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Narrative of a Second Voyage in Search of a north-west passage, and of a residence in the Arctic Regions during the years 1829, 1830, 1831, 1832, 1833

By Sir John Ross

(London: A.W. Webster, 1835)


Chapter XLII


-- 1831 --

HAVING given to the Royal Society a paper on the subject of the North Magnetic Pole, which they have done me the honour to print, I need not here repeat the preliminary or other general remarks which it contains, but confine this narrative, as I have done my former ones, to the facts and reflections which occurred during our voyage and our travelling: thus conforming to the journal character of the volume in which I have borne the share assigned to me. If there are scientific readers who desire to see what I have written on this subject since my return, they will find it in the Philosophical Transactions for 1834.

It must be known to many more readers than those, that the subject here in question had engaged the attention of our predecessors, Parry and Franklin, during their several voyages and travels in these regions for those purposes of geographical discovery which are now so familiar to every one. If all general praise of these conspicuous men is now superfluous, I must here however remark, that the numerous and accurate observations on the subject of magnetism, made by them and the officers under their command, {550} have proved of great value towards the advancement of magnetic science in genera], if more particularly to the assignment of the laws by which that of the globe, as it regards the needle, is regulated.

The geographical restrictions, however, to which these discoveries had been subjected, were such as to prevent them from extending their observations over so large a space as was to be desired. They had at different times made nearer approximations to the expected place of the North magnetic pole than had ever before been effected, but the spot where it ought to exist had been a sealed place to them: more than once tantalizing with hopes which, it was destined, were not then to be fulfilled. Observations were still wanting at other and nearer points to this desired and almost mysterious spot; that its place might be at least assigned with still more security and precision than it had been from those already made, that, if possible, the observer might even assure himself that he had reached it, had placed his needle where no deviation from the perpendicular was assignable, and had so set his foot that it now lay between him and the centre of the earth.

These hopes were at length held out to us; we had long been drawing near to this point of so many desires and so many anxieties, we had conjectured and calculated, once more, its place, from many observations and from nearer approaches than had ever yet been made, and with our now acquired knowledge of the land on which we stood, together with the power of travelling held out to us, it at last seemed certain that this problem was reserved for us, that we should triumph over all difficulties, and plant the standard of England on the North magnetic pole, on the keystone of all these labours and observations.

Under the determinations of the navigators who had preceded us {551} the place of this important spot had been calculated, and with a degree of precision, as it afterwards proved, far greater than could have been expected. At the time of our departure from England, it was presumed to be situated in 70° of north latitude, and in 98° 30' of west longitude. Thus it appeared, that in the course of my land journey to the westward in the preceding year (1830), I had been within ten miles of this assigned place, when near Cape Felix: but, as I was not then provided with the necessary instruments, I could do nothing towards verifying the fact, and had the mortification of being obliged to return, when thus, as I believed, on the point of accomplishing this long wished-for object.

We had now, however, been compelled to pass another winter in our ship, not far from the place which we had occupied in the former year, and I thus hoped that I should be able to investigate this spot more effectually in the coming spring. With this view I carried on a series of magnetic observations during the winter, and thus at length succeeded in assigning a place for this magnetic pole which I believed to be much more accurate than the one which had previously been supposed. The dip of the needle at the place of observation exceeded 89°; and it was thus a much nearer approximation in distance than had yet been attained.

These observations were continued till within a few hours of out departure from the ship, on a journey which was undertaken for this sole purpose, and we set out on our expedition on the 27th of May, accompanied by Captain Ross and a party under his direction, as far as the shores of the western ocean, when they separated from us for the purpose of returning to the ship by the way of Neitchillee.

{552}Unfortunately, however, the weather became so very unfavourable that I could no longer continue these magnetic observations: and this vexatious state of things attended us during nearly the whole of our journey across the country. We were, nevertheless, obliged to persist, as it was impossible to wait for better weather when our time was always so much contracted by the state of our supplies. At three in the afternoon of the same day, therefore, we crossed to the opposite shore of the inlet into which the Stanley river flows, and travelled along the land towards the west until eight in the morning of the twenty-eighth, when we were compelled to halt, in consequence of the ophthalmia, which, from the usual cause, had severely affected four of our party. We had gained but ten miles, and our encampment was made in latitude 69° 34' 45", and longitude 94° 54' 23" west.

The weather now became fine for a time, and I was thus enabled to obtain some very satisfactory observations: by which I found that the magnetic dip had increased to 89° 41' north, and that the north end of the horizontal needle pointed to north 57° west. By means of these observations, therefore, I was enabled to determine both the direction in which we must proceed, and the distance that lay between us and the great object in view, as far at least as this latter could be made out through our instruments and the calculations founded on what they had indicated. I need not say how thankful I was for this fortunate, if temporary, clearing of the weather, since it thus placed us in the right track, and served to encourage even the weary and the ailing, by showing them that the end of their toils was not far off.

But for their sakes, that I might both give them rest and inspire {553} them with greater courage, I determined to remain here during the rest of the day, and to repeat the observations; while by this I should also obtain for myself the greater assurance that we were in the right course, especially as I could not henceforward expect any assistance for this purpose from the horizontal needle.

It was not till the evening of this day, therefore, that we resumed our journey. The coast from this place took a western direction, and we proceeded along a low shore of limestone, ending a walk, rendered unusually laborious by the inefficiency of two of the men, in latitude 69° 40' 27", and longitude 95° 22' 35" west. Of the geological structure of this part of the country, I now find that I have little to say but what has so often been described before; and may therefore suppress the particulars which I noted at the time, since the result was to find the land, wherever I saw it, formed of the same primary rocks that we had so often examined, skirted or covered by the usual bed of stratified limestone.

The evening proved very cold when we renewed our journey at nine in the evening, and the thermometer fell to zero soon after midnight, while a keen north-west wind blew in our faces. We nevertheless persisted in coasting the land; examining all the inlets and harbours which occurred, and thus materially expending our time and increasing our labour.

Having at length completed a direct distance of about twelve miles, we halted, at eight in the morning of the thirtieth of May, in latitude 69° 46' 25", and longitude 95° 49' 11" west. At half-after nine in the evening we again set out; but a thick haze, accompanied by occasional showers of snow, compelled me to lead the party along all the windings and indentations of the coast, that {554} I might perform the remainder of that survey which, under such weather, I could execute in no other manner.

Soon after midnight, however, it cleared; and, ascending a high point of land, I obtained a fine view of the inlet, which was now covered, as far as the eye could discern, with an unbroken surface of level ice, replacing the hummocky and irregular masses that had been packed into it when I passed along the opposite shore in the June of the preceding year. This was a proof that, in the latter part, at least, of that summer, this inlet had been free from ice, and might then have been easily navigated had we been on the spot at that time. How much we all regretted this, I need scarcely say. Instead of a laborious walk, with the hazard, at the same time, of want or starvation, we should have been comparatively at our ease in all respects; while I might then, not only have pursued my investigations in security and comfort, so as to have assigned the absolute and exact place of the magnetic pole, but should probably have been enabled to trace the American shore much further towards Cape Turnagain than it was my fortune to do. We encamped at eight in the morning of the thirty- first, having completed thirteen miles.

We were now within fourteen miles of the calculated position of the magnetic pole; and my anxiety, therefore, did not permit me to do or endure any thing which might delay my arrival at the long wished-for spot. I resolved, in consequence, to leave behind the greater part of our baggage and provisions, and to take onwards nothing more than was strictly necessary, lest bad weather or other accidents should be added to delay, or lest unforeseen circumstances, still more untoward, should deprive me entirely of {555} the high gratification which I could not but look to in accomplishing this most desired object.

We commenced, therefore, a rapid march, comparatively disencumbered as we now were; and, persevering with all our might, we reached the calculated place at eight in the morning of the first of June. I believe I must leave it to others to imagine the elation of mind with which we found ourselves now at length arrived at this great object of our ambition: it almost seemed as if we had accomplished everything that we had come so far to see and to do; as if our voyage and all its labours were at an end, and that nothing now remained for us but to return home and be happy for the rest of our days. They were after-thoughts which told us that we had much yet to endure and much to perform, and they were thoughts which did not then intrude; could they have done so, we should have cast them aside, under our present excitement: we were happy, and desired to remain so as long as we could.

The land at this place is very low near the coast, but it rises into ridges of fifty or sixty feet high about a mile inland. We could have wished that a place so important had possessed more of mark or note. It was scarcely censurable to regret that there was not a mountain to indicate a spot to which so much of interest must ever be attached; and I could even have pardoned any one among us who had been so romantic or absurd as to expect that the magnetic pole was an object as conspicuous and mysterious as the fabled mountain of Sinbad, that it even was a mountain of iron, or a magnet as large as Mont Blanc. But Nature had here erected no monument to denote the spot which she had chosen as the centre of one of her great and dark powers; and where we could do little {556} ourselves towards this end, it was our business to submit, and to be content in noting by mathematical numbers and signs, as with things of far more importance in the terrestrial system, what we could but ill distinguish in any other manner.

We were, however, fortunate in here finding some huts of Esquimaux, that had not long been abandoned. Unconscious of the value which not only we, but all the civilized world, attached to this place, it would have been a vain attempt on our part to account to them for our delight, had they been present. It was better for us that they were not; since we thus took possession of their works, and were thence enabled to establish our observations with the greater ease; encamping at six in the evening on a point of land about half a mile to the westward of those abandoned snow houses.

The necessary observations were immediately commenced, and they were continued throughout this and the greater part of the following day. Of these, the details for the purposes of science have been since communicated to the Royal Society; as a paper containing all that philosophers require on the subject has now also been printed in their Transactions. I need not therefore repeat them here, even had it not been the plan of the whole of this volume to refer every scientific matter which had occurred to Captain Ross and myself, to a separate work, under the name of an appendix.

But it will gratify general curiosity to state the most conspicuous results in a simple and popular manner. The place of the observatory was as near to the magnetic pole as the limited means which I possessed enabled me to determine. The amount of the dip, as indicated by my dipping needle, was 89° 59', being thus within one minute of the vertical; while the proximity at least of this {557} pole, if not its actual existence where we stood, was further confirmed by the action, or rather by the total inaction of the several horizontal needles then in my possession. These were suspended in the most delicate manner possible, but there was not one which showed the slightest effort to move from the position in which it was placed: a fact, which even the most moderately informed of readers must now know to be one which proves that the centre of attraction lies at a very small horizontal distance, if at any.

As soon as I had satisfied my own mind on this subject, I made known to the party this gratifying result of all our joint labours; and it was then, that amidst mutual congratulations, we fixed the British flag on the spot, and took possession of the North Magnetic Pole and its adjoining territory, in the name of Great Britain and King William the Fourth. We had abundance of materials for building, in the fragments of limestone that covered the beach; and we therefore erected a cairn of some magnitude, under which we buried a canister, containing a record of the interesting fact: only regretting that we had not the means of constructing a pyramid of more importance, and of strength sufficient to withstand the assaults of time and of the Esquimaux. Had it been a pyramid as large as that of Cheops, I am not quite sure that it would have done more than satisfy our ambition, under the feelings of that exciting day. The latitude of this spot is 70° 5' 17", and its longitude 96° 46' 45" west.

This subject is much too interesting, even to general readers, to permit the omission of a few other remarks relating to the scientific part of this question, desirous as I have been of passing over or curtailing these. During our absences Professor Barlow had laid {558} down all the curves of equal variation to within a few degrees of the point of their concurrence; leaving that point, of course, to be determined by observation, should such observation ever fall within the power of navigators. It was most gratifying to find, on our return, that the place which I had thus examined was precisely that one where these curves should have coincided in a centre, had they been protracted on his magnetic chart; and if I do not here state these particulars in a more full and scientific manner, it is because of the limits which I have drawn for myself, and because I can refer to his paper, which was read to the Royal Society six months before our arrival in England.

One further remark I must yet be permitted to make: since in relating what has been done, it would leave an important question imperfect did I not also note what remains to be effected.

It has been seen, that as far as our instruments can be trusted, we had placed ourselves within one minute of the magnetic pole, but had not fixed on the precise spot; presuming that this precise point could be determined by such instruments as it is now within the power of mechanics to construct. The scientific reader has been long aware of this: if popular conversation gives to this voyage the credit of having placed its flag on the very point, on the summit of that mysterious pole which it perhaps views as a visible and tangible reality, it can now correct itself as it may please; but in such a case, while a little laxity is of no moment, the very nonsense of the belief gives an interest to the subject which the sober truth could not have done.

To determine that point, with greater, or with absolute precision (if indeed such precision be attainable), it would be necessary {559} to have the co-operation of different observers, at different distances, and in different directions, from the calculated place; while, to obtain all the interesting results which these must be expected to furnish, such labours should also be carried on for a considerable time. What these several expectations are, I need not here say, since the subject is, in this view, somewhat too abstruse for popular readers; though I may barely allude to the diurnal and annual motions of the needle, and to the variations in the place of the pole itself, with the consequent deductions that might be made as to the future in this respect: all of them being of the highest importance in the theory of magnetism.

Having thus therefore stated, however briefly, what yet remains for future observation, having pointed out what I may fearlessly say, is still wanting, and which, as such, claims the attention of those who have the power of promoting a work of this nature, I can only express my wishes, if I dare not indulge in hopes, that the same nation which has already carried its discoveries so far, that our own Britain which has already established its supremacy in scientific and geographical researches, will not now abandon them, and leave to others to reap the crop of which it has in this case sown the seeds. That the place for the needful observations is now far more accessible than it was once supposed, has been proved by our own voyage and its results; so that the main difficulty is at least levelled, and the readiest excuse that could have been offered is no longer of any weight.

The chief object of our present expedition having thus been accomplished in a manner even more satisfactory than we could have expected, and in a shorter time also than we had much right {560} to anticipate, I became desirous to extend our knowledge of the country as much further to the northward as the state of our time, and of our finances, if I may give this name to our provisions, would permit. Unluckily, the latter would not allow me to devote more than one day to this object. I could only wish that we had been better stored w th [sic] the means of travelling: but, as on all former occasions of a similar nature, it was idle to regret what no contrivance on our part could have remedied. Oh that men could live without food ! was a wish that had never failed to obtrude itself on every occasion of this nature.

I therefore left the party in their little snow camp, under the care of Blanky, and proceeded with Abernethy, at eleven in this our day-like night, along that shore which here stretches to the northward. After some very quick walking, we arrived, by three in the morning, -- June 2 -- at a point of more than ordinary elevation. We dared not venture further, for the reasons just assigned: but hence we saw the line of the coast stretching out due north to the distance of ten or twelve miles; while I then also concluded that it preserved, in all probability, the same direction as far as Cape Walker in latitude 74° 15'. Here we erected a cairn of stones, to mark the utmost limits of our investigations in this quarter, and, returning homewards, rejoined our companions at eight in the morning.

In our absence, a hole had been cut through the ice for the purpose of examining its thickness, which was found to be six feet and eight inches. The time of high water had been observed to be a quarter of an hour after noon, and the rise and fall of the tide somewhat less than three feet.

We had not been an hour in our hut before the wind shifted to {561} the southward, bringing on thick weather, with snow; on which the thermometer rose to the freezing point. The cold, therefore, no longer annoyed us; but the consequence was as vexatious, or even more tormenting, since the snow of our huts melted under this temperature and that of our bodies, so as to wet us in a very disagreeable manner. It soon also blew a hard gale; but as that became more moderate about eleven o'clock, we commenced our return to the ship.

For this haste in setting out, we had the best of reasons; being without any thing to eat, as we had departed supperless, until we could reach the place where we had left our baggage and provisions; hoping all the while, and not without ample cause, that no bear, or no equally hungry and more gormandizing native, had discovered that store on which we depended for many suppers and many breakfasts. We reached it, and found all intact, on the morning of the third, at seven o'clock.

The gale had now renewed itself; and it at length blew a storm, with so much drifting snow that it was impossible to think of proceeding for the present. About one in the morning of the fourth, it however moderated so far as to permit us to move; and as we had examined all the shore on this route, in our progress forward, we now met with no cause to interfere with such rapidity as we could exert. Thus we reached the place of our former encampment at ten in the morning of the fifth.

There was now less than ever to delay us, as we had seen all that this line of coast could offer, and had done every thing that was to be effected. Our walk was, therefore, as much without note as without interruption, during two days; nor was I sorry that I had not to record occurrences and remarks which had long ceased {562} to interest myself, as they must often have appeared tiresome to the readers, equally of my journal, and of that of Captain Ross, indispensable as their relation has been.

But I must nevertheless note, that on the sixth, in the morning, we encamped on the spot where we had formerly been detained by the blindness of some of our party, already noticed, and that I here repeated the magnetic observations which I had made in the same place during our progress forward, confirming by them that accuracy of which it was so important to be assured. Here also I had an opportunity of examining my chronometer; and was gratified to find that it had preserved a steady rate, since it was the watch by which I had determined the longitudes on the coast which we had now quitted.

At nine in the evening we crossed over to the south-east point of the inlet; but the ice being very rugged, and some of the party lame, we did not reach it till seven in the morning of the seventh. At two on this morning the thermometer was at only four degrees above zero: that being a severity of temperature which we had never before experienced at the same period of the year.

On the evening of this day, at seven, we set forward once more towards the now well-known Neitchillee, having chosen this road for returning to the ship. During this route, and early on the following morning, we arrived at a place where we found a large party of the natives assembled; the situation in question being about three miles westward of Cape Isabella. They were busily occupied in fishing; and their prey consisted of the two species of cod, described in the Appendix of Natural History, by the names Gadus Mochica, and Callarias. These they took through some holes which they had made in the ice for that purpose; and {563} we discovered from them, that this fishery was a very productive one. Our application for a supply was readily granted, and it proved a very welcome one to all of us, limited, both in quantity and quality, as we had now been for some days.

From this, after resting about two hours, we proceeded onwards to Cape Isabella, and encamped at eight in the morning. But a dense fog now came on, with the effect of rendering our route very uncertain, as it also made the travelling difficult. This we endured as we could, entertaining better hopes for the following morning; -- June 9 -- when, at six, we again set out, being as soon as was practicable, and encamped near Padliak; having found it utterly impossible to travel any further at this time, in consequence of the increased density of the fog.

But towards noon it cleared away; and this horrible mist, bad enough in a known country, but incredibly worse amid such obstructions as the surface here for ever presents, and where there is no guide but a compass, was succeeded by bright and brilliant weather. The sun shone forth, in consequence, with such power, that we obtained abundance of water from the streams which ran from the rocks and lodged in the pools formed among them: a far more acceptable supply than it is easy for readers to conceive, as it may, perhaps, surprise them to be told that it was the first natural water that we had obtained during this year, though it now wanted but a few days of Midsummer. Is there aught that can convey a deeper impression of the state and nature of this most atrocious climate? If there be, I know not well what it is.

If I here also obtained some magnetic observations, as I had before done at Cape Isabella during this returning journey, they are matter for the appendix, not for this place. There at least {564} they can be consulted by the scientific reader, among much more, whether in meteorology or in the other branches of natural history, which it has been judged most convenient to place in such a supplement: but as far as the present observations are concerned, the paper in the Transactions of the Royal Society to which I have already alluded, will give complete information to all those who may be interested in this subject. I have, however, attached to the end of this narrative, the means of the observations in question, that they who are inclined may see at least the general results. It is for this simple journal to say, that we proceeded along the valley of Padliak at ten o'clock, and reached the great middle lake, so often described, about midnight. Then coasting along its southern shore till nine in the morning of the tenth, we halted on the northern point of a small inlet, putting up some grouse, and seeing a number of deer under the pursuit of a wolf.

At ten in the evening, according to our usual plan, which advantageously turned day into night, we directed our course to the north-east corner of this lake, in order to ascertain whether there was any river which communicated between it and its neighbour, so as to discharge this collection of waters into the sea. Thus it proved, and we thence ascertained that to be a fact which had formerly been only a matter of conjecture.

At three in the morning of the eleventh, we arrived, in this our homeward progress, at another place, now familiar from its having been a spot of rest during more than one of our former journeys; but it presented at this time a very different appearance from what it had done on the corresponding day in the preceding year. At the same place, during that journey, we had been obliged to wade knee-deep in water for nearly two miles, in crossing to the head of {565} the inlet of Shag-a-voke. At present all was solid ice, there was not a drop of water any where to be seen, nor was there the slightest mark to indicate the commencement of a thaw. Can it be believed that there were but ten days to Midsummer, that all was still hard winter, and that winter in the middle, I may almost say, of summer: a season such as the January of our own native land seldom sees.

It was no small satisfaction for hard-worked men and hungry stomachs, to find on the opposite shore of this inlet, some provisions which had been deposited for us by Captain Ross; and, taking possession of them, we crossed the two next lakes and encamped, at six in the evening, near the head of the bay into which their water finds its exit.

Here we were detained by a heavy storm from the south-west until noon on the twelfth of June, when it began to moderate, and tempted us to proceed on our now last day of labour; the ship being at length within our reach. But our attempt proved vain. The gale was soon renewed with increased violence, and the snow drifted so densely as to entirely blind us to our way, so that we were compelled, in spite of all our efforts and wishes, to halt and encamp at nine on the following morning. It was an unusual disappointment. If we had on many former occasions been as wearied, as hungry, and as anxious to reach our companions and our home, we had now more interesting news to relate than had ever occurred to us before; but we were to exert our patience, at least this once more, and exerted it was.

But this trial of our tempers was not destined to be very durable. The gale at length moderated so far, that we could contrive to see and find our way; and having but ten miles remaining we bestirred our- {566} selves in proportion, even till midnight; when, after as much hard labour as we could well manage, and might not have endured if not under such a stimulus, we neared our home; still labouring with all our power till we found ourselves at length, and once more, on board the Victory, at five in the morning of the thirteenth of June. We had been absent twenty-eight days. If we were fatigued and extenuated, who could be surprised? but excepting petty grievances, we were all in good health.