Excerpt from Phoenix of the Seas

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In all of his expeditions in the Morrissey, Bartlett never lost a man (or a woman, of the few Bartlett grudgingly welcomed aboard). However, he almost invariably found himself, and the vessel, in nearly disastrous scrapes. It was almost as if he took his rejuvenated schooner to the brink again and again to prove that she – and he – had the strength and courage to survive. One of those episodes was during the 1926 voyage. They had sailed from Labrador through Davis Strait and far up into Baffin Bay. Near Northumberland Island, off the coast of northern Greenland, Bartlett took the Morrissey into waters for which his rudimentary charts were of little use. She caught on a submerged reef at the peak of the highest tide of the year. As he made one attempt after another to get clear, each subsequent tide was lower than the last. Finally, in desperation, at the next high tide he ordered the mainsail run up. Crewmen protested that the force of the wind would tear the bottom out of the schooner. But the Morrissey scraped clear of the ledge, and Bartlett found later that little damage had been done to her stout hull. Captain Bob congratulated himself, and the vessel he was coming increasingly to admire and trust, for beating the odds.

There was another close call when one of the amateurs aboard began banging away with his high-powered rifle at a pinnacle of ice atop a berg much too close to the Morrissey. Captain Bob understood the risks of disturbing an iceberg’s center of gravity. He ordered the engine started and got under way just as the berg began to lean over the schooner, those on board looking up at a wall of ice directly overhead. The iceberg turned turtle, slabs of ice cascading into the space on the water’s surface that had been occupied by the ship only split seconds earlier. The captain’s remarks to the shooter were not recorded.

Now that he was once again in the Far North, Bartlett was content – and never more so than when his old friend, Knud Rasmussen, came aboard, and they continued on to the trading station Rasmussen had established on Cape York on the northwest coast of Greenland. Rasmussen had named the station Thule (from Ultima Thule, the term the ancients used for the northernmost point on earth). Rasmussen, educated in Denmark, had Inuit blood on his mother’s side. He first sought to build a public career as an actor and opera singer. After that crop of wild oats failed, he thought about what he really wanted to do with his life – and dedicated himself to studying the ethnology of his Inuit grandmother’s people. He became an explorer and scientist, and made the first recorded transit from sea to sea across the upper regions of North America by dogsled. He traveled with two Inuit companions across the Arctic and into Siberia, intent on proving that the various Inuit populations were ethnically one, despite differences in language and customs. In the course of that and other expeditions he collected ethnographic, archaeological and biological data, as well as artifacts of Inuit culture that were later placed on display in museums in Denmark.

The Inuit were descended from the Thule people who, around the year 1000 A.D., crossed the land bridge that joined Siberia to Alaska. They then continued on eastward across Arctic North America to Greenland. They had comparatively advanced technology that put the earlier Dorset groups at a disadvantage: the Inuit traveled swiftly behind dog sleds, and hunted efficiently with toggling harpoons that anchored securely when thrust into a whale. Very probably the Norsemen who settled in Greenland during that period came in contact with both the Dorset and Thule groups. Later the dwindling numbers of impoverished Norse were no match for the Inuit when supply lines to Scandinavia were choked off when the Little Ice Age set in. After the ice retreated, only scant evidence of Norse settlements remained.

Rasmussen became known as the “father of Eskimology.” Bartlett would have said Rasmussen was “part Eskimo,” and he would have done so with no disrespect. In his day, Eskimo was the term used to describe all of the native people in the Canadian, Alaskan and Greenland Arctic. Today Eskimo is considered to be pejorative, especially in Canada, because it is thought to be a word the Cree used to describe “eaters of raw meat.” To be sure, the Inuit saw little difference between eating the raw flesh of fish (the Japanese sushi) and that of bear or seals or walrus. Dr. Frederick Cook, Robert Peary’s nemesis, saw dietary value in eating raw meat. He observed that, while expedition members suffered from scurvy and pernicious anemia, the Inuit remained healthy. Eating some raw meat, he concluded, was the answer, and he included some in his own Arctic diet. When he and Peary were still on speaking terms he advised the expedition leader to do the same. Peary, who found the suggestion repugnant, died at age sixty-three. Of pernicious anemia.

The local population who patronized his trading station at Thule knew nothing of Rasmussen the scientist. He was to them a beloved friend, and one of them. When he arrived in the Morrissey he was greeted, according to Bartlett, with “a chorus of joyous shouts and greetings that woke the echoes.” Rasmussen’s customers arrived with blue fox and bear skins, narwhal tusks and walrus ivory. In exchange they left with needles, biscuits, knives, thimbles, nails, matches, kerosene, tobacco and rifles. The white man’s rifle was the trading item most in demand. It often meant the difference between survival and death among a people among whom, as Rasmussen wrote, “life is … an almost uninterrupted struggle for bare existence, and periods of dearth and actual starvation are not infrequent.” The rifle was transforming the role of the Inuit hunter. As an old Inuit told Rasmussen, “… we have guns, which makes all hunting easier than it was. Young hunters nowadays have too easy a time of it to trouble about consulting wizards. … we have forgotten all the old spells and magic songs.” Rasmussen wondered if firearms were a bane or a boon to the Inuit. He wrote, “the gun has immediate advantages, but it is doubtful whether it pays better in the long run.” The Inuit had hunted the caribou for centuries with silent bow and arrow, without disrupting the animals’ migratory routes. Now the firing of rifles frightened off the caribou. They were avoiding the villages of the native people. The rifle was of little use where there were no caribou to shoot. And without caribou, those people starved to death.

The rifle entered into the equation of survival in another way. There was a fatal imbalance in Inuit populations. On King William Land, for example, female infants were invariably killed at birth, unless previously spoken for. There was no ill will involved. It was simply a matter of economics. For a family barely surviving, a daughter would be another mouth to feed until she reached the age of usefulness – at which point her labors would benefit another family, that of her husband. A shortage of women was thus inevitable, and a man might well be killed by another who had eyes on his wife, or he might kill first in the interests of his own domesticity. The rifle facilitated the act.

Rasmussen said that the casual attitude toward life and death among the Inuit was difficult for the civilized mind to comprehend. He gave the example of a man who had murdered a neighbor and moved in with the man’s wife and two sons. They lived together amicably – all knowing that, when the sons were old enough, they would be honor-bound to assassinate their father’s killer. Life was cheap, but that was no reason not to enjoy it while you had it. The cheerfulness of the Inuit impressed visitors in the years that the Morrissey ventured north. Living under some of the harshest conditions on earth, they sought to make the most of their brief spans of existence. And thus it was on this occasion that the Inuit celebrated Rasmussen’s return with a dance. The phonograph was cranked up and Danish and English dance orchestra music issued forth. One of the Inuit played the music of his people on an accordion, to which the others danced in a circle. In the center, for refreshment, was a pail filled with candy, walrus meat and dried breast of narwhal.

Captain Bob was enjoying Rasmussen’s joyous reception when he thought he recognized one of the Inuit. Yes, it was Ahngmalokto, who had been on the Peary expeditions. Now he was old and ailing. Bob remembered him as “the mighty hunter … who had traveled all over the country around Lake Hazen searching for musk ox and caribou, cutting them down and then skillfully guiding a heavily laden sledge driven by seven or nine dogs to the kill among the big ice ridges…” Ahngmalokto, as a native hunter who had survived to old age, was a rarity. “Most of them come to sudden and violent ends.” Often it happened when one of the Inuit was hunting walrus, and one of the great tusked animals “his eyes red as fire, will come up under his kayak and rip the bottom out of it.” Bartlett gave that as “one reason why so few Eskimo hunters die in bed. There are a number of other reasons just as good.”

The Morrissey sailed on, in the presence of “great towering icebergs in all directions.” Bartlett said that if you looked at them hard enough you began to see “the Woolworth Building, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State, Radio City, a castle, an abbey, or anything at all.” The Morrissey made landfall on the Greenland coast and on a beach found a dead narwhal that would do for the Ocean Hall of Life at the Museum of Natural History. Narwhals are Arctic whales with a single, long, spiral, lance-like tusk which, by legend, made them the unicorns of the ocean. How they use that tooth-lance is still something of a puzzle. Once it was believed to be used as a weapon. But it may serve mainly as a sensor. Its highly sensitive surface alerts the narwhal to changes in water temperature and pressure, and signals that the fish they feed on are nearby.

Captured polar bears were brought on board. And cowboy Dunrud lassoed a young walrus and they brought that on board too. Hunting complete, and the ice thickening in late August, Captain Bartlett turned the Morrissey homeward. The return voyage was eventful. The Morrissey first lost her propeller and was once again a sailing ship. Bartlett took her into Sydney, Nova Scotia for emergency repairs. As she made her way down the Gulf of Maine she proudly wore all the evidence of a busy summer in the Arctic: streaked with rust and dirt, her sails discolored, her decks buried under empty diesel fuel drums, dories and tanks full of specimens. It then seemed she would have smooth sailing back to New York, but no. As she came down through Long Island Sound she was boarded three times by the U.S. Coast Guard looking for rum runners. These were the comic opera years of Prohibition, and the boats carrying booze were known to adopt elaborate disguises. The Coast Guard boarding parties were not to be duped by this odd-looking vessel simply because those aboard, some of whom were protesting that they were distinguished scientists, had gone to the trouble of carrying two polar bears in cages on the deck. Arctic expedition indeed!

The Morrissey had voyaged 8,500 miles over that long summer, ranging far up the eastern coast of Greenland and crossing Melville Bay three times. That was three times across perilous waters, fighting gales, dodging crags of ice that slowly materialized through the fogs, bumping through growlers, those flat, grey sheets of ice that could be especially menacing to a ship’s hull. Yet when he took the Morrissey into a yard to be overhauled, Bartlett found she had suffered no serious damage. The false keel had to be replaced, some new deck planks were needed where there was some rot, and some touch up was needed where oakum and trunnels had worked out under the strain of her grounding on the ledge. The greenheart had proved its value, protecting the oak planks of the hull from what would have been severe gouging. Captain Bob marveled that not a drop of ocean had come in through the seams.


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