A dramatic pen picture of the Canadian medical man action the Far Ffortli
H. A. STUART
Medical Health Officer, Pangnirtung, Baffin Island, F^.W.T.
THE weather was fine, "going” was fast, and the returning sun was staying longer and longer each day in the heavens—ideal travelling conditions. The dogs had been fattened well for the long trip and they frisked about in the snow as if they were glad to be "on the trail.” As I walked or ran alongside the team I felt rather friendly with the grim old Arctic, and I almost believed that she imiled back at me. Life was good. The hermometer read forty-five below but '„here was no wind; and, clothed in warm native deerskins, the penetrating cold could be laughed at.
It was on Friday, February 14, that my native Avenik and myself left Pangnirtung with a komatik loaded with about 950 pounds of food, sleeping outfit, tent, dog feed, etc., and drawn by eighteen Husky dogs. We were bound for Pond Inlet, 900 miles to the north, at the top of Baffin Island, on one of my regular medical patrols for the Department of the Interior, to investigate health conditions among the Eskimos along the east coast of the Island.
The date of my departure would seem a little early to an experienced Arctic traveller, as at this time the seals on which one depends to feed the dogs are
rather scarce.....not until a month later do
they begin to come up on the ice to sun themselves—and in addition to this the route of my journey lay directly north, where the season would be appreciably retarded. However I realized this, the reason for my early departure being that I had hoped to reach Pond Inlet and return the same spring.
Place of The Winds
'“THE first part of our journey lay through an old glacier gorge which connects the Cumberland Gulf with the sea ice on the other side of the Cumberland Peninsula, and inasmuch as no dog feed would be obtainable along this hundred mile stretch I took another native and komatik for the purpose of carrying extra dog feed halfway through
this gorge......which I now call Dead Man’s
For three» days we journeyed into this old glacier bed, and then we dropped the native on whose komatik the dog meat was being carried, giving him rations to return to Pangnirtung. The first week of the going was very bad. It was all uphill, and large ice-covered cascades required ingenuity and plenty of perspiration, even at forty-five below, to be surmounted.
It is astounding the obstacles over which even a heavily loaded komatik can be taken by a large team of good dogs. Here I might go into a discourse on the intelligence and endurance of the Husky dog, but it will probably suffice to say that they are splendid dogs, and I believe that were it possible for them to know that they were related to a Pomeranian they would go away and die of shame. No place is too bad to get a komatik through—up hills, through hummocky ice, over rocks, up ice rivers; all can be accomplished by a good driver and his team of dogs.
The gorge through which we were travelling was as picturesque as the going was bad. Great ice-capped hills hemmed it in on either side, while the remains of retreating glaciers hung over the edges. The ominous silence of the Arctic wastes pervaded all, and with the exception of the occasional bark of a fox or the staccato report of cracking ice the place was as silent as a tomb. Here was the place of terrific winds, which swept
through this natural funnel carrying rocks to the size of railroad ballast with it. Nevertheless an Eskimo igloo is practically windproof, so, although I was using a silk tent, I had intended to resort to an igloo at the slightest sign of a storm. Later, however, I found to my sorrow that Nature is quite as fickle in the Arctic as anywhere else, perhaps more so.
The seventh day out from Pangnirtung found us about sixty miles on our journey, and by this time we had started to go down a steep incline on the other end of the gorge, which led to the sea ice. Now, since the route was downhill, we went faster, but still there were disadvantages to this too, as sometimes the komatik would strike a large boulder and turn upside down and usually we would have to load all over again. So far we had only encountered a slight wind, but this however was in our backs, so we did not mind it and at nights we had found sufficient shelter to pitch the tent—the latter being less bother than the erection of an igloo.
That night about dusk we came to an ice lake surrounded by steep hills and emptying at the other end in a gorge similar to the one by which we had entered. Along the shore we saw a caribou, but we did not want it for food, and as the dogs would take after it if brought in sight we decided to wait a bit until the animal had gone out of view. Thus, by the time we got on the lake it was quite dark, so instead of proceeding to the other side we were forced to stop in the middle on account of large patches of drifted sand which we could not see clearly in the darkness. However, although the position afforded no shelter whatsoever and there was even no snow with which to build an igloo, the sky was clear and starry, with not the slightest breath of wind, so we pitched our tent on the lake. The temperature at this time was about fifty below.
A Thousand Invisible Horses
T WOKE the following morning, and, -*■ looking at my watch, saw that it was only half-past three. Not feeling sleepy and thinking that my watch had slowed up with the cold, I started the Primus stove and began to heat up some beans for breakfast. Shortly afterward the native awoke and asked me why I was getting up so early as it was hardly four o’clock by his watch. However, as we were both hungry we ate breakfast and decided to get an early start, as there was some wind coming up and our camping place was very exposed.
It was then quite dark, and before it had become sufficiently light to enable us to break camp the wind had increased a great deal so that soon a blinding blizzard was in progress outside. This put an end to our hopes of pulling out, so we climbed back into our sleeping-bags to await the cessation of wind. It blew hard all day and at times I expected the tent to be carried off, but by evening we were glad to see that it was dying down. Unfortunately the decrease was only temporary, for by ten p.m. it had resumed its former proportions and gave promise of worse.
The native was making some tea and I was in my sleeping-bag when the wind broke with all its fury. He was just
handing me the pot of tea when, with a roar, the tent came down. The tea went all over me and in the twinkling of an eye I was looking up into a blinding blizzard driven down the gorge by a hundred-mile-an-hour gale.
To describe the wind in this gorge is impossible. It is something ghoulish and supernatural. It gallops and roars as if a thousand horses were stampeding along the frozen river. Add to this a temperature of fifty below zero, derived partly from the glaciers bordering the gorge, and a condition results which no exposed human being can stand.
I was stupefied! I clambered out of my sleeping-bag, foolishly unheeding the native who shouted to me to stay there and pull the top over my head, and no sooner had I stood up than I was thrown to the ice.
Pummelled by the wind, I could scarcely get my breath. My mitts were gone and my fingers were already numb.
I grabbed at the tent, which was writhing around on the ice like a snake, but my fingers were so stiff that I could not hold it.
Just then my faithful native found a pair of woollen mitts which had not blown away and, thrusting them into my hands, shouted to me to crawl under the torn and flapping canvas, the remains of the tent. In a daze I did so.
Things looked bad. My fingers were partly frozen. I had been only lightly clad in my sleeping-bag, and to keep from freezing at fifty below was impossible.
As I lay cowering under a writhing, flapping bit of the once sheltering tent, many thoughts passed hurriedly through my mind as is often the case with a mortal confronted with imminent death.
There I was, just a miserable bit of humanity, trying to seek shelter under a bit of canvas, chilled with the early stages of icy death, and still the thundering wind mockingly snapped and snatched at my lowly hiding place, threatening each second to tear it in ribbons and drag me forth quickly to receive my deserts.
There was no hope in my mind. Doomed I was, and admitted it. A man threatened with drowning, confronted with a wild beast, or stricken with disease, can at least put up a fight for his life; but an Arctic blizzard is an opponent which scorns resistance. It bewilders,
pummels, and benumbs. It drives its
victim to shelter and then tries to drag him out again. Failing that, it unequivocally and inexorably lets him perish miserably of cold. Who are those people who have said that freezing to death is like dropping asleep? They are about as intellectually anaemic as those poetic souls who sit by a fireside and write about the benevolence of Nature.
A Ray of Hope
JUST then the native, who was fully clothed and had been crawling about in the blizzard as only an Eskimo can, found one of our Primas stoves. He squirmed under the canvas and we began to light it. Then I found to my dismay that a little gadget belonging to the burner was missing and without it the stove would not work. Out he went again and later came back with the other stove, which fortunately was intact but full of snow. After many tantalizing and
laborious efforts I finally succeeded in getting it started.
What miserable shelters can seem like a palace at times! Here we were, lying crouched under a writhing, convulsing bit of canvas, with snow for a floor, a smoky Primus stove for a hearth, and yet it was like being snatched from death.
First I got my fingers thawed out and they became quite painful. Gradually my clothes sopped up the water from the snow in spongelike fashion, so that soon I was wet. After a bit we were able to locate one end of the sleeping-bag and some deerskins, which we “snaked” into our shelter. I could get into the bag as far as my hips and felt very grateful, but it was also full of snow which afterwards melted, adding to my discomfort.
All that night we crouched in our shelter as the wind swept mercilessly down upen us, threatening every second to take the whole outfit and shake us out into the elements again. We could not sleep; at least I could not. I think the native dozed a bit as he leaned forward, his head on his chest. All night long I huddled as close to the little stove as I could; now warming my face, now my hands. My state of gratitude for escaping from freezing began to wear off and now I felt cold, soaked to the skin and miserable. My pipe had become broken and I could not even smoke.
Slowly the night wore on and a sickly illumination of our hovel indicated that dawn had come, but still the wind roared relentlessly down upon us, and if anything it was worse than the night before.
I began to feel very hungry. The human body demands some fuel before it can produce heat. Out under the snow somewhere there was food, but it had become hidden with the drifted snow, and in addition there was a risk in raising the canvas to crawl out as the wind might get under and we would be thrown out into the storm again.
The day dragged on. About four o’clock in the afternoon the wind seemed to be dying down. The canvas ceased to writhe and convulse. We felt relieved. A little longer and we would be able to get out and fix up the tent, cook some food and have a good night’s sleep.
About six o’clock the wind had died down to only a slight breeze and soon it seemed to have ceased altogether, so we crawled out to fix up the demolished tent. I took one end of it, stood it upright, and was just about to tie the guy-rope to the komatik when the wind let loose again as bad as ever before. The tent was whipped out of my hands and again became a torn and hopeless mess. The wind rapidly augmented in force and in two minutes was in full stride.
Once more we were driven like rats back under the canvas, and now we were worse off than before. Our floor was a tangled hump of frozen dog harness, all the deerskins had blown away and the covering canvas was smaller than previously, so that we were forced to lie down, there being insufficient room to sit up. Fortunately during the mêlée we found some loose Eskimo biscuits, which we ate with satisfaction as we had not had any food for thirty-six hours.
We also managed to locate our kerosene oil can, so that we were able to keep the Primus stove going continuoasly except when filling it every two or three hours; but the “prickers” with which to clean the feed-vent of the stove were lost and the flame was now very smoky and not strong in heat. That night is one of the longest I have
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ever spent. I was dead tired and yet I could not go to sleep, for if I did I would fall over against the Primus stove. In fact I nodded several times, only to be rudely awakened by the pungent smell of burning clothing. My kooletah (hooded upper garment or smock) was burnt in many places, and several times during the night the canvas caught fire. I was ravenously hungry, my clothes were soaked, and still the wind howled on.
What, I thought, if this wind were to keep up for another two days! Our coal oil was over half gone now. Suppose it were finished? My mind conjured up all sorts of distorted ideas; bountifully set dinner tables, warm fireplaces, my comfortable little house back at Pangnirtung. Was I going to perish miserably here?
My mental wanderings took my : thoughts away from the storm, and the night wore on. The Eskimo had fallen asleep and snored loudly, but at times I had to wake him to get the oil can which he was using for a pillow. By about four o’clock the wind was abating once more, and this time it subsided with amazing rapidity, so that by dawn it had stopped completely.
Sunrise came beautifully clear. The sky was cloudless.
T CRAWLED out, climbed to my feet, -*■ and staggered about like a drunken man. Immediately we began digging in adjacent snowdrifts to find my fur clothing and something to eat. Both were found, and soon I was properly clothed, stamping around to get warm, while a heaped up pan of frozen deer meat was thawing out over the Primus stove.
A good big pannikin of strong tea, meat hot from the pan and some Eskimo biscuits, and the sunrise looked almost benevolent.
I then took stock of matters from the question of whether to go on or not. The supply of coal oil was meagre but there was enough to carry us to an old trading post farther on, where there was thought to be still a barrel of kerosene. The dogs had eaten up all the dog feed during the storm, and even though the sea ice was but two days away nevertheless sealing was not good in that district, so the future source of dog-feed was problematical. Moreover, the tent was useless, so that we would be forced to build igloos every ! night, and this procedure would seriously S cut down our travelling time. In addition * to this, one Primus stove alone was ser| viceable, and even for this we had lost all ! the “prickers.” Taking all things into consideration, I decided that the only thing to do was to start for Pangnirtung, sixty-five miles away, and make it without stopping.
It was a hard day and I shall remember
it for a long while. We started about eight o’clock with nothing on the komatik but a Primus stove, my sleeping-bag (which was frozen stiff with ice), some tea and a few biscuits. All day we travelled as fast as the dogs could be urged to go, since we were anxious to get out of the other end of the gorge before it became dark, on account of the bad going over the cascades. In this we were not quite successful, as it was dark when we came down over the steep boulder-strewn gorge; nevertheless we did not stop to take the dogs out of harness but rather trusted to luck that the sled would not get smashed as it hurtled along down the frozen waterfalls.
However, we traversed this part successfully and got out on the sea ice about thirty miles from Pangnirtung. It was pitch dark and we were cold and hungry, but we kept slowly on, not stopping to make tea. The dogs had had a long day and were slowing up badly, and to make matters worse we were continually running into patches of sand which could not be seen in the darkness and over these we had to pull the komatik along with the dogs.
About ten o’clock we caught sight of the light in the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, still a long way off. It went out about eleven-thirty. Every mile dragged out unendingly, but finally at half-past one, after seventeen and onehalf hours travelling, we crawled into the post.
My house was unoccupied of course, so I started a fire and carried in an armload of grub from the storehouse. Hunger and fatigue made me dizzy, and as I began to feel the heat of the fire I staggered around bumping into everything. I had heated some soup and made some tea, but before I had taken much of this I became overwhelmingly drowsy.
I dragged the mattress and blankets out of the bedroom into the kitchen, which was the only part of the house warmed up, and then things went blotto. The next thing I knew I was looking up at a red-hot stove, and it was seven o’clock in the morning.
I got up and made a huge breakfast. My fingers were painful, and I was stiff in every muscle. As I was having breakfast, one of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police came in.
“You’re back again, Doc?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, “and I’m glad I am.”
The corresponding date in March found us passing, northward bound again, the place of our former mishap. This time we had better luck with the wind, and in addition we were more cautious in the choosing of a camping place at night, wind or no wind. The trip was successful. I examined about 150 Eskimos in their camps en route, and on May 5, after fiftytwo days of travel, we arrived at Pond Inlet.