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The fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude online

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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 formid-
able 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
tigers 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, Kane, 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 depdts 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

" 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 firm 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 employe of the Hudson's Bay
Company ? and does the Company risk its capital and agents with
any other hope than an increase of profits 1 "

" 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

" 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 accom-
panied 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 un-
suitable 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 he 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 compara-
tively fertile region, arid 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 com-
panions. 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 wita A^ 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 tool?
place ; the tempest ceased suddenly beneath the influence of intense
cold, and with the first dawn of day peace was restored.



;HIS sudden increase of cold was most fortunate. Even in
temperate climes there are generally three or four bitter
days in May ; and they were most serviceable now in con-
solidating the freshly-fallen snow, and making it practicable for
sledges. Lieutenant Hobson, therefore, lost no time in resuming
his journey, urging on the dogs to their utmost speed.

The route was, however, slightly changed. Instead of bearing due
north, the expedition advanced towards the west, following, so to
speak, the curve of the Arctic Circle. The Lieutenant was most
anxious to reach Fort Confidence, built on the northern extremity
of the Great Bear Lake. These few cold days were of the greatest
service to him ; he advanced rapidly, no obstacle was encountered,
and his little troop arrived at the factory on the 30th May,

At this time Forts Confidence and Good Hope were the most
advanced posts of the Company in the north. Fort Confidence was
a most important position, built on the northern extremity of the
lake, close to its waters, which being frozen over in winter, and
navigable in summer, afforded easy access to Fort Franklin, on
the southern shores, and promoted the coming and going of the
Indian hunters with their daily spoils. Many were the hunting
and fishing expeditions which started from Forts Confidence and
Good Hope, especially from the former. The Great Bear Lake is
quite a Mediterranean Sea, extending over several degrees of latitude
and longitude. Its shape is very irregular : two promontories jut
into it towards the centre, and the upper portion forms a triangle ;
its appearance, as a whole, much resembling the extended skin of a
ruminant without the head.

Fort Confidence was built at the end of the " right paw," at least
two hundred miles from Coronation Gulf, one of the numerous
estuaries which irregularly indent the coast of North America. It




was therefore situated beyond the Arctic Circle, but three degrees
south of the seventieth parallel, north of which the Hudson's Bay
Company proposed forming a new settlement.

Fort Confidence, as a whole, much resembled other factories
further south. It consisted of a house for the officers, barracks for
the soldiers, and magazines for the furs all of wood, surrounded
by palisades. The captain in command was then absent. He had
gone towards the east on a hunting expedition with a few Indiana
and soldiers. The last season had not been good, costly furs had
been scarce ; but to make up for this the lake had supplied plenty
of otter-skins. The stock of them had, however, just been sent
to the central factories in the south, so that the magazines of Fort
Confidence were empty on the arrival of our party.

In the absence of the Captain a Sergeant did the honours of the
fort to Jaspar Hobson and his companions. This second officer.
Felton by name, was a brother-in-law of Sergeant Long. He
showed the greatest readiness to assist the views of the Lieutenant,
who being anxious to rest his party, decided on remaining two or
three days at Fort Confidence. In the absence of the little garrison
there was plenty of room, and dogs and men were soon comfortably
installed. The best room in the largest house was of course given
to Mrs Paulina Barnett, who was delighted with the politeness of
Sergeant Felton.

Jaspar Hobson's first care was to ask Felton if any Indians from
the north were then beating the shores of the Great Bear Lake

" Yes, Lieutenant," replied the Sergeant ; " we have just received
notice of the encampment of a party of Hare Indians on the other
northern extremity of the lake."

" How far from here ? " inquired Hobson.

" About thirty miles," replied Sergeant Felton. " Do you wish
to enter into communication with these Indians 1 "

" Yes," said Hobson; " they may be able to give me some valuable
information about the districts bordering on the Arctic Ocean, and
bounded by Cape Bathurst. Should the site be favourable, I pro-
pose constructing our new fort somewhere about there."

" Well, Lieutenant, nothing is easier than to go to the Hare en-

" Along the shores of the lake ? "

"No, across it ; it is now free from ice, and the wind is favour



able. We will place a cutter and a boatman at your service, and
in a few hours you will be in the Indian settlement."

" Thank you, Sergeant ; to-morrow, then."

" Whenever you like, Lieutenant."

The start was fixed for the next morning ; and when Mrs Paulina
Barnett heard of the plan, she begged the Lieutenant to allow her to
accompany him, which of course he readily did.

But now to tell how the rest of this first day was passed. Mrs
Barnett, Hobson, two or three soldiers, Madge, Mrs Mac-Nab, and
Joliffe explored the shores of the lake under the guidance of Felton.
The neighbourhood was by no means barren of vegetation ; the hills,
now free from snow, were crowned by resinous trees of the Scotch
pine species. These trees, which attain a height of some forty feet,
supply the inhabitants of the forts with plenty of fuel through the
long winter. Their thick trunks and dark gloomy branches form a
striking feature of the landscape ; but the regular clumps of equal
height, sloping down to the very edge of the water, are somewhat
monotonous. Between the groups of trees the soil was clothed with
a sort of whitish weed, which perfumed the air with a sweet thymy
odour. Sergeant Felton informed his guests that this plant was
called the "herb of incense" on account of the fragrance it emits
when burnt.

Some hundred steps from the fort the party came to a little
natural harbour shut in by high granite rocks, which formed an
admirable protection from the heavy surf. Here was anchored the
fleet of Fort Confidence, consisting of a single fishing-boat the
very one which was to take Mrs Barnett and JELbson to the Indian
encampment the next day. From this harbour an extensive view
was obtained "of the lake; its waters slightly agitated by the wind,
with its irregular shores broken by jagged capes and intersected by
creeks. The wooded heights beyond, with here and there the rugged
outline of a floating iceberg standing out against the clear blue air,'
formed the background on the north ; whilst on the south a regular
sea horizon, a circular line clearly cutting sky and water, and at this
moment glittering in the sunbeams, bounded the sight.

The whole scene was rich in animal and vegetable life. The
surface of the water, the shores strewn with flints and blocks of
granite, the slopes with their tapestry of herbs, the tree-crowned
hill-tops, were all alike frequented by various specimens of the
feathered tribe. Several varieties of ducks, uttering their different


cries and calls, eider ducks, whistlers, spotted redshanks, " old
women," those loquacious birds whose beak is never closed, skimmed
the surface of the lake. Hundreds of puffins and guillemots with
outspread wings darted about in every direction, and beneath the
trees strutted ospreys two feet high a kind of hawk with a grey
body, blue beak and claws, and orange-coloured eyes, which build
their huge nests of marine plants in the forked branches of trees.
The hunter Sabine managed to bring down a couple of these gigantic
ospreys, which measured nearly six feet from tip to tip of their wings,
and were therefore magnificent specimens of these migratory birds,
who feed entirely on fish, and take refuge on the shores of the Gulf
of Mexico when winter sets in, only visiting the higher latitudes of
North America during the short summer.

But the most interesting event of the day was the capture of an
otter, the skin of which was worth several hundred roubles.

The furs of these valuable amphibious creatures were once much
sought after in China ; and although the demand for them has con-
siderably decreased in the Celestial Empire, they still command very
high prices in the Russian market. Russian traders, ready to buy
up sea-otter skins, travel all along the coasts of New Cornwall as
far as the Arctic Ocean ; and of course, thus hunted, the animal is
becoming very rare. It has taken refuge further and further north,
and the trackers have now to pursue it on the shores of the
Kamtchatka Sea, and in the islands of the Behring Archipelago.

" But/' added Sergeant Felton, after the preceding explanation,
" American inland otters are not to be despised, and those which
frequent the Great Bear Lake are worth from 50 to 60 each."

The Sergeant was right ; magnificent otters are found in these
waters, and he himself skilfully tracked and killed one in the pre-
sence of his visitors which was scarcely inferior in value to those
from Kamtchatka itself. The creature measured three feet from
the muzzle to the end of its tail ; it had webbed feet, short legs, and
its fur, darker on the upper than on the under part of its body, was
long and silky.

" A good shot, Sergeant," said Lieutenant Hobson, who with Mrs
Barnett had been attentively examining the magnificent fur of the
dead animal.

" Yes, Lieutenant," replied Felton ; " and if each day brought us
such a skin as that, we should have nothing to complain of. But
much time is wasted in watching these animals, who swim and dive


with marvellous rapidity. We generally hunt them at night, as they
very seldom venture from their homes in the trunks of trees or the
holes of rocks in the daytime, and even expert hunters find it very
difficult to discover their retreats."

" And are these otters also becoming scarcer and scarcer?'' inquired
Mrs Barnett.

"Yes, madam," replied the Sergeant; "and when this species-
becomes extinct, the profits of the Company will sensibly decline.
All the hunters try to obtain its fur, ;md the Americans in particular
are formidable rivals to us. Did you not meet any American agents
on your journey up, Lieutenant?"

" Not one," replied Hobson. " Do they ever penetrate as far as
this ? "

" Oh yes ! " said the Sergeant ; " and when you hear of their
approach, I advise you to be on your guard."

" Are these agents, then, highway robbers ? " asked Mrs Paulina

"No, madam," replied the Sergeant; "but they are formidable
rivals, and when game is scarce, hunters often come to blows about
it. I daresay that if the Company's attempt to establish a fort on
the verge of the Arctic Ocean be successful, its example will at once
be followed by these Americans, whom Heaven confound ! "

"Bah!" exclaimed the Lieutenant; " the hunting districts are
vast, and there *s room beneath the sun for everybody. As for us,
let 's make a start to begin with. Let us press on as long as we have
firm ground beneath our feet, and God be with us ! "

After a walk of three hours the visitors returned to Fort Confi-
dence, where a good meal of fish and fresh venison awaited them.
Sergeant Long did the honours of the table, and after a little
pleasant conversation, all retired to rest to forget their fatigues in a
healthy and refreshing sleep.

The next day, May 31st, Mrs Barnett and Jaspar Hobson were
on foot at five A.M. The Lieutenant intended to devote this day to
visiting the Indian encampment, and obtaining as much useful
information as possible. He asked Thomas Black to go with him,
but the astronomer preferred to remain on terra firma. He wished to
make a few astronomical observations, and to determine exactly the
latitude and longitude of Fort Confidence ; so that Mrs Barnett and
Jaspar Hobson had to cross the lake alone, under the guidance of an

Ilobaon uttered a least d*

espairing cry" Pacre 61.


old boatman named Norman, who had long been in the Company's

The two travellers were accompanied by Sergeant Long as far as
the little harbour, where they found old Norman ready to embark.
Their little vessel was but an open fishing-boat, 16 feet long, rigged
like a cutter, which one man could easily manage. The weather

Online LibraryJules VerneThe fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude → online text (page 5 of 31)