of Greenland,
lay spread before us. Even at first sight, this sea of ice could not
be mistaken for a frozen sea, for its distant horizon was sensibly
above our level.

The coast of Greenland, like other western shores, is so subdivided by
inlets and fiords, that there are but few places where it is possible
to get a good view over any extent of the _mar de glace_. Three or
four miles off, as we saw it, its surface seems smooth enough, but it
is really so uneven and fissured, that the most persevering attempts
to travel inland over it have penetrated but a short distance,
after three days’ incessant toil. When not checked by labyrinths of
crevasses, the travellers have encountered impassable rivers, flowing
in icy beds, till they plunged in a cloud of mist into fathomless
pits. Enough, however, has been learned to justify the belief, that a
continuous mass of ice, many thousand feet deep, loads the whole of
Greenland, from the land’s end near Cape Farewell, to far north beyond
Petermann’s fiord, where our Expedition traced its outline behind the
coast hills on the shores of the Polar Sea.

The place where we stood afforded an excellent site for a sketch; some
bold rocks over the cliffs and a mellow-tinted herbage—principally
red-tipped three-cleft saxifrage—supplied a good foreground. Our
artistic proceedings were, however, interrupted by the appearance of
a little grey fox, attracted doubtless by the dead hare. He seemed
perfectly aware of the danger he ran, and never exposed more
than his forehead, ears, and eyes over the rocks behind which he had
taken up his position. His skin would have made an acceptable addition
to our collection; and after waiting some time in hope that he would
make a further advance, he was fired at, but missed, and he gave us no
opportunity for a second shot.

JULY 28, 1875.—p. 16.

Foulke Fiord is a narrow ice-scooped inlet in the coast of Greenland,
at the entrance of Smith’s Sound. Hayes made it his winter quarters;
and Rensselaer Bay, where Kane spent his three winters, is close to
the northward. On the shore of the fiord, and under the red granite
cliff in foreground of the picture, a few ruined huts mark the site of
the once populous Eskimo village of Etah—the capital of the “Arctic
Highlanders.” At the head of the fiord an expanse of lake and valley
leads to Brother John’s Glacier of Kane, stretching down in the shape
of a huge paw from the inland ice beyond. This continental ice lies
thousands of feet thick over what little is known of the interior of
Greenland, and looks like a vast frozen sea, but that its level is
sensibly above the horizon.]

It was now high time to get back to the ships, so, shouldering a
specimen pair of reindeer horns and our hare, we took a direct course
across the Doige Range, but found it by no means an easy one, for a
steep ravine had to be crossed, and a rapid knee-deep stream waded,
before the hills of Reindeer Point were reached. On getting to the
ship, we learned that a party of officers from the “Discovery” had
been more successful than we were. Landing at the head of the inlet,
they had searched the valley below Brother John’s Glacier, and climbed
the cliffs on its southern side. There they found three reindeer,
which led them a severe chase across the glacier. They finally secured
one of them, and carried the best parts of the meat to their boat, but
not until one of the most active of the party was so much exhausted,
that it required the united exertions of the others to keep him awake.

The ice seen northwards from the hills over our anchorage at Port
Foulke was met with off Cape Sabine the day after we left, and found
to be altogether impenetrable. It was disheartening to see the ships
come to a complete standstill under steam and sail in the very first
pack-ice we encountered in Smith’s Sound. We were compelled again and
again to return and shelter in a little harbour inside some islands
three miles south of Cape Sabine. Our prospects seemed sufficiently
discouraging. We had only reached the latitude of Dr. Kane’s winter
quarters, and here was an impassable barrier of ice stretching north
and east, as far as we could see from the rocky hills over our harbour
of refuge. Our chances of progress were often discussed sitting round
the table after dinner, and when one of us, hoping to gain support
from opposition, suggested that perhaps we might have to winter here,
it was at first treated as a joke, but after half-a-dozen failures
to advance, the subject was dropped as altogether too serious for
discussion. Four days were spent in fruitless efforts to push through
the tongue of pack stretching into Hayes’ Sound, and we thus got
early experience of the necessity of a continuous coast-line for ice
navigation. At length a fine lead of water opened round Cape Sabine
into Hayes’ Sound. If we could not go north, we might at least go
west, and hold ourselves ready to seize any opportunities for advance
that the unknown waters of Hayes’ Sound might offer.

After three or four hours’ rapid steam and sail, in the line of water
between the floes and shore, the sound was found to subdivide into a
number of narrow inlets. The only available lane of water led into the
first of these. As we passed into it, a strange landmark on the top of
a long hill on its south side attracted our attention. If we had been
in an inhabited latitude, no one would have hesitated to call it a
house. We could only suppose it to be a gigantic and singularly square
specimen of the boulders which here strew the surface of the country.
The inlet did not run far, and we soon found ourselves “brought up”
off a broad valley closed in landwards by the union of two large
glaciers. The ships were secured inside some rocks to wait for the
opening of the ice, which would probably occur next tide. The shores
here were virgin ground, and parties were soon organised to explore
the valley. It was two miles wide at its sea face, and not far from
three in length; precipitous hills rose on either side; along the
centre, a stream from the ice above had cut a water-course, in some
places as much as eighty feet deep, through the soft yellow sandstone.
At the head of the valley, a wall of ice, formed by the junction of
two glaciers, stood across it from side to side. The glacier on the
right terminated in a perpendicular cliff seventy feet high, excavated
along the ground, and with small streams spouting from blue fissures
in its wall; that on the left was parallel with the former, but
rounded off gradually to a sort of glacis covered with a thin layer
of black mud, smelling strongly of decaying vegetable matter. Bunches
of dead heather-like Cassiopea cropped up amongst the stones within
three feet of the sloping face of ice. The stream came down from an
amphitheatre between the glaciers, which, half-a-mile further on, met
in a ridge, caused by the right hand glacier being forced up over the

We were greatly disappointed at finding no game in the valley; there
was not even a ptarmigan or a hare to be seen, though tracks of both
were numerous. Every gap in the banks of the water-course was pitted
with the footprints of reindeer or musk oxen. A number of boulders
strewed the valley, and every one that was large enough had been used
as scratching-posts by musk oxen, as the white wool and brown hair on
and around them testified.

[Illustration: TWIN GLACIER VALLEY.]

A splendid erratic block of red granite, twelve or fifteen feet high,
lay in the south side of the valley, and round it a complete trench
was worn deep into the ground by the foot prints of musk oxen as they
rubbed themselves against it or stood under it for shelter. This glen
was even more fertile than Port Foulke, and would make a delightful
winter quarters for an amateur Arctic Expedition. There was plenty of
willow, with large well-grown leaves, and in many places the ground
was covered with a perfect garden of dwarf flowers; even in the dry
parts of the river bed, patches of purple Epilobium covered the sand.
We could only account for the absence of game by supposing that the
neighbouring valleys were equally rich. An old reindeer antler was
picked up, together with the skull of a bear, and at the upper end of
the valley some remains of Eskimo “igloos” were discovered, with door
posts made of whale ribs.

Our furthest point in Hayes’ Sound was reached two days afterwards,
and, so far as we could see, the peninsula on our right was not an
island. We subsequently saw that it, and the very similar headland
next north of it, were parts of the same land, only separated by a
curve in the coast with a low hill in the centre. We accordingly
ceased to speak of our headlands as Henry and Bache Islands, and
returned to their original titles, Capes Albert and Victoria.

At length the long check at Hayes’ Sound came to an end. Some
southward motion in the ice opened a lead round Cape Albert. It was
at once taken advantage of, and when it closed in again the ships
were well to the north of the Cape, but, unfortunately, completely
imprisoned in close pack drifting steadily southwards, and taking them
with it. There was no fixed point to lay hold on. The long wall of
horizontally banded cliffs was more than a mile off, and, even if we
could have reached it, there did not appear to be any little curve or
hollow where we could have held our own. What little we had won seemed
slipping from us. There was nothing to be done but wait patiently
for the chances of the next tide. “Tea” had been cleared away in the
wardroom, and logs were being written up and journals posted, when we
were startled by sudden orders on deck. “Full speed ahead!” “Clear
away jib!” “Set fore-top sail, top-gallant sail, and foresail!” We
rushed on deck, expecting that a fine lead had opened northwards, but,
lo! the ships were still fast in the pack, and drifting right down
upon an iceberg two hundred yards long and forty feet above water
that crushed through the floes towards us. The “Alert” was directly
in its path. Men out on the ice ahead and astern tried to make way,
and hauled with ice anchors and tackle; full steam and sail failed to
move her. The pack tightened every moment with increasing pressure.
The roar of the crushing ice came nearer and nearer. And as the orders
“Up screw and up rudders” were given, those of us who were useless on
deck went below to see that our messmates’ haversacks were ready to
be flung out on the ice alongside, if our ship’s strong beams should
prove unequal to the crush. In solitary possession of the wardroom,
and quite undisturbed by the excitement on deck, our white cat “Pops”
dozed peacefully in her favourite posture on a chair in front of the
stove. When we went on deck again the critical moment had come. The
stern was clear of the berg, but the bow was in its direct path. The
ice pack, buckling and shovelling in front, caught the fore part of
the ship, and pushed her forcibly sternwards, swinging her half round
into a stream of ice and water sweeping past the berg. The danger was
over, but our jibboom was not four feet from the wall of ice. Such
an opportunity of arresting our southward drift was not to be lost.
Grappling appliances were all ready, and in a moment both ships were
being towed comfortably along in the wake of their old enemy.

[Illustration: OUR WHITE CAT “POPS.”++]

The events of next day well illustrate the uncertainties of ice
navigation. At 2 a.m. the ships had slowly struggled northwards until
they were abeam of Cape Victoria, but there the ice closed in and
“nipped” the ships close inshore under the cliffs. Rudder and screw
were again raised to save them from the dangerous pressure, which
increased till the floes, sliding one under the other, were forced
landwards completely under the ship. At that moment nothing could be
more unpromising than the prospects of the expedition, and yet, twenty
minutes afterwards we were steaming cheerily along through a good lead
towards Franklin and Pierce Bay. By breakfast time we had crossed to
the north-eastern shore of the bay, and found further progress checked
for the time by floes close packed against the rugged headlands to
the north. As the ships were secured to the edge of a broad flat
floe lying between an island and the high conglomerate cliffs of the
mainland, several walrus were seen lying on a fragment of floe about a
mile off. Their flesh would make a most valuable store of food for our
dogs, who had been living almost exclusively on preserved Australian
meat, for they disliked dog biscuit. Accordingly, a whale-boat with
a harpoon gun in her bows was lowered and manned. It was necessary
to make a long detour. New ice forming in the shadow of the cliffs
impeded our progress and rendered a noiseless attack impossible. Our
game, however, paid no attention to the noise we made scraping the ice
with the oars and breaking a road with a paddle. We soon got close
enough to see that there were three of them lying close together.
Occasionally one or other would rear himself slowly up, displaying his
double-lobed head and long gleaming tusks, scratch his side lazily
with his huge flipper, and fling himself down again with a satisfied
grunt beside his slumbering companions. They lay on the edge of a
floe. We steered for the largest of the three, and at length the broad
arrow-head of the harpoon, projecting from the muzzle of the gun, was
within five yards of the beast. Then, with the flash, the steel buries
itself deep in his side, a stream of blood spurts on the snow, and all
three walrus start up and heave themselves upright before plunging
into the water, looking as formidable game as any post-diluvian
sportsman could desire, but evidently too much frightened to attack.
A well-aimed bullet struck our victim’s throat and shortened his
death-struggle. Ere long the drag on the harpoon line slackened, and
the huge carcase was drawn to the surface and towed slowly to the
ship. It measured twelve and a-half feet from nose to tail, eleven
and a-half in girth. The tusks, eighteen inches from gum to point,
gave the creature a savage appearance, but their use was to dig up
the molluscs on which he fed, or to hook himself up on to the ice
floes. The dogs were not alone in their appreciation of fresh meat. We
ourselves found some steaks by no means unpalatable though desperately
tough, and for some days walrus liver figured upon our breakfast-table.

An anxious watch was always kept for any favourable movement of the
ice. But, meanwhile, the broad smooth floe alongside afforded a
tempting exercising ground, whereon, after working hours, some played
football and others took their first lessons in dog-driving. The
ships happened to be secured in a sort of basin fifteen fathoms deep,
but with shallower water all round, so that the bottom was protected
from the scrapings of icebergs. It was evidently a favourable spot
for a haul of the dredge. Our expectations were more than realised.
The net came up full of strange creatures. Here a fish with a sucker
under his chin; there a brittle feather star with long branched arms.
He has to be extracted most carefully from the bag, and supplied
with some cotton to grasp before being consigned to our naturalist’s
ever-ready bottle. Next comes a _Terebratula_, or lamp shell,
anchored by a strange chance to a fossil _Terebratula_ drifted from
some neighbouring rock. Here are pale vermilion-coloured antlers of
_Escharella_, and delicate lacework of _Retepore Polyzoa_, and here,
perhaps greatest prize of all, a little calcareous sponge with a
double frill glistening like spun glass. The dredging operations were
continued far into the nominal night, and, after a little necessary
rest, we started to explore the island. A steep wall of ice-foot
encircling the land disputed our inroad. Clambering up over it, we
were at once struck with the terraced condition of the shores. On the
north side of the island especially, the ridges rose one over the
other in long horizontal waves to the number of twenty or more. Even
on the highest, sea shells were to be picked up. Each ridge was tipped
here and there with little mounds of yellow clay, sometimes in lines
at right angles to the ridges. The shore was very barren; a few little
grey tufts of grass, or Draba, found root in the mounds of yellow
clay, all the rest was small stones weathered into sharp points like

When we reached the northern shores of the island, a number of
conspicuous white objects strewn along the lower terraces excited
our curiosity. They were bones of walrus and seal, much broken
evidently by the hand of man, but fragile and moss-grown with age.
Some long-vanished tribe had doubtless found this lonely island a rich
hunting-ground. The western point of the island was covered with the
foundations of a complete town. In some places mere rings of stones
had served to keep down the edges of summer tents of skins; in others,
rectangular enclosures three yards broad, with excavated floor and
with traces of porch opening seawards, gave unmistakable evidence of
more permanent habitation. Deep carpets of velvety moss found rich
soil in the floors of the huts, which had doubtless been no cleaner
than that of modern Eskimo. A little further inland we came upon a
bird-shelter, such as the natives of Danish Greenland still use to
encourage geese and duck to settle on their shores. It consisted of
four stones piled together like a miniature “Druid’s altar,” so as to
form a chamber large enough to shelter a nest. Generations of eider
duck had been hatched in it in security since the last wild hunter
left the shore. When we found it, it held a deep nest of eider down
with three eggs, fresh, but cold, probably belonging to a duck we had
killed before landing. The traces of former human habitation found on
this island, as well as at other places further northwards, seemed to
be about equally ancient. All told—not of fixed habitation in these
inhospitable lands, but of the exodus of some migrating tribe whose
hunters must have travelled far with their dog sledges if the walrus
and seal were as scarce then as now. No doubt the Arctic Highlanders
who told Kane that an island rich in musk oxen lay far to the north,
had occasionally despatched hunters in that direction; but no mere
hunters would require such a town of huts, nor would they take the
trouble to build on a new site at each visit without disturbing the
circles of stone close beside them. Similar ancient remains have been
found far westward through the Parry group, and have been attributed
to that host which, in the fourteenth century, swept downwards from
the unknown north and annihilated the Norsemen; but in our case the
broken walrus and seal bones, though lichen-grown and evidently very
old, could hardly have lasted five centuries even in an Arctic climate.

[Illustration: ESKIMO TENT-CIRCLES.]

After three days’ detention in Franklin and Pierce Bay, the ships
succeeded in creeping up inshore past Cape Prescott and a broad
glacier-headed bay, which has since been called after Professor
Allman. Every one was on deck as we rounded Cape Hawkes into Dobbin
Bay at midnight on the 12th August, for the scene that was opening
beyond the tall shadow of the cape was one of unusual splendour,
altogether different from such ideas of far Northern scenery as we
had gleaned from books. It has somehow or other become conventional
to represent Arctic skies as dark and lowering, and Arctic day as
little better than uncertain twilight. Nothing could be wider from
the mark, at least during the months that travel by ship and sledge
is possible. Washington Irving Island threw a long shadow towards us
across the lilac-tinted floes and gleaming water-spaces, which broke
into ripples as our iron prow pushed towards them. As we rounded in
close to the island, every telescope was fixed on a strange point on
the top of the bluff standing out clear and sharp against the northern
sunlight. It was either a very odd pinnacle of rock or a cairn, and
that, too, remarkably well placed. We could soon decide, for the back
of the bluff afforded a steep but practicable ascent. The conglomerate
rock of the summit was smoothed off like a mosaic by the action of
some ancient glacier, but near the edges it broke into a succession
of rocky ledges, and on the topmost of these stood the object of our
curiosity—a conical pile of well-packed stones. A second similar one
stood a little lower down to the southwards, both plainly the work of
a painstaking builder. But who was that builder? Not Eskimo. Structure
and site forbade that suggestion. Civilised man had but once visited
this shore, and that was when Dr. Hayes, in the spring of 1861, halted
his tired dogs on the floes beside the island. He did not climb the
bluff, and, besides, such an active sledge traveller would not have
loitered to build a pair of cairns except at some crisis of his
journey, and then he would have referred to them in his Journal. But
the cairns themselves bore witness that they were not the work of any
modern builder. Lichens grow but slowly in these regions. Dr. Scott
found Sir Edward Parry’s cairn untouched by them after thirty-two
years, and the wheel tracks of his cart were fresh as yesterday’s
when, after the same interval, Sir Leopold M’Clintock crossed his
track. These stones, on the other hand, were cemented together by deep
patches of orange lichen—the growth of many generations. We found no
record or scratched stone to tell us the names or fortunes of the men
who had left the cairns as witnesses to us, their successors. Perhaps
some baffled wanderer, whose fate is unknown to fame, had thus marked
his furthest north. There is plenty of room for conjecture. Many have
sailed for the northern Eldorado since Karlsefne, Celtic Norseman,
left his Greenland home and launched his three ships on the first
Arctic Expedition, eight hundred and seventy years ago.

[Illustration: CAPE HAWKES.]

For a week after leaving the island our progress northward was a
constant struggle with the pack. Here, in the broad basin opposite
Humboldt glacier, the Atlantic tidal wave through Baffin’s Sea
terminates, and leaves an icy barrier to mark its limits. Had not
that barrier consisted of much broken floes lying off a continuous
coast-line, it would have been impossible to force any ship through
it; but, aided as we were by the shore, twenty-eight miles were made
good in a week. Never did the prospects of the Expedition seem less
cheering, but we comforted ourselves with the knowledge that the
“Polaris,” a fortnight later in the season, had made her magnificent
run into Robeson Channel without much difficulty. With constant
watchfulness and unremitting labour the way northward was won mile by
mile. Every hour opened up some fresh possibility of advance, or some
new danger to be combated. The tired watch-keepers found little rest
during their short spell below. Almost every one “turned in” without
undressing. The tearing and splintering of the ice along the ship’s
sides, and the creaking and crushing as she charged the floes, made
sleep difficult. “All hands up screw and rudder,” became a familiar
order. And twice during the week it became necessary to cut docks in
the floes to shelter the ships from pressure. On the first occasion,
the heavy ice-saws, swung on tripods and worked by every hand on
board, did their work readily; but on the second day they were found
too short to reach through the thick ice, and nothing but rapid
blasting with gunpowder saved the ships from an overwhelming crush. At
length we found the rising tide flowing—not from the south as it had
done, but from the unknown north. It was the 19th August. The barrier
was past. Pools and lanes of water became more frequent, and on the
21st we steamed through a sea which Morton, leader of Kane’s northern
party, might well call open, for the ice fragments floating in its
intensely green water were not numerous enough to prevent a slight
swell, which gave our wardroom lamps the old familiar swing.


As we pass Cape Constitution, Kane’s furthest, the air, 6° below
freezing, warns us that this year’s navigable season is already far
gone, but the dazzling sunlight ahead shows but little ice save the
film already forming on the sea. Twenty hours’ steam at this rate
would take us beyond where ship had ever sailed. But, alas! “open
seas” inside the Polar ice are disappointingly limited. Fragments of
pack increase in masses, and at length stretch across the channel in
a long white line from shore to shore. But a degree and a-half of
latitude has been gained, and the 81° parallel lies five miles behind
us as the ships are secured between Hannah Island and the grey cliffs
of Bessels Bay. The island is merely a number of gravel mounds forming
a convex breakwater in the entrance of the narrow fiord. Looking
northward from it, Hall’s Basin lay before us, bounded on the right by
Cape Morton and Joe Island, and far away beyond the mouth of Petermann
Fiord the valley of Hall’s Rest and the distant headlands of “Polaris”
Promontory; while to the left, at the other side of the strait, the
snowy cliffs of Grant Land formed the western lintel of Robeson
Channel. There was little time to explore the island. A sketch which
supplies the accompanying engraving was just complete when the signal
for recall flew from the foremast of H.M.S. “Alert.” A lead had opened
to the north-westward; the whole of the ice was in motion, and that
night both ships reached the northern shores of Lady Franklin Straits
before the closing pack barred further progress.

AUGUST 25, 1875—p. 25.

Our first musk ox hunt led us to an isolated hill-top overlooking
the bay in which H.M.S. “Discovery” afterwards wintered. This sketch
was made on the following evening, from the spot where seven of the
herd had fallen. Looking southward across the bay, and beyond Bellot
Island, Lady Franklin Sound extends away to the south-west; and at
the other side of the sound Grinnell Land rises in a line of straight
cliffs, and spreads away towards Cape Leiber on the left, and to the
distant peaks of the Victoria and Albert range on the right.]


It was then midnight and very calm. A well-sheltered bay shut in by
Bellot Island offered a secure harbour, and both ships entered it,
steaming in towards a snow-covered valley at its head. Half-a-mile
inland in the valley lay a cluster of dark objects; through our
telescopes they looked like boulders; but as we watched them,
wondering at their uniform size, they appeared to move. In a moment
there could be no mistake. They were musk oxen, eleven of them in all,
and within easy reach. A hunting party of six was soon organised, and
in a few minutes a boat landed us on this yet untrodden shore. We
separated in three directions, meaning to cut off the retreat of the
animals landwards, but, unfortunately, our left wing engaged the enemy
sooner than we expected, and they made off at a rolling gallop up a
steep glen; two of them, evidently wounded, turned downwards towards
a ravine to the left, but the main body vanished over the brow of a
hill. So many pounds of good fresh meat could not be allowed to escape
without an effort, and accordingly two of us started off up hill on
the track of the game. They had made almost a complete circle, and we
sighted them standing together on a steep isolated bluff nearly over
where we had first seen them. Hidden by a projecting edge of the hill
crest, we scrambled to the top up a slope of stones and snow, and
surprised the beasts not ten yards off. They galloped right and left,
heads down, and sweeping the snow with their long shaggy fur, but fell
fast under the quick fire of our Winchester repeating rifles—murderous
weapons for this sort of work. In less than a minute all seven were
stretched on the snow.

It was now necessary to skin and cut up our victims, but before we
commenced this very disagreeable duty, the reports of rifles in the
valley below induced us to look over the brow. Our comrades had been
reinforced by others from the ships, and a circle of assailants had
closed round the wounded leader of the herd—a splendid bull. He was
making his last stand close to the brink of a deep ravine, gallantly
facing round at the flash of each rifle. He could no longer charge,
but the angry toss of his head showed how dangerous it would be to
close with him. He received no less than twenty-eight heavy Snider
bullets before he fell.

Musk ox hunting is not, as a rule, exciting sport. The skinning and
cleaning of the game, often in a cutting wind and low temperature,
and the carrying of the meat on board the ship, involved a good deal
of labour. Upon a subsequent occasion one of our hunters conceived
the happy idea of making a wounded ox carry his own beef towards the
ship, but the beast resented direction, refused even to be led by the
horns, and finally overthrew his captor, and had to be despatched
incontinently. They rarely attack, and can generally be approached
within rifle range with little trouble. Sometimes, however, they are
unaccountably timid. Animals that have never seen men are said to be
devoid of fear; but our experience does not bear out the statement.
Every beast we met, from the musk ox to the lemming, was afraid of
us. They seemed to take some time to realise that we did not belong
to their world. But having once made up their minds, they showed even
more terror than wild animals usually do.

Each musk ox gave us about two hundred pounds of meat, often most
excellent, but occasionally tainted with the flavour that gives them
their name. We failed to ascertain the source of this characteristic.
It occurs in both sexes and at all ages; and, moreover, it is not
peculiar to the musk ox, for a haunch of reindeer presented to us by
the Governor of Egedesminde possessed the very same flavour. A long
course of preserved food makes most fresh meat acceptable; walrus
and seal became delicacies; owls, foxes, and even skuas are not to
be despised; but genuinely musky musk ox is fit for nothing more
civilised than Eskimo dogs.

[Illustration: HEAD OF MUSK OX.]

According to the programme drawn up for our Expedition before we left
England, the second ship was not to be carried beyond the 82° parallel
of north latitude. The sheltered harbour in which the ships now lay
was 81° 41´, and was in every way suited for the winter quarters of
our consort. Here, accordingly, the first stage of the Expedition
terminated. So far everything we had hoped for had been accomplished.
Depôts to cover retreat in case of disaster had been duly deposited
at the Carey Islands and at Cape Hawkes, and a suitable harbour for
H.M.S. “Discovery” had been found beyond Lady Franklin Strait, in a
higher northern latitude than any human being had yet wintered in.
Much of the navigable season still remained, and though we had all
long ago realised the absurdity of expecting open water in the Far
North, we could not but look hopefully forward to the long stretch of
coast line shown on the charts extending to within 6° of the Pole,
interrupted only by “Army Fiord” and “Navy Opening.”

On the 26th August the ships parted company, but the beginning of
the voyage was ominous. A quarter of an hour after the “Alert” had
received the last well-wishes of her consort, she grounded on a
sunken rock, and got off again only to be checked within sight of
her starting-point by a close-packed barrier of heavy floes. Two
days afterwards she pushed successfully past Cape Murchison, but
soon afterwards became entangled in a chaos of broken floes of most
formidable proportions, and was forced to take refuge in a shallow bay
with, fortunately, no worse injury than a broken rudder. While the
rudder was being replaced, three more musk oxen were obtained, and,
with our larder thus replenished, we entered Robeson Channel. Heavy
floes completely filled the strait, moving rapidly north and south
with each tide. Sometimes the whole pack would check for a moment
against a projecting point of coast, and then rush on again, leaving
a lane of eddying water filled with broken fragments between it and
the wall-like cliffs. Through this lane, with a precipice of rock and
ice-foot on the left, and square-sided floes gliding irresistibly
past on the right, the path northward lay. It changed continually,
one moment opening out invitingly, and the next closing like the jaws
of a vice. It required the most unwearying watchfulness to advance
through such a lead, especially as the numerous little bays which
had so often enabled us to hold our own further south had now given
place to an almost unindented coast. Late on the afternoon of the
27th we passed a broad inlet, which was identified as Lincoln Bay of
the “Polaris.” Twice we were forced back into its shelter. The second
occasion was after an attempt had been made to force a passage through
the pack away from shore. After an hour’s charging and crushing
amongst heavy blocks, the little patches of water became smaller
and smaller, and the ship became beset amongst broken floes of most
unusual proportions. The level surface of many of them was as high as
the ship’s sides out of water, and their whole thickness little if at
all under eighty feet. The gentlest touch between such floes would be
instant destruction; but, fortunately for us, there was much broken
ice between them, and the ship was able to struggle away from the
larger pieces till some change in the tide allowed her to escape back
to the protecting land.

The first of September was an eventful day for the Expedition. A gale
blew from the south-west, and after it had continued with undiminished
violence for some hours, we could see through the drifting snow, blown
in clouds from the land, that the ice was separating from the shore,
and leaving a lane of water between it and the “ice-foot.” Such a
chance would not come twice, and there was no time to be lost. Under
full steam, and with reefed topsails and foresail, our ship was soon
flying northwards, trusting to chance for security when the floes
would close again. Flying mists of snow left little to be seen but
the black band of water ahead, and the bases of dark, steep cliffs on
the left. We were passing Cape Union, but which of the numerous bold
bluffs had received that name we could not tell. After a few hours, it
was plain that it lay behind us, for the land began to trend to the
westward. At noon the ship still advanced, but at right angles to her
former course. The cliffs of Robeson Channel were past, and what could
be seen of the shore was a low undulating beach fringed by a barrier
reef of grounded icebergs. Our lane of water extended about two miles
along this shore, and then ended at a low point of land, from which
the pack had never moved in spite of the violence of the gale. The
wind was now lessening rapidly, and the floes were closing steadily
and resistlessly inwards. To be caught between them and the wall of
grounded ice would be instant and hopeless destruction.

A mile behind us we had noticed a gap in the barrier of ice. There was
just time to run back and push the ship through it, into the shallow
water between the grounded ice-blocks and the shore, and to make her
fast under the shelter of one of the blocks, when the pack closed in
with a grinding crush that made some of us at least expect to see
ice-barrier, ship, and all pushed high and dry on the beach.

In a few hours it again came on to blow, and this time furiously. The
ice-pack was again driven off shore, carrying part of our barrier with
it, the hawsers holding the ship to hillocks of grounded ice tightened
like bars, and finally, in a fierce gust, snapt, and the ship drifted
outside her shelter, but was again brought up by her anchor. Then the
wind suddenly veered, and drove the ice in on us with alarming speed.
There was no time to turn the ship; struggling sideways and sternwards
through the tide of slush and tumbling ice that raced along the
outside of the barrier, she reached the friendly gap just in time to
be helped in by the closing pack. The roar of crushing ice had already
commenced on the point of land north-west of the ship. It approached
and increased every moment, till the whole beach was in full chorus,
creaking, screaming, and crashing. Under such an enormous pressure the
strongest ship that ever floated would have been reduced to matches in
one minute.

For months afterwards the same harsh sound was to be heard outside
our barrier, till it became familiar and commonplace. It can be very
closely imitated by rubbing dinner plates together. As soon as the
position of the ship ceased to claim immediate attention, many an
anxious look was cast over the chaos of ice beyond in search of the
coast-line to the northwards. The truth broke on us very slowly.
President’s Land was not there. The shore off which we lay curved to
the left in a broad bay, and thirty or forty miles north-west of the
ship the land ended in an abrupt cape. Behind us, and beyond Robeson
Channel, Greenland spread away to the eastward, dwindling off in a
perspective of rounded snow-covered hills, while to the north between
these two lands’ ends there was nothing but an icy horizon.


Where Robeson Channel opens out into the Polar Sea, the cliffs of
Grant Land give place to a more shelving shore. This sketch, made
late in July, 1876, and looking due north across the winter quarters
of H.M.S. “Alert” at Floeberg Beach, shows the poleward prospect from
the last of the cliffs. The coast-line curves away to the west into
Black Cliff Bay, then turns north, and ends in the peaked mountains of
Cape Joseph Henry, the point from which the northern sledge-parties
started. Patches of melting snow, under Cairn Hill on the left, and
under the slaty crest in the foreground (where some pink saxifrage
is still in flower), send rivulets across the mud-flats to the South
Ravine, and help to flood the green one-season ice between the
grounded edge of the perennial pack and the shore. The floes are
mapped out by hedges of hummocks, and look deceptively smooth from
this height.]

The whole sea was covered with floes varying from a few yards to miles
in diameter. Their surfaces were undulating, and assumed peculiar blue
and metallic greens in low sunlight. Small angular spaces between them
were choked with fragments broken from the parent masses, and long
irregular hedges made of similar _débris_ surrounded each ice-field.
These hedges rarely reflected the same tint as the floes; when one
was purple, the other was green, and _vice versa_. It was months
before we realised the full import of this ice. At first it seemed
impossible that the great masses grounded along the shore could be
mere fragments of sea ice we saw spread before us. We mistook them
for icebergs. Like them, they were stratified. They grew in the same
way, only the land is the parent of one, and the sea of the other. The
Polar floes are in fact a floating glacier, and we accordingly called
the fragments floebergs. In this the sea before us differed from
ordinary frozen seas. Baffin’s Bay, for example, renews its ice year
by year. Every summer great part of it is, as we saw it, free from
ice; in autumn, its surface freezes first into a pasty mass, then
into floes nearly as flat as a frozen pond. During the winter, frost
and snow thicken them, and wind piles them into hummocks. Sometimes
part of the ice lasts for more than one year—thus whalers talk of
ice of one or more seasons old. But the floes of the Polar Sea are
perennial. They bear the plainest evidences of great age. They grow
from above, and are stratified by seasonal deposits of snow slowly
converted into ice. Excepting in insignificant spots along shore, the
surface of the Polar Sea never freezes into new floe; it is never
long enough exposed. The only ice of a single season possible here is
a frozen together conglomerate of boulder blocks between the thick
old floes. With this distinction in view, the term “Paleocrystic”
was applied to this “sea of ancient ice.” “Archäiocrystic” would
more exactly represent what we meant, but sounds, if possible, more
pedantic. The age of the floes is a subject for speculation; whether
there is any limit to their thickness is also unknown. It does not in
any way depend on crushing or piling together. They should be thinnest
near land, where they are most frequently broken, and yet there were
several on our beach—Floeberg Beach, as we called it—over eighty feet
in thickness. We met with others floating so high out of water that
they could not be less than two hundred feet deep. When strong winds
and tides occur together during autumn, pools and fissures, crevasses
rather, sometimes form in the edges of this polar-ice cap, but only
those who have seen it can fully appreciate the utter impossibility
of “boring” any ship through this polar pack; a nut-shell would have
as much chance under a steam-hammer as a ship between the closing
walls of such a crevasse. This was the open polar sea we had heard
so much of, but which in truth no one in the Expedition had ever
expected to sail in. What we had not calculated on was the absence of
land northward; and that the coasts shown in the maps were absent was
soon beyond all doubt. Day by day our disappointing position became
plainer. The continuous coast-line upon which every hope depended
was at least not in sight. One chance still remained. Possibly the
land beyond Cape Joseph Henry turned to the northward, and though the
ship had reached the utmost limit of navigation, sledges could travel
along the frozen shore. Depôts pushed far northwards on a continuous
coast-line would yet enable us to reach a high latitude, if that
northward-running coast-line could be found at any reasonable distance
from the ship. Meanwhile, it was plainly necessary to accommodate
our aspirations to the stern negatives before us. The infinite
possibilities of the unknown were no longer at our disposal. We
could no longer cherish little unspoken hopes of rapid success, more
navigable seas, richer hunting-grounds, or milder climate, polewards.
Our ship lay about a hundred yards from the beach, her bows pointed
to the north, her right side against the grounded ice which protected
her, and on her left a space of shallow water stretching to the shore.
Even this space was by no means “open water;” it was, on the contrary,
filled with floating lumps of ice of every size, from that of a
hailstone to that of a house, moving about with every change of tide.
Some of the large ones were troublesome neighbours, and had to be
secured with hawsers to prevent them getting into damaging positions.
One of them, more erratic and less manageable than the rest, was
commonly known as the Wandering Jew. The poet, by-the-bye, who placed
that hero on a piece of polar pack, must have had a prophetic glimpse
of these perennial floes ever drifting slowly round and round the
pole. A few days after the gale the whole space between the ship
and the shore froze hard, and it was possible to walk to land. The
shelving beach was of rough shale, but, like the rest of the land,
was almost entirely covered with snow. Much of the latter was soft
and white, and had fallen recently; but here and there, in sheltered
hollows, hard brown patches had evidently remained through the summer.
Half-a-mile inshore low undulating hills rose to about four hundred
feet. None of them had anything characteristic about them; they were
simply rounded-off banks of brown slate and grey shale, with long
straight slopes of hard snow on their northward faces—splendid places
for headlong “toboggoning,” as we found later on. Nothing could be
more dismal than our new territory. But we still hoped that the
next spring tides might allow the ship to advance a little way into
some more favoured spot before she was finally frozen in for the
winter. Two short excursions had already been made in search of safer
quarters, but the reports they brought back were not encouraging.
There were several bays not far north of the ship, but most of them
were blocked with ice, which had evidently remained unmoved for many
seasons. Under any circumstances, it was perfectly plain that the
ship would be obliged to winter within a few miles of where she lay,
and preliminary exploration of the coast westward, in preparation for
the autumn sledging, could no longer be delayed. Accordingly, three
dog-sledges were got ready to pioneer the road towards Cape Joseph
Henry, to push forward a small depôt, and to search likely-looking
spots for game.

Dog-sledges are to an Arctic Expedition what cavalry is to an army.
They act as the feelers of the advancing force, do the scout work,
carry despatches, keep up communications, and are in fact the Uhlans
of a sledging campaign. Speed is their strong point, but in the long
run dogs are unable to carry their provisions as far as men. They
have, nevertheless, accomplished long journeys in latitudes where the
pick and shovel had not to travel before the sledge, and where an
occasional seal or bear helped out their provender. Looked at from a
distance, there is a deal of romance about dog-sledging. Imagination
immediately pictures the lively galloping team flying along over the
crisp snow, and the comfortably muffled driver, covered with furs,
reclining on the sledge, without a trace of baggage or provisions
to inconvenience him. Alas! one half-hour’s experience of the real
thing is enough to take the whole gloss off the subject. The sledge
is heavily laden with tent and sleeping-bags, provisions, and fuel—an
item not considered by many people, without which even a drink of
water is an impossibility. The driver toils along behind the sledge,
guiding it by its handles as he would a plough, or flogging the dogs
with all his might. Striding along in the deep snow gives him a
peculiar waddling gait universal amongst the Eskimo. His companions
run in front or behind, and keep up as best they can, painfully
panting in the icy air, which sometimes brings blood from the lungs.
When the sledge sticks in the snow, or falls into a crack, or jams
between two lumps of ice, the dogs make one violent effort, and then
stop doggedly till the sledge is lifted out for them. Then the driver
hisses out “Kis, kis, kis,” and the whip encourages any dogs that wont
understand good Eskimo or forcible English, and off they go again. The
Eskimo dog is, as a rule, utterly destitute of the ordinary virtues of
his species. He is simply a wolf that has found slavery convenient.
After the autumn sledging season, we tried hard to rear pups.
Sometimes we got them large enough to toddle about the decks, and the
fat little morsels would begin to answer to their names; but if we
took our eyes off them for an instant, little “Samuel” or “William
Henry” would suddenly disappear, and some near relative would look a
little less hungry than before. When travelling, there is generally
some unpopular individual in the team, and he is snapped at by all
the rest. The dogs pull in the shape of a fan, constantly changing
places, and thus tangling their tails in the traces. One elderly dog,
appropriately called Bruin, had lost his tail in that way; some former
Eskimo master had found it simpler to amputate than to unravel. More
than once dogs were so severely bitten by their fellow-labourers that
they had to be tied up in bread-bags, and carried on the sledge till
they recovered a little. The meat biscuit provided for their diet was
the only thing they would not eat. Hide sledge-lashings or whip-thongs
were luxuries to them. One brute, called Michael, invariably ate his
canvas harness, and upon one occasion ran off with the cook’s metal
ladle, and bit a large piece out of it. With all their faults, our
dogs worked wonderfully hard. Their value to the Expedition can not
be overrated. They could pull at a pinch nearly one hundred pounds
each for a long day’s march. Then when camping-time came, the driver
whistled the signal to halt. A meal of preserved meat was served out
to them, and they coiled themselves down in the snow, and slept with
their bushy tails wrapped round their heads.


Most of our dog-sledging parties found it necessary to secure their
teams during the hours called “night.” This was done by detaching the
united traces from the sledge, and fastening them to a spare tent-pole
pushed deep into the snow. Securing the dogs was not always a simple
matter. Upon one occasion, the officer in charge had loosed the traces
from the sledge for this purpose, when the dogs overpowered him, and
started off at full speed across the floes, dragging him at their
heels. He held on manfully, banging about like the tail of a kite;
if he let go, good-bye to the team. Fortunately, the dogs divided on
either side of an abrupt lump of ice, which checked them effectually,
and put an end to his Mazeppa-like career.

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