Magazine article Geographical

A Passage of Time

Magazine article Geographical

A Passage of Time

Article excerpt

Inspired by the possibility of a short route to the Orient, William Parry set out to the Arctic in 1819 to Search for and navigate the Northwest Passage. One hundred and eighty years later Mark Evans. retraces his route

O THEN, PAUSE ON THE FOOTPRINTS of heroic men, making a garden of the desert wide, where Parry conquer'd death and Franklin died." So wrote Charles Dickens in the prologue of The Frozen Deep, written by Wilkie Collins in 1856. At the time the British nation was transfixed by attempts to charter the largely unknown Arctic territory.

Sir William Edward Parry achieved fame through his exploration of the Arctic Circle, mapping and naming huge tracts of the Northwest Passage which explorers believed would provide a route to the Orient. Born in Bath in 1790, Parry was Captain of the on John Ross's 1818 expedition which had returned to England with Ross claiming that the fabled Northwest Passage was a bay rather than a strait and that the route to the Orient was not possible. Parry did not agree and commanded his own expedition one year later. This put him in charge of the lives of 93 men -- a huge responsibility for a man of only 29 years.

In the summer of 1819 Parry and his crew made great progress through the sea ice passing through Baffin Sound and entering Lancaster Sound. Here he continued west, passing the 110 [degrees] longitude and so claimed the 5,000 [pounds sterling] bounty, (an equivalent today of 130,000 [pounds sterling]) put up by the Royal Society in London, for being the first person to do so. Parry pressed on, hoping to reach the Bering Straits, but in late September the sea ice, starting to freeze over, forced him to head back east. The last suitable anchorage had been seen on an island that Parry named Melville Island after the then Lord of the Admiralty, Viscount Melville. Here his two ships the Hecla and the Griper were trapped in the sea ice for 12 months in a location Parry named Winter Harbour. For three of those long months there had been no sunlight.

The conditions on the ships throughout the winter were testing. At times the temperature in Parry's cabin dropped to minus 20 [degrees] C, but he had prepared well and knew that the key to the survival of his men lay with keeping their minds and bodies active. He succeeded in keeping all but one of the crew alive. William Scott passed away despite being fed a diet of ptarmigan (Arctic grouse), duck and salads prepared to combat scurvy.

Masts were lowered and the decks covered in huge tarpaulins, allowing rudimentary central heating systems to be rigged up. Polar bears and wolves were frequent visitors through the long winter, during which the men were kept busy by a daily routine of scrubbing decks, knot tying, singing, amateur dramatics and even the production of a newspaper entitled, the North Georgia Gazette. In an effort to ward off scurvy, the scourge of Arctic expeditions, Parry grew cress and mustard on board and every man was regularly inspected for his health. In June 1820, with the thaw underway, Parry chose several marines to accompany him, made a wheeled cart by modifying a field gun and set off north across the island. His aim was to return by a different route within three weeks. This was the first significant overland journey by the British Navy in the Arctic. Parry also discovered and named some of the Parry Islands, as well as naming Barrow Strait. En route he built several huge cairns within which he left messages documenting his mens' achievements to date and other items which were to become important historical evidence.

A frosty reception

In early July 1998, our five-strong expedition whose patrons were Admiral of the Fleet Lord Lewin and Nicholas Parry, great-great-grandson of the explorer, set out from London to visit the still uninhabited Melville Island. Our aim was to cross the island in the footsteps of Parry and try to identify any remains of his 1819 over-wintering expedition. …

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