Monday, December 13, 2021

I just shot a bear

‘ “Good evening, Mr. Baldwin, did you hear shooting just now?”
“No. Why?”
“I just shot a bear down the channel.”
“Well, we’ll go back to camp, hitch up a team, and bring him in.” ’ This is an extract from the diary of Russell Williams Porter - architect, artist, Arctic explorer and telescope maker - born 150 years ago today. Although the diaries of his expeditions to the Arctic remain unpublished, Porter himself quotes from them in a memoir which was published, albeit posthumously.   

Porter was born on 13 December 1871 in Springfield, Vermont. His father was an inventor, toy manufacturer and a successful producer of baby carriages. Russell was schooled at Vermont Academy in 1891 and went on to take engineering at Norwich University and the University of Vermont, later studying architecture and art at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He became interested in the Arctic when he attended lectures on Greenland by Robert Peary. In 1893, he signed up to sail on the ship Miranda as surveyor and artist for Frederick Cook’s voyage to Greenland that next year. The voyage ended with the ship colliding with an iceberg and the crew being rescued by Inuit. He continued to travel to the Arctic with Peary, and Greenland again in 1896, to Baffin Island in 1897, with the Yukon gold rush in 1898, to Labrador in 1899, and northern Greenland in 1900.

In 1901 and 1903, Porter was given charge of astronomical observations on the Ziegler Polar Expeditions financed by the industrialist William Ziegler. However, during the second expedition, the vessel, the Steam Yacht America, was crushed by ice and sank, and it was two years before the crew were rescued. In 1906, Porter joined a surveying expedition to Alaska’s Denali. After his Arctic adventures, Porter settled down in Port Clyde, Maine, where he tried farming and other ways to make a living. He married Alice Marshall, the postmistress, and they had one daughter. He took up astronomy and telescope making. In 1915, he returned to MIT as a professor of architecture, and during the war he worked for the National Bureau of Standards producing prisms and experimenting with the silvering of mirrors.

Porter moved back to Springfield, Vermont, in 1919 to work at the Jones & Lamson Machine Company, of which James Hartness was president. He helped Hartness to produce an optical comparator, an instrument for accurately checking the pitch, form, and lead of screw threads. He designed the Porter Garden Telescope, an innovative ornamental telescope. With Hartness, he also started a class in making telescopes, and this led to the forming of a small astronomical club. Porter contributed to regular articles in the Scientific American magazine, and to three volumes of the book Amateur Telescope Making. From 1928, he worked at the California Institute for technology on the development of the Hale Telescope, the largest in the world at the time, later to be housed at Palomar Observatory. During World War II, the Hale project was stalled, and Porter produced mechanical drawings for government defence projects. He died in 1949. Further information is available from Wikipedia, the Online Archive of California, and Prologue Magazine at the National Archives.

Porter’s papers were donated to the US National Archives and Records Service in 1974 by his daughter, Caroline Porter Kier. In addition to many artworks, the papers contain diaries, correspondence, notebooks, photographs, and memorabilia. There is also a manuscript and typescript, with nearly 100 drawings, of his memoir. This memoir was eventually edited by Herman Friis and published by University Press of Virginia in 1976 as The Arctic Diary of Russell Williams Porter. Porter began writing the memoir soon after settling in California, many years after his Arctic expeditions - indeed the book’ title is a misnomer. The published memoir includes many of the drawings and paintings he completed while on the expeditions, and, occasionally, verbatim extracts from diaries he kept. These extracts are mostly insubstantial and undated, and sometimes the difference between memoir text and diary quote is unclear. A digital copy can be freely borrowed online at Internet Archive. Here are a couple of extracts from the memoir in which Porter does refer to his diaries.

‘I have told this bear story hundreds of times, and everybody knows how a bear story takes on added thrills at each telling, but I can only offer my diary written and the testimony of Mr. Baldwin, who visited the spot soon after. I met him walking out from camp.

"Good evening, Mr. Baldwin, did you hear shooting just now?”
“No. Why?”
“I just shot a bear down the channel.”
“Well, we’ll go back to camp, hitch up a team, and bring him in.”
Which we did.

“You needn't take my word for it, Mr. Baldwin,” after describing the adventure and as we approached the scene of the fracas. “There is the whole story right there on the snow - footprints, blood, bear - everything.”

On the way to camp I asked to have the skin of that bear and was refused. All I have to remember of the affair is the bear’s jaws, which I chopped off the head after the dogs had eaten the meat and torn the skin to pieces.

There seems to be some question as to whether a polar bear will voluntarily attack a white man. The governor of Umanak, Greenland, once told me of an Eskimo hunting at a seal hole through the ice. The bear came up from behind and got his claws into the fellow’s back. Somehow the Eskimo got hold of his gun, pointed it over his shoulder and shot the bear. The fellow’s back was covered with scars.

However. I am just as well pleased not to have had to prove or disprove the theory. You may be sure that thereafter I saw to it that my rifle was always in working order.’

‘The hundred days in that near-starvation camp (we were on less than half rations) would have proved a godsend to a writer who could portray with true dramatic sense the influence of the long night over the characters fate had thrown so closely together. Take the matter of food - and it was vile stuff, walrus meat that an Eskimo will eat only if he is starving. Now cut this food in half.

I quote here at length from my diary: “But you at home would be surprised if you tried it to see what a craving the flesh would feel should you stop eating before you had had what you wanted.” The favorite topic, of course, was what we would eat if we returned to the States. The dream of the sailors, almost to a man, was a full meal of ham and eggs. The field department was more particular.

The most interesting character was, by far, the skipper, a weatherworn whaler from Edgartown (Mass.), wise about oil, grease, blubber, bone, and ships. He did a good deal of his thinking aloud. I never got a word of it, and probably few of the sailors did. They were sort of stage asides.

The diary has him remark: “Guns? Rifles? Mr. Porter, how many rifles do you think I have bought and sold in my lifetime? I might say thousands. And as for walrus, I’ve seen them so thick you could not see anything else, thousands on thousands of ’em. But we never fool with ’em on our side [meaning Alaska]. Only Norwegians go walrusing, and they can live on almost anything. Why, these walrus here are nothing. I’ve seen, I suppose, tusks three feet long without any exaggeration, and yet there is someone thinks they can tell me something about walrus and how to shoot ’em. They don’t know what they’re talking about, that’s all there is to that.” On and on in this puffed-up strain.

Diary: “This morning when the captain took down his ham tin (full of snow water for washing purposes) hung up by the stovepipe, he found something in it which he had unwittingly scooped up along with the snow in the dark, something as big as my fist, and I would give twenty-five dollars to know who did it.” I never saw him so wrought up with the world at large, ordering me to remove the matches from the wall over his table so that no one would have occasion to come into his corner.

However, someone did invade his corner in a hurry. The lie was passed between two sailors over in the other end of the room, and quick as a flash they came over, giving it to each other in earnest. When they arrived with a bang, over went my oil lamp, the covering over a window fell in, and down came the captain’s table with its contents.

Now that we are on fights, here’s another.

Diary: “The skipper is sitting in his chair mumbling, delivering his usual asides, and the crew is conversing in low tones - some have disappeared into their bunks - when one notices loud talk down the passage by the kitchen.

“Look out now.”
“Don’t you touch me. I’m a sick man.”
“You’re no more sick than I am. Look out now.”
“Bill Ross, if you should hit me now, I would drop like a dead dog. If you ever dare strike me, I will run this knife through your heart.”

A quick, shuffling sound; an oil lamp tumbles to the floor sputtering in its spilt oil; a sound as of a man’s wind being slowly cut off growing fainter and fainter until a sharp metallic ring is heard as the knife falls from relaxing fingers. A man emerges from the passage and throws a long sheath knife on the table in front of the captain.

“Dere, captain, you see, over six inches long - eight, if an inch. I’ve half a mind to run it into him now.” And he makes a move for the knife but does not take it.

These pleasant little affairs at least had the merit of breaking the long monotony. Monotony was there all right, for the next entry (December 21) says: “At last after days and days of waiting, this ‘red letter’ day has arrived. After all, it only means that the sun has stopped going down.”

[. . .]

Diary: “It was the dogs that worried us - I mean their lives. You must remember that we had just emerged from an arctic winter, subsisting on half rations, and were in no physical condition to meet a severe test of staying powers.”

[. . .]

The fifth day found us on an island within sight of the old winter quarters of the Baldwin expedition; that is, we could have seen it had it been clear weather. Here we were held prisoner two days by drift.

Diary: “P.M., March 4. As I feared, bad weather has caught us. We have made only three miles a day for nearly a week. Yesterday the whole afternoon was required to make something under a mile. But we hope for the best. Six of my fingers are badly blistered.”

But the storm that held us in sight of our goal for two days had a silver lining. It packed or blew away the soft snow, making better going, and at the old West Camp we were furiously burning anything at hand to melt enough snow to quench our thirst.

[. . .]

Diary: “Hello, Chips. Come in.”

The bottle was placed on the table before us. It was half full, and I applied my nose to the opening.

“Why, it’s beer,” I exclaimed in surprise. “Where did you find it? And L. Macks Olbrygurie, Tromsø, too. Run across some old cache of the Baldwin expedition?”
“No, no; help yourselves.”

I looked at him. The perspiration was standing out in big drops over his forehead, and he seemed to find difficulty in breathing. Surely, I thought, this fellow has been hitting it rather heavily. Nevertheless, I filled two cups and offered one to Mr. Peters.

“Well, anyway, here’s to - to - the relief ship’s coming this year.” It was all I could think of worth a toast. Even then I couldn’t understand.
“You don’t understand, Mr. Porter, you don’t catch on,” the carpenter protested.

Then Peter’s face began to change. Then, not until then, did the arrival of a ship enter my mind.

“Chips, the ship hasn’t come?”
“Come, no joking.”
“Yes, it has, it has.”
“Say it again.”
“The ship is at Cape Dillon. The party is at the house now.”

It was hard to believe even then, with so many rumors of ships about. With shaking hands, Mr. Peters and I drained the aluminum cups to the sand dregs and followed the carpenter down to the house. Turning to me, Peters smiled (he rarely smiled when with me) and said, “There’s no need for economizing on paper now.” ’

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