The Open Polar Sea: A Narrative of Voyage and Discovery Towards the North Pole, in the Schooner United States

THIS book would have been greater if it had been half as big. Nevertheless, it is extremely interesting, and holds one with a charm that in the end summons all the Polar world about the reader, and makes him sharer in the author’s adventures, fears, hopes, and exultations. It is impossible not to admire the enthusiasm and courage which carry him through so many dangers and difficulties, even if one lacks perfect sympathy with the scientific purpose, and doubts if a geographical fact, as yet barren and without apparent promise of fruitfulness, be worth the sacrifices made to ascertain it. Dr. Hayes himself has a sense of what his unscientific reader’s conclusion may be in regard to the advantages of further Arctic exploration, and bids him consider how all the benefits of invention and discovery have at first appeared to men as sterile abstractions.
The story of Dr. Hayes’s expedition is briefly this. He sailed in the little schooner United States from Boston, on the 6th of July, 1860, and after touching at Pröven, in Greenland, proceeded northward to Port Foulke, where he was frozen up, and wintered until July 14, 1861, when he set sail for Boston. In the mean time he made his discovery of the Open Polar Sea by journeying across the ice with sledges and dogs, leaving his ship on the 4th of April, and returning two months later. The interest culminates, of course, in the arrival of Dr. Hayes, with a single companion and one sledge, on the icy shores of the far-sought waters; but, throughout, the narrative is one of wild and peculiar fascination. Sixty days they journeyed through solitudes where men and beasts and birds tailed them in succession ; and they were not warmed by fire, or sheltered, except by huts of snow, during the whole period of their absence from the ship. Going, they carried their provision with them, and hid in the snow a day’s rations at the end of each day’s journey, that they might rid their sledges of its burden ; and, returning empty, they subsisted on these deposits, as they reached them and dug them out of the drifts. Such was their slender security against starvation ; and with only their activity and determination to save them from freezing, they traversed thirteen hundred miles of utter waste, which opposed every obstacle of drifted snow and broken ice to their course. They had been stopped in their advance by the rotten ice in the region of the Open Sea at the farthest point northward ever reached, and now, prevented from further explorations by the unseaworthy state of his ship, Dr. Hayes was reluctantly compelled to come home, without revisiting those waters. He had, however, accomplished one great object of his expedition in its discovery, and his winter at Port Foulke had convinced him that it could be colonized and made a centre for indefinite Polar exploration. Game is endlessly abundant, and the Port can be readily reached and provisioned in every way, and easily fitted as a depot for the steamers which should be employed in future Arctic voyages.
We can give here no true idea of the interest inspired by Dr. Hayes’s book, — an interest almost entirely personal, for, after all, the sameness of the Polar world and Polar life wearies a little. The icebergs, the wastes of snow, the pallid day, the brilliant night, form this world ; the teeming seas, and the myriad sea-birds and seals and walruses of summer, the herds of reindeer and the white hares and foxes of winter, and the squalid Esquimaux of either season, form its life. This worlci Dr. Hayes brings vividly before us, with a true feeling for its grandeur and splendor ; and he has a deep sympathy for the torpid and vanishingrace who will within half a century leave it without a human inhabitant. Nothing, we think, could so well convey an idea of the entirely negative character of man’s existence in the Arctic world as that fact of Esquimau life which we believe Dr. Hayes is the first to note. These poor savages know neither hospitality nor its opposite in their relations with each other. They would see one another perish of hunger, cold, or any calamity unmoved; but they never deny any succor that is asked, and rescue with as little emotion as they would abandon. To exist is their utmost life.