Project Canterbury

Snapshots from the North Pacific
Letters written by the Right Rev. Bishop Ridley (Late of Caledonia).

Edited by Alice J. Janvrin.

London: Church Missionary Society, 1904.

Chapter VIII. Perils by Water

"Thunder rolls,
Yet peace is singing in their souls."

"AN is immortal till his work is done." The truth of these words is often brought home to us as we read of the dangers encountered by missionaries in pursuance of their work--risks run, not from love of adventure, or even in the cause of science, but for the sake of Christ and of His poor wandering sheep, of whom He said. "Them also I must bring." The Bishop's account of a journey up the Skeena River in a steamer is more exciting than many of the contests with Nature described in books of travel, and one cannot but praise and admire the wonderful providence of God, Who has harnessed science to His chariot wheels, which roll for the furtherance of the Gospel. The Bishop wrote:--

"July 27th, 1893.

"It maybe cruel to inflict further pages of manuscript on you, but I hope and think it is not, because you must be habituated to it. Do not be scared when I assure you that I have not written a line of what at the beginning I intended to say. My first voyage this year was to Hazelton, and that braced me for those that succeeded. All have been full of the goodness of the Lord. Nine times I have ascended the Skeena River by canoe: this time by steamer. The unexpected has happened. I thought the fierce rapids would baffle science, which has really scored a victory. Some of the rocky impediments have been removed by dynamite, but even now the struggle is fierce. The ship's speed of fourteen knots an hour allows her to drop astern hopelessly. In the swiftest places strong cables hooked to ring-bolts in the rocks are hove in on the steam capstan, when slowly inch by inch science masters blind force and surmounts the down rush of the torrent.

"But the swiftness is a difficulty rather than a peril. Not so the whirls and cross currents at the confluence of some of the largest tributaries. At these points skill and nerve are summoned to the contest, and exciting it really is. Let me try to describe one such. I was in the pilot house by permission. Charley, an Indian, is at the wheel, and the captain with his binocular surveying the water ahead. 'There she is, that nasty Copper river. What do you think of her, Charley?' asks the captain. But Charley deliberates as he gazes on the murky torrent sweeping into the lighter Skeena. 'Black and white' is the best English he can muster to speak his thoughts. Like a dark arrow it sped into the main river, curving downwards at last until suddenly checked by some rocks which broke it into angry waves that danced past like a living frill of foam embracing them. We have to venture between this turbulent stream and those grim rocks. Slowly at half-speed we creep towards the difficulty, storing up power for use at the critical moment. Throe strong men are stationed at the wheel, which controls three rudders close to the great stern paddle-wheel. The steam presses 140 lbs. to the square inch. All is ready. Fenders hang over the bow and port side. We edge up to the cross current and the signal is given, 'Pull steam ahead.' The ship seems to leap into the torrent. Words now are useless, drowned by the dashing water's roar. The captain's jaws seem firmly locked together, his aye measuring the water's behaviour as well as his ship's. We appear to climb the torrent which breaks over the bow by tons per second, making the vessel lurch ominously. Sweeping through the water, we shall soon overcome the difficulty. Indeed no. The rocks seem rushing on us. Really we are being swept towards them. What have looked like a frill of foam, now at close quarters looks like mad furies trying to engulph the panting ship. To avoid them the captain offers his port bow to the masterful current, and we are swept backward, almost brushing the rocks on our downward drift. Failure number one, but something learnt. We try again, and at last push beyond the roaring torrent and steam easily over a long reach of smooth water. Tongues wag again. The captain drops into a chair, mops his head and neck, looks round, showing a face puckered by a smile, and asks, 'Ain't she a beauty?'

"Shortly after he is again struggling through what he called 'the wickedest bit of all." But the greater the struggle the greater the gain until we attain our goal at Hazelton, where the old men, looking from the bank at the moored pioneer of science, say to one another, "It is time for us to die." They did not realize that a force greater than steam had reached them twelve years earlier by a frail canoe. Then the Spirit of the living God owned the work of His ministers, since which sixty souls have, we humbly hope, been converted: more than that number having been baptized, and many entered into rest eternal. At first we had been objects of curiosity, then suspected, hated by the medicine fraternity, then respected, and now loved, when commerce has become an instrument and science a giant in making a highway for our God.

"I had intended to bring down Mr. and Mrs. Field to the coast to assist at the canneries before they left for England in the autumn on furlough, but after hearing of the station work I fully agreed that they would do better to wait until a locum tenens could be found. I brought away with me an Indian girl for Miss Dickenson's home, the fourth from Hazelton. The poor child caught cold directly she reached the wet and chilly coast, and had to be nursed safely through a long and dangerous illness. Here it is that Miss Dickenson's skill as a trained nurse is of so much value. She is a most successful girls' home directress, keeping the girls together as no one else has been able to. I thank God for her devotion and liberality.

"At intervals the steamer stops to load fuel from the long stacks of firewood cut by the Indians, and at every village. Wherever there are Indians I am recognized in a moment, and as the fuel is piled on the ship's deck I am dispensing medicine on the river's hank, surrounded by the sick or their attendants. Time is most precious, as the steamer cannot afford to linger. So the Indians press around me, pouring a clatter of woes into my ears. 'I have a hacking cough;' 'I have ulcers;' 'my eyes are nearly blind;' 'I want Epsom salts (maunum Kuldas);' 'I want eye lotion;' 'give me ointment;' 'my child is dying;' look! give liniment, all my joints are swollen;' 'this man's arm is broken;' 'my mother is withering;' 'my heart is sick;' etc., etc. I call out, 'Bring bottles, cups, cans, or any vessel at hand.' The wise who had them at hand are first served. With as much precision as under the circumstances is possible, I dispense and direct as rapidly as I can, praying in my heart all the time. To each I try to speak, if but one word for Jesus.

"Scream, scream goes the steamer's whistle. I look round in dismay, for many are still waiting anxiously. I roar at the top of my voice, 'Hold on, captain; wait a bit.' Taking grace from the stopping of the whistle, I work faster than ever. The captain is a man of heart and takes in the situation; but time is precious, so at last the whistle screams again. I bundle the drugs into my convenient cassock, a sailor standing by picks up the medicine-chest and rushes for the ship. We are off and away from the downcast remnant, who are wailing because I left them without the help hoped for. God help them. The next business is to return bottles and pill boxes to their compartments, and once more I shall have eyes for the glorious work of the Creator. As I stand and gaze, I see outlined on the face of Nature the forms of the sufferers, the withered limbs, the ophthalmic eyes, the hectic cheek, and foul ulcer. "But time slowly dims the vision. Insensibly it fades, displaced by the infinite completeness and splendour of the scene as if displayed on a canvas hung out from heaven.

"We steam along almost under the branches of the tall cotton-wood trees, their spring verdure reflected in the mirror that bears us on its surface. The leafage of the birch and maple brush our smoke stack. Across the river. from the fringe of tender herbage to the forest-clad foothills, and beyond to the pinnacled background, built up of lofty, snow-clad, cloud-tipped mountains, the glory of the Lord is revealed, and one's heart is ravished with it. But memory sketches features of faces, each line traced by un-alleviated suffering despite all the inspirations of Nature. The contrast starts a train of thought that ends in a sigh.

"A bend in the river gives a fresh direction to these reflections. Here stands another village, the smoke ascending from many an Indian lodge, and there rising above them is the symbol of our redemption. What are all the voices of Nature to the voice from the cross of Christ'? That tells of sympathy with suffering, hope for the helpless, and escape from sin. This small cross reveals another world, creates a higher joy, speaks a language of its own, understood as well by the Indian who worships under it as by me who just before was only concerned with the skirts of His glorious clothing that He stripped off to wear our nature and die for both alike.

"Here is a native teacher and one of my old boys as schoolmaster, both of them members of the tribe they are striving to save. Twelve years ago I left there a Zimshian teacher I brought from Metlakatla. Now the native Church has produced its own first stage of ministry. Three adults during the winter were prepared by them for baptism and are now baptized. Others are coming forward. There was not a single Christian in the nation among any of the tribes when I first saw them; now though only a few are found, it is rare to find any body of Indians without some Christians among them. On the coast from the Skeena to the Naas Heathenism has been conquered by the Cross, and a similar process is in progress in the interior.

"Is it not an unspeakable joy that heaven is nearer and brighter to them than their sunlit mountains? The sense of this abides as tempest and calm succeed each other. The word of the Lord that is turning light on dark souls will endure when river, forest, and mountain shall have passed away, and the heavens overhead be rolled up as a scroll. Then shall the full glory of the Lord be revealed, and the immortal fruit of our mortal endeavours be His joy and crown. To Him be glory for ever and ever. Amen."

The history of another stormy voyage is given in the next letter, written in December, 1893, but the disappointment which it entailed must have been, to the Bishop, the most serious part of it. After much careful preparation, the Chief Sheuksh was pronounced ready for baptism, and lie earnestly wished that the Bishop would come from Metlakatla, and admit him into the visible Church of Christ before Christmas Day. The attempt was made--with what results will be seen:--

"How to get there is the difficulty. Not that the distance is great--not farther than from the Isle of Wight to Cherbourg, or from Holyhead to Dublin. The difficulty springs from the inclemency of the winter, and the exposure in a cockle-shell of an open boat, though I ought not to disparage my Rescue. But really nineteen feet by five feet eight beam does look small in a gale of wind in the open sea. Just try it, my friends, across the strip of twenty-one miles from Dover to Calais, any day in December. We are here in yet a higher latitude, where winds are just as wilful, and waves as high. I am getting up in years, only lately convalescent, and too matter-of-fact to love risks and revel in tempest as in my younger days.

"Without exciting opposition by expressing the intention of trying to go, I quietly got things ready. What concerned me most was the leakiness of the Rescue through being laid up in a loft for the winter. The wind and frost had opened her scams, and for at least the first day afloat she would leak through every seam like a sieve. As soon as I was forced to divulge my secret intention, my wife's solo soon changed to a full chorus of dissuasiveness. She said, 'Tis madness;' they said, 'You ought not to think of such a thing.' She said, 'Don't go;' they said, 'Wait a little while.' What she further said I may not say, because I should not shine in the controversy. I never tried to argue, because I knew my arguments would in a moment be torn to shreds. I had my eye on a good crew of light, wiry Indians, a good little tent of No. 1 canvas, and provisions for a fortnight, in case of being driven by contrary winds into the woods.

"Perhaps you do not realize that, with the mercury anywhere below zero, every drop of spray is frozen as it pelts you, and all the water from the crests of the waves, or percolating through the leaky seams, freezes in the bottom of the boat, steadily increasing her displacement, and diminishing her freeboard, which adds to our discomfort in choppy seas, and danger in tide rips. The solitary advantage of the icy wind is, that, being from the north, it is fair, which makes it just possible to sail from point of departure to destination in one day, between dawn and nightfall.

"As long as it lasts, however, we cannot return; and if we should be detained days or weeks, as we may be, our chief occupation is felling for fuel the forest trees, and our only comfort burning them night and day till the wind changes. How delightful, say my juvenile friends. Well, yes, they would enjoy it for half a day, perhaps until they began to get blue when sent, axe in hand, to find a frozen streamlet, and chop out a big block of fresh water ice to make the coffee for breakfast! Then thaw out the bread and butter. Look out on the sea! It is steaming like a geyser. Take a bath if you dare. You would come out coated with ice, and must dress before you could be thawed. Indeed, you must wash your face with circumspection, first, because water is scarce, and then, because you could only dry yourself on the side facing the crackling logs. People don't wash much in camp in the interior with the thermometer, say, twenty degrees below zero, and a northerly blizzard. Neither do they undress, but coil up in all the blankets procurable on trying to sleep. Among the big trees, however, the fierce wind is not much felt, but the snow comes down from the branches in patches flop into your frying-pan, or on your neck. This is worse after a calm, when the tongues of flame loosen the overhead snow from the branches. It is only delightful to read about. When it smothers a man who looked happy as he gazed into the fire, his countenance changes, and, though he tries to grin after the first surprise, he does not really like it. It does not hurt him. Cold weather is a tonic, but has its drawbacks.

"On the very day when I had intended to call my crew to fix terms there was a most unexpected cry of 'steamboat!' Like the snow falling into a camp fire, my plans dissolved, and at mid-day I was on board an ugly sloth of a steamship bound for Kincolith, thence to the Queen Charlotte Island, and thence back to Metlakatla. The captain was kind, and considerately agreed to return via Kitkatla, only half a day's divergence from his proper course, and to give me two hours on shore to baptize the chief. This involved a round trip of 360 miles instead of from fifty to sixty and back, dependent on the course taken by the Rescue, but I regarded this change of plans as providential, and therefore eagerly came to terms.

"Away from the wharf we proudly sailed, for the sea was smooth in the inner harbour. One hour brought us face to face with a strong northerly wind and swell. The old tub made lieu obeisance to the sea with low curtsies, but Neptune was implacable. We pitched, and kept pitching into the sea, but the longer it lasted the fiercer the battle, and the worse we fared. The sun was setting and we were still struggling. The elements were winning; we were drifting astern after all our efforts. 'About ship!' was the word. Look out everybody! Won't she roll in the trough of the sea! So she did, to the clatter of crockery and the smashing of the companion rails by the shifting of the deck load. Back again to the outer harbour of Metlakatla, where, three miles further in, blinked the lights, the only sign of the town, for darkness had fallen on us. Off came some canoos, and in them returned the Indian passengers, who had had enough pitching and rolling for the year. Nearly all of them had been sea-sick.

"Before daylight next morning we weighed anchor and again strove to proceed to Kincolith, but the gale would not suffer us, for it bad increased in violence. Once more we put about ship and headed for Queen Charlotte's Island. What a dismal day we had! The wind abeam enabled us to carry a little sail to steady the ship, but with her heavy tophamper she so rocked in the cradle of the deep that some feared the creaking old thing would roll too far over. No meal could be served that day. I jammed myself in a recess of the pantry and managed to drink a basin of soup and eat a chunk of bread. Then I robbed some unoccupied berths of their pillows, and with them contrived in my own berth a sleepy hollow, where once made snug, I spent the rest of the day reading, admiring the all-round correction of 'Working Substitutes,' by his Grace of Canterbury, and the doctrinal tracery of the Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, in their recent charges.

"It was quite dark before we moored at Skidegate, a distance of rather more than 100 miles from Metlakatla. All night through the steam winch whirred as we discharged cargo and loaded a new one. The snow was here said to be five feet deep. It snowed all night, so that what it was when we left could only be guessed. Next morning we reached a harbour forty-five miles to the southward, called Clue. Again unloading and loading day and night. The next day the wind shifted and blew hard, so that we dared not leave our moorings. The next night it ceased not till six in the morning, when it moderated.

"Now then, at last, we are off in the direction of Kitkatla, with a strong beam wind, but a heavy sea. Before the island shores astern of us sank below the western horizon, we sighted the tops of the mainland mountains peeping over the eastern, but set in a saffron sky betokening foul weather. Slowly, but defiantly, the wind hacked to the eastward, rolling up before it a heavy swell, precursor of a fresh gale in store for us. The foresail shook, and was stowed; higher and higher rose the swell, until the ship's way nearly ceased. There stood the mountain behind Kitkatla. I could locate the village to a nicety, but my hopes of seeing it that day faded. The captain beckoned to me. I knew what he wanted, because I had worked out the problem myself with the fateful elements. 'Very sorry, Bishop, I can't make Kitkatla.' 'I have known this, captain,' I said, 'for some time, and thank you for your goodwill in trying.'

"From Monday to Friday I have endured this useless tossing, and the loss of precious time, and now when my destination was almost reached, and the joy of admitting Sheuksh into Christ's Church by baptism filled my heart, the one word 'starboard,' spoken to the man at the wheel filled me with keen disappointment. I grudged this victory to the wind and waves, and found a grim kind of satisfaction in making up my mind to go to Kitkatla by my own Rescue as soon as possible.

"For the present our old ship was driven before the wind, until just as darkness began to thicken around us, we came to a sheltering bay, and rode all night at anchor, with the heavy gusts evoking shrill music from the rigging. At daybreak we weighed anchor, headed for Kincolith, and anchored off the village about nine o'clock next morning.

"I was assured of three hours ashore, and after receiving a large number of Indians, and settling some diocesan affairs with Archdeacon Collison, I was in the pulpit preaching in Zimshian to a crowded congregation. How I then grieved over the loss of the capacious new church by fire! The drip from the roof drove me out of the pulpit. I stood outside it, and during my sermon shifted my position again and again to avoid the water dropping from the ceiling. Poor lawn sleeves, how your pride is humbled! And the satin in the rear, how its beauty is departed! I do hope the Archdeacon's friends will promptly help him to build a new church. Before I returned to the ship the Archdeacon expressed his great thankfulness, because what I had said in my sermon was, he thought, as a message from God, to set at rest some hurtful ideas among the more ignorant and fanatical part of his people, which had caused him much uneasiness. I began to see why I had not gone to Kitkatla; had I done so, I could not have reached Kincolith on Sunday.

"At mid-day we sailed for Fort Simpson and arrived at evening service time, but found the rector there so ill of la grippe that he could not take any service. Here is another reason for missing Kitkatla, for I was able to spend many hours at Fort Simpson. On Monday, just a week after sailing from Metlakatla, I returned, having done what I had not intended to do, and left undone what I meant to do, showing how man proposes and God disposes."

The chief was baptized by the Rev. F. L. Stephenson just before Christmas Day.

Project Canterbury