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Along The Ice


Clerke shaped a course along the fog-shrouded coast of Kamchatka toward Bering Strait. For the next five weeks he must have been constantly on deck, for his journal shows a commander meticulous in his attention to the details of navigation. At 2 A.M. on the 20th he found disagreement "with our Russian friends" about the position of a headland, and gave his reasons--"our Account assited by the T:Keeper & Observations"(sic). He meant that the officers were checking position three ways: dead reckoning ("account"), a watch, and the lunar method. He corrected for tides and currents--"our longitude by account is already upwards of a degree & half to the Eastward of the truth." He even recorded the hour when the topsails were reefed and when the fog rolled in.

Whenever the breeze resumed its vigor, the ships moved offshore, exchanging guns hourly in the fog. Often he would gaze fondly at his birds--the shags, the divers, the "Sea Parrots" (the Tufted Puffin), the gulls--and remarked the whales and sea otters. When the clouds dispersed on the 23rd the officers took more lunars, which had become of consequence again because, following the failure of the Kendall watch, "we cannot put that confidence in the performance of our Time Keeper." When land materialized in the fog the bottom was sounded and coordinates of a headland plotted. "Lead found repeatedly 24 fathom." "At 8 the Noss bore N19ºE distant 17 Leagues." On the 29th he sent the "Time Keeper" over to Discovery to compare its rate with the rate of Bayly's watches.23 Still in doubt, he checked again the next day. His daily entries are more copious than many of Cook's for the second voyage.

On July 3, St. Lawrence Island was in view to starboard and soon afterward the ships came abreast of the snow-splotched Asian mainland. On the 5th the ships approached the icy Diomede Islands in the Bering Strait. "I now resum'd my Course to the Nºwards." They sighted Cape Dezhneva, the high cliff extending eastward like a finger marking the eastern extremity of Asia, and soon after, the American side was in view. The mariners were in the Arctic Ocean. Clerke was determined to relish each hour to the full.24


The ships met the ice the next afternoon, at 67º15'N. During the night they ran for about fifty miles northeast through seas thickened with drift ice which seemed to depart astern toward Asia. Uprooted trees were seen frozen in the ice floes. Early on July 7, a day of frustration, the ships met an extensive tongue of solid ice, and presently the Alaskan coast could be seen about forty-five miles ("15 Leagues") to the northeast (at Cape Lisburne). In clear weather the officers made four reckonings of position during the course of the day; Clerke had his heart set on following that coastline. The ships probed northwest, then northeast, the bows taking shocks from the floating growlers until he was obliged to bring to before the main body of ice. It was a solid wall rising twenty feet above the sea, the ice surging across the north and arcing southeast until it joined the land; from the masthead the lookout could not see beyond this vast white plain.25

On July 8 the ships were beset at 69º25'N and 192º39'E. The wind veered to the north, bringing heavy snow. A disheartened Clerke gave the order to put about and stand westward toward the Siberian coast. Samwell was already beginning to think the time had come to take the long way home. "From the appearance of the Ice hitherto We have not the least Hopes of a Passage."26 On the previous August 18 Cook had first met the ice at 70º44'N where he was farther east off Icy Cape. The price that Clerke was paying for arriving early in the season was to find the solid ice besetting him seventy-nine miles farther south. But he would not be dissuaded. The ships continued to range west for some eighty miles, all the while forcing their way through vast quantities of drift ice sloughing off the main.

Of a sudden we find the first of a new entry in Clerke's journal: "Made fires fore & aft below."27 Ostensibly this action was to fumigate the ship, but it is also a reminder of how quickly the cold seeped into the living quarters. On July 10 the main body of ice could be seen in the distance bending to the southwest. So huge had the chunks of ice become--"flakes very large," Clerke wrote--that they frequently stopped the ships dead in the water, the bows receiving severe bruises from the shocks of collision. At 69º2'N, Clerke decided he had better run away south to pause for a day or two in better water and see what was to be done. The next day, at a point seventy-one miles south and about twenty-seven miles east, he was beset for the third time. Pods of whales (probably the Gray Whale) were cavorting in the vicinity, and the sailors had a little diversion by shooting Pacific walruses ("morses") on the ice. The ships were held fast two or three times before bursting west into a bit of vacant water. Clerke stood away northwest to see how the ice would fare in that quarter.

On July 13 the ships brought to in an ice field at a point one hundred fifty-two miles north of the Siberian coast (above Cape Serdce-Kamen). But at 69º29'N Clerke had reached only four miles higher than his latitude of July 8 when he was beset on the American side. He was plainly discouraged. "I much fear we shall find it an obstinate and unconquerable barrier to all our hopes & Endeavours." Perhaps with a little more struggle, however, he might at least exceed Cook's farthest north of 70º44'N. He needed only seventy-five miles more of northing. He would try again. With the moderating temperatures the ice possibly would decay sufficiently from one coast or the other to offer him a passage. He would make a second attempt on the American side. The ships sailed on a course that sloped gradually northeast, this time apparently along the northern flank of that wall of ice.

At noon on July 18 Clerke was again off the Alaskan coast at 70º26'N, having gained fifty-seven miles more of northing but farther north he could not go. Above Point Lay at 196º18'E, he was only eighteen miles short of Cook's farthest north (which was somewhat northeast of Icy Cape) and about forty-seven miles west of Cook's final meridian of 198º35'E. But that wall of ice loomed ahead. Throughout the afternoon and evening the ships maneuvered among the ice floes to come in close. The fixed ice was curving southwest along the Alaskan coast (toward Cape Lisburne), and the mariners at last had to face the truth that was plain enough--the third voyage had failed to find the northwest passage.

Shortly before midnight they were somewhere off Point Lay when Clerke admitted that he had returned only to find the same ice he had met ten days before, still clutching the shore. "We had got to the bottom of it so could proceed no further to the Nºward." Having twice joined the ice to the American continent, he was determined to find out whether the summer temperature might have opened a channel for him along the Siberian coast (the northeast passage from England). Everyone resigned himself to Clerke's wish for another try, if only to "determine the impractability of a passage this way," as Samwell put the matter.28. The ships therefore tacked about and proceeded west a second time, setting forth on a transit of about one hundred forty miles. From time to time the sailors could hear the surf breaking on the nearby ice hidden in the fog.

The dying Clerke remained alert and conscientious as though he were savoring every hour in the Arctic. Certainly not a word of self-pity or of hopes cut short appears in his journal. When the fog and icy rain abated he sent his "Time Keeper" over to Discovery for yet a fifth and final check of its accuracy--how necessary he must have considered these tests to make sure the men under his charge would reach home safely. When several sailors returned in the jolly boat with a white bear they had shot on the ice, he had another agreeable thought on behalf of their welfare--"689lb of every palatable and wholsome fresh Meat in the idea of every body on board here." When heaps of ice to the south had the appearance of land, he reacted as if he were on the verge of a great Discovery, although he knew perfectly well where Alaska was. On July 21 the ships again approached Cape Lisburne close enough to find the ice as solid as the land itself, and there he wrote the last sentence in his journal.29


Discovery was making three inches of water an hour and John Gore had put in a full day. American-born with twenty-four years at sea behind him, he was in the fifth month of his first command of a ship, following the death of Cook, and he had faced the first major test of his seamanship. The fog, squalls, and ice had found their mark. Coming west on the 69th parallel, the ships on July 23 once again were above the Siberian coast, where in the neigh-borhood of their previous visit they had fallen in with an espe-cially unyielding field of shifting ice. Early on Resolution broke into clear water and three miles away disappeared in the fog to wait for her consort, but all morning Discovery could not avoid ramming against huge blocks of ice which tore at her sheathing. Because the ice seemed to be building, Gore knew there was nothing for it but to keep running the ship at the ice, and one of her bow timbers gave way. The sailors poled the ice and threw out the ice hooks to steady her. The winds fell. She lay quiet with her ice hooks fast and her sails furled. A late afternoon breeze sprang up. The ship was let loose, and she put on all sail for another trial. As she gathered strength a sudden swell shoved her leeward against the ice that nearly stove in her planks. A small opening appeared. The field slowly giving way, she escaped, her guns sounding in the fog, but with a bad leak in her bow two feet below the water line. The sailors took to the pumps. Gore was inclined to think his ship was not up to that sort of thing.30

One fact was clear. The Siberian coast could not be reached at that latitude. But the ships persisted anyway; they tried to find an opening by plying south while continuing to probe west. Four days later, on July 27, they were about seventy miles south but about twenty-six miles or so east; the ships were pausing off a bluff point (Cape Serdce-Kamen) that rose some forty-five miles farther south, and everyone could see the solid ice running ashore from the north. "The Main body which we saw Join the Land," wrote Samwell, was final confirmation that ice connected both continents between the 67th and 70th parallels--even if Asia and America were not joined together by land farther north, which to him was far from clear. The ice notwithstanding, a number of the mariners thought they had actually entered a large "Bay formed by the Union of the two Continents." Samwell drew attention to the telling observations they had made during their two seasons in the Arctic; the shallow depth that grew more shallow to the north, a muddy bottom, the absence of strong tides and currents expected of a strait, and generally calm seas all spoke of a land bridge somewhere to the north. In fact, the idea that Asia and America were joined by an isthmus hidden by the ice was supported by James King in the official account of the voyage, in 1784, and by James Burney in his historical work, of 1819. But an isthmus hardly made any difference, continued the astute Samwell, because even if they had not entered a huge bay, finding ice "the latter end of last summer and the beginning & middle of this, forms an Obstruction that will render a navigable Passage this Way totally impracticable."31

At any rate, the business of the voyage was over, to the utter relief of all hands, even though they had failed again. The relatively short distance across the top of the world to Baffin Bay, only about 1,500 nautical miles, brought a pang of regret to King when he meditated on the vast reaches of the sea they would have to sail before being blessed with a sight of old England--over half the circumference of the Earth in longitude, and much farther in latitude than the distance be-tween the two Poles.32 Resolution and Discovery stood away from the ice.

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