Saturday, March 03, 2007

Excerpt: Vikings of the Ice by George Allan England (excerpt#2)


On my northward trek aboard the Rosalind I acquired a little advance information about seal hunting that just a trifle moderated my ideas concerning brass buttons and smart little staterooms.

"Not much real danger of your ship sinking in the ice a few hundred miles from land," a St. John's merchant explained, "though once in a way it does happen. The sealing ships are built of greenheart and oak, to meet the ice pressures. Of course, " he sank the barb, "we've had some pretty appalling disasters. Sometimes sudden blizzards catch the men on ice, far from the ships, and wipe them out by the dozen and the score. I should advise you not to wander more than two or three miles from the Terra Nova, especially if the barometer's down."

"Oh, I don't think I will - not over three or four miles, anyhow," I hastened to reassure him.

"Well, then, the chances are you'll come through alive. That is, if your ship doesn't burn or blow up. Seal fat is enormously inflammable, and the men are wonderful careless with fire and blasting powder. As a fact, not one of our sealing ships is fit to go to the icefields. They're all worn out. The Terra Nova was condemned years ago. I've heard it said that a good strong man with a pair of stout boots could kick a hole in her boilers anywhere. Still, I don't want to make you worry."

"Certainly not!" I agreed, relighting my pipe, which had gone out.

"As for the men - oh, you'll get along with them all right. Rough? Well, rather! But treat them free and easy and call them 'Uncle,' and you'll have no trouble. A hard crowd, that! Most of them never wash or shave, on the sealing racket. They butcher all day and come in off the ice a reek of blood and grease; but you won't mind that. Dirt doesn't hurt them and neither does hardship. Why, they're half seals themselves! They'd die with decent treatment. The tough trip just fattens them. They come back with hides four inches thick - and so will you!"

Thus indeed it befell. I did!

The next Newfoundlander to encourage me - a carpenter - had been sealing many years.

"Goin' swilin', is ye, sir?" he asked. "Me dear man! Ye'll be rale hearty. If y'r luck's in, ye'll take no harm. I was on de Florizel, time she an' ninety-four men was lost. 'Tis a wonnderful fine racket. I'd like to be goin' in collar meself, agin, wid me rope an' gaff an' sculpin' knife! I'd like to year de ole cry: 'Starburd over!' an' year dem whitecoats bawlin'. I would, so."

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And so continues the beginning of George Allan England's tale of sailing to the ice with Captain Abram Kean on the Terra Nova in 1922.

Vikings of the Ice, being the log of a Tenderfoot on the Great Newfoundland Seal Hunt was published in 1924 by Doubleday.

Rattling Books will release an unabridged audio edition of Vikings of the Ice narrated by Frank Holden in the spring of 2007.