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For eight days out of Russia, their small wooden ship flew northwest before a favorable wind. They passed beyond the 76th parallel; even at midnight, the sun stood above the horizon.
Then, on the ninth day, the wind changed and with it, for the men on the ship, the world itself changed irrevocably. An evil gale out of the southwest drove them headlong off course. Helpless to steer their craft, the men tried to ride out the storm. At last they came in sight of land: high, barren plateaus of schist and basalt, lapped by the tongues of vast, half-invisible glaciers. Yet as the ship approached this forlorn shore, sea ice engulfed it. Within hours, the vessel lay trapped in a shifting maelstrom of broken floes.
It was May 1743. The fourteen men aboard the imperiled ship were Pomori literally "seacoast dwellers," though the term carries the weight of an ethnographic distinction. These hardened, resourceful sailors, born and bred in the Russian north, were virtually a separate race from their more urbane countrymen in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev. At least four of the fourteen came from Mezen, a small town only fifty miles south of the Arctic Circle, situated on the east bank of the river of the same name, upstream from its delta. For centuries, Mezen sailors had launched fearlessly out in their hand-built boats onto the little known Arctic Ocean. In this wilderness of fickle ice, uncharted seas, and bleak, uninhabited islands, the Pomori were as comfortable as any men alive.
Their ship was a kotch, a vessel of indigenous design that had evolved among the boatbuilders of the Russian north since the eleventh century. Because the tides at the deltas of such rivers as the Dvina, the Mezen, and the Pechora are so extreme, the Pomori had learned to affix one plank to another not with nails or wooden pegs, but with lashings of juniper root. Somehow without leaking, these "sewn boats" flexed and warped to resist the tide rips that battered them.
On the open sea, a sturdy kotch could sail for days at a time at a steady six or seven knots. The ship's chief drawback was that it was almost impossible to steer in heavy winds. With its pair of square sails, its six thick-handled, thin-bladed oars, the ship responded poorly to efforts to tack aslant the prevailing wind. It took two men to handle the heavy rudder; in a storm, the Pomori roped the rudder in place rather than wrestle against its violent veerings.
The fourteen men were walrus hunters. It was their intention to spend the summer along the west coast of Spitsbergen, the main landmass in the Svalbard archipelago, a collection of islands lying far to the north of Norway, between 761-2° and 801-2°N one of the most northerly landscapes on earth. With muskets, lances, and axes, they would slay the great sea mammals, the ivory of whose tusks was among the most precious of substances on earth, exported as far as India.
Within a decade after its discovery (or rediscovery) by the Dutch sailor Willem Barents in 1596, Svalbard had become the most active whaling ground in the world. In the early sixteenth century, it was chiefly the Dutch and the English who chased whales there, sometimes firing upon or pirating each other's ships. The master whalers, however, were Basques, most of whom hired out as specialists on Dutch and English expeditions. The favorite resort of the hunters was the west coast of Spitsbergen, whose waters, warmed by the Gulf Stream, were usually ice-free all year round, teeming with an unfathomable multitude of whales.
So fugitive are the records, no one knows when the Pomori started coming to Svalbard. In Dutch and English chronicles, there is no mention of Russian competition before 1697. Some scholars, however they happen to be Russian argue that the Pomori reached Svalbard in the thirteenth century, and raise the possibility that the archipelago was known to these intrepid mariners as early as the eleventh. As yet, there is no hard archaeological or historical evidence for this claim.
By 1743, when the kotch with its fourteen sailors was driven off-course to the northeast, the Russians were making regular voyages to Svalbard. Their chief interest, however, was not whaling, but hunting: the Pomori went after not only the amphibious walrus, but land animals the polar bear, the fox, and the reindeer.
The shore off which the ice-locked kotch now hovered was the south coast of Edgeøya, third largest of Svalbard's four main islands. On the map, Edgeøya looks like a tooth, the twin fangs of its roots pointing south from its squarish cap. Seventy miles long from north to south, forty-five miles from east to west, the island is a far less hospitable place than the nestling fjords of west Spitsbergen. Fully a third of its surface is covered by an icecap, the sprawling, shapeless Edgeøyjøkulen. Unlike the whaling waters off Spitsbergen's west coast, the seas surrounding Edgeøya are crowded with ice pack for as much as eleven months each year. The unfortunate Pomori in their runaway kotch had run smack into the leading edge of the massive Arctic pack that drifts relentlessly each year down the east side of Svalbard from the north.
The men on the ship were terrified that the grinding floes might wreck and sink their vessel. In this crisis, however, the pilot, a man named Aleksei Inkov, about forty-four years old, stepped forward. Inkov told his shipmates that he recalled the expedition of a number of fellow Mezen men some years before, which had deliberately wintered over on Edgeøya. To accomplish this feat, in a clime where no trees (nor even bushes) grow, the Mezeners had brought on board a kind of prefabricated log cabin; having carried the timbers ashore, they had assembled them to erect their hut. Inkov believed that the place these men had overwintered lay nearby.
It is highly unlikely that the sailors on the kotch possessed even a rudimentary map of Spitsbergen, let alone of Edgeøya. How Inkov had kept his bearings while the ship was driven before the gale, one can only guess. But in the eighteenth century, when Pomori came back from the Arctic, they spent hours and hours recounting to fellow sailors in their hometowns just what they had done. They drew maps in their heads, which their eager listeners memorized.
Inkov now volunteered to go ashore to search for the hut. Three other Mezen men offered to go with him. They were Khrisanf Inkov, Aleksei's godson (and perhaps cousin), a fit young man of some twenty-four years; Stepan Sharapov, aged about thirty-six; and Fedor Verigin, a rather portly fellow, age unknown. Should this foursome find the hut, unlikely though the search might seem, it promised to offer a haven for the crew, an alternative to the besieged kotch. If worse came to worst, and the ship remained frozen in the ice through the summer, the fourteen men, having carried the expedition's gear and food to shore, holing up in the hut, might just survive the winter. Despite his youth, Khrisanf Inkov had already spent one or more winters in Svalbard, in Russian quarters on the west coast of Spitsbergen.
Theirs, however, was a terribly dangerous assignment. Some two miles of shifting floes and pressure ridges stretched between the kotch and shore. To trek across that half-frozen sea was to invite death by sudden plunge through a hole or a skin of thin ice, followed by immersion in the 32° water. To reduce the risk, the four men went as light as possible. Besides the clothes on their backs, they carried only a musket with twelve balls and twelve charges of black powder, a single knife, a single axe, a small kettle, twenty pounds of flour in a bag, a tinderbox and a little tinder, a pouch of tobacco, and one wooden pipe each.
After a halting passage performed almost on tiptoe, the men sighed with relief as they stepped on solid earth. They hiked inland. The ship behind them disappeared from sight.
Somewhere between two thirds of a mile and a mile from shore, astoundingly, the men came upon the hut. The seasons since it had been abandoned had taken their toll, leaving gaps between the logs, but the basic structure of the building stood intact. Worn out, the men bivouacked in the hut, struggling to sleep as a high wind whistled through the holes in the walls. Early the next morning, the two Inkovs, Sharapov, and Verigin hastened back to the shore to tell their comrades the good news and to begin the job of unloading the ship.
The shock of the sight that greeted them lies almost beyond comprehension. Gone from the sea before them was every last chunk of floating ice, and the ship as well. The gale in the night had apparently driven the ice far out to open sea. The sailors knew from other Arctic sojourns that no kotch could have survived such a cataclysm: the crashing floes must have crushed its hull, taking the boat and its ten doomed Pomori to their grave deep in the unfathomed waters. (No trace of the men, nor any identifiable piece of floating wreckage from the ship, was ever found.)
The four survivors stared into one another's eyes, transfixed with horror. Despite the visit of their fellow Mezeners some years before, ships almost never deliberately coasted the shores of Edgeøya, if for no other reason than the sea ice that so fiendishly blocked access year after year. The sum of the men's possessions was the paltry kit they had carried on their overnight foray; their only food, those twenty pounds of flour. With no alternative, they turned inland once more to trudge back to the hut, appalled by the certainty, foremost in each man's mind, that whether they managed to hang on for weeks, months, or even a winter, they would never again leave this desolate island on which they had been marooned by pitiless fate.
Copyright © 2003 by David Roberts