Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Land to the North - Chapter Six

(Blogger's Note: Earlier chapters follow this.)

Early the next morning we rowed across the Union Strait. There were small islands around it, some of them barren wastes and others covered with brush, bushes and trees. We landed on some, walking inland a few hundred yards before returning to the boat. None of them showed any sign of having a warm, concealed entrance to the Inner Earth. Each was just a frozen land with windswept plateaus waiting silently for the first warming rays of the late spring. We saw only a few animals, mainly in the distance, and the tracks of fewer large predators.

The whole day was spent slowly working our way across the Union Strait, spotting islands and checking them out. We ate a quick, cold lunch on one of the small islands, not taking time to start a fire but instead, sitting among the branches of a toppled tree for shelter. When we finished, we climbed back into our boat and continued rowing to the north.

By nightfall we hadn’t made much progress. The constant starting and stopping, not to mention the brisk winds, slowed us considerably. We finally landed on a large island with a single small hill in the center that seemed to dominate the island. There were a few short, scraggily trees and the occasional bush. We found enough wood for a fire for warmth and ate another meal prepared from our jerky.

It had been a long, hard, cold day, even though it was late spring. There had been little reward for all our work. We both were tired and we fell asleep early. As the sun climbed higher in the sky the next morning, we were both ready to go again.

By noon we had made our way across the strait and were close to the land of Victoria Island. Eric and I argued briefly over the next move. I suggested that we put into shore and make our way across the island on foot. Eric wanted to use the boat to scout the shoreline, working our way to the north. If we saw anything of interest, we could always land to chase it down.

As I studied the map, I could see the wisdom of Eric’s plan. We could carry much more in the boat rather than in our backpacks so we could continue farther to the north.

The currents suggested that the tree that Ramsey reported could have come from the northen edge of Victoria Island, or maybe even farther north. Since it was a warm weather tree and was found in an icy sea, it was probable that it had been growing on the edge of an island that had a warmer climate than anything we were finding here. We shouldn’t miss anything by using the boat. Travel would be simpler and maybe even faster that way.

"Yes," I conceded. "We should use the boat as long as we can."

So, we turned toward the west and continued the journey. Each of the days took on the sameness as the last. Rocking in the boat during the day and then putting into shore at night where I lay on the hard ground, the sensation of the wave motion still with me, trying to keep warm.

We rounded the Wollaston Peninsula and explored Prince Albert Sound. We crossed the Amundsen Gulf and surveyed the Minto Inlet. Finally we found ourselves in the Prince of Wales Strait, Victoria Island on the east and Banks Island on the west. With Banks Island so close, we alternated between it and Victoria Island, exploring each for a couple of hundred yards behind the beach and searching the open ground with binoculars.

And each day we saw fewer signs of life. We would see a bird overhead, or a fish in the water. The snow revealed the footprints of animals, but we rarely saw the animal. Of course there were no signs of human habitation anywhere close now. We were too far to the north and too far from anything that could support a family or a village.

And each day we were farther north. We broke out into the Viscount Melville Sound. We beached out boat on Russell Point late in the afternoon several days later. The sun was toppling toward the horizon and I was cold. Cold from the water sloshing in the bottom of the boat and cold from the wind that roared at us unabated. I was cold from sleeping on the ground and cold from eating cold food.

Annoyed with the lack of progress, I carefully unfolded the map, holding it low so that the wind wouldn’t rip it from my hand and said, "You realize we’re miles north of the farthest reach of any of Ramsey’s maps or photographs. We’ve really ignored what he photographed for us."

"I know," confessed Eric, "but I don’t think he was able to get far enough north. He needed fuel and a base. He could range much farther in a day than we can, but I believe he only eliminated the mainland of Canada. We have to push on."

"Melville Island is almost seventy-five miles across open water," I said. "We’ll never be able to navigate that distance in our boat."

I pulled my compass out of my pocket and opened it. Given where we were standing, with open water in front of us, and land behind us, I knew where north was supposed to be, but the compass pointed to the northeast. We were close to the magnetic north pole and that was going to make navigation across open water tricky at best.

"So, what do you suggest? asked Eric. "That we give up?"

"No," I said. "I think that we should explore Victoria Island more fully before we try anything else. I mean, it’s right here, in front of us."

Eric shook his head sadly and asked, "You really think we’re going to find our entrance on Victoria Island? If it was there, someone would surely have stumbled across it before now and we’d know exactly where it was."

"But there are stories of entrances in California," I countered. "No one has stumbled onto them and let the world know."

"David," he said, "this isn’t going to be easy. I never said it was, but if we’re going to find anything, then we’ve got to continue to the north, to Melville Island. Once we’re there, it’ll be simple to hop from island to island, but we have got to cross the Parry Channel."

I sat down then, on the cold, frozen sand, the wind tearing at my clothes and studied the map. I could see that Eric had a point. To continue around Victoria Island would only take us farther from the islands to the north. If we were careful, we could make it and although we didn’t have sufficient water for a long crossing, there was enough ice floating around us that water wouldn’t be a problem for us.

"Tomorrow then," I said.

Eric stood with his back to me, his eyes on the open water to the north where Melville Island would be if we could have seen it. "Tomorrow," he said. The word was torn from his lips by the cruel biting wind.

"Tomorrow," he repeated.

The next morning was a warmer, clearer day. We set out, taking turns rowing. By late in the morning, we were out of sight of land and I found that unnerving. The compass pointed to the east now and that made my head spin. I knew which way north was, but the compass didn’t care about what I thought I knew. It continued to point in the wrong direction.

We didn’t talk much, having long ago exhausted most of the topics. I wished that we had gotten a better boat with a motor on it, but then I hadn’t expected to spend so much time on the water. I finally said as much to Eric.

"I know," he said. "I didn’t have any idea that these islands were separated by such great distances. At least that was the impression I got from my father. I should have studied the map more closely."

It was at that point I realized just how amateurishly we had put this expedition together. We should have been studying the maps of the area we planned to explore. I hadn’t though much about it because I believed that we would be on the mainland of Canada, far beyond the arctic circle but still on the main land of the continent. Now we were hopping from island to island, driven on by the knowledge of how far we had come already. It would take weeks to get back to civilization and all the time we’d put in already would be wasted.

When night fell, we continued to row, and while Eric slept in the bottom of the boat, I was trying to stay warm and dry by rowing. As Eric dozed, I watched the luminous dial of the compass sitting close at hand. The stars blazed overhead. The air was crisp and cold, but the effort of rowing kept me warm.

I watched shooting stars flare into brightness and die quickly, more in one hour than I had seen in my whole life. Brilliant streaks of light in a rich variety of color.

There was almost no sound around me. Just the gentle slap of the water against the bow of the boat and the quiet, rhythmic breathing of Eric as he slept on.

A quiet, dark world that held no dangers except for the cold winds that blew constantly and tried to rob the body of its warmth, and an ocean that could swallow us completely. I felt myself grow drowsy and felt my eyelids shut. I would jerk awake as I relaxed and began to fall over. For minutes, my heart would pound and I would think that it would be hours before I would fall asleep again.

And then, suddenly, Eric was shaking my shoulder, shouting at me. I opened my eyes and found myself surrounded with a gray mist that obscured the bow of the boat only a few feet from me. Eric, although only inches from my face, was a shadowy shape.

"David," he asked when he saw my eyes fluttering open, "are you all right?"

I sat up and said, "I’m fine. I just fell asleep. That’s all."

"For how long?" he asked.

I reached up and rubbed my eyes. My hand brushed across the stubble on my face. More than could have grown in a few hours overnight. It felt like several days growth.

"I don’t know," I said.

Eric helped to a sitting position. My bones ached and I rubbed a sore spot on my shoulder.

"You notice anything?" he asked.

"You mean other than this thick fog?"

"Yes," he said. "Other than the thick fog."

"I’m hungry," I said. I felt my stomach rumbling as if I hadn’t eaten for a couple of days. "I’m thirsty too."

He waved an arm and said, "It’s warm. Much too warm."

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Land to the North -- Chapter Five

We left by eight o’clock the next morning, driving north on paved roads. For a while we followed the Missouri River but it broke away to the west and we continued north. We crossed the border into Iowa, ate lunch and continued on. By late afternoon we were at the Minnesota border. As the sun disappeared, the sky clearing and a sheet of late arctic air settling on us, we found rooms in a hotel only a few miles north of the border. It hadn’t been a bad day’s travel, though it had been tiring.

When I said my good nights to Eric and turned on the electric light in my room, I couldn’t help smiling. Here I was, starting on a great adventure that would rival that I had in France during the Great War. I was traveling into uncharted territory, into lands that no one suspected existed, and yet, on my first night of the journey, I was resting in a warm hotel room with electric lights, the latest newspaper on the desk and a hot shower down the hall.

The only way for it to be better was if I could write to Sara and let her know what I had seen and where I was. I had tried to telephone her the night before and she had seemed, momentarily happy to hear from me. I suspect that she thought I had finally come to my senses and was telephoning her to let her know the expedition was off.

But when I said that we would leave in the morning, her voice turned icy, hard, and without emotion. This was not the news she wanted and she made that clear. I had asked if I should notify her of my return but she was noncommital. I think she wanted to say yes but didn’t want to give me the slightest hint that her position was not as strong as she said it was.

We ended the conversation, if not affectionately, then cordially, much as a divorced couple might say good-by after a meeting with the lawyers.

I was sure that her attitude would change when I returned from a successful expedition. And successful it would be. We had carefully researched the history, we had made a successful reconnaissance by air. All that remained was to follow up on the ground.

The next morning we did the same thing we had the day before. We ate a large breakfast and were on a major highway out of town by eight. It was late afternoon as we approached the Canadian border, which I had thought nothing about. But as we neared it, I realized that we were carrying firearms and ammunition, not mention a large number of crates with food and other supplies. But as we slowed and then stopped, the guard just asked us the nature of our visit to Canada.

Eric smiled at him and said, as calmly as could be, "Fishing. We heard there are some great lakes for fishing in Canada."

"Right you are. The best in the world," said the customs man. He walked to the rear of the truck, peeked in the back and returned to the driver’s side of the cab. "Looks like you boys plan on being here for some time."

"Four or five weeks," said Eric. "We need some permits or anything?"

"Not from me," said the man, "but before you establish your camp, you better check in with the local authorities. Good luck to you."

We continued north then. Each day was a repeat of the last until we were far enough into Canada that the pavement changed to graded roads and finally to tracks across the tundra. The nights were cold enough that the ground remained hard, and the days warm enough to be comfortable.

As we made our way farther north, there were no longer bridges across the rivers. But there were fords and the truck handled them all easily. Finally, we found ourselves almost a far north as we could get without driving into the arctic ocean. The ground was still snow covered, the towns small and far apart, and the nights frigid. Sleeping in the back of the truck and eating cold food from cans made it seem more like a real expedition than it had in the earlier days of hotel rooms and restaurant meals.

The maps and aerial charts and photographs made for us by Randall Ramsey led us to the bare spot that we had seen on them, but it turned out to be nothing of use to us. A bog that generated its own heat because someone had set it on fire and the smoldering peat had melted all the snow around it.

We camped there that night because we didn’t feel like traveling farther. Eric had believed that the slash of brown earth, seen from the airplane, would provide us with our first real clue, but, of course, it didn’t. So we started our own campfire, ate our supper in silence and turned in early. I had known it wasn’t going to be easy.

The following morning, we left the bog, skirted it and headed to the west where Ramsey had claimed to have seen the tree drifting. By noon we had reached the end of the land and parked on a cliff that overlooked an expanse of open ocean.

Eric, standing on the cab of the truck and using his Zeiss binoculars, carefully surveyed our surroundings. Finally, he slipped to the ground, put the binoculars into their case and looked at me. His breath was smoking in the chilly air of the late afternoon.

"Nothing," he said. "Absolutely nothing. White as far as I can see with no break in the snowy surface except for patches of ocean."

We climbed into the truck for the protection it would provide. "Now what?" I asked.

Eric got out a map and studied it for a few moments. "I think," he told me, "that we’ll want to bear to the east from here. Then, if the ice is think enough, we can cross to one of the islands there, probably Victoria Island, and continue on to the north."

I leaned over and examined the map. "Ramsey puts his sighting of the tree farther to the west."

"Yes, but the current could have brought it from Victoria Island or somewhere even farther to the north. My father was well into the arctic circle when he first found his way in."

"I don’t know," I said. "Most of my research seems to indicate that the best entrances are in caves, some of them in California." With the cold beginning to seep into my bones, the promised warmth of California took on an added importance.

"But we’d have to walk a hundred miles inside the caves before we had the chance of finding anything. Those entrances are far from the center of things, and even if we find the right cave, there are so many ways to get lost. No, if we can find our way in up here, we won’t have to walk for hundreds of miles."

"Your father tell you that?" I asked.

"My father told me that," he said.

"Then I suggest we start a fire, cook our dinner and prepare for the morning."

Eric folded the map and jammed it toward the glove box. He glared out the window, at the sun as it slipped toward the horizon that was a long way from us. Reds and oranges blazed across the ice and snow, reflecting to the high cirrus clouds over us. I knew that he was angry about another day wasted, but there was nothing we could do about that. We’d want the whole day to make our way across the ice.

Early the next morning, after a cold breakfast eaten hastily out of cans, we tried to start the truck. I spun the crank, but the weather had been cold and the oil was thick. After nearly twenty minutes, my arms aching with the strain, we realized that we were not going to be able to force it to start.

For an hour, we roamed the plateau, searching for wood. Once we had a huge pile gathered, we build a small fire over several large stones. When the fire was good and hot, we retrieved the stones from the flames and rolled them under the crankcase and oil pan of the truck, being careful to avoid the gas tank because we didn’t want to blow ourselves up.

When those stones cooled, we rolled hotter ones into their place and in only minutes, we were able to start the engine. Eric was so anxious to get going, that he started to drive off and although I was sure the fire would burn itself out, I made him stop long enough for me to extinguish it completely.

Once I climbed back into the cab, we began a bumpy, slow trip across the open prairie or tundra, avoiding the deep ravines and sinkholes and skirting bogs and stands of trees, few through there were. We stayed near the coastline, looking for a way down to the ice choked water.

Victoria Island was off to our left as we drove to the east. Eric stopped periodically and used his binoculars to survey the island, but there was nothing visible to suggest a warm entrance to the Inner Earth.

We eventually found a way to the beach. We drove along the frozen sand but there was no way for us to continue to the island. Eric did find a place where the rocky cliff retreated so that there was an overhang. We decided that it was the perfect place for our base camp. Nothing would be visible except from directly in front. Our truck and other equipment would be protected from the elements while we were off exploring the island.

That night, sitting near the fire which I now thought of as a luxury, Eric, having finished his meal, said, "This is taking longer than I thought it would."

I was a little surprised by his tone. I thought we had been making very good progress. We had already exploded a couple of promising places, and while they didn’t pan out, it just meant we would have to look elsewhere.

"Tomorrow we find a way to get to the island," I said.

"You don’t understand," he snapped.

I didn’t understand his impatience. We hadn’t been traveling that long, we had most of our supplies left, and the map told me there was a small town fifty or a hundred miles to the east where we could resupply if necessary. Our only real problem was the cold. I didn’t like it.

Eric stood up, hands on his hips and looked out, across the open water where Victoria Island stood. "That is the key," he said. "I should have gone... we should have driven directly here."

That confused me. "Why?"

He turned to stare at me and said, "Because that is where my father and sister were last seen."

He didn’t say more, but it now all made some sense to me. It wasn’t a great adventure for him. It wasn’t a lark that we could tell the grand kids about in fifty years. This was a quest for him, and that explained some of his fire, his passion, and his desire to keep moving.

There wasn’t much that I could say to that. I let the conversation die, but I had some questions I would want to ask. There were things that I wanted to know.

The next morning, the truck started easily, but probably because we keep the fire burning throughout the night and kept the oil warm. We spent most of the day driving along the cliffs and on the beaches. We could assemble our boat, a wooden craft that broke down for storage, but by the time we finished, it would be dusk. Another day lost on the preliminaries, which didn’t put Eric into a good mood.

Eric backed the truck into a sheltered area we had found, with me guiding him. When it was parked, he turned off the engine and removed the key. Then, thinking about it, he opened the hood and took the distributor cap, effectively immobilizing the vehicle.

Together, we unloaded the boat and out tools. We dragged the crates to the water’s edge and began the task of assembling the boat. With the cold wind whipping down on us, the job was harder than I would have thought. The thick gloves were clumsy and made the finer details impossible to work. We found that we had to use our exposed hands. That was something we could do for only a few moments at a time before we were forced to don our gloves again to warm our hands.

I stopped long enough to gather drift wood and start a fire close to us. The wind fanned the flames, once I managed to set the wood ablaze, and the fire burned hot. It warmed us quickly, making the job easier.

We finished in the twilight of the day. We left the boat there and walked up the beach to the truck. Eric suggested that we put up our tent and I heartily agreed. That seemed to be the last luxury we would enjoy for a long while.

After a meal cooked over the fire, we assembled our packs, leaving the canned foods and heavier items in the truck and opting for the jerky and dried foods. Eric found a space in his pack for a copy of the book about his father. We made sure that we had plenty of ammunition for our weapons and I realized that if we had been thinking, we would have purchased the same kind of weapons for each of us so that we could have shared the ammo. The 9 mm Mauser would not take the .45 caliber ammo I needed for my Colt automatic.

We both packed the handheld lamps and a supply of the batteries for them. We feared that we didn’t have enough. We had no idea how long our artificial lights would last, once we discovered the cave and began our descent.

With everything ready, we adjourned to the tent and wrapped ourselves into our sleeping bags. Even the building excitement bubbling in me didn’t prevent me from falling asleep quickly. I had just realized that we were finally on the expedition, as I imagined it would be, when I fell asleep.