Patrolling the Top of the World
How does it feel to live on the top of the world? What does it cost in human endurance to maintain Canada's dominion northward toward the Pole? Read this article by one who has lived where others explore and you will thrill to the revelation of how Canadians have conquered and are still conquering the Arctic.
HERBERT PATRICK LEE
THERE are many claims to the doubtful honor of being an inhabitant of the most isolated settlement in the world, of being an inhabitant of that spot on the surface of the globe most remote from the rest of humanity. Missionaries living on lonely islands in the South Pacific; settlers on such out of the - way spots as Terra del Fuego; occupants of scattered posts in the heart of Africa; lonely traders in the wildernesses
of North-West Canada and South America; men attached to cable stations on rocky islets, all claim the distinction, if one can call it such, of being more out of the world than any of their kind. But to one who has lived there, as I have, it seems that on all this earth there can be no more lonely spot than Craig Harbor, that barren cove on the southern shore of Ellesmere Land,
where stands the most northerly station of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. When the lonely Arctic post was built a few years ago—in 1922 to be exact—half a dozen men formed its garrison. The following summer, when the supply ship Arctic called on her yearly round of the posts, three of the men went southward to build another post in Baffin Land, a thousand miles nearer civilization. I was one of the three who stayed behind. It seems impossible by the mere telling of a story, to make real the utter desolation, the bitter loneliness and terrible isolation of that post at Craig Harbor in latitude 76, 60 degrees north.
That year—1923— the Arctic left for the south soon after midnight on the 15th of August. The mid-
night sun shone weirdly throughly a heavy bank of mist lying over the pack ice. Not a sound could be heard in the harbor but the incoming tide swishing about the base of the stranded icebergs, and the creak of the Arctic's anchor chain as she prepared to sail. We three, doomed to spend twelve long, lonely months on Ellesmere before seeing another human face again, sat idly in the whaleboat alongside the ship, exchanging
parting sallies with the heavily clothed figures leaning on the ship’s rail. To us that old, bluff-bowed whstler meant all civilization. She was the only link between us and the outer world and the warm glow shining up from her open hatchway seemed almost like the glow of our hearths at home. A few sharp commands rapped out in the gloom and the engines began to throb. A few minutes later the bleak mountains surrounding the harbor rang with the boom of the Arctic's siren, thrice repeated, and, with bows swung southward, the vessel slipped off for the open sea. For a few minutes we sat in silence and watched her steam away and then, each with thoughts he would not for the world have shared with the others, pulled for the shore. Half way toward the post the siren boomed again
—a final farewell on that still night air. Pier tall spars slid behind a big iceberg and in a few minutes she had vanished into the mist of the Sound.
The Great Lone Land
WE WERE, with the exception of two small families of North Greenland Eskimos brought down from Etah, the only inhabitants of the vast 76,000 square miles of Ellesmere Land, that last stretch of land before the Pole.
Northwards no human being existed. It was strange to stand outside the tiny shack on the barren shore of Jonès Sound and gaze northward—strange to feel that for those 700 miles to the Pole and a thousand miles and more, down the other side of the earth into the
Siberian plains, no human being breathed.
Westward stretched a million square miles in which no man dwelt, white man or native. We knew that it would be possible to leave the post and travel on the same degrees of latitude com pletely round the earth before other humans would be encountered, and they, a tiny tribe of 200 Eskimos clinging precariously to the western coast of North Greenland.
To the north-west lay a vast area which had never yet been scanned by the eye of white man, a huge expanse of frozen sea and barren island, stretching far out into the unknown.
Southward—to complete the orientation of Craig Harbor—lay 350 miles of rugged ice and treacherous open water between us and Pond’s Inlet on the northern tip of
Baffin Land, itself almost as completely isolated as our own wretched habitation.
But, at Pond’s Inlet, there was a small Eskimo village; a Hudson’s Bay post, and a Mounted Police detachment which but for our own, was the most northern in the service.
As a general rule there is little variety in the view from the Mounted Police post built on the shore of the rocky cove, which man calls Craig Harbor. Nothing to be seen from the windows but the windswept ice of the bay. Ice pouring down from the mountains in the big glaciers behind the post. Ice driven in from the west and piled on the open beach. Ice everywhere—ice and wind worn, naked rock. There is no escape, no way of communicating with the out-
side world except by sled journeys which would take two years to make. A sled journey of 500 miles, an awful journey through a country devoid of human beings, across treacherous moving ice pans, over steep glaciers to avoid stretches of
black icy open water —and then what? A scattered village of Eskimos along the North Greenland coast, themselves 700 miles north of the nearest white post and the most isolated natives in the world. And southward, what? The same. A long sled journey, never yet made by white man, far to the westward to avoid the treacherous ice of Lancaster Sound, 500 miles of open wind-swept ice and barren island, and then only Ponds Inlet, almost as isolated as Craig Harbor from the world of civilization, thousands of miles to the southward.
Ellesmere Land, barren, half-covered with ice thousands of feet thick, swept by terrible gales which bear down upon it unhampered from the Pole, huge glaciers which run their broad, ghastly mouths into the sea every few miles along the coast, bare rugged, cliffs and naked, stony valleys. That is Ellesmere Land, the home of three white men and a half-dozen Eskimos.
To be sure, here and there caribou moss grows sparsely A few hardy Arctic flowers spring up in the sheltered spots along the coast in the fierce warmth of the few short weeks of summer, but the nearest tree, even the nearest bush, is a thousand miles away, down somewhere on the edge of the Barren Lands, north-west of Chesterfield Inlet, on the mainland of Canada.
Waiting ior the Sun
FT SEEMED to us, watching the bloodA red orb of the sun drop below the icecap of North Devon, sixty miles to the southward, late in October, that the sun had gone forever.
Day after day the light in the sky grew paler. The red after-glow at noon gave way to saffron and then to a faint light above the southern heavens at mid-day. By December the last sunlight had departed and absolute darkness reigned on Ellesmere.
During the lighter days of November and December the reflection in the heavens gave some relief. But, on dark, gloomy days, when the clouds were low or when mists from the black icy water of Baffin Bay swung inwards towards the land and obscured the southern sky, it seemed blacker than Hades on Ellesmere Land.
Then it was the dreadful waiting for February; waiting, waiting each day for the sun to return; waiting for the piercing of the pall of black darkness which seemed like an icy hand stretching down from the Pole.
For three long months and more, the coal oil lamps burned in the little shack banked in six feet thick with snow to preserve the warmth within. Each day at noon one of us would take a storm lantern to read the thermometer hung outside to gather data for meteorologists down in civilization. It was warm within the little shack. Two big heaters fueled with coal brought up from Quebec, and the six-foot wide wall of hard-packed snow sheltered us from the fury of the northern blizzards.
For water we used ice, huge chunks of it chopped from the big icebergs stranded in the bay and hauled to the land with dog teams and stacked beside the post. When it was needed it was placed in a big drum beside the stove to melt.
It was the moonlight, the bright, clear scintillating moonlight that made life possible in the winter at Craig Harbor.
Perhaps a month after the sun had gone, the moon with all her solemn majesty rose above the frozen mountains behind the post, shedding her brilliant light down on the black frozenness of Craig Harbor and casting long black shadows from the cliffs and from the tall icebergs stranded in the bay.
It was then that life moved in the little post. When the moon was full the trap lines were visited daily, a dozen little tasks were done about the post. With the thermometer at fifty degrees below zero we played football with the Eskimos on the hard stretch of snow behind the detachment buildings.
Anything to kill the dread monotony. The days passed on leaden feet. It seemed to us as we ringed the days on the calendar hung on the wall, that February would never come.
Christmass came and went, with a brave attempt at celebration and with thoughts, not uttered, of Christmas in the homeland. It seemed then, most of all, that we were not on the earth at all, but marooned on a sunless, frozen planet, barren and lifeless, from which there was no escape.
There was no fresh food, other than the game shot in the fall and hung, frozen, for winter use. Bear, musk-oxen, seal, walrus and ptarmigan. In place of fresh
vegetables we drank daily a ration of lime juice to keep away the deadly scurvy, no longer now the menace of Arctic explorers and whalers.
For days at a time, when the terrific gales blew an avalanche of snow down on us from the mountains above, we layimprisoned in the tiny post, reading until our eyes were worn out, too dispirited to talk with one another and feeling that summer would never come.
Clad in heavy furs it was a pleasure during the awful winter months to ride out behind the dogs to the trap-lines, trusting the dogs to find their own way along in the gloom of mid-day. Without those traps to stimulate ambition, to make us get outdoors, we would have gone mad.
Spring and Sixty Below
AND then came the sun. Rising higher ■ each day until it burst above the horizon in blood-red splendour on the 13th of February, bringing life back to frozen Ellesmere.
But with the coming of the sun the temperature sank still lower. As it climbed higher in the sky the thermometer dropped, until March saw day after day brilliantly cold in a temperature ranging from fifty to sixty degrees below zero.
It seemed as if we were living in a new world. The spring sunshine flooded the land, cold, almost synthetic, sunshine which grew warm only towards the end of April.
With the winter went a great deal of the almost unbearable monotony. When daylight came it was possible to hunt, to organize exploration trips by sled far along the coast and into the unknown interior, to do some of the things for which ostensibly we were stationed on this vast barren island.
Time was a thing of no importance. Days came and went with hardly a thought for the day of the month or even the day itself. During the winter we usually lost hours in clock time and had to correct our watches by the sun dial built behind the post as soon as the sun rose high enough in February, to cast a shadow. One year we lost a day and were only corrected when the Arctic came in August.
As the spring advanced the sun climbed far up into the sky, so that by mid-April it was light all night, a vast change from the horrible gloom of five months before. In those last nights of April the sun did not go below the actual horizon at midnight, although it lay beneath the towering mountains to the northward.
In early May it skimmed the mountain tops at midnight, repaying with its magnificent splendor, all the debts of winter. On June 21 at the summer solstice, it shone brilliantly at midnight, in the sky thirteen degrees above the horizon, painting the glaciers a delicate rose and flushing the deep blue sky a beautiful salmon pink along the top of North Devon.
Summer and Midnight Day
WHEN summer came, hours meant nothing on Ellesmere. For nearly four months we knew no such thing as darkness. Night was the same as day, and often as not, an expedition would leave the post in the warm light of midnight as in the blinding brilliant sunshine of mid-day.
There was, of course, no police work in the accepted sense of the word. We knew only that the Government desired a garrison on Ellesmere to make good its claim to possession. It was expected that we explore as much as possible and report each year to Ottawa.
Of Ellesmere itself little is known. The southern and western coastlines were not mapped until 1900-01 when Captain Otto Sverdrup, a Norwegian explorer, spent two winters in Havn Fiord with the Fram.
Sverdrup accomplished wonders during his two years of exploration, but the coast line was but roughly mapped and practically nothing is known of the interior. The coast for one hundred miles west of Craig Harbor, had never been seen by white man, when we first went there.
So it was that, with frequent sled trips far along the coast, hunting trips to supply ourselves with fresh meat and to provide food for our ravenous army of dogs, and with quasi-scientific observations, the monotonous weeks and months went by until, one wonderful summer day, the open water lapped again on the shores of Ellesmere Land.
And then, in those joyous anxious weeks before the coming of the ship, the bitterness of the past year was forgotten. Life seemed abundant. Gulls and ducks in thousands swam in the sea off the edge of the pack; sleeping seals lay dotted on the ice, and, ashore, snow-buntings and ptarmigan twittered amongst the rocks.
It was now possible to go along the coast in the whaleboat, further east round rocky King Edward VII Point to where Coburg Island, looking grim and frozen even in the height of summer, lay between us and Baffin Bay.
Walrus came into the harbor on their annual migration, big seal lay on the ice pans as they floated seawards; now and then a whale would spout a mile off shore. Sometimes a school of narwhal passed and, once, almost to our undoing, a squadron of gigantic whale-killers thrashed into the harbor and caught us amongst the floe-ice two miles off shore.
The Sound was never completely open. Of the sixty miles which lay between us and North Devon, forty miles and more lay covered with solid winter ice, piled up by the gales and currents on the North Devon shore.
Even in summer there were days when fierce gales from the mountains swept Craig Harbor, days even in July and August when blinding snowstorms drove down from the north-east and obliterated all signs of summer, seeming to malevolently presage the coming of another dark winter, but a few short months away.
By the time the ship came the summer was more than half gone. A few weeks after she had called for the all too short annual visit, the harbor would freeze again and before she docked in Quebec the mountains would echo with the crack of dog whips as the sleds sped over the ice for the floe edge.
The Barren Lands—that’s what they call the tundras along the Arctic shore of the mainland, hundreds of miles to the south. Barren Lands—where one can pick up tons of driftwood on each mile of beach, where trees grow a few miles further south in the river-bottoms, where there are lakes full of fish, where countless herds of caribou roam the uplands, where in summer there are mosquitoes.
It seemed to us that our gaunt, naked islands should have been called the Barren Lands, lands where even bushes do not grow; where it seemed almost impossible for a living thing to exist.
The Top of the World Patrol
WE HAD built a shack at Cape Sabine, 250 miles further north on the eastern coast of Ellesmere, a few miles from where Greely and his gallant band starved in 1886. It was from this lonely cache and from Craig Harbor, that the Canadian Government expected, and still expects, its three men of the Mounted Polie« to patrol the top of the world.
Every few years noted explorers winter not many days’ dog drive away from Craig Harbor, spend a year or so, perhaps only a summer, in making scientific observations, and then, to the blare of trumpets and the clamor of public acclaim, return to report further conquests of the North.
It is not necessary for the public to know that while these loudly pressagented expeditions are being carried out, there are men who live for years in the frozen wilderness to which others, backed by wealthy geographical societies, come and go.
A year ago there were but two white men at the Mounted Police post at Craig Harbor; of these but one, the corporal, could be spared for the “top of the world” patrol. It meant that he had to travel northward for 300 miles with only one Eskimo—twenty-five days of toiling over treacherous glaciers, a brief stay at the cache at Cape Sabine, and a long journey homeward, carried out with untold hardship.
And all to place under the cairn of stones at the foot of the glacier at Cape Sabine an empty cartridge case contamine a record that the “top of the world”
patrol, ordered by the Government in Ottawa, had been carried out.
More Heavenly Than Gabriel’s Trumpet
DUTiTeven this work is positive, it is -D something to be accomplished and accomplishing things is the easiest side of life north of the 76th degree. It is in doing nothing, “sitting tight” through the long Polar winter, waiting for the sun to come, for the months to pass and the ship to come bringing word of the “outside,” always waiting—that strainslhuman endurance to the limit.
Living there shut off from the outer world in the frozen fastness of Ellesmere Land, the sound of the Arctic's siren as she ploughed her way slowly through the ice each summer towards Craig Harbor seemed to us more heavenly than the sound of Gabriel’s trumpet will ever be. It meant to us more than can ever be realized or imagined in civilization.
Remember—there was only that one ship. There would be no other. No trading schooner, no missionary vessel, no passing vessel of wandering explorers, and if that single ship failed to arrive—as she is bound to do one of these summers— it meant twelve long weary months more of isolation, such isolation as few men ever know.
It was the mail for which we yearned the most—next to the intense desire, born of months of longing, for intercourse with our fellow humans from the great “outside.” Without the mail, without word from friends and relatives at home, mothers, sweethearts—there were no wives, thank God—life would have been intolerable, utterly unbearable.
What those hours of waiting for the Arctic each summer meant to us on Ellesmere Land, what they still mean to the men up there, no one will ever know. It is human to forget such things when the moment is past.
Each summer, when the harbor clears after ten months of gazing at nothing but ice from the windows of the tiny post, two of the three white men go down the coast to a point where, on a clear day, they can see a hundred miles with the glasses from the clifftop, far down the coast of North Devon Island to the southward.
Then starts the vigil, the ceaseless, nerve-racking strain of waiting.
Each morning those men climb, as I have done, to the top of the cliffs, a thousand feet above the sea and strain their eyes southwards, hoping to catch a glimpse of smoke above the pack-ice lining the southern horizon, or luckier still, the black spars of the relief ship thrown in contrast against the shimmering white of a distant iceberg.
A summer will come, perhaps, when the inevitable will happen. The treacherous ice will hold her, maybe crush her, stout as she is, as she fights her way through the ice-choked channels of Baffin Bay. Perhaps the great pack itself will grip her and force her with its billion tons of irresistible weight aground on the rocky Greenland shore or the shoals off southern Baffin Land.
Maybe one summer she will not get that far; there are treacherous gales and currents in the Strait of Belle Isle, and then, far up on Ellesmere Land in the very shadow of the Pole, two brokenhearted men will pack their tent with the first signs of winter and return to the post at Craig Harbor to wait, if it is humanly possible for men to wait, for the passing of another year.
And so, while now the press is booming with polar flights and spectacular “stunts” across the frozen seas, somewhere on Ellesmere Land three solitary white men wait for the day, when, unheralded by newspaper reports and thrilling bulletins, the single yearly relief ship brings twentyfour hours happiness to the “top of the world” patrol.
Editor's Note: Mr. Lee was one of the six men who estabHshed the post at Craig Harbor in 1922, and he remained on duty there until the laie,summer of 1925. Last year an effort was made to establish a permanent post near Cape Sabine but, owing to ice conditions, the Arctic was forced to abandon the attempt after landing lumber and other supplies. At the time of writing therefore, Craig Harbor is still Canada's most northerly permanent outpost.