STUCK

Re­liv­ing hun­ters’ Arc­tic or­deal.

National Post (Latest Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - ALEXIS S. TROUBETZKO­Y

Sur­vival in the Arc­tic is an art form, and in its lit­er­a­ture an as­sort­ment of su­perla­tives is used to de­scribe any given such story or the men in­volved. One grip­ping tale, how­ever, comes to us of four Rus­sian Po­mori hun­ters for whom all ad­jec­tives seem in­ad­e­quate. In 1743, the four found them­selves ac­ci­den­tally ma­rooned on Edgeøya Is­land of the Sval­bard Ar­chi­pel­ago (77°40’ N). For six years of de­pri­va­tion and Arc­tic iso­la­tion they sur­vived the un­re­lent­ing weather and con­stant threat of po­lar bears with what few items they had car­ried at the very start. The res­o­lute mind­set of these men con­founds ex­pla­na­tion.

In 1749, word of the feat reached the ears of Count Py­otr Shu­valov, a favourite of Em­press El­iz­a­beth of Rus­sia. So out­landish and im­prob­a­ble did it all seem that he in­vited two of the sur­vivors, Alex­sei Inkov and his cousin, Khrisani Inkov, to St. Peters­burg to hear their story first-hand. Their ac­count was so im­prob­a­ble that ini­tially the men was viewed as hoax­ers. But with con­tin­ued ex­am­i­na­tion and cros­sex­am­i­na­tion, the cred­i­bil­ity of their ac­count grad­u­ally came to be ac­cepted and the chief in­ter­roga­tor, a cer­tain Pierre Le Roy, was asked to record it. The French­man was the tu­tor to Shu­valov’s three sons, and his 76-page re­port forms the crux of what is known of the four men who un­flinch­ingly stood up to the Arc­tic Siren.

In 1743, 14 Po­mori hun­ters sailed from the vil­lage of Mezen on the White Sea coast aboard a small ves­sel and headed west for the North Sea. They were out to hunt wal­rus in the waters of the Sval­bard Ar­chi­pel­ago (mid­way be­tween main­land Nor­way and the North Pole). The first eight days of the pas­sage were had in favourable weather, but on the ninth the wind changed direc­tion and grew so in­tense that they found them­selves rapidly be­ing driven off course to­ward Edgeøya Is­land at the ar­chi­pel­ago’s south­east­ern cor­ner. The whal­ing grounds were on the op­po­site side of the is­land clus­ter, and whalers rarely passed there, not only for lack of the an­i­mals, but for the preva­lence of ice packs. The ice buildup that year was ex­cep­tion­ally great and be­fore long their lit­tle ves­sel found it­self pre­car­i­ously ice-bound within sight of land.

The sit­u­a­tion de­te­ri­o­rated in the pass­ing days, and it be­came ap­par­ent that the ship might be crushed. There­fore, the de­ci­sion was made to send a four-man party to the is­land to re­con­noi­ter pos­si­bil­i­ties of shel­ter­ing ashore. It was known that years ear­lier a group of Rus­sian sailors had win­tered there in a hut that they had con­structed with ma­te­rial es­pe­cially car­ried from home. The two Inkovs vol­un­teered to cross by foot over the haz­ardous ice in the hope of lo­cat­ing that cabin, and they were joined by two oth­ers: Stephan Shara­pov, Alexis Inkov’s god­son, and Feodor Ve­ri­gin. They did not plan to be ab­sent for a long time, and since they knew that the hunt­ing would be ex­cel­lent only the barest essen­tials were car­ried. Le Roy lists the ar­ti­cles: “a mus­ket, a powder horn con­tain­ing twelve charges of powder, with as many balls, an axe, a small ket­tle, a bag with about 20 pounds of flour, a knife, a tin­der-box and tin­der, a blad­der filled with to­bacco and ev­ery man his wooden pipe.”

On mak­ing land­fall, he writes, “their first at­ten­tion was em­ployed, as may eas­ily be imag­ined, in de­vis­ing means of pro­vid­ing sub­sis­tence ... The 12 charges of powder which they had brought with them, soon pro­cured them with as many rein­deer, the is­land, for­tu­nately for them, abound­ing in these an­i­mals.” At first glance, an as­ton­ish­ing achieve­ment — twelve shots and twelve dead an­i­mals. It must be noted, how­ever, that the is­land’s rein­deer were un­used to hu­mans and, be­ing nat­u­rally cu­ri­ous, they made easy tar­gets.

The prize they sought was had in short or­der: they found the hut less than a mile from shore. It was con­structed with pre-cut logs from Rus­sia and mea­sured 36 feet by 18, with an in­or­di­nately high ceil­ing also of 18 feet. A small vestibule com­plete with door sep­a­rated the in­ner room from the main en­trance for the preser­va­tion of heat. In one cor­ner stood an in­tact tra­di­tional clay stove, “a kind of oven with­out a chim­ney, which serves oc­ca­sion­ally for bak­ing, for heat­ing the room, or as is cus­tom­ary amongst the Rus­sian peas­ants, in very cold weather, for a place to sleep upon.” Since it was built “some time be­fore” the build­ing was not in top shape but read­ily re­pairable.

The men overnighte­d in the cabin while a heavy gale blew out­side, and on the fol­low­ing day they made their way back to the ship to share the happy news of their find with their com­rades. Imag­ine their ut­ter stu­pe­fac­tion when on reach­ing the shore they dis­cov­ered that the far­thest por­tion of the ice pack was gone and with it, their ves­sel — gale winds had pre­sum­ably car­ried all away. “This melan­choly event de­priv­ing the un­happy wretches of all hope of ever be­ing able to quit the is­land, they re­turned to the hut whence they had come, full of hor­ror and de­spair.” A con­tin­u­ous watch was kept in the en­su­ing days for sign of sail, but none was had; their ship had no doubt foundered and their fate was sealed. (Since the ves­sel never re­turned to home port, their as­sump­tion was un­doubt­edly cor­rect.)

How­ever bleak their prospect, the men re­solved to make a go of it. They first set about patch­ing up the hut, prin­ci­pally by trim­ming some of the logs and caulk­ing open­ings be­tween them us­ing moss that grew abun­dantly through­out the is­land. “Re­pairs of this kind,” Le Roy ed­i­to­ri­al­ized, “cost the un­happy men the less trou­ble, as they were Rus­sians, for all Rus­sian peas­ants are known to be good car­pen­ters: they build their own houses, and are very ex­pert in hand­ing the axe.”

With re­pairs com­pleted and 12 deer car­casses ly­ing out­side, some sense of achieve- ment was had, de­spite two un­solved prob­lems of pro­found mag­ni­tude. First, all their am­mu­ni­tion had been ex­pended. How then to pro­vide food in the long-term, and equally, how were they to fend off po­lar bears? Spitzber­gen in those days was home to huge con­cen­tra­tions of the an­i­mals, and Edgeøyen was a favourite breed­ing ground. Not for a mo­ment could they ease their vig­i­lance against at­tack by this stealthy, oft-time im­per­cep­ti­ble car­ni­vore that was pre­pared to at­tack most any­thing that moved, be it a seal, wal­rus, or hu­man.

And then, how were they to keep them­selves from freez­ing? Edgeøya is a bar­ren is­land, void of trees or shrub­bery — what there­fore to burn? In­deed, how were they to cook? The tin­der­box they had car­ried would soon be empty — how to start fires? In the ab­sence of weapons and fuel, star­va­tion was in­evitable; prospects of sur­vival ap­peared neg­li­gi­ble.

On fur­ther ex­plo­ration of the is­land, they dis­cov­ered abun­dant quan­ti­ties of drift­wood lit­ter­ing parts of the coast. Pe­ri­odic floods of the great rivers emp­ty­ing into the White Sea bear large amounts of up­rooted trees, which ocean cur­rents carry west and af­ter months of drift and salt-wa­ter wash quan­ti­ties are beached on Sval­bard. A trea­sure trove this was; the concern over fuel was al­layed, and the four­some set about haul­ing huge amounts of the stuff to their cabin.

Weeks passed and the sup­ply of rein­deer meat had be­come nearly de­pleted. Al-

Other than moss, lichen and cer­tain grasses, vir­tu­ally no veg­e­ta­tion is had on Edgeøya. The men be­came in­vol­un­tary car­ni­vores

though seen in places, bears thus far had been few and far be­tween, but the change of sea­son mi­gra­tory paths would bring them to the is­land in num­bers. Lack­ing am­mu­ni­tion for fur­ther hunt­ing or to ward off the ma­raud­ers, the sit­u­a­tion must have ap­peared hope­less. But then, all changed; for­tune favoured the brave. One day, as the men gath­ered drift­wood along the shore, they came across a cou­ple of weather-beaten planks, “the melan­choly re­licks of some ves­sel cast away in these re­mote parts.” One of these had a long iron hook at­tached and the other, five or six nails “and other bits of iron.” This in­nocu­ous de­bris be­came a life­line.

Us­ing rein­deer antlers as tongs, the hook was heated red-hot and placed on a makeshift anvil of smooth stone. One blow of the axe made two pieces of it. The thicker sec­tion had a hole, and with the prim­i­tive forge it was suf­fi­ciently en­larged to al­low a nail be driven through it. The hole was then made even big­ger by work­ing the nail to and fro. Af­ter the piece had cooled, a firm piece of drift­wood was driven through the hole, and thus a ham­mer came to be. The curved part of the hook was re­worked with the ham­mer and cut in two, with the halves then be­ing fash­ioned into straight points. The edges of these pieces were sharp­ened by stone and at­tached to straight drift­wood poles “about the thick­ness of a man’s arm.” This was done by us­ing strips of well-soaked deer­skin, which, in the process of dry­ing, con­tracted so tightly that a ridged bond was achieved. In ad­di­tion to a ham­mer, our Po­mori now pos­sessed two spears.

Un­til then, the men had de­lib­er­ately avoided hav­ing any­thing to do with bears, but now that they were armed they set out to hunt one down. And this they did suc­cess­fully, as the French­man ex­plained with­out minc­ing words, “af­ter a most dan­ger­ous en­counter, they killed the for­mi­da­ble crea­ture, and thereby made a new sup­ply of pro­vi­sions.” David Roberts in his book Four Against the Arc­tic imag­ines the scene:

“ To thrust their spears home, the sailors must have danced within a foot or two of the beast’s fe­ro­cious paw swipes. And if the spears failed, break­ing on im­pact, at least one of the sailors would have paid with his life. I tried to hear the bear’s out­raged roar­ing, I saw tor­rents of blood mat­ting its white fur, I en­vi­sioned the Po­mori feint­ing and re­treat­ing, the two men with­out the weapons try­ing to dis­tract the an­i­mal from the two who hoped to slay it.”

The larder, as it were, had been re­plen­ished and “the flesh of the an­i­mal they rel­ished ex­ceed­ingly, as they thought it much re­sem­bled beef in taste and flavour.” The skin was scraped and later fash­ioned into cloth­ing.

But of equal in­ter­est to the hide were the an­i­mal’s sinews and ten­dons. In an ear­lier foray to the shore­line, they had come upon a rel­a­tively fresh “root of a fir tree, which nearly ap­proached to the fig­ure of a bow.” By di­vid­ing the ten­dons into sev­eral thick twine­like fil­a­ments, they were able to fash­ion a string for the bow. Nails were shaped on the anvil into darts, which then were at­tached to with bear sinew to shoots of fir tree. By se­cur­ing “feath­ers of sea-fowl” at the ap­pro­pri­ate place, cred­i­ble ar­rows were formed.

First a ham­mer, then a cou­ple of spears and now a bow and ar­rows. Lit­tle

Krisanf was well aware of the dan­gers of scurvy, and he urged his com­pan­ions to drink warm rein­deer blood as it flowed from the veins im­me­di­ately af­ter the kill

won­der that when the Po­mori’s amaz­ing tale sur­faced in Rus­sia it was ini­tially re­ceived with skep­ti­cism. The re­source­ful­ness and skills the four men demon­strated in beat­ing all the odds were as­tound­ing. Le Roy wrote: “Their in­ge­nu­ity, in this re­spect, was crowned with suc­cess far be­yond their ex­pec­ta­tions; for, dur­ing their time of their con­tin­u­ance upon the is­land, with these ar­rows they killed no less than 250 rein­deer, be­sides a great num­ber of blue and white foxes ... The flesh of these an­i­mals served them also for food, and their skins for cloth­ing and other nec­es­sary preser­va­tives against the in­tense cold­ness of a cli­mate so near the Pole.”

As the days short­ened and tem­per­a­tures fell, concern fo­cused on main­tain­ing the cabin’s heat. Sup­ply of ac­ces­si­ble drift­wood had di­min­ished rapidly and there was no telling whether sea storms would throw up fresh quan­ti­ties suf­fi­cient to last the win­ter. Fuel econ­omy there­fore be­came the or­der of the day. Fun­da­men­tal to all was the ques­tion of fire, “if it should un­for­tu­nately go out, they had no means of light­ing it again; for though they had steel and flints, yet they wanted match and tin­der.” Flint would do lit­tle with­out hav­ing the sparks fall on dry, com­bustible ma­te­rial such as birch bark, but such was un­avail­able on Edgeøya. The bow-and­drill method used by the na­tives of Kamtchatka and North Amer­ica would un­doubt­edly have served them well, but this de­pended on dry wood, and fresh drift­wood was never fully free of wa­ter­log.

The Po­mori were well aware of what Arc­tic win­ter brings — its freeze and dark­ness, its iso­la­tion, de­pri­va­tion, and dan­gers. A loss of heat is a death sen­tence. What­ever the cost, what­ever the means, un­der no cir­cum­stance could they per­mit the fire to ex­tin­guish, and there should al­ways be an­other by way of backup.

On one of their ex­plo­rations in­land “they had met with a slimy loam, or a kind of clay in the mid­dle of it.” They gath­ered a mass of this ma­te­rial and worked it into a lamp-like ves­sel. Rein­deer fat was placed into it and a nar­row strip of twisted linen served as a wick. For a brief pe­riod, flames flick­ered brightly, but when the fat melted, it per­me­ated the clay and their hand­i­craft col­lapsed. A sec­ond try was had at lamp-mak­ing, but this time they al­lowed the mould- ed piece to dry in the out­side air. Af­ter it had hard­ened, they cooked it in boil­ing wa­ter to­gether with a quan­tity of flour, fol­low­ing which the ex­te­rior was coated with a flour paste. Thus came to be a lamp, which held melted fat and one that worked well enough to serve as a model for fab­ri­cat­ing oth­ers. Such was their suc­cess that the men re­solved to save the re­main­ing flour ex­clu­sively for lamp-mak­ing and to be spar­ing in the use of shirts, trousers and draw­ers, es­sen­tial for fu­ture wicks.

They fash­ioned cloth­ing from an­i­mal hides. For un­der­gar­ments, skins were left to soak for sev­eral days in fresh wa­ter un­til the hair loos­ened suf­fi­ciently to be plucked out. The hide was then rubbed thor­oughly by hand and al­lowed to dry, and then rein­deer fat was rubbed into it to give soft­ness and pli­a­bil­ity. The hair on hides des­tined for out­er­wear and boots was re­tained for max­i­mum warmth and wa­ter­proof­ing. “Though there was nei­ther tai­lor nor shoe­maker among them, they con­trived to cut out their leather and furs well enough for their pur­pose.” All was sewn with thread made of fil­a­ments of bear sinew and with in­gen­u­ously fab­ri­cated nee­dles forged from odd bits of iron.

Other than moss, lichen, and cer­tain grasses, vir­tu­ally no veg­e­ta­tion is had on Edgeøya, and so for the six years of their forced cap­tiv­ity, the men be­came in­vol­un­tary car­ni­vores, with rein­deer, fox, and bear form­ing the diet. Apart from their first bear kill the oth­ers, 10 in all, were taken in self-de­fence in ward­ing off at­tacks on their hut. “Some of these crea­tures even ven­tured to en­ter the outer room of the hut, in or­der to de­vour them.”

Since their ket­tle served as a repos­i­tory for fresh wa­ter drawn ei­ther from nearby springs or made by melt­ing snow or ice, meat had to be cooked over the open fire. Morn­ing, noon, and night: the same diet — “rein­deer, and blue and white foxes, and the white bears were their only food these wretched mariners tasted dur­ing their con­tin­u­ance in this dreary abode.” To break the di­etary monotony, they sus­pended cer­tain cuts from the high ceil­ing for ex­po­sure to the ever-present smoke within the hut. The smoked pieces were then taken out­doors and placed on the roof to al­low them to dry hard, and then slices of the stuff were chewed as “bread,” no doubt a wel­comed gar­nish to roasted meat.

Krisanf was well aware of the dan­gers of scurvy, and he urged his com­pan­ions to drink warm rein­deer blood “as it flowed from the veins im­me­di­ately af­ter [the kill].” In ad­di­tion he in­structed them to con­sume raw scurvy­grass, which grew in parts of the is­land, and lastly he rec­om­mended “to use as much ex­er­cise as pos­si­ble,” what­ever the weather.

Three of the four lived by these rec­om­men­da­tions and sur­vived to tell their tale. Peter Ve­ri­gin, how­ever, “who was nat­u­rally in­do­lent and averse to drink­ing rein­deer blood,” stub­bornly avoided leav­ing the hut un­nec­es­sar­ily and wanted noth­ing to do with blood. Within weeks of ar­rival on the is­land, he took sick and be­came bedrid­den. “He passed al­most six years un­der great­est suf­fer­ings,” and fi­nally he died. Le Roy tells of the ef­fect this death had on the oth­ers: “Though they were thus freed from the trou­ble of at­tend­ing him, and the grief of be­ing wit­ness to his mis­ery, with­out be­ing able to af­ford him any re­lief, yet his death af­fected them not a lit­tle. They saw their num­bers less­ened and ev­ery­one wished to be the first that should fol­low him. As he died in win­ter, they dug a grave in the snow as deep as they could, in which they laid the corpse, and then cov­ered it the best of their power, that the white bears might not get at it.”

In such form, Le Roy tells of how the four Po­mori lived out the first year on the is­land, and from this we have an im­pres­sion of how the en­su­ing five years passed. We hear of their hut and weapons and we learn how food, heat and cloth­ing were se­cured. Prim­i­tive as all this may have been, it was suf­fi­cient for the sur­vival of the stranded — at least three of them. What our chron­i­cler fails to of­fer us, how­ever, is a sense of the men’s psy­cho­log­i­cal con­di­tion. How did they deal with the monotony of seem­ingly in­ter­minable dark win­ters with snows so deep that at times it “wholly cov­ered their hut, and left them no way of get­ting out of it, but through a hole they had made in the up­per part of the roof”? What of their men­tal strength in cop­ing with the cold and prim­i­tive con­di­tion of their bleak smoke-filled hut, where no doubt cabin fever pre­vailed? Above all, the lone­li­ness and sense of aban­don­ment and un­cer­tainty — most of this is left to our imag­i­na­tions. The clos­est the French­man comes to touch­ing on these mat­ters is one para­graph:

“Ex­cept­ing the un­easi­ness which gen­er­ally ac­com­pa­nies an in­vol­un­tary soli­tude, these peo­ple, hav­ing thus by their in­ge­nu­ity so far over­come their wants, might have had rea­son to be con­tented with what Prov­i­dence had done for them in their dread­ful sit­u­a­tion. But that melan­choly re­flec­tion, to which each of these for­lorn per­sons could not help giv­ing way, that per­haps he might sur­vive his com­pan­ions, and then per­ish for want of sub­stance, or be­come a prey to the wild beasts, in­creas­ingly dis­turbed their minds. The mate, Alex­sei Inkov, more par­tic­u­larly suf­fered, who hav­ing left his wife and three chil­dren be­hind, sorely repined at his be­ing sep­a­rated from them; they were, as he told me, con­stantly in his mind, and the thought of never more see­ing them made him very un­happy.”

At this point Le Roy con­cluded his nar­ra­tive by de­scrib­ing their dra­matic res­cue of the sailors. On Au­gust 15, 1749, “they un­ex­pect­edly got sight of a Rus­sian ship,” a trad­ing ves­sel out of Ar­changel on its way to No­vaya Zemlya, which had been blown off course and found it­self off Edgeøyn. It is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine the ex­cite­ment of the mo­ment as the men scur­ried about to col­lect drift­wood for two mas­sive fires on the shore­line heights. A rein­deer’s hide was fas­tened to a pole to serve as a flag, which then was en­er­get­i­cally waved. Fire, smoke and the flag served them well and the ma­rooned were spot­ted. “The peo­ple on board see­ing these sig­nals,” Le Roy wrote sen­ten­tiously, “con­cluded that there were men on the is­land who im­plored their as­sis­tance, and there­fore came to an an­chor near the shore.” On Septem­ber 28, the three men were at last re­turned home. Word of their mirac­u­lous sur­vival had pre­ceded them and a small wel­com­ing com­mit­tee had gath­ered on the shore, and here Le Roy gives us a touch­ing vi­gnette:

“The mo­ment of the land­ing was nearly prov­ing fa­tal to the lov­ing and beloved wife of Alex­sei Inkov, who, be­ing present when the ves­sel came into port, im­me­di­ately knew her hus­band, and ran with so much ea­ger­ness to his em­braces, that they flipped into the wa­ter and very nar­rowly es­caped be­ing drowned.”

Ex­cerpted from Arc­tic Ob­ses­sion: The Lure of the Far North by Alexis S. Troubetzko­y. © 2011 by Alexis S. Troubetzko­y All rights re­served. Pub­lished through­out Canada by Dun­durn Press (dun­durn.com).

An 18th-cen­tury kotcha, the sort of ves­sel the Po­mori sailed from the White Sea to Sval­bard in 1743 when they be­came ship­wrecked and were stranded for six years.

The ti­tle page of Le Roy’s book, de­scrib­ing “the sin­gu­lar ad­ven­tures of the four Rus­sian sailors who were cast adrift.”

Re­mains of a hut on Spitzber­gen from an 1871 il­lus­tra­tion by a Bri­tish yachts­man. Such Ortho­dox crosses were fre­quently erected by the Po­mori in the Arc­tic in thanks for a safe ar­rival and es­cape from dan­gers at sea. The crosses also served as...

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