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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 VI

< 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 VI.

Discoveries on the Coast from Return Reef up to Boat Extreme.


July 24th.—We coasted along Gwydyr Bay, which proved less extensive than we supposed on entering it. The extreme lowness of the land on this part of the coast is very deceptive to the eye when viewed from any distance, and a highly refracting atmosphere increases the illusion. We applied the names of Point Back and Point Beechey to the projections agreeing nearest with the hummocks of land seen by Franklin. I must, however, remark that the bearings are different; and that Point Beechey, distant twelve miles[1] from Return Reef, is certainly invisible from thence in any state of the atmosphere. The whole bay is protected from the sea by a chain of gravel reefs, on the outside of which the ice lay hard aground. The soundings within varied from a quarter to one fathom—a sufficient depth of water for such light craft as ours.

Opposite to Point Beechey, and at the distance of a mile to seaward, the gravel reefs are succeeded by a range of low islands, eight miles in length, to which we attached the name of the Rev. David T. Jones, the faithful and eloquent minister at Red River. From Point Milne we enjoyed a transient prospect of another magnificent mountain range, about fifty miles to the westward. In honour of the public-spirited Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, this chain was called Pelly's Mountains. The coast from Point Beechey has a westerly trending, for twelve miles, to Point Berens, so named after one of the Company's Directors; which proved to be the commencement of a very extensive bay, the land from thence turning off to the south-west. Coasting along it for eight miles, the beach preserved the same low character, consisting of mud and gravel; the soundings nowhere exceeding seven or eight feet on a bottom of gravel and sand. At length, at 9 a. m., the water shoaled to from one to two feet, and, after seeking in vain for a deeper channel, we were obliged to stand out to sea. We, however, had the satisfaction of tracing the land to the bottom of the bay, into which a very large river falls; for the water, even at the distance of three leagues to seaward, was perfectly fresh. We called it Colvile River, as a mark of our respect for Andrew Colvile, Esquire, of the Hudson's Bay Company. The wind now freshened, and with it came a dense cold fog that immediately concealed the land We had great difficulty in extricating ourselves from the shallows formed by the alluvial deposits of the Colvile; and, after steering fourteen miles north and north-west, till we approached the edge of the ice, found only seven feet water. We then tacked, and steered south-west; in which direction a stretch of sixteen miles brought us near to, but not within view of, the shore. We followed along it for four miles, keeping close in among the shoals; the water still quite fresh. Tired of such tedious progress, and being utterly unable to distinguish the beach, though we reckoned it to be no more than half a mile distant, we again stood out, for seventeen miles, to the north and north-west; the greatest depth during this run being one and a half fathoms, and the water salt. The wind had now veered to the northward, driving the ice down upon us; we had not seen land since the morning, and were quite uncertain what direction it might take. We steered westward at a venture, and, after sailing five miles, at length made the shore at midnight. It was with difficulty we found a landing-place on a large fragment of ice, upon which the boats were hauled up. Having fasted for twenty-five hours, and being moreover benumbed with cold, it will readily be believed that we eagerly set about collecting wood and making a fire to cook our supper, to which, of course, we did ample justice. In gratitude for these seasonable enjoyments, this spot was denominated Point Comfort. Most of the party had caught severe colds from the constant exposure and unhealthy fogs; and all would have been incapacitated for wading through the ice-cold water, had it not been for the seal-skin boots procured from the Esquimaux—an invaluable acquisition on such service. Tracks of deer, and of a man and dog, were fresh upon the beach.

During the whole of the 25th it blew strongly from the north-east; which being right a-head, with the flats around us, and a dense fog shrouding everything, we were unable to quit our position. That was now bleak and cheerless, the thermometer standing at the freezing point, and little or no wood to be found. I took advantage of a few glimpses of sunshine to obtain the lat. 70° 43′ N., long. 152° 14′ W., variation 43° 8½′ E. It was most satisfactory to find, that in one extraordinary run we had thus made good three degrees, twenty-two minutes, of westing, or nearly half the distance between Return Reef and Point Barrow. I ought here to remark, that we were not provided by the Company with chronometers, but that the want was efficiently supplied by a very valuable watch, generously lent to the expedition by Chief Factor Smith. While in search of wood, a mile or two from the encampment, some of our people had another view of Pelly's Mountains, now south-east of us, and not more than twenty miles distant. The intervening country consists of plains clothed with very short grass and moss, the favourite pasture of the reindeer, of which some large herds were seen. The immediate coast-line is formed of frozen mud-banks, from ten to fifteen feet high. About a mile to the northward we discovered another splendid river, flowing from the south-west, and named it after Nicholas Garry, Esquire, whose name has long been associated with Arctic research.

It was high-water on the 26th at 6 in the morning; the wind having raised the tide about two feet, which enabled us safely to cross the shoals. The weather had become clear and intolerably cold. We found the mouth of the Garry one mile wide, and its banks thickly covered with drift timber, evidently brought down by the stream. Though now full tide, the water tasted fresh for several miles. From thence the land trended north-east, for eight miles, to a small island, separated from the mainland by a channel too shallow for boats. This island appeared to be a favourite resort of the natives in the spring, for we found a spot where baidars had been built, and picked up an antler cut asunder with a saw. There is little question but these were some of the people whose camp we saw on the 20th near Flaxman Island. The lat. 70° 47′ 45″ N., long. 151° 55′ 30″ W., were here observed; and this remarkable point was named Cape Halkett, in compliment to one of the Company's Directors. It terminates the great bay, which, from Point Berens, is forty-three geographical, or fifty statute miles, in breadth. On this spacious basin, which receives the waters of two noble rivers, we conferred the name of Harrison Bay, in honour of the Deputy Governor of the Company, whose attention has long been sedulously directed to the moral and religious improvement of the natives of the Indian country. From Cape Halkett the coast resumes its westerly trending, and for fifteen miles presents to the eye nought but a succession of low banks of frozen mud. The substratum consists of a yellow clay, thinly covered with vegetable soil, which nourishes short grass and a variety of mosses. Many reindeer were seen as we coasted along. These swift-footed creatures came to the bank in small herds gazed at us for a moment, and then bounded out of sight. We could not spare time for the chase. The ice was very heavy all along this part of the coast, and but very recently detached from the beach. We made tolerable progress through the narrow and intricate channels, the soundings averaging one fathom, on a sandy bottom. After rounding a point, distinguished by the name of the Right Honourable Edward Ellice, the mud-banks are succeeded by gravel reefs; which, at a short distance, are intersected by the mouths of a considerable river, named after William Smith, Esquire, Secretary to the Hudson's Bay Company. For ten miles the external line is formed by these reefs, on which large mounds of mud and shingle have been raised by the tremendous pressure of the ice. Several shallow channels appeared within, but they were not navigable.

Point Pitt, the northernmost spot passed during this day's march, is situated in lat. 70° 53′, long. 152° 54′ A few miles on either side of it, we observed a stream of discoloured fresh water rushing through the reefs, probably from a considerable lake, but the atmosphere was too hazy for ascertaining the fact. At the last of these streams the mud-banks recommenced. The water becoming much shallower, with numerous sunken masses of ice, we were obliged to stand out from the shore. A fog-bank, looking at first very like land, now came driving on us before a strong north-east wind. After sailing some distance to seaward, we found ourselves embayed in the ice; and, on wearing round, one of the rudders gave way. The weather was dark, stormy, and so cold that the boats were incrusted with ice. We, however, escaped from this dangerous situation without farther damage; and after a hard tug at the oars, in the teeth of the wind, we effected a landing at midnight on one of the numerous blocks of ice adhering to the shore. The men had to search for wood a good way off, and while so employed fell in with a herd of deer; but, though our three best marksmen started in pursuit, they returned in the morning without success.

27th—On examining the vicinity, we discovered a large reindeer pound, simply contrived with double rows of turf set up to represent men, and inclosing a space of ground lower than the rest. The inclosure was two miles broad at the beach, and narrowed towards a lake of some extent, where the unsuspecting animals are surrounded and speared in the water. On the shore were the remains of an Esquimaux camp. The earth was impenetrably frozen at the depth of four inches, so that our tent-pegs could not be driven home. Even this miserable soil produced a few flowers, but nothing new to add to our collection; and, since entering on new ground, not a rock in situ, or even a boulder-stone, had yet been found. The point of our encampment was about twenty feet high; and across the deer-pound, at the distance of four miles, the land formed another point of equal elevation. These two points we named after Messrs. A. R. M'Leod and M. M'Pherson, two gentlemen to whose good offices the expedition is under great obligations. About noon we observed, with pleasure, the ice beginning to open, and at 2 discovered a narrow lane of water leading out from the land, and apparently turning again inwards a few miles farther on. It blew a cutting blast from the north-east, and the spray froze upon the oars and rigging. Yet were we now in the midst of the Dog-days, that pre-eminent season of sunshine and beauty in more favoured lands! Having made our way, with considerable risk, amongst the ice, for seven miles, we reached a point, named after Richard Drew, Esquire, of the Hudson's Bay Company, where the land turned suddenly off at a right angle to the southward. We now found ourselves in a large and very shallow bay, which we had much pleasure in naming after our worthy friend Chief Factor Smith, to whose unwearied aid in preparing the expedition for sea we were so deeply indebted. Near the middle of this bay a concealed reef ran far out, upon which lay a stream of floating ice, lashed by the breakers. We were at the same time partially enveloped in fog, but after an hour of hazardous labour we forced our way through the narrowest part of the barrier. Though the boats received repeated concussions, and took in much water among the surf, we were delighted to find that, after baling, they continued perfectly tight. We now made the best of our way, north-west and north, through the flats, sailing, poling, or pulling, in the verge of the ice, as wind and water served. Though we kept a vigilant look-out, my boat struck its stem forcibly against a piece of ice, the shock starting the iron fastenings of the foremast thaft, fortunately without doing any other injury. Farther out in the bay the ice lay smooth and solid, as in the depth of a sunless winter. So unbroken was its appearance, that some among the party longed for horses and carioles, to drive at once to Point Barrow! Upon the flat shore were seen countless herds of deer. At length, at midnight, as we drew near a sharp projecting point, the crews declared that it was covered with white tents; which, upon a closer approach, proved to be a cluster of tall icebergs, towering over the point on the northern side. A dense wet fog setting in, we encamped on the extremity of this well-defined point, which, as a testimony of sincere respect and regard for the able and indefatigable Governor of all the Company's territories, we named Cape George Simpson. It is situated in lat. 70° 59′ N., long. 154° 21′ W., and bore traces of Esquimaux.

High-water took place at 10 a.m. on the 28th, the rise of the tide being ten inches. It widened the narrow passage between the icebergs and the shore, and enabled us to double the cape; but we had only proceeded between two and three miles when our further progress was arrested by an impenetrable body of ice, extending, as we found in the course of the day, all along the coast. We were, therefore, compelled once more to encamp. The ground was spongy and wet; the fog had turned into sleet; and the few pieces of pine and poplar we collected were saturated with the salt-water. These uncomfortable circumstances greatly aggravated the sore-throats and severe colds with which most of the party were afflicted. We had spared no pains to provide for the health of our people. Each boat's crew was furnished with a tent and oilcloth; and the men were strictly enjoined to carry with them to the sea a sufficiency of blankets and warm clothing to protect them even amidst the rigours of a Polar winter, which, happily, we were not doomed to sustain on this desolate and inhospitable coast.

The fog and cold continued next day. Numerous flocks of white-backed ducks flew near the shore, on their autumnal migration to the westward. A few of us took our station upon hummocks of ice, and shot above a hundred of these large birds. They formed an acceptable change of diet, being fat, and good eating, though rather oily. At various times we saw along the coast, but in comparatively small numbers, Canada, laughing, and Hutchin's[2] geese, large dun-coloured ducks, golden and red-breasted plovers, boatswains, gulls, northern divers, snow buntings, and ptarmigan. The claw of a middle-sized Polar bear was here picked up; likewise some small scattered pieces of light-coloured granite, blueish-green slate, and red sand-stone.

Sunday, 30th.—At mid-day the temperature rose as high as 46° and the fog partially cleared off for about three hours. This interval was employed in astronomical observations, which placed our encampment in lat. 71° 1′ 44″ N., long. 154° 22′ 53″ W., variation 42° 36′ 18″ E. Little or no change was perceptible in the ice. Just at midnight the opaque misty veil was drawn aside, as if by magic, and revealed to view a party-coloured sky in the north, richly illuminated by the rays of the sun, now almost touching the horizon. The effect was as beautiful as novel to us; but it was evanescent, and only served to aggravate the deep and settled gloom which soon involved that bright vision and everything besides.

The ice appearing somewhat loosened on the morning of the 31st, we embarked at 9, and forced our way through the crowded masses for about two miles, with serious risk to the boats. In this sort of progress, to which we so frequently had recourse, it must be understood that, except the bowman or steersman, all the crew were out upon the ice, with poles, pushing aside and fending off the successive fragments. The advance thus effected was always slow, painful, and precarious; and we considered ourselves particularly fortunate whenever we found a natural channel through the ice wide enough to admit our little boats. These narrow channels were generally very crooked; and, when carrying sail, it required the utmost tact on the part of the steersman, aided by the look-out in the bows, and men on either side standing ready with poles, to avoid the innumerable floating rocks—if I may use the expression—that endangered this intricate navigation. Again were we stopped, and compelled to encamp.

From the extreme coldness of the weather, and the interminable ice, the farther advance of our boats appeared hopeless. In four days we had only made good as many miles; and, in the event of a late return to the Mackenzie, we had every reason to apprehend being set fast in Bear Lake River, or, at least, at Fort Franklin, which would have been ruinous to our future plans. I therefore lost no time in imparting to Mr. Dease my desire of exploring the remainder of the coast to Point Barrow on foot. In order to secure the safe retreat of the party, he handsomely consented to remain with the boats; and, as Point Barrow was still distant only two degrees of longitude, ten or twelve days were considered sufficient for my return, making every allowance for bays, inlets, and other irregularities of the coast. The men having, to their credit, unanimously volunteered to accompany me, I selected five, M'Kay, Taylor, Morrison, Felix, and Morin, who were directed to hold themselves in readiness the following morning.


  1. All the coasting distances throughout the journal are given in geographical miles.
  2. Called "braillards" by the voyageurs, from their complaining cry.