Distributed Proofreaders celebrates the 35,000th title it has posted to Project Gutenberg, Shores of the Polar Sea. Congratulations and thanks to all the DP volunteers who worked on it.
Prolonged periods of well-below-normal temperatures and wind chill have made life uncomfortable and even dangerous for people in areas of the northern hemisphere recently. This blast of frigid Arctic air gives scope to imagine what life was like for the British explorers venturing northwards toward the Pole in Shores of the Polar Sea, a Narrative of the Arctic Expedition of 1875-1876.
This detailed account of the expedition led by Sir George Strong Nares was written by British Royal Navy Surgeon Edward Lawton Moss (1843-1880), who served both as surgeon and artist on HMS Alert, one of the ships taking part. The many engravings and lovely chromolithographs in the book come from drawings and watercolor sketches made by Moss himself during the journey.
The expedition sailed from England with three ships, two of which would venture on northwards, HMS Alert and HMS Discovery. The third, HMS Valorous, was a support vessel carrying additional supplies to be transferred to the other two ships at a rendezvous point along the coast of Greenland. The goal of the expedition was to “attain the highest northern latitude, and, if possible, reach the Pole.” A sketch map in the book details the paths taken by the expedition ships on their way northwards and later back home, as well as the tracks made by sledges across land covered by snow and ice.
As the book starts, the narrator sets the scene for the coming adventure:
… the Arctic Circle has obvious boundaries. A conspicuous change in the ordinary habits of nature warns the traveller that he is leaving the hospitable realms of earth behind him, and entering a region full of new experiences. Here familiar light and darkness cease to alternate, morning and evening no longer make the day, and in proportion as the latitude increases, day and night become mere figures of speech.
The Alert, towing the Discovery in an effort to save fuel, leaves contact with home behind after a stop in Upernivik, then the northernmost settlement in the world.
The explorers remark upon the beauty of the sunlight on ice, comparing it to “fields of mother-of-pearl.” It is not long though before the ice pack halts the progress of the ships for days, with the men waiting for an opening that will allow them to push on. The ice floes continue to be a hazard to progress, tearing against the sides of the ships and crushing the ships in between them. The explorers eventually have to blast the ice with gunpowder to free themselves after their ice-saws are no longer sufficient to get through the thicker ice.
While the Discovery, according to plan, settles down to spend the winter in a harbour near Lady Franklin Sound, the Alert continues onwards, the men still optimistic about their goal. They struggle their way through the ice up the Robeson Channel and find shelter on a beach, but a sense of confusion falls over them. The continuing coastline northwards that they expect to see based on their maps is not there; instead, they find themselves looking at the open polar sea.
Various sledges pulled by dogs and their crews trek outwards from the ship to the north and west, hoping to find some evidence that the coastline eventually continues towards the Pole. The men on the sledges encounter waist-deep soft snow and harsh temperatures as low as 47 degrees below freezing. With water-bottles freezing shut, the men have only “icy cold raw rum” to drink! The sledge parties return to the ship weeks later without conclusive results and the Alert hunkers down for the impending winter, where the explorers will go 142 days without seeing the sun and experience temperatures of 73.7 degrees below freezing and lower.
The narrator notes that it is not the extreme cold that is the worst part of enduring the long winter, that “An icy tub on an English winter morning feels colder to the skin than the calm Arctic air.” The constant darkness is more unsettling, and worst of all is the confinement in a relatively small space with others, requiring discipline and dedication to a routine. The men keep up with astronomical, meteorological and other scientific measurements and notes during the winter. Outside the ship there is only silence, occasionally interrupted “by sudden unearthly yells and shrieks from the still moving pack, harsh and loud as a steam siren, but unlike anything else in art or nature.”
As travel becomes possible again in the spring, men from the Alert crew the sledges once more and set off, one track going along the shore to the northwest, the other heading out northwards over ice floes. The bright sun burns the men’s faces and damages their eyesight, but also creates this stunning visual:
Every crystal of snow reflected a miniature sun, and the path of the rays seemed literally sown with gems, topaz and sapphire generally, but here and there a ruby. Similar colours, but with a curious metallic lustre like oil on water, tinted the fleecy clouds overhead….
The sledges taking the northern route come within four hundred miles of the Pole, reaching a record northern latitude of 83° 20´ 26´´, but they and the sledges on the other track eventually have to turn back as the men become afflicted with scurvy, suffering from “exhaustion, swollen and sprained ankles, stiff knees, and bruised and painful legs,” and cannot continue. Not all will survive to get back on the ships as they turn back towards home, fighting through the ice and racing against time to avoid another Arctic winter.
Today, a small community still exists not far from where HMS Alert wintered during this expedition. Named after the ship, Alert is the northernmost permanently inhabited place in what is now Nunavut, Canada, and is home to various Canadian weather and military facilities as well as an airport.
This post was contributed by ellinora, a DP volunteer.