The Widening Search


16 MARCH 2021 Today we continue on from the previous post as we follow Mecham’s spring sledging party after the celebration of William Humphrey’s 21 years of service. [From my manuscript:]

On Mecham’s third day they reached Fife Harbour, but couldn’t find the depot until they’d dug through several layers of snow and ice. Once uncovered they took pemmican and 2 casks of food for Nares to deposit in further depots. They next picked up more pemmican from the Winter Harbour Cairn, where a storm forced them into tents for several days: ‘…everyone very much cramped; tent most miserable. Crew amusing themselves with occasional songs and most amusing yarns.’
On the 11TH travel resumed overland across Dundas Peninsula. The terrain was challenging, but the weather fine and clear and they were able to dry out all their clothing, bedding, and tents. Three days later, at the Lidden Gulf Coast Cairn they re-provisioned the sledges with 45 days’ supplies, and collected 100 pounds of coal they’d found in abundance. When they headed NW for Barry Bay the bright sun caused some men to complain of painful eyes. Mecham gave them ‘wine of opium’ but by the evening of the 17TH most of the men were so affected by snow blindness Mecham switched to night travel, and placed the snow blind men at the rear, keeping their eyes bandaged and following those in front. For two nights they were able to use their sails again, and the sledges ran at a great pace over smooth, bare ice. However, this made the sledges difficult to control, and at times the racing sledges were dragging the men along behind them. When they reached the shore they headed SW, arriving at Cape Hoare on the 20TH.

Mecham’s magnetic compass was now virtually useless, as it showed Cape James Ross as being to the NE-by-E when in reality it was to the SW. The men, though gaining in general strength, now began to suffer various health issues: Thomas West got blistered shoulders, and John Bailey suffered so greatly from swelling in his legs he was unable to stand. Mecham stopped to make camp. By 25April Bailey was able to walk, though his leg was sore and swollen. Only three days later, however, he had to ride again. They arrived at Warring Bay in four days, then headed WNW along the base of a high range of steep cliffs. Unfortunately, on the 28TH the sledges couldn’t mount the immense hummocks, especially the one carrying Bailey. Nares found a lookout on a high cliff, where he could see the hummocks extended all the way to the headland and were virtually impassable. So the following day they skirted them by hiking along the shore and by the 30TH they had passed the worst. 

Splitting his party on 3 May, Mecham left Nares to complete the depots and cairns along the coast, then headed westward across Kellett Strait and Crozier Channel with the rest of his men…

17 March 2021 St. Patrick’s Day
Captain Henry Kellett was an Irishman from County Tipperary. The closest towns to his home, Clonacody, were Fethard to the north and Clonmel to the south. There were many Irish serving in the British Royal Navy, and several of them were involved in the searches for Franklin and his men… [From my manuscript:]

“The rescue of the Investigators was a thoroughly Irish affair. McClintock, from Dundalk, County Louth, had left  the message at Winter Harbour for McClure when part of the Austin Expedition. McClure, from County Wexford, then found McClintock’s message in 1852. His reply was found by Mecham, from Cove, County Cork, in the autumn of 1852, and it was Mecham’s Irish captain, Henry Kellett, hailing from County Tipperary, who sent this relief party. In 1853 almost ⅛  of the Royal Navy were Irish, and a disproportionate number of them were Arctic explorers.”

So Happy St. Patrick’s Day to one and all!

23 March 2021 Blog Post
Today we return to the remarkable spring sledging journey of First Lieutenant George Mecham, after he split his party in May 1853:

From my manuscript:
“Skirting the southern coast of Eglinton Island they reached Cape Hay on Prince Patrick Island’s southern coast. Mecham climbed an outcrop and saw the coastline to the NE was buried in deep snow. He left a depot of eight days’ supplies to facilitate its later exploration, then, the weather having turned fair and warm, the men offloaded their heavy winter clothing, making each sledges 290 pounds lighter. Mecham then headed W along the southern shore, strewn with almost impassable hummocks which slowed their pace again. On the 12TH, upon inspection, Mecham found the hummocks were seriously damaging the sledges: he had 19 broken rivets on his runners alone. However, after effecting temporary repairs, they carried on. 

The season was changing, and they all noticed the game around them was increasing dramatically. One daily count was seventeen reindeer, scores of ptarmigan, and two bears (who wisely took off in the opposite direction). Whenever they could they set their sails, and on the 19TH they reached the shoreline which turned toward the north. On Queen Victoria’s birthday, the 24TH, Mecham gave the men an extra half gill of rum to celebrate. Despite the earlier increase in game, it was scarce again along this monotonous shoreline, and they started running short of food. Their dog, Buffer, was sadly reduced to just licking clean the pannikins for his sustenance. 

The next day, Mecham took the boat off his sledge, placed the game traps and all their remaining gear under it, fixed a flag to it, and left it behind. Taking only the tent, stove, fuel and food, his sledge weight was now down to 65 pounds per man. With renewed effort they set off again to the NE. The traveling continued being slow, difficult, and filled with obstacles. It was so tiring many of the men fell asleep, snoring loudly, before their meals were even ready. By 28 May Mecham only had nine days’ provisions left, and he was 150 miles from his last depot.

[He wrote] ‘Had the country been at all favourable for game I should certainly persevere to the NE for another day or two, but that not being the case, particularly as these northerly winds have set in with the change of moon, [I have] determined to steer across the land to the southward. Trusting that my supposed longitude is relatively correct, I shall endeavour to make the coast a little to the westward of Wolley Bay, by which I may escape the high and steep land seen in the vicinity of Walker Inlet.’

He led his men back to the boat and supplies, then headed across country under sail at a brisk walk. In fact the sails were driving them along at such a pace they had to occasionally heave to in order to catch their breath. This clear run ended on 30 May when they again confronted rough terrain, and they had to take their sails down. The next day they made camp at the head of Walker Inlet.

While hunting in the surrounding ravines Mecham was standing on top of a steep bank when it suddenly collapsed and he fell thirty feet. Fortunately the snow was deep and soft, and he sustained no injuries. Others went out hunting, returning to camp with most welcomed fresh meat and fowl. 

Interestingly, when Mecham tried trekking into the interior, the men were so completely disoriented by no longer seeing the sea they couldn’t figure out where they were. Even though Mecham told them their location they were so completely flummoxed they didn’t believe him, and broke out into arguments.” 

28 March 2021 (1853 Mecham’s sledging trip continued from my manuscript)
…The following night Mecham shot a buck deer which made a great feast for all…By 4 June the bay opened out and they could see Eglinton Island. Mecham led his men NE to pick up their provisions from the cairn they had filled earlier. Continuing along the unexplored shore the men still hoped for some evidence of Franklin or Collinson, but found nothing. The following day Mecham saw a hump in the snow which he thought might be a cairn, and upon getting closer he picked up sledge tracks. After digging through the snow, and opening the cairn he discovered it was one of McClintock’s. Mecham was a bit put out by this, because he had been looking forward to exploring land unseen by European eyes.

Disappointed, Mecham headed east toward Melville Island. At Eglinton Island he discovered more of McClintock’s month old records. After climbing a cliff to peer over the fog and mist which had suddenly surrounded his party, Mecham discovered he couldn’t see Melville Island at all. Despite this, he led his men across Kellett Strait and reached it on the 11TH. There he found another McClintock cairn. When the weather cleared it was almost too hot for the men to sleep inside the tents during the day, and by 12 June they started sleeping on a sail outside. Even the nights were so warm the men stripped to their flannel long underwear when hauling the sledges.

With the snow melting Mecham’s men were knee deep in water in many places. On the 14TH they reached a Nares cairn alarmingly surrounded by wolf tracks. It was undisturbed, however, and contained a notice saying Bailey’ health was improving. The men took welcomed provisions, bathed for the first time since leaving the ship, then shared a veritable feast.

What had been a dull and monotonous coast was now alive with streams and the calls of ptarmigans, plovers, and geese. Mecham rested the men for a day, then set out around 19:30 the following evening. The melting ice was making their travel almost impossible, but they continued on trudging through deep water and wading through thick sludge. When Mecham’s sledge broke in two while crossing a hummock they had to use a Spanish windlass to pull the broken parts together, lash them securely with hide, then strengthen the sides with spare battens. Luckily, the following day they hoisted their sails and didn’t have to pull the sledges at all. Turning eastward along Melville Island’s southern coast they approached Warrington Bay, but there deep sludge forced them inland onto bare earth where they couldn’t pull their sledges. Disappointingly, they had to return to the compressed ice hummocks along the shore.

The southern coast of Melville Island was deeply indented, but Mecham had to search its entirety to be certain he didn’t miss any evidence of the lost men. On 21 June the weather warmed up enough that the precipitation was rain, not snow. This made travel worse by increasing the number, size, and force of the streams racing down to the sea, where the ice was covered with 14 inches of water. On the 23RD Mecham wrote: 

The water here is…covered with strong young ice, which together with the sharp wind occasioned great pain to the feet and ancles [sic], also ruination to the boots.’ 

It took his men eleven hours to cover only 22 miles. On a positive note, game was more plentiful and their hunting successful. In one morning they shot 3 hares, and killed two muskox. While some men built another cairn and filled it with supplies, Mecham walked the shoreline and discovered they would soon have to haul their sledges across torrential rivers and through water four feet deep.

Despite such setbacks Mecham’s party reached Bushman Cove by 27 June. There they examined another McClintock cairn located next to the remnants of a cart left by Sir Edward Parry in 1820. Mecham returned McClintock’s documents to the cairn while the men set up camp. The next day they camped at Nares’ main depot, which contained a good quantity of lime juice and fresh vegetables. The best items Nares left in this cairn were new leather boots for each man so they could replace the remnants of theirs that had rotted away, leaving most of them nearly barefoot. Nares also left a cart that had wheels instead of the sledge runners. With bare ground increasing daily this should have been a welcomed relief. However, after they had loaded all their traps in the cart they…

…were obliged to unload again and proceed with half the traps. The country here is a perfect swamp, the wheels sink down to the axel trees in the mud; so that we are hardly able to move the cart along, and occasionally it drags off our boots. [At 11:00 we] pitched the tent and lunched; sent the crew back with cart for the remaining traps. P.M. Went on to examine the road beyond; found no improvement, but it is intersected with deep and rapid streams. At the large ravine the stream is about fifty yards wide, four feet deep, and running with great fury. Built occasional cairns as guides for tomorrow’s route. [At] 6: cart arrived; encamped. The men dead tired. Raining hard all the afternoon…[after the night’s rest] 8: started with cart, carrying half our traps. 8:30. It stuck fast in a swamp close to a snowy patch. Loaded the sledge and proceeded, winding about to keep on small patches of snow, which obliged us to go over about four times the distance; indeed we were put to a wits’ end to get along at all.’

Mecham found the most hazardous aspect of crossing the fast rivers was breaking through weak surface ice and being suddenly immersed in four feet of rushing water, soaking them to their armpits… 

10 April 2021 blog post:

[From my manuscript]…On 3 July Mecham finally reached Winter Harbour, and encamped on the site of Sir Edward Parry’s observatory. Mecham deposited their charts of discovery under the big sandstone boulder where the Investigator had left their information. Mecham also found the notification of the Investigators’ rescue. 

On Wednesday the 6TH at 13:00, after 91 days covering 1,173 miles, 785 of which were new discoveries, the Mecham party arrived alongside the Resolute.Kellett was away surveying, but the remaining officers welcomed them home with flags flying. The weary travellers were heartily cheered by their ships’ companies. Mecham wrote to Kellett:

[I am] deeply grateful to the Almighty for the preservation of our health and strength during this journey. We much regretted our unsuccess [sic] in its primary object; but on our arrival at the lagoon depot, I with pleasure read your letter relating the success of another party of our shipmates in the discovery of HMS ‘Investigator’and the safe arrival of them all onboard the ‘Resolute’; also the general welfare which had attended all the parties detached from the expedition in execution of your orders…The amount of game procured, together with the care displayed by James Tullett in issuing the provisions and fuel, would have enabled me to have extended the journey for several days longer had I not been stopped short by finding the coast had been searched by Captain McClintock. In justice to the men of my party, I beg to refer you to my chart, which will I feel convinced, show the amount of labour it cost them in tracing a coast exposed for such an extent to heavy old pack [ice]. The constant wet traveling and swampy state of Melville Island during the summer was equally labourious. Throughout the journey their conduct excited my warmest admiration. We all arrived onboard in excellent health, though I regret to say Charles Nisbett had lost the sight of his right eye since the 10TH of June. 

By Elizabeth Matthews

Leading authority on HMS Resolute

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