CANOEING ON NORTON SOUND
By Theodore Acland Harper
Editor’s Note: We believe this manuscript, written by Theodore Acland Harper, has never been published
in the United States, it probably has only appeared in the Register, Uncle Toby’s school newspaper
in New Zealand in 1909.
A couple of months ago I passed through Christchurch, after an absence of twelve years, and went round
to smoke a pipe with Canon Hare and have all the College news. I got the usual welcome that we Old Boys get
from him, but I also got a wigging for not writing things for the Register. In fact, I even went so far as
to make a promise that I would write something.
An unfulfilled promise is rather like a stone in your boot; it never allows itself to be forgotten until
you remove it. Consequently I have been searching my memory for some experience of mine that would interest
the readers of the Register.
The safe return of Lieut. Shackleton and his party from the South will have started everybody discussing
snow storms, caravans, patent rations and existence generally at 40 deg. below zero.
It chanced that I had the good fortune to cross from Wellington to Sydney, the other day, with Shackleton,
and the talks that we had together about cold country work and experiences, have stirred up in my memory many
a forgotten experience of the great North Land. One of them I will now relate.
Everybody knows where Cape Nome is, on the coast of Norton Bay, Alaska; if they don’t, it is an easy
matter to find it on a map. From Cape Nome, due east along the coast, about 50 miles, is another cape called,
locally, Topkok, and some few miles further east there existed, in my dad, a small mining settlement known as
Bluff City. Nome, the town of that name, was situated some twenty miles west of Cape Nome, so that from Nome
Town to Bluff City was something like seventy-five to eighty miles by sea, and a little further by land.
I went to Alaska in the spring of 1900, and during the summer of that year, I tramped several times over
this eighty miles of coast; sometimes on Tundra above the beach, which meant walking in a bog eighteen inches
deep, and sometimes on the beach itself, which meant traveling in nine inches of sand.
I did a good deal of reflecting on these trips, and at last decided that it was better to brave the unknown
terrors of the deep, and go by water, than the known terrors of the Tundra bog and loose sand on the coast.
I bought a 22-foot Canadian canoe, and learnt, after some failures, how to negotiate the surf; how much
ballast to put into her to carry a sail, and so on. During the rest of the summer I made a dozen or more trips
in her, up and down the coast both ways, until, in the matter of tides and winds, I was as good as a pilot, and
thought nothing of putting to sea for a hundred mile trip alone. I had more than one thrilling canoeing
experience during that summer, but I will not now stop to relate them, but carry you along to the early spring
of 1901, just at the time when the ice on rivers and sea was breaking up.
About half-a-mile from the beach, along most of the coast line of Norton Bay, the water shoals.
In summer, whenever the wind is from the south-west, there is a line of broken water, showing where the
shoaling begins. When the sea ice began to break up, in the spring, it broke off along the line of shallow
water, leaving the shore ice stranded in a long strip up and down the coast, varying in width form fifty
yards to one and a-half miles, according to the depth of water at any particular point. Outside this line
of shore ice the pack ice drifted about with the tide and wind, sometimes going several miles to sea when
the wind was from the north, and coming in with a southerly, to pile up in pressure ridges against the
still, stationary shore ice. For a week or more I had been amusing myself by coasting about amongst the
ice floes at the edge of the pack, shooting ducks, which are retiring north, and dodging icebergs, in
my canoe, or even taking refuge on bergs, to stop getting the canoe pinched in a pressure ridge, when
the pack closed in too suddenly to allow me to get safely back to shore ice.
Things were in this state when, one evening, word came to me from Bluff City that I was wanted there
immediately on a matter of considerable importance to myself. Time was a factor to be considered. The land
trail was practically impassable on account of the running ice in the rivers, and the general thaw going on;
I, therefore, decided to risk a sea trip in spite of the moving ice pack. With a view of minimizing the risk
as far as possible, I tried to get a partner for the expedition, in the person of a Canadian friend of mine,
whose experience of canoeing, and of Alaska, trebled mine. My Canadian friend was unable to come, and did
not make the outlook easier by pointing out that if the shore ice happened to break up en masse, with a
northerly wind, that I would be carried to sea. This view of matters gave me food for thought, but my
business was urgent, and I determined to take whatever risk there might be and hold to my original plan.
I started the same afternoon, with two days’ provisions, an extra car, a compass, an aneroid and a couple
of hundred pounds of stones for ballast.
Several men came down to the edge of the shore ice with me, and shipped me safely to sea, and at
the last minute one of them offered to come too. This offer I gladly accepted. Within an hour of starting,
I was horrified to discover that my volunteer crew was a veritable landsman. A new hand in a Canadian canoe
is more of a hindrance that a help at any time, and becomes a positive danger when things begin to happen,
though in this case, as the sequel will show, I should never have come out alive had I been alone.
We left Nome about 3 PM, I being at the oars and the crew steering. For three hours or more I continued
rowing and dodging down the water lanes between the floe ice, making poor time, and getting further and further
out to sea as we got nearer the cape, where the ice seemed to be badly packed against the bluff; and it began
to look as though we would have to go still further out to get round the point.
At six PM we changed places, which, in a Canadian canoe can only be done by one man lying down in the
bottom, and the other crawling over him; and the crew took the oars while I steered. In less than a minute
it became evident that the crew couldn’t use an oar; in fact, the crew admitted that it was the first time
he’d ever tried or even ever been in a boat. I so admired his pluck in volunteering to come, that I think
I forgot to swear, and for two hours I used all my wits and eloquence in trying to teach him how to row.
So we worried along for a couple of hours, by which time we were probably eight miles to sea, and
somewhat nearer to the cape. The sun was flaming away in the north-west, getting ready to set, and my crew
had rowed himself to a standstill, and his hands to a pulp. We had supper.
During supper a long lane opened out south-west, as far as we could see. This would carry us about
two miles along the coast for every one mile away from land. I reflected that if I could get two hours’ steady
rowing, that we would be round the cape, and that after midnight the tide set strongly inshore, to eastwards
of the cape, so that the chances were we could creep in towards land once we were round the point. Even though
I was getting dangerously for out, there seemed no other alternative, except to turn back. I took the oars,
and about midnight we had got to the end of our water lane; about a mile past the cape, to the eastward, and,
I estimated, twelve miles from land. It was now too dark to see far. I was rowed out, and wanted a spell badly;
and, as the barometer was steady, I determined to leave the tide to carry us west and inshore till morning, so,
selecting a likely looking iceberg, we hauled the canoe ashore, and turned into our bags.
At 5 AM we had drunk our coffee and got ready for a new start as soon as any water showed up close to us,
for during the night our berg had grown into a good sized island. We had also drifted some 5 miles west of the
cape, and probably 3 inshore, and a fresh breeze from the south-west was pushing the ice packs (and us with it)
in the right direction.
In about an hour a water lane opened out, parallel to the coast, about 200 yards inland form our berg,
and we carried canoe and belongings to the edge of the floe, and re-embarked, getting clear away about 7 AM,
with a fresh south-east wind behind, and an ebb tide running against us, which caused a lively commotion amongst
the pack ice; and, while it gave us plenty of water lanes to follow, it also kept us busy preventing the canoe
from being nipped between closing floes.
Fifteen miles westward of Topkok Point, and about 35 miles east of the cape, is the mouth of Solomon River,
one of the largest rivers on the coast. The mouth of this river is a bad place in any northerly wind, which
always blows off shore with special violence, and I always breathed more freely when I had safely passed this
point, for here was the greatest danger of being blown to sea.
At 7 AM, then, when we re-started, we were about 9 miles out to sea, and 8 to 10 past the cape, so that
we had a matter of say 20 miles to get off Solomon River, and the most exposed and dangerous part of the journey.
The crew had by this time learnt to steer, and to negotiate water lanes, but was unable to row, owing
to the state of his hands. I, therefore, remained at the oars and left steering to him, and, as we got some
hours of fairly clear water after 9 AM, I did not once look ahead, and consequently did not see the weather
signs until too late.
It was between 11 and 12 o’clock when we fetched up under an old pressure ridge at the end of open water,
and as there was no lane in sight, except to seawards, we stopped for lunch and to await any movement in the
flow. The pressure ridge shut off our view of the land westward and northward, but the crew estimated that we
were nearly abreast of Solomon River, and 5 miles of to sea. As I was hungry and tired, I delayed climbing the
ridge to look for myself.
We lunched and had a smoke afterwards, and so occupied probably an hour. Then, with a view to picking a
water lane opening to the west, I climbed the ridge of ice behind us, and in a moment realized what a precious
hour we had wasted sitting under that ridge.
Three miles ahead of us (westwards), and about 5 miles inland was Solomon River, and just shutting out
the view was the first scud-line of a nor’-wester, as it swept down Solomon River – a regular buster from the
look of the traveling snow dust. To landwards, about 200 yards form us, was a long stretch of open water
leading right to the shore ice, distant about 2 miles away, and our only visible chance of safety lay in
getting there as soon as possible.
The crew had wandered off seal hunting, and it cost me five precious minutes in collecting him, and
together we hauled the canoe on to the floe, and carried it over the ridge and across to the edge of the ice.
Then we made one trip back for oars and our bags, and abandoned everything else to save time, I started to
row for very life across the two miles of open water separating us from the shore ice, in the vain hope of
getting there ahead of the storm.
I suppose we had made a quarter of the distance at boat-race speed, when it hit us, and at once the
snow smother enveloped us and shut out the view. Well, I tugged away at the oars, and the crew baled and
tried to help keep her head to the wind (it’s wonderful how awkward a landsman is in a boat!) At intervals
the smother lifted just enough for us to see Topkok Point, and we appeared to be about holding our own
– sometimes we went back, sometimes in a lull would make 100 yards in a few minutes. The game seemed to
go on for hours, I don’t know how ling it was, but I never remember rowing so hard for so long before.
Rowing seemed to be the only thing to do, and the fact that we were close to the shore ice was in our
favour, because the sea had not time to get rough. The occasional glimpse of Topkok Point kept our hearts
up, so we continued to row and bale, and row and bale. Suddenly, about 5 o’clock, the storm lulled and we
got on to a peninsula in the shore ice just in the nick of time, as the wind came down again with
We had not more that hoisted out the canoe, when a sound made us both pause and look at each
other: the weirdest, uncannisest sound that I have ever heard, came moaning along the shore towards us,
passing away out of hearing to westwards – we both knew what it was and what it meant. It was the groaning
of the pack ice breaking up, and once heard it is not forgotten. Back and forth ran the sound, sighing
and groaning and straining, while we knew that the shore pack was breaking up and leaving for the open
sea. There was nothing to be seen on account of the driving snow, be we both knew only too well that
we were drifting again with two miles of shore pack between us and the beach, and the gale still at
its height! There appeared nothing to do but wait. It was impossible to carry the canoe two miles against
the wind, over the rotten shore ice, and it would have been fatal to leave it. I was also quite worn out
with my long pull into the ice, and sat down under the canoe more or less indifferent to the next move.
Not so, however, my partner, who was comparatively fresh. He started off, mostly on hands and knees, to
investigate, and returned in fifteen minutes to say that our floe was only about as big as a house, with
a big crack in it, and might break up any minute.
There was nothing for it but to put to sea again. I had somewhat recovered my breath now, and also
my fighting instincts, so we took counsel together and agreed that it was useless his rowing in such a
case, and it remained with me to row out the remainder of my strength. We had left all our grub on the
outer pack, but we each had a biscuit or two in our pockets. I eat all mine and drank the last of the
water, while we reserved his portion for the next meal. Then we launched the canoe and got aboard about
half-a-minute before our berg broke up.
If the hours we had battle with the storm outside the shore ice had been hard work, the hours that
followed were pandemonium let loose. The wind blew sometimes from one quarter, sometimes form another.
The snow-drift shut everything out more than a few yards off. The floes and small bergs, made out of
pressure ridges, loomed up out of the smother on every side. Sometimes we would be blown on to a berg,
and only save our canoe by luck form being stove in; at others we would be bumped on sunken ice and
nearly upset. At intervals we both of us had to bale water and snow-drift out of the canoe to keep afloat,
until my hands got so stiff form rowing that I could no longer take them off the oars. More than once
we were lucky enough to fetch up under the lee of a stranded berg, and got a moment’s rest until the
berg refloated again and our struggle began anew. Three times we saw Topkok Point, and knew that we
were holding our own, and, I expect, kept us at the game.
So the fight went on. The light through the drift got dimmer and dimmer, and we knew by this that
the sun was going down. Things began to take nightmare shape for me. Bergs loomed up and drifted past
in the smother like ghosts; the wind whistled, and the snow drifted, until my senses were dulled, and
I tugged first at one oar and then the other, as my partner shouted which way the ice lay, and only
continued rowing doggedly on because my senses were too dull to remember how to stop. Time had no
meaning in such a case. As a matter of fact it was about four hours after the shore ice broke up
before we got to land, because we saw the sun setting as we stepped out of the our canoe, which
would make it about 10:30 PM; and it was between 5 and 6 o’clock when we began our last fight.
I had got past the stage where time counted, and had long since ceased to note anything, except
an awful pain in my hands, and the muscles of my arm grated one over another like worn out elastic,
every time I straightened my arm.
Thus an interval of time passed – perhaps an hour – a week – who knows? – I didn’t!
I heard my partner say, “See, the drift is clearing off, and there’s the sand spit at the mouth
of the river. Row! Man, row! In five minutes we’ll be ashore.”
Row! I’d been rowing all my life, and never expected to stop again; so I went rowing, and
presently we grated on the sand spit, just about the same time that the gale dropped as suddenly
as it had started. I believe I went on rowing till my partner came forward and stopped me. He says
For me there was now an interval which is more or less of a blank, whether because of exhaustion
or from what happened next I do not know, but it appears that my partner left me sitting in the canoe,
and got out and went to look for firewood before it got too dark, when suddenly he saw a big ice floe
coming down the river in such a way that it would crush the canoe at it lay with its nose on the edge
of the sand spit, and he rushed back, shouting to me and pointing to the floe. I saw the floe, and
realized the situation. Waking up, I stumbled out of the canoe, and together we hauled her out of
the water, just as the floe came grinding into the bank at the exact spot where the canoe had lain
a moment before. The point of the floe grounded on the spit, and the mass began slowly to revolve
on this point as the stream swept it on, and we stood on the bank five feet away watching.
Then my partner gripped me by the arm and said, “Harper, for God’s sake look!” I followed his
outstretched are and there I saw, on the ice floe 10 paces from us, a sight I shall always remember.
Perched on the top of the floe was a sleeping-bag of the usual reindeer skin, partly thawed out
of the snow. Half in and half out of the hole at the top, lay the body of a man, his face turned towards
us, one hand and arm in the bag, the other stretched out across the snow, with a dog collar gripped in
We stood fascinated, staring at this sight, and the floe, revolving on its axis with ever
increasing speed as the current caught it, gently and silently slipped away and went out to sea
For five minutes we neither moved nor spoke. The tale told by the floe was obvious to both
of us – a blizzard, lost dogs, the weary tramp to look for them, and then, the last futile effort
to get into the bay before the eternal snow-sleep descended, and his grave in the sea, where we
had so nearly found our own. Man may brave nature in the North Land many times, but if he persists,
the end must be the same. The great white silence will win.
We were a very silent pair that crawled under the canoe that night, and next morning, when
we woke to all the beauty of a spring morning, with no sea ice in sight, we looked at each other
and the canoe, and then with few words agreed that we’d had enough for that trip. So we hid the
canoe in the brush and walked the rest of the way to Bluff City. – T. A. H.-----------------------------