A Voyage to Spitzbergen. [The Gateway to the Polynia].

Although the author, an “untraveled Englishman,” is motivated by sport, the main thrust of his book is that Spitsbergen is the best route to the north: for it’s whaling riches, for the benefits of geographical exploration, and for the most economical route of scientific inquiry. Wells himself is described as an old whaling captain in an introductory survey of Arctic exploration that doesn’t reveal its author. I assume the editor was a fellow traveler on a vessel captained by Wells, but I’ve not studied the matter. A most engaging volume.

p. 55-56, apropos Captain Wells: At one time he actually determined to resign his official post for a season, and come with us; the Trinity Board, entering fully into the spirit that actuated him, agreed to keep his office, by deputy, during his absence. But the fates ruled otherwise; he has given hostages to fortune, and his wife and family held him back. We were the losers by this resolve, for his great experience in the navigation of the northern seas, coupled with his knowledge of the curious and ever-changing phenomena of the Arctic weather in relation to the movements of the ice in the far north (a knowledge to be gained only by long experience and the keenest interest in the subject) would have been to us of the greatest possible value; for it is needless to say, that there is no book existing, except, perhaps, the valuable contributions of Scoresby, from whose pages we could hope to draw the requisite instructions to guide us in moments of difficulty or danger, much less to direct us in the course we should pursue when in doubt. These old whaling captains alone possess the requisite knowledge at the present time, and men of science have but little opportunity of formulating the valuable observations in daily use amongst these hardy explorers, won by long acquaintance with the dangers to which they are daily exposed; the more intelligent passing unscathed, while the less observant are compelled to struggle on in hopeless mazes, which too often render their venture fruitless, if no worse fate attends them, as we will have occasion to mention further on.

p. 62: There are emotions at such a time which the untravelled Englishman has never experienced. Such a one knows nothing of the strange sensation of sailing away from home and friends, league after league, day after day over a wide waste of sea, to another zone where every object to which use has made him familiar, gives place to new phases of nature, wearing for him a totally different aspect—to distant regions he may be familiar with, no doubt, from the perusal of books whose pages depict vividly the scenes they describe; but, after all, book descriptions, however good, fall very short when attempting to convey impressions which experience alone can supply. All our efforts to over-come the obstinate resistance of the gale which now rages from the north proving quite ineffectual, we are compelled to run in again and seek shelter.

p. 158-59: We read somewhere of one hardy explorer of the early days, who after vain attempts to gain the land he saw so distinctly, and which always seemed to baffle his attempts, at length, in superstitious dread, turned his back upon the scene, fearful of being beguiled by some enchanter’s trick; and we now do not wonder at his simplicity. All this time we watch the harpooner steadily gaining on the distant object, the wondrous beauty of the scene before us and the sport in hand dividing our admiration and combining to fill us with such a sense of enjoyment as we have rarely felt.

The little crowd around us are plunged into the same sea of ecstacy. No one breathes a whisper as the eyes are strained to observe every motion of the pursuers and pursued. The boat seems to glide rather than creep upon its prey, who lies all regardless of the impending danger, and at the distance we are, the suspense grows painful. Suddenly, like lightning, something has happened, and the shout is raised, “A fall! a fall!” Before the echo dies away, the crowd, as if released from some enchanter’s spell, is now a confused mass of bustling, hurrying men, as they rush to assist the crew in the first boat. Men come tumbling up from below, half clad, clutching in their hot haste such clothes as are snatched hastily as they run. Here are fellows but half awake, dropping into their places in the boats, with oar in hand, impatient to give way when the rest are in their places. There is no time now to waste, and for the present the garments are scattered anywhere. By-and-by a chance may come in which they may get time to dress. In the meantime the whale, hard hit by the trusty Byers, has plunged headlong into the depths below.

p. 162, reference to reading about the Prophet Jonah.

p. 222: Sportsmen as keen as ourselves may, on reading of deer-stalking in Spitzbergen, be tempted so far in the hope of enjoyment such as we had in their pursuit. To these we would recommend the study of the newest chart of Spitzbergen, and advise them to adopt the precaution of carrying a pocket compass, whose use should be well understood, in the event of getting separated from their party; a watch is of little use, and may, with prudence, be left on board.

p. 252-53: After a six hours’ climb, we sit quietly down for a short rest, and to eat a morsel. A draught of the cold pure water was to us most deliciously refreshing. Falling in a reverie, I pull unconsciously a bit of paper from my pocket, stored as it is with broken biscuit and tobacco. It is a letter. How long it has lain there, or who it is intended for, we cannot imagine. Long since the envelope has been frayed away, and become tattered; the address, if ever it had any, is no longer decipherable. The note it contained is safe enough, but somewhat torn. It began, “My dearest,” and wound up with “from your own fond love.” What else it contained we must not say, but it brought back tender thoughts of home and friends, and we felt it might have been for our reading, and we put it away carefully, and once more turned to our task.

p. 337-40: Are not the Arctic books, written by McClintock and others, full of records of heroic endurance and privations? whose very recital fills the mind with admiration for the men who have borne the toil, while our heart recoils from willingly consenting again, for all the scientific gain that is to accrue to the student at home, that men should go on any expedition that explorers? and besides, have we not seen men set out for the Arctic regions who, utterly ignorant of the peculiar nature of the navigation of these seas, have blundered sadly in spite of the proffered assistance of experienced whaling captains? What can be more depressing to a navy man, than to hear constantly of the errors now become traditional of these worthy fellows who bravely toiled through Baffin’s or Melville Bay—traditions ludicrous in details that will insure their preservation for years to come, amongst the whaling community? And it is this Smith Sound route which still preserves its sway amongst the older men of our navy; not, indeed, because they are convinced of its practicability by their own personal experience, for this can hardly be the case, if we read the Parliamentary reports on the various journeys made in search of Sir John Franklin and his party, but for some occult reason never fairly given. It cannot be because there is less danger to be met with by this route, as we have endeavoured to prove. It cannot be on the score of expense, for once admit the Smith Sound route to be the favourite of the public, who are now thoroughly roused to the question of the importance of Arctic enterprise, and there is no knowing where the waste of public money will end. The country has hardly recovered from the impression made upon the exchequer for defraying the former Arctic explorations, and that department of the State will care little to enter again on a like career of lavish expenditure.