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Sporting in Spitzbergen

From Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 1861

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Click on each engraving to greatly enlarge it

    The walrus seems to be aware of his helplessness out of water, and when a herd take to the ice for repose, a sort of watch is kept up. Once Mr. Lamont came upon a group of ten or a dozen flat bergs crowded with walruses. Many of them were asleep; but as the boats approached the sentinels alarmed their sleeping comrades by flapping them with their fore paws, and troop after troop scuffled into the water just in time to avoid a harpoon thrust. On this occasion not a single one was captured. In the water, however, the walrus is quite another creature. If let alone he is inoffensive; but when he is attacked he shows fight, which makes hunting him no child's play. His tusks are formidable weapons, of solid ivory inserted for six or seven inches into a mass of solid bone, which forms the front of his skull, the brain lying far back, in what appears to be the place of his neck. From the position of the tusks one would suppose that they could only be used for a downward blow; but the creature turns his neck with great facility, and can strike upwards and sideways as well as downwards. If a polar bear, pressed by hunger, ventures to attack a young walrus in the water, the whole herd rush upon him, drag him under water, and tear him in pieces. Sometimes an old walrus will rush upon a boat and overset it. Mr. Lamont saw a boat which had thus been overturned, and while the crew were struggling in the water, the walrus pitching upon the harpooner, tore him nearly in halves with a single blow of his tusks.

    In the water, the walrus is usually captured by "jaging;" that is, chasing a herd, keeping in the direction which they appear to take when they dive. The old walruses can outswim any boat; but they accommodate their speed to that of the young. If a young one is struck, he sets up a plaintive grunt, which brings the whole herd around the boat. The affection of the dams for their young is very touching. Mr. Lamont's harpooner had once struck an old cow, when he observed that she had a young one under her right fin. The harpooner tried repeatedly to strike the "junger," but the cow seemed to watch the direction of the blow, and to receive with pleasure several harpoons intended for her young. "I shall never forget," he says, "the faces of the old walrus and her calf as they looked back at the boat. The countenance of the young one so expressive of abject terror, and yet of confidence in its mother's power of protecting it, as it swam along under her wing, and the old cow's face showing such reckless defiance for all that we could do to herself, and yet such terrible anxiety for the safety of her calf." One is almost sorry to read that the old cow was killed, and the young one harpooned, when the men commenced gently stirring him up with the bat-end of a lance, in order to make him cry out, and so call back the herd - this time, however, without success, for the herd had gone out of hearing when the young one was captured. "Jaging walruses" must be exciting work. Mr. Lamont thus describes such a scene:

Sporting in Spitzbergen 1861 - engraving of a herd of walruses on an ice floe

    "Five pairs of oars, pulled with utmost strength, make the boat seem to fly through the water, While, perhaps, a hundred walruses, roaring, bellowing, blowing, snorting, and splashing, make an acre of the sea all in a foam before and around her. The harpooner stands with one foot on the thwart and the other on the front locker, with the line coiled in his right hand, and the long weapon in both hands ready balanced for a dart, while he shouts to the crew which direction to take. The herd generally keep close together. One moment you see a hundred grisly heads and long gleaming white tusks above the waves; they give one spout from their blow-holes, take one breath of fresh air, and the next moment you see a hundred brown hemispherical backs, the next a hundred pair of hind flippers flourishing, and then they are all down. On, on, goes the boat as hard as ever we can pull the oars; up come the sea-horses again, pretty close this time, and before they can draw breath the boat rushes into the midst of them: whish! goes the harpoon: birr! goes the line over the gunwale: and a luckless junger on whom Christian has kept his eye is 'fast;' his bereaved mother charges the boat instantly with flashing eyes and snorting with rage; she quickly receives a harpoon in the back and a bullet in the brains, and she hangs lifeless on the line: now the junger begins to utter his plaintive grunting bark, and fifty furious walruses are close round the boat in a few seconds, rearing up breast-high in the water, and snorting and blowing as if they would tear us all to pieces. Two of these auxiliaries are speedily harpooned in their turn, and the rest hang back a little, when, as bad luck would have it, the junger gave up the ghost, owing to the severity of his harpooning, and the others, no longer attracted by his cries, retire to a more prudent distance. But for the 'untoward' and premature decease of the junger, the men tell me we should have had more walruses on our hands than we could manage. We now devote our attention to 'polishing off' the two live walruses - well-sized young bulls - who are still towing the heavy boat, with their two dead comrades attached, as if she was behind a steam-tug, and struggling madly to drag us under the icebergs: a vigorous application of the lances soon settles the business, and we now, with some difficulty, tow our four dead victims to the nearest flat iceberg and fix the ice-anchor, by which, with the powerful aid of block and tackle, we haul them one by one on the ice and divest them of their spoils. While we were engaged in cutting up these walruses, there were at least fifty more surrounding the iceberg, snorting and bellowing, and rearing up in the water as if smelling the blood of their slaughtered friends, and curious to see what we were doing to them now. They were so close that I might have shot a dozen of them; but as they would have been sure to sink before the boat could get to them, I was not so cruel as wantonly to take their lives. When the walruses were all skinned, we followed the herd again with success; and when we left off, in consequence of dense fog, suddenly coming on, we had secured nine altogether - a very fair morning's bag, we thought."

    The walrus-hunters of Norway are the true descendants of the Vikings and Berserkers, who were once the terror of all maritime Europe. They lead a hard and dangerous life, and have a weary and restless look about the eyes, as though they were in the perpetual presence of danger. At sea they are bold and hardy; at home their normal state is that of intoxication. Their trade is a kind of lottery, where the certainty of privation and labor is balanced by the possibility of large gains. The walrus is valuable for his oil, his skin, and his ivory. The oil is less in proportion to his bulk than that of the seal. seal of 600 pounds will have 200 or more of fat; a walrus of 2000 pounds will have no more. A very obese old walrus, weighing c 3000 pounds, may produce 500 or 600 pounds of blubber, the smaller quantity being the utmost furnished by the best specimens killed by Mr. Lamont. But then his skin is valuable, being worth from four to eight dollars. It is principally sent to Sweden and Russia, where it is used for harness and sole-leather, or twisted into ropes. Formerly nearly all the rigging of Russian and Norwegian vessels was made of walrus skin. When the market is overstocked, the surplus is boiled into glue.

Sporting in Spitzbergen 1861 - engraving of a walrus hunter in a boat about to harpoon a walrus

    From walruses we pass to bears. Mr.Lamont believes that the Polar Bear - the Ursus Maritimus of naturalists - is, in a state of nature, the largest and strongest carnivorous animal in the world. Be this as it may, his first specimen - the one which he was watching through the old opera-glass of which we have spoken - was a monster. His carcass measured eight feet in length, and almost as much in circumference. He stood four and a half feet high at the shoulder. The fore-paws were 34 inches around. His weight was at least 1200 pounds: of this the fat constituted 400 pounds, and the hide 100. When skinned, his neck and shoulders were like those of a bull. The hunters say that he will kill the biggest bull-walrus, although nearly three times his own weight, by springing upon him from behind, and battering in his skull by repeated blows. Mr. Lamont believes this, though he doubts the stories told of the way in which he is killed by hunters. One man, who professes to know all about it, says that the hunters use a spear having a cross-piece a couple of feet from the point. Hunter presents point to Ursus; Ursus seizes spear by cross-piece, and in trying to drag it away buries the blade in his own body, and so kills himself.

    Many stories are told of the affection of the she-bear for her young. Mr. Lamont's experience corroborates the truth of these; while it is to be regretted it indicates a total want of corresponding filial love on the part of the cubs. The very day after the destruction of the old patriarch of whom we have just spoken, a she-beat with two cubs was discovered traveling over the ice. Chase was given. The old bear stood up for a moment, looked about her, and apparently concluded that their safety depended upon flight. Away she went, with her cubs, over the rough ice, cut up by channels and gullies. She could easily overleap these, and might have escaped. Not so her cubs. They could only clamber or swim over. The mother never deserted them; but waited for them, helping them up the steep sides. This so retarded her progress that her pursuers came within range. A shot from Lord David broke her back, and completely paralyzed her. Coming up, her pursuers soon dispatched her, and tied the cubs together. While she was being skinned, the young vermin were ferociously fighting together. When the skin was taken off, they were allowed to get at the carcass, and they proceeded at once to make a hearty meal upon the smoking entrails of the mother who had just given up her own life for them. They then squatted down upon the hide, and would not stir from it; so it was used as a sledge upon which to drag the cubs to the boat. When they reached the sloop the cubs found the skin of the old bar killed the previous day on the deck. It seemed familiar to them. Very likely it may have been their father; at all events they settled upon it and went to sleep. Perhaps they thought that having supped upon the carcass of one parent, the skin of the other was the veryt hing for a bed at night. These two cubs became the pets and pests of the sloop. One of them - the female - was peaceable enough; but her brother so worried and annoyed her that it was necessary to separate them. He was a most ferocious young demon, biting at any thing that cam ein his way. More than once, when let loose for a while, for the sake of exercise, be jumped overboard and tried to swim to land, ten miles away, and was brought back only after a severe course of scratching and biting.

    Stout as he is, Ursa maritimus has to use cunning to get a living. He relies mainly upon walruses and seals. Though quite competent to manage the biggest walrus singly, he is overmatched by a herd; and unluckily for him walruses are apt to go in herds. He can not pick up a "junger" without bringing down upon him a score of tusked cousins and uncles. Then the seals are so shrewd. In the water they do not fear him. They can outswim and outdive him. There they will play around him in a manner calculated to aggravate his feelings to the utmost. Mr. Lamont thinks he catches one in the water now and then, but he can not con- ceive how he does it. Upon the ice Ursa has the advantage. But the seals know this, and sleep with both ears and one eye open. But Ursa's eyes and nose are of the sharpest. When either of these tell him that seals are floating about on the ice he slips into the water, half a mile or so to the leeward, and paddles quietly along, with his nose only visible, until he is close under the cake of ice on the very edge of which the seal is reposing. Then one jump, and a blow of his huge paw, settles the business. Between strength and cunning Ursa manages to make a quite comfortable living, and keep himself in very good order. Three which Mr. Lamont killed yielded 600 pounds of fat. "What a thousand pities," he exclaims, "that it is not worth 3s. 6d. a pot, as in the Burlington Arcade!"

    Every body has heard of good Bishop Pontoppidan's famous "CHAPTER XXXIV.- ON THE SNAKES OF ICELAND," which consists of these six words: "There are no snakes in Iceland.'; Mr.,Lamont says that he has often been asked about the "Inhabitants of Spitzbergen." His answer was very like the chapter of the Bishop: "There are no inhabitants in Spitzbergen." It is true, that a couple of centuries ago, when the Spitzbergen waters abounded in whales, the Dutch had a settlement on the coast, called "Smeerenburg," or "Blubber-Town," where, according to report, one could get hot rolls for breakfast, and enjoy female society in the evening. But that was only a summer settlement, abandoned at the approach of winter. An English trading Company afterward tried to establish a permanent colony there. Some criminals were promised by Government a pardon if they would pass a winter in Spitzbergen. They were carried out in a whaler for that purpose; but when they had taken a look at the country, they made up their minds that they would rather he hanged in London than live in Spitzbergen. They were taken back, but were not hanged after all, as very likely they deserved. There are records of some two or three shipwrecked crews who have actually passed one or more winters there. It is said, also, that the Russians for some time maintained a sort of hunting colony on the coast, the men passing one winter in Spitzbergen and the next at home. That, however, was long ago. Mr. Lamont was told that in 1858 there was living at Kola, in Lapland, an old Russian who bad for thirty-five years passed the alternate winters in Spitzbergen. If this was true, the old Muscovite was probably the only living man who had actually wintered in Spitzbergen. On the 17th of August, 1859, the Anna Louisa was in latitude 78°. Other fishing vessels in Spitztbergen bad gone southward; there were then no "Arctic Expeditions" away, and so Mr. Lamont congratulated himself on being that day nearer the North Role than any other human being. Not long afterward the sloop reached another degree northward. This is farther north than Van Rensselaer Harbor, where our own noble Kane passed his last Arctic winter. It is within one and a half degrees - about 130 miles - of the farthest northward point ever reached by water, which is that attained by Scoresby, in latitude 81° 30'. Parry's overland expedition, in 1827, went as high as 82° 40'; and the extreme northern point gained by the sledge-party sent out by Kane was 82° 27' - a difference northward of scarcely a dozen miles. The expeditions of Parry and Kane may fairly share the honors of having of all men approached nearest to the northern pole of the earth; for the stories of early Dutch navigators having reached the latitude of 83° or 84° are not fairly authenticated. The point to be noted is that the climates of the two hemispheres are so different that Lamont and Kennedy, on a mere pleasure expedition, with a common fishing sloop, reached without difficulty, from Spitzbergen, a point further north than Kane could gain in Greenland with all his indomitable resolution. The inference is, that if human feet are ever to stand at the North Pole of the earth, the way is by Spitzbergen rather than Greenland.

Sporting in Spitzbergen 1861 - engraving of a group of hunters looking at two polar bear cubs sitting on their dead mother

    When Mr. Lamont says that Spitzbergen is uninhabited, he refers to human beings. The reindeer runs wild there, every little valley affording a troop of from three to twenty. These wild reindeer am smaller than the tame ones of Lapland; but they attain a most wonderful state of fatness. Mr. Lamont thinks this must be owing to the nutritious quality of the moss upon which they feed. Those killed in July were lean enough. A month later they were fit to take prizes at an agricultural show. The hinds giving milk and their calves were very fat, while the old stags were perfect miracles of condition. All over their bodies was a sort of cylinder of solid fat two or three inches thick: they were "seal-fat," says Mr. Lamont, emphatically. This coating which is so speedily acquired seems to be intended to enable them to exist during the long polar winter, when little food is to be bad. They must live through the winter mainly upon the stores of fat accumulated in the short summer. Mr. Lamont thinks the flesh of the reindeer the most exquisite meat he ever tasted, with perhaps the exception of a fat eland in Africa, and a little West Indian animal which the negroes call the "Lapp" - the Cavia paca of naturalists. To be fully enjoyed it must be eaten directly after the deer has been killed, as the fat in s short time acquires a rank taste and unpleasant odour. The best mode of cooking the meat is on ewhich Mr. Lamont learned years ago in Palestine from Hadji Mohammed, a one-eyed Arab cook. This is the recipe: "First catch a fat deer, then cut a number of wooden skewers, and thread upon these alternately pieces of meat, heart, and fat, each cut to about the size and thickness of a dollar, broil upon the glowing embers, season with wood-ashes in the absence of salt and pepper, and bite them off while smoking hot. If you are hungry," he adds, suggestively, "you fancy this the most delicious thing you ever tasted."

Sporting in Spitzbergen 1861 - engraving of a hunter shooting a reindeer

    Merely as sport, the hunting of the reindeer is rather tame. Not unfrequently they will of their own accord walk up within easy shot, when the hunter is not only in full view, but to the windward. The report of a rifle does not alarm them; very likely they think it the noise to which they are accustomed, of rocks and ice splitting from frost. When two or three were together all were not unfrequently killed by successive shots. Lord David once came upon five; he knocked over four with a round shot from his four-barreled rifle, and the fifth stood snuffing at his dead companions until the hunter had time to reload, when he also was dispatched. At another time the leg of an old stag was broken by a bullet; he ran a little distance, then stopped, looked around, and seeing nothing, commenced grazing, as though nothing had happened of sufficient consequence to keep him from his dinner. Their extraordinary boldness seems to arise from the fact that in the interior, where the greater part of their lives are passed, they have never seen a human being, or any thing else which could hurt them; for there are no wolves in Spitzbergen, and the bear probably never has a chance to meddle with a reindeer, unless he chances to fall in with a sick or wounded one near the sea-shore.

    September approached. The ice began to close up the bays and fiords where the walrus resorts, and there was no more chance for blubber. Of reindeer they had in a few days killed as many as they wanted. Three tons of venison hung about the yacht, on which they had now taken up their quarters. So they contented themselves with picking off a few of the old stags whose antlers were especially fine, and salting their tongues as presents for friends at home. Returning to Hainmerfest, they paid off their crew, and sold their blubber. "The price," says Mr. Lamont, "was very low - as seems always to be the case whenever one has any thing to sell. But still we realized a sum which went a long way toward paying our expenses; in addition to which we kept the young bears, the six bearskins, and all the ivory." They gave up the tub of a sloop, Lord David carving upon one of the cabin beams, which was of "soft wood, just the thing for whittling," a summary of their cruise. It ran thus: LORD DAVID KENNEDY and JAMES LAMONT hired this Sloop Anna Louisa, not A 1, in the Summer of the Year 1859, and killed in SPITZBERGEN 46 WALRUSES, 88 SEALS, 8 POLAR BEARS, 1 WHITE WHALE, 61 REINDEER. Total, 204 HEAD. - N.B. In addition to the above, we sunk and lost about 20 Walruses and seals."

    They had secured splendid specimens of all Spitzbergen animals worthy of a sportsman's attention, with the exception of the narwhal and the black fox. Their collection lacks the long spiral horn of the former, and the splendid skin of the latter - the rarest and most costly fur in the world. Both these animals are very rare. They saw no narwhal. Once a black fox came skulking down toward the carcass of a deer which they had killed; but he kept beyond shot, apparently aware that his sable jacket, worth a hundred dollars, was quite too valuable to be risked for a dinner.

    They left Hammerfest on the 15th of Septemher. As they had the wind directly in their teeth going out, they anticipated that, in the nature of things, it would change so as to blow in their teeth also going back. It did so, and besides they had the full benefit of the equinoctial gales. Thev avoided Lerwick on their return, apprehending that the "starvation months" were not over, and the hungry population might storm the yacht, to get possession of the cargo of venison.

    Mr. Lamont had some difficulty in getting rid of his two young bears. He offered them to nearly every menagerie in the kingdom ; but the British Barnums were overstocked with bears. Not a bid was to be had. At length they found a purchaser in the Director of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris; and a tough bargain they seem to have been. Some months after Mr. Lamont saw them in their new home. They had grown considerably; but their naturally amiable dispositions had not been improved by their confinement in a warm, dry den, adapted for tropical animals. Unlike the lion in the story, they did not welcome their former ship-mate, nor manifest the least gratitude to the individual who had, so to speak, "brought them up by hand."


Sporting in Spitzbergen 1861 - engraving of a herd of reindeer