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The Writings of John Muir
Volume 7 - Chapter X. Glimpses of Alaskan Tundra


St. Michael, Alaska, July 8, 1881.

THE Corwin arrived here on the Fourth, and, in honor of the day, made some noise with her cannon in concert with those belonging to the fort, to the steamer St. Paul, and to the post of the Western Fur and Trading Company across the bay. We have taken on a supply of coal and provisions for nine months, in case we should by any accident be caught in the ice north of Bering Strait before calling here again in the fall.

We hope to get away from here this evening for the Arctic, intending to cruise along the Alaskan coast beyond Point Barrow, spending some time about Kotzebue Sound in order to look after revenue interests, and to make, perhaps, some explorations on the lower courses of the Inland [Now called Noatak River.] and Buckland Rivers, and on the Colville, [The upper reaches of the Colville and Buckland Rivers, according to the Geological Survey map of 1915, are still unexplored. The former empties into the Arctic Ocean, the latter into Eschscholtz Bay.] of which nearly nothing is yet known to geographers. The coast will also be carefully searched for traces of the Jeannette and missing whalers in case any portion of their crews have come over the ice last winter. Perhaps a month will be spent thus, when an attempt will be made to reach Wrangell Land, where the Jeannette probably spent her first winter. And since the Corwin has already passed Cape Serdzekamen twice this season, we have sanguine hopes of success under so favorable a condition of the ice.

Arctic explorations are exciting much interest among the natives here. Last evening the shamans called up the spirits supposed to be familiar with polar matters. The latter informed them that not only was the Jeannette forever lost in the ice of the Far North with all her crew, but also that the Corwin would never more be seen after leaving St. Michael this time, information which caused our interpreter to leave us, nor have we as yet been able to procure another in his place. The Jeannette took two men from here. [These were the two native Alaskan hunters Alexey and Aneguin. The former was among those who perished with De Long on the delta of the Lena River.]

This is the busy time of the year at St. Michael, when the traders come with their furs from stations far up the Yukon and return with next year's supply of goods. Those of the Western Fur and Trading Company left for the upper Yukon yesterday, and those connected with the Alaska Commercial Company will follow as soon as the new steamboat, which they are putting together here, can be got ready.

The party of prospectors which left San Francisco this spring in a schooner, to seek a mountain of solid silver, reported to have been seen some distance up a river that flows into Golofnin Bay on the north side of Norton Sound, about one hundred miles from here, has arrived, and is now up the river prospecting. From what I can learn, they will not find the mountain to be solid silver, but some far commoner mineral. Gold is said to have been discovered by Mr. Harker on the Tanana River - bar diggings that would pay about twelve dollars per day. There will probably be a rush to the new mines ere long, though news of this kind is kept back as long as possible by the fur companies.

The weather is delightful, temperature about 600 F. in the shade, and the vegetation is growing with marvelous rapidity. The grass already is about two feet high about the shores of the bay, making a bright green surface, not at all broken as far as can be seen from the steamer. Almost any number of cattle would find excellent pasturage here for three or four months in the year.

During our last visit Dr. Rosse and I crossed the tundra to a prominent hill about seven miles to the southward from the redoubt. We found the hill to be a well-formed volcanic cone with a crater a hundred yards in diameter and about twenty feet deep, from the rim of which I counted upwards of forty others within a distance of thirty or forty miles. This old volcano is said by the medicine men to be the entrance to the spirit world for their tribe, and the rumbling sounds heard occasionally are supposed to be caused by the spirits when they are conducting in a dead Indian. The last eruption was of ashes and pumice cinders, which are strewn plentifully around the rim of the crater and down the sides of the cone.

Our walk was very fatiguing, as we sank deep in spongy moss at every step, and staggered awkwardly on the tops of tussocks of grass and sedge, which bent and let our feet down between them. It was very delightful, however, and crowded with rare beauty.

We saw a great number of birds, most of which were busy about their nests; there were ptarmigan, snipes, curlews, sand-pipers, song sparrows, titmice, loons, many species of ducks, and the Emperor goose. The ptarmigan is a magnificent bird, about the size of the dusky grouse of the Sierra. They are quite abundant here, flying up with a vigorous whirr of wings and a loud, hearty, cackling "kek-kek-kep" every few yards all the way across the tundra. The cocks frequently took up a position on some slight eminence to observe us. They seemed happily in place out on the wide moor, with abundance of berries to eat through the summer, spring, and fall, and willows and alder buds for winter. Then they are pure white, and warmly feathered down to the ends of their toes. The sandpipers had fine feeding-grounds about the shallow pools. The gray moor is a fine place for curlews, too, and snipe.

The plants in bloom were primula, andromeda, dicentra, mertensia, veratrum, ledum, saxifrage, empetrum, cranberry, draba of several species, lupine, stellaria, silene, polemonium, buckbean, bryanthus, several sedges, a liliaceous plant new to me, five species of willow, dwarf birch, alder, and a purple pedicularis, the showiest of them all. The primula and a bryanthus-like heathwort were the most beautiful.

The tundra is composed of a close sponge of mosses about a foot deep, with lichens growing on top of the mosses, and a thin growth of grasses and sedges and most of the flowering plants mentioned above, with others not then in bloom. The moss rests upon a stratum of solid ice, and the ice on black vesicular lava, ridges of which rise here and there above the spongy mantle of moss, and afford ground for plants that like a dry soil. There are hollows, too, beneath the general level along which grow tall aspidiums, grasses, sedges, larkspurs, alders, and willows -the alders five or six inches in diameter and from eight to ten feet high, the largest timber I have seen since leaving California.

Visits from Indians in kayaks. At full speed they can run about seven miles an hour for a short distance. The salmon, that is, the best red-fleshed species, are about finishing their run up the river now. A very fat one, weighing about fifty pounds, was bought from an Indian for a little hardtack. After enough had been cut from it for one meal, it was lost overboard by dropping from its head while suspended by it. Specimens of a hundred pounds or more are said to be caught at times. Mr. Nelson saw dried specimens six feet long.

[Steamer Corwin,
En route to the Arctic Ocean.]

July 9. Left St. Michael, having on board provisions for nine months, and about one hundred tons of coal. Decks heavily piled. A weird red sunset; land miraged into most grotesque forms. Heavy smoke from the burning tundra southwest from St. Michael. The season's cruise seems now to be just beginning.

July 10. Arrived this morning, about seven o'clock, in Golofnin Bay, and dropped anchor. There is a heavy sea and a stiff south wind, with clouds veiling the summits down to a thousand feet from sea level. I was put ashore on the right side of the bay after breakfast at a small Indian village of two huts made of driftwood. They were full of dried herring. Inhabitants not at home, but saw a few at another village farther up the bay. All the huts are strictly conical and of driftwood. A few Indians came off in canoes, very fine ones, of a slightly different pattern from any others I have seen. There is a round hole through the front end to facilitate lifting. I had a long walk and returned to the ship at three in the afternoon.

The principal fact I discovered is a heavy deposit of glacial drift about fifty feet high, facing several miles of coast. It is coarsely stratified and water-worn - the material of a terminal moraine, leveled by water flowing from a broad glacier, while separated from the sea by a low, draggled flat, and then eaten into bluffs by the sea waves. It is now overgrown with alders, willows, and a good crop of sedges and grasses, bright with flowers. Found the small blue violet rather common. White spirea, in flower, is abundant in damp places about alder groves where the tundra mosses are not too thick. The cranberries, huckleberries, and rubus will soon be ripe. The purple-flowered rubus is only in bloom now.
The driftwood is spruce and cottonwood. The rock, containing mica, slate, and a good deal of quartz, seems favorable for gold. The life-boat, rigged with sails, has been sent to board the prospectors' schooner anchored farther up the bay. Seven men are aboard, and seven are off prospecting. They are reported to have found promising galena assaying high values per ton. They mean to visit the quicksilver mines on the Kuskoquim. The rocks on the opposite side of the bay exhibit clear traces of glacial sculpture.

July 11. Sailed this morning from the anchorage in Golofnin Bay, and reached Sledge Island at nine in the evening. The natives are mostly away on the mainland. The island seems to be of granite and to have been overswept [by glaciers]. Obtained a pretty good view of the mountains at the head of Golofnin Bay. They seem to be from four to five thousand feet high.

July 12. Reached King Island this morning about seven o'clock, and left at half-past ten. Reached Cape Prince of Wales about three in the afternoon and anchored. Left at six in the evening. Clear, bright day; water, pale green. Had a fine view of the Diomedes, Fairway Rock, King Island, Cape Prince of Wales, and the lofty mountains towards the head of the river that enters Golofnin Bay, all from one point of view. The King Island natives were away on the mainland, all save a few old or crippled men, and women and children.

Their town, of all that I have seen, is the most remarkably situated, on the face of a steep slope, almost a cliff, and presents a very strange appearance. Some fifty stone huts, scarcely visible at a short distance, like those of the Arizona cliff-dwellers, rise like heaps of stones among heaps of stones. These are the winter huts, and are entered by tunnels. The summer huts, large square boxes on stilts, are of skin, [stretched over] large poles of driftwood. There is no way of landing save amid a mass of great wave-beaten boulders. In stormy times the King Islanders' excellent canoes have to be pitched off into the sea when a wave is about to recede. Two are tied together for safety in rough weather. These pairs live in any sea. A few gray-headed old pairs came off with some odds and ends to trade.

Mr. Nelson and I went ashore to obtain photographs and sketches and to bargain for specimens of ivory carvings, etc. A busy trade developed on the roof of a house, the only level ground. Groups of merry boys went skipping nimbly from rock to rock, and busily guided us over the safest places. They showed us where between the huge boulders it was best to attempt a landing, which was difficult. Though the sea was nearly calm, a slight swell made a heavy surf. One hut rose above another like a village on Yosemite walls. The whole island is precipitous, so much so that it seems accessible only to murres, etc., which flock here in countless multitudes to breed.

In the afternoon, at Cape Prince of Wales, we lay opposite a large village whose inhabitants have a bad character. They started a fight while trading on board of a schooner. Many of them were killed, and they have since been distrusted not only on account of their known bad character, but also because of the law of blood revenge which obtains universally among these natives. They are noted traders and go far in their large skin boats which carry sails. While we were here a canoe, met by our search party, arrived from East Cape —aparty of Chukchi traders, bringing deerskins from Cape Yakán. They are in every way much better-looking men than the natives of this side, being taller, better-formed, and more cordial in manner. They at once recognized our Third Lieutenant Reynolds, whom they had met at Tapkan. Fog at night; going under sail only.

July 13. Lovely day, nearly cloudless. Average temperature of 500 F. At half-past five in the afternoon we fell in with a trading schooner [The O. S. Fowler.] opposite an Indian village. [Near Cape Espenberg.] One of the boats came alongside the Corwin and traded a few articles. Nothing contraband was found, though rifles probably had been sold during the first part of her cruise. These vessels, as well as whalers, carry more or less whiskey and rifles in order to obtain ivory, whalebone, and furs. They go from coast to coast and among islands, and thus pick up valuable cargoes. The natives cannot understand why the Corwin interferes with trade in repeating rifles and whiskey. They consider it all a matter of rivalry and superior strength. No wonder, since our government does nothing for them. Common rifles would be better for them, partly on account of the difficulty of obtaining supplies of cartridges, and partly because repeating rifles tempt them to destroy large amounts of game which they do not need. The reindeer has in this manner been well-nigh exterminated within the last few years.

July 14. A hot, sunny day. Came to anchor this morning at the head of Kotzebue Sound opposite the mouth of the Kiwalik River. Between eight and nine o'clock this morning Lieutenant Reynolds, with six seamen, took Mr. Nelson and me up the river in one of the boats. We reached a point about eight miles from the mouth of the estuary near the head of the delta. Since the bay is shoal off the estuary, the ship was anchored about four miles from the mouth. We, therefore, had a journey of about twenty-four miles altogether. We first landed at the mouth of the estuary and walked a mile or two along a bar shoved up by the waves and the ice. Here we found one native hut in good repair. The inhabitants were away, but the trodden grass showed that they had not been gone very long. This is the time of the year when the grand gathering of the clans for trade takes place at Cape Blossom, and they probably had gone there. The floor of the hut was about ten feet in diameter, [and the hut itself] was made of a frame of driftwood covered with sod, and was entered by a narrow tunnel two feet high and eighteen inches wide. We saw traces of a great many houses, showing that quite a large village was at one time located here. In some only a few decaying timbers were to be seen, in others all the timbers had vanished and only the excavation remained. Some six miles farther up the stream I noticed other ruins, indicating that many natives once lived here, though now their number has dwindled to one family.

The delta is about five miles wide and about eight miles long. It is covered with a grassy, flowery, sedgy vegetation, with pools, lagoons, and branches of the river here and there. It is a lonely place, and a favorite resort of ducks, geese, and other water birds which come here to breed and to moult. We saw swans [Whistling swans (Olor columbianus).] with their young; eider ducks, also, were seen with their young, and some were found on their eggs, which are green and about the size of hens' eggs. Their nests were among the grass on the margin of a lagoon and were made with a handful of down from their breasts. These as well as other ducks, which had their young with them, could not be made to fly, though we came within three or four yards of them in a narrow pool. When I threw sticks at the flock they would only dive. They were very graceful, and took good care of their children. We could easily have killed them all.

The wild geese which we saw also had young - a dozen families altogether. [Mr. E. W. Nelson reported the geese observed here as belonging to two species, the American white-fronted goose (Anser albifrons gambeli) and the white-cheeked goose (Bernicla canadensis leucoparia).] They are moulting now and cannot fly. We chased a large flock in the estuary. When they saw us coming, they made frantic efforts to keep ahead of the boat. When we overtook them, they dived and scattered, coming up here and there, often close to the boat, and always trying to keep themselves concealed by laying their necks along the water and sinking their bodies and lying perfectly still; or, if they were well away from the boat and fancied themselves unseen, they swam in this sunken, outstretched condition and were soon lost to view, if there was the least wind-ripple on the water. Saw three plovers, the godwit from the Siberian side, and many finches and gulls. On a small islet in the middle of a pond we found one nest of the burgomaster gull. They tried to drive us away by swooping down upon us. I noticed also the robber-gull and several others. Butterflies were quite abundant among the blooming meadow vegetation. I noticed six or more species. The vegetation is like that of Cape Prince of Wales and Norton Sound. Found one red poppy, one wintergreen, allium, saxifrages, primulas, lupines, pedicularis, and peas, quite abundant. This region is noted for its fossil ivory. Found only a fragment of a tusk and a few bones. The deposit whence they were derived is probably above the point reached by us. The gravel is composed of quartz, mica, slate, and lava. There are many lava cones and ridges on both sides of the estuary.


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