Solving the Problem of the Arctic
PART II.---Subsisting in the North
THE 10th of April, 1914, found Storker Storkersen, Ole Andreasen, and myself with one sledge, six dogs, provisions for a month, and the faith that the sea and ice would furnish us food when needed, embarked upon an exploration of the unknown frozen ocean north of Alaska.
That the main portion of the unexplored Arctic lies north of Alaska and north of Siberia, rather than north of Norway or Greenland, results partly from accident and partly from well-known, although seldom realized, geographical conditions. It is in a sense accidental that the civilization of our time has flourished mainly on the two shores of the Atlantic. The Atlantic has been the greater highway of our ancestors and our contemporaries, and the Pacific is only beginning to come into its own.
But the Pole would not as yet have been reached, or at least it would not have been reached so easily, had the Atlantic in certain definite, natural aspects been similar to the Pacific. Both oceans have their warm currents and their cold ones, affecting powerfully the climates of various lands. The warm currents of the Pacific have no access to the Arctic, for the gateway through Bering Straits is too narrow and too shallow, and even the more southerly chain of the Aleutian Islands turns them effectively aside. But the Atlantic is open to the north, and that greatest of all rivers, the Gulf Stream, sweeps up through the wide and deep gap between Norway and Greenland, carrying unmeasurable quant.ties of water warmed in the tropics north into what otherwise would be an ocean perpetually covered with ice. Iceland is arctic in name, sub-arctic in latitude, but temperate in climate because of the warm waters from the Gulf of Mexico that reach its shores. Few, even of those who know that Iceland is not as coid as its name, realize how far it falls short of the rigorous climate it is supposed to have.
The Pole of Inaccessibility
T T is obvious that if you can sail six hundred miles nearer the geographic Pole on the Atlantic side than on the Pacific, then the geographic Pole is not the most difficult point to reach by sled, for the point most difficult to reach is necessarily the one most remote from the farthest port attainable by ship. This spot will then be about three hundred miles away from the North Pole in the direction of the Pacific. We may call it the “Pole of Inaccessibility,” and it is roughly, as would be expected, the centre of the million square miles of unexplored area that lay white on all properly constructed maps at the beginning of our expedition.
It was now our task to make as deep inroads as we could into this region of mystery, and we had undertaken to do it not by employing an elaborate transportation system to keep us supplied with food and fuel brought from more southerly latitude, as had been the custom of previous explorers, but by living
by forage in a region described in most polar books and characterized in most men’s minds by “desolate,” “lifeless,” “barren,” “cold,” and other forbidding adjectives.
We had, in other words, undertaken to do on the surface of the moving polar ice the same things that the whole world is trying to do in the latitudes of cities and farms, of cereals and orchards; that is, to make a living. And this, being analyzed, meant four things— that we had to find on the ice or in the water enough of some wholesome kind of food and enough of some suitable sort of fuel, and that we had to be so dressed as to be comfortable by day, so housed as to be warm at night. The more you have read of polar literature the more convinced you will be that not one of these four desiderata is easy of attainment. We shall proceed to a summarized exposition of how -we attained each of the four.
In the main our food was seal. It may appear surprising at first that we should find seals abundant, in view of their having been so seldom seen by polar explorers and their absence having been so frequently asserted. Other explorers started from home with the universally held assumption that the Arctic was a desolate region, and they, therefore, provided themselves with food for the entire journey, and, having the food in their sleds, their whole concern was to make the journey before that food was eaten. But we had started with a different assumption, and we consequently had eyes for things they had not seen. Instead of assuming the barrenness of the Arctic Sea, we accepted that conclusion of oceanography which says that in a given cubic unit of ocean water there is least plankton, or floating life, at the equator, and that it increases northward and southward towards the Poles. In other words, there are more tons of animal life in a cubic mile of water in the West Indies than there are at the equator, and more in the latitude of New York than in the West Indies, and more again at the Arctic Circle. Seeing that this plankton life is the food of the seals, we expected to find the seals everywhere, believing they would “follow the feed,” and we concluded that the reason they had not been observed by the explorers of the past was the same which prevents "-he tourists from noting the rich life of the oceans they cross.
It may occur to some that even if seals were everywhere in the Polar Sea, they could not be secured, because they would be under the ice. Even were they under the ice they could have been secured, by methods which I have described in a book published some years ago, but we found no occasion for the use of this particular hunting method on the present voyage, and I need not repeat the description here. That method is used on the immovable ice near shore or between islands, but we were travelling over an ocean more than a mile deep with the ice on top broken everywhere by the stresses of winds and currents. It is not an unjust comparison to say that the pieces of ice in the Arctic are represented with moderate correctness by pieces of boards, with interspersed small chips, floating close together on the surface of a pond. In traveling by sled we sometimes have to cross an ice-cake twenty-five oi’ more miles in diameter, but more frequently tne cakes are a few miles o" a mile or a few hundred yards or even a few dozen yards in extent, and we make progress bv crossing from corner to corner where the cakes touch. We generally aimed to make camp in the vicinity of some patch of water, and while the other men built the snowhouse I would sit on a
cake of ice beside the open water and watch for a seal.
How We Caught Seals
T T would A take about an hour to make camp, and if before that time a seal came up he was shot— shot•through the head, for a bodywound might let water enough into
his lungs to sink him. The animal, once dead, would in nine cases out of ten float horizontally on the surface like a short log of wood. To get him “ashore” on the firm ice we had a retrieving arrangement consisting of a knob of wood about the size of a grapefruit, from three sides of which were sticking out recurved hooks resembling cod-hooks. To one end of the knob is attached a long, slender cod-line which is held coiled in one hand, while the knob of wood at the end of about a fathom of line is swung at high speed over one’s head and can then be thrown three or four times as far as a cowboy can throw a lariat. Your aim is to throw7 beyond the seal and then, when you pull the line in, hand over hand, the knob will eventually slide over his back, when one of the sharp hooks will pierce his skin, and he is easily hauled in. If the seal is too far away to be reached with this retrieving device, we sometimes let him lie in the water overnight, hoping that in themorning young ice will have formed sti'ong enough so that a man can crawl out and get him. Or if the meat is needed for immediate consumption, we launch what we call a “sled raft,” which is our sled converted into a boat by spreading a tarpaulin on the ice, setting the sled in the middle of it, and lashing it up on the sides. This tarpaulin was of No. 2 cotton canvas, waterproofed with lard, and weighed about forty pounds. It enabled us to convert a fourteen-foot sled into a boat that would easily carry a thousand pounds.
While the weather is cold we get all our seals in the water by the method just described. But when summer approaches the seals love to bask in the sun, and are then found more commonly on top of the ice, sleeping on a slippery incline by the edge of a lead, or by one of their breathing-holes in which they have lived all winter and which in spring has been enlarged by the thaw water or by the animal’s own teeth, so as to en-
A Record of Five Years’ Exploration for the Canadian Government
able him to haul himself out. The seal’s sun-naps are continually disturbed by his dreams of his enemy, the polar bear, or at least that seems a reasonable way of interpreting his behavior, for after sleeping foi thirty seconds or perhaps a minute, he will wake up, taise his head as high as he conveniently can, which is fourteen or sixteen inches, and make a complete survey of the horizon. If nothing suspicious is seen, this survey takes about ten seconds, after which he drops his head on the ice again and sleeps a minute more. Sometimes the ice is a little rough in his vicinity and you can crawl up and shoot him from behind cover, but more frequently he has chosen a level expanse where no concealment is possible, and you must, therefore, approach him realizing that he is going to see you before you are near enough to shoot.
"VTO mammal known to me has * ^ eyesight which at all compares with that of a man. A wolf can see you under favorable conditions a little more than half a mile away; a caribou at a little more than a quarter of a mile; and a seal commonly at about three hundred yards if you are standing up, or one hundred and fifty or two hundred yards if you are lying down. You can walk unconcernedly toward a seal until less than four hundred yards away, after which you begin a careful approach. You crawl ahead on all-fours while he sleeps, and you lie flat and motionless while he is awake. It might seem that something could be gained by wearing white clothing to match the snow, but this is the reverse of wisdom, for the seal’s one enemy that he fears is the polar bear, and the polar bear is white. If a seal sees anything that is suspicious and white, he takes discretion to be the better part of valor and dives promptly into his hole. If the suspicious object is black, he assumes that it is probably another seal that has come out of another hole to bask in the sun. It is therefore the task of the hunter to simulate a seal.
When the seal first sees you his actions are unmistakable. lie turns so as to face you directly; he raises his head a trifle higher than before, and instead of bending his neck to survey the complete horizon, he looks at you steadily and intently. You must be careful that his first view of you shall be a broadside view, for a man lying fiat resembles a seal most in that posi-
tion. It is best to lie still with one’s head on the ice for about half a minute; but the seal knows the habits of his own kind as well as the careful hunter knows them, and if you were to lie motionless for more than a minute at a time he would strongly suspect that you are not a seal, and in two minutes he would probably be convinced and would go into the water. It is necessary, therefore, after about half a minute of quiescence, to raise your head seal-fashion twelve or fifteen inches above the ice, keep it there about eight or ten seconds, and drop it on the ice again. By the time this has been repeated three or four times the seal is commonly convinced that you are one of his kind and will begin again to take his interrupted naps. If he is more suspicious than ordinary, it may be advisable to move your feet a little as well. Like many other animals, a seal is commonly lousy, and scratches frequently with his hind flippers. If a man lying flat flexes his legs from the knee, the motion is similar to that of a seal scratching with his hind flippers. These tactics nearly always convince the most skeptical seal, and when once his regular naps are resumed you move ahead snakewise while he sleeps, and play seal whenever he is awake, watching you.
Approaching a seal in this fashion is tedious at best, for it takes an hour and a half or two hours to get within fifty to seventy-five yards. A man with uncommon eyesight might score a brain shot at one hundred yards or over, but I have found by long experience that in ordinary conditions of light I have to be within seventy-five yards to be certain of a brain shot. No other kind of shot will do than through the brain or spinal cord, for the animal is lying on an incline of wet ice so slippery that, if he gives the least quiver after death, his body will slide into the hole. Its buoyancy is enough eventually to float it, but the momentum of its downward glide will take it diagonally into the sea ten or fifteen feet and the body will rise underneath the ice at an unknown point and cannot
be recovered. In the summer-time the creeping approach is disagreeable as well as tedious, for then the surface of the ice is covered with ponds of water, from a few inches to as much as a foot and a half in depth, and you have to advance through these without splashing and without any unseal-like movements, which means that your mode of locomotion through the water as well as over the ice has to be that of a snake. But if you are careful and make no splashes, and if the wind is strong enough to prevent the seal’s hearing you distinctly and not strong enough to flap your clothing, you can
crawl near enough to a seal to take hold of one of his flippers with your left hand while you stab him with a knife with your right. Eskimos occasionally do this, but only for a stunt or when they have happened to lose their harpoons.
In so far as the polar bear is an item in our diet, the affair is far simpler than with the seal. You do not have to hunt the bear, for he generally saves you the trouble by hunting you. This is not the case on or very near land, for there the bears are timid because they fear their two enemies—man and the wolf. It does not seem likely that wolves ever kill bears, but still it is certain that the bear is in great fear of the wolf and the dog. At sea the bear knows no fear. Besides his own kind, he is familiar on the ice-pack with only three living things—the seals, on which he lives; the foxes which he unintentionally provides with most of their food, but which never come near enough to him to give him a chance to catch them, and the gulls, which cry loudly and flutter about him while he is at his meals. It is known to zoologists, but not commonly realized by the laity, that the white fox is almost as much of a sea animal as the polar bear, for it is likely that 90 per cent, of them spend their winters on the ice. They are not able at sea to provide their own living, so several of them will usually be found following each bear wherever he goes.
Frequent Visits From Bears "F'HERE is no doubt that the bear is able to tell the difference between a living seal and the meat of a dead one when he sniffs them in the air. There is always seal meat in our baggage and the smell is always about our camps, so that when a bear passes to leeward the only odor which interests him of the many that come to his nostrils is that of the seal meat. Knowing no fear, he comes straight into camp, walking leisurely because he does not expect the dead seals which he smells to escape him; neither has he in mind any hostility or disposition to attack, for, through long experience with foxes and gulls, he expects any living thing he meets to make way for him. But if, on coming within one hundred or two hundred yards of camp he happens to see a sleeping dog, and especially if the dog were to move slightly, as is common enough, the bear apparently thinks, “Well, that is a live seal, after all!” He then instantly makes himself unbelievably flat on the ice and, with his neck and snout touching the snow, he advances almost toboggan-fashion toward the dogs, stopping dead if one of them moves, and advancing again when they become quiet. If there is any unevenness in the ice. as there nearly always is in the vicinity of our camps—for we choose such campingp]accs—he will tak2 cover behind a hummock and advance in the shelter of it.
Our dogs are always tied, for in the dead of night a good dog may be killed or incapacitated in a fight with his companions in less time than it takes a sleeping man to wake up and run out of the house to interfere. But we knew the danger from approaching polar bears and endeavored to scatter the dogs in such a way that, while the bear was approaching one dog in an exposed situation, another dog would get the wind of the bear. Usually, too, we tie the dogs to windward of the camp, so that the bear shall have to pass us first. When one dog sees or smells the bear, he commences barking, and in a second or two every other dog is barking. Upon the first rapid movement and the first slight noise made by the dogs, the bear loses all interest in them. He apparently thinks, “After all, this is not a seal, but a fox or a gull.” His mind reverts to the seal meat he has been smelling, he gets quickly up from his flat
position and resumes his leisurely walk toward the camp. By that time, even though we may have been asleep, one of us will be out with a rifle, and the bullet near the heart ends the story.
TT is a clear conclusion from our experience, and from that of a hundred thousand Eskimos and Indians, that all that is necessary for a satisfying and wholesome diet is meat and fat. There are, of course, many other combinations that make a satisfactory diet, but I have for years failed to see why any of them should be used by explorers in the far north, for all others have to be brought from a distance and have the disadvantage of costliness and difficult transportation, and no advantage other than of whatever prejudice we may have in their -f"vcr, because of the accident that those are the foods to which we have been accustomed from childhood.
The same animals that solve our food problem dispose of our fuel problem also. In the early stages of our journeys, for six weeks or two months after leaving our base camps, we commonly use kerosene, burning it in blueflame stoves. We carry the oil in tengallon, galvanized-iron tanks, which are clinched and not soldered, so that we can later on convert them into stoves that shall stand any amount of heat. When the kerosene is gone from it the top is cut out of one of these tanks and a little slit is made near the bottom for a draught-hole. Blubber will not burn without a wick any more than tallow will, so to start our fire we take a piece of any sort of cloth, an inch or so square, soak it with seal-oil, and place it on the bottom of the stove. Over this bit of greased rag we make a heap of seal or bear bones saved from yesterday’s dinner, and on top of the pile we lay a few slices of blubber. When the greased rag is lighted the flame plays up between the bones and strikes the blubber, which immediately begins trying out, the oil trickling down ovei' the bones ^rid foiming a film on them which catches fire and flares up, burning thereafter with a fierce heat indefinitely so long as occasional strips of blubber are added. This makes a fire as hot as any that can be built in a spruce forest, and is satisfactory for cooking in every way except that the smoke is very thick and sticky. The soot of it is, in fact, the best quality iampblack, which colors anything that happens to be to leeward.
Living in Complete Comfort
^T a later time I hope to discuss fully the interesting technique of the building of a snow-house, but here, in emphasizing that we live comfortably whether at sea or cn land in winter, I simply say that a snow-house, which can be built in about fifty minutes, is, when properly furnished, practically as comfortable as a room in a hotel or club. The floor is covered with two thicknesses of reindeer-skins, so that we are insulated from the cold of the snow underneath. The house is built on a deep snowdrift. For entrance there is an excavated passageway coming in through a hole in the floor. In the top of the snow dome there is a ventilating-hole of required size, commonly two to three inches jn diameter, ' When you heat the house, whether by a
blue-flame kerosene-stove or the Eskimo type of seal-oil lamp, a certain portion of the warm air escapes through the ventilator. The doors of our houses are never closed, but it is obvious that the cold air they admit cannot rise from them into the house any faster than the warm air escapes at the top, for the well-known reasons that cold air is heavier than warm and that two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same ti me.
We maintain in the snow-houses a temperature that has an inverse relation to the temperature outdoors. If the weather is warm outside—and by warm we mean anything above zero, Fahrenheit—it is not possible to heat the interior of the house much above the freezing-point of water without melting holes in the roof. But the colder the weather is outside, the higher the temperature that can be maintained within, for the roof is only from two to five inches thick, according to circumstances, and although snow is one of the poorest conductors of heat, still enough cold penetrates from the
outside to neutralize the heat inside and prevent thawing.
A Snow House is Warm
A SNOW-HOUSE is the most adaptable of dwellings.
If it gets too warm either for the comfort of the inhabitants or because the roof begins to thaw, you can lower the temperature by enlarging the ventilatinghole with your knife. If it gets too cold, you make the hole smaller by stuffing a mitten into it. If the roof begins to thaw because it is made of blocks that are too thick, you send a man out with a long knife or . machete, and he thins them down until the frost with* out neutralizes the heat fi'om within and the thawing stops. But if you have made your roof too thin, and hoar-frost begins to form from your breath and from the steam that rises from the cooking, then a man goes out with a shovel instead of a knife and throws a little soft snow on the roof to blanket it from the excessive cold.
We use no ration of fuel. We have confidence that when the kerosene we carry is done we shall find plenty of blubber, which will be just as good, so we do not have a stove specially constructed to concentrate all the heat on the cooking-pot, but are glad to have much of its escape into the
room to warm it up. If, when the cooking is done, the room is not yet warm enough, we let the stove burn until the temperature is what we desire, which will be about sixty degrees, Fahrenheit, if the temperature outside is perhaps fifty below zero. Commonly we allow the temperature to rise even higher than this, until the snow walls and roof begin to thaw. We keep feeling the blocks in the walls and roof, and when the thawing commences the water does not drip down, but is soaked up into the snow, blotter fashion, until the inward half-inch of the blocks becomes damp and soft. Then we put out the fire and temporarily enlarge the ventilating-hole, allowing the temperature to drop low enough so that the half-thawed inside layer of the house is converted into ice. There are several reasons for doing this. One is that while the blocks are cold and dry they are crumbly and if you rub against them the snow’ will stick to your clothing and fall down on your bedding, whereas after the inside layer is changed to ice this no longer happens. Another reason is that the newly built house is comparatively fragile, but when the inner layer has been congealed it becomes so strong that as many men as there is room for can stand on top of it without breaking it down, and polar bears can and sometimes do walk over the roof without breaking through. This strength, however, is of the nature of the strength of an egg-shell, and while a bear would not break a house if he merely ran over it, taking it to be a snow hummock, he could easily break through with a blow of his great paw. This has never happened to us, but we have known of it happening to Eskimos, when the bear was in search of the seal meat that he could smell from within.
How We Dress in the Arctic
T is not easy to make clear just what comfortable arctic clothing means. In dealing with the problem of dress we realized that the condensation of hoar-frost could not be avoided, but that it would obviously be relied upon to take place in one of the outer layers of clothing. Our system of dress varied, according to the materials available, but this principle was adhered to—that the underwear or innermost layer should be composed of furs, preferably reindeer-skins, with the hair next the body; outside of this layer we had two or three others, in one of which the hoar-frost would condense.
It did not freeze in our snow-houses at night, so that there was no chance for hoar-frost to accumulate in our sleeping-bags. On rare occasions, when we were camped on thin ice which might break up during the night, w>e kept our clothing on, but when we were in no special danger or emergency we would take off every stitch of clothing before going to bed. If there was anything in the house, such as some cooked food, which we wanted to keep from freezing, we would drive a peg in the snow wall and hang it up, for, although it occasionally freezes on the floor at night, it hardly ever does so at two feet above the floor. We found that in the snow-houses the temperature varies twelve or fifteen degrees, Fahrenheit, to the foot, so that if it is at freezing on the floor it will be forty-five degrees a foot or eighteen inches above the floor, while the warmest point is about a foot below the ceiling.
The cooking of breakfast always made the house especially warm, so that when we ate we commonly sat up and let our sleeping-bags fall down, sitting stripped to the waist until it was time to put on our clothing.
The clothes that were dry in the evening we first put on, then we went down in the alleyway or out into the porch, and with a small stick beat all the hoarfrost out of the garments that we had left outside.
Our comfortable houses have the one disadvantage that when the weather is bad one is greatly tempted to lie indoors all day, rather than go out and face the weather, be it a gale or merely extremely low temperature. Descriptions are common and popular of explorers writing short entries in their diaries with fingers that are numb in spite of mittens. We sat in our shirtsleeves and wrote our diaries with fountain-pens.
Entering the Unexplored Region
rE were about fifty miles from the coast of Alaska when we entered the unexplored region, for the whaling-ships in this portion of the north have always been forced by ice conditions to hug closely the north shore of the mainland in their journeys from Bering Straits to the whaling waters north of the mouth of the Mackenzie. The day our support party left us, we started off cheerfully, but after half a mile came, not to open water, but to mush ice that was too thick for crossing in an improvised boat and not strong enough to bear up a man or sled. Although the temperature was only about zero, Fahrenheit, on account of the extraordinary spell of warm weather we were having, this mush hardened during the night sufficiently to enable us the next morning to travel about ten miles. About noon that day a gentle breeze sprang up from the west, with a light fall of snow, but it gradually increased so that by the middle of the afternoon we knew we were in for a gale. Fortunately we had the good sense to take care in the picking of our camp site. At first we thought we would camp in the lee of a pressure ridge where the blocks of broken ice were heaped about thirty feet high. It was not cold enough for a snow-house, and when we were pitching out tent we happened to notice a crack caused by the next previous gale just where we were about to make camp. I think it was Andreasen who noticed this, and as it turned out the following night we probably owed our lives to him. After a little careful prospecting, we selected a camp site one hundred yards away from the nearest weak spot that we could detect, on ice about seven feet thick. By seven in the evening it was blowing one of the hardest gales we ever saw, probably over eighty miles an hour. We decided to stand watch turn about, and the first turn fell to Storkersen. He went outside, but came back again in less than half an hour. He said that for a considerable portion of that time he had been shouting to us at the top of his voice, but we had not heard him for the flapping of the tent. The snow was blowing so thick, he said, that he could not keep his eyes open nor see the length of the room, and the wind whistling in his ears prevented him from hearing the rumble of the breaking ice, just as it and the flapping of the tent prevented us inside from hearing. Now and then we could feel underneath us the shivering of the ice when it was in special stress, and occasionally we could feel rather than hear the thumps when big ice-cakes, that had been rising on edge somewhere near by, flopped over upon the flat ice with a crash which was easy to imagine. We have often under more favorable conditions watched the formation of a pressure ridge; and occasionally a cake, whether it be three feet thick or double, will rise slowly on edge until it resembles the solitary gable of a ruined church, and when it tilts a little beyond the vertical will break near its base and topple over flat. If any such cake had happened to topple over on our tent it would have flattened us out like mice in a trap.
We knew the danger, but there was nothing to do, for remaining still was the safest chance. There is no sense in trying to flee from dangers you cannot locate, for you may walk into greater ones. The greatest danger in moving about in a gale is that of
stepping into open water. For when the ice is buckling it will, before it breaks, bend down in some place as well as up in others, or, speaking geologically, it forms synclines as well as anticlines, and in these low places you may have ten or fifteen feet of water. A little later, when the limit of bending has been passed and a break occurs, and when the ice progressively crumples, forming the miniature mountains which we call pressure ridges, there form between certain of the cakes holes and cracks of all sizes and shapes through which he who stumbles may fall into unfathomable depths
During the early part of the evening we were under high nervous tension—a euphemism for fear. But you can’t stay scared for many hours consecutively— you get tired of it after a while—and before midnight we were all asleep and slept until morning.
Blizzards in the north frequently last several days, but this one began to calm down about four o’clock, and a little later we heard dogs howling. At the height of the gale this could not have been heard, but it was fortunate that we did hear, for when Storkersen went out he found that a crack was gradually opening about three feet from the tent and that one of our dogs was tied in such a way that a minute or two later he would have been dragged into the water. It proved further that the place about one hundred yards off, where we came near camping the evening before, was now an indescribable chaos of huge blocks of ice, tilted at all angles, with pools of water here and there between them. A pressure ridge about twenty feet high had also formed, with its near edge less than ten feet away from our tent.
The evening before we had noticed a bear track about a mile away from camp. To get some idea of the extent to which the ice had been telescoped by the pressure, I walked back in the direction from which we had come in the evening, looking for this bear track. Clambering over ridges, I found here and there, sometimes in level spots and sometimes on the side of a tilted cake, the trail our dogs and our sled had made. I eventually found the bear track about three hundred yards from camp, so we can calculate roughly that the ice in our vicinity had been crumbled into onefifth its former area, and must, therefore, have been on the average five layers thick. This telescoping, by the way, is the method by which sixor seven-foot-thick ice, formed by the ordinary winter freezing, is transformed into the huge blocks sometimes two hundred feet thick that are found aground in the shallow waters near shore.
The gale had one bad effect, but two good effects that far outweighed the bad. It was unfortunate that the previously comparatively level ice in this vicinity had now been converted into a series of jagged ridges. But the soft snow in which the dogs had floundered the day before had been packed by the fierce gale into drifts hard enough to bear up men, dogs, and sleds, and, better yet, the air seemed to have been cleared, the wind had changed from the warm southeasterly to a chill northwesterly breeze, and for two or three weeks the temperature fell to at least twenty below zero every night and sometimes much lower. This tended to make travel not only easier, but safer. During the warm weather we had many narrow escapes from losing our loaded sled by sinking, and the men fell into the water now and then, for small patches of thin ice had been blanketed by deep layers of soft snow, which made treacherous going. In addition to making these smaller danger spots safe, the cold weather quickly converted the wide leads that had formed during the gale into level patches of ice winding like smoothly frozen rivers sometimes for many miles on end through the Bad Lands of the pressure ice.
Passing the Continental Shelf
A LITTLE before the time of the gale just described, we passed that belt of keen interest to geographers known as the Continental Shelf. Going north from Alaska, the ocean had been deepening at the rate of about a fathom to the mile. Then came a comparatively steep downward slope, so that in the course of half a dozen miles our soundings increased to forty-five hundred feet and no bottom. One of the many misfortunes connected with the loss of the Karluk was that with her went most of our good sounding-wire. We had now about two miles of piano wire, but only about three thousand feet of the braided, nine-strand copper wire with a tensile strength of over forty pounds, the only sort of wire we have tried that is suited to the rough usage of repeated soundings through ice. As soon as we got great depths we let cut all our wire, but it was not strong enough to stand** its own weight and the tug of the strong current, so it broke at forty-five hundred feet, and although thereafter on our journey it never broke again, we had ta be content with carrying forty-five-hundred-foot nobottom soundings across the Beaufort Sea.
When the water had deepened to a mile we had reached to the point where our views of the presence of animal life conflicted with those of the whalers and most arctic authorities. It seems that sailors have for generations believed, for reasons similar to those which support so many untrue theories, that seals were not found when the water got too deep for them to reach bottom, which, in the common whaler-view, is about at one hundred fathoms. We had had so much trouble with warm weather that now, when it got cold and travel for a while was good, we did not like to stop to hunt seals for the testing of our theory, and we passed many good holes of open water, sometimes an acre, sometimes a square mile, sometimes of unknown extent, without, as it happened, actually seeing any seals. We did not, however, seriously fear that owing to reliance in our theory we should be left in the lurch, for, although we did not see the seals themselves, we now and then saw their signs.
ITOR three weeks we hurried along,
* sometimes making only five or ten miles a day because of the numerous pressure ridges, through which we had to make roads with pickaxes, and again making as much as twenty-eight miles in « Hay when we happened upon almost level going. Bear tracks, which had been so numerous near land that we crossed one fresh trail at least each mile of travel, became less and less frequent ns we got farther and farther from land. This we correctly diagnosed as meaning, not that seals were necessarily more scarce, but that here the ice was so seldom broken because gales were fewer to seaward and the danger of the ice breaking up was less. The bears, therefore, had fewer opportunities to catch the seals, for the seal
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is safe as long as the ice is unbroken above him and as long as he gets his fresh air through the little breathing-hole (no larger than the top of a water-tumbler) which is kept open all winter by his constant gnawing. But when the ice in the vicinity of a seal breaks so that he sees the chance of coming up and sporting in the open water, he always does so, and this gives the bears their chance, for they crouch on the edge of the thick ice, and when through the transparent water they see the seal rising toward the surface to breathe, they dive like a flash to meet him, and before the seal can arrest bis momentum and turn off his course the bear has him, either in his mouth or between his paws.
It did not worry us seriously, therefore, to find the bear tracks so scarce, although we should have welcomed a visit from a bear, for no method of securing food at sea is easier than that of having a bear obligingly bring into camp a thousand pounds of fresh meat. There are several entries in my diary of that time, noting our desire that a bear would turn up. The reason for this was that the summer was almost upon us; the cold weather could not last much longer, and we were unwilling to lose a day by stopping beside one of the waterholes to wait for seals. We, therefore, went on half-rations for three or four days, and so did our dogs. Our fuel had given out, and for two days we fed the dogs on half a grizzly-bear skin each day, while we cooked our food with the hair. We had never heard of such a thing being done, but we found that hair, or at least the hair of a grizzly, makes surprisingly good fuel, although the smoke from it can hardly be considered fragrant.
Before the weather turned excessively warm the wind changed from a northwesterly to an easterly direction and we began to have more open water. Although we could easily cross a lead that is less than two miles wide by converting our sled into a boat, we did not care to do so as yet, for there was too much young ice on the leads, and, while it might not have been very difficult to break a road through it for the boat, the young ice chafes the canvas so rapidly that even the strongest canvas would not stand more than a dozen crossings or so before being worn through. One of these wide leads delayed us for half a day until the motion of the ice closed it up. During this time we saw two or three seals, but they were too far away to be shot. A day or two later we felt we had sailed as close to the wind as we dared, for the dogs were beginning to lose their strength through insufficient food, so we stopped and made up our minds that we would not move again until we had caught a seal.
The three of us took our positions in different places along the lead, and for several hours we waited without seeing anything. When the ice is badly broken up, as it was in this vicinity, seals seem to travel around in schools, and one day fhey may be as numerous as ducks in a pond, their heads bobbing up everywhere, and then for several days after you may rarely see them, and sometimes for a whole day not at all. In this case a seal did come up without our waiting long and was killed, but he sank
promptly. And the same thing happened with the second. But tne third, which came up about two hundred yards from me, floated. It was only a curious chance which made the first two sink, but it gave us a few7 hours of serious anxiety. I am still of the opinion— an opinion based on wide experience—as I was then, that not more than one seal in ten ought to sink at this season of the year, so that the sinking of the first two killed was a rather remarkable chance.
The killing of the first seal had no ill effects, for wre ate of it in moderation, fed the dogs reasonably, and went on. But a day or two afterward, when we killed the next seal, we felt like celebrating, so wre fed the dogs liberally and ate more than was good for us, especially of the delicious fat.
What Seal Tastes Like
T T has alw’ays been a mystery to me why the word “blubber” should carry such a disagreeable connotation to millions of people, though not one in a million has ever tasted it. I am often asked what seal meat tastes like, and am commonly driven to saying that it tastes like seal meat, for it does not resemble any commonly known type of meat. But neither does mutton resemble any meat known to me, and still mutton is good eating, and so is seal. But the fat is much easier to describe. When the blubber is eaten raw, as we commonly eat it by preference, it has a flavor very similar to that of fresh cow’s cream, but when boiled it closely resembles the fat of mutton. For that reason Mr. Wilkins, who came from the sheep district of Australia, was that member of our whole expedition who most readily fell into the eating of the seal fat. In general, most men refrain from tasting blubber because it is named blubber, until they become so fat hungry that they are eventually driven to trying it, and when they try it, to their surprise they invariably find it so delicious that, if not restrained they overeat and, as is well known, overeating any form of fat causes nausea and other distressing symptoms. After one or two experiences of this sort, I am now careful never to allow’ a man to eat all the blubber he wrants the first time he tries it, for if he gets sick he is almost certain to blame the seal and not his own gluttony.
Drifting Further Out to Sea
DY the 26th of April the weather had L* become so warm that we saw there was no hope of traveling much farther north unless wre were willing to spend the entire summer on the ice. This we did not care to do, both because we were not then as confident in our minds as we now are that doing so would be perfectly safe, and also because I had instructed the North Star to meet us at the northwest corner of Banks Island. We therefore turned east and on the 25th of May we w'ere probably about fifty miles from Banks Island, when we came to a lead about half a mile wide. We stopped beside it, and, had we acted promptly, we could doubtless have crossed, for it takes us only about three hours to unload a sled, convert it into a boat, and ferry our load across in two instalments. But we thought this lead
might possibly close up, and before we realized it it had become a mile wide. A fewhours after that it was more than five miles wide, for we could not see the ice on the other side; the ocean to the eastward looked as open as the Atlantic, and white-caps began to run. The wind from the east had freshened, and we
suspected, what our sextants later proved to us, that it wasn’t the ice to the east that was moving away, but we that were drifting seaward. We did not think of taking a sounding the first day, because of our disappointment in not getting across the lead, but the next day when we sounded we got bottom at about
twenty-five hundred feet, the first bettom-sounding since leaving Alaska. For tile next two days we sounded once a day and got a deeper sounding each time, and on the third day we were in water too deep for our forty-five-hundred-foot wire. „
To be continued