Reliving hunters’ Arctic ordeal.
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...