Writings of John Muir
Volume 7 - Chapter X. Glimpses of Alaskan Tundra
St. Michael, Alaska, July 8,
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.
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
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.
This comment system requires
you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an
account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or
Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these
companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All
comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator
has approved your comment.