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WONDERS OF THE ANTARCTIC WORLD.
Many interesting facts were gleaned by the Shackelton expedition to the Antarctic. The South Pole is situated on an Antarctic continent, somewhat larger than Australia, with an area of 4,000,000 square miles. True, it is almost entirely covered with ice, but the surface of the ice in most parts appears to be comparatively smooth, so that sledges can make good going over it.
The Pole is on a tableland about 10,000 feet in height. The glaciers of the Antarctic regions are of stupendous size, many of them incomparably larger than the largest Arctic glaciers.
The Great Ice Barrier is an Antarctic glacier 700 miles wide and hundreds of miles broad in places. At its northern edge it presents a continuous wall of ice, in some places 300 feet in height and seldom less than 100 feet. It extends across Ross Sea from King Edward VII's Land to McMurdo Strait, and is at least the size of France in area. The breaking off of portions of the northern edge in summer produces the greatest crop of icebergs in the world.
In no other part of the world do frost and fire hold such divided sway. On the mainland of Antarctica there are numerous volcanoes, at least one of which. Mount Erebus, is active. One of the strangest things about Antarctica is that many of its mountains are built partly of snow — that is to say, with layers of snow between strata of lava and ashes. The ashes thrown out by the volcanoes fall cold, and form a sort of cake which is an excellent non-conductor of heat. Then molten lava flows over the crust of ashes without melting the snow beneath, and in this way glaciers are actually sealed up under layers of rock.
Mount Erebus lies within sight of Cape Royds, now the favorite ship headquarters of Antarctic explorers. It was discovered by Sir James Clark Ross, who led a famous expedition to the Antarctic regions in 1843. The ascent of Mount Erebus to its summit was regarded as almost impossible, but this was one of the first feats accomplished by Shackelton's expedition.
Six men made the ascent. On the third day, at an altitude of 8,700 feet, they were caught in a blizzard so terrific that it blew the gloves off one of the party, Sir Philip Brocklehurst. The next day they camped on the rim of an old crater and explored its floor. Their attention was attracted to some curious mounds dotted over the snow plain. They found that they were fumaroles, or smoke holes, which in ordinary climates may be detected by the thin cloud of steam above them. The fumaroles of Erebus have their steam converted into ice as soon as it reaches the surface of the snow plain, and the result has been the creation of the remarkably shaped mounds. The ice was colored yellow on account of the sulphur.
On the sixth day they reached the edge of the active crater and found themselves on the lip of a vast abyss filled with a rising cloud of steam.
"After a continuous loud, hissing sound," writes Lieutenant Shackelton, "lasting for some minutes, there would come from below a big dull boom, and immediately great globular masses of steam would rush upward to swell the volume of the cloud which swayed over the crater. The air was filled with the fumes of burning sulphur. Presently a light breeze fanned away the steam cloud and at once the crater stood revealed in all its vast extent and depth. It was between 800 and 900 feet deep with a maximum width of half a mile, and at the bottom could be seen three well-like openings from which the steam proceeded. On the wall of the crater opposite to the party beds of dark pumice alternated with white patches of snow, and in one place the presence of scores of steam jets suggested that the snow was lying on hot rock."
The descent was rapid, for the party dropped down 5,000 feet in four hours by sliding down the long ice slopes.
The explorers ascertained the height of the mountain to be 13,350 feet.
It is probable that the South Pole itself is buried beneath as much as 5,000 vertical feet of everlasting ice. For this reason, on account of the altitude above the sea, its neighborhood may be expected to be colder than that of the North Pole. Then again, because there is no water to render the climate milder, it may be supposed that the temperature at the southern end of the earth's axis is lower than at the northern end.
It is deemed not at all impossible that somewhere in the neighborhood of the South Pole there may be a comparatively warm patch — a sort of oasis in the midst of the icy desert, like Whale Sound in the far north. In such an oasis, if it exists, may be found strange forms of life, of which we know nothing. There might even be people there — human beings unlike any we are acquainted with, who, for uncounted centuries, have been shut away from communication with the rest of the world.
Lieutenant Shackelton, Captain Scott and others were puzzled by the occurrence of a wind blowing from the South Pole considerably warmer than the previous temperature for this point. Captain Scott writes:
"The warm snow, bearing southerly winds, which we experienced, have not yet been explained. Even in the depth of winter this wind had a temperature of ten to fifteen degrees."
This alone suggests that there may be comparatively warm valleys or regions somewhere in the Antarctic continent.
It is a most extraordinary fact that vast as is the accumulation of ice in the Antarctic continent, it is less than it used to be, and is gradually diminishing. Lieutenant Shackelton found traces of glaciers on Mount Erebus 1,000 feet above the sea level. As the adjacent sea is 1,800 feet deep, the ice sheet at one time must have been 2,800 feet thick.
Most of the glaciers in Antarctica are dying, that is to say, decreasing in size and not flowing. Strange to say, meteorologists argue that the diminution of ice indicates that the climate was formerly milder than now. Ice and snow only accumulate where there is occasional warmth with moisture and variations of temperature. A continuously dry cold does not favor the accumulation of ice and snow.
Geological conditions indicate that Antarctica was once linked by land to South America and Australia and that it then possessed vegetation and abundant human and animal life.
Little is known of the interior of Antarctica. Shackelton has made a dash into it so rapid that he had no time for careful research, while other explorers have merely scratched the edges of the land. No fossils have been brought back and very few geological specimens of any value. These are points to which the next explorers will devote their attention.
Nunataks are a curious feature of the Antarctic landscape. They are sharp, black rocks which stick up out of the snow and are very prominent in Summer. Sastrugus is the name given to curious hillocks of snow that also form in Summer.
It was at Cape Adare, where there is a break in the environing ice cliffs, that Ross, in 1842, with his two little sailing ships, the Erebus and the Terror, made his way as far to the south as latitude 78 degrees 10 minutes.
This place is remarkable because the temperature at the base of the high cliffs is unusually warm — sometimes up to 50 degrees in summer — and much curious Antarctic vegetation is found there.
Although a great continent exists at the South Pole, there are no land mammals, properly so-called. There are no South Polar bears, there are no Antarctic foxes, there are no large mammals of any kind save whales, which live entirely in the water, and seals, which spend more than half their time there.
To make up for these deficiencies the seals are the largest found anywhere, and the birds are most extraordinary. All the animals — whales, seals, birds and fish — are very different from those found in the Arctic circle or other parts of the world.
The Antarctic continent has a vegetation that consists almost entirely of moss and lichen and the land animal life, properly so-called, seems to be limited to a primitive form of wingless insect. The birds live to some extent on land, making their nests in the moraines and rocky cliffs of the shores, but they find their food entirely in the ocean.
Seals and whales are extremely abundant in Antarctic waters. Seven different species of whales and dolphins have been found in Ross Sea, a great body of water running into the Antarctic continent. In this sea five different kinds of seals were found and twelve different species of bird.
The most remarkable whales of the Antarctic seas are the terrible killers or Orca whales, which scour the seas and the pack-ice in hundreds to the terror of seals and penguins. The killer whale is one of the most ferocious animals in existence and is far more savage and destructive than tiger or shark. Naturally the few men who reach the Antarctic circle rarely indulge in ocean bathing there, but if they did they would run a terrible danger from the killer whales.
The killer is a powerful piebald whale some twenty feet in length. It hunts in large packs of a score or many score. No sooner does the ice break up than the killers appear in the newly formed leads of water, and the penguins show that they appreciate the fact by their unwillingness to leave the melting ice floes. From the middle of September to the end of March these whales swarm in McMurdo Strait, and the scars they leave on the seals, more particularly on the crab eating seal of the pack ice, afford abundant testimony to their vicious habits. Not one in five of the pack ice seals is free from the marks of the killer's teeth, and even the sea leopard, which is the most powerful seal of the Antarctic Ocean, has been found with fearful lacerations. Only the Weddell seal is more or less secure because it avoids the open sea.
Beak whales are also seen in schools from time to time, and Lieutenant Shackelton saw a whole school of ten "breeching" in McMurdo's Strait. Every now and then one would leap clean out of the water and fall back with a resounding smash.
The most remarkable animals of the Antarctic region are the seals. There are five Antarctic seals, the crabeating or white seal, the Ross seal, the Weddell seal, the sea leopard and the sea elephant. Of these the first three are found only within the Antarctic Circle, while the others wander considerable distances away. Seals do not usually travel long distances by sea, but the sea elephant seems to be an exception, as it is found from the Antarctic Circle to the coast of South America. The sea elephant must be an enormous creature. Only one specimen has been found in recent polar expeditions, and he was a young male eleven feet in length, with a girth of no less than eight feet under the fare flippers.
The sea leopard is smaller than the sea elephant, but much more ferocious. It runs to twelve feet in length and has a girth beneath the flippers of six feet. Its head is large in proportion to its body, and it has a terrible array of sharp teeth. It is very long and snake-like, and moves like lightning through the water, where its diet includes not only fish and emperor penguins, but sometimes other seals. It has ten three-pronged canine teeth, made for tearing flesh to pieces. The sea leopard has only one enemy to fear in the Antarctic seas, and that is the killer whale.
The crabeater seal lives entirely upon a shrimp-like crustacean, which it collects in large numbers in mud and gravel by groping along the bottom of shallow seas.
The Ross seal has the astonishing power of withdrawing its head within the blubber-laden skin of the neck till its face is almost lost. The teeth of these seals are extremely interesting to naturalists, for the after canine teeth are in the process of disappearing, showing that the conditions of life in the Antarctic regions have greatly changed since earlier ages. The front teeth also have been developed into curved hooks for dealing with such slippery prey as jelly fish and squids, which apparently form their food.
Among the many Antarctic birds is the giant petrel, which lives on carrion refuse about the penguin rookeries. It is often to be seen squatted in the ice-floes, gorged by a full meal of blubber from a dead seal, and finding itself pursued it will deliberately disgorge before it attempts to fly, knowing from experience that even a lengthy run will not enable it to rise unless it empties its stomach first.
The penguins, huge birds with tiny wings useless for flying purposes, are peculiar to the Antarctic regions. They always stand upright, and with great white bodies and black heads, they look like very fat colored men wearing white waistcoats. There are two species of them in the Antarctic circle — the Adelie penguins and the Emperor penguins.
The penguins are declared to be the most amusing creatures in existence. When annoyed by an explorer the cock bird ranges up and down in front of his wife, his eyes flashing anger, and his feathers erect in a ruffle round his head. He stands there for a minute or two breathing out threats and then putting his head down dashes for the man and rains blows upon him with his flippers. When making love he waves his flippers to and fro and gazes heavenward, as if he were reciting the most exquisite poetry.
The greatest rookeries of the Emperor penguins are on Ross Island. This bird stands four feet high and weighs from eighty to ninety pounds. It hatches its eggs in absolute darkness in August, during the coldest month of the Antarctic year, when the temperature often falls to 68 degrees below zero. The Emperor penguin carries its single egg, and later its chick in a place between its right foot and its abdomen.
To return to the Arctic region, many remarkable facts have lately been learned, and it is said that the Eskimo, though gradually becoming civilized, does not welcome the white man's coming. Beside his igloo he sits and listens to the tribal rumors of the coming events. He hears the weird, garbled tale of how a "civilized man," a "kabhena," has reached the north pole. He hears that other white men will come after him. And he sits and grieves for his people; for the advance of the white man means to him only what it has meant to all the primitive people who thus have been "discovered" — extermination.
"Civilization of your kind we do not want," says the Eskimo to the explorer or missionary. "It is good, perhaps, for you and for your countries. It is not good here in the north. We cannot live under it. As we live now so must we live if we are to exist. It is our life; and life is good here among these ice cliffs when it is lived in our own way. We are content. So have our forefathers lived from time immemorial. And so will we live as long as we remain on earth. Force us to live as you live, make us accept your civilization, and we perish. We have seen it. We know what it does to us. It kills the Eskimo. Leave us to our ways, leave us to our country, or the Eskimo will be wiped off the face of the earth."
Such is the Eskimo's reception of the great news. It is something like a shock to our self-satisfaction and opinion that our civilization is best for all people, whether they like it or not. How can those poor people up there in the frozen north spurn the benefits that civilization holds forth to them? How can they fail to realize that civilization will make their harsh life easier, more pleasant, more happy? The questions come naturally at the idea. It seems preposterous. But when one comes to examine the mode of living of the winter bound Eskimo, along with the conditions under which he is forced to exist, it seems not so astonishing that the Eskimos should say: *'We were a happy people until the explorers came. The explorers brought their civilization, and that is not well."
Living in a land so barren and harsh that nowhere else on earth is its duplicate to be found inhabited, the Eskimo through centuries of struggle has adopted the only mode of living that makes his existence possible. The land which other people despise, the conditions under which no other people could live, he has learned to love. They are his world, and without them he could not live.
Resources such as the world looks upon as necessary to the maintenance of life the country has none. It is a barren of never changing ice and snow. Stones, pieces of driftwood, reindeer, birds, dogs, fishes, and, most of all, seals — these are the things that are given the Eskimo to live on. The stones, sticks, and bones furnish him with weapons. The weapons furnish him with meat. For his house there is the stone, the ice, and snow, nothing more. For six months of the year his world is in darkness. Yet he lives and is happy until the explorers come.
As told to some extent earlier in this chapter, the winter house of the Eskimo — the igloo — is perhaps the most striking illustration of how bitter is the fight to maintain life in the killing cold of the arctic circle. It is built of ice and snow mainly, though in some cases stones and blocks of frozen earth are used, and its floor is sunk far below the level of the earth or ice upon which it is erected. A narrow passage dug in the earth, lower than the floor, serves as the only means of entrance and exit, and the Eskimo goes into his house on his hands and knees.
Along one wall is the "sleeping bench," about six feet wide, which serves for a bed for the entire family. In the center of the room is the lamp, which often serves as a stove as well. This is the sum total of the Eskimo's household furniture.
In order to economize the life saving heat several families dwell together in one hut. In the winter house so excessive is the heat that the thick fur garments of outdoor use are discarded upon entrance. Among some tribes men, women, and children dwell together in a complete state of nudity, in others a small loin cloth is used for indoor wear. Night and day the stone lamps filled with train oil burn in the huts. The Eskimo is superstitious of all things. The long arctic night has driven the fear of darkness into his soul, and he will not even sleep without a light burning before his eyes.
The lamps are so constructed as to burn brightly all night. When they begin to grow dim the Eskimo woman knows that it is morning and time to get up. Cheerless as such a home may seem, it is declared to be quite the opposite. The woman who wakes first in the morning calls out to her neighbor a challenge for a race in dressing and going out after the morning meal of fish, which is cached in the ice outside. The challenge is accepted. The women dress and rush out laughing, break off great armfuls of the frozen provender and come back laughing to their still sleeping companions. The fish are thrown on the floor until they have thawed from hard as stone to a mere frozen condition. Then the two women who are dressed pass the food around to the others, and soon the whole houseful are gnawing away at their fish breakfast.
THE NORTH POLE FOUND.
It doesn't sound appetizing, but even the explorers who have wintered on this food declare that there are worse things to eat in the morning than a frozen fish — after you get used to it.
"The eating is not the trouble," says the returned adventurers, "it is the getting of it that gives the Eskimo a problem."
"The getting of it," the procuring of food in the waste of snow and frozen waters, is more of a battle for the native than the problem of housing himself against the wintry blasts. Hunting is his one means of living, whether it be hunting reindeer, ptarmigan, seal, or fish. As a consequence the hunter is the "great man" in the economy of Eskimo life, and the importance of a man is reckoned by his ability to kill seals. The best hunter in a village is the king. He has his pick of the women, and he exercises it with a freedom rather startling to conventional ideas of matrimony.
"Without hunters a tribe cannot exist," is the Eskimo's point of view, and the tribes that have perished are the ones in which there were no strong, able men to kill game for food.
Armed with the most primitive of weapons, a piece of sharpened stone fitted in a stick of wood to make a lance, the Eskimo hunts and slays the animals of his country, from the swift flying ptarmigan to the ferocious polar bear. The sea is where he must look for most of his subsistence, for the sea holds the seal, and without the seal the Eskimo could not live. The seal furnishes him food and clothing; its fat provides the oil which lights his lamps and cooks his food, and its bones and skins make the boat in which the tireless native paddles over the stormy seas in search of his prey.
The Eskimo boat, the "kaiak," is his greatest invention, and the only small paddle boat so constructed that it can live in the roughest sea. It is shaped like a canoe, pointed at both ends, its decks covered with the exception of the hole in which the hunter sits, which is large enough only to admit his body. With his paddle in his hands, his harpoon slung across his shoulders, and the prayers of his women following him, the hunter sets forth in the teeth of a gale to slay a seal that has been sighted a mile off shore.
He rides up and down the sides of mountainous waves like a sled upon a hill. He laughs at the efforts of the storm to swamp him. He comes within sight of his prey; the seal ducks; the Eskimo, knowing his custom, paddles swiftly in the direction of the dive. When the seal comes up for air he is within easy striking distance. The bone harpoon goes home with a thud; and the hunter turns his boat for shore. He has made his kill.
In the summer time tents take the place of houses. As soon as the sun begins to appear, sometimes in April, the Eskimo comes out of his hibernation, gets ready his "woman boat," and his camping outfit, and goes roaming. The "woman boat" is a large rowboat, capable of carrying a score or more people, and has its name from the fact that it is rowed by the women. In such a boat the Eskimo sets forth and rows until a favored camping ground is found. Then the whole party disembarks, tents are set up, and the camp remains so long as the hunting is good. When that is gone, into the boats again and on to another hunting ground.
Of the kindness and catholic hospitality of the Eskimo there is but one verdict — they are the kindest and most hospitable people in the world. Even wrecked explorers whose coming means only that they will consume a certain amount of the common store of food, are hailed with the greatest delight, the best is set forth before them, and they are invited to make themselves at home for as long as they please. In one instance an explorer relates that a murderer was taken in, fed, housed, and cared for through a hard winter by the family, of his victim!
"Do some people in your land starve and shiver while others eat much and are warmly clad?" was one of the questions that the shocked Eskimos put to an explorer when he expressed surprise at their charity. "Why, then, do you call yourself civilized?"
It was a puzzling question. The explorer was forced to admit that "some did."
"Then why do you ask us to accept your civilization?" demanded the Eskimos. "Here that never happens."
So the "poor, frozen native of the north" does not yearn for the civilization that threatens him. He is satisfied as he is. He eats his fish, kills the seal, sings his peculiar songs, and asks only one thing from the civilized world — that he be left alone. And that is the one thing which probably will not be granted him.