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The Writings of John Muir
Volume 7 - Chapter XII. Zigzags among the Polar Pack


July 21. Rainy this forenoon, clear at night. Wind blowing hard from the southeast and raising a heavy swell. Reached Icy Cape about noon and found to our disappointment that, notwithstanding the openness of the season, further advance northeastward was barred by the ice. After the sky began to clear somewhat, and the rain to cease falling, we observed an ice-blink stretching all around the northern horizon for several hours before we sighted the ice, a peculiar brown and yellow band within a few degrees of the horizon. There was a dark belt beneath it, which indicated water beyond the ice.

We then turned westward, tracing the loose drift edge of the pack until eight in the evening, when we turned to the east again, intending to await the further movements of the ice for a few days, and especially a change of wind to blow it offshore. There is a coal-vein between here and Cape Lisburne which we will visit and mine as much coal as possible, in case the weather permits. But as there is no shelter thereabouts, we may not be able to obtain any and in that case will be compelled to go to Plover Bay for our next supply.

About fifteen miles southwest of Icy Cape there is quite a large settlement of Eskimos on the low, sandy, storm-swept shore. Cool and breezy must be their lives, and they can have but little inducement to look up, or time to spend in contemplation. Theirs is one constant struggle for food, interrupted by sleep and by a few common quarrels. In winter they hibernate in noisome underground dens. In summer they come out to take breath in small conical tents, made of white drill, when they can get it. They waved a piece of cloth on the end of a pole as we passed, inviting us to stop and trade with them. From Cape Lisburne up the coast to Point Barrow there is usually a two-knot current, but the wind and the ice have completely stopped the flow at present. The sun is above the horizon at midnight..

July 22. A dull, leaden day; dark fog and rain until about four in the afternoon; rained but a small fraction of an inch. About noon we once more sighted the ice-pack. The heavy swell of the sea is rapidly subsiding and the wind is veering to the northeast. We hope it will move the ice offshore and allow us to round Point Barrow. The pack is close and impenetrable, though made up of far smaller blocks than usual, owing, no doubt, to the mildness of last winter, and to the chafing and pounding of a succession of gales that have been driving over it at intervals all the spring. We pushed into it through the loose outer fringe, but soon turned back when we found that it stretched all around from the shore. By retreating we avoided the danger of getting fixed in it and carried away. Nearly all the vessels that have been lost in the Arctic have been caught hereabouts.

The approach to the ice was signalized by the appearance of walruses, seals, and ducks. The walrus is very abundant here, and when whales are scarce the whalers hunt and kill great numbers of them for their ivory and oil. They are found on cakes of ice in hundreds, and if a party of riflemen can get near, by creeping up behind some hummock, and kill the one on guard, the rest seem to be heedless of noise after the first shot, and wait until nearly all are killed. But if the first be only wounded, and plunges into the water, the whole "pod" is likely to follow. Came to anchor at half-past ten this evening, a little to the south of Icy Cape.

July 23. Clear and calm. Weighed anchor at eight in the morning and ran close inshore, anchored, and landed with instruments to make exact measurements for latitude and longitude, and to observe the dip. I also went ashore to see the vegetation, and Nelson to seek birds and look for Eskimo specimens. Found only four plants in bloom - saxifrage, willow, artemisia, and draba. This is the bleakest and barest spot of all. Well named Icy Cape. A low bar of sand and shingle shoved up by the ice that is crowded against the shore every year. Inside this bar, which is only a hundred yards wide, there is a stretch of water several miles wide; then, low gravelly coast. Sedges and grasses, dwarfed and frost-bitten, constitute the bulk of the flora.

We noticed traces of Eskimo encampments. There was blubber in abundance from a dead whale that had been cast up on the shore. They had plenty of food when they left. But before this they must have been hungry, for we found remains of dogs that they had been eating; also, white foxes' bones, picked clean. Found a dead walrus on the beach beyond the wreck of the whale.

At one in the afternoon we weighed anchor and turned north, crossing inside of Blossom Shoals, which are successive ridges pushed up by the ice, and extending ten or twelve miles offshore. In a few hours we reached the limit of open water. The ice extended out from the shore, leaving no way. Turned again to the south. Sighted the bark Northern Light [A whaler.] and made up to her. She showed grandly with her white canvas on the dark water, now nearly calm. Ice just ahead as we accompanied her northward while the Captain visited her. The sun is low in the northwest at nine o'clock. A lovely evening, bracing, cool, with a light breeze blowing over the polar pack. The ice is marvelously distorted and miraged; thousands of blocks seem suspended in the air; some even poised on slender black poles and pinnacles; a bridge of ice with innumerable piers, the ice and water wavering with quick, glancing motion. At midnight the sun is still above the horizon about two diameters; purple to west and east, gradually fading to dark slate color in the south with a few banks of cloud. A bar of gold in the path of the sun lay on the water and across the pack, the large blocks in the line [of vision] burning like huge coals of fire.

A little schooner [The R. B. Handy, Captain Winants.] has a boat out in the edge of the pack killing walruses, while she is lying a little to east of the sun. A puff of smoke now and then, a dull report, and a huge animal rears and falls - another, and another, as they lie on the ice without showing any alarm, waiting to be killed, like cattle lying in a barnyard! Nearer, we hear the roar, lion-like, mixed with hoarse grunts, from hundreds like black bundles on the white ice. A small red flag is planted near the pile of slain. Then the three men puff off to their schooner, as it is now midnight and time for the other watch to go to work.

These magnificent animals are killed oftentimes for their tusks alone, like buffaloes for their tongues, ostriches for their feathers, or for mere sport and exercise. In nothing does man, with his grand notions of heaven and charity, show forth his innate, low-bred, wild animalism more clearly than in his treatment of his brother beasts. From the shepherd with his lambs to the red-handed hunter, it is the same; no recognition of rights - only murder in one form or another.

July 24. A lovely morning, sunful, calm, clear; a broad swath of silver spangles in the path of the sun; ice-blink to the north; a pale sky to the east and around to the south and west; blue above, not deep blue; several ships in sight. Sabbath bells are all that is required to make a Sabbath of the day.

Ran inshore opposite the Eskimo village; about a hundred came off. Good-natured as usual. A few biscuits and a little coaxing from the sailors made them sing and dance. The Eskimo women laughed as heartily at the curious and extravagant gestures of the men as any of the sailors did. They were anxious to know what was the real object of the Corwin's cruise, and when the steam whaler Belvedere hove in sight they inquired whether she had big guns and was the same kind of ship. Our interpreter explained as well as he could.

In the afternoon we had the Sea Breeze, the Sappho, the Northern Light, and the schooner about us. The steam whaler had only six whales. He had struck ten, taken four, and found two dead. Last year he took twenty- seven. The whales were in windrows then; at one time twenty-five were so near that no gaps between them were so wide but that a man could strike on either side. They were more abundant last year on the American coast; this year, on the Asiatic. They are always more abundant in spring and fall than during the summer.

Had a graphic account, from Captain Owen, of the loss of the thirty-three ships of the whaling fleet near Point Barrow in 1874. Caution inculcated by such experiences. Anchored this evening near the Belvedere and four other vessels. The schooner people complain that this is a bad year for "wairusing"; ice too thin; after killing a few the hot blood so weakens the ice that in their struggles they break it and then fall in and sink.

July 25. Steamed northward again, intending, after reaching the ice, to make an effort to go to Point Barrow with the steam launch, and the lifeboat in tow, to seek the Daniel Webster, and offer aid if necessary. [This whaler is] now shut in about Point Belcher. We found, however, that the ice was shoved close inshore south of Icy Cape, and extended in a dense pack from there to the southwest, leaving no boat channel even. This plan was therefore abandoned with great reluctance, and we again moved southward, intending to coal, if the weather allowed, near Cape Lisburne. Calm, lovely night; slight breeze; going slowly under sail alone.

July 26. Lovely day; gentle breeze. Eight vessels in sight this morning. The Belvedere got under sail and is proceeding southward with us. Mirages in wonderful variety; ships pulled up and to either side, out of all recognition; the coast, with snow-patches as gaps, pulled up and stratified; the snow looking like arched openings in a dark bridge above the waters. About nine-thirty we noticed a rare effect just beneath the sun -a faint, black, indefinite, cloudlike bar extended along the horizon, and immediately beyond this dark bar there was a strip of bright, keenly defined colors like a showy spectrum, containing nearly all the colors of the rainbow.

July 27. A lovely day, bright and calm and warm. Coaling ship from a vein in a sandstone cliff twenty miles northeast of Cape Lisburne. In company with the Belvedere. Seeking fossils. Discovered only two species of plants. Coal abundant. Mined, took out, and brought on board fifteen tons to-day. The Belvedere also is coaling and taking on water. Three Eskimo canoes came from the south this evening and camped at the stream which flows into the sea on the north side of the coal bluff. The dogs followed the canoes alongshore. After camping they came alongside, but not before their repeated signs of peace, consisting of throwing up hands and shouting "Tima," were answered by the officer of the deck. This custom seems to be dying out, also that of embracing and nose-rubbing.

July 28. Lovely, tranquil day, all sunshine. Taking coal until half-past four in the afternoon. Then sailed toward Herald Island. I spent the forenoon along the face of the shore cliffs, seeking fossils. Discovered only four, all plants. Went three miles westward. Heavy snowbank, leaning back in the shadow most of the distance, almost changing to ice; very deep and of several years' formation -not less than forty feet in many places. The cliffs or bluffs are from two hundred to nearly four hundred feet high, composed of sandstone, coal, and conglomerate, the latter predominating. Great thickness of sediments; a mile or more visible on upturned edges, which give a furrowed surface by unequal weathering. Some good bituminous coal; burns well. Veins forty feet thick, more or less interrupted by clayey or sandy strata. Fossils not abundant.

While I was scratching the rocks for some light on the history of their formation, eight canoe loads of Eskimos with all their goods, tents, children, etc., passed close along the shore, going toward Icy Cape; all except one were drawn by dogs - from three to five to each canoe - attached by a long string of walrus hide, and driven by a woman, or half-grown girl, or boy. "Ooch, ooch, ooch," they said, while urging them along. They dragged the canoe with perhaps two tons altogether at two and one half miles per hour. When they came to a sheer bluff the dogs swam and the drivers got into the canoe until the beach again admitted of tracking. The canoe that had no dogs was paddled and rowed by both men and women. One woman, pulling an oar on the starboard bow, was naked to the waist. They came from Point Hope, and arrived last evening at a camping-ground on the edge of a stream opposite the Corwin's anchorage. This morning they had eight tents and all the food, canoes, arms, dogs, babies, and rubbish that belong to a village. The encampment looked like a settled village that had grown up by enchantment. Only one was left after ten in the morning, the occupants busying themselves caching blubber of walrus. In the sunshine some of the children enjoyed the luxury of run- fling about naked.

Eleven-thirty; a calm evening. The sun has just set, its disk curiously distorted by refraction and light diminished by vaporous haze, so that it could be looked at, a glorious orb of crimson and gold with a crisp surface.... Horizontal layers of color, piled on each other evenly, made the whole look like cheese of different sizes laid neatly one on top of the other. Sketched the various phases. It set as a flat crimson cake of dull red. No cloud; only haze, dark at the horizon, purple higher, and then yellow.

July 29. Calm, lovely, sunny day. Thermometer standing at 500 F. in the shade; warm in the sun; the water smooth with streaks; ruffled, like an alpine lake; mostly glassy, stirred with irregular breaths of air. Ice visible about noon, near "Post-Office Point." [Said to be a point north of Bering Strait in the Arctic Ocean where, for some reason, the drift of oceanic currents is not strong. Whalers and other vessels customarily went there to exchange mail and news.] Fine-grained, hazy, luminous mist about the horizon. A few gulls and ducks. Sun barely dipped beneath the horizon. Curiously modeled by refraction; bars dividing in sections always horizontal. Ducks flying at midnight.

July 30. Another glassy, calm day, all sunshine from midnight to midnight. Kotzebue's gull, the kittiwake, about the ship; no seals or walrus. Herald Island came in sight about one o'clock. At a distance of eight to ten miles we reached the ice, but made our way through it, as it was mostly light and had openings here and there. But we suffered some hard bumps; pushed slowly and got close alongside, much to the satisfaction of the crew.


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