ICE BOATMEN, written by the Danish poet Holger Drachmann (1846-1908)
"We must be merry till dawn," Peter Rask said, and then he sang:
"Our land! You may be likened with a boat that drifts through tearing tides but we have seamen´s remedies, and He can break the edge of tide," and so it went for a long time.
As he had sung the last line the people around him cried out: "Long live Rask!"
"Thank you," he said modestly, " but let us now all go on like this." And a host of patriotic songs
were sung, and not a few bottles emtied to keep the warmth and spirit afloat.
I was out of myt breath but warm again, and needed a little break by myself. I stepped out of the circle
of people and stood there examining the eternal Siberia. I had been standing there like this for quite a while, absorbed in my own thoughts. Suddenly Peter Rask stood at my side:"Pardon me, sir, you might easily get away from us and it is I who must answer
for you - come "back to the flag" again."
The night passed with song and tales, and a couple of times the travelers turned in under the tarpaulins of the dinghies for half an hour´s
rest or sleep. The mood an the trust that morning would bring the desired end of the voyage kept the gloomy thoughts at a distance.
By dawn we had landfall, and Peter Rask thought
that it was 'Funens Head'. Hope rose with land so close; the last provisions were eaten, before the day´s exertions hauling the boats forward across the ice, and with a song in front they pulled the dinghies across the firm ice expanse that had been
their salvation for the night.
But alas, hope is deceptive, and by noon the dinghies reached the edge of the ice floe, everybody had to go into the boats, and now the crew´s
old struggle with oars and hooks against all kinds of ice began again, against slush ice, pudding ice, pack ice, drifting crests of ice.
When oar and hook did not work any more, the
crew had to climb over the edge of the boats; while their hands with or without gloves kept a firm grip on the rail they pushed off with the heavy boots. Now and then a man fell through and hauled himself up again, or he was hauled up by the others.
As the afternoon waned the passengers began to realize that not everything was as it should be, and our brave guide finally had to give up trying to inspire hope for landing before dark, and
when some of the passengers had sighted the flashes from a lighthouse ahead, Peter Rask had to confess: "This is Samsoe Lighthouse, current and wind is NW, and we have been fighting to get to SW but whether you can take hearing about it or not we are to be
driven into the open sea of Kattegat."
At the begninning this message alarmed us, and the good boat guide must receive many harsh reproaches. But as the cold and the lack of food
made their impact they were united with fear, creating that apathy and toughtlessness which characterizes city people never having been confronted with hardships and real danger at close range. Only the nerves of the fishermen and sailors could stand this
strain, and they mechanically carried out the prescribed movements.
The day waned and we had another night in ice boat in open air ahead of us. We passengers no longer spoke to one
another; with short intervals we were frightened out of out lethargy by the untiring leader shaking us:"You mustn´t sleep!" And now and then the most drowsy were ordered outboard to assist the crew, mostly to serve our survival rather than to entertain
How the night passed I almost do not remember. I only recall that Peter Rask ever and again shook us passengers saying: "Those who fall asleep never will wake up again!"
As the day dawned, and we could see each other´s faces, it was an appalling sight that met us. We could hardly recognize each other, that swollen were our faces, and several could hardly
recognize each other.
Only the fishermen worked on as real heroes. These fishermen were made from unbreakable material; they realized that just a quarter of an hour´s rest would
mean that the limbs did not have the energy to get going again, and they only thought of surviving. Strengthening their untiring effort was however the discovery - contrary to us passengers who sensed almost nothing - that we wer after all approaching land.
The frost degrees and the wind rose equally. Some passengers cried from exertion as we were from waking, exertion, hunger and thirst. Bellies rumbled, eyes burned, and it prickled all over the
There were times when a passengers had fallen behind, and Peter Rask had gone back to fetch him. He now took the floor: "My crew is soon exhausted and cannot bear unnecessary
delays, and I urgently request that the passengers let their coats alone and lend a hand at the dinghies. We are now on firm land ice about 3 miles from the coast. It is Apple Island you see ahead, and I presume they have noticed us there. Doctor, provisions
and men are surely on their way."
Several travelers mistrusted Peter Rask because they weren´t able to see but Peter Rask assured them that it was true, and that the reason
why they could not see was cold and light refractions confusing the untrained eyes.
A passenger suggested that we leave a dinghy and the mail behind.
Peter Rask calmly answered: " What has been put into the dinghies will stay there; the entire expedition, dinghies, crew, passengers and freight must be kept together."
We all agreed to this; we dropped our travel clothes and pushed with the summoning of our last powers - they did not amount to much.
"Forward, men," our leader commanded.
We staggered, rolled and tottered, fell down, got up again or were pulled up. It was all one fog, dinghies, crew, co-passengers, the island coming closer; it all turned round in our eyes.
Only now we realized what the work with the dinghies had required, what it must have cost in terms of work and energy from the brave seamen.
We got closer to Apple Island, I could
feel that, rather than see it but it did not really concern me, and I was more inclined to to stay behind, just lying there, the times I fell. Each time, however, a man with a big beard and clear, wind-battered eyes whipped me on end, and I obeyed my master.
That way animals are conditioned. Now I knew!
And in this way it happened that we actually set foot on firm land again just as the dusk fell upon us. That it was firm ground we were
now treading was told everywhere around us. I myself felt as little by treading the snow ashore as treading the ice out there above the sea. It was because I could not feel my leg from the knee downwards.
Through the fog I noticed kind people offering us food and drinks; I saw crew members and passengers, all of them except Peter Rask, thrusting themselves upon what was offered, like wolves. I probably did so myself.
A saw a man, presumably a doctor, walking with the ever unchanging Peter Rask between us, admonishing us first of all to put on some dry clothes, to be moderate with the taking. A while later we were
assembled in a hay barn partly lit by carriage lamp. Peter Rask sat on his mail bags enjoying his hot drink. Raising his voice he said: "Keep away from the houses with the hot stoves; although they tempt you, you will regret it tomorrow; but it is wise to
accept their offers of dry woolen clothes and linen - then warmth will return by itself in the hay in the most agreeable way."
And the night passed, and the next day we all awoke
with stiff limbs but had recovered the warmth, and we were saved.
Peter Rask received the medal of Dannebrog after this trip. He was chivalrously inclined, I hope you will have realized.