Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society
A THRILLING ADVENTURE IN THE POLAR REGIONS
Dr. KANE'S party having attained to a north latitude of about eighty degrees, he sent a division forward to make a deposit of provisions, preparatory to a grand effort to penetrate still nearer the pole.
…Every thing (he says) looked promising and we were only waiting for intelligence that our advance party had deposited its provisions in safety to begin our transit of the bay. Except a few sledge-lashings, and some trifling, accouterments to finish, all was ready.
We were at work cheerfully, sewing away at the skins of some moccasins, by the blaze of our lamps, when, toward midnight, we heard the noise of steps above, and the next moment Sontag, Ohlsen, and Petersen came down into the cabin. Their manner startled me even more than their unexpected appearance on board. They were swollen and haggard, and hardly able to speak.
Their story was a fearful one. They had left their companions in the ice, risking their own lives to bring us the news- Brooks, Baker, Wilson, and Pierre were all lying frozen and disabled. Where? They could not tell-somewhere in among the hummocks to the north and east; it was drifting heavily round them when they parted. Irish Tom had staid by to feed and care for the others; but the chances were sorely against them. It was in vain to question them further. They had evidently traveled a great distance, for they were sinking with fatigue and hunger, and could hardly be rallied enough to tell us the direction in which they had come.
My first impulse was to move on the instant with an unincumbered party-a rescue, to be effective or even hopeful, could not be too prompt. What pressed on my mind most was, where the sufferers were to be looked for among the drifts. Ohlsen seemed to have his faculties rather more at command than his associates, and
I thought that he might assist us as a guide; but he was sinking with exhaustion, and if he went with us we must carry him.
There was not a moment to be lost, While some were still busy with the new-comers, and getting ready a hasty meal, others were rigging out the "Little Willie" with a buffalo-cover, a small tent, and a-package of pemmican; and, as soon as we could hurry through our arrangements, Ohlsen was strapped on in a fur bag, his legs wrapped in dog-skins and eider-down, and we were off upon the ice. Our party consisted of nine men and myself. We carried only the clothes on our backs. The thermometer stood at-46~, seventy-eight degrees below the freezing point.
A well-known peculiar tower of ice, called by the men the "Pinnacly Berg," served as our first land-mark; other icebergs of colossal size, which stretched in long beaded lines across the bay, helped to guide us afterward; and it was not till we had traveled for sixteen hours that we began to lose our way.
We knew that our lost companions must be somewhere in the area before us, within a radius of forty miles. Mr. Ohlsen, who had been for fifty hours without rest, fell asleep as soon as we began to move, and awoke now with unequivocal signs of mental disturbance. It became evident that he had lost the bearing of the icebergs, which in form and color endlessly repeated themselves; and the uniformity of the vast field of snow utterly forbade the hope of local landmarks.
Pushing ahead of the party, and clambering over some rugged ice-piles, I came to a long level floe, which I thought might probably have attracted the eyes of weary men in circumstances like our own. It was a light conjecture; but it was enough to turn the scale, for there was no other to balance it. I gave orders to abandon the sledge, and disperse in search of foot-marks. We raised our tent, placed our pemmican in cache, except a small allowance for each man to carry on his person; and poor Ohlsen, now just able to keep his legs, was liberated from his bag. The thermometer had fallen by this time to -49.3 and the wind was setting in sharply from the north-west. It was out of the question to halt; it required brisk exercise to keep us from freezing. I could not even melt ice for water; and, at these temperatures, any resort to snow for the purpose of allaying thirst, was followed by bloody lips and tongue; it burnt like caustic.
It was indispensable then that we should move on, looking out for traces as we went. Yet when the men were ordered to spread themselves, so as to multiply the chances, though they all obeyed heartily, some painful impress of solitary danger, or perhaps it may have been the varying configuration of the ice-field, kept them closing up continually into a single group. The strange manner in which some of us were affected I now attributed as much to shattered nerves as to the direct influence of the cold. Men like M'Gary and
Bonsall, who had stood out our severest marches, were seized with trembling-fits and short breath; and, in spite of all my efforts to keep up an example of sound bearing, I fainted twice on the snow.
We had been nearly eighteen hours out without water or food, when a new hope cheered us.
I think it was Hans, our Esquimaux hunter, who thought he saw a broad sledge-track. The drift had nearly effaced it, and we were some of us doubtful at first whether it was not one of those accidental rifts, which the gales make in the surface-snow. But, as we traced it on to the deep snow among, the hummocks, we were led to footsteps; and, following these with religious care, we at last came in sight of a small American flag fluttering from a hummock, and lower down a little Masonic banner hanging from a tent-pole, hardly above the drift. It was the camp of our disabled comrades; we reached it after an unbroken march of twenty-one hours.
The little tent was nearly covered. I was not among the first to come up; but, when I reached the tent-curtain, the men were standing in silent file on each side of it. With more kindness and delicacy of feeling than is often supposed to belong to sailors, but which is almost characteristic, they intimated their wish that I should go in alone. As I crawled in, and, coming upon the darkness, heard before me the burst of welcome gladness that came from the four poor fellows stretched on their backs, and then for the first time the cheer on the outside, my weakness and my gratitude together almost overcome me. "They had expected me: they were sure I would come!" We were now fifteen souls; the thermometer seventy-five degrees below the freezing-point; and our sole accommodation a tent barely able to contain eight persons: more than half our party were obliged to keep from freezing by walking outside while the others slept. We could not halt long. Each of us took a turn of two hours' sleep; and we prepared for our homeward march.
We took with us nothing, but the tent, furs to protect the rescued party, and food for a journey of fifty hours. Every thing else was abandoned.
Two large buffalo bags, each made of four skins, were doubled up, so as to form a sort of sack, lined on each side by fur, closed at the bottom but opened at the top. This was laid on the sledge; the tent, smoothly folded, serving as a floor. The sick, with their limbs served up carefully in reindeer-skins, were placed upon the bed of buffalo-robes, in a half-reclining posture; other skins and blanket-bags were thrown above them; and the whole litter was lashed together so as to
Allow but a single opening opposite the mouth for breathing. This necessary work cost us a great deal of time and effort; but it was essential to the lives of the sufferers. It took us no less than four hours to strip and refresh them, and then to embale them in the manner I have described. Few of us escaped without frostbitten fingers; the thermometer was at 55.6 below zero, and a slight wind added to the severity of the cold.
It was completed at last, however; all hands stood round; and, after repeating a short prayer, we set out on our retreat. It was fortunate indeed that we were not inexperienced in sledging over the ice. A great part of our track lay among a succession of hummocks; some of them extending in long lines, fifteen and twenty feet high, and so uniformly steep that we had to turn them by a considerable deviation from our direct course; others that we forced our way through, far above our heads in height, lying in parallel ridges, with the space between too narrow for the sledge to be lowered into it safely, and yet not wide enough for the runners to cross without the aid of ropes to stay them. These spaces too were generally choked with light snow, hiding the openings between the ice-fragments. They were fearful traps to disengage a limb from, for every man knew that a fracture or a sprain even would cost him his life. Besides all this, the sledge was top-heavy with its load: the maimed men could not bear to be lashed down tight enough to secure them against falling off. Notwithstanding our caution in rejecting every superfluous burden, the weight, including bags and tent, was eleven hundred pounds.
And yet our march for the first six hours was very cheering. We made vigorous pulls and lifts nearly a mile an hour, and reached the new floes before we were absolutely weary. Our sledge sustained the trial admirably. Olsen, restored by hope, walked steadily at the leading belt of the sledge-lines; and I began to feel certain of reaching our half way station of the day before, where we had left our tent. But we were still nine miles from it, when, almost without premonition, we all became aware of an alarming failure of our energies.
I was of course familiar with the benumbed and almost lethargic sensation of extreme cold; and once, when exposed for some hours in the midwinter of Baffin's Bay, I had experienced symptoms which I compared to the diffused paralysis of the electro-galvanic shock. But I had treated the sleepy comfort of freezing as something like the embellishment of romance. I had evidence now to the contrary.
Bonsall and Morton, two of our stoutest men, came to me, begging permission to sleep. "They were not cold; the wind did not enter them now: a little sleep was all they wanted." Presently Hans was found nearly stiff under a drift; and Thomas, bolt upright, had his eyes closed, and could hardly articulate. At last John Blake threw himself on the snow, and refused to rise. They did not complain of feeling cold; but it was in vain that I wrestled, boxed, ran, argued, jeered, or reprimanded; an immediate halt could not be avoided.
We pitched our tent with much difficulty. Our hands were too powerless to strike a fire; we were obliged to do without water or food. Even the spirits-whisky-had been frozen at the men's feet, under all the coverings. We put Bonsall, Ohlsen, Thomas, and Hans, with the other sick men, well inside the tent, and crowded in as many others as we could. Then, leaving the party in charge of Mr. M'Gary, with orders to come on after four hours' rest, I pushed ahead with William Godfrey, who volunteered to be my companion. My aim was to reach the halfway tent, and thaw some ice and pemmican before the others arrived.
The floe was of level ice, and the walking excellent. I can not tell how long, it took us to make the nine miles; for we were in a strange sort of stupor, and had little apprehension of time. It was probably about four hours. We kept ourselves awake by imposing on each other a continued articulation of words; they must have been incoherent enough. I recall these hours as among the most wretched I have ever gone through; we were neither of us in our right senses, and retained a very confused recollection of what preceded our arrival at the tent. We both of us, however, remember a bear, who walked leisurely before us, and tore up as he went a juniper that Mr. M'Gary had providentially thrown off the day before. He tore it into shreds, and rolled it into a ball; but never offered to interfere with our progress. I remember this, and with it had a confused sentiment that our tent and buffalo-robes might probably share the same fate. Godfrey, with whom the memory of this day's work may atone for many faults of a later time, had a better eye than myself; and, looking some miles ahead, he could see that our tent was undergoing the same unceremonious treatment. I thought I saw it too; but we were so drunken with the cold that we strode on steadily, and, for aught I know, without quickening our pace.
Probably our approach saved the contents of the tent; for when we reached it the tent was uninjured, though the bear had overturned it, tossing the buffalo-robes and pemmican into the snow; we missed only a couple of blanket-bags.
What we recollect, however, and perhaps all we recollect, is, that we had great difficulty in raising it. We crawled into our reindeer sleeping-bags without speaking, and for the next three hours slept on in a dreamy but intense slumber. When I awoke my long beard was a mass of ice, frozen fast to the buffalo-skin; Godfrey had to cut me out with his jack-knife. For days after our escape I found my woolen comfortable with a goodly share of my beard still adhering to it.
We were able to melt water and get some soup cooked before the rest of our party arrived; it took them but five hours to walk the nine miles. They were doing well, and, considering, the circumstances, in wonderful spirits. The day was most providentially windless, with a clear sun. All enjoyed the refreshment we had got ready; the crippled were repacked in their robes; and we sped briskly toward the hummock ridges which lay between us and the Pinnacly Berg.
The hummocks we had now to meet came properly under the designation of squeezed ice. A chain of bergs stretching from north-west to south-east, moving with the tides, had compressed the surface-floes; and, rearing them up on their edges, produced an area more like the volcanic pedragal of the basin of Mexico than any thing else I can compare it to. It required desperate efforts to work our way over it-literally desperate, for our strength failed us anew, and we began to lose our self-control. We could not abstain any longer from eating snow: our months swelled, and some of us became speechless. Happily the day was warmed by a clear sunshine, and the thermometer rose to -4 in the shade; otherwise we must have frozen.
Our halts multiplied, and we fell half-sleeping on the snow. I could not prevent it. Strange to say, it refreshed us. I ventured upon the experiment myself, making Riley wake me at the end of three minutes; and I felt so much benefited by it that I timed the men in the same way. They sat on the runners of the sledge, fell asleep instantly, and were forced to wakefulness when their three minutes were out.
By eight in the evening we emerged from the floes. The sight of the Pinnacly Berg revived us. Brandy, an invaluable resource in emergency, had already been served out in tablespoonful doses. We now took a longer rest, and a stouter dram, and reached the brig at 1 P.M., we believe without a halt. I say we believe; and here perhaps is the most decided proof of our sufferings; we were quite delirious, and had ceased to entertain a sane apprehension of the circumstances about us. We moved on like men in a dream. Our footmarks afterward showed that we had steered a bee-line for the brig. It must have been by a sort of instinct, for it left no impress on the memory. Bonsall was sent staggering ahead, and reached the brig, none knew how, for he had fallen repeatedly at the track-lines; but he delivered with punctilious accuracy the messages I had sent by him to Dr. Hayes. I thought myself the soundest of all, for I went through all the formula of sanity, and can recall the muttering delirium of my comrades when we got back into the cabin of our brig. Yet I have been told since of some speeches and some orders too of mine, which I should have remembered for their absurdity, if my mind had retained its balance.
Petersen and Whipple came out to meet us about two miles from the brig. They brought my dog-team, with the restoratives I had sent for by Bonsall. I do not remember their coming. Dr. Hayes entered with judicious energy upon the treatment our condition called for, administering morphine freely, after the usual frictions. He reported none of our brain-symptoms as serious, referring them properly to the class of those indications of exhausted power, which yield to generous diet and rest. Mr. Ohlsen suffered some from strabismus and blindness; two others underwent amputation of parts of the foot, without unpleasant consequences; and two died in spite of all our efforts. We had halted in all eight hours, half of our number sleeping at a time. We traveled between eighty and ninety miles, most of the way dragging a heavy sledge. The mean temperature of the whole time, including the warmest hours of three days, was at minus 41~2. We had no water except at our two halts, and were at no time able to intermit vigorous exercise without freezing.
Four days have passed, and I am again at my record of failures, sound, but aching at every joint. The rescued men are not out of danger, but their gratitude is very touching. Pray God that they may live!
The week that followed has left me nothing to remember but anxieties and sorrow. Nearly all our party, as well the rescuers as the rescued, were tossing in their sick-bunks, some frozen, others undergoing amputations, several with dreadful premonitions of tetanus. I was myself among the first to be about: the necessities of the others claimed it of me.
Early in the morning of the 7th I was awakened by a sound from Baker's throat, one of those the most frightful and ominous that startle a physician's ear. The lockjaw had seized him-that dark visitant whose foreshadowings were on so many of us. His symptoms marched rapidly to their result-he died on the 8th of April. We placed him the next day in his coffin, and, forming a rude but heartful procession, bore him over the broken ice, and up the steep side of the ice-foot to Butler Island; then, passing along the snow-level to Fern Rock, and, climbing the slope of the Observatory, we deposited his corpse upon the pedestals which had served to support our transit-instrument and theodolite. We read the service for the burial of the dead, sprinkling over him snow for dust, and repeated the Lord's prayer; and then icing up again the opening in the walls we had made to admit the coffin, left him in his narrow house.
Kane, E.K. Arctic Explorations. "The Second Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin: 1853,’54,’55" vol II. Philadelphia: Childs & Peterson, 1856.