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The Writings of John Muir
Volume 7 - Chapter XIV. Approaching a Mysterious Land


Steamer Corwin,
Off Point Barrow, August 16, 1881.

WE left Herald Island at three o'clock in the morning of July 31. The clear water seen by me from the top of the island is called "the Hole" by whalers. I am told that it is remarkably constant in its appearance and position from year to year. What combination of currents, coast-lines, winds, etc., is the cause of it is not yet known. Neither is the Post-Office Point of ice understood.

On the day after leaving Herald Island the fine weather we had been enjoying for a week began to vanish, heavy cloud-piles grew about the horizon, and reeking fogs over the ice. We kept on around the serrated edge of the pack, and were glad to find a wide opening trending to the northwest, that is, toward the south most point of Wrangell Land. Up we steamed, excited with bright hopes of effecting a landing and searching the shores for traces of the Jeannette. In the afternoon, while yet our way was tolerably clear, and after the land had been long in sight, we were enveloped in fog, and hove to, instead of attempting to grope a course through the drift ice and running the danger of getting the ship embayed. A few seals, gulls, and walruses were observed.

Next day, August 2, the fog lifted early in the morning, when we got under way and pushed hopefully onward once more, with the mountains and blue foothills of the long-lost land in full view, until noon, making our way easily through the drift ice, dodging to right and left past the large masses, some of which were a mile or more in length. Then the fog began to settle again over all the wild landscape; the barometer was falling, and the wind began to blow with indications of a stiff breeze that would probably press the ice toward the shore. Under these conditions we dared not venture farther, but loath to turn back we made fast to an ice-floe and waited developments. The fog partially cleared again, which induced us to make another short push ahead, but our hopes were again and again baffled by darkness and close-packed ice, and we were at length compelled to seek the open water once more, and await a general calm and clearance.

A piece of wood twenty-seven inches long, cut with a sharp axe, was picked up in the morning within, perhaps, twenty-five miles of Wrangell Land. It was evident, by its length and by the way it was split and cut, that it was intended for firewood. It seemed clearly to be the work of white men, possibly of some of the Jeannette's crew. But the grand excitement of the day, apart from the untrodden shore we were seeking, was caused by three polar bears, magnificent fellows, fat and hearty, rejoicing in their strength out here in the bosom of the icy wilderness.

When discovered they were regarding us attentively from a large cake of ice, each on a hummock commanding a good view of the ship, an object they no doubt saw for the first time in their lives. One of them was perched on top of a pile of blocks, the topmost of which was a pedestal square and level as if built up for an outlook. He sat erect and, as he was nearly the color of the ice, was not noticed until we were quite near. They watched, motionless, for some time, throwing forward their long necks and black-tipped noses as if trying to catch and pass judgment on the scent of the big, smoking, black monster that was approaching them.

When we were within about fifty yards of them, they started, walked a step or two, and turned to gaze again as the strange object came nearer. Then they showed fear and began to lumber along over and across the wave-like rough hills and dales of the ice, afraid, perhaps, for the first time in their lives. For polar bears are the master existences of these frozen regions, the walruses being no match for them. First they broke into a lumbering trot; then, into a panicky, walloppy gallop, with fewer and fewer halts to look back, until they reached the far side of the ice-field and plunged into the water with a splash that sent the spray ten feet into the air. Then they swam, making all haste toward a larger floe. If they could have gained it they would have made good their retreat. But the steamer gave chase at the rate of seven knots an hour, headed them off, and all were shot without the least chance of escape, and without their being able to offer the slightest resistance.

The first one overtaken was killed instantly at the second shot, which passed through the brain. The other two were fired at by five fun-, fur-, and fame-seekers, with heavy breech-loading rifles, about forty times ere they were killed. From four to six bullets passed through their necks and shoulders before the last through the brain put an end to their agony. The brain is small and not easily penetrated, except from the side of the head, while their bodies may be shot through and through a score of times, apparently, without disabling them for fighting or swimming. When a bullet went through the neck, they would simply shake their heads without making any sort of outcry, the effect being simply to hasten their flight.. The same was true of most other wounds. But occasionally, when struck in the spine, or shoulder, the pain would make them roar, and groan, and turn to examine the spot, or to snap at the wound as if seeking an enemy. They would dive occasionally, and swim under water a few yards. But, being out of breath, they were always compelled to come up in a minute or so. They had no chance whatever for their lives, and the whole affair was as safe and easy a butchery as shooting cows in a barnyard from the roof of the barn. It was prolonged, bloody agony, as clumsily and heartlessly inflicted as it could well be, except in the case of the first, which never knew what hurt him.

The Eskimos hunt and kill them for food, going out to meet them on the ice with spears and dogs. This is merely one savage living on another. But how civilized people, seeking for heavens and angels and millenniums, and the reign of universal peace and love, can enjoy this red, brutal amusement, is not so easily accounted for. Such soft, fuzzy, sentimental aspirations, and the frame of mind that can reap giggling, jolly pleasure from the blood and agony and death of these fine animals, with their humanlike groans, are too devilish for anything but hell. Of all the animals man is at once the worst and the best.

Two of the bears were hoisted on board, the other was neglected until it could not be found. Then came the vulgar business of skinning and throwing the mangled carcasses back into the clean blue water among the ice. The skins were stretched on frames to be dried and taken home to show angelic sweethearts the evidence of pluck and daring.

The Indians sometimes adorn their belts with the claws of bears and place their skulls about the graves of the men who killed them. I have seen as many as eighteen set about the skeleton of an Eskimo hunter, making for his bones an oval enclosure like a frame of shells set around a grave. The strength of the polar bear is in proportion to the massiveness of his limbs. The view of their limb muscles, swelling in braided bosses, could not fail to awaken admiration as they lay exposed on the deck. Such is the strength of the large bears, which are nine to ten feet long, that they can stand on the edge of an ice-floe and drag up out of the water a walrus weighing more than a thousand pounds.

The feet of the larger one measured nine and a half inches across behind the toes. They have long hair on the soles and around the sides of the feet for warmth in the dreary solitudes which they inhabit. When standing, the claws are not visible; the whole foot seems to be a large mop of hair spreading all around. The expression of the eye is rather mild and doglike in the shape of the muzzle and the droop of the lips, and only the teeth would suggest his character as a killer.

The third of August was spent in groping anxiously landward again through fog and ice until about six in the evening, when we reached the heavy, unbroken edge of the coast ice, at a distance of about twenty-five miles from the nearest point of land, and all hope of advancing farther was now at an end. We, therefore, turned away, determined to bide our time, hoping that warm winds and waves would at length melt and smash the heavy fields alongshore some time before the setting-in of winter. Nor were we altogether without hope of finding open water leading around the west shore of Wrangell Land. We soon found, however, that the pack stretched continuously across to Cape North on the Siberian coast, thus promptly forbidding all efforts in that direction.

The bottom of the ocean in that region is very level. Soundings made every hour for three days [In an average depth of twenty-one fathoms.] varied scarcely more than five fathoms, and for half a day not one fathom. We saw several small fishes among the ice at our nearest point to lee; also seals, both saddleback and hair. Just as we were turning we discovered a bear observing us from a large field of ice. He kept coming nearer a few steps and then halting to catch the smell of the ship. We did not attempt to kill him, however, as the advantage we had was not great enough. We could not chase him here with the steamer.

On the morning of the fourth we discovered a ship's foreyard with bits of rope still attached to it in such a way as to show that it had been carried away while the sail was bent. It seemed to have been ground in the ice for a winter or two, and probably belonged to one of the missing whalers.

After cruising along the Siberian coast for a few days, and calling at the Cape Wankarem village to procure as many as possible of the articles taken by the natives from the wreck of one of the lost whalers, we found ourselves once more on the edge of Wrangell ice, and again in dense fog on the morning of the ninth of August. A huge white bear came swimming through the drizzle and gloom and black heaving waves toward the ship as we lay at anchor, guided doubtless by scent. He was greeted by a volley of rifle balls, no one of which injured him, however, and fortunately be could not be pursued.

The fog lasted in dismal thickness until one o'clock on the morning of the eleventh, when we once more saw the hills and dales of Wrangell Land hopefully near. We discovered a lead that enabled us to approach within perhaps fifteen miles of the nearest portion of the coast. At times we thought ourselves much nearer, when the light, falling favorably, would bring out many of the smaller features, such as the subordinate ridges on the faces of the mountains and hills, the small dimpling hollows with their different shades of color, furrows that seemed the channels of small streams, and the peculiar rounded outlines due to glacial action. Then pushing eagerly through the huge drifting masses toward the nearest cape, judging by the distinctness of its features, it would suddenly seem to retreat again into the blue distance, and some other point catching the sunlight would be seen rising grandly across the jagged, hummocky ice- plain, relieved against the blue shadowy portions to right and left as a background.

It was not long, however, after tracing one lead after another, and coming always to a standstill with the ship's prow against ice of enormous thickness, before we were forced to the conclusion that all efforts made hereabouts would now be vain. The ice did not seem to have been broken or moved in any way for years. We turned, therefore, and made our way back to open water with difficulty and steamed along the edge of the pack to the northeastward. After a few hours' run we found the ice more promising, for it showed traces of having been well crushed and pounded, enabling us to bear gradually in toward the land through a wedge-shaped lead about twenty miles in length.

At half-past five in the afternoon we were again brought to a standstill against heavy ice, but this time within about five miles of the shore. We now felt pretty sure that we would be able to make a landing, and the questions that we wanted to put to this land of mystery came thronging to mind. This being, perhaps, the most likely place to find traces of the Jeannette expedition, in case any portion of this island was reached, would we find such traces? Has the country any human inhabitants? Would we find reindeer or musk oxen? What birds shall we find? What plants, rocks, streams, etc.?

We intended to walk the five miles of ice, dragging a light skin-covered boat with us to cross any open spot that we might come to; but ere we could set off, the fog began to settle gloomily down over the land and we determined to wait until the next morning, and in the meantime steam back out of the narrow, ice-jammed throat of the lead a few miles to a safer position, in case the ice should close upon us. Just as we turned from our nearest point of approach, we fired a cannon to stir the echoes among the hills and give notice of our presence in case anybody was near to listen.

The next morning, steaming ahead once more to the end of our water-lane, we were rejoiced to find that though there were now about eight or ten miles of ice separating us from the shore, it was less firmly packed, and our little vessel made a way through it without difficulty, until we were within two miles of the shore, when we found the craggy blocks extremely hard and wedged closely. But a patch of open water near the beach, now plainly in sight, tempted us to continue the struggle, and with the throttle wide open the barrier was forced. By ten o'clock in the morning the Corwin was riding at anchor less than a cable's length from a dry, gravel bar, stretching in front of the mouth of a river. The long battle we had fought with the ice was now fairly won, and neither the engine nor the hull of the ship seemed to have suffered any appreciable damage from the terrible shocks and strains they had undergone.


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