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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 XI

< 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 XI.

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Second Sea Voyage.—Difficulties and detentions amongst Ice.—Long circuit in Bathurst's Inlet.—Discovery of Copper on Barry Islands.—Boats finally arrested near Point Turn-again.


At 12hrs. 30min. A. M. on the 17th of July we commenced our second voyage on the Hyperborean sea. The morning was calm and fine; and, after pulling two or three miles outwards, round a field of ice, we found an open channel between Berens Isles and the main shore. That advantage would, however, have soon been lost, had not a gentle S.S.W. wind sprung up, and, while it detached the ice from the land, greatly accelerated our progress. At several points we had to lower sail and push through the streams of ice, at considerable risk to the boats. To our Indian companions the sea was indeed a new element. Almost the first living objects they saw, two young seals, (which they called sea-beaver,) excited their wonder, and, when we landed to breakfast on an island, they anxiously watched an opportunity to possess themselves of these strange animals; but the lively little fellows would never approach within gunshot. Everywhere there were old marks of Esquimaux, but none recent. The beach was strewed with seaweed and mussel-shells—certain indications of a clearer sea, in some seasons, than that which we navigated last year. As the day advanced the weather became sultry, and we were tormented on the water by swarms of musquitoes. Reindeer and musk-cattle were seen. Some of the former, to escape the persecution of the flies, were standing breast-high in the water, or running upon and swimming amongst the ice. At 5 P.M. we were stopped by an impenetrable field, after having advanced thirty-five miles. The water during the whole of this day's journey was fresh, or very nearly so, owing to the contiguity and rapid dissolution of the ice, aided by the discharge of many small rivers and streams. Scarcely had we unloaded our boats, and drawn them up on the beach, when a violent thunderstorm, that had been for some hours gathering, burst over us, attended with torrents of rain.

Compact ice and continued rain detained us till 7 in the evening of the 19th, when the wind veering to the west-south-west opened a passage, and we set sail. A dense fog shrouded sea and shore; and, after running ten or twelve miles, we found ourselves embayed in fixed ice, between a high, rocky island and the mainland. The broken ice was at the same time rapidly closing in upon us; but, by laborious efforts for two hours, we extricated ourselves from this critical situation, and safely landed to windward of the press at midnight. There were foot-prints of Esquimaux on the shore, about a week old; and the stone circles of five tents. Seven sledges, with a variety of other articles (including some of the wide-spread remnants of Dr. Richardson's boats), were laid up close at hand.

The receding tide having separated the ice from the beach, we set out at 10 o'clock the following night, and crept along shore for about three hours, when we again reached its unbroken limit. We pitched our tents on rugged rocks, surrounded by scenery of singular wildness and sterility.

On the 21st a sultry land breeze further disunited the ice, and enabled us, by cutting our way at the different projections, to make the circuit of a bay to the high, rocky cape which Franklin doubled on the 22nd of July, 1821. Here ice of immense thickness still clung to the crags; and in two or three places, where there were deep water holes among the loose rocks fallen from the cliffs, large blocks of pure white ice were seen adhering to the bottom. Yet at noon this day the thermometer stood at 71° in the shade, and rose to 88° when exposed to the sun's rays. It was the hottest day of the brief Arctic summer. We encamped in a chasm or narrow valley intersecting the cape. Here we found the caches of six tents of Esquimaux, containing a quantity of blubber, some stone kettles and lamps, a variety of utensils, besides the spoils of musk-cattle, reindeer, seals, and white foxes. A striped cotton shirt, almost new, was wrapped up and preserved with especial care. Most of these things were placed on a shelf in the rock, about forty feet high, and inaccessible to any quadruped. They had formed a ladder with their sledges to attain this place of security. Though we examined their repositories on this and other occasions, in order to form an idea of their manner and means of living, we made a point of scrupulously replacing everything as we found it; and usually added any articles we could spare of our own, as an evidence of our good-will towards them. Like most of the others, this party had probably wintered upon islands—the most favourable situations for seal-hunting; and had lately removed inland to pass the summer at fishing stations, or in places most frequented by reindeer and musk-cattle.

On the evening of the 24th we were at length able to double the promontory, but we did so at the imminent hazard of the boats. In this operation one of them got an upper plank and the wash-board split, from a squeeze between the ice and the rocks. With great labour we advanced two miles, and encamped in a little gravelly bay beside a cascade. The sun set for about three hours; and the new ice, which formed in the open pools, remained till late the following morn- ing: the night was calm and serene. Our nets at these two last stations yielded only two small Arctic salmon, though these elegant fish were seen sporting about the mouth of every streamlet.

25th.—After several hours' preliminary cutting through the ice, we were enabled to move forward in the afternoon; and, by frequently repeating the same process, we effected an advance of five miles. There was an Esquimaux road upon the ice, and one of their stone traps was found where we encamped, near Port Epworth, the estuary of Tree River. We also remarked, while walking along the rocky shore, one or two places where seals had been trailed up by the indefatigable natives.

Our progress next day was comparatively unimpeded by the ice, which, under the influence of the continued fine weather, began to dissolve along the edge of the rocks, whose turnings and sinuosities we were, of course, obliged to follow. In crossing Gray's Bay to Hepburn Island we were met by a strong current from the eastward. A legion of gulls, with their young, occupied the clefts in the precipices of the island, which spring abruptly from the deep to a considerable height. The seals were unusually inquisitive, and we shot several; but, after struggling for a moment, the creatures invariably sunk before we could lay hold of them, leaving the water dyed with blood. Some days afterwards we fished up a small one in two fathoms, which had been shot through the head; and the Indians were gratified with its skin. From Hepburn Island we found a tolerably open lead to the mouth of a stream flowing into the bay, three miles from Wentzel River, and of similar size. Its waters were very foul, in consequence of traversing lofty mud-banks immediately after its descent from the naked granite hills that bind this iron coast. The roar of a distant cataract proclaimed the suddenness of this change in its career. The banks of this river seemed quite a nest of wolves; and we pursued two females, followed by half a score of well-grown young. The mothers scampered up the highest rocks, whence they called loudly to their offspring; and the latter, unable to save themselves by flight, baffled our search by hiding themselves among the willows which fringe the stream. The leader of the whole gang—a huge ferocious old fellow—stood his ground, and was shot by M'Kay. At this place our only thermometer was unluckily broken. The mean temperature of the preceding part of July was 43.7°, being 7.2° colder than the same period at Fort Confidence; where, however, some deduction might fairly be made, in consequence of the impossibility of finding an open place for the fixed instrument, on which the sun's rays did not fall at some hour of his long daily circuit.

27th.—The manner of our journey to-day may be compared to the evolutions of an expert skater; for, except at the immediate margin, the ice lay fixed and immoveable in the almost innumerable little rocky bays, creeks, and coves which indent this part of the coast. In one place we had to carry boats and cargoes over a solid floe, that still reclined high and dry upon the rocks. The islands lying off the coast reposed amidst the glittering field as if they were gigantic stones set in enamel.

We advanced next day for three or four hours in the same tedious and laborious manner, till the ice, now for the first time btoken up and set in motion by a strong north-east wind, drove us ashore. During these last few days the boats sustained serious damage, and were now become leaky. Indeed, in our anxiety to get on, we subjected them to very rough usage. Often, when the ice was not quite firm enough to make portages with safety, we hauled the boats upon it; and, holding on by the gunwales, all hands continued jumping and pressing down till it began to yield; and, the boats sinking into the water, we scrambled on board, and by main force pushed aside the pieces thus separated. At other times, one party was stationed upon the rocks, with ironshod poles, to shove against the ice; another upon the ice, to shove against the rocks; and, when an opening the breadth of the boats could be thus formed, the remaining hands passed them through, one at a time: those with the poles holding on with all their might, lest the ice should close, like a pair of nut-crackers, and deprive us of the means of either advancing or retreating. On this part of the coast many reindeer paths were found, leading from the interior to the sea; from which circumstance, and from our seeing, up to this time, males only, I infer that the females pass by these roads early in the season, and, crossing the ice, bring forth their young upon the islands, where they are more secure than on the continent.

The wind having fallen on the 29th, and left a practicable channel, we at last doubled the rugged and rocky Cape Barrow. On the top of rocks, upwards of a hundred feet aboye the sea, clam-shells were found, and some small specimens of that round prickly sort of shell called the "sea urchin," which must have been carried by birds to such an elevation. These, with cockles, muscles, periwinkles, and seaweed, abounded here, and in many other places on the beach. I am therefore astonished that Franklin's party should have seen shells in one spot only—the day they left the Coppermine River. The ice on Coronation Gulph being still perfectly solid, we were compelled to coast along the southward, till we should find a passage across Bathurst Inlet. We shot a deer and a pair of swans; and between 9 and 10 P.M. encamped at the entrance of Moore Bay, where the snow dissolving on the rocks furnished us with pure water, and the contiguous shores with some drift timber.

New ice of considerable thickness formed during the night, and cost us some trouble to break it next morning. The old ice for its part led us the complete circuit of Moore Bay. There was a thick fog at the time, which cleared off as the day advanced, and revealed to view shores still rocky, but enlivened by verdant valleys and declivities, which on a near approach seemed carpeted with flowers—ephemeral glories strangely contrasted with the cold and savage scene of their birth! We made our way out of the labyrinth of islands which here environ the coast, through a strait thirty or forty yards wide. A breeze springing up from the north-east, we sailed across Arctic Sound, and at 8 P.M. encamped on Woolaston Point, close to the margin of the ice. Two fine deer were shot by our Indians during the night.

Very early on the 31st I observed, from the summit of the rocks, the gradual formation of a narrow lane of water, stretching across towards Barry Islands. We immediately embarked, and effected the traverse in two hours; but found our farther progress arrested by the main body of ice, which covered the inlet. Next day a gale from the north-east broke up a large section of this unwelcome covering, and brought it down with crushing force upon our island.

On the 2nd of August we extricated ourselves from the ice, and, the northerly winds continuing, we sailed round the south side of the island, which is about six miles long and two wide. Then, crossing a broad channel leading to the southward, we landed on the next island of the same group, which appeared of great extent. From the top of its lofty trap cliffs I discovered a narrow part with water on the northern side. It proved a high rocky isthmus, a quarter of a mile broad, across which we carried the boats and cargoes. After rowing about half a league, we had to break our way through a stream of ice; and, a few furlongs farther, came again to the edge of the main body of the ice, where we encamped at 9 P. M., having by our toilsome and circuitous route advanced only eight miles of direct distance.

Our detention the following day was amply compensated by my fortunate discovery of several pieces of pure copper ore. They were lying amongst the debris at the foot of a crumbling rock, which had evidently fallen from the trap hills above. The cliffs were everywhere stained with verdigris, indicating the presence of the metal, which undoubtedly abounds in these islands. Coloured quartz crystals and vesicles were frequent, and I preserved specimens of the leading rocks, both here and all along the coast. Barry Islands contain several fine deep harbours, completely land-locked and sheltered from every wind. Should these seas ever be navigated by ships, this would form a good half-way wintering station between Barrow's and Behring's Straits; and the mines might be wrought from May to August, before the ice would admit of prosecuting the voyage. The tides and currents in the inlet are exceedingly irregular, depending on the winds and ice; but on no occasion did I notice a change of more than one foot in the water level. Deer were numerous, including for the first time does with their fawns, now well grown. Sinclair shot two fat bucks; and, on his return, was followed by a barren-ground bear with her two cubs, attracted by the smell of the meat he was carrying. On his throwing down his burden, they scampered off, before he could get his gun ready. The young ptarmigan were strong on the wing; and herds of seals lay basking on the ice near this island. Stone traps, old paddles, and other vestiges indicated the occasional abode of Esquimaux, who use turf as well as wood for fuel. A small lake not far from our encampment was still frozen.

4th.—The ice continuing immoveable on the northern side of the island, and some open water having been seen from the hills in the channel separating it from the eastern mainland, we this morning went south about the island, whidi occupied eight hours' incessant rowing. Then crossing the strait, which is three miles wide, we landed to breafast at Point Everitt. The ice obstructed our passage round this cape, after which we had a clear channel to Fisher's Islands, where we encamped at 9 P. M., having come thirty-five miles. The last of Barry Islands affords a fine illustration of the secondary resting upon the primitive rocks. The horizontal line of stratification appeared as accurately drawn as in a work of art. At the precipice from whose face I took away specimens, there were about twenty feet of the base rock above the sea, with eighty feet of trap cliff superimposed. Others doubled these dimensions. Point Everitt, and the whole range of the mainland to Melville Sound, are formed of bare rounded granitic hills of inferior altitude, while all the adjacent islands present a mixed geological character.

Our progress on the 5th was not much impeded till we reached Cape Croker, where the ice was squeezed upon the shore, and obliged us to make a portage. We had a view of Melville Sound quite covered with ice, but an almost clear channel luckily stretched across its entrance to a low island, four or five miles distant; the northern side of which being shut up, we encamped at 8 P. M. A pair of brown cranes stalked about—the undisputed lords of the isle before our arrival. Many large brown ducks flew past, and "cacawees" were moulting along the shore in great numbers. A very strong current, amounting to a rapid, ran between the south end of this island and an islet lying off it; a similar appearance was afterwards noticed near Cape Flinders.

A narrow channel having opened, we re-embarked at 4 o'clock the following morning. After advancing for two or three hours, we were again stopped by the ice, but endeavoured to force our way through it, encouraged by the appearance of some water ahead. Thrice we repeated the attempt, and as often found ourselves hemmed in, and compelled to carry both boats and cargoes to the shore, to save them from being crushed. On the summit of a cliff, one hundred and fifty feet high, I found two pieces of wood, almost rotten. They must have been left there many years ago by the natives, who seem fond of encamping on elevated spots. The ice-covered gulph, with its innumerable dark rugged islands, the clouds gloomily gathering over the crescent-shaped mainland, and long files of waterfowl passing aloft to the southward, warned by instinct of some coming change, while around flew several large hawks, screaming wildly at the danger that threatened their young brood from the intrusion of man,—these were the objects that met my view from the heights; and the stern prospect was little calculated to cheer our spirits, or to buoy up our hopes. At the same period in 1821, according to Franklin's journal, the ice was either dissolved or entirely dispersed. The weather for the ten preceding days had been very mild, and the temperature singularly equable; the extremes (judging by our feelings) being 40° and 50°. The temperature of the sea, however, continued so low, that new or "bay" ice formed every calm night in the open spots, and cut our boats even more than the old. And I would here remark that the bows of all boats intended for such service should be partially sheathed with copper.

On the 7th the tide and heavy rain opened a channel a gunshot wide, where all our efforts had proved unavailing. We made a farther progress of three hours, when we were again arrested in the usual way. It will be tedious and dispiriting to us, to see day after day and week after week pass in a constant and ineffectual struggle with the same cold obdurate foe.

I saw three or four deer on a narrow point, some distance from our encampment; but, on my cutting them off from the land, they took to the ice, and soon galloped out of reach. The moon was visible to-night, but it was a passing glimpse, and she soon vanished amidst fog and storm. The following day was marked by nothing but fog and rain, with a gale from the north-west.

On the 9th the ice in Walker and Riley bays at length broke up, and we crossed them under sail, with a fresh breeze from the northward. The water for the first time tasted truly salt. We landed at Cape Flinders to breakfast, where a lump of galena was found among the rocks. A piece of wood was also picked up, fashioned like a small fish; an invention probably used by the Esquimaux to lure trout and other fish to holes cut in the ice, where they stand ready to spear them. Immediately on doubling the cape, the ice once more put a stop to our progress. To reach this point, which in a direct line is hardly forty miles from Cape Barrow, we had performed a circuit of one hundred and forty. We should not, however, have regretted this labour, had it not been attended by so great a sacrifice of time, without any melioration of our prospects. The tents were pitched on a beach of sharp stones, the size of a man's fist, and larger, which our men humorously styled "north-west feathers." The poor fellows' stock of tobacco was by this time entirely consumed, and it was amusing to witness the shifts and substitutes they employed. Swamp-tea, pepper, salt, cotton rags, and even oakum, were used to replenish their empty pipes. People voluntarily subject themselves to a species of slavery in acquiring such useless and disagreeable habits. Of all the individuals composing the expedition I was the only non-smoker; and, throughout the fur countries generally, the exceptions scarcely amount to one in a hundred. The tediousness of time, and the absence of the amusements and recreations common in other parts of the world, sufficiently account for the universal prevalence of a custom so general, even where no such palliation exists.

From the 9th to the 19th of August—a long and fatal delay—we experienced an almost uninterrupted succession of violent gales from the north and west, beating directly upon the shore, accompanied by severe frost, with frequent falls of rain and snow. We remained miserable prisoners in the same ill-omened spot, scarcely able to collect, from a couple of miles on either side, drift wood enough to cook our two daily meals of pemican. Reindeer had become scarce; but ducks and geese passed in large flights to the southward. The main body of ice before us, which seemed commensurate with the ocean, remained unmoved, resting upon the very sand; while the enormous mass that the gales had broken up in the gulph, closed in behind us with a crashing noise, often mistaken for thunder. Not an acre of water was visible from the heights in any direction, except the little cove in which we lay. Even that poor corner was frequently frozen over of a morning; and, to all appearance, it would now prove nearly as difficult to retreat as to advance. The ice, different from what we had lately seen, was covered with snow, brilliantly white; and we could have little doubt that it was destined soon to unite with the new formation of the approaching winter. Had these gales occurred during the calms of July, our voyage would, in all probability, have by this time approached a successful termination. Speaking of a calm season. Sir John Ross observes, that it is "the most unfavourable weather for navigating these seas, since it is only through the force of the winds that the ice can be opened and dispersed, as navigators are indebted to the northerly gales of summer for whatever progress they can make." Our short summer was now at an end; we all wore our winter clothing; and the truth of the remark just quoted was evident on comparing the inclement and boisterous summer of 1837, and the success that then crowned our efforts in a higher latitude, with our present helpless position. That our exertions had even exceeded those of the previous year, the planks of the boats, torn and jagged by the ice, bore alarming proof. It would be difficult to depict our sorrow and disappointment at being thus arrested at the very threshold of our enterprise. Often did we walk along the coast, and climb the hills; but the prospect was still the same. At 1 in the morning of the 16th I first saw the stars; had the sky been clear, they would have been visible several days earlier.

On the 19th the sun set at 8 hrs. 30 min. mean time. The period appointed for the return of former expeditions was now arrived. Franklin's farthest encampment in 1821 was about three miles to the northward of us; but on the 16th of August, in that year, he found here a perfectly open sea. The extreme length and severity of the last winter must have had some share in producing so great a difference.

I may here mention that what appeared the natural run of the tides rarely exceeded one foot; but that, impelled by the westerly gales, the water rose twenty-one inches, and fell off again as soon as the wind shifted to the north. ever there appeared the least regularity, I inserted the results in the annexed table. The flood came from the westward. We certainly found but one diurnal tide to the eastward of the Coppermine River—similar to what has been observed on the shores of Australia. Boathaven—the appellation conferred on our encampment—is situated in lat. 68° 16′ 25″ N., long, (by capital lunars) 109° 20′ 45″ W.; variation 46° E.

That this voyage might not prove wholly fruitless, I proposed to conduct a party of seven men on foot, for ten days, along the coast to the eastward. Should the winds after my departure unexpectedly blow off the land, Mr. Dease agreed to follow with one boat and the remaining five men, leaving the other boat, with the bulk of the provisions, in security at our present encampment. No better plan could be devised for achieving at least a portion of the discoveries which we had fondly hoped to complete, without relinquishing the chance of pushing them as far as Ross's Pillar, if the winds happily changed, and drove the ice off the shore. My proposition was, therefore, joyfully received by all, and the crews again volunteered with one accord to accompany me. I chose those who had not been with me at Point Barrow in 1837; and the necessary preparations were made for setting out next day—the 20th of August. Signals were likewise arranged to prevent our missing each other on the way; and, should we unfortunately do so, the last day of August was fixed for the rendezvous of both detachments at Boathaven.