Wilfred Grenfell: Fisher of Men

Chapter 1
So This Is How It’s All Going to End!

The icy cold stabbed at Wilfred Grenfell’s fingers and toes like a knife. He wished he could warm his hands and feet by a fire, but there was nothing to burn out here, and even if there were, his matches had gotten wet when the dogsled went through the ice. It was dark now, and his damp clothes were frozen to his body. Even covering himself with the dogskin blanket and snuggling up to his biggest sled dog, Doc, were not enough to keep out the sharp edge of the Arctic cold.

The wind was still howling from the northwest, pushing the ice pan he was stranded on out to sea—and with it hope of rescue. Beyond the bay was the angry, turbulent water of the North Atlantic. Now, in late winter, it gobbled up the chunks of broken up pack ice as they drifted out of the bays. And as the sea pounded the ice pans to pieces, anything stranded on them, such as Wilfred and his six remaining dogs, would be tossed into the frigid ocean, where death would come quickly.

Wilfred tried to dismiss the thought from his mind. It did no good to think on such things. Besides, he reminded himself, he had been stranded on the ice pan now for well over twelve hours, and he was still alive. Maybe there was room for hope. But the cold was his enemy. He could feel the strength seeping from his bones, and he knew from his medical training that his body was descending into hypothermic shock.

Wilfred rubbed his frozen hands together to generate some warmth and thought about how he had gotten here. He had been on his way from St. Anthony, on the northern tip of Newfoundland, to Brent Island, on the southern edge of Hare Bay sixty miles south of St. Anthony. He had spent last night at Lock’s Cove on the northern edge of Hare Bay and set out from there at first light. But it was late winter, and in the night the wind had begun to break up the pack ice. The locals had warned him not to try crossing the pack ice on the bay, the shortest distance to Brent Island, because it was unsafe. They had urged him to follow the coastline to his destination. And that is what he had done. He had followed the coastline for several miles until he noticed an ice bridge to an uninhabited island in Hare Bay. If he crossed the ice bridge to the island and then crossed the narrow sheet of ice between the island and the south shore of the bay, he would cut miles off his journey and so get to his patient, a boy suffering from blood poisoning, sooner. He took the risk and headed out onto the ice bridge. But what looked like solid ice from shore turned out to be soft, gooey sish ice. Partway to the island, the dogsled began to sink. Wilfred had had to cut the dogs free and abandon the sled, which quickly sank all the way through the ice. Wilfred and the nine dogs had made it to an ice pan, where they were now stranded and drifting out to sea.

When the afternoon shadows had stretched long across the bay and the temperature had begun to plummet, Wilfred knew he had to do more to stay warm through the night. He’d had to do the unthinkable. He had killed and skinned three of his dogs. Their hides now made up the blanket he was huddled under, providing some shelter from the icy, bone-chilling wind. But he was losing the battle with the cold. He had dozed for a while, afraid that if he slept too long, he would never wake up. He thought he saw the sun rising, but when he looked closer, it was a bright, full moon peeking through the clouds above.

Wilfred snuggled closer beside Doc, trying to absorb every bit of excess heat the hulking dog produced. As he tried to drift off to sleep once again, the words of a hymn that he had sung as a boy back in Parkgate, England, began to play over in his mind.

My God, my Father, while I stray

Far from my home on life’s dark way,

Oh, teach me from my heart to say,

Thy will be done!

After a few minutes, Wilfred opened his eyes and looked up at the moon. So this is how it’s all going to end, he thought to himself. How fitting that I should die on the ocean. His mind drifted back to his earliest memories as a child; they were of the sea. He had spent his whole life on or around the ocean. How he wished he were back in Parkgate right now, sailing on the estuary of the River Dee in the Reptile with his older brother Algernon. What a strange path his life had taken from those times, that he should find himself adrift on an ice pan off the Newfoundland coast, headed for certain death.

Chapter 2
The Sands of Dee

Wilfred,” the English teacher said, tapping his cane on the blackboard, “would you stand and recite the Sands of Dee to the class, please.”

Ten-year-old Wilfred Grenfell pushed his chair back and stood. He hated reciting in front of the class, but there was no way out of it, not when his father was the principal and his mother the school bookkeeper and discipline recorder. Anytime he set a foot wrong in class, they both knew about it within minutes!

It wasn’t that reciting poetry was difficult for Wilfred. In fact, anything that involved memorization was simple for him. It was just that he did not particularly like being the center of attention. Still, he took a deep breath and began:

O Mary, go and call the cattle home,

And call the cattle home,

And call the cattle home,

Across the sands o’ Dee:

The western wind was wild and dank wi’ foam;

And all alone went she.

The western tide crept up along the sand,

And o’er and o’er the sand,

And round and round the sand,

As far as eye could see;

The blinding mist came down and hid the land:

And never home came she.

Wilfred paused to briefly look around the classroom and then continued.

Oh! is it weed or fish, or floating hair—

A tress of golden hair,

O’ drowned maiden’s hair,

Above the nets at sea?

Was never salmon yet that shone so fair,

Among the stakes on Dee.

They rowed her in across the rolling foam,

The cruel, crawling foam,

The cruel, hungry foam,

To her grave beside the sea;

But still the boatmen hear her call the cattle home,

Across the sands o’ Dee.

“Very good, very good,” the teacher said. “It will be your turn to recite a poem tomorrow, James. Now open your books to page fifty-three, and let’s look at the rhyming couplets in the next poem.”

Wilfred dutifully turned to the page, but his eyes soon drifted across the room and out the window. It was odd, but he was staring out at the sands of Dee, the exact scene described in the poem. His father’s cousin, a famous English poet named Charles Kingsley, had written the poem, in part to warn people about the treacherous waters of the River Dee estuary. Not that Wilfred needed a poem to remind him. He had walked out on the sandy stretch that separated his village of Parkgate, Cheshire, England, from the Welsh peninsula, for as long as he could remember. Only last year he had watched helplessly as an old fisherman got caught by the swiftly incoming tide and was swept out to sea and to his death. Unlike Mary in the poem, his body had never been recovered.

But the dangers of the estuary, with its quicksand, swift-flowing channel nicknamed “The Deep,” and rapid changes in weather, did not stop Wilfred or Algernon from venturing out on it every day. Just looking at the pictures and artifacts that adorned the walls of Mostyn House School reminded Wilfred that he came from a long line of courageous adventurers.

In the great hall were twelve stuffed animal heads—tigers, leopards, and deer—all from India. Wilfred’s grandfather Hutchinson had been a colonel in the British army stationed in India. Wilfred’s mother had been born and raised there, and most of her family still lived in India. No fewer than fifty of her cousins served in the army or civil service.

Often, when Wilfred gazed into the eyes of the animals in the great hall, he imagined his relatives stalking their prey through tall grass and across marshy lowlands. When no one was watching, he and Algernon pretended they were big-game hunters, though their prey was more likely to be an oyster catcher or a sandpiper, and their gun a broomstick.

Lots of paintings also hung on the walls of the school. They were mainly of people from his father’s side of the family. About fifty years before, his grandfather had changed the spelling of their last name from Grenville to Grenfell, but his Grenville ancestors were well worth remembering. There was Basil Grenville, commander of the Cornish army that fought for King Charles. And Wilfred’s great-uncle, John Pascoe Grenville, had gone to sea at eleven years of age. As a young man, he had fought with the Chilean navy, helping it defeat the Spanish navy. With sword in hand, he had been the first man aboard the Esmeralda, the Spanish admiral’s ship, when the Chileans stormed and captured the vessel. From there he had gone on to serve in the Brazilian navy in the war with Portugal. He rose to the rank of rear admiral and was then made Brazil’s ambassador to London. However, Wilfred could not remember this uncle, who had died in London in 1869, when Wilfred was only four years old.

Once school was dismissed for the day, Wilfred went to find his mother, who was normally in the school office, bent over a tally book. His younger brother, five-year-old Cecil, often sat beside her playing with a toy train.

“Hello, Cecil,” Wilfred said as he bent down to pat his brother on the shoulder.

Cecil looked up and smiled. It was a rare sight. There had been complications when he was born, and his brain did not function properly. Everyone at school knew that Cecil was never to be left alone because he could easily hurt himself.

Within minutes twelve-year-old Algernon tumbled into the office. The boys’ mother pulled out a basket of shortbread and gave each boy a piece.

“So how was school today?” she asked.

As usual Algernon was the one who answered the question. “Great. I came top in the Latin quiz again, and Master Myers says I can move on to the next chapter in my French book.”

“Wonderful,” Mrs. Grenfell replied. “And how about you, Wilfred?”

“Fine,” he muttered. Although his grades were just as good as his older brother’s, it was Algernon and not Wilfred who loved to study and learn from books. Wilfred would much rather be outdoors. He was grateful that summer vacation was only a week away.

Wilfred was particularly looking forward to the break. Every summer his parents went to the Swiss Alps, leaving their three sons in the care of the school matron. Always preoccupied with keeping Cecil safe, she let Algernon and Wilfred roam freely all summer long. And this year was especially exciting. Their father had given Wilfred and Algernon permission to build a boat!

As the semester came to a close, Wilfred went over in his head every detail of the boat. It had to have a shallow draft so that they could explore the salt marshes farther up the estuary and a square stern to make it sturdy in the ocean waves of the Irish Sea.

The two boys had saved their pocket money all year and had enough to buy the planks and nails they needed. It had not been hard for them to convince their father to hire the village carpenter to supervise the project. Their father seemed happy to indulge his sons’ passion for the ocean. Because Cheshire’s weather could be unpredictable, even in summer, the boys had also convinced their father to allow them to build the boat in a second-story classroom. When she was finished, they intended to lower her slowly out the window, slide her down the sloping first-story roof, and then lower her to the ground.

Building the boat was a long, exacting task. The planks had to be cut and shaped with chisels and planes and then attached to the frame. But bit by bit the boat slowly took shape, until it was time to move her outside to paint. As they lowered her to the ground, Wilfred had to admit to himself that she looked like no other boat he had ever seen, part punt, part canoe. In fact, she looked more like a floating coffin than a boat. But Wilfred did not mind. He knew that despite her strange appearance, she would be one of the most seaworthy boats on the estuary.

Once the boat was safely on the ground, Wilfred and Algernon painted her red and christened her the Reptile. For the rest of the summer, the boys were seldom home. They paddled up and down the river, taking turns diving overboard and being bobbed along by the swift current of “the Deep.” The current, with its swirls and eddies, would often carry one of them to the Welsh shore, leaving the other brother to maneuver the Reptile after him to pick him up.