The Fur Country, by Jules Verne

Chapter VII.

The Arctic Circle.

The expedition continued to advance towards the north-west; but the great inequalities of the ground made it hard work for the dogs to get along, and the poor creatures, who could hardly be held in when they started, were now quiet enough. Eight or ten miles a day were as much as they could accomplish, although Lieutenant Hobson urged them on to the utmost.

He was anxious to get to Fort Confidence, on the further side of the Great Bear Lake, where he hoped to obtain some useful information. Had the Indians frequenting the northern banks of the lake been able to cross the districts on the shores of the sea? was the Arctic Ocean open at this time of year? These were grave questions, the reply to which would decide the fate of the new factory.

The country through which the little troop was now passing was intersected by numerous streams, mostly tributaries of the two large rivers, the Mackenzie and Coppermine, which flow from the south to the north, and empty themselves into the Arctic Ocean. Lakes, lagoons, and numerous pools are formed between these two principal arteries; and as they were no longer frozen over, the sledges could not venture upon them, and were compelled to go around them, which caused considerable delay. Lieutenant Hobson was certainly right in saying that winter is the time to visit the hyperborean regions, for they are then far easier to traverse. Mrs Paulina Barnett had reason to own the justice of this assertion than once.

This region, included in the “Cursed Land,” was, besides, completely deserted, as are the greater portion of the districts of the extreme north of America. It has been estimated that there is but one inhabitant to every ten square miles. Besides the scattered natives, there are some few thousand agents or soldiers of the different fur-trading companies; but they mostly congregate in the southern districts and about the various factories. No human footprints gladdened the eyes of the travellers, the only traces on the sandy soil were those of ruminants and rodents. Now and then a fierce polar bear was seen, and Mrs Paulina Barnett expressed her surprise at not meeting more of these terrible carnivorous beasts, of whose daily attacks on whalers and persons shipwrecked in Baffin’s Bay and on the coasts of Greenland and Spitzbergen she had read in the accounts of those who had wintered in the Arctic regions.

“Wait for the winter, madam,” replied the Lieutenant; “wait till the cold makes them hungry, and then you will perhaps see as many as you care about!”

On the 23d May, after a long and fatiguing journey, the expedition at last reached the Arctic Circle. We know that this latitude 23° 27’ 57” from the North Pole, forms the mathematical limit beyond which the rays of the sun do not penetrate in the winter, when the northern districts of the globe are turned away from the orb of day. Here, then, the travellers entered the true Arctic region, the northern Frigid Zone.

The latitude had been very carefully obtained by means of most accurate instruments, which were handled with equal skill by the astronomer and by Lieutenant Hobson. Mrs Barnett was present at the operation, and had the satisfaction of hearing that she was at last about to cross the Arctic Circle. It was with a feeling of just pride that she received the intelligence.

“You have already passed through the two Torrid Zones in your previous journeys,” said the Lieutenant, “and now you are on the verge of the Arctic Circle. Few explorers have ventured into such totally different regions. Some, so to speak, have a specialty for hot countries, and choose Africa or Australia as the field for their investigations. Such were Barth, Burton, Livingstone Speke, Douglas, Stuart, &c. Others, on the contrary, have a passion for the Arctic regions, still so little known. Mackenzie, Franklin, Penny, Kane, Parry, Rae, &c., preceded us on our present journey; but we must congratulate you, Mrs Barnett, on being a more cosmopolitan traveller than all of them.”

“I must see everything or at least try to see everything, Lieutenant,” replied. Mrs Paulina; “and I think the dangers and difficulties are about equal everywhere. Although we have not to dread the fevers of the unhealthy torrid regions, or the attacks of the fierce black races, in this Frigid Zone, the cold is a no less formidable enemy; and I suspect that the white bears we are liable to meet with here will give us quite as warm a reception as would the tiers of Thibet or the lions of Africa. In Torrid and Frigid Zones alike there are vast unexplored tracts which will long defy the efforts of the boldest adventurers.”

“Yes, madam,” replied Jaspar Hobson; “but I think the hyperborean regions will longer resist thorough exploration. The natives are the chief obstacle in tropical regions, and I am well aware how many travellers have fallen victims to savages. But civilisation will necessarily subdue the wild races sooner or later; whereas in the Arctic and Antarctic Zones it is not the inhabitants who arrest the progress of the explorer, but Nature herself who repels those who approach her, and paralyses their energies with the bitter cold!”

“You think, then, that the secrets of the most remote districts of Africa and Australia will have been fathomed before the Frigid Zone has been entirely examined?”

“Yes, madam,” replied the Lieutenant; “and I think my opinion is founded on facts. The most intrepid discoverers of the Arctic regions - Parry, Penny, Franklin, M’Clure, Dane, and Morton — did not get beyond 83° north latitude, seven degrees from the pole — whereas Australia has several times been crossed from south to north by the bold Stuart; and even Africa, with all its terrors, was traversed by Livingstone from the Bay of Loanga to the mouth of the Zambesi. We are, therefore, nearer to geographical knowledge of the equatorial countries than of the Polar districts.”

“Do you think that the Pole itself will ever be reached by man?” inquired Mrs Paulina Barnett.

“Certainly,” replied Hobson, adding with a smile, “by man or woman. But I think other means must be tried of reaching this point, where all the meridians of the globe cross each other, than those hitherto adopted by travellers. We hear of the open sea, of which certain explorers are said to have caught a glimpse. But if such a sea, free from ice, really exist, it is very difficult to get at, and no one can say positively whether it extends to the North Pole. For my part, I think an open sea would increase rather than lessen the difficulties of explorers. As for me, I would rather count upon firm footing, whether on ice or rock, all the way. Then I would organise successive expeditions, establishing depôts of provisions and fuel nearer and nearer to the Pole; and so, with plenty of time, plenty of money, and perhaps the sacrifice of a good many lives, I should in the end solve the great scientific problem. I should, I think, at last reach the hitherto inaccessible goal!”

“I think you are right, Lieutenant,” said Mrs Barnett; “and if ever you try the experiment, I should not be afraid to join you, and would gladly go to set up the Union Jack at the North Pole. But that is not our present object.”

“Not our immediate object, madam,” replied Hobson; “but when once the projects of the Company are realised, when the new fort has been erected on the confines of the American continent, it may become the natural starting-point of all expeditions to the north. Besides, should the fur-yielding animals, too zealously hunted, take refuge at the Pole, we should have to follow them.”

“Unless costly furs should go out of fashion,” replied Mrs Barnett.

“O madam,” cried the Lieutenant, “there will always be some pretty woman whose wish for a sable muff or an ermine tippet must be gratified!”

“I am afraid so,” said Mrs Barnett, laughing; “and probably the first discoverer of the Pole will have been led thither in pursuit of a sable or a silver fox.”

“That is my conviction,” replied Hobson. “ Such is human nature, and greed of gain will always carry a man further than zeal for science.”

“What! do you utter such sentiments?” exclaimed Mrs Barnett.

“Well, madam, what am I but an employé of the Hudson’s Bay Company? and does the Company risk its capital and agents with any other hope than an increase of profits?”

“Lieutenant Hobson,” said Mrs Barnett, “I think I know you well enough to assert that on occasion you would be ready to devote body and soul to science. If a purely geographical question called you to the Pole, I feel sure you would not hesitate to go. But,” she added, with a smile, “the solution of this great problem is still far distant. We have but just reached the verge of the Arctic Circle, but I hope we may cross it without any very great difficulty.”

“That I fear is doubtful,” said the Lieutenant, who had been attentively examining the sky during their conversation. “The weather has looked threatening for the last few days. Look at the uniformly grey hue of the heavens. That mist will presently resolve itself into snow; and if the wind should rise ever so little, we shall have to battle with a fearful storm. I wish we were at the Great Bear Lake!”

“Do not let us lose any time, then,” said Mrs Barnett, rising; “give the signal to start at once.”

The Lieutenant needed no urging. Had he been alone, or accompanied by a few men as energetic as himself, he would have pressed on day and night; but he was obliged to make allowance for the fatigue of others, although he never spared himself. He therefore granted a few hours of rest to his little party, and it was not until three in the afternoon that they again set out.

Jaspar Hobson was not mistaken in prophesying a change in the weather. It came very soon. During the afternoon of the same day the mist became thicker, and assumed a yellowish and threatening hue. The Lieutenant, although very uneasy, allowed none of his anxiety to appear, but had a long consultation with Sergeant Long whilst the dogs of his sledge were laboriously preparing to start.

Unfortunately, the district now to be traversed was very unsuitable for sledges. The ground was very uneven; ravines were of frequent occurrence; and masses of granite or half-thawed icebergs blocked up the road, causing constant delay. The poor dogs did their best, but the drivers’ whips no longer produced any effect upon them.

And so the Lieutenant and his men were often obliged to walk to rest the exhausted animals, to push the sledges, or even sometimes to lift them when the roughness of the ground threatened to upset them. The incessant fatigue was, however, borne by all without a murmur. Thomas Black alone, absorbed in his one idea, never got out of his sledge, and indeed be was so corpulent that all exertion was disagreeable to him.

The nature of the soil changed from the moment of entering the Arctic Circle. Some geological convulsion had evidently upheaved the enormous blocks strewn upon the surface. The vegetation, too, was of a more distinctive character. Wherever they were sheltered from the keen north winds, the flanks of the hills were clothed not only with shrubs, but with large trees, all of the same species — pines, willows, and firs — proving by their presence that a certain amount of vegetative force is retained even in the Frigid Zone. Jaspar Hobson hoped to find such specimens of the Arctic Flora even on the verge of the Polar Sea; for these trees would supply him with wood to build his fort, and fuel to warm its inhabitants. The same thought passed through the minds of his companions, and they could not help wondering at the contrast between this comparatively fertile region, and the long white plains stretching between the Great Slave Lake and Fort Enterprise.

At night the yellow mist became more opaque; the wind rose, the snow began to fall in large flakes, and the ground was soon covered with a thick white carpet. In less than an hour the snow was a foot deep, and as it did not freeze but remained in a liquid state, the sledges could only advance with extreme difficulty; the curved fronts stuck in the soft substance, and the dogs were obliged to stop again and again.

Towards eight o’clock in the evening the wind became very boisterous. The snow, driven before it, was flung upon the ground or whirled in the air, forming one huge whirlpool. The dogs, beaten back by the squall and blinded with snow, could advance no further. The party was then in a narrow gorge between huge icebergs, over which the storm raged with fearful fury. Pieces of ice, broken off by the hurricane, were hurled into the pass; partial avalanches, any one of which could have crushed the sledges and their inmates, added to its dangers, and to press on became impossible. The Lieutenant no longer insisted, and after consulting with Sergeant Long, gave the order to halt. It was now necessary to find a shelter from the snow-drift; but this was no difficult matter to men accustomed to Polar expeditions. Jaspar Hobson and his men knew well what they had to do under the circumstances. It was not the first time they had been surprised by a tempest some hundred miles from the forts of the Company, without so much as an Esquimaux hut or Indian hovel in which to lay their heads.

“To the icebergs! to the icebergs!” cried Jaspar Hobson.

Every one understood what he meant. Snow houses were to be hollowed out of the frozen masses, or rather holes were to be dug, in which each person could cower until the storm was over. Knives and hatchets were soon at work on the brittle masses of ice, and in three-quarters of an hour some ten dens had been scooped out large enough to contain two or three persons each. The dogs were left to themselves, their own instinct leading them to find sufficient shelter under the snow.

Before ten o’clock all the travellers were crouching in the snow houses, in groups of two or three, each choosing congenial companions. Mrs Barnett, Madge, and Lieutenant Hobson occupied one hut, Thomas Black and Sergeant Long another, and so on. These retreats were warm, if not comfortable; and the Esquimaux and Indians have no other refuge even in the bitterest cold. The adventurers could therefore fearlessly await the end of the storm as long as they took care not to let the openings of their holes become blocked up with the snow, which they had to shovel away every half hour. So violent was the storm that even the Lieutenant and his soldiers could scarcely set foot outside. Fortunately, all were provided with sufficient food, and were able to endure their beaver-like existence without suffering from cold or hunger

For forty-eight hours the fury of the tempest continued to increase. The wind roared in the narrow pass, and tore off the tops of the icebergs. Loud reports, repeated twenty times by the echoes, gave notice of the fall of avalanches, and Jaspar Hobson began to fear that his further progress would be barred by the masses of debris accumulated between the mountains. Other sounds mingled with these reports, which Lieutenant Hobson knew too well, and he did not disguise from Mrs Barnett that bears were prowling about the pass. But fortunately these terrible animals were too much occupied with their own concerns to discover the retreat of the travellers; neither the dogs nor the sledges, buried in the snow, attracted their attention, and they passed on without doing any harm.

The last night, that of the 25th or 26th May, was even more terrible. So great was the fury of the hurricane that a general overthrow of icebergs appeared imminent. A fearful death would then have awaited the unfortunate travellers beneath the ruins of the broken masses. The blocks of ice cracked with an awful noise, and certain oscillations gave warning that breaches had been made threatening their solidity. However, no great crash occurred, the huge mountains remained intact, and towards the end of the night one of those sudden changes so frequent in the Arctic regions took place; the tempest ceased suddenly beneath the influence of intense cold, and with the first dawn of day peace was restored.

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