Here to return to
WINTER LIFE AND INNUIT FRIENDS
THAT night as they lay sheltered from cold and from sound, snug in their snow igloo, the four boats of the Bowhead battled past them on their way down the coast, leaving no trace behind in the shifting ice and mush of the narrowing waterway; the difference of a few hours in time, of a few furlongs in distance, was so little, yet it meant so much! With the passing of those four boats civilization shut her door upon the two boys, and was to open it no more for a year and a half.
Yet they knew nothing of this, and slept serene in the hope of soon rejoining their comrades. They woke to find the sun already up, and the Eskimo gone. His tracks lay through the snow inland. While they wondered if he had abandoned them he reappeared, bearing a scant handful of willow brush which he had dug out of the snow in the valley beyond. With this they managed to roast some strips of seal meat and make a satisfactory breakfast. The wind had ceased, the air was keen but bracing, and they did not mind the cold, which, after all, was not great. The first warning of the terrible winter was on them, but it was not yet severe. Their young blood leaped in the keen air, and they felt a relief from danger that made them fairly frolicsome. The ship could not be far away, they were sure, and they would find it and all would be well.
“There is one comfort about this way of living,” said Harry philosophically; “you don’t have any dishes to clean up.”
“No,” replied Joe; “nor much to put in them, either.”
Then both boys noted the Eskimo’s manner. He stood looking toward the north with a strange intensity. Over in that direction the snowy fields of the pack ice stretched away to the limitless haze of the horizon. In the distance these ice-fields seemed to quiver as the air quivers in summer when the heat is intense. They trembled and wavered, and changed from ice-fields to open sea that shone fair under the morning sun. This sea was calm and free from ice, and seemed to move eastward, melting the ice and snow before it as it went. They turned to watch this eastward movement, and after a little a headland appeared in it, and both boys gave a cry of delight.
“The ship! the ship!” they cried, and danced and swung their hats and hurrahed. There she was at anchor by the headland, safe and sound as they had left her, and their hearts glowed within them at the thought of home coming.
“There she is!” cried Joe exultantly, “right north by Icy Cape! I remember the headland there. Good Lord! What’s she doing?”
The Bowhead moved out from her anchorage on this quivering open sea with never a sail set, and no smoke from her engines, and lifting up and up seemed to climb the horizon to the northeast and disappear, a speck in the high heavens; and as she did so the shimmering waters vanished, leaving only the rough, snow-clad ice-fields, bleak and impenetrable.
Joe and Harry looked at each other. It was mirage, they knew that, yet there had been the headland, and the ship, her every spar and rope familiar to them. It was magic; that was what the Eskimo said, but he was quite confident that it was bad magic, and that this was to show them that ship and crew were lost, — had sailed far away to the unknown, never to return. He would go to Icy Cape with them if they wished, but they would find only winter ghosts there.
Nevertheless it was their only clue, and they decided to go. With their friends camped only a few short miles to the southwest, they headed in the opposite direction and began struggling through the mush ice, across floes, making a toilsome but sure progress to the northeast. At noon they camped on a floe, ate seal meat, and, after a brief rest, toiled on. At night they camped as before. Thus for two days they steadily worked up the coast. At nightfall of the second the wind came in again from the west, with squalls of snow and a recurrence of severe cold, but the next day they went on still, and by noon were rounding the headland. The air was thick with snow, but in a lull they sighted what seemed to be the ship, and cries of thanksgiving went up from the weary wayfarers.
“The ship! the ship!” they cried once more, confident that this could be no mirage. The Eskimo shook his head.
“Bad magic,” he said; “ghost ship.” But the boys knew better. The Bowhead lay at anchor in mush ice and among floes, ghostly enough in the whirl of flying snow that made the outlines of spar and sail white against the leaden sky, but the ship in very truth, and never so welcome a sight in any man’s eyes. They shouted and hallooed, and listened in vain for any response as they neared her, and their exultant hearts grew cold with fear as they got none. A terrible weird loneliness brooded over her, and it seemed to the exhausted boys as if they struggled to her side through a bad dream.
There was no greeting as they stepped on deck, only the wail of the wind through the icy shrouds. The deck was drifted with snow that held no tracks. The cabin, the forecastle, the galley, all showed signs of hasty leave-taking, and were untenanted. Then, once more in the cabin, the truth came upon them with stunning force. The ship had been abandoned, and they with it were left to face the long loneliness of the coming Arctic night as best they could. Joe sat down with a pathetic slump in his broad shoulders and buried his face in his hands, losing his cheerful courage for the first time; nor did he note for quite a while that Harry was face down on the captain’s berth sobbing with homesickness, loneliness, and utter physical exhaustion. Of the hour that these two spent in the full realization of their misfortune, it were best to say little. Up to that hour they had been boys. In it they passed through the crucible that melts and reshapes souls, and they came out of it men.
His anguish over and once more master of himself, Joe rose, and, stepping to Harry’s side, laid a hand on his shoulder. Then he saw that Harry had found peace in sleep, and knowing how much he needed it, he threw a quilt over his shoulders and left him, going on deck.
The Eskimo had gone, and with him the dingey.
It did not change the look of serenity in Joe’s face. He had met and conquered all fears and apprehensions in the hour that had just passed, and one more misfortune could have no effect on him. He turned to the galley, where he started a fire, and from the cook’s stores took the material for a first-class hot supper. When this was ready, he went and wakened Harry. The two did not say much, but they clasped hands in the dusk of the cabin, and each saw the change toward manhood in the other’s face, — the look of greater sturdiness, greater self-reliance, together with a certain serenity which surely marks the man. Some fortunate men acquire this serenity, self-poise, in the face of fortune, good or ill, early in life; some never acquire it, and they, as well as the world, are the worse off for that.
They slept warm and long that night, had a good hearty, hot breakfast the next morning, and felt fit to face the world. It was a bright morning, with the sun struggling through frost mists, and as they came on deck they found quite a change in the position of the small floes overnight, and some open water near the ship. Out of this open water came a quavering hail.
“Kile, innuit” (Come here, man); “kile, innuit,” cried Joe with delight, and the Eskimo paddled alongside in the dingey. He touched the ship gingerly, but it neither flew away nor burned him. He climbed aboard and looked earnestly at Joe and Harry, who shook his hand cordially. Then his face lighted up with a broad grin.
“Nagouruk,” he said. “No more ghosts. Good magic. White man great ankut” (wizard).
That was all. He thought it great magic that the boys had made the ghost ship real and were living aboard it in safety. Henceforth he did not question his own safety there, but the night before he had feared to go aboard lest it sail off with him into the undiscovered country, as it had in the mirage.
That day the two boys — we will call them boys still, though, remember, they have the hearts of men — took stock of their situation, and found it not so bad after all. The captain and crew were gone southward, probably to safety, but they had left behind the ship, with abundance of provisions and all sorts of supplies, including a good amount of coal. There was really no reason why they should not be warm and comfortable all winter long, and find safety with the returning whalemen the next summer. If they had been short of provisions or without the splendid shelter and the coal that they had, it might have been wise to attempt to work south on the chance of catching a belated whaleship at Point Hope. As it was, the chance was too slender, and it was best to face the winter just where they were.
Thus they planned their life anew, and went leisurely about their preparations. The Eskimo wished to leave them for a time. His family were at the village at Point Lay, and he would see them again. He would come back, perhaps bring his friends with him, and they would build another village ashore, so that he might be near his white brothers. The boys thought well of this. The friendly Eskimos might be of great help to them, and already there was in Joe’s mind a half-formed plan in which they were to be partners. So, loading him down with such provisions as he could best carry, a rifle, and abundant ammunition, to his great delight, they bade him good-by, and he started bravely through the snow alongshore. They had no fear for his safety. He would burrow deep in the drifts at night or in case of severe weather, and reach the village safe and sound.
As if for his encouragement and their own, there followed several days of halcyon weather. It was calm and the sun shone brightly; and though the temperature remained below freezing and the thermometer went below zero at night, the air was so dry that it did not seem nearly as cold as it was. Yet they knew they were soon to face deadly cold, when the mercury would drop to fifty below and fierce gales sweep over them for weeks, and they must prepare for it. The position of the ship they could not change, but it seemed reasonably safe. It was well behind the headland, in shallow water; aground, as they soon discovered. The shore ice would form thick about it, and it could not be touched by the moving pack, which would grind back and forth all winter half a mile to seaward. Their next care was to decide in what part of the ship they could live most comfortably. The galley was large enough; it had the range, on which they could best cook, and there were two bunks in it which the Chinese steward and his assistant had occupied. No one is cleaner than a cleanly Chinaman, and these bunks bore inspection. They might fumigate them and bring up their own bedding and supplies, and it was by all odds the most convenient place. For all this, Joe shook his head.
“It won’t do, Harry,” he said; “the place will be too cold. It is on deck; and when the thermometer gets way down and the gales blow for a month steady, we shall surely freeze to death.”
“I suppose so,” said Harry doubtfully; “but it is low amidships here between the bulwarks. If we could only build a double house right around it, the air space between the two would be a great protection, — and it is so handy. Tell you what, there’s some spare boards and stuff down in the main hold. Couldn’t we do it with them?”
“Couldn’t make it tight enough,” replied Joe. “The wind would shoot through and get at us. If it was buried deep in snow —but the snow would blow away in the wind.” He pondered a moment, and shook his head.
“What’s the matter with ice, then?” answered Harry. “We’ve got all the ice we want, right handy.”
Joe sprang to his feet with a laugh. “I believe you’ve got it, this time,” he said. “We’ll make a regular Eskimo igloo all around it with ice blocks, same as we used to read about in the schoolbooks. We’ll chink them with snow and pour water on, and when it freezes we’ll be snug as need be.”
They went immediately to work while the weather favored them. From the floes alongside they cut cubical blocks which they hauled aboard with a whip rigged to the main yard. These they piled one above another, about three feet from the galley sides. A second row was then set up a foot outside these, and the space between filled with snow. Thus they had two ice walls with a free air space next the building. Spare spars placed across this served for rafters, and they covered these with ice cakes also. For cement, snow with water poured on was excellent, and at the end of three days their protecting igloo was nearly finished. It filled the space amidships from bulwark to bulwark, and the two architects were very proud of their creation.
“When you are in Rome,” said Harry, “you must do as the Romans do,” and in this he had solved the real secret of successful winter life in the Arctic. Through a thousand generations stern necessity has taught certain things to the Eskimos, and the explorers who most nearly follow their methods are the ones who winter in safety and with least loss of life and comfort.
Still in imitation of the ice-dwellers of the far north, they made the only entrance to this big igloo through a low tunnel of ice cakes, well chinked and mortared with snow and water, and with a deerskin doorway that dropped curtainwise and could be fastened tight. Had Sir Christopher Wren been viewing the completion of St. Paul’s Cathedral, he could have done so with no greater thrill of pride than did these two beginners in Arctic life their rough ice shelter from the cold to come.
“I think that makes it all right,” said Joe, with great satisfaction. “If it doesn’t work we can retreat below, but with a good fire in the galley stove it seems as if we might be comfortable here, even in the coldest weather.”
They took stock of their provisions and coal and, as was to be expected, found both ample for a large number of men. Trade goods still held out, and they could purchase what the Eskimos had to offer during the winter, if they cared to. Joe sighed as he looked at the whaling implements, harpoons, bomb guns, and line, left just as they had been abandoned, ready for instant use. He picked up a harpoon and handled it lovingly.
“I’ll have a shot or two with you, yet,” he said, “before we get out of the wilderness.”
“How do you mean?” asked Harry; “there’s no chance to get whales in winter, is there?”
A half-formed plan in Joe’s head took shape in that instant.
“No,” he said, “not in winter, but the whales begin to appear in the leads in the ice very early in the spring. Long before the ships can get up here to get at them, the most of them have gone north. Now, situated as we are, we can do whaling right from the ice, if we can get the Eskimos to help us. They will gladly do it for the blubber and meat, and we shall have the bone. That is the best part of a whale nowadays, anyway. Here’s what I plan for the spring and summer. We will get all the bone and furs we can this winter to add to the cargo. We’ll be as careful of the coal as we can, and if the Bowhead comes through the winter all right, as I hope she will, we will try and take her south ourselves, with the help of the Eskimos, when the ice opens next summer.”
Thus, well provided for in the present, and with roseate plans for the future, they began the winter. Daily the sun got lower; so did the mercury in the thermometer; and often for days there was no sight of the former because of flying snow and the deep haze of frost-fog. The ice set more and more firmly about the Bowhead, and the pack which ground and crushed against the edge of the shore ice outside the headland no longer made any answering movement in the frozen stretch about her. The winter was upon them, and there were times when their ice igloo was put to severe tests as a frost defender. It stood them all well, and with a good fire in the galley range, it was always comfortable within. In the open space between the galley and the igloo frost crystals collected, till, in the glow of lamplight, the narrow way looked like a fairy grotto, all hung with spangles and frost gems.
The temperature there was always below freezing, and Joe prosaically suggested that it would be a good place to hang their fresh meat, if they had any to hang.
“I wish our Eskimo friend would come back and spear a seal for us,” said Harry. “We’ve had no fresh meat since he left. Suppose he got home safe?”
They were to have fresh meat soon, however, by way of a most interesting adventure that began the very night after.
October had come, and with the middle of it a few brief days of mild weather. The sun slanted upward in a low sweep from the southern horizon, then down, after scarcely three hours, leaving behind it, as it set, a running fire of beams that swept along the horizon like a prairie fire, then the dancing splendor of the aurora and a full moon that swung the circuit of the sky without setting. The refraction in the air, first cousin to the mirage, gave this moon odd shapes that were indescribably weird. Sometimes it was cubical, sometimes an elongated oval, and often there were rainbows in the frost about it that made mock moons, two or three ranged in irregular order, with encircling fires that were as beautiful as ghostly. The boys, warmly wrapped in furs chosen from their stock, would, on these calm nights, often promenade the deck for an hour, viewing these phenomena and listening to the crash and grind of the pack against the shore ice beyond the headland. This night they had done so, then retired to the glow of their evening lamp, with books from their stock. They were studying navigation, and a book on engineering and seamanship from the engineer’s locker, that they might be better able to handle the vessel if the chance came to them in the summer.
Weariness overcame them there, and Joe had already turned in, while Harry dozed in the chair over his book. He started up once, thinking he heard footsteps, then settled down again, sure that it had been only imagination. There he slept while the footsteps came along the deck, hesitated at the deerskin curtain, and then something tore it down. Harry stirred uneasily, but did not wake. The steps, padded but scratchy, came along the ice tunnel and hesitated again at the closed door to the galley. Then something clawed at this door and shook it, sniffling. Harry carne to his feet with a bound and listened, uncertain whether he had heard or dreamed. Then the sound went round the side of the galley, as if something were crowding through the ice passage to the window.
“Joe!” cried Harry; “Joe, there’s something here!” Joe roused sleepily, then tumbled out of his bunk with a rush, for there was a crash of glass and a great white forearm came through the little window with a black palm and long, hooked nails. Then the lamp went out.
Darkness, and the sound of heavy breathing, with a terrifying recollection of that great arm and the palm with long nails!
The two boys crowded together in the corner of the galley, quivering and terrified. The thought of the winter ghosts that the Eskimo had said they would find at Icy Cape came to both, and did not seem like a foolish superstition now.
“What is it? What is it?” cried Harry in terror. His voice sounded faint and far away to him.
“Can’t you find a match?” replied Joe between his set teeth. He was trying hard to conquer this superstitious terror, but he only partly succeeded.
Harry tremblingly pulled a match from his pocket and struck it. The arm was there, reaching and clawing, and behind it gleamed two fierce little eyes. Joe snatched the 45-70 from the corner and began pumping shot after shot at the little window. In the confines of the little room the report was deafening, and the match went out at the first shot.
Harry lighted another. The arm hung limp and there was a heaving and straining without that fairly cracked the galley walls, then silence.
“Ghost or devil or what all, I’ve finished him,” said Joe, after watching for a moment with pointed rifle.
Harry relighted the lamp. His courage was coming back, but his nerves were still shaky. Then he flung wide the door while Joe held the rifle in readiness. Darkness was there, but neither sound nor ghost. Cautiously, lamp in hand and rifle ready, they entered the space between the ice and the galley sides, and there they saw their ghost motionless. He was bulky and white, so bulky that he filled the three-foot space tight, with his arm still stuck through the cabin window.
“Well,” said Joe, “he’s white enough for a ghost, but he isn’t one. He’s a white bear, and a fine one. Let’s get him out of that and skin him before he freezes.”
In the light of the ship’s lanterns they tugged and wrestled for an hour to get the great creature out through the igloo entrance to the deck. There they skinned him and cut him up, hanging the four quarters in what they henceforth named their refrigerator. The pelt was a fine one, in the full strength of the winter coat. In spite of the cold and dim light, they took it off carefully, muzzle, claws, and all.
“There,” said Joe, “that skin will bring a hundred dollars in San Francisco, if we can ever get it there. It is a good night’s work, if we were scared to death. What do you suppose brought him?”
“Don’t know,” replied Harry, “unless it was the smell of that salmon.”
Both sniffed, and on the air from the igloo caught the faint odor of the salted salmon that they had put on the galley range to simmer and freshen. He was probably right. The white bear has a keen scent, and the odor of cooking will draw him a long way across the ice.
They repaired the window, re-closed the igloo entrance, and though somewhat apprehensive, slept soundly and unmolested until daylight. Then they sought and found tracks showing where the ‘bear had climbed a drift and come aboard by way of the stern. Other tracks seemed to show that their intruder had a companion that had circled the ship on the snow but had not boarded it. This adventure gave them fresh meat, the first for a long time, and they ate bear steaks till they were weary of them; but it also gave them an idea for the capture of more valuable pelts.
“If white bears are coming our way,” said Joe, “we’ll try and fix things so they’ll stop with us. We must make a little shelter on the deck aft, and set a whale-oil lamp burning in it with a kettle of salmon stewing over it. Then we’ll fix things so that if his bearness approaches it, he’ll breast a string and set off a rifle. One of those old Springfield muzzleloaders that dad couldn’t sell, even to the mersinkers, will be just the thing. We can load it half full of bullets, and it don’t matter if it does burst. There’s plenty more of them.”
“Good idea,” said Harry. “If bears are coming, I’d like to have something stop them before they get far enough aboard to scare me the way the last one did. We’ll do it to-day.”
They did, but that night one of the terrible Arctic blizzards set in, and it never let up for a month. Their trap was rigged, but they could do nothing toward baiting it in such tremendous weather; they scarcely ventured outdoors, and got along as best they could by the galley fire. Yet the time did not hang very heavily on their hands. They read and studied, played all the games there were aboard the vessel, and slept a great deal. In the gloom and cold of the full Arctic night the tendency to hibernate seems to come on men as well as animals, and they sometimes slept the round of the clock at a stretch.
The fifteenth of November the gale ceased as suddenly as it had come up, and they ventured out at high noon. The air was still, but intensely cold. Clad in reindeer-skin suits from head to toe, with fur hoods, and little but the eyes exposed to the frost, they looked about. A luminous twilight hung over all the wastes of snow. To the north the sky was purple-black, flushing pink in quivering streams of light toward the zenith, where glowed great stars. The heavens seemed, through this luminous pink haze, these quivering bars of aurora, to have wonderful depth and perspective. Great golden stars shone there, some far, some seemingly very near, and the distance between the two was very marked. The wonderful depths of infinite space were revealed to them as never before, and they gazed in awe and delight.
“I never knew before,” cried Harry, “what was meant by the depths of the heavens. At home the sky is a flat surface with holes poked in it that are stars. Here you see them worlds, with millions of miles of space before and behind and around them. It is wonderful. See the south, too; it is afire!”
A little to the east of due south lambent flames sprang above the horizon as if a great fire burned there. They shot up and moved westward as though a great forest was going down before a smokeless conflagration. On to the west they moved, and sank, glowed, and disappeared — burnt out:
It was the last of the midday sun, and they were not to see it again until well into February. A faint breeze seemed to blow in from the south, as if bearing a message and a promise that the sun would come again. Joe sniffed this breeze.
“Come,” he said; “let’s set that bear trap. This wind from the south will send the smell of burnt salmon miles and miles out on the ice. It ought to bring a lot of bears.”
They did as Joe suggested, and as the south wind blew gently and a spell of mild weather ensued, kept the toll-dish stewing for a long time. It was two days before anything happened. Then they were both called from the cabin by a tremendous explosion. They rushed to the trap and found a bear sprawled before it, dead, with a big hole torn in his neck. Nothing, moreover, was left of the Springfield musket but the breech. The tremendous charge with which it had been loaded had blown the barrel to pieces and shattered the bait stew as well.
“Whew!” exclaimed Joe. “We did things that time, didn’t we! How much did you put in that old musket, anyway?”
Harry looked a little guilty. “Why,” he answered, “you said to fill her about half full, and I did. There were nine bullets, I think.”
“Well, I should say so,” replied Joe, “by the looks of the bear. Guess we won’t load quite so heavy next time. I don’t care for the old musket, there’s plenty more, but it don’t do to tear up the pelt too badly. Great Scott, what’s that!”
Both jumped, for, silhouetted against the aurora, figures stepped from the drift to the deck and approached. The thoughts of both were of bears, but a second glance showed these figures to be men, and in a moment they were greeting their Eskimo friend of the ice and several others who had come with him. Moreover, as they soon learned, the entire village was ashore, having decided to move to the neighborhood of the ship, where food and trade goods were plenty. They had come up with dog teams, and the women were already carving huts from the deep snow just back of the beach, in a spot sheltered from the north winds.
It was not until these other human beings appeared that the boys realized how lonely they had been, and in their joy at the sight of fellow creatures they planned a feast, to which they invited the whole village. This took place the next day, and though. the village numbered scarce fifteen adults, they ate up pretty nearly the whole bear. However, it made them very friendly toward the two Crusoes of the ship, and the boys did not grudge the feast in any case.
You must not directly ask an Eskimo his name; they have a superstitious dread of telling it to your face, but you may ask another, even in his presence, and etiquette is in no wise outraged. So now, for the first time, they learned that the one they had rescued from the floating cake months before was Harluk, that his wife was Atchoo, while other men of the village were Kroo, Konwa, Neako, and Pikalee.
They had plenty of dogs, sleds, two umiaks which they had brought on the sleds, clothing, and a small amount of blubber and seal meat. That was all; but they were happy, and viewed with no fear the narrow margin which separated them from starvation in the Arctic midwinter. Their snow igloos, carved deep in the drifts on the leeward side of a little hill, and warmed by a stone lamp full of seal oil, were comfortable and at first clean. When they were no longer so, they moved a few rods and carved another without much labor. If the weather was not too severe, the men watched the margin where the pack ice was ground back and forth by the shore ice, and were sometimes rewarded with a seal.
HARLUK AND KAROO
They tracked white foxes, ermine, and now and then a wolf or a bear, and exchanged the pelts with the boys for hard-tack, or blankets, or other necessaries of life, and were singularly placid and good-humored. Everything with them was “Nagouruk,” and their chief delight was to visit the ship, and spend hours in the company of their white friends. The outer sheltering igloo of ice cakes, which the boys had built over the galley, won their admiration at once, and they gave it the greatest compliment that an Eskimo can pay. Kroo, the oldest man, and in that respect the chief, as chiefs go in a little Eskimo community, inspected it carefully and solemnly, and then announced oracularly in his own tongue:
“It is good. The white brothers are almost as wise as Eskimos.”
Many conferences were held between Harluk and Kroo and the two boys as to the prospects and methods of spring whaling in the ice, and as they learned the ways of the whale from their dusky friends and the ease with which they are captured by the Eskimos with their primitive weapons, Harry and Joe became very enthusiastic as to the success which awaited them with modern appliances. Harluk and Kroo were also greatly pleased.
The plan meant for them unlimited supplies of whale meat and blubber, and both parties were impatient of the long night of fierce cold that must still pass before they could begin. They got no more bears for a long time, because the cold was so severe that their blubber lamps went out and the tolling smell of stewing salmon failed them. Joe remedied this in part by mixing the whale oil with kerosene, which did not freeze even in the most severe weather, and finally he enlarged his lamp greatly, using a square kerosene can for a reservoir, and filling it with kerosene alone. This worked much better, and an occasional white pelt was added to their store by this means. Out of this, too, came a most singular adventure, which was of great service to the Eskimos, and no doubt saved the lives of both boys, though it lost them a valuable bearskin.
It happened late in February, after the sun had begun again to smile at them for a moment above the southern horizon, though his brief daily presence seemed in no wise to abate the cold.