Perhaps, however, that was because the colonists were now, to a certain extent, acclimatised.
Certainly the winter did not set in so abruptly as last time. The weather was very damp, and the atmosphere was always charged with vapour, which fell now as rain now as snow. In Lieutenant Hobson’s opinion, at least, it was not nearly cold enough.
The sea froze all round the island, it is true, but not in a regular or continuous sheet of ice. Large blackish patches here and there showed that the icicles were not thoroughly cemented together. Loud resonant noises were constantly heard, produced by the breaking of the ice field when the rain melted the imperfectly welded edges of the blocks composing it. There was no rapid accumulation of lump upon lump such as is generally seen in intense cold. Icebergs and hummocks were few and scattered, and no ice-wall as yet shut in the horizon.
“This season would have been just the thing for the explorers of the North West Passage, or the seekers of the North Pole,” repeated Sergeant Long again and again, “but it is most unfavourable for us, and very much against our ever getting back to our own land!”
This went on throughout October, and Hobson announced that the mean temperature was no lower than 32° Fahrenheit, and it is well known that several days of cold, 7° or 8° below zero, are required for the sea to freeze hard.
Had proof been needed that the ice-field was impassable, a fact noticed by Mrs Barnett and Hobson would have sufficed.
The animals imprisoned in the island, the furred animals, reindeer, wolves, &c., would have left the island had it been possible to cross the sea, but they continued to gather in large numbers round the factory, and to seek the vicinity of man. The wolves came actually within musket-range of the enceinte to devour the martens and Polar hares, which were their only food. The famished reindeer having neither moss nor herbs on which to browse, roved about Cape Bathurst in herds. A solitary bear, no doubt the one to which Mrs Barnett and Kalumah felt they owed a debt of gratitude, often passed to and fro amongst the trees of the woods, on the banks of the lagoon, and the presence of all these animals, especially of the ruminants, which require an exclusively vegetable diet, proved that flight was impossible.
We have said that the thermometer remained at freezing point, and Hobson found on consulting his journal that at the same time the year before, it had already marked 20° Fahrenheit below zero, proving how unequally cold is distributed in the capricious Polar regions.
The colonists therefore did not suffer much, and were not confined to the house at all. It was, however, very damp indeed, rain mixed with snow fell constantly, and the falling of the barometer proved that the atmosphere was charged with vapour.
Throughout October the Lieutenant and Long made many excursions to ascertain the state of the ice-field in the offing; one day they went to Cape Michael, another to the edge of the former Walruses’ Bay, anxious to see if it would be possible to cross to the continent of America or Asia, or if the start would have to be put off.
But the surface of the ice-field was covered with puddles of water, and in some parts riddled with holes, which would certainly have been impassable for sledges. It seemed as if it would be scarcely safe for a single traveller to venture across the half-liquid, half-solid masses. It was easy to see that the cold had been neither severe nor equally maintained, for the ice consisted of an accumulation of sharp points, crystals, prisms, polyhedrons, and figures of every variety, like an aggregation of stalactites. It was more like a glacier than a “field,” and even if it had been practicable, walking on it would have been very tiring.
Hobson and Long managed with great difficulty to scramble over a mile or two towards the south, but at the expense of a vast amount of time, so that they were compelled to admit that they must wait some time yet, and they returned to Fort Hope disappointed and disheartened.