Thursday, March 08, 2007

Excerpt: Vikings of the Ice by George Allan England (#3)

We continue 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.

One could write half a book about St. John's: but what we're after now is seals. So I shall record nothing but what bears directly thereon.

Very directly bearing thereon was Bowring Brothers' establishment; for Bowring Brothers is a famous firm of seal hunters, and the Terra Nova, on which I was to ship, belonged to them.

I found Bowring Brothers' place of business comfortably old-fashioned, quite in the British tradition, with open fires, ancient desks, a one-handed English 'phone, maps, samples of seal oil, pictures of steamers, lots of "clarks," and the general atmosphere of 1848. Eric Bowring extended a cordial hand and reaffirmed his permission for me to go "to the ice."

He introduced me to Cap'n Abraham Kean, scheduled to command the Terra Nova. The Cap'n looked a splendid type of seaman and a famous ice master:ruddy, hearty, hale, with shrewd blue eyes, a grizzle of snowy beard, a bluff manner, the vigour of a man of fifty, for all his seventy years, and a full half-century of seal killing to his credit.

"The Admiral of the Fleet," they call him in Newfoundland. And well he deserves the title, for he has come in "high-liner" more often than any other captain, and knows the icefields as other men know their palms. Many decades he has commanded ships plying into the Far North, "down the Labrador," and has never lost a passenger. A skipper in the Royal Naval Reserve, a former member of the House of Assembly, a writer and lecturer, he understands more about seals and sealing than any other man alive. I thought myself fortunate in being assigned to his ship, and so indeed the event proved.

My optimisim faded somewhat as, in the bitter cold, transfixed by the slashing wind, I betook myself to the snow-sheetd wharf behind the Bowring establishment; penetrated narrow, white-washed runways already populated with sealers, and went aboard the Terra Nova.

There indeed for the first time I beheld her, one of the nine scarred, time-bitten old ships of the 1922 hunt. The harbour was grinding white with heavy ice. Beyond, snow-swept hills soared to a pitiless gray sky of storm. Gulls volplaned and screamed. Wharves swarmed with types of men unknown to me, strange men, ominous and wild, with never a friendly glance or word for the outlander. Winches cluttered and roared; steam drifted.

As I set foot on board rather horrific prospects dawned. Earlier visions of brass-buttoned officers and cozy cabins faded. My notebook records:

As far as being a slave ship is concerned, this one looks the part. The Australian convict ship Success is luxurious by contrast. This veteran of the ice is dark, dingy, coal-dusty, and dirtier than anything I have ever seen; with snowy decks, rusty old hand pumps; a stuffy and filthy cabin, extremely cold; tiny hard bunks, a dwarf stove, a table covered with smeared oil cloth; everything inexpressibly dreary and repellent.

A few minutes' exploration, with nobody offering me a word of welcome, showed me I had no sybaritic cruise ahead of me. Dejection gripped me on my way back to the hotel. Why not be frank about it all and say I had a bad case of cold feet?

Walking along Water Street, St. John's busiest thoroughfare, I had good opportunity to see the kind of men I was to ship with. For already the town was filling up with "greasy-jackets." i.e., seal hunters.

Along the soppy sidewalks they were clumping, girt with belts and sculping knives. The pavements clicked under the tread of their huge "skinny woppers," made of sealskin which had been tanned by Esquimau women - tanned in the primitive way, by being chewed. I marvelled at the thick soles of these waterproof boots: soles studded with "sparables," "chisels," or "frosters," as various kinds of nails are called. Open-coated, with rough trousers held up by "hippers," or nails doing duty for suspender buttons, groups of these hardy Vikings gathered at corners or stood peering in at shop windows that displayed sealers' outfits or stuffed whitecoats. By the men's glances at the city dwellers or "carner boys," no love seemed lost between them. The city folk looked equally disdainful of the "bay noddies," or outport men.

And here just a word of explanation and - if necessary - of apology to the reader. In the course of this narrative it will be necessary to dip heavily into dialect. The sealing gear, clothing, food, the hunt, the weather, all of life in fact, as named by sealers, will involve strange unfamiliar words. The Newfoundland language is one unique and apart from any other. And without using it no adequate picture of the seal hunt can be painted. Rest assured that I shall try to explain every term; and if you forget the meaning, you have but to turn to the Glossary in the Appendix.

To be continued.