The experiences of last summer’s Northwest Passage and especially our adventures at Fury Beach (encountering polar bears, being torn off our anchor by ice flow, finding barrel staves from the 1800s) have left me more curious than ever about the Arctic, its explorers, its people.
Especially fascinating are the strategies for survival in a supremely survival-challenged area of the planet, the problems presented and the novel solutions that arise.
Here’s but one example…
Among the many books now beside the chair is Fury Beach by Ray Edinger, a chronicle of the unlucky but eventually successful 1829 – 1833 British expedition of Captain John Ross, whose crew wintered near and then on Fury Beach four years running. Here they survived, in part, due to the supplies left by Captain William Edward Parry in 1825 when his ship, Fury, foundered.
Given the repeated strandings, Ross and company had plenty of opportunity to befriend and learn from local Inuits and thoroughly explore the surroundings.
The below paragraph is a snippet from a foray up the Neitchillee River, then thought to be a strait. This overland/overice trek was lead by Ross’s nephew, Commander James Clark Ross, whose party are currently hunkered down in an impromptu igloo waiting out a blizzard:
The four dead-tired men had just fallen asleep when a ruckus bolted them wide awake. Outside, the sledge dogs had broken loose and were fighting among themselves over Awack’s sledge. His sledge, like many Inuit wintertime sledges, had been constructed entirely of frozen fish and deer [emphasis mine]. To build it, Awack had formed the two seven-foot-long runners from narrow cylinders of salmon wrapped in skins and tied with thongs. He then plated the surface of the runners with a two-inch-thick layer of mossy earth and water, which he polished to a slick finish with a bearskin rag moistened with water and saliva. The crossbars were constructed from loins of deer. The method provided a wonderfully efficient way to carry emergency provisions…and made a tempting feast for the dogs. Fortunately, the men awoke in time to stop the dogs, and Awack was able to salvage his edible sledge.*
What is so lovely about this solution is that it’s emblematic of survival in the north, which requires a paradigm shift for southerners. In a perpetually frozen land without trees and where food is scarce an edible sledge is startlingly obvious … once imagined at all.
*Fury Beach, The Four-Year Odyssey of Captain John Ross and the Victory, Ray Edinger, Berkley Books, New York, 2003, P. 96.