Canadian Ctories

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Location: Eastern Townships, Quebec, Canada

I'm a father, a seakayaker, a guitarist, a writer, a geocacher and a lover of all things arctic. I try to dream big, journey far, kayak well, and above all, cherish my family and friends. I believe in self-sponsorship, Team Zero and being as carbon neutral as I can.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ilatsiak - 29

Mr Shanks didn’t get up the next day. In lay in his blanket, his body wracked by continual coughing fits. Towards the end of the day, David noticed him trying to hide the fact that he has been spitting up considerable blood.
“What’s the bloody date, David!” Shanks suddenly yelled at David who had just left the shelter for a look around. Hearing the yell, he turned and poked his head under the canvas door flaps.
“The date? You want to know the date?”
“Yes, bloody hell, man. What’s the date?”
“I’m not exactly sure. Towards the end of April, I’d think.” David suddenly realized he couldn’t recall even what day it was for sure, but they had been on the ship about ten days previously on a Sunday in mid April. “Why’d you need to know that?”
“Because I’m dying, that’s why! I’m coughing my guts up! Can’t you tell?” Shanks was clearly distraught and confused. “ I want you to mark this day, David, the day I pass on...”
“That’s rediculous, Mr Shanks. You’ve caught a chill, that’s all. You’ll be up in a day or two. You’ll see.”
* * *

There were faint crunching sounds outside the shelter. David slowly woke up to this new sound and lay still. While he had yet to see a bear on this trip, other men had killed several and he had a good idea how big they were and how curious. He listened for a few more minutes before daring to move. The sounds seem to move away. Slowly he rose and lifted the rock which held the shelter door flap closed. He pulled the canvas aside slightly and peered out. Everything was white, brilliant, sunny white with a blue sky above. David looked towards the shore ice suddenly thinking that perhaps it was Mr Shanks body that had attracted the bear. However, if that was the case the animal wasn’t there.
Then a human laugh. David felt his body jump with surprise. Grabbing his boots, pulling them on, he burst out of the shelter ready to welcome the men back, wondering how they had been able to return so soon. Seeing no one, he ran around the corner of the piled boxes and tumbled into a crouching man, completely dressed in brown fur clothing. Eskimos!
Everyone seem to freeze, not knowing what exactly to expect next. David looked up. The man he had fallen over, was turning to face him and three other fur clad figures just seem to stare at him from around the boxes near the back of the shelter. No one seemed able to make the first move. Then everyone seemed to thaw out. David heard one of the men behind the shelter begin to laugh. Another man said something and the man closest to David pulled his hood back and spoke directly to David. It was the man who had visited them only a few days previously.
David, recovering from his surprise, held out a hand to the man. He responded with his and shook once with a slow up them down movement. The other three men came up to David and did the same. All four men had the warmest hands David could remember. Once this was done, the men began speaking rapidly both to David, who of course could understand nothing of what was said, as well as to each other. David immediately enjoyed the sound of their language and silently began to try and mimic the sounds to himself. It brought to mind the same sounds he had heard while he was in Greenland. Everything about the depot seem to interest them: the wooden boxes, the canvas, David’s woolen clothing, his leather boots, even his skin.
Before long it became apparent to David that they were obviously wondering where the other crew members were. They looked all around the depot, inside the shelter. They could see that another person had been there, there were two mugs, and various other pairs of things, but only one person. David didn’t know what to do. Should he show them where he had tried to bury Mr Shanks body in the snowdrift down beside the shore ice? Would it be better not to let them know he was alone? Would they guess the fact anyway? There were only David’s footprints besides their own. Surely they had already figured out he was alone.
After spending about a hour looking the depot over and trying to speak with David, Agayuq, the man who had visited the depot previously, began to indicate to David he was to follow them. At first he was reluctant to leave with them, but when another of the men crawled out of the shelter with David’s blankets and mug and David realised that he was not being given much of a choice. He followed his belongings, hoping that they were not being stolen, but just being moved to another site. He grabbed his heavy parka, and set several stones along the bottom of the tent flap knowling full well that it wouldn’t prevent a bear from entering, but might keep some snow out for a while.
Several hours later, David suddenly realised he had not left any sort of note behind indicating what had happened to him. It was too late now to return, but surely he would be back in a day or two - at any rate, it would be well over a week before the crew returned to the depot. He would surely be back by then.


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Ilatsiak - 28

The next day was at least sunny, although the wind continued to blow strongly in gusts from the north, making walking into it a chore. All three men trudged along silently, each one thinking about his own misery. From time to time one would slip and fall on the rough, but barely snow covered ground. Rolling as they fell, they would become covered with wet sticky snow which clung to their woolen parkas and leggings. It would then melt, soaking their parkas and so increase their misery as the wind blew the dampness closer to their skin. After a year and a half of almost continual use the wool no longer possessed the natural oils which had once helped to shed moisture the way it had a year ago. Now only the exercise of walking kept them warm. Whenever they stopped for a rest break, they would feel the chill creep toward their bodies, forcing them to continue walking once again.
Stopping to eat around noon, they used up the last of their food, a ‘portable soup’ which could be mixed with water. It was somewhat akin to pemmican in that it provided considerable nourishment when mixed with warm water. Here again they ran into difficulty as the stove had bearly melted the snow before it ran out of fuel, their last. Forced then to drink the soup mix cold, Irving was the first to complain. He finally stood up and threw his cup as far as he could from where they huddled below a slight ridge of broken stones and stood up.
“I’m going ahead, Mr Fairholme. See if I can’t make better time on my own to the Cape. I’ll have them send a relief out to assist you people with the sledge.”
Without waiting for a reply, he spun on his heel and headed over the ridge for the Cape. Lt Fairholme said nothng. What was there to say? He assisted the sailor in packing the sledge and taking a pulling-line himself, followed in Irving’s tracks.
They followed behind Irving for the rest of the day before Fairholme realised that he was heading further and further inland rather than remaining near the coast. It was obvious that Irving would miss the Cape entirely if he wasn’t careful. The two men tried yelling at him, but Irving was over a mile ahead and what with the gusting winds, he was certainly out of hearing range. Fairholme returned to the coast all the while keeping track of Irving’s movements as best he could given the undulating terrain. Rather than stop to eat at suppertime they kept walking with the idea of reaching the Cape as soon as possible. By the early evening they had lost sight altogether of Irving, but managed to estimate his route. Hopefully he would turn towards the coast at some point and make the Cape soon after they did.
Just into the early hours of the morning, Fairholme’s little party saw the magnetic observation building at Cape Felix. Another hour of walking and pulling brought them into the sleeping camp about two hours after midnight. Peering into the sleeping quarters, it soon was apparent they had beaten Irving to the Cape. Hopefully he would arrive by morning. Dead tired, they found places to put their blankets and fell asleep themselves.
The next morning, Fairholme set about to find Commander Fitzjames and report their findings, however he soon discovered that Fitzjames was not at the site, but had returned to the Erebus. Sir John had again taken ill with the same respiratory affliction which had plagued him on and off throughout the voyage. This time however, it appeared more serious and Mr Stanley, the surgeon, feared Sir John would not have the strength this time to fight it off. That left no officers presently at the site although Lt. LesVisconte was expected to arrive from the Erebus sometime during the day.
About mid morning Lt. Irving strolled into the little camp of four tents that comprised the Observation Site. He seemed to be in a good mood and Fairholme was surprised at how cheerily he was greeted, almost as if the past twenty-four hours had not happened. Irving’s only comment on his strange behaviour was to joke about how the years he had spent aboard the permanently docked gunnery ship Excellence was taking its toll on his ability for making longish treks. He just didn’t seem to have the stamina he once had, he joked. Upon hearing the news that Franklin was once again ill, Lt. Irving determined to return to the Terror to see whether he could be of any assistance to Capt. Crozier and to inform him that Eskimos had been sighted at the depot of materials belonging to their ship and would no doubt begin pillaging it now they knew it was there. Accordingly, he ate a hearty meal, slept for a few hours and then set off alone following the set of hand sign posts frozen into the ice along the fairly well trodden ice route out to the ships, 15 miles away.


Sunday, December 10, 2006

Ilatsiak - 27

Shanks began caughing during the night and David tried to get him to drink some of the left-over soup they had had for supper, however he would have none of it. David could see he was shivering still and found his blankets none too warm. The fact they had managed to get wet somehow didn’t help the situation. Finally David got up and walked outside to relieve himself only to discover it had been snowing heavily. All Shanks clothes had blown down from where he had carefully set them out to dry and were now wetter than ever. He set about collecting all those he could find and returned into their little shelter. It was clear that the recent snow storm had allowed snow to find its way inside and David began to look for holes to patch here and there.
None too pleased to see his snowy, wet clothes, Mr Shanks nevertheless said nothing. He rolled over and, still caughing, tried to find a comfortable position on the hard, stoney ground. David looked around wondering what to do, then went out again and sat down in the shelter of the containers and stared out to sea. It was going to be a long boring time if Shanks' caughing fits became worse or he was unwilling to find ways to dry out his clothes. It would mean being stuck here at the depot for the whole two weeks instead of exploring the area. David was certain that the Eskimo they had met a couple of days ago must have a camp nearby and he was anxious to visit and learn more about these mysterious people he had been waiting so long to meet. He made up his mind that regardless of Shanks condition, he would do some exploring further along the beach especially towards the south. That seemed to be the direction the Eskimo man was heading when they last saw him. With David gone for a few days, Shanks would have to begin helping himself and that would no doubt be a good thing. After having Lt Irving picking on him the way he had, David was anxious to have a break from playing the servant routine to people who had no business asking him for services.

(Author's Note: I've used the word 'Eskimo' in this story as it was used during the period of the book, however the proper term is 'Inuk' for the singular and 'Inuit' for the plural)


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Ilatsiak - 26

On the return trek to Cape Felix, Lt Irving managed to overcome his fear of the ice by walking behind the others most of the way. In fact, it was he who suggest to Lt Fairholme that the party depart the Matty Islands and make a direct line northwestwards for King William Island thus avoiding walking around to the narrowest crossing point as they had done on the outward voyage. In fact this turned out to be a good idea. No poor ice was encountered and a number of seals were spotted basking on the ice near their breathing holes. This was a novelty for the men as it was the first time they had been able to actually see seals in any number at all. The rough ice around the ships made it impossible to see any seals although several of the crew claimed to have heard them under the ice from time to time. This was dismissed as nonsense by most of the officers and especially Mr Goodsir, the best naturalist on the expedition.
By the time they stopped to camp, the party was well up the coast of KWL, as they had come to call King William Land and if the weather continued to be as warm and sunny, Lt Fairholme predicted their arrival at Cape Felix the following evening or at least the morning after. Irving complained about missing his servant as he now had no partner for dominos.
They were awakened early in the morning by the sound of the canvas tent flapping and being blown inwards from the strong gusts of wind that was blowing from the west. Looking out, Lt Irving cursed under his breath.
“Bloody snow!” he turned and bunching up his blankets, squatted on the side of the tent which allowed some sitting room. “Must be a couple of inches on the ground already. Looks like we’ll be sitting here for the day.”
“How could that be, after yesterday’s heat?” said Lt Fairholme. “Surely it will melt away and we can be off.”
“Take a look, sir. I think you’ll find it quite wintery again. We’ve lost the spring weather, I’d say.” Irving was disgusted. The long months of winter, the condition of the ships, beset as they were in the ice with little prospects of advancing any time soon, was beginning to get to him. “I was hoping this outing would bring a change in our condition. Now we’re right back were we began. Stuck, with winter at our heels again, sapping our strength, killing us by inches at a time.”
“I agree, I agree. But at least we have seen some new territory. Meeting the Eskimo at last may help. They will be able to advise us on when the ice breaks up, on the best route to follow.”
“You’re right. Yesterday’s weather got me thinking it was July and we’d be on our way again.” Irving’s voice sounded normal and reasonable suddenly.
“The worst is over, Lt, we’ll soon be sailing clear and free again. In fact, I was just thinking of our passage down here last summer. Yesterday’s weather reminded me, I guess of that passage. This snow won’t last but a day or two.” Fairholme tried to cheer him up with some hopeful memories.
“I’m not too sure of that, Mr Fairholme. We’ve been thinking, over on the Terror that we might be best to retreat up Peel Strait and look further west for a better channel. The ice we’re in will break us up ‘fore we’re into sailing again.”
“I’ve heard the talk too, but I can assure you, it doesn’t carry far with Sir John. At best, he might send a boat out to search a passage west, but he’s determined to break through the 90 miles we have to go to Simpson’s Cairn. Just let’s wait on the weather. You’ll see he’s right.”
Irving folder his arms across his jacket and closed his eyes. The discussion was closed as far as he was concerned. Fairholm stared at this stubborn man for a few more minutes before turning to his note-book. Then thinking better of warming up some ink to write with, turned on his side and closed his eyes. “Only 90 miles to go and we’ll be free of this and on our way...”
The wind began to slacken after they made a lunch and a short walk around convinced them it was worth continuing on to the Cape. In fact, the thin snow cover actually made the sledge easier to pull, although several times both crew men stumbled and fell in the slippery snow. Their boots, more designed for dry conditions where a smooth sole was an asset, became treacherously slippery in the snow.
By suppertime, they were still a good day and a half from Cape Felix and the decision was taken to camp again rather than go on. Hopefully the snow they had received earlier in the day would melt and travelling would improve although the look of the sky to the west, where the weather seemed to mostly come from, was anything but promising.
Once again, during the night, the wind began to blow again, this time from the north, and dark heavy clouds scudded past looking ominous and threatening. Irving was in a foul mood again, but worse by far than anything Fairholme had seen before. He stormed out of the tent, complaining of the infernal flapping of the canvas, the dampness of his blankets, the impossibly slow cook stove, his slippery boots, just about everything seemed to anger him these past few hours. It seemed to be worse now that he didn’t have poor David to bully. Fairholme felt guilty about letting that go on for so long, but Irving was senior to him and there was little he could do. Outside Irving was facing the wind, like some sort of timeless prophet of old. He looked into the distant horizon and began yelling and cursing it with every word he could think of. Finally exhausting himself, he ended with a caughing fit which only resulted in his stumbling back into the tent, nearly knocking down the center pole as he careened about looking for an unoccupied spot to land in. Finally, he sat down rather hard, wrapped himself in his blanket and sat staring dumbly at the ground, totally dejected and miserable.