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Narrative of the Discoveries on the North Coast of America, effected by the Officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company, during the years 1836—39/Chapter V

< Narrative of the Discoveries on the North Coast of America, effected by the Officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company, during the years 1836—39


Voyage from Mackenzie River to Franklin's Return Reef.—Adventures among Esquimaux and Ice.—Discovery of the Franklin Mountains.

July 9th.—We had almost lost sight of Tent Island when we discovered several kayaks paddling swiftly after us. As the wind was now decreasing, the canoes, nineteen in number, soon came up with us. It required little encouragement to bring the Esquimaux alongside, when each man received a knife, a file, some rings, beads, and awls. They then became importunate to trade for their bows and arrows, darts, lip-ornaments, in fact, everything they had. We had no desire to enter into this kind of traffic; but, to quiet them, we traded for a few of those articles. One lively youngster attracted our notice by his activity in the noisy barter. He shot his arrows and lance repeatedly on the water, to shew us their excellence; at the same time shouting "Neittuke," and "Took-took"—the seal, and reindeer. On receiving a hatchet and some other things for his weapons, he beat upon his breast, laughed, whooped, and capered in the utmost extravagance of animal joy. He was afterwards employed by several of his less adroit friends to exchange their goods. A fine-looking young man, whose face was not disfigured by the labrets, was remarkable for his modesty, but did not fare the worse on that account. There was only one old man of the party. They appeared to us a stout, well-looking people, with complexions considerably fairer than the Indian tribes. Having finished our transactions with them, and satisfied our curiosity, we told the strangers to return to their village; upon which they gave us to understand that they wished to accompany us to our encampment, and to spend the evening in our society. To this, however, we had a decided objection. Already had they made several unsuccessful attempts to pilfer out of the boats; fresh numbers would soon have joined them, stimulated by the remembrance of former success; and we had Escape Reef, and a shallow bad navigation, before us. We therefore peremptorily ordered them back, but to no purpose. Two or three guns were shewn, which alarmed them a little. They held up their hands deprecatingly, calling out "Caw-caw!"—but persisted in following at a short distance, even after one or two blank shots, till I fired with ball over them; upon which they instantly ducked their heads, veered round, and, after paddling out of reach, halted to hold a consultation,—more canoes now appearing in the distance. Thus delivered, we continued our course under sail, with a light close wind, passing the reefs and shoals about four miles from the land; the weather dark and threatening. At 10 o'clock a violent squall took us, and it was with the utmost exertion that we were able to gain the shore at midnight.

The tide rose here about one foot on the morning of the 10th, bringing with it great numbers of methy (lota maculosa) many of which we speared with the Esquimaux lances. Before we had time to take any rest, a heavy swell came rolling in upon the beach, and compelled us to look out for another harbour. After pulling for several hours along the steep mud-banks that form the coast-line, we reached Shingle Point, lying under the 69th parallel of latitude, and there erected our tents, for the first time, since our detention by wind at the head of Mackenzie River. A north-west gale had now commenced, and raged all day. We found at this place a number of winter huts, and of graves covered with the implements used by the deceased. There was also the frame of an oomiak, twenty-four feet long; and a large sledge with side-rails, well mortised, and strongly knit with whalebone, so that our Canadians pronounced it made "comme à Montreal,"—the very superlative of commendation in their opinion.[1] We enjoyed a very cold bath in the sea. The musquitoes had now finally abandoned us, and there can be no stronger proof of the unusual severity of this season along the coast; for Franklin, Beechey, and Richardson complain of the attacks of these insects throughout their Arctic voyages.

The wind having abated, we started on the 11th at 3 a. m. To seaward there were some large icebergs in motion, but we proceeded without interruption till 11, when we landed to breakfast. A fog now enveloped every object, and already had the temperature fallen thirty degrees since issuing from the Mackenzie. We soon came to the margin of the ice, which fortunately was afloat near the shore. We twisted and poled our way through it: the transparent masses exhibiting every variety of fantastic shapes,—altars, caverns, turrets, ships, crystal fabrics,—which changed as we gazed upon them; and often rolling oyer or breaking down, with a thundering noise, tossed our little boats on the swell caused by their fall. In the small open spaces, and on the floes, numberless seals were sporting; one of which would every now and then follow for a while in our wake, rising breast-high to gratify his curiosity, and then giving place to another. I wounded one of the largest size, but he escaped from us by getting within the close ice. Point Kay was doubled with much difficulty in the afternoon. Here we had the mortification to find farther progress impossible, for the ice blocked Phillips' Bay. Our fires were scarcely lighted when we perceived three Esquimaux approaching us along the reef. They halted at a little distance to reconnoitre, and then sat down, apparently afraid to advance. Upon our calling to them, they threw down their weapons, and approached us with perfect confidence. One of them then went away, and soon returned with, the rest of the party, consisting of five women, two lads, and several children. They seemed poor, but were lively in their demeanour, and, what recommended them still more to us, in no way troublesome or intrusive. Every individual, young and old, was gratified with a suitable present; and we afterwards purchased from them some fresh herring-salmon (coregonus lucidus) and a bundle of whalebone. They left us late in the evening.

During the whole of the 12th it blew strongly from the northward, with a dense fog and cheerless weather. Our Esquimaux neighbours paid us another visit, and then took their departure, probably to inform their friends at Herschel Island of our appearance on the coast. Next day the ice was still more closely packed, and numerous masses were cast upon the beach. About noon the gale abated, the thermometer rose as high as 51° and the latitude 69° 18′ 19″ was obtained; variation 49° East. We made excursions upon the green hills, which were embellished with the brilliant tints of innumerable flowers: specimens of these were gathered, and some water-fowl were shot. A row of marks was observed extending across the point, evidently designed to lead the reindeer to this edge of the steep bank; over which, pursued by one party of hunters, they dash into the sea, where they fall an easy prey to another party, stationed in canoes below. There were also a number of old marmot snares set upon the slope, but none of those curious little animals were to be seen. The fog and cold returned in the evening, attended with a drizzling rain.

The morning of the 14th was calm, and we observed the first regular flow of the tide. At 8 o'clock it had risen eight inches, detaching the heavy field-ice to seaward from the broken ice in the bay, and opening a narrow passage to the opposite land, of which we immediately took advantage. It was, however, a work of labour and some danger to force our way through in many places, and it was noon before we reached Point Stokes. At a stream issuing out of a lake farther on, we found another small camp of Esquimaux, whose conduct was similar to that of the last party, and equally well rewarded. We procured from them some fine salmon-trout, taken in a seine of whalebone, which they dragged ashore by means of several slender poles spliced together to a great length. A tame full-grown seal was playing in the water around the tents, and, while we were there, came to the brink to be fed. We found the strait between Herschel Island and the mainland open. While passing through it, we were visited by three men, and two oomiaks filled with women and children. They received the usual presents, and informed us that there were five more men of their party hunting reindeer on the island. At 9 p. m. we landed on its extreme western point, from whence the sea, except close in-shore, appeared quite covered with ice. Clouds obscured the sky, and encircled the mountain tops; but from the north-west a golden gleam shot down upon the icy horizon. On the beach were found some bones of an enormous whale, probably stranded here, of which the skull measured eight feet in breadth. Another oomiak, containing a man and his family, came . to us shortly after we quitted the island. The evening was mild, with a gentle easterly breeze, before which we sailed all night, between the margin of the ice and the land.

At 10 in the forenoon of the 15th we halted to breakfast at Demarcation Point, where the lat. 69° 40′ 31″ N., and the variation 48° 23′ 10″ E., were observed. In the afternoon the breeze freshened, and we made rapid progress along and through the grounded ice; fragments of which, occasionally detaching themselves, plunged headlong into the sea with a noise rivalling the discharge of heavy artillery. Large flocks of white and brown ducks flew past us; many floes were covered with the noisy "cacawees;" while on the plains between the British chain of mountains and Beaufort Bay browsed numerous herds of reindeer. Farther on stood a camp of Esquimaux, who, after shouting to us, pushed off in their kayaks; but the fast sailing of our boats, and our disinclination to sacrifice the favourable wind, prevented any communication with them. The weather was cold and dark, and heavy masses of clouds were hurrying rapidly towards the west. The mountains were almost hidden from view; but ever and anon their snow-capped summits glared portentously through the cloudy canopy, whose vagueness strangely magnified their height. We supped at Point Humphreys' and proceeded on till midnight, when our career was arrested, at some distance from land, by ice adhering to Point Griffin, and extending in every direction beyond the reach of vision. With considerable difficulty we reached the shore at 2 a.m. of the 16th, and encamped.

It was high-water at noon, the rise being nine and a half inches. This insignificant tide did us good service, in opening a lane along the shore, into which we immediately launched. It blew freshly from the east, and we ran among the ice at a great rate, keeping of course a sharp lookout in our bows. The narrow, crooked openings drew us out two miles to seaward, and at length terminated abruptly, leaving us completely embayed in the ice, which was driving rapidly westward. Our only resource was to gain the land, which, after much shoving and cutting, we effected at 5 p. m., near Point Manning. The reef bore numerous recent foot-prints of Esquimaux, probably bound on their annual westward journey to Barter Island. We had in the course of the afternoon seen several people on the shore, but they did not venture off. The lofty peaks of the Romanzoff Mountains seemed to look scornfully down upon the little party that now sat at their humble evening meal. Finding a fine open space of water within the reef, we carried the boats and cargoes across it, and again set sail. Steering outside of Barter Island, we saw on its western extremity a single tent, the inmates of which were asleep; while a large dog stood sentinel, but let us pass without alarming his friends within. The wind increased as we stood across Camden Bay.

We sailed without material interruption till between 2 and 3 a. m. of the 17th, when a great pack of ice, stretching out to seaward, obliged us to put in near a considerable camp of the na- tives. These soon visited us, to the number of twenty men, and twice as many women, lads, and children. A place was assigned, and a fire made for them, at the distance of fifty or sixty paces from our tents. A friendly communication was immediately opened, in which our vocabularies were summoned to play their part, to the great amazement of the savages, who declared that the books spoke to us. A valuable selection of presents was then distributed among them, consisting of axes, trenches, knives, files, and fire-steels, to the men; awls, needles, rings, beads, and scissors, to the women and children. We next traded for a number of pairs of their waterproof boots, sufficient for ourselves and the crews; likewise for a few of their lip ornaments, on which they set a high value, demanding a dagger or a hatchet for each pair. Those purchased by us were formed of very large blue beads, glued on to pieces of ivory. We did not observe that this kind of labret constituted any distinction of rank, as remarked by Captain Beechey. The rest were, made of ivory only, and the boys wore them of a smaller size. Three of the men were remarkable for their good looks, and a stature of from five feet ten to six feet. We asked their names, and wrote them down as follows: Kenaweye-wāngha, Koowōknoo, Kooyouwok-chēna. Upon observing what we were about, all the men, and two or three of the old women, came forward to get their names similarly honoured; at the same time inquiring and then repeating ours.[2] One of the Highlanders' Gaelic appellation, Eachin (i. e. Hector), happening to resemble some word in their own language, called forth bursts of merriment. At our request, they gave us a specimen of their dances, accompanied by a somewhat monotonous chorus; and we could not help admiring their activity in leaping from side to side, when imitating their manner of avoiding the weapons of their enemies. In return for this exhibition, four of our men danced a Scottish reel in very spirited style, with which the strangers were highly delighted. When the women and children and some of the men had withdrawn, the remainder were permitted to come to our fire, and to satiate their curiosity by examining the boats and the tents. This went on very well for a while, but indulgence rendered them troublesome; and one fellow, who had received an axe, seeing a bright tin bason at the tent-door, took a fancy to it, threw down his axe, snatched up the dish, and was making off with it, when he was seized by Mr. Dease, and, some of our people at the same moment shewing their arms, the Esquimaux retired with many protestations of good-will. We had only, however, enjoyed about two hours' repose, when they returned; but the check they had received seemed to have cemented our friendship. There were but few cases of ophthalmia among these people. Most of the women wore their hair in lofty top-knots, as described by Franklin; and they carried their infants between their reindeer-skin jackets and their naked backs. Some of them had light-coloured eyes and complexions, which, if cleansed from grease, might have passed for fair in most parts of Europe. It was high-water at 1 p. m., the rise of the tide being eleven inches. The weather, which had been very foggy since the preceding evening, now cleared a little; and, from an adjoining eminence, we fancied we could discern open water some distance to seaward. We made for it without delay, through a narrow lane extending outwards, and soon reached its termination. At the same time the ice closed rapidly upon us, before a strong north-east wind. We turned about, but it was too late. The boats were repeatedly squeezed; and mine, which was foremost, was only saved from entire destruction by throwing out everything it contained upon the floating masses. By means of portages made from one fragment to another,—the oars forming the perilous bridges,—and after repeated risks of boats, men, and baggage being separated by the motion of the ice, we at length succeeded, with infinite labour, in collecting our whole equipage upon a small floe; which, being partially covered with water, formed a sort of wet-dock. There we hauled up our little vessels, and, momentarily liable as we were to be overwelmed by the turning over of our icy support, trusted to a gracious Providence for the event. We were three miles from the land; the fog again settled round us, and the night was very inclement.

At 4 next morning, finding that the gale had abated, and the ice relaxed a little around our hazardous position, we pushed for a lane of water that appeared at a short distance to seaward. After a considerable circuit it fortunately led to the shore, about a league to the eastward of our former situation. There, at the foot of a green hill, near a stream, we encamped to await the chances of time and tide. The tracks of reindeer in the vicinity were innumerable. It was high-water at half-past 1, the tide having risen ten and a half inches. The evening was calm, with a dense fog and drizzling rain.

The 19th was dark and cold, the temperature at noon rising no higher than 39°. We were favoured with another visit from a party of our Esquimaux neighbours, apprized of our return by one of their hunters, who chanced to pass near our camp. As a mark of confidence, they laid down their bows and arrows, and long Russian knives, as they approached us; but were with difficulty prevented from encroaching on a line of separation marked out upon the beach. At their earnest desire we purchased a few more articles from them. Their weapons are the same as those often described by other travellers: viz. two sorts of bows; arrows pointed with iron, flint, and bone, or blunt for birds; a dart with throwing-board for seals; a spear headed with iron or copper, the handle about six feet long; and formidable iron knives, equally adapted for throwing, cutting, or stabbing. Two irregular tides were this day observed: the first, of six inches, at 1 in the morning; the other, of eight, about 2 in the afternoon. In both cases the flow appeared to come from the westward. The weather cleared a little as it grew late; and, for the first time since we reached the coast, we had the pleasure of seeing the sun at midnight, about twice his own diameter above the horizon. His level rays glanced upon a watery space to seaward; and, hailing the glad prospect, we instantly embarked.

Favoured by a fresh easterly breeze, we rounded the icy pack at the distance of about four miles from the shore. The fog returned; but we steered by compass for Flaxman Island, which we reached at 5 a. m. on the 20th. In crossing the mouth of Canning River, such was the strength of the current it emitted that the boat nearest the shore was turned almost round before the steersman had time to be on his guard. At the entrance of the bay which receives Staines' River we could distinguish through the haze a very large Esquimaux camp, being, in all probability, the western traders, on their way to meet the various parties we had passed. The ice was closely packed on the north side of Flaxman Island, but we passed unobserved by the natives through the channel that divides it from the mainland. Almost benumbed with cold, we landed to breakfast near Point Bullen. The weather again cleared up a little; and Mount Coplestone, the western termination of the Romanzoff chain, appeared through its robe of clouds. The ice became heavier as we advanced, obliging us to keep within the Lion and Reliance reefs ; and at 1 p. m. it entirely arrested our progress in Foggy Island Bay. We had scarcely landed, and secured the boats, when a violent north-east gale commenced, overspreading the sky with lurid clouds, and tossing the icy masses like foam upon the waves. The atmosphere cleared in the evening, but it continued to blow with great fury. An immense herd of reindeer had recently passed, and we saw fresh foot-prints of the natives in pursuit. The country is a grassy flat, interspersed with little lakes well stocked with wild fowl; As on the burning sands of Egypt, the mirage sometimes converted the whole plain into the semblance of one vast sheet of water. The portion of the Rocky Mountains visible from the coast does not terminate, as conjectured by Sir John Franklin, with the Romanzoff chain. After a brief interval, another chain commences, less lofty perhaps, but equally picturesque; which, in honour of the distinguished officer whose discoveries we were following up, we named the Franklin Range.

On the 21st the storm raged fiercely, but we bore with patience the detention on witnessing the havoc made among the landward ice. A few miles out to sea, a continuous white line proclaimed it still unbroken. The beach was strewed with sea-wrack, amongst which we picked up some pieces of delicate branched sponge. An incredible number of seals were seen on the shores of this bay.

The gale continued during the 22nd, but with less violence. The morning was darkened by fog, and it was bitterly cold. At 7 we stood out, under close-reefed sails, for Point Anxiety. When we had neared it, by our reckoning, we found ourselves barred from the land by a broad stream of heavy ice, extending out to seaward, and lashed by a strong swell. The fog was so thick that we were in the danger ere we knew of it, and my boat was driven against the ice. With violent exertion she was fended off till the sails filled, and away she dashed upon the other tack. After a few hours' cruise and a thorough drenching we made the shore in the bottom of the bay, about three miles to the westward of our former position. At noon, the lat. 70° 9′ 48″ N., variation 45° E., were ascertained. The longitude, reduced from Foggy Island, was 147° 30′ W.

In the afternoon we enjoyed a distinct view of the Franklin Mountains, extending from S. E. to S.W. by S. (true), the central and highest peak bearing S. by E. about twenty miles distant. They were still partially covered with snow; and the whole range presents a precipitous front to the coast. The storm again increased during the evening, and the hardiest among us were glad to assume the warm dresses provided against a winter residence on the shores of the Polar Sea.

Sunday, 23rd.—The weather moderated as the morning advanced, and at 10 we once more set sail for Point Anxiety. The ice again prevented our approaching it, and let us far to seaward, till, in passing Yarborough Inlet, the low coast was only visible from the mast-head, distant about six miles. The ice, to our great joy, then turned abruptly in towards Return Reef, which we reached at 9 in the evening. I may here mention that our early arrival at the point where our discoveries were to commence, is, under Providence, mainly attributable to our inflexible perseverance in doubling these great icy packs, any of which might have confined us a fortnight to the beach, had we chosen to wait for its dispersion, or even till its extent could have been ascertained. Our humble thanks were offered to the Omnipotent Being whose arm had guarded us thus far, and we fervently implored a continuance of His gracious protection. Some Esquimaux bad been, not long before, engaged in plundering the eggs of the ducks hatching upon the reefs. After supper we resumed our route, and the regular survey began.

  1. French vanity has lost nothing of its point in the New World. The largest sort of ducks in the interior are called "Canards de France;" English tan-leather shoes, "Souliers François;" the whites in general, "les François," as all Europeans of old were Franks; and one old guide, talking of the place whence the Company's merchandize came, took it for granted that it was from "la vieille France de Londres!"
  2. The Indian, on the contrary, like Ossian's heroes, scorns to tell his name.