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A Book of Discovery by  M. B. Synge


 

 

THE FROZEN NORTH

[372] MEANWHILE Franklin and Parry started on another expedition in the same month and year. While Parry's orders were to proceed from east to west, Franklin was to go from west to east, with a chance—if remote—that they might meet. He was to go by Hudson's Bay to the mouth of the Copper Mine River and then make his way by sea eastward along the coast. Franklin had made himself a name by work done in the Spitzbergen waters; he was to succeed in the end where others had failed in finding the North-West Passage. The party selected for this work consisted of Captain Franklin, Dr. Richardson, a naval surgeon, two midshipmen, Back and Hood, one of whom was afterwards knighted, and an English sailor named John Hepburn.

Just a fortnight after Parry's start these five English explorers sailed on board a ship belonging to the Hudson Bay Company, but it was the end of August before they arrived at the headquarters of the Company. They were cordially received by the Governor, and provided with a large boat well stored with food and arms. Amid a salute of many guns and much cheering the little party, with some Canadian rowers, started off for Cumberland House, one of the forts belonging to the Hudson Bay Company. Six weeks' hard travelling by rivers and lakes, now dragging the boats round rapids, now sleeping in "buffalo-robes" on the hard ground, brought the party to the [373] first stage of their journey. Snow was now beginning to fall, and ice was thick on the river, when Franklin resolved to push on to Lake Athabasca that he might have more time to prepare for the coming voyage in the summer. Leaving Richardson and Hood at the fort, he started off with Back and the faithful Hepburn on 18th January 1820, in the very heart of the Arctic winter. Friends at the fort had provided him with Indian snow-shoes turned up at the toes like the prow of a boat—with dog sledges, furs, leather trousers, drivers, and food for a fortnight. The snow was very deep, and the dogs found great difficulty in dragging their heavy burdens through the snow. But the record was good. A distance of eight hundred and fifty-seven miles was accomplished in sixty-eight days, with the thermometer at fifty degrees below zero. The hardships endured are very briefly recorded: "Provisions becoming scarce; dogs without food, except a little burnt leather; night miserably cold; tea froze in the tin pots before we could drink it."

Lake Athabasca was reached on the 26th of March and preparations for the voyage were pushed forward. Four months later they were joined by Richardson and Hood. "This morning Mr. Back and I had the sincere gratification of welcoming our long-separated friends, Dr. Richardson and Mr. Hood, who arrived in perfect health with two canoes." This is the simple entry in Franklin's journal.

Everything was now ready. Spring in these northern climates was enchanting. "The trees quickly put on their leaves after the long, hard winter months, and the whole vegetable world comes forth with a luxuriance no less astonishing than agreeable." At the same time clouds of mosquitoes and stinging sand-flies made the nights horrible. On 18th July the little party in high glee set forward in canoes rowed by Canadian boatmen, hoping to reach [374] the Copper Mine River before winter set in. But the difficulties of the way were great, provisions were scarce, the boatmen grew discontented, ice appeared early, and Franklin had to satisfy himself with wintering at a point five hundred and fifty miles from Lake Athabasca, which he called Fort Enterprise. Here there was prospect of plenty, for large herds of reindeer were grazing along the shores of the lake, and from their flesh "pemmican" was made; but the winter was long and cheerless, and Franklin soon realised that there was not enough food to last through it. So he dispatched the midshipman Back to Lake Athabasca for help. Back's journey was truly splendid, and we cannot omit his simple summary: "On the 17th of March," he says, "at an early hour we arrived at Fort Enterprise, having travelled about eighteen miles a day. I had the pleasure of meeting my friends all in good health, after an absence of nearly five months, during which time I had travelled one thousand one hundred and four miles on snow-shoes and had no other covering at night than a blanket and deer skin, with the thermometer frequently at forty degrees below zero, and sometimes two or three days without tasting food." By his courage and endurance he saved the whole party at Fort Enterprise. By June the spring was sufficiently advanced to set out for the Copper Mine River, and on July they reached the mouth after a tedious journey of three hundred and thirty-four miles.

The real work of exploration was now to begin, and the party embarked in two canoes to sail along the southern coast of the Polar sea, with the possibility always of meeting the Parry expedition. But the poor Canadian boatmen were terrified at the sight of the sea on which they had never yet sailed, and they were with difficulty persuaded to embark. Indeed, of the two crews, only the five Englishmen had ever been on the sea, and it has been well [375] said that this voyage along the shores of the rock-bound coast of the Arctic sea must always take rank as one of the most daring and hazardous exploits that have ever been accomplished in the interest of geographical research. "The two canoes hugged the icy coast as they made their way eastward, and Franklin named the bays, headlands, and islands for a distance of five hundred and fifty-five miles, where a point he called Cape Turnagain marks his farthest limit east. Here is George IV. Coronation Gulf studded with islands, Hood's River, Back's River, Bathurst's Inlet, named after the Secretary of State, and Parry Bay after "my friend, Captain Parry, now employed in the interesting research for a North-West Passage."


[Illustration]

A WINTER VIEW OF FORT ENTERPRISE.

The short season for exploration was now over; rough weather and want of food turned them home, only half satisfied with their work. The worst part of their journey was yet to come. Perhaps never, even in the tragic history of Arctic exploration, had greater hardships been endured [376] than Franklin and his handful of men were to endure on their homeward way. On 22nd August the party left Point Turnagain, hoping by means of their newly discovered Hood River to reach Fort Enterprise. The ground was already covered with snow, and their food was reduced to one meal a day when they left the shores of the Arctic sea for their long inland tramp. Needless to say, the journey had to be performed on foot, and the way was stony and barren. For the first few days nothing was to be found save lichen to eat, and the temperature was far below freezing-point. An uncooked cow after six days of lichen "infused spirit into our starving party," relates Franklin. But things grew no better, and as they proceeded sadly on their way, starvation stared them in the face. One day we hear of the pangs of hunger being stilled by "pieces of singed hide mixed with lichen"; another time the horns and bones of a dead deer were fried with some old shoes and the "putrid carcase of a deer that had died the previous spring was demolished by the starving men."

At last things grew so bad that Franklin and the most vigorous of his party pushed on to Fort Enterprise to get and send back food if possible to Richardson and Hood, who were now almost too weak and ill to get along at all. Bitter disappointment awaited them.

"At length," says Franklin, "we reached Fort Enterprise, and to our infinite disappointment and grief found it a perfectly desolate habitation. There were no provisions—no Indians. It would be impossible for me to describe our sensations after entering this miserable abode and discovering how we had been neglected; the whole party shed tears, not so much for our own fate as for that of our friends in the rear, whose lives depended entirely on our sending immediate relief from this place." A few old bones and skins of reindeer were collected for supper [377] and the worn-out explorers sat round a fire made by pulling up the flooring of the rooms. It is hardly a matter of surprise to find the following entry in Franklin's journal: "When I arose the following morning my body and limbs were so swollen that I was unable to walk more than a few yards."


[Illustration]

FRANKLIN'S EXPEDITION TO THE POLAR SEA ON THE ICE.

Before November arrived another tragedy happened. Hood was murdered by one of the party almost mad with hunger and misery. One after another now dropped down and died, and death seemed to be claiming Franklin, Richardson, Back, and Hepburn when three Indians made their appearance with some dried deer and a few tongues. It was not a moment too soon. The Indians soon got game and fish for the starving men, until they were sufficiently restored to leave Fort Enterprise and make their way to Moose Deer Island, where, with the Hudson Bay officers, they spent the winter recovering their health and strength and spirits.

[378] When they returned to England in the summer of 1822 they had accomplished five thousand five hundred and fifty miles. They had also endured hardships unsurpassed in the history of exploration. When Parry returned to England the following summer and heard of Franklin's sufferings he cried like a child. He must have realised better than any one else what those sufferings really were, though he himself had fared better.

While Franklin had been making his way to the Copper Mine River, Parry on board the Fury, accompanied by the Hecla, started for Hudson's Strait, by which he was to penetrate to the Pacific, if possible. Owing to bad weather, the expedition did not arrive amid the icebergs till the middle of June. Towering two hundred feet high, the explorers counted fifty-four at one time before they arrived at Resolution Island at the mouth of Hudson Strait. There were already plenty of well-known landmarks in the region of Hudson's Bay, and Parry soon made his way to Southampton Island and Frozen Strait (over which an angry discussion had taken place some hundred years before). He was rewarded by discovering "a magnificent bay," to which he gave the name of the "Duke of York's Bay." The discovery, however, was one of little importance as there was no passage. The winter was fast advancing, the navigable season was nearly over, and the explorers seemed to be only at the beginning of their work. The voyage had been dangerous, harassing, unproductive.

They had advanced towards the Behring Strait; they had discovered two hundred leagues of North American coast, and they now prepared to spend the winter in these icebound regions. As usual Parry arranged both for the health and amusement of his men during the long Arctic months—even producing a "joint of English roast beef" for Christmas dinner, preserved "by rubbing the [379] outside with salt and hanging it on deck covered with canvas." There were also Eskimos in the neighbourhood, who proved a never-ceasing source of interest.


[Illustration]

AN ESKIMO WATCHING A SEAL HOLE.

One day in April—snow had been falling all night, news spread that the Eskimos "had killed something on the ice." "If the women," says Parry, "were cheerful before, they were now absolutely frantic. A general shout of joy re-echoed through the village; they ran into each others' huts to communicate the welcome intelligence, and actually hugged one another in an ecstasy of delight. When the first burst of joy had at last subsided the women crept one by one into the apartment where the sea-horses had been conveyed. Here they obtained blubber enough to set all their lamps alight, besides a few scraps of meat for their children and themselves. Fresh cargoes were continually arriving, the principal part being brought in by the dogs and the rest by the men, who tied a thong round their waist and dragged in a portion. Every lamp was now swimming with oil, the huts exhibited a blaze [380] of light, and never was there a scene of more joyous festivity than while the cutting up of the walruses continued." For three solid hours the Eskimos appeared to be eating walrus flesh. "Indeed, the quantity they continued to get rid of is almost beyond belief."

It was not till early in July that the ship could be moved out of their winter's dock to renew their efforts towards a passage. They were not a little helped by Eskimo charts, but old ice blocked the way, and it was the middle of August before Parry discovered the Strait he called after his two ships, "the Strait of the Fury and Hecla," between Melville Peninsula and Cockburn Island. Confident that the narrow channel led to the Polar seas, Parry pushed on till "our progress was once more opposed by a barrier of the same impenetrable and hopeless ice as before." He organised land expeditions, and reports, "The opening of the Strait into the Polar sea was now so decided that I considered the principal object of my journey accomplished."

September had come, and once more the ships were established in their winter quarters. A second month in among the ice must have been a severe trial to this little band of English explorers, but cheerfully enough they built a wall of snow twelve feet high round the Fury  to keep out snowdrifts. The season was long and severe, and it was August before they could get free of ice. The prospect of a third winter in the ice could not be safely faced, and Parry resolved to get home. October found them at the Shetlands, all the bells of Lerwick being set ringing and the town illuminated with joy at the arrival of men who had been away from all civilisation for twenty-seven months. On 14th November 1828 the expedition arrived home in England.

Still the restless explorer was longing to be off again; he was still fascinated by the mysteries of the Arctic [381] regions, but on his third voyage we need not follow him, for the results were of no great importance. The Fury  was wrecked amid the ice in Prince Regent's Inlet, and the whole party had to return on board the Hecla  in 1825.


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