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No. 10.

W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. LXVI, No. 4 (Oct 1887)
pp. 300-305.


. . . .



No. 10.

Perils of "Boating Down" on the Weather Shore. – Preparations for Winter. – Adventure with an Icererg. – A Right Whale Taken.

      A fine morning was at length seized upon, and the boats pushed out and pulled up along shore to the beach. Each vessel's boat was manned by a crew from her own party, for it was necessary to act jointly, and bring down the whole catch at once. This time I was left behind on the Point, but Mr. Fielding and Bryant both went up in our boat.

      Much time was consumed in rafting and hauling the blubber off to a boat moored outside the surf. Meanwhile, heavy clouds were gathering in the southwest, and the aspect of the heavens was threatening. Impatient glances were directed towards where the boats were expected to heave in sight on their return; and as the breeze struck, at first moderate, but rapidly freshening, hopes were expressed among us that they might have decided to abandon the work for the day. But it was too late; they had already started. And as a fresh gust, giving earnest of the severe southwester that we might expect, swept into our faces, whirling the beach sand about our ears, and touching the tops of the seas with "white caps," the leading boat of the three made her appearance off the rugged cape which had heretofore concealed them.

      With a side wind blowing directly on shore, they were obliged to turn the boats' heads seaward, to counteract its effect, and to avoid drifting into the influence of the rollers before they should arrive abreast the spot where we were collected, an anxious group, awaiting their arrival. With so heavy a raft in tow, amounting altogether to about two hundred barrels of blubber, their progress was very slow, and the steadily increasing gale threatened to raise a heavy


breaker on the Point before they could arrive. It was hard to lose that for which we had toiled so hard, and we had good reason to fear that Fielding and the other officers would hang on too long before they decided to abandon it and seek their own safety.

      All work was suspended on the Point, and the whole population, amounting to sixty souls, were assembled at the landing-place. Carrie was among us, hovering near her father, her heart, as I well knew, torn with anxiety, and with something of the absorbed expression which I had first seen in her on that memorable night when I brought the surgeon ashore. She never seemed to be overcome by dangers which threatened herself, however imminent; her anxiety was all for those she loved.

      When the boats, after an exhausting struggle, had reached a position off the mouth of the river, we observed them to exchange signals with each other; and immediately their connecting warps were cast off. The raft rope was also thrown overboard, and the blubber left to its fate, sagging slowly in towards the breakers. Relieved of the burden, the boats now drew rapidly down off the landing-place, and then edged in shore, watching a favorable opportunity to come forward. By this time, landing was really dangerous, so great had been the increase of wind and sea.

      Warner was in command of the leading boat, and first mounted the roller. Despite the rustic bearing of this man, who always looked, acted and talked as if he "hadn't got the hayseed out of his hair," there was not a more efficient seaman on the island, or a cooler head than his for any great emergency. He had taken the sea at the right moment, and guiding his boat with masterly skill, brought her directly into our willing hands, and she was run up on the beach without having shipped a bucketful of water.

      Fielding came next, giving the word to "pull ahead!" as soon as he saw the first boat safe in our grasp. He also had timed his advance well on the start, but unfortunately lost control of his steering-oar at a most critical moment, and was thrown partly broadside on. The roller combed in over his quarter, and spite of the readiness with which we rallied, at the risk of our lives, she was filled, and we dragged her up with her broadside stoven in, while the crew escaped with nothing worse than a thorough drenching.

      But the rear-guard, in charge of the fearless and hot-headed Burdick, fared still worse. The order to advance was given too soon, and the relentless breaker, a heavier one than usual, overtook his frail craft, lifted her stern, and dashed her completely over. We had no eyes for the boat; she was no longer worth looking for. We had enough to do in watching for the heads of the struggling men. By a good fortune which seemed almost a miracle, they were all pulled out alive, though Burdick himself was severely injured, and all the rest more or less bruised, to say nothing of being more than halfdrowned. The "Ripple's" owners were poorer by the value of a good whaleboat, totally wrecked; but no one cared much for that. The count of human heads showed that no life was lost; and we had leisure to turn our attention to the abandoned blubber.

      The whole mass drifted in a short distance below the river's mouth; but some of the "strings " parted, and it was scattered, portions of it coming ashore at a dozen different places along the Point. But numerous small parties were on the alert to secure it; and eventually very little of it was lost, though it was scattered in driblets over miles of beach, involving much labor in collecting it again, as well as delicate questions of ownership, which, however, were satisfactorily settled. We were all convinced that great difficulties lay in the way of working the weather side of the island, and that during the winter season, now fast approaching, we should be obliged to content ourselves with hunting on the Point only.

      It was not without a strange feeling of isolation that we saw the schooners bound seaward, laden with the product of March bull season, and realized that five long months of Antarctic winter lay before us, during which we must rely upon our own resources. Cut off from all communication with the outer world, we busied ourselves in making preparations for the great change of season, taking all precautions that prudence suggested to meet the rigor of the climate.

      It was in April that we bade farewell to our comrades, and no vessel was expected to return to the island until the opening of the next spring, in September. During the winter months the tenders would be employed chiefly in right whaling near the coast of Desolation, the ships remaining snugly moored at their old anchorage.

      The population now at Hurd's Island


amounted to about seventy men, of whom twenty-five were in McDougal's gang, while the American parties numbered fifteen each. Our houses were at some distance apart, but we still kept our head-quarters on the east side of the Point, having little shanties or sentry-boxes on the southwest shore. Daphne Cottage stood alone near the Rookery, well removed from the others, while the vacant ;'Argyle Arms" remained perched on the hill near the glacier; for Morgan had left everything standing, expecting to return in the spring.

      After March bull season was over, but few elephants were taken, and indeed the catch was known to be small during the early and middle part of the winter. But the great master-stroke of the year was to be made at the turning-point of winter and spring, which is the season of parturition, when the cows are numerous and easily slaughtered.

      All the blubber which was taken now was brought over to the try-works and boiled, the oil being put into casks to remain until the return of the schooners. We had set our pot for this purpose, and Burdick's party having another, the two sets of try-works would be sufficient for all of us, as we could use them alternately. Rude shelters were constructed with turf, lumber and old sails, which would serve the purpose of partial protection from the weather, and formed a picturesque addition to the appearance of our settlement.

      The houses were much improved by additional battens and a fresh coat of tar upon the roofs, after which a banking up of cut turf piled against the sides nearly to the low eaves ensured additional warmth, and in our own case, made the name of "The Nest" more appropriate than ever before. The tiers of casks containing the heavier stores and provisions, which could not be taken inside the hut, formed a sort of barricade to break the snowdrifts. Our stock of wood was carefully husbanded and piled near at hand, and every piece of driftwood brought from the beach. We could not rely upon elephant's fat as fuel, for it would not be obtainable at the very time when it would be most wanted—in the dead of winter.

      About this time the great bergs of ice which had been slowly drifting northward all summer, began to be observed. Several of them had been distantly seen from the southwest beach, and in one or two instances had been mistaken at first for vessels. But the number of them, with the strange form of some which had appeared nearer, satisfied us what they were. These mountain-like piles, doubtless snapped off from glaciers which had formed away up in the terra incognita of the Antarctic polar region, were slowly but steadily drifting down into a milder temperature. Some of us had met with similar ones off Cape Horn on previous voyages, but never with so many or of such Alpine dimensions.

      On turning out one morning, the man who had been scouting on the beach came breathlessly into the hut to report that a ship or an iceberg had been seen off the extreme end of the Point. He had not approached it, but had turned back at once to spread the information. We were soon on the move in that direction, and after passing the south head of the Point, we had a fair view of the strange object. As we had already conjectured, it proved to be an immense berg, which had set so near the land as apparently to have grounded.

      We found McDougal and his party all wending their way in the same direction, and hastening on, we overtook him and his daughter. For Carrie, with the curiosity of a true daughter of Eve, had no idea of being left at home, when anything new or strange was to be seen to break the sameness of her usually monotonous life.

      We continued our march to the extremity of the Point, so as to get the nearest possible view of the ice-mountain. Its altitude we estimated to be, at least, two hundred feet, and as the principal bulk of floating ice is below the surface, of course its draft of water must have been much greater. It was very irregular in form, having two lofty peaks or spires rising high above the main body, with ledges or terraces at various heights. The whole mass had taken the ground at least half a mile from us, notwithstanding the shore was what we call " bold." And this fact alone was sufficient evidence of its immensity under water.

      The roaring of the sea as it rolled into the caverns on its off side could be plainly heard where we stood, and its tremulous motion could also be noted, as it appeared to hang suspended on an irregular foundation. In sublimity it exceeded all that any of us had ever before witnessed, and an intense curiosity was awakened in every mind to examine it still more closely. The weather, though cold, was favorable for launching a


boat, there being but little surf on the shore, and a proposition to push out and pull round the icy monster for a nearer view of its beauties, met with favor on every hand.

      Without delay, we started up the beach to the place where the boats were hauled up and secured, bottom up. To roll over and launch them was the work of but few minutes. We had only two boats, our own and the "Adelaide's," Burdick's having been stoven to pieces, as before related, and the English party having lost all theirs at the time of the shipwreck. At the earnest invitation of Fielding, Carrie and her father accompanied us. While pulling down along the shore, we passed beyond the Point, and approached the great berg within a few yards, where we lay on our oars, tossing lightly upon the sea, and surveying its beauties at our leisure. The idea of grandeur, of vastness, conveyed by this close examination, it is impossible to describe in words. The rising sun, shining upon the various points of its irregular surface, heightened the effect, bringing out the most beautiful prismatic colors in some places, while at the same moment, others in shadow looked like dark, dingy rock. The noise of the sea at its base, or more correctly, its water-line, was, even in such moderate weather, almost frightful to hear. The young girl, in her intense admiration of the sublime and beautiful, sat with kindling eyes and parted lips, surveying the marvelous scene in speechless wonder and delight.

      "It would be something to tell of, now, if we could only land on it," said Burdick, as the two boats, with "peaked" oars, tossed within easy speaking distance. "Here's a low shelf where a feller might jump on, if he was near enough."

      "No, no! Don't undertake it," said Captain McDougal and Fielding, both in a breath. "It's running too great a risk to put a boat alongside of it, to say nothing of the risk of life."

      "Don't you be afraid we'll do anything of the kind while I've got charge of this boat," returned Warner. "If you feel that you must land, as you call it, Burdick, you can jump right overboard and swim ashore, for I slia'n't lay my craft alongside for you."

      But as the rash young man was hardly prepared to gratify his wishes in the manner suggested, he said no more about it.

      "It's a most wonderful sight," said McDougal, "and an opportunity that's not likely to happen more than once in the lifeLime of any man. I suppose, Caroline, you may be the first woman who has ever had the chance to examine one under such circumstances."

      "And it's worth all the hardships of this strange voyage, to have had such an opportunity," she answered. "It's as if one of the Alpine glaciers had been put in motion. But it seems tome, father, that it leans and totters every time the swell raises it."

      "So it does," said the captain, glancing up at the tall peaks that wavered against the sky. "It leans away from us, and I think it may fall over towards the land. But I would not like to be near it when it does, or within the influence of the disturbance it will make, for it will send a roller out here like a tidal wave, that may be heavy enough to swamp us. Suppose we pull ahead, Mr. Fielding, and go round the Point. We can land as well in the arc on the north beach."

      We did so, and soon increased our distance from the berg, while at the same time we opened new beauties, as it was viewed from a new point. Its eastern face was now before us, glittering in the morning sun. We could see that it tottered more and more each moment, as its base was being crumbled away by pounding upon the hard bottom, while lumps and bowlders of ice were floating by and being driven ashore upon the Point. Some of these were of great thickness and weight, though of course, mere chips as compared with the parent mass.

      We soon had reason to congratulate ourselves upon having changed our position as we did. For suddenly a great commotion was observable on the off-side of the mountain, the sea was agitated by a billow which made itself powerfully felt even where we now lay, and a new berg, itself of considerable magnitude, shot up into view, fresh and sparkling in the golden sunlight. This was simply a " tongue" broken off from the base of the principal mass, and now springing to the surface by its own buoyant power.

      But its liberation at once produced a change in the centre of gravity of the original berg, which began now to cant seaward!

      "It's capsizing off shore!" was theory in both boats at once. "Pull ahead!"

      We sprung manfully at our oars to increase our distance from the danger. Every eye was fixed upon the immense pile, as its towering spires swept the sea, slowly at first, but gradually increasing in velocity, until it


fell upon its side with a momentum which was frightful to the beholder. The sound which succeeded was as if a fragment had fallen from another planet. We had not ceased our labors at the oars, anxious as we were to be as far as possible from its influence. The sea appeared to heave and rock as from the agitation of a submarine earthquake, our comrades on the shore were seen running to escape being submerged on the flat, sandy extremity of the Point; and soon the word was given to "peak the oars I"

      "Look out! Trim boat!"

      A great wave swept toward us, upon which we were lifted high in air like bits of cork, and borne onward with suspended breath, fully a hundred yards. Then other waves succeeded, though of less height and force; until gradually the sea regained its former and more natural movement, and subsided.

      "We were quite near enough, as it is," said Fielding, as we all drew a long breath after our fright was over. "How lucky we pulled ahead when we did. We should all have been overwhelmed where we were lying a few minutes ago."

      "Eh! Burdick?" exclaimed Warner, "What do ye think, now? S'pose*n you'd been just climbin' up there when she lopped over?"

      "Oh, look! look!" cried the delighted Carrie. "Isn't it worth all the risk to see it now?"

      The berg was still rocking to and fro, with cascades pouring down the concavities of its sides, and rainbows sparkling over and against it. It presented an entirely new aspect, its highest part having the form of a perfect dome, beautifully rounded, instead of the jagged peaks which had before surmounted it.

      But having less vertical depth as it now lay, it floated clear of the bottom, and acted upon by a current, it was swept clear of the end of the point, and set slowly down the west side of the island, within a short distance of the shore.

      We passed on, making a considerable detour to double a cluster of rocks that lay like pickets or " flankers," thrown out from the main body of the land. Pulling up into the arc we were suddenly startled by a ringing trumpet-blast, as a right whale pushed his spiracles to the surface within a hundred yards of us, and sent forth a roar so familiar in its sound to the ears of most of us, that we had no need to ask each other what it meant.

      "Oh, if we only had a line and iron!" was the burden of the day. The officers were all whalesman, and their faces glowed with professional enthusiasm and eagerness to make an attack upon an animal which they had been educated to look upon as their legitimate prey. We had no means of fastening to him, but several lances were lying in the bottom of the boats, where they had been thrown when we pushed off. For scarcely any of us went abroad unarmed, either with lance or gun.

      The whale continued blowing near us in a most tantalizing manner, as if he knew that we were unprepared for an attack upon him. We could bear it no longer. Burdick jumped up and down in the head of the boat like a maniac.

      "Lay on to that fellow, Warner, and let me have a fling at him with a lance. It's a shame; it's wicked to let blackskin pass the head of our boat without getting a dig at it. Just look at him, aggravating! Daring us to attack him!"

      "Well, here goes!" said Warner, with a powerful heave at his steering oar. "Look out for him, next spout! Pull ahead, boys!"

      Our elephant lances were not well adapted for whaling, being too short in the shank. But Burdick had selected the longest one to be found, and as the whale was a small one of the " scrag" kind, it was possible to reach his life with it. He had no warp to attach to it to pull it back; but never mind, we could afford a lance or two.

      Warner laid the boat's head fair upon the broadside of the whale, and the lance was driven to the socket with startling effect. The poor scrag, stung to the quick, rolled over, the lance still in the wound, directly away from his assailants, but towards our boat, where Fielding stood balancing another lance, having given up the steering oar to McDougal.

      "Stern, boys, hard! Stern, and keep clear of him!" And down went Fielding's lance into the whale's breast—midway between the pectoral fins. He rolled up again to his natural position, spouting blood freely. Either lance would have been sufficient to cause death; for both had been sent to the vital spot.

      We were not long in getting a line from the shore, and the whale, fortunately for us,


did not run far before he turned up. The united force of all hands was employed to haul him up high and dry at flood tide. The blubber was peeled off, thrown into casks, and rolled up to the try-works. Forty barrels of oil were divided, which was not a bad day's work for the times, as very few elephants were then to be met with. This was the first and only right whale that we had seen near Hurd's Island, though they were quite common about the coast of Kerguelen.

      The days were now rapidly shortening, and snow began to fall in considerable quantities, as an earnest of what might be expected. The winter in the latitude of fiftythree in the Southern Hemisphere, is, perhaps, no more severe than in a similar northern parallel on the American continent, as regards simply the degree of cold. Indeed, the thermometer might often indicate a lower temperature during a Canada winter than is to be found at Desolation or Hurd's Island. But the prevalence of high winds in south latitudes renders the climate much less endurable. The range of temperature through the whole year is much less than in our own country, for it is rarely that a warm day is experienced, even in the summer months. And there is almost literally no vegetation; at least, so little as scarcely to deserve the name.

      The snow storms became heavier and more frequent as the month of May advanced, but the fleecy covering drifted before the strong winds, leaving many places quite bare, while under the hills it was banked many feet deep. The Pond was frozen over hard, and the last elephants had disappeared before the beginning of June. Winter was upon us in all its rigor.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Beyond Desolation - No. 10.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 66, No. 4 (Oct 1887)
Pages: 300-305