Bibliographic Information

The Plough Boy Journals

The Journals and Associated Documents

The Plough Boy Anthology

19th Century American Whaling

Bonin Islands

Pitcairn's Island

Dictionaries & Glossaries

Ashley's Glossary of
Whaling Terms

Dana's Dictionary of
Sea Terms

No. 11.

W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. LXIV, No. 5 (Nov 1886)
pp. 408-412.



No. 11.

Through the Straits into the Polar Basin. – Taking the Last Whale in Kotzebue Sound.

      Twenty-five hundred barrels in our "hall," after adding the Frenchman's oil to our cargo. Four or five more whales will fill us, and send us southward

      with flying colors, but where are they? The Anadir Sea is deserted, and the ground about St. Lawrence's Island is no better, so far as the bowheads are concerned. The finback and ''muscle-digger" sport among the drift ice, which is open and scattering, presenting no dangers to ships under easy working sail. This last species, also known as the "ripsack," and the "California gray," was litlle known until with a few years, being peculiar to high northern latitudes. It is small, and very difficult to capture, and offers no great inducement to pursuit in these seas, but is hunted with considerable success in the bays and lagoons on the California coast.

      We have found the fleet of ships again, or at least a part of them, St. Lawrence's Island being the next rallying point, as everyone is waiting for the ice in the straits to break up. The French crew are distributed according to custom in such cases, the little captain finding a temporary home with another of his own countrymen. A few oomiaks come off now and then; but the people are counterparts of those we have seen, and they have nothing of value to dispose of, for the trade in skins is, for the most part, entirely monopolized by the Russians. They offer walrus tusks for sale; but these arc no longer a novelty to us, for the animals are abundant here, and our later experiments in hunting them have been more satisfactory in their results.

      Northward is the word with us all. We follow up the indications of clear water, and hover about the mouth of the straits, anxiously counting the days as the month of July wears away, but no longer disposed to push bhndly into the ice, for the cargo under our feet is too valuable to be risked. We do not expect to be the pioneer this time, for we can afford to relinquish that honor to some faster sailing and less deeply laden competitor.

      The looked-for opening is at last discovered. The twilight, which we call night, but which is merely a sort of comparative gloom, brightens into the morning of a beautiful day, and reveals the most distant ships in the northern horizon steering off under a cloud of sail. A general movement is immediately observable throughout the fleet. The icy chains have burst, and the passage is found. Our old ship is heavy and dull; but we pack on the canvas, and if not the leader of the squadron this time, we are determined to be neither last nor least. A sharp lookout for drifting pieces of ice is all that is required, for there are no other dangers in the track.

      The weather is clear, and both continents can be seen distinctly, as we glide onward past the Diomede Islands, which stand, three in number, like sentinels at the gate. Onward till we open the Siberian shore beyond East Cape, still partially ice-bound, the land fades away into the distance, east and west, and we float upon the shallow and tranquil waters of the great Polar Basin.

      We found the whales for which we had been seeking, and, improving the few clear days, we took four in July. Thick fogs beset us a great part of the time, but here we found it convenient to drop an anchor at any time, the depth of water seldom exceeding twenty to twenty-five fathoms. An anchor of convenient size was made use of, which could be weighed easily by one watch, in a vessel so strongly manned as a whaler must necessarily be; and the wind being for the most part light, the sails were seldom furled, but snugly clewed up and allowed to hang thus until we were ready to heave up and sheet home again.

      The beginning of August found us wanting only one whale to fill. We had lost them again, for the movements of the polar whale are capricious and uncertain to the last degree. Today every ship in sight is chasing or cutting, tomorrow not a spout is to be seeu by any one. No one knows whence they came or whither they have gone; whether they have departed for the season, or whether the ground will be alive with them tomorrow.


      But the fleet scattered; each captain pursuing the course which his own judgment dictated. We stood over on the American shore, and, enveloped in a fog-bank, dropped anchor in the mouth of Kotzebue Sound. A dozen ships were in sight just before the bank shut down, but no one doing anything, while most of them were heading northward.

      "I'm not going away up to Point Barrow to look for one whale," said Captain Stetson. "Of the two, I would sooner be off now, and trust to picking up a right whale between here and the Fox Islands."

      "So would I," the mate answered. "I'm sure I don't want to push up into seventythree or four now. If we wanted a thousand barrels or so, I should say, put her through. But I think we can pick up one more alongshore here. Let us have a look up the sound with the boats, as soon as it clears."

      "Well, you may do so," said the captain; "two of you, at any rate. I don't want to send all my boats out of sight at once."

      "There's a clear spot off the starboard bow," sung out Mr. Paddock. "See the land?"

      "Yes; it's like all the rest of the land about here," was the reply. "God-forsaken is the word that best describes its appearance. The fog is rolling away more. I think we shall have a clear day tomorrow."

      "Blows!" said Mr. Pomroy. "Hear him, sir?"

      "Yes. Muscle-digger, I suppose 1"

      "No, sir; that's a bowhead!" said the Bishop. "Here he is, right on the edge of the clearing, and there are boats after him, too!"

      "Boats! where can they be?" asked the old man, running for his spy-glass. "Some ship must be further up the sound here; but we ought to have seen her before the fog shut down. Native boats! oomtoksl" he continued, as he brought his glass to bear.

      "That's a good sized whale they are hooked to, and I hope the poor heathens will get him, though he's just what we want to fill up all our casks."

      The whale changed his course, heading directly at us, and passed within hailing distance of the ship. Three large canoes were following him up, and now and then getting a dig at him with their rude craft. But what amused us most was the number of drugs attached to him. More than a dozen of the inflated seal-skins, such as I had observed lashed along the gunwales of all the oonuaks which had visited the ship, were floating in his wake, being bent to the toggle harpoons by short pieces of line, or thongs; and by the great buoyant power of these, the monster was hobbled most effectually, as he found it impossible to remain under water. He attempted it several times, but these balloon like contrivances resisted so strongly as to pull him back to the surface, while the excited Esquimaux hovered close after him, and lost no opportunity of annoying him, till we lost sight of them in the opposite quarter, where the fog still hung thick and low on the sea.

      "They'll worry him to death, I guess," said the captain. "It's a bungling job, but we must allow that they know how to make use of what materials they have. Well, there's one whale in this sound, at all events. Now, if there's another, we want him, to finish up our voyage."

      The fog lifted and dispersed during the night, and at four in the morning our boat and Mr. Norton's were lowered and went in shore, coasting up the sound, and taking a look into every bend and inlet as we passed. The weather was fine for making observations, and propelled by a gentle breeze, we glided swiftly up the smooth bay. The sun came up brightly, warming the air till our jackets became burdensome, and we were glad to throw them off, and found it sufficiently warm work plying the paddles in our shirt-sleeves.

      Insensibly we were led on to increase our distance from the ship, till her mastheads were scarcely discernible, as she lay at her anchorage. One long, clipper-built finback had been seen, and several muscle-diggers, exhaling a most offensive gas, had cut across our track with impunity. But no bowhead gladdened our vision, and we had given up the hope of finding any. The mate took a longing look up the sound, glanced astern


at the ship's mastheads, and let fly the sheets.

      "Mr. Norton," said he, as the bow boat approached us, " I think we have gone as far as is prudent, if we mean to sleep on board tonight. We shall have to pull back, you know."

      "Yes sir; that's true. Yet it seems a pity we couldn't get that last whale that we want. Such a fine day, too."

      "We'll pull in aud land here on this point," said Mr. Pomroy, "and eat our dinner there. We can keep a lookout both up and down from there."

      A shelving beach of comparatively firm mud afforded a good landing-place, and the boats were hauled well up. The provisions which we had brought with us were passed out, and under a balmy Arctic sunshine, we enjoyed our picnic highly. Pipes were loaded and lighted, and the mates proposed an excursion to the top of a hill near by, from which a good view might be had both inland and up the sound. Securing the boats, we all started in high glee, struggling up the ragged ascent, laughing, shouting, and pushing each other, in sheer enjoyment of the novelty of the thing.

      As we gained the summit, we perceived that the bluff on which we were, formed another projecting point, and that a small cove was formed be3rond it, which we had not seen while in the boats. Our boat-steerer, Frank, had pushed on in advance of the rest, and as he reached the further brow of the hill, we saw him halt suddenly, and throw up both hands, as if in astonishment. I thought of the picture in my school history of Balboa discovering the South Sea from the mountains on the isthmus, and hurried forward as fast as my tired legs would carry me.

      "What do you see, Frank?" demanded Mr. Pomroy, as he darted past me with long strides.

      "Come look!" answered the Portuguese, in a subdued voice. "No make noise. Gaily him."

      An involuntary "O-o-ohl" burst from half a dozen voices, as we hurried to his side. Directly below us, in the smooth cove, a bowhead of the largest class, an old "cow " with immense arch, and patches of white near the spiracles, lay basking in the still water, close into the rocks, presenting such a view of her proportions and movements as is rarely attainable in the case of a living whale. As the mate expressed it, "You could look right down into her spoutholes and see 'em wink."

      For full ten minutes we stood, smothering our excitement, while she lay there, totally unconscious of danger, occasionally electrifying us all with her slow, deep respirations, and scaling her immense fluke« to ri,:ht and left under the water, in sheer sportiveness, as it seemed, then disappeared, descending with a gradual slant, as there was hardly sufficient depth of water to admit of " turning flukes" in the orthodox way.

      We hastened back to our boats, pushed them off, and in a few moments were paddling silently along shore towards the little cove. The greatest caution was demanded, in order not to disturb the whale, as it was so smooth and still, and the boats were allowed to drift into the basin, with only an occasional light dip of the paddles. So well had we managed that the unconscious leviathan pushed her arch above the surface very near to Mr. Norton's boat. A single impetus of his paddles, as she rises for the second spout, and he is alongside of her—is fast! A heavy " sound," and a long struggle in the muddy bottom, and the monster rises, exhausted aud drowned out, craft and line covered with mud, and iron poles all scraped and splintered, as if by contact with rocks.

      She stretches out her immense bulk quietly on the surface, as if courting the death stroke of the lance, for which she has not long to wait. But her tenacity of life after being mortally wounded, surprises us all, and nearly exhausts our patience in waiting for her to die. She never goes outside of the bluff, never disturbs or disarranges more than thirty fathoms of line from each tub; but the whole face of the little basin in which she circles is changed in color by the copious life-tide from her wounds, and Frank makes a crude estimate that " he been spout more'n fifty barreels blood."

      Her last course is shaped towards a shelving beach near the head of the cove. With her last convulsive throe she forces herself aground, lifts and drops her fins with a final quiver, and the mighty mass is stranded by the head, like the " Gorgon " on the ledge of rock at Karaghinsky. In vain we try to haul it afloat; we are powerless to move it.

      "It's no use, Mr. Norton," said the mate. "She'll have to lie where she is till the flood tide makes tonight, and then she'll


slide off herself. You had better shove right out, aud go to the ship as fast as you can. Make your report and come back tonight, with more help for towing. By that time 1 will have the whale afloat, and be waiting for you."

      The third mate pushed off and pulled out of the cove, disappearing from view in a few minutes round the point. We could do nothing more but amuse ourselves and kill time until the flood made; and within an hour after we lost sight of him, the fogbank settled so that we could no longer see the point at the cove's mouth. There would be no difficulty, however, in finding the ship, if she remained at her anchorage, as he had the land for a guide, and had only to follow down the shore until abreast of her, and sound his horn. He could return also, by reversing his route, having, of course, noted his landmarks for finding the cove again.

      We went ashore and strayed about, but found the same dreary and uninteresting prospect which we had met with elsewhere in this part of the world. We came upon a place where a party must have wintered, as we found the excavations of several of their yourts, or winter habitations, also an old blubber pit, and the posts for a platform; but the place appeared to have been long deserted. The location seemed favorable for a settlement, and likely to be visited, as we had seen both walrus and seal near the mouth of the haven, while the place was well sheltered, and an abundance of driftwood was to be picked up round the shores.

      We had completed our observations on shore, and were waiting idly round the boat, when a yell was heard as of a human voice, coming from the direction of our whale, which at the moment was hidden from view by the fog. The sound was startling to us, breaking, as it did, so unexpectedly upon the stillness, and it became us to proceed cautiously, as we were only six in number, and we knew not how numerous a party of natives might be at hand. The cries were repeated, but seemed to be all from a single voice.

      Looking to our arms, we approached cautiously, so as to teconnoitre without being seen. A single Esquimaux, with only a light spear in his hand, stood near the head of the whale on the beach, startling the echoes with shouts of joy at the magnitude of the prize, of which he naturally presumed himself to be the owner, by right of original discovery. It was evident he was alone; but not wishing to dash his spirits by undeceiving him at present, we concealed ourselves behind hillocks, to observe his movements.

      Having, as we supposed, fatigued himself with shouting, he suddenly leaped upon the nib end, and climbed his slippery way upward with surprising agility, considering the clumsy appearance of his skin wrappers, till he stood upon the whale's breast, between the fins. From this perch he surveyed at leisure the immensity of the treasure, and again gave vent to more yells of trinmph. Planting his dart in the blubber, as any other discoverer might, to signify that he took possession, he drew his sleeve-knife and proceeded to cut out a good-sized "horse-piece," which was a work of some time with his dull implement. More yells announced his final success, and having executed a sort of frantic pas seul, or dance of delight, he slid to the ground again, and shouldering the lump of blubber, trotted away inland.

      "Now, we'll lay off in our boat, out of sight," said Mr. Pomroy. "We shall have the whole tribe down upon us, as soon as they get the news and see the sample of the ore. If they want a ton or two of this blubber to eat, they are welcome to it, for there is more than we need to fill the " Gorgon." But there'll be large odds against me if I don't carry off the rest at high tide, and fight for it, too."

      We hooked up our lines, which we had cut to a convenient length and buoyed, and lay off far enough in the fog to be invisible from the beach. Nor could the lines be seen, as they led from the under side of the whale as she lay.

      It was nearly high water, and more than half the length of the body was afloat, before we heard the wild shouts of the approaching savages. We had dropped a grapuel, which was always carried with us on excursions of this sort, near the land, and were ready to haul as soon as there was a chance of floating the whale. The Esquimaux, whom we judged by the sound of their voices to be twenty-five or thirty in number, had brought an oomiuk with them, as we saw them push it out alongside of the whale; but we silently hauled off a little further, and they were still ignorant of our vicinity.

      We soon heard them mounted on the


whale, chopping away at the blubber, and chattering like magpies. They knew, of course, that the whale would be afloat in a short time, and doubtless intended then to haul it broadside on, and strand it as soon as possible. But already the sound of oars was audible to seaward, and we knew that our boats were rounding the point, coming to our assistance. The natives, of course, heard them too, and suspended operations to listen. Dutchman, for he was a genuine Yankee, long, lean, and comical. We were soon at the Lester farm, and the cheery welcome we received from grandma and Aunt Eunice, and my pretty cousin, Clara Holt, who had just arrived, made me forget all about the dreary weather outside.

      At this moment, the mate, with a twinkle of humor in his eye, made signs to haul quietly on the line. We did so, and felt the mighty mass start a little. Our grapnel had a good hold of the ground. Another strong pull together, and we overcame the inertia of the whale, which slid suddenly off the beach, and floated quickly out towards us, with a dozen or more greasy, chattering Esquimaux dancing about like schoolboys on floating logs, striving to keep their equilibrinm on the smooth convex of the whale, as it rolled heavily from side to side, when suddenly liberated.

      Our cheers of trinmph and shouts of derisive laughter were the first notice they had of our vicinity. Then, catching sight of us, they jumped for their oomiak, some of them sliding overboard in their fright and astonishment, as the other two boats, just arrived, shot suddenly in among them. We managed to reassure them, however, and, loading their boat with as much blubber as she could carry off, sent ihem ashore in good humor.

      In a few minutes we were passing trinmphantly around the point, with our prize in tow -- the last one wanted to complete the lading of the "Gorgon."


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Up North in the "Gorgon" - No. 11.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 64, No. 5 (Nov 1886)
Pages: 408-412