07 April 2010

Dovekies Essential to Survival of People Adrift for Months on Arctic Icefloe

Completely unique and so totally distinctive in the historic ornithology of the great expanse of the eastern Arctic of North America, is what happened with the people on the great ship Polaris. The expedition to the northern lands was to explore the regions visited and document their features, but fate would deal them a cruel hand.

In August 1871, the hearty crew on the Polaris, the sole aspect of Dr. Hall's Arctic Expedition, left a European port for in search of the fabled Northwest Passage, and ancillary discoveries. That autumn and winter the brave explorers were ensconced in a sheltering harbor. Some of the men, carried on despite the hazards of the winter Arctic conditions, and went overland to a point further north, and established a new record for explorers reaching the furthest north point on the great globe of earth.

The force of men exploring the Arctic continued in their purpose at their moorings at Thank God Harbor at Hall's Basin at the western shore of Greenland, a distance of a few miles across from Grinnell Land, Canada. A few other attributions to birds were mentioned in the journal by Captain George E. Tyson, for Newman Bay, a landmark of Hall's Land, in the northern extremities of Greenland.

Tyson's journal mentioned geese, partridges, gulls, brant and in a sublime indication - yet unknown at the time - the importance of what where to become life-saving dovekies. The Ivory Gull was also among the species mentioned.

Eider ducks.


In the autumn of 1872, the ship moved southward with an intent to sail along to ice-free waters and onward to a safe harbor. Despite their hopes, the situation dramatically changed in mid-October 1872. Words cannot adequately express what happened, though that is the only source that can convey the situation.


In October 1872, the Polaris, a boat with the multitude of essentials for daily and ongoing survival in the Arctic, was tentatively moving southward among a multitude of floes and icebergs. Progress was difficult. Then the ship became trapped, and was being squeezed - nipped in the parlance of the day - among the ice floes in a manner which threatened the very survival of the expedition. A quick response was essential.

"In the commencement of the nip, I came out of my room, which was on the starboard side of the ship, and looked over the rail, and saw that the ice was pressing heavily," wrote Captain Tyson in his journal. His account continues and expresses the view of sailing-master Buddington: "He threw up his arms, and yelled out to 'throw every thing on the ice!' Instantly every thing was confusion, the men seizing every thing indiscriminately, and throwing it overboard. These things had previously been placed upon the deck in anticipation of such a catastrophe; but as the vessel, by its rising and falling motion, was completely breaking the ice, and as no care was taken how or where the things were thrown, I got overboard, calling some of the men to help me, and tried to move what I could away from the ship, so it should not be crushed and lost."

It was a dark night according to Captain Tyson's account for October 15th. The crew worked for three-four hours in this attempt to save those essentials vital for survival in the unforgiving Arctic environs. At the time, there was snow blown by strong, chill winds, along with the numbing temperatures of a descending winter.

"It was a terrible night," Tyson wrote in his reminiscences.

With a bunch of people on material on the ice, suddenly in the dark, about 10 p.m., the ship broke free from the ice and moved away a distance on the ocean seas. At this moment, a bunch of people suddenly got stranded on an ice floe. They did not realize their difficulties were just starting, as a reconnection with the ship was expected?

Some supplies thrown on the ice, a couple of scows, and human endeavour would define the subsequent months. Their was to be no rescue by the Polaris which drifted away, despite any expectations of hopes for a safe recovery.

[Set adrift]

Set adrift on an ice-floe.

Nineteen people of various ages were set adrift upon the ice floe. Including Captain Tyson, they were as the authoer noted: "Frederick Meyers, meteorologist; John Herron, steward; J.W.C. Kruger, (called Robert); Fred. Jamka, William Lindermann; Fred. Anthing; Gus. Lindquist; Peter Johnson. - Esquimaux: Joe; Hannah, Joe's wife, Puney, child; Hans; Merkut or Christiana, Han's wife; Augustina, Tobias, Succi - children; Charlie Polaris, baby of Han's."

Edible supplies were limited to "fourteen cans of pemmican, eleven and a half bags of bread, one can of dried apples, and fourteen hams," as well as ten dozen one and two pounds cans of meat and soup, and a small bag of chocolate. Among the treasured material were some blankets, rifles, and abundant ammunition. There were two small boats among the gear.

Thankfully for the historic record, there was something to write with and upon, for the tale of the saga by Tyson has details and events described when they happened, and which had been scribbled regularly and which preserved a wonderful record of harrowing drift on the northern waters of Baffin Bay and Davis Strait.

Thus started an ordeal that indicates - among numerous other details - how wild birds on cold seas of the north, were shot to provide nourishment vital to continued existence for the people floating along. Tyson's journal as later published in its entirety conveys the daily tribulations. Among his recorded notes, the importance of bird-fare was mentioned in several entries, mostly during January-March 1873.

New Year's on an Ice-floe

The first day of 1873, New Year's Day, is indicative of the attitude which the ongoing hardship had forced upon Tyson's attitude: "A happy New-year for all the world but us poor, cold, half-starved wretches. It is the coldest day we have had since we have been on the floe - 29o below zero." The dinner for the day was: "two feet of frozen entrails and a little blubber; and I only wish we had plenty even of that, but we have not. In addition to the above, we had a little pemmican tea."

Seals were a welcome selection to the menu of any day, and as the days progressed, birds became part of the fare.

The only particular species mentioned was the Dovekie, occasionally mentioned in the narrative. The notations are attributable to this species based on designated features, and diminutive weight.

During the float on the floe, these are the known instances when these particular birds provided a bit of sustenance that were so very important in helping a bunch of people survive.

"Jan. 21. ... The Esquimaux saw seals yesterday, but could not shoot them, or get at them, on account of the young ice. They saw also a great many dovekies, but they had no shot with them to kill small birds. The dovekies are a good sign; with proper shot, we may soon be able to diversify our fare with these birds."

"Feb. 17. ... Joe shot a dovekie, and the other men shot two of them. These little speckled birds only weigh about four ounces; they have a plaintive cry, and, as they paddle about in the icy water, do certainly look more 'forlorn' as Dr. Hayes says, than the strong and voracious gulls or the comfortable eider-ducks; but we are not in a position to indulge the pathos of sentiment, like Dr. Hayes, who, if I remember rightly, was so impressed by this friendless appearance that he declined to make a 'specimen' of one, though desiring it greatly. In fact, I believe we are beginning to look upon all living things, without a thought of science, only as so much life-sustaining matter."

Feb. 20. ... "Shot eleven dovekies. It is dreadful to think that game is so scarce; winter not over yet, and only two bags of bread and three cans of pemmican left, and no hope of an early escape."

The next day, the thermometer registered a temperature above 0 degrees. At 6 a.m., Tyson was astonished it was 3o above zero. After the "natives" and Tyson "started" on their usual tramp "in hopes of getting some fresh food" without success, they returned to camp. The journal entry for the day noted: "On returning, lunched, or dined, whatever our second meal may be called, on a dovekie and a piece of blubber."

Feb. 22. ... "One of the men, Bill, was out to-day, and shot two dovekies, and varied his adventures by falling overboard. He has been out so little, he is not sure of his feet."

The days' narrative also noted: "Our situation is getting desperate - plenty of ammunition, but no game."

On February 27th, the journal mentioned that a few dovekies were seen, but the poor condition of the ice did not allow any of the hunters to get close enough to shoot the birds.

Results were much better the next day, with a noted temperature of 28o below zero.

"The hunters gladden our eyes with thirty-seven dovekies. We take two apiece, and having these, use no bread. We cooked them, eating every thing but the feathers. The children had one dovekie apiece."

In the latter part of February, the people on the floe lived principally upon birds," wrote Tyson in an account published in the New York Times. By the end of the month, their floe which had been five miles in circumference was reduced to a measly 20 yards in diameter.

"March 1. Clear, and very cold. Thus March begins with winter weather. We had not been so gluttonous as to eat all our share of dovekies at once, and so had part for our breakfast this morning. We had cleaned the birds, and then replaced every thing but the gall, ad then we had the water in which they were cooked to drink. Joe, Hans, I, and two of the men went out with our rifles this morning. Altogether there were sixty-six shot. This is a good deal better than nothing, for it saves our bread, though the flesh is not heat-giving, like seal-meat."

Birds were a primary target in the sights to obtain something for another meal, but other sources of food included seals and narwhals among the ice of Davis Strait, off shore from Cumberland Sound.

On March 4th, one of the men shot four more dovekies.

With an unknown fate, each and every morsel of nourishment was vitally important as the bunch of people moved along on an ice-floe during the harsh and cruel weather on frigid and turbulent seas indifferent to the survival of any living creature.

The floe was abandoned in early April, when the survivors took to the boats and way their way among the ice-pack, with hopes to reach the coast of Labrador. On the 11th of the month, the journal notes that some ravens, and other land birds were seen whilst off-shore.

The big event for Easter was how the bit of ice upon which the people were perched, was "wearing away fast." On April 18th, there was land visible to the southwest. A raven, some other land birds, and a large flocks of ducks visited the scene. Another flock of ducks was noted in the morning in Tyson's account on the 24th, with another flock later in the day.

Adrift on an ice floe

Map illustrating the ice-drift.

Minutiae of the days for the individuals afloat on a bit of ice in the Arctic, can only be partially detailed in any narrative. But as the snows of winter days of dark skies, with temps known to be many degrees below zero again and again continued, attitudes were probably as harsh as the scene. Hope continued.

In late April, "heavy bergs" threatened the floe upon which the motley bunch clung to survival. Tyson said in his journal entry for the afternoon: "Hope to see whalers" since any ship could bring salvation.

His next words at 4:30 p.m., on April 28th: "A joyful sight - a steamer right ahead and bearing north of us! We hoisted our colors, and pulled toward her. She is a sealer, going south-west, and apparently working through the ice."

Hopes were however, dashed, when the steamer continued onward, unaware of people desperate for a rescue from their icy haven.

"To see the prospect of rescue so near, though it was quickly withdrawn, has set every nerve thrilling with hope," Tyson wrote in his account.

Another steamer was seen nearby the next day, and despite sending out a little skow with expressive men in its pursuit, there was still no rescue.

"Landed on a small piece of ice, and hoisted our colors; then, getting on the highest part of the ice, we mustered our rifles and pistols, and all fired together, hoping by this means to attract their attention. The combined effort made a considerable report. We fired three rounds, and heard a response of three shots; at the same time the steamer headed towards us. Not we feel sure that the time of our deliverance has come."

Tyson was mistaken, as the steamer changed course and never approached. Another "sealer" was seen later in the day, but the result was the same.

Finally on the next day, April 30, the steamer Tigress - hunting seals and out from Conception Bay, Newfoundland - due to the excited antics of the ice-bound people doing whatever they could to drawn attention to their situation - "There's a steamer! there's a steamer" - noticed the people formerly from the Polaris, and directly approached to undertake what was a historic rescue of people with nothing left for continued survival.

The ordeal was over and the haven of the mighty Tigress, commanded by James A. Greer, meant safety and life for the people that survived a great and distinctive adventure.

This news was eventually proclaimed by the world media - especially once the survivors reached St. John's in Newfoundland, with articles issued around the globe, including the New York Times. Imagine reading of a bunch of people drifting on an ice-floe from October to April in the Arctic.

[Rescue from the ice floe]

The rescue.

The people from the Polaris were adrift from October 15, 1872 to April 30, 1873, floating in the northern seas. Their ice-drift voyage started near Littleton Island in northern Greenland, beyond Baffin Bay and ended off the coast of Labrador, at 53o 35' N, and was a traverse of more than 2000 kilometers. Each day - with hazards often occurring on an hourly basis - was a challenge to survival.

Fate of the Polaris

After the split in the party, the Polaris which had been severely damaged by the ice, continued to float. Captain S.O. Buddington was at the helm. It ended up being put-ashore October 16th, at Life-boat Cove, at 78o23' 30" N. and 73o21' W. The vessel was so damaged that everything was taken ashore, and the boat was abandoned and left to its fate in the northern seas. Just a few days later, some Esquimauz came to the encampment, and were essential in assisting the navigators in their survival. After the winter's ordeal, the party eventually was able to move onward, and during the hardships of Melville Bay, were rescued on July 23rd, by the whaling vessel Ravenscraig, of Dundee, Scotland.

Historic Significance

This Arctic experience is dramatically profound in its unique and distinctive account - with some few essential of birds in the northern seas - and which indicate the profound importance as edible game to hunters and survivors with no other source of sustenance.

There is no other narrative amongst the realm of historic ornithology that is such a drama of the magnificent efforts for survival which include a few details of bird occurrence in a long-gone era of the northern seas.

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