The Fur Country, by Jules Verne

Chapter XIII.

Across the Ice-Field.

At last, on the 22d of November, the weather moderated. In a few hours the storm suddenly ceased. The wind veered round to the north, and the thermometer fell several degrees. A few birds capable of a long-sustained flight took wing and disappeared. There really seemed to be a likelihood that the temperature was at last going to become what it ought to be at this time of the year in such an elevated latitude. The colonists might well regret that it was not now what it had been during the last cold season, when the column of mercury fell to 72° Fahrenheit below zero.

Hobson determined no longer to delay leaving Victoria Island, and on the morning of the 22d the whole of the little colony was ready to leave the island, which was now firmly welded to the ice-field, and by its means connected with the American continent, six hundred miles away.

At half-past eleven A.M., Hobson gave the signal of departure. The sky was grey but clear, and lighted up from the horizon to the zenith by a magnificent Aurora Borealis. The dogs were harnessed to the sledges, and three couple of reindeer to the waggon sledges. Silently they wended their way towards Cape Michael, where they would quit the island, properly so called, for the ice-field.

The caravan at first skirted along the wooded hill on the east of Lake Barnett, but as they were rounding the coiner all paused to look round for the last time at Cape Bathurst, which they were leaving never to return. A few snow-encrusted rafters stood out in the light of the Aurora Borealis, a few white lines marked the boundaries of the enceinte of the factory, a — white mass here and there, a few blue wreaths of smoke from the expiring fire never to be rekindled; this was all that could be seen of Fort Hope, now useless and deserted, but erected at the cost of so much labour and so much anxiety.

“Farewell, farewell, to our poor Arctic home!” exclaimed Mrs. Barnett, waving her hand for the last time; and all sadly and silently resumed their journey.

At one o’clock the detachment arrived at Cape Michael, after having rounded the gulf which the cold had imperfectly frozen over. Thus far the difficulties of the journey had not been very great, for the ground of the island was smooth compared to the ice-field, which was strewn with icebergs, hummocks, and packs, between which, practicable passes had to be found at the cost of an immense amount of fatigue.

Towards the evening of the same day the party had advanced several miles on the ice-field, and a halt for the night was ordered; the encampment was to be formed by hollowing out snow-houses in the Esquimaux style. The work was quickly accomplished with the ice-chisels, and at eight o’clock, after a salt meat supper, every one had crept into the holes, which are much warmer than anybody would imagine.

Before retiring, however, Mrs. Barnett asked the Lieutenant how far he thought they had come.

“Not more than ten miles, I think,” replied Hobson.

“Ten from six hundred!” exclaimed Mrs Barnett. “At this rate, it will take us three months to get to the American continent!”

“Perhaps more, madam,” replied Hobson, “for we shall not be able to get on faster than this. We are not travelling as we were last year over the frozen plains between Fort Reliance and Cape Bathurst; but on a distorted ice-field crushed by the pressure of the icebergs across which there is no easy route. I expect to meet with almost insurmountable difficulties on the way; may we be able to conquer them! It is not of so much importance, however, to march quickly as to preserve our health, and I shall indeed think myself fortunate if all my comrades answer to their names in the roll-call on our arrival at Fort Reliance. Heaven grant we may have all landed at some point, no matter where, of the American continent in three months’ time; if so, we shall never be able to return thanks enough.”

The night passed without incident; but during the long vigil which he kept, Hobson fancied he noticed certain ill-omened tremblings on the spot he had chosen for his encampment, and could not but fear that the vast ice-field was insufficiently cemented, and that there would be numerous rents in the surface which would greatly impede his progress, and render communication with firm ground very uncertain. Moreover, before he started, he had observed that none of the animals had left the vicinity of the fort, and they would certainly have sought a warmer climate had not their instinct warned them of obstacles in their way. Yet the Lieutenant felt that he had only done his duty in making this attempt to restore his little colony to an inhabited land, before the setting in of the thaw, and whether he succeeded or had to turn back he would have no reason to reproach himself.

The next day, November 23d, the detachment could not even advance ten miles towards the east, so great were the difficulties met with. The ice-field was fearfully distorted, and here and there many layers of ice were piled one upon another, doubtless driven along by the irresistible force of the ice-wall into the vast funnel of the Arctic Ocean. Hence a confusion of masses of ice, which looked as if they had been suddenly dropped by a hand incapable of holding them, and strewn about in every direction.

It was clear that a caravan of sledges, drawn by dogs and reindeer, could not possibly get over these blocks; and it was equally clear that a path could not be cut through them with the hatchet or ice-chisel. Some of the icebergs assumed extraordinary forms, and there were groups which looked like towns falling into ruins. Some towered three or four hundred feet above the level of the ice-field, and were capped with tottering masses of debris, which the slightest shake or shock or gust of wind would bring down in avalanches.

The greatest precautions were, therefore, necessary in rounding these ice-mountains, and orders were given not to speak above a whisper, and not to excite the dogs by cracking the whips in these dangerous passes.

But an immense amount of time was lost in looking for practicable passages, and the travellers were worn out with fatigue, often going ten miles round before they could advance one in the required direction towards the east. The only comfort was that the ground still remained firm beneath their feet.

On the 24th November, however, fresh obstacles arose, which Hobson really feared, with considerable reason, would be insurmountable.

After getting over one wall of ice which rose some twenty miles from Victoria Island, the party found themselves on a much less undulating ice-field, the different portions of which had evidently not been subjected to any great pressure. It was clear that in consequence of the direction of the currents the influence of the masses of permanent ice in the north had not here been felt, and Hobson and his comrades soon found that this ice-field was intersected with wide and deep crevasses not yet frozen over. The temperature here was comparatively warm, and the thermometer maintained a mean height of more than 34° Fahrenheit. Salt water, as is well known, does not freeze so readily as fresh, but requires several degrees of cold below freezing point before it becomes solidified, and the sea was therefore still liquid. All the icebergs and floes here had come from latitudes farther north, and, if we may so express it, lived upon the cold they had brought with them. The whole of the southern portion of the Arctic Ocean was most imperfectly frozen, and a warm rain was falling, which hastened the dissolution of what ice there was.

On the 24th November the advance of the travellers was absolutely arrested by a crevasse full of rough water strewn with small icicles — a crevasse not more than a hundred feet wide, it is true, but probably many miles long.

For two whole hours the party skirted along the western edge of this gap, in the hope of coming to the end of it and getting to the other side, so as to resume their march to the east, but it was all in vain, they were obliged to give it up and encamp on the wrong side.

Hobson and Long, however, proceeded for another quarter of a mile along the interminable crevasse, mentally cursing the mildness of the winter which had brought them into such a strait.

“We must pass somehow,” said Long, “for we can’t stay where we are.”

“Yes, yes,” replied the Lieutenant, “and we shall pass it, either by going up to the north, or down to the south, it must end somewhere. But after we have got round this we shall come to others, and so it will go on perhaps for hundred of miles, as long as this uncertain and most unfortunate weather continues!”

“Well, Lieutenant, we must ascertain the truth once for all before we resume our journey,” said the Sergeant.

“We must indeed, Sergeant,” replied Hobson firmly, “or we shall run a risk of not having crossed half the distance between us and America after travelling five or six hundred miles out of our way. Yes, before going farther, I must make quite sure of the state of the ice-field, and that is what I am about to do.”

And without another word Hobson stripped himself, plunged into the half-frozen water, and being a powerful swimmer a few strokes soon brought him to the other side of the crevasse, when he disappeared amongst the icebergs.

A few hours later the Lieutenant reached the encampment, to which Long had already returned, in an exhausted condition. He took Mrs Barnett and the Sergeant aside, and told them that the ice-field was impracticable, adding —

“Perhaps one man on foot without a sledge or any encumbrances might get across, but for a caravan it is impossible. The crevasses increase towards the east, and a boat would really be of more use than a sledge if we wish to reach the American coast”

“Well,” said Long, “if one man could cross, ought not one of us to attempt it, and go and seek assistance for the rest.”

“I thought of trying it myself,” replied Hobson.

“You, Lieutenant!”

“You, sir!” cried Mrs Barnett and Long in one breath.

These two exclamations showed Hobson how unexpected and inopportune his proposal appeared. How could he, the chief of the expedition, think of deserting those confided to him, even although it was in their interests and at great risk to himself. It was quite impossible, and the Lieutenant did not insist upon it.

“Yes,” he said, “I understand how it appears to you, my friends, and I will not abandon you. It would, indeed, be quite useless for any one to attempt the passage; he would not succeed, he would fall by the way, and find a watery grave when the thaw sets in. And even suppose he reached New Archangel, how could he come to our rescue? Would he charter a vessel to seek for us? Suppose he did, it could not start until after the thaw. And who can tell where the currents will then have taken Victoria Island, either yet farther north or to the Behring Sea!

“Yes, Lieutenant, you are right,” replied Long; “let us remain together, and if we are to be saved in a boat, there is Mac-Nab’s on Victoria Island, and for it at least we shall not have to wait!”

Mrs Barnett had listened without saying a word, but she understood that the ice-field being impassible. they had now nothing to depend on but the carpenter’s boat, and that they would have to wait bravely for the thaw.

“What are you going to do, then?” she inquired at last.

“Return to Victoria Island.”

“Let us return then, and God be with us!”

The rest of the travellers had now gathered round the Lieutenant, and he laid his plans before them.

At first all were disposed to rebel, the poor creatures had been counting on getting back to their homes, and felt absolutely crushed at the disappointment, but they soon recovered their dejection and declared themselves ready to obey.

Hobson then told them the results of the examination he had just made. They learnt that the obstacles in their way on the east were so numerous that it would be absolutely impossible to pass with the sledges and their contents, and as the journey would last several months, the provisions, &c., could not be dispensed with.

“We are now,” added the Lieutenant, “cut off from all communication with the mainland, and by going farther towards the east we run a risk, after enduring great fatigues, of finding it impossible to get back to the island, now our only refuge. If the thaw should overtake us on the ice-field, we are lost. I have not disguised nor have I exaggerated the truth, and I know, my friends, that I am speaking to men who have found that I am not a man to turn back from difficulties. But I repeat, the task we have set ourselves is impossible!”

The men trusted their chief implicitly. They knew his courage and energy, and felt as they listened to his words that it was indeed impossible to cross the ice. It was decided to start on the return journey to Fort Hope the next day, and it was accomplished under most distressing circumstances. The weather was dreadful, squalls swept down upon the ice-field, and rain fell in torrents. The difficulty of finding the way in the darkness through the labyrinth of icebergs can well be imagined!

It took no less than four days and four nights to get back to the island. Several teams of dogs with their sledges fell into the crevasses, but thanks to Hobson’s skill, prudence, and devotion, he lost not one of his party. But what terrible dangers and fatigues they had to go through, and how awful was the prospect of another winter on the wandering island to the unfortunate colonists!

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:24