List Of Contents | Contents of Letters From High Latitudes, by Lord Dufferin
< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

back with all their bows stove in!" Now, immediately on
arriving at Hammerfest, my first care had been to inquire
how the ice was lying this year to the northward, and I
had certainly been told that the season was a very bad
one, and that most of the sloops that go every summer to
kill sea-horses (i.e., walrus) at Spitzbergen, being
unable to reach the land., had returned empty-handed;
but as three weeks of better weather had intervened since
their discomfiture, I had quite reassured myself with
the hope, that in the meantime the advance of the season
might have opened for us a passage to the island.

This news of Wilson's quite threw me on my back again.
The only consolation was, that probably it was not true;
so immediately after dinner we boarded the honest
Sea-horseman who was reported to have brought the dismal
intelligence.  He turned out to be a very cheery intelligent
fellow of about five-and-thirty, six feet high, with a
dashing "devil-may-care" manner that completely imposed
upon me. Charts were got out, and the whole state of the
case laid before me in the clearest manner. Nothing could
be more unpromising. The sloop had quitted the ice but
eight-and-forty hours before making the Norway coast;
she had not been able even to reach Bear Island. Two
hundred miles of ice lay off the southern and western
coast of Spitzbergen--(the eastern side is always blocked
up with ice)--and then bent round in a continuous semicircle
towards Jan Mayen. That they had not failed for want of
exertion--the bows of his ships sufficiently testified.
As to OUR getting there it was out of the question. So
spake the Sea-horseman. On returning on board the "Foam"
I gave myself up to the most gloomy reflections. This,
then, was to be the result of all my preparations and
long-meditated schemes. What likelihood was there of
success, after so unfavourable a verdict? Ipse dixit,
equus marinus.  It is true the horse-marines have hitherto
been considered a mythic corps, but my friend was too
substantial-looking for me to doubt his existence: and
unless I was to ride off on the proverbial credulity of
the other branch of that amphibious profession, I had no
reason to question his veracity. Nevertheless, I felt it
would not become a gentleman to turn back at the first
blush of discouragement.  If it were possible to reach
Spitzbergen, I was determined to do so. I reflected that
every day that passed was telling in our favour. It was
not yet the end of July; even in these latitudes winter
does not commence much before September, and in the
meantime the tail of the Gulf Stream would still be
wearing a channel in the ice towards the pole; so, however
unpromising might be the prospect, I determined, at all
events, that we should go and see for ourselves how
matters really stood.

But I must explain to you why I so counted upon the
assistance of the Gulf Stream to help us through.

The entire configuration of the Arctic ice is determined
by the action of that mysterious current on its edges.
Several theories have been advanced to account for its
influence in so remote a region. I give you one which
appears to me reasonable. It is supposed, that in obedience
to that great law of Nature which seeks to establish
equilibrium in the temperature of fluids,--a vast body
of gelid water is continually mounting from the Antarctic,
to displace and regenerate the over-heated oceans of the
torrid zone. Bounding up against the west side of South
America, the ascending stream skirts the coasts of Chili
and Peru, and is then deflected in a westerly direction
across the Pacific Ocean, where it takes the name of the
Equatorial Current. Having completely encircled Australia,
it enters the Indian Sea, sweeps up round the Cape of
Good Hope, and, crossing the Atlantic, twists into the
Gulf of Mexico. Here its flagging energies are suddenly
accelerated in consequence of the narrow limits within
which it finds itself compressed.  So marvellous does
the velocity of the current now become, so complete its
isolation from the deep sea bed it traverses, that by
the time it issues again into the Atlantic, its hitherto
diffused and loitering waters are suddenly concentrated
into what Lieutenant Maury has happily called--"a river
in the ocean," swifter and of greater volume than either
the Mississippi or the Amazon. Surging forth between the
interstices of the Bahamas, that stretch like a weir
across its mouth, it cleaves asunder the Atlantic. So
distinct is its individuality, that one side of a vessel
will be scoured by its warm indigo-coloured water, while
the other is floating in the pale, stagnant, weed-encumbered
brine of the Mar de Sargasso of the Spaniards. It is not
only by colour, by its temperature, by its motion, that
this (Greek) "ron Okeanuio" is distinguished; its very
surface is arched upwards some way above the ordinary
sea-level toward the centre, by the lateral pressure of
the elastic liquid banks between which it flows. Impregnated
with the warmth of tropic climes, the Gulf Stream-as it
has now come to be called,--then pours its genial floods
across the North Atlantic, laving the western coasts of
Britain, Ireland, and Norway, and investing each shore
it strikes upon, with a climate far milder than that
enjoyed by other lands situated in the same latitudes.
Arrived abreast of the North Cape, the impetus of the
current is in a great measure exhausted.

From causes similar (though of less efficacy, in consequence
of the smaller area occupied by water) to those which
originally gave birth to the ascending energy of the
Antarctic waters, a gelid current is also generated in
the Arctic Ocean, which, descending in a south-westerly
direction, encounters the already faltering Gulf Stream
in the space between Spitzbergen and Nova Zembla. A
contest for the mastery ensues, which is eventually
terminated by a compromise. The warmer stream, no longer
quite able to hold its own, splits into two branches,
the one squeezing itself round the North Cape, as far as
that Varangar Fiord which Russia is supposed so much to
covet, while the other is pushed up in a more northerly
direction along the west coast of Spitzbergen. But although
it has power to split up the Gulf Stream for a certain
distance, the Arctic current is ultimately unable to cut
across it, and the result is an accumulation of ice to
the south of Spitzbergen in the angle formed by the
bifurcation, as Mr. Grote would call it, of the warmer

It is quite possible, therefore, that the north-west
extremity of Spitzbergen may be comparatively clear,
while the whole of its southern coasts are enveloped in
belts of ice of enormous extent. It was on this contingency
that we built our hopes, and determined to prosecute our
voyage, in spite of the discouraging report of the Norse

About eight o'clock in the evening we got under way from
Hammerfest; unfortunately the wind almost immediately
after fell dead calm, and during the whole night we lay
"like a painted ship upon a painted ocean." At six o'clock
a little breeze sprang up, and when we came on deck at
breakfast time, the schooner was skimming at the rate of
five knots an hour over the level lanes of water, which
lie between the silver-grey ridges of gneiss and mica
slate that hem in the Nordland shore. The distance from
Hammerfest to Alten is about forty miles, along a zigzag
chain of fiords. It was six o'clock in the evening, and
we had already sailed two-and-thirty miles, when it again
fell almost calm. Impatient at the unexpected delay, and
tempted by the beauty of the evening,--which was indeed
most lovely, the moon hanging on one side right opposite
to the sun on the other, as in the picture of Joshua's
miracle,--Sigurdr, in an evil hour, proposed that we
should take a row in the dingy, until the midnight breeze
should spring up, and bring the schooner along with it.
Away we went, and so occupied did we become with admiring
the rocky precipices beneath which we were gliding, that
it was not until the white sails of the motionless schooner
had dwindled to a speck, that we became aware of the
distance we had come.

Our attention had been further diverted by the spectacle
of a tribe of fishes, whose habit it appeared to be--instead
of swimming like Christian fishes in a horizontal position
beneath the water--to walk upon their hind-legs along
its surface. Perceiving a little boat floating on the
loch not far from the spot where we had observed this
phenomenon, we pulled towards it, and ascertained that
the Lapp officer in charge was actually intent on stalking
the peripatetic school--to use a technical expression--whose
evolutions had so much astonished us. The great object
of the sportsman is to judge by their last appearance
what part of the water the fish are likely to select for
the scene of their next promenade. Directly he has
determined this in his own mind, he rows noiselessly to
the spot, and, as soon as they show themselves, hooks
them with a landing-net into his boat.

By this time it had become a doubtful point whether it
would not be as little trouble to row on to Alten as to
return to the schooner, so we determined to go on.
Unfortunately we turned down a wrong fiord, and after a
long pull, about two o'clock in the morning had the
satisfaction of finding ourselves in a cul-de-sac. To
add to our discomfort, clouds of mosquitoes with the
bodies of behemoths and the stings of dragons, had
collected from all quarters of the heavens to make a prey
of us. In vain we struggled--strove to knock them down
with the oars,--plunged our heads under the water,--smacked
our faces with frantic violence; on they came in myriads,
until I thought our bleaching bones would alone remain
to indicate our fate.  At last Sigurdr espied a log but
on the shore, where we might at least find some one to
put us into the right road again; but on looking in at
the open door, we only saw a Lapland gentleman fast
asleep. Awaking at our approach he started to his feet,
and though nothing could be more gracefully conciliatory

< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

Other sites: