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M. B. Synge

An Arctic Hero

United States—1853

"To conduct an expedition to the Arctic seas in search of Sir John Franklin." Few men knew better than Elisha Kane what these words meant; few men had already suffered greater hardships in those frozen, ice-locked seas than the man who was now called on by the United States Navy to go and solve the great world mystery in those dim, shadowy regions of the north.

"In search of Sir John Franklin."

He was not the first to go in search of this great Arctic explorer; he would not be the last. Just seven years before, Sir John Franklin had sailed in search of the North-West Passage, but he had never returned. Ship after ship had been fitted out, ship after ship had sailed and returned with no news of the missing crew! Englishmen, Frenchmen, Americans, all had competed for the honour which should belong to the one who could discover the fate of Franklin and his men, and set at rest the deep anxiety felt on their behalf.

It was on May 30, 1853, amid salutes and cheers of farewell, that Kane left New York in the Advance, a little brig of some one hundred and forty-four tons, already tried in the Arctic ice.

The crew consisted of some eighteen picked men, all ready to do and to dare. The equipment was simple; their food was plain and rough.

Kane had been before to the Arctic regions as surgeon on board the Advance; he had already faced that dreary land of everlasting ice and snow; he knew what hardships and sorrows awaited him there. He was a small, frail-looking man, suffering often and severely from rheumatism; unfit, to all appearance, for the perils he must face, but with pluck to go through anything, and with a determination to trace Franklin at all costs.

There is a story told of his courage when he sailed before in the Advance. No sooner had the vessel started than terrible sea-sickness seized Kane, and for thirty-one days he was unable to move from his berth. Reduced to a mere bag of bones, he was completely knocked up before Whale-Fish Island was reached. Meeting with an English transport here, the captain of the ship arranged that Kane should be sent home invalided on full pay. He had only to certify his own unfitness for further service.

Kane looked at his captain in blank dismay. Was this to be the end of his Arctic exploration? Then, after a spasm of painful feeling, which melted the captain's very heart, he turned and said firmly,—

"I won't do it."

The ship sailed on. Kane lived down his sea-sickness, and soon after became the most active man on board.

On his return, fifteen months later, his health entirely gave way. And yet he was ready now to try again.

Eighteen days' sailing found the Advance at St. John's, Newfoundland. After taking on board a team of Newfoundland dogs, the little brig was headed for the coast of Greenland. Here they took on board Hans Christian, an Eskimo hunter, who saved their lives many a time by procuring them fresh food when they were starving. They lingered along the coast of Greenland for nine or ten days; and then, having bought a supply of reindeer skins and sealskin boots, they put to sea again, beating to the northward in the teeth of a heavy gale.

Coasting along, they passed many an Eskimo settlement, and many an old friend of three years ago turned out to welcome Dr. Kane. Here was his former patient Anna, since married to a fat Eskimo; here was Anna's mother, who insisted on sewing up the reindeer skins into possible garments for the captain and his crew to wear. Then on again, past the Horse's Head and Duck Islands, where the Advance had grounded three years before, on through heavy ice fogs, right into the heart of the icebergs!

By the sixth of August they had reached Smith's Sound, beyond which no European or American had as yet ventured.

"As we look far to the west," says Kane in his diary, "the snow comes down to the water's edge; on the right we have an array of cliffs some five hundred yards in height, with precipices sheer down into the sea. They look down on us as if they would challenge our right to pass."

Still the Advance sailed on under the dark shadow of the cliffs, sailed on into the desolate, unknown seas!

Kane had made up his mind to force his way to the north as far as he could in search of the missing Franklin; but in case of accident, so that retreat should not be wholly cut off, he landed on an island, and buried some boats and food with stones and sand. Then they built a cairn, wedged a staff into the crevices of the rock, waved the American flag, and gave three cheers as heartily as they could in the freezing midnight air.

To feed the fifty dogs on board was becoming more difficult daily. True, they once found a dead sea-unicorn, which lasted these "ravening wolves" some time; but sea-unicorns did not turn up every day.

"Unruly, thieving, wild beast pack," cries Kane, in despair; "not a bear's paw or basket of mosses, or any specimen whatever, can leave your hands for a moment without their making a rush at it, and after a yelping scramble, swallowing it down at a gulp."

They even ate Kane's feather bed!

For the next three weeks the Advance was practically ice-bound, waiting for a north wind to clear the ice and give her free passage onward. Instead of this came a gale from the south. And such a gale! The sky grew dark, and the crew prepared for a storm, with three good hawsers out ahead to keep the ship steady and all snug on board.

On came the storm fiercer and fiercer; the ice began to drive wildly about; the gale roared like a lion to the southward. Suddenly snap went one cord; half a minute later, and "twang, twang," the whole line gave. The ship was swinging by one hawser only.

"Captain Kane, she won't last much longer," cried one of the crew.

Almost as he spoke, with the noise of a shotted gun, the third hawser gave way, and the Advance was dragged out by the wild ice at the mercy of the wind and sea. They managed to beat about, keeping some sort of command of the helm, till early next morning. But they were close to the mass of ice now, ever grinding up into a great pile. In despair, they dropped their heaviest anchor; but the ice torrent took it away, and they were helplessly tossed about by an ever-increasing wind. One upturned mass of ice rose above their gunwale, smashed in their bulwarks, and deposited half a ton of ice in a great lump on their deck. The stanch little brig bore herself as if she had a charmed life.

But now a new enemy appeared in the shape of a number of great icebergs. Would they now be dashed to pieces against them, or might they not offer some refuge from the storm? The icebergs were moving slowly. A brilliant idea struck Kane. Why not make the iceberg tow them? Securing an anchor on the sloping side of one, and tying on a whale line, they attached themselves, and the great ice horse towed them bravely on. The spray dashed up over them, the icebergs closed in on them as they advanced, till suddenly the Advance was thrown up the sloping side of an iceberg amid a broken mass of ice. The crew, too glad to be at rest after their strain of thirty-six hours, secured her somehow, and overcome with fatigue fell into their berths and slept.

The gale abated; they harnessed themselves like mules on a canal, and towed their ship along the icy coast. They had sailed farther north than any of their predecessors already; but an early winter threatened them. Was it possible that Franklin had got farther north before the winter darkness and ice closed him in? Snow fell heavily and steadily, and further progress became impossible.

"Let us sail to the south," said the crew, "and wait there till the darkness is past and the ice melts with the return of the sun."

But Kane saw the loss of time this would involve. They were men; they would not shirk their duty. They resolved to winter the brig at the head of a bay, latitude 78° 37', whence sledging parties could be dispatched. Then hot coffee was served out, and amid cheering songs the little brig moved on to her winter quarters.

From time to time sledge parties went out on expeditions over the ice; but they returned with the same report—nothing to be seen but a solid sea of ice and great barriers of icebergs.

The winter came on fast. It was now September, and they must not reckon on seeing the sun again after another month. There was plenty to be done—a store-house for the food to be erected, provisions to be looked after, the dogs to be trained. So darker grew the days and blacker grew the nights now; they could just read the thermometer at noonday without a light and that was all.

By November all was darkness, and even to read the thermometer required a lantern. And ninety days of this to look forward to, and twenty-four long hours to each day. No wonder life was monotonous.

"We have lost the last vestige of our mid-day twilight. We cannot see print, and hardly paper; the fingers cannot be counted a foot from the eyes. Noonday and midnight are alike, and we have nothing to tell us that this Arctic world of ours has a sun."

Trying as this was to the men, it was yet more trying to the poor dogs. One by one a sort of madness seized them, and one by one they died, till out of the splendid team only six were left, thirty-eight having perished.

At last, toward the end of February, a faint glimmer of sunlight began to silver the ice between the headlands of the bay. Out turned Captain Kane and out turned the crew to welcome it back.

"The sunshine reached our deck on the last day of February; we needed it to cheer us," wrote Kane.

Yet he would not turn homewards. He felt his work was unfinished; he must push on farther to the north. On the twentieth of March a small party of pale-faced men was sent off with sledges and provisions to establish a chain of camps along the northern coast of Greenland. Dressed in their skins, they must have looked somewhat like a troop of bears on their hind legs.

Suddenly one night—it was nearly twelve o'clock, and Kane was making up garments of skins—the noise of footsteps startled them, and the next minute three half-dying men entered the cabin. They were swollen and haggard, and hardly able to speak. Their story was a terrible one. They had left their comrades in the ice, risking their own lives to bring news. Four of them were lying frozen and disabled, they could not say where, somewhere in among the hummocks to the north and east. "Irish Toni" had stayed behind to watch them. This was all they could remember.

There was only one course open—a rescue party must start at once without delay, and one of the three men must be taken to show the way.

"Little Willie" was soon rigged out with a buffalo cover. The least tired of the three men was wrapped in a fur bag, his legs rolled in dogskins and eider down, and strapped on to the sledge. Then nine men, headed by Kane, all wrapped in bearskins, harnessed themselves in and started off. The tired man strapped on to the sledge, who had not rested for fifty hours, fell asleep; no tracks were to be found. The wind set in sharply from the north-west, the thermometer fell; they must not stop for a moment, or they too would freeze.


The Relief Party

The strongest of the party were seized with trembling fits; Kane himself fainted twice in the snow. They had been eighteen hours without food or water, when suddenly Hans thought he saw a broad sledge-track. They traced it on to the deep snow among the hummocks, till at last they saw a small American flag fluttering in the wind, and lower down was a banner hanging from a tent-pole scarcely showing above the drift. It was the camp of the disabled men, and they had reached it after an unbroken march of twenty-one hours.

The little tent was nearly covered. Kane crawled into the darkness. There lay the four poor fellows stretched helplessly on their backs, but not too far gone to break out into a burst of welcome, which more than repaid the man for his terrible journey.

"We knew you would come," they cried pathetically.

Each man was allowed two hours' sleep, while the others walked about to keep from freezing. Then came the homeward march. They sewed up the limbs of the sick men in reindeer skins and placed them on folded buffalo bags, lashing them on to the sledge. They were ready at last, and after standing round, while the commander repeated a short prayer, they started back on their weary march.

They had drawn the sledge, top-heavy as it was with its living burden of sick men, over the cracked and uneven ice, when the strength of the whole party seemed to fail. They no longer complained of cold; they only asked to sleep, just to be allowed to sink down in the snow and sleep. Kane knew that sleep in that frozen snow meant death. He ordered the tent to be pitched; their hands were too powerless to light a fire; they were too tired to thaw their frozen food. After a short rest they struggled on again. It was desperate work. They had to eat the snow; their mouths swelled, and they became speechless. At last they reached the brig. They were like men in a dream as they staggered back; most of them were frost-bitten, several delirious, more than one dying. They greeted the men on board with a vacant look, and fell into their cabin beds as they were.

One morning in the following week (it was now April) they were watching by the side of a member of the crew, who was dying from the long exposure on the ice, when one came hurrying down into the cabin, crying,—

"People hallooing ashore."

Kane went up on deck. There they were, true enough, standing like so many bears on all sides of the rocky harbour, dotting the snowy shores, wild and strange looking, but human beings all the same. Waving their arms about, they cried, "Hoah, ha, ha," over and over again. Indeed this must have been the first time they had ever seen a white man, and this pale-faced crew must have startled them considerably. Leaving their teams of dogs and sledges, they agreed to go on board; but they were troublesome visitors, stealing everything they could lay hands on, so that the crew were not entirely sorry when they yoked in their dogs, cracked their long sealskin whips, and span away over the ice at the rate of some seven knots an hour.

And now Kane started on a very important journey. His plan was to follow the ice-belt to the great glacier of Humboldt, and so make an attempt to cross the ice to the American side. By the fourth of May they reached it, but it was dearly earned. Kane just saw the great glacier—saw the "mighty crystal bridge" which connected America and Greenland—and then once more the strength of the little party failed. Three were seized with snow blindness, scurvy attacked them all, and worse still, a friendly bear ate all their food. There was nothing for it but to return to the brig. Dr. Kane himself was the worst of all. One foot was frozen, and he fainted with every movement. He was strapped on to the sledge and drawn by five of his bravest men, themselves almost too weak and ill to get along. Through deep snow they plodded wearily on, till they carried their commander, more dead than alive, to the brig. He hardly became conscious till the twentieth of May, when, propped up by pillows, and surrounded by his sick and pale-faced mates, he once more realized the fact that he had failed to force a passage to the north.

Time was gliding on. Spring came, summer followed; still fast lay the brig firmly clenched into the ice. Daily did the prisoners watch for some sign of softening in the ice, some slight relaxing of that iron grip which imprisoned their little ship. But their hopes grew dim, and their prospects of escape slight, as the autumn season advanced, and the sunbeams fell more languidly on hard-frozen floes. From time to time the strongest men of the party started off on expeditions of discovery. They discovered a vast tract of open water toward the pole. They found a whole island of eider ducks, and killed two hundred birds. They pushed their way to south and west, but they failed to find any retreat or way of advance. The prospect was dark indeed. There was no coal and but little wood to keep them warm through another winter; there was only a scanty supply of food to help them to fight against the diseases fast taking stronger hold on them; the ship was a hospital; most of the dogs were dead. What was to be done? Leave the brig and push southwards with sledge and boats? No, Kane could not bring himself to do this while there was a ray of hope.

"It is a simple act of honour to remain by the brig," wrote Kane. "Come what may, I share her fortunes. I cannot disguise it from myself that we are wretchedly prepared for another winter on board."

One day he called together his crew, explained matters to them, alluded to their duty to the ship, gave permission to those who liked to go, then directed the roll to be called and each man to answer for himself. There were seventeen men, broken down, home-sick, depressed. Eight stood firm, nine chose to fight their way south at all hazards. Kane gave them what food he could spare, good-byes were said, and hands were wrung in silence, and they disappeared among the hummocks.

It was with heavy hearts that Kane and his eight brave men set to work to prepare for their second winter of gloom and darkness. "But it is horrible to look forward to another year of disease and darkness, to be met without fresh food and without fuel."

They set to work to gather moss to line their sleeping compartment. Of coal there was none, and for fuel they had to burn their topmasts, cross-beams, girders, and even peel off the outer sheathing of the vessel.

The want of food was even more pressing. On the fifth of December two potatoes were served out to sick men, and the remaining twelve hoarded away as "worth their weight in gold." A bear's head was served up as a delicacy to the invalids, with a pint of fresh blood from two rabbits; the liver of a walrus, eaten with little slices of his fat, and rat soup—these were among the delicacies indulged in. Indeed rats were becoming a plague on board during that long, dark winter. They destroyed the furs and shoes, and gnawed their way into the beds; and one day a rat bit Kane's finger to the bone, having made a nest in one of his fur mittens, and resenting his putting it on. By March things looked bad indeed. The whole party was quite broken down. Every man on board had scurvy, old wounds opened anew, and most of the crew lay through the long, dark day and yet longer night in their berths, powerless to rise. With the first dawning streaks of light, Hans the huntsman had struggled out to the huts of the Eskimos for fresh food; for it was becoming more certain every hour that without fresh meat the days of the party were numbered. Still the iron-hearted commander held on. Often the only man up, he had to discharge the duties of cook, commander, and sick nurse, cheering his men when his own heart was bursting, hoping on for better days when his crew only wished to die and forget their miseries.

On the tenth of March, Hans came back. "Bim, bim, bim "sounded from the deck, and the chorus of returning dogs, and in another moment Kane had grasped his hand in silent joy. They might yet be saved, for Hans had not returned empty-handed.

"Speak loud, Hans, that they may hear in the bunks," cried Kane, as Hans related his adventures. Soon the sick men were fed on thinly-sliced frozen walrus heart with vinegar, to be followed by blood gravy with wheaten bread.

But now fuel gave in, and the sorest trial of all to Kane came in taking more wood from the brig, and so rendering her unfit to go to sea again.

"It is a hard trial. I have spared neither exertion, thought, nor suffering to save the seaworthiness of our little vessel, but all to no end. She can never bear us to the sea now," he wrote piteously.

So they struggled on till May, when even the stout-hearted Kane saw that future discovery to the north was rendered impossible in their present weak condition.

Reluctantly, sadly, he made up his mind to abandon the brig, and to make the best of their way home over the ice with sledges and the sick men.

On the twentieth of May the little crew collected to take farewell of their ice home. It was Sunday. The moss walls had been torn down and the wood that supported them burned, the beds were gone, the galley unfurnished and very cold—everything looked desolate enough.

Kane read prayers ending, "Accept our gratitude, and restore us to our homes," and a chapter of the Bible. He then addressed his pale-faced crew.

"There are thirteen hundred miles of ice and water between us and North Greenland," he said, "but by obedience and energy you can manage it. It is the duty of all to consider first the sick and wounded. I hope we have done what we ought to prove our devotion to the cause which we have in hand."

They then went up on deck, the flags were hoisted and hauled down again, the party walked twice round the brig, somewhat regretfully now the time had come to leave her, and silently they turned their heads on what had been their home for two long years.

Each man had a woollen under-dress and a suit of fur, boots made of the cabin carpet covered with fur, and goggles for snow blindness.

Thus he set out, travelling but slowly and painfully. Indeed the feeble caravan took eight days to go fifteen miles. After eighty-one miles over the snow and ice they reached open water. Launching the three boats, the Faith, Hope, and Red Eric, they embarked on a smooth sea. But the wind soon freshened, the Red Eric  was swamped, and the crew only just managed to scramble on to the other boats in time. They pushed on, though almost blinded by a snow-storm, and made for Northumberland Island.

It would take too long to tell of the hardships and accidents the little party had to undergo—how their boats nearly sank, how they were stopped by storms or lost in fogs, how the ice-floe broke up suddenly, tossing the ice into hills with a hideous noise and whirling the helpless boats on the top of a seething cauldron. By the twenty-eighth of July things looked bad; their strength failed, their feet were so swollen they had to cut open their boots, they were too tired to sleep, too hungry to exist much longer. They were in the open bay, in boats so frail and unseaworthy as to require constant bailing to keep them afloat.

One day the starving crew saw a seal floating on a small patch of ice, and seemingly asleep. Stationing a man in the bow with the large English rifle, and drawing stockings over their oars as mufflers, they made for the animal. Their excitement was so intense that they could hardly keep stroke. To speak would be fatal. In deep silence they moved on.

"He was not asleep, for he raised his head when we were almost within rifle-shot, and to this day I can remember the hard, careworn, almost despairing expression of the men's thin faces as they saw him move." Their very lives depended on his capture. The seal rose, gazed at his murderers for a moment, and coiled himself for a plunge. The same instant crack went the rifle, and he relaxed his long length on the ice. With a wild yell the crew seized him and bore him on to safer ice. The men were half crazy with hunger. They ran over the ice, crying and laughing and brandishing their knives, and in less than five minutes they were greedily eating strips of raw blubber.

Ten days later, and suddenly a familiar sound was heard over the waters: "Halloo! halloo!"

"Listen, men! What is it?" they cried, trembling.

Then a single mast came into sight, and one of the men, Petersen by name, burst into a fit of crying. "'Tis the oil-boat from Upernavik," he sobbed, wringing his hands. "'Tis Carlie looking for blubber!"

He was right. Carlie was getting the year's supply of blubber, and was surprised by the sight of this ragged, famished, pale-faced crew.

Questions were poured forth in a stream, without leaving time for answers.

"What had been passing in the big world? What of America? Any news of Franklin?"

"Sebastopol ain't taken yet," was Carlie's first remark.

"And what is Sebastopol?" cried the explorers, ignorant of the Crimean war, which was moving all nations. Then they heard that Franklin's party, or traces of the dead, had been found one thousand miles to the south of where they had been searching for them.

For the first time for eighty-four days they slept under the shelter of a roof, and heard human voices welcome them back to civilized regions again.

On the eleventh they fell in with a United States vessel, dispatched to learn tidings of Kane and his missing crew. They saw the Stars and Stripes from afar. The Faith  was lowered for the last time, and the little flag which had floated so near the poles of both hemispheres once more floated in the breeze.

"Is this Dr. Kane?" asked the captain, as he looked at a little, shrivelled man in a ragged flannel shirt. With the "yes" that answered his question, the rigging was manned, and a ringing burst of cheers from the throats of their countrymen struck new life into the souls of the tired explorers.