The Polar Regions, Winter in the Arctic Circle

The adventurous spirit of Englishmen has caused them to fit out no less than sixty expeditions within the last three centuries and a half, with the sole object of discovering a north-west passage to India. Without attempting even to enumerate these baffled essays, we will at once carry our young readers to these dreary regions—dreary, merely because their capabilities are unsuited to the necessities which are obvious to all, yet performing their allotted office in the economy of the world, and manifesting the majesty and the glory of our great Creator.

Sir James Ross's Ships Beset in a Pack of Ice.

Winter in the Arctic Circle is winter indeed: there is no sun to gladden with his beams the hearts of the voyagers; but all is wrapt in darkness, day and night, save when the moon chances to obtrude her faint rays, only to make visible the desolation of the scene. The approach of winter is strongly marked. Snow begins to fall in August, and the ground is covered to the depth of two or three feet before October. As the cold augments, the air bears its moisture in the form of a frozen fog, the icicles of which are so sharp as to be painful to the skin. The surface of the sea steams like a lime-kiln, caused by the water being still warmer than the superincumbent atmosphere. The mist at last clears, the water having become frozen, and darkness settles on the land. All is silence, broken only by the bark of the Arctic fox, or by the loud explosion of bursting rocks, as the frost penetrates their bosoms.

The crews of exploring vessels, which are frozen firmly in the ice in winter, spend almost the whole of their time in their ships, which in Sir James Ross's expedition (in 1848-49) were well warmed and ventilated. Where there has not been sufficient warmth, their provisions—even brandy—became so frozen as to require to be cut by a hatchet. The mercury in a barometer has frozen so that it might be beaten on an anvil.

As Sir James Ross went in search of Sir John Franklin, he adopted various methods of letting him know (if alive) of assistance being at hand. Provisions were deposited in several marked places; and on the excursions to make these deposits, they underwent terrible fatigue, as well as suffered severely from what is termed "snow blindness." But the greatest display of ingenuity was in capturing a number of white foxes, and fastening copper collars round their necks, on which was engraved a notice of the position of the ships and provisions. It was possible that these animals, which are known to travel very far in search of food, might be captured by the missing voyagers, who would thus be enabled to avail themselves of the assistance intended for them by their noble countrymen. The little foxes, in their desire to escape, sometimes tried to gnaw the bars of their traps; but the cold was so intense, that their tongues froze to the iron, and so their captors had to kill them, to release them from their misery, for they were never wantonly destroyed.

The great Painter of the Universe has not forgotten the embellishment of the Pole. One of the most beautiful phenomena in nature is the Aurora Borealis, or northern lights. It generally assumes the form of an arch, darting flashes of lilac, yellow, or white light towards the heights of heaven. Some travellers state that the aurora are accompanied by a crackling or hissing noise; but Captain Lyon, who listened for hours, says that this is not the case, and that it is merely that the imagination cannot picture these sudden bursts of light as unaccompanied by noise.

We will now bid farewell to winter, for with returning summer comes the open sea, and the vessels leave their wintry bed. This, however, is attended with much difficulty and danger. Canals have to be cut in the ice, through which to lead the ships to a less obstructed ocean; and, after this had been done in Sir James Ross's case, the ships were hemmed in by a pack of ice, fifty miles in circumference, and were carried along, utterly helpless, at the rate of eight or ten miles daily, for upwards of 250 miles—the navigators fearing the adverse winds might drive them on the rocky coast of Baffin's Bay. At length the wind changed, and carried them clear of ice and icebergs (detached masses of ice, sometimes several hundred feet in height) to the open sea, and back to their native land.

With all its dreariness, we owe much to the ice-bound Pole; to it we are indebted for the cooling breeze and the howling tempest—the beneficent tempest, in spite of all its desolation and woe. Evil and good in nature are comparative: the same thing does what is called harm in one sense, but incalculable good in another. So the tempest, that causes the wreck, and makes widows of happy wives and orphans of joyous children, sets in motion air that would else be stagnant, and become the breath of pestilence and the grave.

Midsummer Night in the Arctic Regions.