“Going to the Ice”
A vivid description of the wildest and most perilous of all great hunts—the annual sealing off the coast of Newfoundland
IN MANY a secluded coastwise Newfoundland village, from Hare Bay to Twillingate, Bonne Bay to Borgeo, from The Topsails to Lamaline, the weatherhardened old men and young men, sealers all, count off the days until the great yearly February journey to St. John’s to join the sealing steamers.
By the Newfoundland Railway that crosses in a huge curve most of the colony, or afoot along the Barrens and the shores and over the ice; still afoot from the Gaff Topsail region, by water from the nearer harbors to St. John’s, comes a host of wind-bitten, heavily-clad, pack-laden men, all “going to the ice,” as they say, to wrest reward from taking “de harps and de hoods.” Some two thousand men and boys are in the trek.
While this host is trudging to St. John’s, within fifty to 500 miles of them immense herds of harp and hood seals are gathering for the annual birth season. They live on the southward-drifting ice floes, fishing busily, always the hosts of harps and hoods clearly divided. Roughly speaking, a million old and young seals are there upon the floes each year—a mighty herd, with the pups coming in droves between March 5 in a very early year and March 25 in a late one.
Meanwhile in St. John’s the steamers are loading supplies and coal and men, and a big airplane is fitting for the scouting. The several hundred sailing ships of former years have disappeared. Now a fleet of about ten steamers, depending on the year, “go to the ice,” with say 150 men crowded aboard each. Some of them will go to the “Gulf ice” but most of them go out into the open Atlantic. The ice-breakers are most dependable, and the great wooden walls of such steamers as the Terra Nova—yes, she still goes a-sealing; this is the ship that Scott sailed on in his fatal trip to the South Pole.
The crowd has warm quarters be. tween decks. There the men sleep and eat their meals, a small army of them on each steamer, and those crowded quarters would be a fine place for a zealous housewife who wanted to “house-clean.” When the steamer sails, they are but littered; when she returns they are smeared. Strong odors of seal fat swim in the very .air; sweated clothing, tired bodies, bloody skins on nearby decks, do not make for a dainty parlor, but they do make for profit. And the men sniff these homey quarters each night, crowding in, glad to be safely off the shifting ice once more.
For, “going to the ice” is a perilous venture, and well the adventurers know it. There is not in all the hunts of the world any that carries with it such deadly peril as this seal hunting off Newfoundland. The story of the sealing fleets is one long tale of disaster. In one season the Newfoundland. left almost half her crew of 200 dead on the blizzard-driven ice pack.
The poor chaps had gone out from the ship in the morning, out over the drifting, opening ice, under a hot sun blazing out of a clear sky. By noon a snow-laden wind had set in and not a man of them could tell where their ship lay. Blindly they sought her, leaping gaping cracks in the floe, leaping into snow-skimmed rifts, dying, scattering their bodies over a square mile of moving ice and tossing water, that most dreadful day and night.
In the same season another dozen men drifted clear
out into the open ocean on a small ice cake. The good ship Kyle finally saved them, but only after a wild struggle.
Truly a perilous hunt for profit.
The Swiler’s Tale
TT SO happened that one day I got one of the captains
of fleet into my little cabin and persuaded him to confide to me some of the story of his triumphs and his tribulations. I set it down here just as he gave it to me, omitting only the excess of “dat’s” and “de’s” with which his speech was too liberally sprinkled for mere landlubber ears.
“Ice heavy this season just closed, lots of harps and hoods, we—the fleet of ten steamers—beat the record of last year by fifty thousand pelts and lost fewer men and boats than ever, taking the little sealers that work from the shore and the big ones that make the fleet. We all left about the first to the third o’ March, whistles blowing, decks crowded, flags flying, lots of coal aboard, gaffs and knives all sharp, sir, lots of cartridges for the gunners, too. The ice caught my boat and held her fast. You know that we hunt for the fat and the pelt; the fur is loose, ’less they be stillborn, then ’tis good. We got free an’ into a lane and the old tub crashed her way up a rift in de ice.
“We sees a dark patch, then another. I gives the cry; ‘ Whiteys ! Over yees go !’ and say ! you ought to see that crew leave me. Like an army they comes a-burstin’ out of the companionway over the rails on to the ice, towlines draggin’, pikes gleamin’, knives in belts all ready, rifles all loaded. ‘Don’t pick ’em often, or I’ll cut de prices!’ I yell at them, for a youngster is apt to set the gaff to them too often even after they’s dead.
“There were, say, five thousand seals on two patches, half harps, half hoods, some close to the ship, some a mile or two off. Soon the whole gang were busy gaffin’ the big harps, clubbin’ the cubs, shootin’ the big hoods. We did not haf to ‘pile an’ flag’ onct; we drags ’em in. You’d ’a’ thought it was a school at closin’ time, the yells and the jumps. You see, a big hood bull goes after a chap somethin’ fierce, I tell you, if you try to do him in with a gaff. It’s a bullet he needs. We found them at daylight, and by night the last line came dragging the skins and bumping in and over and we had a fair start. There was a bit of slob ’tween the cakes, an’ we had a few men in an’ out, just like that, sir. I saw Bob, me boy, make a leap at a harp an’ land, gaff and nonnybag an’ all, plop right in the slob. Down he went an’ his chum had a line to him, just like that, sir, an’ Bob climbs out, gaffs the harp as he runs in to the steamer, ’cause he’s wet through—not much he minds that, sir, but the work’s most done, an’ it’s close to zero as de sun is low now.
“That night the floes ground a bit and we got ’bout all we wanted. She canted onct and we don’t like that, but she’s built to slide up an’ out a bit if th ice nips too hard. You could hear the ‘whitecoats’ bawlin for their maws—just a bit of a skein o’ seals we was passin’. It was a dark night with snow, and another boat was caught in the ice, an’ by her signals I guessed a man or two was adrift. Anyhows, at muggin-up time I gives a few toots, too, and then I heard them on de wind, a different bawl from a ‘whitecoat.’ ‘Men adrift,’ I calls down, an’ the watch came up, and we made a flare an’ cast it and roared off a bit o’ steam, and one by one we saw six white-looking frosted icemen come into the light. They had been in an’ out some times I guess, and we hauled them up and stripped them, an’ they gaffed just as well the next day; in fact, one chap with his rifle added up a nice score soon.
“There was a blazin’ sun next day and we was all alone, far up de Gulf, and seals everywhere. I feared the blizzard, so the men took the flags with them anyway, even if seal were dost, and we had another big kill. I was watchin’ me boy’s boy, Bob. He was runnin’ about, whackin’ pups— he’s but a pup hisself, sir—a big chap swung ’bout to get under way, a big bull hood, and wee Bob gave him a prod wid the gaft, and, blime me, if that ole bull didn’t near catch that youngster. Move! A bull hood move? They’re like big cats, the way they flop and plunge after you. Me boy Bob put a bit of lead in that ole fool bull right away, sir. Away went the herd o’ harps. The dogs first, of course—that’s men fin you—and the females after ’em, and the poor ‘whitecoats’ all layin’ there ready for de club. I guess Bob’s boy, Bob, should have been in de war. He killed six harp pups just like that, sir, and then turns a handspring and yells up to me: ‘How’s dat?’
“We was out four weeks an’ we got not the least of them all. The whole fleet got mosta two hundred and a quarter thousand pelts, sir, and they’s worth lots this year. The aii was full of knives being sharpened, and de crew peeled dem seals as fast as you could peel taters.
I saw Bob’s Bob at a big harp dog. It open’d its jaws and roared at him and the sun flashed on its teeth just as it got ready to flop away from him. Whack! Bob’s gaft hit him, an’ down he went, an’ de boy out with his knife, and skins him just like an old sealer, an’ him but twelve come Christmas. Now the towropes were over the shoulders and the pelts came up an’ out over the rail like a bloody fat surf, sir. I heard de wife say one could eat their dinner on my decks. But not on a sealin’ trip; you see it’s blood an’ fat and some grime most all over.
“Toward middle an’ end of month we had ’bout all we expected to get. I loved to stand an’ look over bridge-cloth and shout ‘tow ’em in,’ and see the long red lines left on the ice and the big piles of bodies left there, but we was gettin’ loaded. I had two sick men, not dangerously. One was cornin’ in and fell in the slobhole, and turned in it and swam back and walked away from us in the fog, and we didn’t find him till after half de hands most was snug an’ asleep, but we found him and carried him in, feet a bit nipped, an’ hands too, but he’ll be all right, sir. The other did let a seal nab his fingers, went to turn it over, thinkin’ it was dead. No, sir, it was stunned, and it crunched him an’ flopped into a crack and we never got that pelt at all.
“We hunts on third shares and the skins are salted down at home—St. John’s—an’ shipped ;o England an’ they do make good leather outen them. See that oil I gave you. Isn’t it as clear as any you sees? Well, that’s seal oil—rendered in St. John’s. We get ’bout three to ten gallons an’ up outen a pelt’s scrapin’s an’ it makes dandy soap.
“Yes! I knows something 'bout their habits. Sir, I’ve sealed on the Bering Pribylovs, sir, and in de South seas, too. The seals are called freeswimmin’ there— no, the word’s ‘pelagic’—an, they wander all over the globe’s waters. The one that made that oil, sir, came down, I tink, along Labrador a-huntin’ his mate, or her mate, and fed on ‘The Banks’ of the Gulf where de fish is t’ick, an’ they had a wee ‘whitecoat’ of their own, and watched it grow from a wee tiny three-pounder till it could dive and get its own fish. It’s a warm-blooded animal, even if it does swim an’ eat fish.
“Yes! I been lost an’ driftin’. I saw me boat cracked like an egg, and we stood on de seals to keep warm, and drifted clear out to sea and was lost five days, and half the men froze up stiff, standin’ up; but then we found another heap o’ seals with one of our own flags still blowin’, and got food, an’ de Terra Nova’s men found us. That trip I lost some of me toes, and them fingers ain’t too good.
“You don’t know how wees love de ice. It sings its own song all the night long while it’s trying to crush us, and the ship answers back, sir, note for note, and the ‘whiteys’ all bawl out: soon it’s sun-up and the rifles are crackin’ and the gaffs are blooded.
“’Bout the money, is it? Well, you see, if mates go on shares it comes some years to about fair wages. Last year, they was worth much more ’an three dollars for ‘whitecoats,’ and we didn’t do so badly. Oh ! About the women? Well ! They have to stay home in the cabins. Yes! They don’t hear a word about us till we walk down the barren or speed up the bay. No, dey don’t fret much—least, I hope, they don’t for they get plenty of opportunity for it.”
My good captain lighted his pipe, and the door clanged behind him, and I sat thinking of another sealer’s tale. “De ice cut her like cod liver and crushed
her like a clamshell, an’ she went down like a dipsylead wid all aboard.” Could Kipling beat that rude narrator?
“And Women Must Weep”
TF YOU want to see this wild sport of sealing you must -*• get into Newfoundland early in the year. It is no task now. The big Caribou steams from Sydney, Cape Breton, three times a week across Cabot Strait, and lands you in Port Aux Basques next morning, and a five-hundred-mile run, circling the big island, takes you to St. John’s in thirty hours, and you can see the fleet leave and return, all in the days of March and April,
But if you want to read the tale aright, step into one of the whitewashed homes that perch precariously along the cragged shores of any of the deeply penetrating arms of the sea and ask the womenfolks. There is not a mother among them but mourns for the loss of a child, or a brother or a father. “We go as far as we can to see them away, and we watch the top of the barren day after day hopin’ for the dark figures of the men we love. We did watch for three, then it was down to two, and the big war took one, and now it’s only me boy that goes and comes. We need the money he makes, what with the fish and taters runnin’ low in spring. It’s the bit o’ silver he brings that gets the barrel lined white with the flour again, an’ it’s meself has lived on fish and potatoes, and lucky to have ’em both at one time, an’ saved the basin of flour to make a loaf for Danny when he comes back.”
Sunday on the sealing fleet is a rare day of rest. No seals may be taken that day. The steamer lies up in a rift and chafes at her ice dock, and the men try to clean up a bit and cook a bit better meal than usual. But many work, towing in hides and shifting coal. Now the steamer rises and falls with engines silent; the rude men, with grimy clothes, blooded and greased, stand in stiff ranks, and the same song that followed the Titanic dowm in her awful plunge rings out over the crunching ice: “Nearer, My God, to Thee . . . nearer to Thee.” Gruff bass of the old sealer, high piercing notes of the young, standing there on dirty decks in dirty clothes with clean souls, and voice swelling out on that grand sweet old hymn. No! Sealing is not all slaughter.
TUILE nearly two thousand men were “on the ice,” ^ * clubbing, shooting—later “scrabbling” up the giant hills formed by the mighty swell in the loosened floes, or leaping over sudden opening fissures—we took notes of the work. One offshore sealer we saw cast his own bullets for his ten-bore shotgun, and when the wind did not bring the seal he had shot to his side of the enlarging mid-floe lake—because the whole hundred miles square was in motion as seen from the plane, all passing swiftly south— he calmly leaped aboard a wee pan and paddled himself out and retrieved his seal. They float with the great fat that is in them. Four men started to kill an old hood bull. One man whacked the hind flippers with his gaff-spearclub, and then leaped right aboard while the other three rained blows on the snarling bull’s head and neck. Yes! they killed it. The females of the hood seals have no hoods, nor has the male until the third year; but both dog and female of the hood stay with the tiny, fluffy, whitecoated pups—they look like toy poms— and try to defend them, while all the harps often take to the water as soon as the men leave the steamer, and plunge into the sea, and hundreds of these really beautiful, bawling “whiteys” are left for the clubbing. The bulls of the hoods shuffle along through the mass of females and pups much as the giant icebergs shuffle through the floes.
The youngsters of the hood snarled at the gaffers, but the harp “whiteys” seemed to be afraid. At two weeks the females fight off the suckling pups and let them shift for themselves; they live then, until they are able to dive and fish, entirely on the fat the mother’s milk stored up in them, rising from ten pounds at birth to sixty pounds in the two weeks. By the time “whitey” dives, the drifting ice is far south of Newfoundland, on and past “The Banks,” and all the young seals dive in and swim north, fishing as they go. They are then spotted, greyish and blackish pups. In the herd the black bands on the harps do look like a harp. The females of the hood are not as big as the males, while
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the harps are of similar size, both dogs and females. The pelt alone of a harp will turn the scale at 150 pounds, while the hood’s pelts will go up to 250 pounds weight. One bull hood was eight feet long.
Once, on one single pan, broken and subdivided though it was by the huge swells, the men off one steamer killed 25,000 young harp “whitecoats” on its eight-mile-square surface, until the whole scene was dyed with the blood of the piled-up bodies, or “sculps” as the older men call them. The miracle of it was, that while the ice was all drifting rapidly the mother seal would dive down through the holes in the pans and swim off for long distances and fish, and come back through any hole, and immediately recognize her own pup among the hundreds nearby, and snarl and fight off any other “whitey” that tried to suckle. This has been proved by tagging and marking close-to-shore seal. The men think it is by sense of smell alone that they do this.
TN THE grinding, swelling mass of the
floes the ten steamers dodge or miss instant destruction by a hairbreadth all the season. If one is nipped and crushed like an egg, she blows the distress call and the nearest steamer tries to pick up the men off the ice, where they straggle along in sinuous black lines, or drift seaward on small pans. No wonder the men say: “Keep de lamp burnin’ all de night long, de ice nip her, and we gets a wee bit of light to scrabble outen her.” Lucky ones, indeed, who hear the siren blow until “it is drowned!” Some almost complete losses of crews are recorded. Still, the men who survive are as ready to “go to the ice” next spring, as if they had not been witnesses of one of these most terrible calamities. Patient, great husky chaps they are, so seldom complaining, with frosted hands or feet or ears, with infected wounds, working away in that grinding solitude, with Death grasping for each and every one from above and below.
Salt meat, bread, hard tack, “lobscouse,” beans, tea, salt fish. “Say, de seal hearts—raw—is good ’tween hard tack, good for we.” They pay in twelve dollars to take their pick of the outfitting before sailing and pay a few dollars interest upon it, and they cut off the tails of the seals as a tally of their work, getting one third of the cash results of the trip. The officers get a third and the owners the remaining third. It is very hard to arrive at the amounts, but as the catch of 200,000 once sold for two dollars a seal, and there were, say, 2,000 men they would get about fifty dollars apiece in the rough, after advances were deducted. Fifty dollars. Six weeks’ work doneone, two, three hundred miles from home —walk it or ride it or sail it—not much money left for that flour barrel, eh?
In a wild year a part of the killed seals are lost, drifting off to sea on the pans, especially after the easily-killed “whiteys” are disposed of, and the steamers chase the ice and the gunners go out each morning with a cartridge carrier, “The Dog,” and hunt the seals and shoot them and pile and flag them. Then after the craft rides the ice and crushes it, and bunts her way close enough, the men rope and drag, and here is where the awful loss of life occurs, for they may have run five or six to eight miles in their wild ardor, hunting these big seals, ki’ling them at the holes in the pans, ferrying them on ice cakes across rifts, piling them high, with a killing wind blowing and the
stinging snow sending out a warning of what is coming. Instantly, the whole scene is blotted out by a blizzard, and a hundred men are lost for the time, some for ever.
'T'HERE is a “preacher” on every steamer, encouraging, advising; yes, even shaving the men, when he is not busy helping out with all kinds of work. He is doctor, too. at times. The captain is usually a wise old doctor, given to knowing all the ills of the sealers. There is among these crews intense rivalry, man to man, gang to gang, crew against other crews, a loyal hard fight to get the biggest number of “sculps.” The highline gunner is a noted chap, then. And when a lead in numbers is obtained, the men leap on the carcasses and run up and down the piles, shouting like schoolboys and getting a bit of warmth up, for many of them are all too lightly clad.
See the draggers coming in with the pelts on the lines, fur side down, crimson trails left behind. These are skinned seals, the unskinned are “round ones.” “Cats” are the stillborn. Out of these skins milady’s fine purses, slippers, handbags, yes, even leather coats are now made, and the best of lubricating oil comes from the fat, which in turn makes for dainty soaps. There float the floes, still with many a patch of adult black bodies on them, harps closest to shore, hoods away outside. Luckily, it is thought they will not be exterminated, as the old fleet of several hundred sail is now absent; only these ten steamers are at it now.
All the pelts are iced down in the holds. During the war, the fat off the pelts ran as high as twelve dollars a quintal—ten pounds—other years four dollars, down to two dollars, but the fat off the whitecoats brings a bit more—three dollars lately. The best take I can find was one of 49,000 skins for the trip. A great number of these were firstyear “whitecoats,” and second year “rusties,” and the balance “bedlamers,” or three-yearold seals, and the adults “old saddles.” The men say “the flipper” off a “whitecoat” is the best thing they get to eat.
There is one odd thing the seals do. If the iceholes close up, a great mass of them will waddle and wriggle together and sit there very solemnly while the rest crowd in, and then plump! splash! goes the whole mass through the ice.
It puzzled me to know why the men who plunge into the fissures and slob do not die. They say: “De clothes freeze outside an’ de ones inside be all right for me.” Along they go, all frosted outside, clubbing away, cutting off one flipper for the rope hole, throwing the “sculp” in piles, while the 250to 400-ton steamer tries to buck the pack in toward them, and the whole immense mass, pans and open water and all, rides high and low on the gale. So steep at times are these icy slopes that men and sculps slide like schoolboys sled riding.
Now, as I write, it is midsummer, and all these hardy men are away “Down shore” to Labrador after cod. The “flipperlings” which survived are swimming away north, with the adult seals scattered singly all along the thousandmile trip. The ocean is a deep blue, the soft winds are off shore, the bergs are melting to tiny pans on “The Banks,” and this fair swelling scene, the field of Man’s annual challenge to the combined terrors of wind and frost and sea, is as peaceful as a mill pond.