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The fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude online

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In the afternoon of the next day, June 3d, the river was gained.
It was now free from ice, and its clear and rapid waters flowed
through a vast valley, intersected by numerous but easily fordable
streams. The sledges advanced pretty rapidly, and as they went
along, Hobson gave his companion som,e account of the country
through which they were passing. A sincere friendship, founded on
mutual esteem, had sprung up between these two. Mrs Paulina
Barnett was an earnest student with a special gift for discovery, and
was therefore always glad to converse with travellers and explorers.
Hobson, who knew his beloved North America by heart, was able
to answer all her inquiries fully.

" About ninety years ago," he said, " the territory through which
the Coppermine flows was unknown, and we are indebted for its
discovery to the agents of the Hudson's Bay Company. But as
always happens in scientific matters, in seeking one thing, another
was found. Columbus was trying to find Asia, and discovered

" And what were the agents of the Hudson's Bay Company
seeking ? The famous North- West Passage 1 "

" No, madam," replied the young Lieutenant. " A century ago
the Company had no interest in the opening of a new route, which
would have been more valuable to its rivals than to it. It is even
said that in 1741 a certain Christopher Middleton, sent to explore
these latitudes, was publicly charged with receiving a bribe of
500 from the Company to say that there was not, and could not
be, a sea passage between the oceans."


" That was not much to the credit of the celebrated Company,"
said Mrs Barnett.

" I do not defend it in the matter," replied Hobson ; " and its
interference was severely censured by Parliament in 1746, when a
reward of 20,000 was offered by the Government for the discovery
of the passage in question. In that year two intrepid explorers,
William Moor and Francis Smith, penetrated as far as Repulse Bay
in the hope of discovering the much-longed-for passage. But they
were unsuccessful, and returned to England after an absence of a
year and a half."

" But did not other captains follow in their steps, resolved to
conquer where they had failed ? " inquired Mrs Barnett.

" No, madam ; and in spite of the large reward offered by Par-
liament, no attempt was made to resume explorations in English
America until thirty years afterwards, when some agents of the
Company took up the unfinished task of Captains Moor and

"The Company had then relinquished the narrow-minded egotis-
tical position it had taken up ? "

" No, madam, not yet. Samuel Hearne, the agent, only went to
reconnoitre the position of a copper-mine which native miners had
reported. On November 6, 1769, this agent left Fort Prince of
Wales, on the river Churchill, near the western shores of Hudson's
Bay. He pressed boldly on to the north-west ; but the excessive
cold and the exhaustion of his provisions compelled him to return
without accomplishing anything. Fortunately he was not easily
discouraged, and on February 23d of the next year he set out
again, this time taking some Indians with him. Great hardships
were endured in this second journey. The fish and game on which
Hearne had relied often failed him ; and he had once nothing to eat
for seven days but wild fruit, bits of old leather, and burnt bones.
He was again compelled to return to the fort a disappointed man.
But he did not even yet despair, and started a third time, December
7th, 1770 ; and after a struggle of nineteen months, he discovered
the Coppermine river, July 13th, 1772, the course of which he fol-
lowed to its mouth. According to his own account, he saw the open
sea, and in any case he was the first to penetrate to the northern
coast of America."

" But the North- West Passage that is to say, the direct com-



munication by sea between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was
not then discovered ? "

" Oh no, madam," replied the Lieutenant ; " and what countless
adventurous sailors have since gone to seek it! Phipps in 1773,
James Cook and Clerke in 1776 to 1779, Kotzebue in 1815 to
1818, Ross, Parry, Franklin, and others have attempted this diffi-
cult task ; but it was reserved to M'Clure in our own day to pass
from one ocean to the other across the Polar Sea."

" Well, Lieutenant, that was a geographical discovery of which
we English may well be proud. But do tell me if the Hudson's
Bay Company did not adopt more generous views, and send out
some other explorer after the return of Hearne."

" It did, madam j and it was thanks to it that Captain Franklin
was able to accomplish his voyage of 1819 to 1822 between the
river discovered by Hearne and Cape Turnagain. This expedition
endured great fatigue and hardships ; provisions often completely
failed, and two Canadians were assassinated and eaten by their
comrades. But in spite of all his sufferings, Captain Franklin
explored no less than five thousand five hundred and fifty miles
of the hitherto unknown coast of North America ! "

" He was indeed a man of energy," added Mrs Barnett ; " and he
gave proof of his great qualities in starting on a fresh Polar expedi-
tion after all he had gone through."

" Yes," replied the Lieutenant ; " and he met a terrible death in
the land his own intrepidity had discovered. It has now been
proved, however, that all his companions did not perish with him.
Many are doubtless still wandering about on the vast ice-fields.
I cannot think of their awful condition without a shudder. One
day," he added earnestly, and with strange emotion "one day I
will search the unknown lands where the dreadful catastrophe took
place, and "

"And," exclaimed Mrs Barnett, pressing his hand, "I will ac-
company you. Yes, this idea has occurred to me more than once,
as it has to you ; and my heart beats high when I think that fellow-
countrymen of my own Englishmen are awaiting succour "

" Which will come too late for most of them, madam," said the
Lieutenant ; " but rest assured some will even yet be saved."

" God grant it, Lieutenant ! " replied Mrs Barnett ; " and it appears
to me that the agents of the Company, living as they do close to


the coast, are better fitted than any one else to fulfil this duty of

" I agree with you, madam ; they are, as they have often proved,
inured to the rigours of the Arctic climate. Was it not they who
aided Captain Back in his voyage in 1834, when he discovered
King William's Land, where Franklin met his fate ? Was it not
two of us, Dease and Simpson, who were sent by the Governor of
Hudson's Bay to explore the shores of the Polar Sea in 1838, and
whose courageous efforts first discovered Victoria Landl It is my
opinion that the future reserves for the Hudson's Bay Company
the final conquest of the Arctic regions. Gradually its factories
are advancing further arid further north, following the retreat of the
fur- yielding animals ; and one day a fort will be erected on the
Pole itself, that mathematical point where meet all the meridians of
the globe."

During this and the succeeding journeys Jaspar Hobson related
his own adventures since he entered the service of the Company
his struggles with the agents of rival associations, and his efforts to
explore the unknown districts of the north or west ; and Mrs Barnett,
on her side, told of her travels in the tropics. She spoke of all
she had done, and of all she hoped still to accomplish; so that the
long hours, lightened by pleasant conversation, passed rapidly away.

Meanwhile the dogs advanced at full gallop towards the north.
The Coppermine valley widened sensibly as they neared the Arctic
Ocean. The hills on either side sank lower and lower, and only
scattered clumps of resinous trees broke the monotony of the
landscape. A few blocks of ice, drifted down by the river, still
resisted the action of the sun ; but each day their number decreased,
and a canoe, or even a good-sized boat, might easily have descended
the stream, the course of which was unimpeded by any natural
barrier or aggregation of rocks. The bed of the Coppermine was
both deep and wide ; its waters were very clear, and being fed by
the melted snow, flowed on at a considerable pace, never, however,
forming dangerous rapids. Its course, at first very sinuous,
became gradually less and less winding, and at last stretched
along in a straight line for several miles. Its banks, composed of
fine firm sand, and clothed in part with short dry herbage, were
wide and level, so that the long train of sledges sped rapidly over

The expedition travelled day and night if we can speak of the


night, when the sun, describing an almost horizontal circle, scarcely
disappeared at all. The true night only lasted two hours, and the
dawn succeeded the twilight almost immediately. The weather
was fine j the sky clear, although somewhat misty on the horizon ;
and everything combined to favour the travellers.

For two days they kept along the river-banks without meeting
with any difficulties. They saw but few fur-bearing animals ; but
there were plenty of birds, which might have been counted by thou-
sands. The absence of otters, sables, beavers, ermines, foxes, &c.,
did not trouble the Lieutenant much, for he supposed that they had
been driven further north by over-zealous tracking : and indeed the
marks of encampments, extinguished fires, &c., told of the more or
less recent passage of native hunters. Hobson knew that he would
have to penetrate a good deal further north, and that part only of
his journey would be accomplished when he got to the mouth of the
Coppermine river. He was therefore most eager to reach the limit
of Hearne's exploration, and pressed on as rapidly as possible.

Every one shared the Lieutenant's impatience, and resolutely
resisted fatigue in order to reach the Arctic Ocean with the least
; ossible delay. ' They were drawn onwards by an indefinable attrac-
tion ; the glory of the unknown dazzled their sight. Probably real
hardships would commence when they did arrive at the much-desired
coast. But no matter, they longed to battle with difficulties, and to
press straight onwards to their aim. The district they were now
traversing could have no direct interest for them ; the real explora-
tion would only commence on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Each
c ne, then, would gladly hail the arrival in the elevated western dis-
tricts for which they were bound, cut across though they were by
the seventieth parallel of north latitude.

On the 5th June, four days after leaving Fort Confidence, the
river widened considerably. The western banks, curving slightly,
ran almost due north; whilst the eastern rounded off into the coast-
line, stretching away as far as the eye could reach.

Lieutenant Hobson paused, and waving his hand to his com-
panions, pointed to the boundless ocean.




ORONATION GULF, the large estuary dotted with the
islands forming the Duke of York Archipelago, which the
party had now reached, was a sheet of water with irregular
banks, let in, as it were, into the North American continent. At
its western angle opened the mouth of the Coppermine ; and on the
east a long narrow creek called Bathurst Inlet ran into the mainland,
from which stretched the jagged broken coast with its pointed capes
and rugged promontories, ending in that confusion of straits, sounds,
and channels which gives such a strange appearance to the maps of
North America. On the other side the coast turned abruptly to the
north beyond the mouth of the Coppermine river, and ended in Cape

After consulting with Sergeant Long, Lieutenant Hobson decided
to give his party a day's rest here.

The exploration, properly so called, which was to enable the
Lieutenant to fix upon a suitable site for the establishment of a fort,
was now really about to begin. The Company had advised him to
keep as much as possible above the seventieth parallel, and on the
shores of the Arctic Ocean. To obey his orders Hobson was obliged
to keep to the west; for on the east with the exception, perhaps, of
the land of Boothia, crossed by the seventieth parallel the whole
country belongs rather to the Arctic Circle, and the geographical
conformation of Boothia is as yet but imperfectly known.

After carefully ascertaining the latitude and longitude, and veri-
fying his position by the map, the Lieutenant found that he was a
hundred miles below the seventieth degree. But beyond Cape
Krusenstern, the coast-line, running in a north-easterly direction,
abruptly crosses the seventieth parallel at a sharp angle near the
one hundred and thirtieth meridian, and at about the same elevation
as Cape Bathurst, the spot named as a rendezvous by Captain


Craven ty. He must therefore make for that point, and should the
site appear suitable the new fort would be erected there.

" There," said the Lieutenant to his subordinate, Long, " we
shall be in the position ordered by the Company. There the sea,
open for a great part of the year, will allow the vessels from Behring
Strait to come right up to the fort, bringing us fresh provisions
and taking away our commodities."

" Not to mention/' added Sergeant Long, " that our men will be
entitled to double pay all the time they are beyond the seventieth

" Of course that is understood," replied Hobson ; " and I daresay
they will accept it without a murmur."

" Well then, Lieutenant," said Long simply, " we have now only
to start for Cape Bathurst."

But as a day of rest had been promised, the start did not actually
take place until the next day, June 6th.

The second part of the journey would naturally be very different
from the first. The rules with regard to the sledges keeping their
rank need no longer be enforced, and each couple drove as it pleased
them. Only short distances were traversed at a time ; halts were
made at every angle of the coast, and the party often walked.
Lieutenant Hobson only urged two things upon his companions :
not to go further than three miles from the coast, and to rally
their forces twice a day, at twelve o'clock and in the evening. At
night they all encamped in tents.

The weather continued very fine and the temperature moderate,
maintaining a mean height of 59 Fahrenheit above zero. Two or
three times sudden snowstorms came on ; but they did not last long,
and exercised no sensible influence upon the temperature.

The whole of the American coast between Capes Krusenstern and
Parry, comprising an extent of more than two hundred and fifty
miles, was examined with the greatest care between the 6th and
20th of June. Geographical observations were accurately taken,
and Hobson, most effectively aided by Thomas Black, was able to
rectify certain errors in previous marine surveys ; whilst the primary
object of the expedition the examination into the quality and
quantity of the game in the surrounding districts was not neglected.

Were these lands well stocked with game? Could they count
with certainty not only on a good supply of furs, but also of meat ?
Would the resources of the country provide a fort with provisions in.


the summer months at least ? Such were the grave questions which
Lieutenant Hobson had to solve, and which called for immediate atten-
tion. We give a summary of the conclusions at which he arrived.

Game, properly so called, of the kind for which Corporal Joliffe
amongst others had a special predilection, was not abundant. There
were plenty of birds of the duck tribe ; but only a few Polar hares,
difficult of approach, poorly represented the rodents of the north.
There seemed, however, to be a good many bears about. Marbre-
and Sabine had come upon the fresh traces of several. Some were
even seen and tracked ; but, as a rule, they kept at a respectful
distance. In the winter, however, driven by famine from higher
latitudes, there would probably be more than enough of these
ravenous beasts prowling about the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

" There is certainly no denying," said Corporal Joliffe, "that
bear's flesh is very good eating when once it's in the larder; but
there is something very problematical about it beforehand, and it 's
always just possible that the hunters themselves may meet the fate-
they intended for the bears ! "

This was true enough. It was no use counting upon the bears
to- provision their fort. Fortunately traces were presently found of
herds of a far more useful animal, the flesh of which is the principal
food of the Indians and Esquimaux. We allude to the reindeer ;
and Corporal Joliffe announced with the greatest satisfaction that
there were plenty of these ruminants on this coast. The ground
was covered with the lichen to which they are so partial, and which
they cleverly dig out from under the snow.

There could be no mistake as to the footprints left by the rein-
deer, as, like the camel, they have a small nail-like hoof with a con-
vex surface. Large herds, sometimes numbering several thousand
animals, are seen running wild in certain parts of America. Being
easily domesticated, they are employed to draw sledges ; and they
also supply the factories with excellent milk, more nourishing than
that of cows. Their dead bodies are not less useful. Their thick
skin provides clothes, their hair makes very good thread, and their
flesh is palatable ; so that they are really the most valuable animals-
to be found in these latitudes, and Hobson, being assured of their
presence, was relieved from half his anxiety.

As he advanced he had also reason to be satisfied with regard to-
the fur-bearing animals. By the little streams rose many beaver
lodges and musk-rat tunnels. Badgers, lynxes, ermines, wolverenes,.


sables, polecats, &c., frequented these districts, hitherto undisturbed
by hunters. They had thus far come to no trace of the presence of
man, and the animals had chosen their refuge well. Footprints were
also found of the fine blue and silver foxes, which are becoming
more and more rare, and the fur of which is worth its weight in gold.
Sabine and Mac- Nab might many a time have shot a very valuable
animal on this excursion, but the Lieutenant had wisely forbidden all
hunting of the kind. He did not wish. to alarm the animals before
the approaching season that is to say, before the winter months,
when their furs become thicker and more beautiful. It was also
desirable not to overload the sledges. The hunters saw the force of
his reasoning; but for all that, their fingers itched when they came
within shot-range of a sable or some valuable fox. Their Lieutenant's
orders were, however, not to be disobeyed.

Polar bears and birds were, therefore, all that the hunters had to
practise upon in this second stage of their journey. The former,
however, not yet rendered bold by hunger, soon scampered off, and
no serious struggle with them ensued.

The poor birds suffered for the enforced immunity of the quad-
rupeds. White-headed eagles, huge birds with a harsh screeching
cry ; fishing hawks, which build their nests in dead trees and
migrate to the Arctic regions in the summer ; snow buntings with
pure white plumage ; wild geese, which afford the best food of all
the Ansfres tribe ; ducks with red heads and black breasts ; ash-
coloured crows, a kind of mocking jay of extreme ugliness ; eider
ducks ; scoters or black divers, &e. &c., whose mingled cries awake
the echoes of the Arctic regions, fell victims by hundreds to the
unerring aim of Marbre and Sabine. These birds haunt the high
latitudes by millions, and it would be impossible to form an accurate
estimate of their number on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Their
flesh formed a very pleasant addition to the daily rations of biscuit
and corned beef, and we can understand that the hunters laid up a
good stock of them in the fifteen days during which they were
debarred from attacking more valuable game.

There would then be no lack of animal food; the magazines of
the Company would be well stocked with game, and its offices filled
with furs and. traders ; but something more was wanted to insure
success to the undertaking. Would it be possible to obtain a
sufficient supply of fuel to contend with the rigour of an Arctic
winter at so elevated a latitude ?



Most fortunately the coast was well wooded; the hills which
sloped down towards the sea were crowned with green trees, amongst
which the pine predominated. Some of the woods might even be
called forests, and would constitute an admirable reserve of timber
for the fort. Here and there Hobson noticed isolated groups of
willows, poplars, dwarf birch-trees, and numerous thickets of arbutus.
At this time of the warm season all these trees were covered with
verdure, and were an unexpected and refreshing sight to eyes so
long accustomed to the rugged, barren polar landscape. The
ground at the foot of the hills was carpeted with a short herbage
devoured with avidity by the reindeer, and forming their only sus-
tenance in winter. On the whole, then, the Lieutenant had reason
to congratulate himself on having chosen the north-west of the
American continent for the foundation of a new settlement.

We have said that these territories, so rich in animals, were
apparently deserted by men. The travellers saw neither Esquimaux;
who prefer the districts round Hudson's Bay, nor Indians, who '
seldom venture so far beyond the Arctic Circle. And indeed in these
remote latitudes hunters may be overtaken by storms, or be suddenly
surprised by winter, and cut off from all communication with their
fellow creatures. We can easily imagine that Lieutenant Hobson
was by no means sorry not to meet any rival explorers. What he
wanted was an unoccupied country, a deserted land, suitable as a
refuge for the fur-bearing animals ; and in this matter he had the
full sympathy of Mrs Barnett, who, as the guest of the Company,
naturally took a great interest in the success of its schemes.

Fancy, then, the disappointment of the Lieutenant, when on the
morning of the 20th June he came to an encampment but recently

It was situated at the end of a narrow creek called Darnley Bay,
of which Cape Parry is the westernmost point. There at the foot
of a little hill were the stakes which had served to mark the limits
of the camp, and heaps of cinders, the extinct embers of the fires.

The whole party met at this encampment, and all understood how
great a disappointment it involved for Lieutenant Hobson.

" What a pity ! " he exclaimed. " I would rather have met a
whole family of polar bears ! "

" But I daresay the men who encamped here are already far off,"
said Mrs Barnett ; " very likely they have returned to their usual
hunting grounds."


11 That is as it may be," replied the Lieutenant. " If these be the
traces of Esquimaux, they are more likely to have gone on than to
have turned back; and if they be those of Indians, they are pro-
bably, like ourselves, seeking a new hunting district ; and in either
case it will be very unfortunate for us."

" But," said Mrs Barnett, "cannot we find out to what race the
travellers do belong 1 Can't we ascertain if they be Esquimaux or
Indians from the south 1 I should think tribes of such a different
origin, and of such dissimilar customs, would not encamp in the
same manner."

Mrs Barnett was right ; they might possibly solve the mystery
after a thorough examination of the ground.

Jaspar Hobson and others set to work, carefully examining every
trace, every object left behind, every mark on the ground ; but in
vain, there was nothing to guide them to a decided opinion. The
bones of some animals scattered about told them nothing, and the
Lieutenant, much annoyed, was about to abandon the useless search,
when he heard an exclamation from Mrs Joliffe, who had wandered
a little way to the left.

All hurried towards the young Canadian, who remained fixed to
the spot, looking attentively at the ground before her.

As her companions came up she said

" You are looking for traces, Lieutenant ; well, here are some."

And Mrs Joliffe pointed to a good many footprints clearly visible
in the firm clay.

These might reveal something ; for the feet of the Indians and
Esquimaux, as well as their boots, are totally different from each

But what chiefly struck Lieutenant Hobson was the strange

Online LibraryJules VerneThe fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude → online text (page 7 of 31)