Sixty-Four Forty to Steel
A thrilling account of a hazardous journey from Back of Beyond to the end of steel
THE heavy sled was jerked crabwise to the top of the ice hummock; for a moment it balanced like a see-saw on the ridge, then it slithered down diagonally. A runner caught my foot, sent me sprawling. I cursed as I struggled to my feet and the Skipper laughed.
Beyond the hummock there was rough ice; fangs of ice that leaned forward like the teeth of a rip saw. The dogs, spread fanwise in front of the comatik, each on a separate lead, tore forward madly. The leader snarled its trace round a projecting snag and though it struggled furiously could not break free.
Captain Berthe, the Skipper, dashed forward, snapped off the projecting lump with his foot and the leader swung back into position.
Suddenly there was a crash. The nose of the comatik caught under a ledge of ice two or three feet high. The dogs howled, tugged insanely at their traces, wedging the comatik more securely under the ledge. It was my turn to free them. I hauled at the runners, trying to lift them clear, but the heavy sled was immovable.
“What the devil d’you think you’re doing?” shouted the Skipper. “Why don’t you use a little common sense? Haul on the traces, man. Haul on the traces.”
Nearly two months we had travelled together and I had come to regard the Skipper as a prince among men. There was a bond between us—a bond that comes of hunger, hardship, difficulties faced together. We had been travelling that day since half-past four in the morning, running, running, running. We were dead tired. Nerves were raw.
I stood up, felt cold fury surge through me. I remembered him laughing when I had fallen; remembered a host of little things. I waved my fists in his face.
“You talk to me like that and I’ll smash you—smash your ugly face in. Who d’you think you are, anyway . . .
For a moment we stood glaring at each other, then quite suddenly we both laughed.
“Gosh, I’m sorry Skipper,” I said.
“Same to you, Colonel,” said Berthe. “I guess we’d better call it a day.”
We did, but that night in the iglooit was our last igloo on a journey from sixty-four forty to steel—I thought seriously of the hazards we had faced and counted myself fortunate that at least we had avoided one of the worst, which is quarrelling. No matter how equable one’s temper, winter travelling in the Arctic puts a severe strain on it—such a strain that many men will travel with nobody save their Eskimo guide. And even the Eskimo, most cheerful fellow in the world, is not immune from fits of temper and moodiness while on the trail.
The Skipper Becomes a Pilot
TOURNEYING in the Barrens is J weary work and little happens to break the deadly monotony. During the day, with a fur parka covering the ears, conversation is practically out of the question, so that all one can do is think. I found it not always possible to direct my thoughts along happy channels.
“. . . Gosh, it was funny about the Primus this morning. I’m darned sure I didn’t move the pricker—saw him use it— guess he must have put it under my sleeping-bag by mistake— wonder if it was a mistake?
Damnation! What’s the good of thinking about a trifle like that —wonder if there’s any chocolate left in the grub box— chocolate—five cent bars—heaps of cigarettes—home ...”
Jaundiced thoughts were fortunately few. When I think of the Skipper—he is back in the Bay again by now—a battalion 0f happy memories file past. There was the day at Sik-a-lik-u-ak, for example, when it was drifting too hard to travel. My feet were white with cold, so Berthe borrowed an accordion from some natives and played the latest Paris hits, the while I executed a pas seul in the igloo to the great delight of the assembled natives. Countless yarns he told me of his student days in France. Together we built wonderful ships and sailed to outlandish ports. We were friends.
I first met Captain J. Berthe, of Revillon Frères, shortly after our schooner was wrecked on a reef in Baker Lake. He was on his way to visit the Revillon post near the mouth of the Thelon River. He stopped just long enough to leave us some fresh meat and then he chugged off in his motor boat.
In December I received orders to report as soon as possible at the Toronto office of Northern Aerial Mineral Exploration Ltd. The prospects of getting through looked unpromising. In the neighborhood of Baker Lake, where I was stationed, there had been practically no caribou; many of the natives were starving and the dogs were in bad shape. There was just one team which had been comparatively well fed and Captain Berthe intended taking this to Cape Eskimo with the mail. I saw the Skipper—by which title he is known from Labrador to Pelly Bay —and he agreed to go through to Churchill.
“But,” said he, “I don’t know how we’re going to make out. We have practically no dog food and no native to guide us. There’s a shack at Padley, two hundred and fifty miles south, and the best we can do is to make for that—and hope for caribou. If we can’t locate the shack, then we’ll strike out for the coast, all being well.” And he emphasized the “all being well.”
A Savage Menace
V\7”E PLANNED to leave on February 1 ’ ’ with two Eskimos, Shevekatah and Sarkpit. Unfortunately, we were delayed by tragedy—a tragedy that seemed to us the forerunner of worse to come. On January 31, an Eskimo family came to the post to trade foxes for food. One of the family was a chubby-faced boy; a likeable little fellow
with an engaging laugh and cheeks like a russet apple. It was drifting when they arrived, and after the father had built an igloo the family visited the post for a feed. In the middle of the meal the little fellow ran out, and that was the last seen of him alive.
Shevekatah heard above the hiss of the wind the howling of dogs. Knowing them to be savage and dangerous he dashed out and through the driving snow he saw them tearing at the body of the boy. It was too late, then, to save him, for when he drove them off only a frozen skeleton remained.
The ringleaders in the attack were the dogs which we planned to take south, and apart from the sorrow occasioned by the tragedy there was an even more serious aspect for us to face. The death of the little boy followed several other attacks on human beings. The pack instinct, inherited from wolf ancestors, was strong in them, and we knew that if they turned against us there was nothing we could do to save ourselves.
“They’ve got our measure,” said Berthe. “They know what an easy mark we are. When once a husky dog knows that he can never be trusted again, he is worse than a wolf.”
Dogs, like wolves, invariably attack from the rear. They attempt to force their victim over by weight of numbers; if they succeed in that there is little chance of escape. Buckshot, an Eskimo boy and a camp favorite, was overpowered by the dogs in December. He was on the ground for only a few seconds before help arrived, but in that short time he received over twenty bites. His condition was such that at first we despaired of saving his life, but when I left he was well on the road to recovery. To stumble near the dogs is to court disaster, for almost invariably they will rush a fallen man.
The Luggage Joke
TN SPITE of the tragedy we had no alternative but to *take our team south and after delaying a day we continued our preparations. The Skipper undertook to fix up the grub box. He cooked a sackful of beans, baked a batch of bread, and packed the rest of the box full of bacon, flour, tea and coffee. Our personal gear we reduced to bare essentials. We managed to secure five hundred pounds of blubber for dog food and we took with us live gallons of coal-oil for cooking purposes.
On February 2 we were up long before dawn, overhauling our deerskin clothes for the last time and finally checking over the duffel we were taking with us. By mutual agreement we had arranged to take one kit-bag of spare clothes apiece. Deerskin clothes occupy a good deal of space, so I had a kit-bag specially made by an Eskimo woman; it was five feet long and three feet in diameter. When full it looked like a small dirigible.
The Skipper saw it for the first time on the morning of our departure.
“You’re not taking that, are you?” he said.
I nodded, expecting some lurid objections. But instead he beamed on me as though inexpressibly relieved.
“Well, isn’t that lovely,” he said. “Now, maybe, you can take some of the gear I was throwing out. Slip in these boots, will you?”
There wasn’t really room for the boots, so I was forced to discard a pair of my own pants to make room for them.
“And this chronometer,” said the Skipper. “Maybe you can find room for that.”
I found room by dumping a couple of shirts and a spare parka.
“And maybe these,” added the Skipper, holding up a pair of mukluks. In went the mukluks. Out came a fancy mackinaw.
Throughout the trip my kit-bag was like a community chest. Only the unattainable bottom belonged to me.
Leave-taking was a sad business. I was leaving behind many good friends and it seemed unlikely that I should ever see them again. A dozen Eskimo families crowded round the comalik, The men came up one by one, very solemnly, and shook hands. Their womenfolk smiled, wished us good-by. The dogs howled. Shevekatah cracked his twenty-foot lash. We were off.
Into the Wilderness
TT WAS splendid travelling that first A day. The thermometer registered thirty below and there was no wind. We headed for the south shore of Baker Lake, over smooth hillocks of snow and across wind-swept patches of glare ice on which the dogs slithered helplessly. Soon we could distinguish the shoreline ahead of us—a more luminous white than the flat reaches of snow on either side. Looking back, we could see the hills about the post merging into the gray sky-mist.
Underfoot the snow was packed hard, and the dogs were able to travel at a pace that we found it difficult at times to keep up with them.
In the Barrens snowshoes are rarely necessary, for so severe are the blizzards that the snow is packed hard and offers a good surface for walking. It rarely snows in Christmas-card fashion; instead, the snow appears to be blown down from the north by the prevailing wind, and during a bad storm it puts one in mind of steam released from a boiler under pressure. Sometimes, during the worst blizzards there is a blue sky overhead.
We reached the south shore of Baker Lake in the early afternoon and headed in a southwesterly direction across an immense plain which we followed for upward of a hundred miles. Our first objective was an elbow of the Kazan River, and thus far Sarkpit undertook to guide us. According to the map we should have proceeded in a southeasterly direction, but Sarkpit walked with assurance in the opposite direction and we followed. Two days later we reached the river and found it to be thirty miles distant from the position shown on the map.
By sunset we had covered approximately twenty-five miles and we decided to call it a day. The comalik was unlashed, and Shevekatah and Sarkpit began building the igloo while the Skipper and I cached the stores.
Building the Igloo
/'CONTRARY to popular notions the Eskimo is highly intelligent, although his intelligence is specialized. For a hundred generations he has been engaged in fighting Nature at her worst, and the only weapons he has used were those which Nature herself provided. The igloo, which represents the zenith of his achievements, is the first weapon of defense, the one essential weapon. An igloo - the word is
a misnomer, for actually it means any house whether built of brick, wood or snow —is constructed of blocks which are cut from the hard-packed snow with a special knife. These blocks are about three feet long, eighteen inches deep and six inches thick.
The blocks are arranged in the form of a spiral, each circle of which tilts in to the centre until only a small hole is left at the top. This hole is filled with a key block a triangular segment of frozen snow with the apex cut off. The edges of the blocks cement together, and when an igloo is completed it is possible for half a dozen men to sit on top without any danger of falling through. The blocks are cut and the building is done entirely from the inside. Crevices are filled up from the outside with handfuls of snow. An igloo, large enough to accommodate half a dozen people, can be built in three-quarters of an hour.
It was dark by the time the key block was placed and Shevekatah worked inside by candlelight. To us our temporary home looked like a yellow Chinese lantern a forlorn little lantern set in a world of silver mist. Presently we saw a knife thrust through the wall and turned deftly in a half circle. The section was pushed free and Shevekatah crawled out.
“A-mah,” he said, and grinned cheerfully.
The Skipper turned to me. “You crawl inside and do the beating,” he said. “I’ll pass the stuff through.”
The first job when entering an igloo is to beat sleeping skins, blankets, kits and clothes free of snow. If this is not done, the snow melts when the Primus, or seal-oil lamp, is lighted; and later freezes with unpleasant consequences during the night or on the following morning. When travelling, the snowbeater, fashioned like a knife but made out of wood, is regarded as second in importance only to the snowknife.
I crawled inside and belabored industriously as the gear was passed through. At last came the grub box and closely following it the Skipper on all fours.
“Okay,” said Berthe, “we’d better beat our clothes before I light the Primus.”
Without question the most important thing in Arctic travel is attention to one’s clothes. After ten or twelve hours hard travelling it sometimes requires a tremendous effort of will to spend two or three hours more fixing up clothes, but inattention leads inevitably to discomfort and frequently to frostbite. The only practicable means of enduring the intense cold—the temperature sometimes drops to sixty below zero —is to travel Eskimo fashion in clothes made entirely of caribou skin.
We wore next to our skins a garment shaped like a parka with the hair inside called an artegie: over this a similar garment with the hair outside, called a coolitak. Our pants were of the short variety common to boy scouts, but made of skin with the hair inside. Our stockings were made of skin with the hair inside and reaching six or seven inches above the knees. Over these we wore outside stockings with the hair outside. Shoes, of which we carried half-a-dozen pairs each, were made of caribou skin with the hair inside.
Beating clothes which have been worn all day is a far more tediCCs job than beating skins which have been packed on the comalik, but after an hour’s hard work we were ready for supper. Berthe lit the Primus and placed on it a pot filled with snow; in a few minutes the igloo was filled with yellow fog. Sarkpit stirred the pot to prevent it burning and replenished the supply of snow as it melted. When, after three-quarters of an hour, we had a pot full of water the Skipper took it off and made a frying-pan stew of bully beef, bacon and rice. The bread was frozen too hard to cut, so we made a meal of stew, hard tack and frozen chips of canned butter. Afterwards came the tea—two quarts apiece—and then we melted snow to provide water for the morning.
Supper was finished and the dishes washed up by ten o’clock, but our work for the day was by no means done. The Primus was placed in the middle of the igloo, and we began the wearisome task of drying our skin underclothes which had become wet during the day with perspiration. By midnight we were ready to turn in. The gear was pushed back against the wall and we crowded close to it while Shevek—elected the official bedmaker—levelled the floor of the sleeping bench and spread the skins.
“A-mah,” he said, at last.
We unrolled our sleeping bags, stripped naked, and crawled inside.
“Ha’-past four,” said the Skipper sleepily. “I’ll give you call ha’-past four -—breakfast.”
The Skipper was kinder than he threatened. True enough he woke up at halfpast four, but he lit the Primus and melted the water for tea himself. It was turned five when he nudged me into wakefulness to prepare breakfast.
Crawling naked out of a sleeping bag in the morning is like taking a midwinter bathe. By hunching himself up on his knees the Eskimo contrives to dress under cover of the bag, but this felicity I never achieved, although I did become adept at dressing quickly. But that first morning I was blue with cold by the time I started cooking.
Overnight I had slipped a couple of loaves in my sleeping bag and these were thawed out sufficiently to cut. With the aid of a tin lid placed over the Primus flame I succeeded in making toast. In addition I cooked porridge, fried some caribou steaks and made tea. By much juggling I succeeded in keeping everything warm and at 7 o’clock I served breakfast in bed to Shevek, Sarkpit and the Skipper. To me it looked like a Gargantuan meal, but it vanished like snow in June.
A Starving Village
AFTER breakfast Shevek and Sarkpit crawled outside to harness the dogs and fix the comatik for the day’s run. An Eskimo comatik consists of two long timbers joined together by cross struts. Instead of being shod with steel the runners are surfaced with frozen mud, for it is found that steel sticks in very cold weather. Every morning the mud is rubbed smooth with water applied on a pad of bear’s skin. When travelling over rough ice it sometimes happens that the mud cracks off, thus causing endless delays. Usually a supply of mud is carried for such an emergency. We carried no spare supply and when we lost our mud toward the end of the journey, necessity drove us to use dough as a substitute. It proved, as good, if not better, than the genuine article.
In spite of reveille at half-past four we were not ready to leave the igloo until nine o’clock. Throughout the trip we did our best to save time in the mornings, but we were rarely able to get under way before 8.30. There seemed endless jobs to do before Shevek finally cracked his lash and urged the dogs forward.
On the second day of the trip we reached an Eskimo camp. Men, women and children tumbled out of their snowhouses and came running toward us crying: “Comatik, comatik.” We entertained two of the leading hunters to supper and afterward they told us— casually, as if it were a matter of no importance—that the entire village had been without food for days. They could not go hunting, they said, for their dogs had died long since of starvation. We gave them such stores as we could spare, and agreed to take one of their number south to a place where he believed he could find caribou.
That evening, when we were building our igloo, a little Eskimo boy came to visit us. He stood a few feet off, watching curiously. We were all too busy to pay much attention to him, but fortunately I glanced up in time to see two of the dogs creeping up behind him while the others waited expectantly. I ran forward and caught the leading dog with the flat of my snowknife just as it started to rush. The rest of the team turned about and loped off to a safe distance.
During the night the dogs gave us an unpleasant half hour—the forerunner of many unpleasant half hours to come. We were awakened in the small hours of the morning by continued scratching against the wall of the igloo. The Skipper noticed it first, for the noise came from his side. Outside the moon was shining so that the snowhouse seemed almost transparent. When our eyes became accustomed to the blur of light, we were able to make out the shadowy form of a dog scratching its way inside.
The Skipper acted promptly. He grabbed his snowknife, drove it through the wall and caught the dog with its razorlike point. It howled and scurried off, and we could hear the patter of the other dogs as they followed it. After that incident we slept with knives driven handily into the snow.
The Unwilling Guide
"p OR two weeks we continued south. The days were monotonously the same . . .
“It was blowing hard when we left the igloo,” I wrote in my diary on one such day. “It has been the coldest day we have yet had. As we travelled south, the wind caught us diagonally and it wasn’t long before my nose and face started to freeze. I spent the day running and rubbing.
“We made good progress and covered about twenty-five miles. During the morning we followed along the Kazan. In the early afternoon we came to some rapids with open water and then we struck a large lake running north and south. Our igloo tonight is midway down the lake. It is the worst igloo we have yet had— sugar snow, a floor of ice, no sleeping bench and cold as Hades. I have been shivering and rubbing my fingers all evening.”
Sugar snow is poor stuff for an igloo. It crumbles easily and in consequence makes the cutting of blocks difficult. Worse than that, it admits draughts and soon wears away in a strong wind. A sleeping bench was simply a step cut in the snow floor. An ice floor is considered an advantage, for blocks can be cut from it and melted quickly to provide water for tea. When ice was available it took us only fifteen minutes to obtain enough water for all purposes; when using snow it took us over an hour.
When we had covered two hundred miles from Baker Lake we met a family of natives who had once visited the shack at Padley. Two brothers came to see us and we tried to persuade one of them to accompany us. For some reason they were reluctant, and the following conversation took place between one of them and the Skipper.
The Skipper: “We want a guide and we will pay well if you will show us the way.”
The Eskimo: “How much will the white men pay. It is far and we may lose many foxes in our traps.”
The Skipper: “We will pay fifty skins in trade.” (Worth about twenty-five dollars).
The Eskimo: “Good, but our eldest brother died yesterday. We must remain in camp four days according to custom.”
The Skipper: “We cannot wait so long. We will go on alone.”
The Eskimo—after a thoughtful pause: “Our eldest brother is not dead. He is very sick. Maybe we can travel on the day after tomorrow when he is well again.”
At that moment the eldest brother entered. There was nothing wrong with him. Indeed, he started out as our guide on the following morning but deserted after we had gone four or five miles. Shevek was very disgusted with the three brothers and would not speak to them. They were members of the Padleymuit tribe—a tribe notorious for laziness and lying. When we finally reached Churchill and saw the long road which had been cut through the bush for the railway I asked Shevek what he thought of it.
“I was wondering,” he said, “how long the Padleymuits would take to build this road !”
For three days we searched for the shack at Padley. During that time our provisions ran out; we were short of dog food and our situation looked serious.
“Tomorrow,” said the Skipper on the evening of the third day, “we will strike for the coast and trust to luck that we find caribou.”
But after travelling for a few miles on the following morning we came to a lake, and growing on the shores were stunted tamarack trees—the first trees of any kind we had seen for nearly a year. Halfway across the lake we saw a comatik track and this we followed. Soon we saw other tracks all converging on a point near the end of the lake. We came to the shack at last in a grove of shrub trees and were warmly welcomed by W. J. Peters, the Hudson’s Bay Company manager, and Anderson, the ’prentice clerk.
A Hostess of the North
VW'E FOUND that Peters was short of * v both provisions and dog food and planned a journey to the coast for supplies. We agreed at once to join forces, and in view of the urgency of the situation we decided to husband our food and cover the hundred and fifty miles to Cape Eskimo with all speed possible. Peters told us that with luck we might make it in five sleeps.
It was blowing hard when we started out and the thermometer registered forty below. Before we had gone many miles my legs were touched with frostbite and my face felt suspiciously comfortable. I touched my nose and found it stiff as a board. All day we spent in supreme discomfort.
In the late afternoon we reached a native camp. The Eskimos welcomed us hospitably and took us into a huge tent made of hides and covered with snow. In the middle of the tent there was a wood stove and a cheerful fire burning. There were pots on the stove tended by an old hag who grinned at us toothlessly.
When we had seated ourselves on the piled-up skins, we saw her raking through a pile of rubbish for mugs and plates. Finally she produced a collection of tinware—incredibly dirty. There was a cauldron of stew on the stove. She dipped the mugs into it and rinsed them round; the plates were washed in similar fashion.
“Do you like your meat boiled in the fashion of the white men?” she said to the Skipper.
He nodded unenthusiastically and received a plateful of stew.
“And you?” she turned to me.
Shevek answered for me and thus earned my everlasting gratitude.
“This one likes it raw,” he said. And I was given a frozen steak to chew.
The tent, of which the owners were tremendously proud, was far less comfortable than a conventional igloo. When the stove was burning there was a steady drip, drip, as the snow melted on the roof. When the stove was out, the tent was filled with forty-below-zero draughts.
In spite of a pressing invitation to spend the night with the family we decided to build an igloo on our own account, and this we did. On the following morning, after trading flour for a few pounds of dog food, we continued our journey to the coast.
AA PHEN less than forty miles from W Cape Eskimo we came within a hairbreadth of disaster. The story can best be told by quoting from the entries made in my diary at the time.
“February 21. No progress today. It is bitterly cold and drifting harder than I have ever seen it before. Shevek went outside to fix the igloo. When he came back he said it was so thick he could not see his feet. Sarkpit went for some ice this morning less than a hundred yards away; he lost himself on the way back and was gone for three hours. We have no dog food left and very little coal oil.
“February 22. We are still stormbound. It has been drifting as bad as ever today. Last night the igloo partially collapsed. We woke up to find ourselves covered with snow and exposed to the blizzard. It was brutal work crawling out naked and searching under the debris for clothes. We have built a new igloo, but I’m afraid it won’t last long, as it is made of sugar snow. Shevek is worrying about the dogs He says they will never last to the coast unless we can get food. We have only one fill left for the stove—no provisions, only a little flour.
“February 23. Still stormbound. The wind is threshing against the igloo and there seems no prospect of a let-up. We are down to three small pancakes apiece. Lack of food makes the cold seem ten times as bad. We have been in our sleeping bags all day trying to keep warm.
“February 24. There seems to be no prospect of the wind dropping. It is worse than ever today. We managed to find enough coal oil to cook three bannocks. Tomorrow it will be flour and water and not much of that.
“February 25. Still stormbound, but the wind doesn’t seem so bad. We have decided to try for the coast tomorrow, no matter how thick it is. Nuterallah (Peters’ native) will not be responsible for guiding us in the drift, but we should be able to get our approximate direction from the wind. Shevek said he saw the sun for a few seconds this afternoon.
“According to Peters there is a case of condensed milk cached about twenty miles farther on. Right now I can think of nothing more wonderful than a tin of condensed milk to suck. We have been torturing ourselves by talking about it all afternoon.
“Three of the dogs look as if they are about to give up the ghost. They can hardly stand up.
“February 26. It was still drifting when we started out this morning, but we managed to reach the condensed milk ...”
Even more fortunately we found a cache of dog food and on the following day we reached the Hudson’s Bay Company post at Cape Eskimo.
After resting there for a day we set out on the last two-hundred-mile stage of our journey to Churchill, well provided with dog food, provisions and coal oil. In order to avoid the rocky coastline we travelled for the greater part of the way on the sea ice which extends for about twenty miles from the shore. In many places the ice had been piled into huge hummocks and progress was slow. Even so, we succeeded in making the journey in six sleeps—thus establishing a record.
At end of steel—it was then about ten miles from Churchill—we bade good-by to our friends who for six weary weeks would face the north wind back to Baker Lake.
“Good-by,” said Shevekatah, “I will look for you when the geese fly north. In the between-time may you prosper.”
And a week later the Skipper and I parted. “Au revoir, Admiral,” said he, and as the train gathered speed he shouted: “Don’t — forget — breakfast — 4.30.”