Saturday, May 26, 2012

Wellman Arctic Expedition An Arctic Day And Night

By Walter Wellman

Polar bear attack in the Arctic
A day and a night up near the North Pole compass a year. At the Pole itself there is but one sunrise and one sunset in a twelve ­month. About March 20th sunlight reaches the spot which marks the northern termination of the axis of our earth, and it does not go away till about September 20th. When it goes, it goes for good; the six-months day is followed by the six-months night. It was at Cape Tegetthoff, Franz Josef Land, that the Wellman Polar Expedition spent an Arctic day and night. That was 600 geographical miles south of the Pole, and there the sun rose above and disappeared below the horizon each twenty-four hours during about seven weeks in the spring and a like period in the fall. But prac­tically we had only one day and one night. Every part of the earth's surface receives theoretically the same amount of sunlight as every other part. Nature makes no dis­criminations in this respect. The North Pole has just as many hours of sunlight in a year as the equator, and at Cape Tegetthoff we had the satisfaction of knowing that not even sunny Italy was basking in the great orb's favor to a greater ex­tent than we. The difference is that in the Arctic regions we get our sunlight - and also our darkness - in a lump. At the Pole the lumps are six months long. At the eigh­tieth parallel of latitude, where we were, we had the midnight sun in the heavens for 127 nights, that being the long day; and later we had no sun at all, not even at noon, for 127 days, and that was the long winter night of our discontent.

Tuesday, August 2, 1898, was a busy day with our party of four Americans and five Norwegians. We had just arrived in Franz Josef Land aboard the good steamer "Frith­jof" which was now anchored off the Cape, where we had decided to establish our headquarters. Lying upon the bleak shore were all our stores and equipment, and the mate­rials of which to build a hut. Ashore we ourselves were to go in the morning, and then the ship was to steam back to Norway. This, therefore, was letter day, and every man of us was writing - writing letters to family and friends at home. It is not often one sits down to write the last words that can be dispatched for at least a year; and it is astonishing how many people one wishes to write to at such a moment, and what a lot he has to say to certain persons.

Arctic polar bear hunt
It was not exactly a joyful moment, that morning when we stood upon the wind-swept plateau of Cape Tegetthoff and watched the "Frithjof" steam away. To go with her meant return to home, family, friends, all the comforts of life. To stay meant a long struggle against cold, darkness, and storm, lonely hours, weary tramps through slush and snow. Yet not one of us wished to be upon the ship. Already we were under the influence of the Arctic spell. Its glamour was in our eyes, its fever in our blood. We were in the mood to appreciate the beauties which nature had lavishly strewn about our future home. This far-off northern world was bathed in the most brilliant sunlight, glistening upon sea and icebergs and gla­ciers, and illumining the somber cliffs of the mountains. None of us had ever seen a more entrancing picture than the immense glacier of McClintock Island, fifteen miles to the west. It rose from the ice-strewn, shim­mering sea a perfect sheen of purest white, studded with billions upon billions of refract­ing crystals, to a height of some 2,000 feet. At the crest two eminences appeared, side by side, each in its way characteristic of this region: one, bold, rugged, and black, as if by a mighty effort the rocks had shaken them­selves loose from the grip of the ice-king, standing forth in sullen independence, a land­mark for forty miles around; the other, more graceful, submissive but still proud, lifting its head toward the sky, erect and majestic, though wearing the white robes of its frigid conqueror to the very summit.

In the foreground were the cliffs of Cape Tegetthoff, showing black where the snow and frost had fallen from their precipitate sides, and the glaciers debouching into the little valleys melting in the heat of this mid­summer sun and pouring musically gurgling streams down to the sea. Out over the waters were to be seen a number of low, rounded, white islands, and near the south­ern margin of one of them we knew the ex­ploring ship "Tegetthoff" had a quarter of a century before been abandoned by the Aus­trians who, through the accident of an ice­bound, aimless drift, had discovered this land. To the northeast several capes rose darkly from the marble-sheeted land, guide-posts along our route to the unexplored regions beyond.

We at once began our task of house build­ing, and in four or five hours we ate our first meal in the most northerly inhabited house in the world, and, in fact, the most northerly of all habitable dwellings excepting only two - the Greely house in Grinnell Land and the but which the Wellman Expedition of 1894 erected out of the timbers of the ice-crushed steamer, the "Ragnvald Jarl," at Walden Island, Spitzbergen.

Perhaps this was about the queerest sort of house that human beings ever passed an Arctic winter in. It was made in Eng­land, in sections all ready to be fitted to­gether. For three years it had stood at Cape Flora, where the Jackson-Harmsworth Expedition had used it as a storehouse, and Mr. Jackson had said it was not fit for hu­man occupation. It really was a poor thing in comparison with the Russian-built log-house in which he had passed his three win­ters. The Russians know how to build for cold weather. In Archangel we had seen the richest citizens living in great, massive houses like our "frame" structures in America, but each one surrounded by tight walls of dressed and closely matched logs, with an air-space left between the inner and outer shells. We proceeded to borrow one idea from the Rus­sians. Indeed, our collapsible house was de­signed upon the same principle, but its two walls were very thin, merely three-quarter-inch boards. There were ten sections of these boards, all fitting together with bolts, and they also matched the floor, which was likewise in ten pieces. Over this structure of decagonal shape were stretched two thick­nesses of oiled canvas, again with the highly desirable air-space between them.

Good enough for a summer house it was, but we knew it would never do in that con­dition for an Arctic winter. So we proceeded to build another shell around it by means of planks well braced and converging round the stove-pipe at the apex of the roof. Thus we had three walls with two air-spaces around us, and as the art of keeping warm, whether in house or clothing, is not to keep the cold out, but to hold the heat within, we extended this principle in two ways: first, we stretched over the roof an old mainsail which had been discarded from the "Windward," giving us three layers of cloth and two air-spaces over­head; second, we built a snow wall around the entire structure. Then we put up a storehouse of planks at one side of the de­cagonal structure, and added a vestibule out­side that. We built double doors, "chinked" the walls with moss, and covered the whole with a layer of “Arctic marble," as we called the slabs of frozen snow which were sawed out of an old drift and to any desired shape or size. When the storms came later in the fall the whole camp, living-room, store-shed, vestibule and all, was buried under a snow­drift. The windows were closed with five feet walls of snow, and as winter came on, about all one could see reminding him of a human habitation was the dark little hole in the snow bank through which we crawled in going in and out, and the diminutive black stovepipe working away for dear life at the top of the white heap.

We built an observatory of "Arctic marble," too, and in it sheltered our thermograph and other meteorological instruments, as well as the magnetic instruments, with ­which during the winter we made some interesting studies of the influence of the aurora borealis upon the magnetic needle. We have automatic thermograph and barograph rec­ords of the temperature and air pressure dur­ing every minute of our year's sojourn in Franz Josef Land.

Wellman sledge dogs attacking polar bears
In this house we passed a very comfort­able winter. Our stove was a small one, only fifteen inches in diameter, and it never burned more than fifty pounds of coal in a day; but we sank it through the floor to lower the fire-box, and so got all the heat out of it that was possible. True, the temper­ature often sank below zero in our living apartment, and frost formed not only upon the ceiling, but upon the walls against which we reclined with our backs as we sat each in his own "corner." But in such a life men speedily accustom themselves to slight inconveniences of that sort. Indeed, fami­liarity breeds contempt of cold. At home we used to think it cold out of doors if the temperature dropped much below the freez­ing point, and heavy overcoats and warm gloves were in order, while Americans think they cannot endure a temperature lower than sixty-five degrees in their houses. But up here at Cape Tegetthoff we habitually wrote letters, sewed at our clothing, played cards, read books, and ate our meals in tempera­tures hovering about the freezing point, and never suspected that it was cold. When the temperature outside was no lower than fifteen or twenty minus, and not much wind blowing, we let the fire go out after supper in order to save coal.

We had our regular baths, too, even in the coldest weather. As one of the few rules of the house was "no bathing indoors," on ac­count of the condensation of moisture, the bather took his tub of warm water out into the storehouse, stripped to the skin, and en­joyed himself, even though the temperature out there was usually from fifteen to twenty-five below. This we did without taking cold. In fact, such a thing as a cold the writer has never had in the Arctic regions, though he has bathed in the open sea, diving from an iceberg, where a seal was disporting him­self curious to know what manner of animal the amphibious stranger was. I once took a bath in a natural bath-tub formed of ice, walls and floor, and rather enjoyed it, though I did not stay in long. Worse than the cold water, was walking barefooted in the snow to and from the place of disrobing. One day in early December, I had been hard at work for an hour or two testing the traction of various sledges, pulling a 200-pound load up the hill and through the deep snow. Perspiring at every pore, it occurred to me to make a test of whether or not it was pos­sible to take cold up there. Though attired only in ordinary clothing, such as one wears at home in mild winter weather, I sat down in the snow for thirty minutes by the watch, and woolly dogs came and climbed all over me in excess of affection. The temperature was nearly thirty below and. though it did grow a bit chilly before the half hour was up - no "cold" was taken. In order to inure myself to cold, I always washed face and hands in snow before breakfast, no matter how great the cold, and have often washed my feet in the same way, out-doors, in low temperatures. It is refreshing, but in amus­ing himself this way one must look sharp or he may get a frost-nip - our pampered feet are so sensitive to cold.

Wool is far and away the best fabric for Arctic wear. Even wool will gather mois­ture, but it is infinitely better than fur. Wool permits the moisture of the body to pass through the fabric and congeal outside, where it can be brushed or shaken off, while furs retain it within. Two, three, or more thicknesses of wool are better than one of equal weight. I used to wear two pairs of woolen mittens; the outer pair were stiff with frost, while the inner pair were nearly dry and quite warm. But one had to be careful what he did with his mittens, when he took them off, for in a few moments would freeze so stiff that it was torture to put them on again. Of course, one needs plenty of clothing, but wool is the thing. Upon our dash northward, in temperatures from ten to forty-eight below zero, I wore no furs except a pair of reindeer-skin moccasins upon my feet. But within these moccasins I had from three to five pairs of thick woolen stockings; and outside the stockings was loose dry grass, to absorb the moisture. I never once had cold feet, and even after I had met with an accident which practically stopped all circulation of the blood below the knee in my injured leg, I suffered no frost-bites. Upon my body I wore four suits of woolen underclothing, and a jacket out­side. In this attire I was warmer than my Norwegian companions in big, cumbersome "kooletahs" of reindeer-skin.

It is not always cold in the Arctic regions. Many people do not understand that the sum­mers in the polar zones are comparatively mild. When the sun shines brightly in July and August, and often far into September, thawing is rapid, and the snow disappears from exposed places. The summer temper­ature, in the shade, ranges pretty steadily about the freezing point. In the sun, I have seen the mercury go up to eighty in a Fah­renheit thermometer. Just such weather as this, without any doubt, will be found up to the Pole itself. The North Pole lacks a good deal of being the coldest place in the world.

It is colder in Siberia, and in the northern part of our continent. A sunny summer day up near the Pole is altogether delightful, provided the wind does not blow. Many times have I lain down in the snow on such days and gone to sleep without so much as a blanket over me.

Walter Wellman stuck in Arctic ice
What may be done in summer is well shown by an adventurous trip which two of us made up the coast of Nordenskiold Bay. We had with us a sledge and five dogs, but no tent or sleeping-bags, as we did not expect to re­main out overnight. Having crossed a big glacier about a mile and a half in extent, we found ourselves upon lower and very rough and broken ice. It was almost as if we were upon a stretch of rocky country that had been split into fragments by an earthquake. Fissures and cracks ran in every direction, and we had to be exceedingly careful in our movements. The dogs did not at all like this sort of traveling, with its imminent risk of tumbling at any moment down a crevasse a hundred or two hundred feet deep, and it was interesting to note how, amid these sur­roundings, they appeared to place implicit trust in their masters. Ordinarily they like to pick the road themselves, rushing along pell-mell, pulling their drivers after them. But here they would not budge a foot unless one of us led the way. They followed us with confidence, though not without watch­ing our steps with the most alert eyes. Up to this time the beasts had been doing a good deal of skylarking and fighting, but now they were as sober as judges. They did just what we told them to do, too, some­thing new in our experience, and here for the first time we were able to teach them to obey the good American "Whoa!” Theretofore we had been compelled always to em­ploy the Samoyede synonym, "Sass!"

At length, while leading the team through a suspicious bit of broken ice, I suddenly dropped straight down in the snow to my arm-pits, and had the unpleasant feeling that there was nothing but air under my feet. I had fallen through a snow-bridge, and was sustained by my outstretched arms. Some­where down below I could hear a dislodged piece of ice striking and echoing on its way to the depths. Fainter and fainter the echoes came, and then ceased altogether. For all I know, that piece of ice is dropping to this day. The interesting question with me at that particular moment was whether or not the crumbling bridge of snow would support my weight till my companion could manage to get me out of the danger of tak­ing a drop too much myself.

Shortly afterward a storm blew up, and as the air was filled with flying snow, making it impossible to see a sledge-length ahead, it was simple suicide to go on. If we did not fall down a crevasse, we should be in danger of losing our way and falling over the edge of the glacier into the sea. So we made the best sort of camp we could, and managed to boil a little coffee over our petroleum lamp. But how the wind did whistle and the snow fly down the surface of that glacier! It was as much as one could do to stand on his feet. As there appeared to be no pros­pect of getting away before morning, the problem which confronted us was how we were to get a little sleep. It was solved in a novel manner. Each of us had brought along a "kooletah," a big, sack-like coat of reindeer-skin, and so we took off our boots and lay down upon the ice with our backs to the wind and our heads pointed in opposite directions. Then we telescoped ourselves to­gether as far as we could, each running his feet under the other's coat. My comrade's toes were in the small of my back, while mine were snug and comfortable on his ab­domen. Lapping the skirts of our coats, and pulling the hoods over our faces, we were quite comfortable so far as the cold was concerned. The chief trouble was the hardness of the ice, and the numbness and cramps in the legs and hips due thereto. But despite all drawbacks we managed to get both rest and sleep. To help us out, the dogs came and snuggled up as close to us as they could get, and though it was scarcely fair of them to persist in shoving their noses up under our hoods and kissing our faces, we could not well object so long as they helped to keep us warm.

In August, after our advance party had gone, we tried to use our small boats in forwarding more provisions toward the north. But the sea beat heavily upon the beach nearly all the time and we had to watch for chances to launch our tiny craft. On one occasion Olaf and Daniel, with Dr. Hofma, started across Nordenskiold Bay in a small wooden rowboat, towing a canvas scow heav­ily laden with stores. The bay was comparatively smooth when they started; but a storm blew up with incredible suddenness, and kicked up such a heavy sea that the waves were soon rolling over the gunwales of both boats and threatening to swamp them. With quick decision the Norwegian boatmen turned and ran with the wind to­ward an ice-floe nearby, and, reaching it, tied up the scow, leaving Dr. Hofma in charge, and made for the shore to unload their own cargo. In a quarter of an hour Dr. Hofma found himself in a most danger­ous situation. His ice-floe was rearing and plunging in the waves, and the canvas scow was liable to go down at any moment. Surf was beating over him and his goods, and the half-dozen dogs which had been left with him were howling in terror. Worse than all, he was drifting straight toward a glacier-face from fifty to seventy feet perpendicular, against which the sea was beating with terrific force, churning up and down in wildest fashion the accumulated debris of ice-floes. To drive into this maelstrom meant instant destruction.

The brave Norwegian youths put off from the shore in the teeth of the storm.  They bent their sturdy backs, and rarely have oarsmen worked closer to the last notch of endurance than our boys did this day. In the nick of time they reached the Doctor, who was imperturbably baling out his nearly waterlogged scow; and, taking that craft in tow, they made once more for the shore. Now followed another struggle, and for a time a doubtful one. The wind appeared determined to add the two boats to the chaos it had kicked up at the foot of the glacier, while the oarsmen were bent upon cheating the elements of their prey. At last muscle and courage won the battle, greatly to the joy of my companion and myself, who had run over from the house and stood now watching the struggle. By this time the ice was running in at a frightful pace, and at one moment it looked as if the boats were surely caught and destroyed between two heavy floes crashing together; but by a dex­terous movement the boatmen slipped through a narrow channel and into safe water. For­tunately, the beach there was shelving sand, for the shoal prevented the heavy ice coming close inshore and formed a protecting pier three or four rods out. The boats could not get quite in either, and the only way in which we could unload them was by wading out in the surf and carrying things in, piece by piece. At first plunge these ice-water baths are not so very pleasant; but the plunge once taken, one doesn't mind them at all.

During the winter we had many auroral displays of great beauty and one in particu­lar on December 8th. It was a perfect speci­men of the true corona aurora, a form not often seen. From near the horizon at all points of the compass great white and colored streams of light shot toward the zenith, and there mingled their rays in a common center. It was just as if all the steam power of the world had been multiplied a million-fold, all of it turned to the generation of electricity, and all this voltaic energy were poured through the lenses of vast search-lights placed in every city, town, and village the world round; and then, at a pre-concerted signal by tele­graph, all were set playing and dancing upon the very apex of the heavens.

One night we had an auroral display and an alarm of bear together; and beautiful as was the celestial skirt dance, candor compels me to admit that it was in the bear that the most general and keenest interest was dis­played. Take it all in all I think we had more fun out of bears than anything else during our day and night up near the Pole. Forty-seven, altogether, fell before our rifles, and the amount of sport involved in this slaughter would almost make a book of itself. For the day the sun disappeared for a little matter of eighteen weeks - October 19th - I find this record in my journal:

"The loss of the sun to-day was compen­sated for by a most extraordinary bear-hunt. Dr. Nansen said his Siberian dogs would not attack bears: we wish Dr. Nansen could have been with us to-day to see our pack of twenty loose dogs pursue and attack the big white fellow who came shuffling leisurely over the hill. As usual, Ursus, our black bear-dog, was the first to approach the enemy. Bruin simply looked at him in a half-conscious, half-indifferent sort of way, as much as to say: You're the biggest fox I've seen in Franz Josef Land, but I am not afraid of you.' Then he proceeded in dig­nified fashion on his way, turning neither to the right nor the left, and hastening not his gait - a line of conduct altogether becoming to one of the lords of the isles. But when Ursus was reinforced by a half-dozen, and then a dozen and a half of his comrades, and the whole pack gathered round the bear, yelping and dancing and showing their teeth, but never quite getting hold of him, the bear concluded that, after all, he might have a serious job on his hands. But he made a fatal mistake in his tactics. If he had simply run away, as fast and as far as his great legs could have carried him, he would have been quite safe, for dogs alone cannot kill a full-grown bear, even if it is fifty to one. Instead, he showed fight at once, and tried to reach the tormentor near­est him. First a savage lunge this way, now the other, the frothing mouth wide open, dis­playing tusks which needed only one chance to plant death in the vitals of the toughest dog that ever stood on four legs. But the pesky beasts were always just out of his reach. A dog can run faster than a bear, and move about more agilely, and that is the sum total of his superiority. At each on­slaught the bear made a break in the circle about him, as the dogs had no wish to come in contact with those terrible incisors; but a fire in the rear always caused him to wheel round, and thus the circle closed up again. The war-dance continued till the poor bear was beside himself with rage and fatigue. Now the swirling, yelping mass had reached the base of the sharp incline that led up to the basalt mountain peak. Up its steep, icy surface the bear now attempted to escape his pursuers. With prodigious strength he crept rapidly upward, but the dogs were con­stantly at his side. They were in front of him, behind him, all around him; and though some of them lost their footing and slipped to the bottom of the glacier, others took their places, and the luckless brute found no peace.

"Suddenly the bear's huge paws slipped their grip, and down he came - a veritable avalanche of flesh and fur, that roared as it rolled. Fully 250 feet he slid, most of the way at an angle of forty degrees, and by the time he struck the nearly level plateau he had an impetus which carried him rolling, bounding, ricocheting among the rocks, plowing through the snow, fully a hundred feet farther. His course lay directly over the spot where we stood waiting for him, and we politely and rather hastily stood aside to give him right of way. Some of the dogs had been carried down with the rush, and the others were too eager to wait to run down, and so did a bit of tobogganing on their own account. Before the bear could get upon his feet the dogs were all about him once more. We were there, too, and a few Winchester 45.90s brought this most sensational bear-hunt to an end."

A rather pathetic bear-hunt was one we had a few days later. Mother and cub came ambling along the plateau side by side, and of course the dogs soon had the pair sur­rounded. When we arrived upon the scene, after a sharp run of a mile, the battle was in full course, with the dogs getting decidedly the best of it. The poor dam had been harried almost into a state of exhaus­tion. Still she kept up the desperate struggle, and never once permitted her young hopeful to get five feet from her side. After each lunge at the nearest dog she quickly returned to her baby and this fat, graceful little fellow did his best, you may be sure, to keep close under mamma's protecting paws. It seemed impossible to shoot without hitting a dog, but I decided to risk it, and sent a Krag-Jorgensen bullet clean through her body. With the blood streaming from both sides she continued to fight for her cub, and as more bullets crashed into her vitals and she felt her hour at hand, her last instinctive movement was to gather the little fellow to her breast with her forepaws, that her tusks might give him protection to the last. Then she died.

Feeling his mother's grip upon him relax, the cub climbed upon her body and bravely attempted to defend himself. We were not yet so hardened in the stern life of this re­gion that we could step up and put a bullet through the heart of that trusting youngster without suffering qualms of conscience. Soon mother and son were blending their blood there upon the ice. Two of our best dogs had this she-bear killed in her fierce defense of her young.

The day before Christmas a lank, lean, hungry bear came near evening up some of the score against his tribe. Though the day was very dark and stormy, I took my usual walk out-doors, to and from the beach. The bear sneaked stealthily after me, and when I turned to walk back toward the sea once more, there he was in the path only a dozen feet away, crouching to spring. For an in­stant only did I hesitate, and that moment the bear and I stood looking one another in the eye. There was something about his personal appearance I did not like the looks of, and instinctively I resented any closer acquaintance with him. Then I raised my arms and shouted at him, and for answer he leaped at me. I sprang to one side, toward a spot where I knew half a dozen dogs had been lying out of the wind in the lee of a packing-box. Two seconds later I felt a heavy blow upon my shoulder, and as I fell into the snow I had the weight of a big paw on my body. "In another moment," I said to myself, "he will have my head in his mouth." But he didn't. At that most in­teresting juncture I heard the welcome bark of the dogs; they had scented the enemy, and leaped to the rescue. That heavy paw was lifted from my back, and as I scrambled up there was the bear, six or eight feet away, with the precious dogs yelping about him. As luck would have it, things turned out a good deal worse for the bear than they did for me. I had only a lame shoulder and a scratch on the neck, while that bear's skin, made into a rug, lies under my feet as I write.

A night of 3,000 hours between sunset and sunrise is rather long, but the Arctic night is not as black as it has been painted. December 21st, when at noon the sun was so far below the horizon that in order to see him one would have had to go up in a balloon several hundred miles, it was just possible to detect a bit of brightness in the southern sky. The days are never dark if the stars are out, as there is no verdure to absorb the light, and every ray is refracted from crys­tal to crystal. The Arctic moon is a glorious institution. Some of the best photographs of our camp were taken by her brilliant light.

Best of all, good fellowship abode with us in the little hut. It is an Arctic axiom that exploring parties should be of but one na­tionality. Though we were Americans and Norwegians, living all together in one room, day and night, throughout the long dark­ness, not a word of discord between Yankees and Norsemen marred the novel experience. There is something in the steady pressure of a life like this that brings out of men the best or the worst that is in them, and the world breeds no truer men than the young Norwegians who passed a day and a night with me in camp and field up near the Pole.

Originally published in McClure’s Magazine in April of 1900.
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