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A Magazine of Literature, Science, and Art.
THE BEST ROUTE TO THE NORTH POLE.
AN is a born explorer. His history shows him to us as a restless wanderer, "going to and fro in the earth, and walking up and down therein." His first migration from the garden of Eden has been followed by countless and ever-widening waves of human population, flowing around the globe, and occupying its solitudes. No barrier, raised by the hand of nature, has long resisted the onset of the great human march. The first pioneers may have been baffled and beaten back; the earliest explorers, like a forlorn hope, may have perished; but over their dead bodies others have rushed on to victory. Man is determined that no part of his earthly inheritance shall remain unexplored; that no nook or cranny in his dwelling shall be allowed to hold a secret. The more determinedly nature has fortified any region against his approach, the more fiercely has he assaulted the ramparts. His feet have scaled the loftiest snow-clad peaks amid the mountain solitudes of the Himalayas, the Alps and the Andes, and traversed the scorched plains and penetrated the gloomiest forests. In his strong-knit ocean-ranger, he has dared the stormiest seas, and wrung from the sea its secrets. From the highest mountain-summit, crowned with its diadem of eternal snow, to the lowest depths of ocean, all nature is now being ransacked, and every one of her recesses invaded. Even in these solitudes, where as yet the footstep of man has not resounded, there is something that whispers
of his coming. The far-off din of his approaching victorious march makes the air tremulous, and tells that the mighty conqueror is at hand. The very silence of these yet uninvaded recesses proclaims his name and prophesies his dominion. Nature awaits her king and eagerly listens for his footsteps. In the depths of American forests, where the sound of axe has never resounded, the winds, in their march amid the pine tops, murmur his name, and the rushing streams take up the secret and spread it far and wide over the plains, and at the glad intelligence "all the trees of the forest clap their hands." Nay, even in the icy solitudes around the pole, in the awful stillness of the arctic night, there is a murmur in the air which speaks of human approach, and predicts the not distant day when man will pierce these ice-barriers which have so long defied his efforts, and burst into the unknown waters of the Polar Sea. For all earth is given to man, as his fair domain, to gather up its treasures, and subdue it to his use and pleasure.
There are two regions which have hitherto withstood the most determined efforts of the explorer, and driven him back, baffled and defeated. I refer to those portions of the earth's surface which spread around the north and south poles. These extensive tracts nature has guarded with such formidable ice-ramparts, that the bravest navigators have failed to pierce them, although their attempts have been renewed again and again, during the last three centuries. If we take the north polar region, we find, first of all, around the north pole, an ocean of enormous extent, at least two thousand miles in diameter, and having an area of more than three millions of square miles. We find further, that this polar sea is almost entirely surrounded by land, and almost at a uniform distance from the pole; but that everywhere its shores are within the region of perpetual frost. The northern coasts of Asia and Europe, as well as those of America, terminate about 70° N. lat., which may be regarded as the general boundary line of the polar sea; but within this boundary, and separated from the mainland, are some of the largest archipelagos in the world. A glance at the map shows us vast land-masses, separated from the northern coasts of America by very narrow straits. Then comes Greenland, having an unknown northern extension, and on the east of it the extensive group of islands known under the name of Spitzbergen, the small island of Jan Mayen, Iceland, Nova Zembla, and the
new Siberian Island. Now, all around these shores and islands of the Polar Sea, there spreads a ring of ice, the extent of which towards the pole is yet undetermimed, but it is known to clasp the entire circuit of the globe, in these northern latitudes. From Nova Zembla to Spitzbergen, thence to Greenland and the American shores, on across Behring's Strait to the coasts of Siberia, this vast ice-belt extends, thus investing the polar regions with an icy rampart, against which all man's skill and endeavour have hitherto exhausted themselves in vain. Numerous attempts have been made to break through this ice-belt, in the hope of reaching an open sea around the Pole, but though the roll of Arctic heroes contains some of the noblest names in the records of fame, and though their deeds have added a new lustre to the pages of history and enlarged the boundaries of science, yet as far as the grand object of reaching the Pole is concerned, their story is one of defeat. True indeed the gallant McClure has, in our own day, solved the problem of centuries, and discovered the north-west passage between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, without, however, being able to carry his vessel completely through; and it is also true that the shores of the Polar sea have been explored with a perseverance and success which leave little to be achieved in this direction. But still the vast Polar region, within the ice-belt, remains unknown; and so long as it is in this condition, must exercise a powerful fascination over the adventurous spirits of our race. While three millions of square miles of the surface of our planet around the north pole, and as many around the south pole, remain unknown, it is not to be expected that men will rest contented. All that they do know will avail some of them nothing, while this expanse is unknown. It will have a resistless charm for the bolder spirits who delight in danger, and will draw them irresistibly onward, in spite of every difficulty. Every avenue leading into this unknown region will be eagerly watched, every opening will be taken advantage of, in the hope of penetrating the ice-belt, and reaching the Pole. The achievement can no longer be reckoned an impossibility. All-conquering steam has given man an immense advantage in these days, in navigating iceladen seas. Experience has taught him how to construct his ship, so as to make way through the floating ice-masses: and science has instructed him how to face the rigors of an Arctic winter and pass through them unharmed. The dangers of such explora
tions are now greatly lessened: and there is a strong probability that, at no distant day, the Pole will be reached. Hope begins to beat high, and the passion for Arctic exploration has of late revived with increased intensity.
A glance at a map of the world shows us that there are but three gateways to the Polar Sea, through which its waters mingle with those of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. These are Behring's Strait, Smith's Sound, at the head of Baffin's Bay, and the great opening between Greenland and Nova Zembla. Experience has shown that of these three openings, that through Behring's Strait is the least hopeful for advancing Pole-ward, the heavy polar pack being invariably found to bar all progress north in that direction.
In consequence, of late years, this route has been practically abandoned by Arctic explorers. The favourite route of late has been through the ice-belt to the west of Spitzbergen: and by this gateway ships have approached nearer the Pole than in any other, with the exception of Captain Hall's late voyage in the Polaris, by way of Smith's Sound, in which he reached lat. 82° 16' N. The Swedish expedition of 1868, in the iron steamer Sophia, attained the highest latitude by the Spitzbergen route,— namely, 81° 42′ N.: and in 1871 Mr. Leigh Smith reached 81° 24' N., on the same meridian. By the same route, in 1806, Scoresby reached 81° 30′ 19′′ N. These have been the nearest approaches to the Pole: and in every instance, they were arrested by the heavy northern ice-pack. That ships were enabled to penetrate so far, in a peculiarly favourable season, was probably owing to the fact that prevailing winds had broken a great mass off from the main pack and had driven it south very early in the spring, before the main pack began to move, thus leaving a broad open lane which would of course disappear when, later in the season, the main body began to move. This favourable condition of the ice, west of Spitzbergen, is exceptional, and occurs at distant and uncertain intervals. As a general rule, ships are stopped by the ice far short of the high latitudes already named, as having been reached by a few fortunate voyagers.
It is not difficult to discover the reason of vessels being able to attain a higher latitude by sailing up the west side of Spitzbergen rather than the east. The great Polar current, flowing from east to west along the coast of Siberia, sweeps round the north end of
Nova Zembla and drifts the Polar ice upon the east coast of Spitzbergen, blocking it up with ice during most seasons, and rendering navigation, in this direction, dangerous, and frequently impossible. On the other hand, the Gulf Stream strikes the south end of Spitzbergen and divides itself into two branches, one of which flows on to the Nova Zembla coast, where it mingles with the Polar current, while the other flows up the west coast of Spitzbergen and keeps it comparatively free of ice and renders navigation easier. Here it is that the Gulf Stream also meets the Polar current, and the former having a greater specific gravity in consequence of containing more salt than the Polar water, plunges into the depths, and, for a time, becomes a submarine current flowing in a contrary direction to that of the Polar current. Slowly and gradually it mixes with the colder current and is eventually lost in it. These great oceanic movements render navigation along the west coast of Spitzbergen comparatively easy, and have rendered this route specially interesting to Arctic explorers. Hitherto, however, no great success has attended their efforts to break through the ice-belt, with the view of reaching the Pole: and even the most enthusiastic are now inclined to abandon this route in despair.
While adventurers have been trying to force there way Pole-ward, along western Spitzbergen, others have been exploring the more difficult eastern shores and their outlying islands. The history of the various expeditions which, during the last three hundred years, have succeeded each other in this quarter, is one of absorbing interest, and contains some of the most thrilling records of human courage and endurance. None of them, however, surpasses in interest the story of the gallant Dutchman, William Barents, who discovered Spitzbergen, in 1596. While endeavoring to sail round Nova Zembla his ship was beset by ice, and, in consequence, he was compelled to winter in that desolate and frozen country. The journal of Barents and his companions, during that terrible winter of 1596, is one of the most touching tales ever written; while their escape, in two open boats, from that dismal country, after a perilous and painful voyage of eleven hundred miles, is among the most marvellous events on record. Barents, however, was overcome by the severity of the climate and died. Two hundred and seventy eight years afterwards, in the year 1871, Captain Carlsen found Barents's ancient winter quarters in Nova