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The Writings of John Muir
Volume 7 - Chapter XI. Caribou and a Native Fair


July 15. Rainy and cold; cleared at seven in the evening. Left the head of Kotzebue Sound this morning at seven-thirty, for Cape Blossom, where the natives assemble from near and far to trade, but only one poor family was left. We went ashore and found them engaged in fishing for salmon with a net which was pushed out from the shore by a long pole sixty feet in length, made of three tied together. The Indians had gone fifteen or twenty miles up the coast, near Cape Krusenstern. Their tents were to be seen, looking like Oakland across the bay from San Francisco, so numerous they seemed. A small schooner, the Fowler, was at anchor there trading. Soon half a dozen canoes came alongside of us, and offered to trade, but asked big prices. The Captain obtained only two wolfskins, a deerskin, and a few muskrats, and bunches of sinew. [The Corwin then proceeded to Hotham Inlet and came to anchor about two miles from the native village called Sheshalek, inhabited by Kobuk and Noatak River Eskimos.]

July 16. A fresh breeze from the north, but the day is tolerably clear. A swell is breaking into whitecaps here and there. A busy day with the Indians, trading for a winter supply of deerskins. We obtained over a hundred altogether at the rate of about a dollar each for summer skins, and half as much for those taken in winter. With what we have already picked up here and there, and with the parkas we have collected, this will be amply sufficient. Reindeer are killed in immense numbers inland from here. All are wild; no domesticated herds are found on the American continent, though the natives have illustrations enough of their value on the opposite shores of Bering Sea. These Indians prefer herds that require no care, though they are not always to be found when wanted. Some of the wild herds that exist up the Inland River are said, by the Indians, to be so large as to require more than a day in passing.

The number of these animals, considering the multitude of their enemies, is truly wonderful. The large gray wolves kill many during the winter, and when the snow is deep, large flocks are slaughtered by the Indians, whether they need them or riot. They make it a rule to kill every animal that comes within reach, without a thought of future scarcity, fearing, as some say, that, should they refuse to kill as opportunity offers, though it be at a time when food is no object, then the deer- spirit would be offended at the refusal of his gifts and would not send any deer when they are in want. Probably, however, they are moved simply by an instinctive love of killing on which their existence depends, and these wholesale slaughters are to be regarded as only too much of a good thing. Formerly there were large herds about St. Michael, but since the introduction of repeating rifles they have wholly vanished. Hundreds were surrounded in passes among the hills, were killed and left lying where they fell, not even the hides being taken. Often a band of moose or reindeer is overtaken in deep snow, when they are easily killed with clubs by Indians on snowshoes, who will simply cut out their tongues, and leave the rest to be eaten by wolves.

The reindeer is found throughout the Arctic and subarctic regions of both Asia and America, and, in either the wild or the domestic state, supplies to the natives an abundance of food and warm clothing, thus rendering these bleak and intensely cold regions inhabitable. I believe it is only in Lapland and Siberia that the reindeer is domesticated. They are never sold alive by the Chukchis on account of a superstitious notion that to do so would surely bring bad luck by incensing the spirit of the deer. A hundred can be bought, after they are killed, for less than one alive. Certain ceremonies must also be observed before killing.

Out on the frozen tundra great care is required, both by day and by night, to keep them from being scattered and torn by wolves. A reindeer weighs from three to four hundred pounds. The winter skins are heavier, the hair being long and tipped with white, giving them a hoary appearance, especially on the back; but the hair is easily broken and pulled out, a fact which renders them much less durable when used for bedding, tents, or clothing than those taken in summer, when the hair is short, and dark blue, almost black. Reindeer hides are easily tanned; those tanned in Siberia are dyed a rich reddish-brown on the inside with alder bark. The domestic reindeer skins are considered better than those of the wild animals. Wrangell [Admiral Baron Ferdinand Petrovich von Wrangell, polar explorer and Russian Governor, Administrator of the Russian-American colonies, 1829-36.] has described the herds as affording a grand sight.

At this point [The head of Kotzebue Sound.] the Indians from the interior, and from many miles up and down the coast, assemble once a year in July to trade with each other, with parties of Chukchis who come from Siberia in umiaks, and with the few schooners that bring goods from San Francisco and from the Sandwich Islands. After trading they indulge in games of wrestling, playing ball, gambling, dancing, and drinking whiskey, if they can get it. Then they break up their camps and go to their widely scattered homes, some a month's journey or more up the Inland and down the Colville Rivers. They now have about one hundred and forty tents set in a row along the beach, their light kayaks in front of the tents in a neat row, each with paddles and spears that belong to it, and in front of these a row of large skin umiaks. They are a mixed, jolly multitude, wearing different ornaments, superb fur clothes, or shabby foreign articles; one sees long hair, short hair, or closely shaven; here is headgear of hats, caps, or cowls, and folk who go bareheaded; labrets, too, of every conceivable size, color, and material - glass, stone, beads, ivory, brass. They show good taste and ingenuity in the manufacture of pipes, weapons, knickknacks of a domestic kind, utensils, ornaments, boats, etc.

Though savage and sensual, they are by no means dull or apathetic like the sensual savages of civilization, who live only to eat and indulge the senses, for these Eskimos, without newspapers or telegraphs, know all that is going on within hundreds of miles, and are keen questioners and alive to everything that goes on before them. They dearly like to gossip. One tried to buy some of the cabin boy's hair, on account of its curious whiteness; another, who has red hair, is followed and commented on with ludicrous interest.

The shores hereabouts are comparatively low, the hills, back a few miles from shore, rolling and of moderate height, and mountains are to be seen beyond.

July 17. The northerly wind still prevails; cloudy all day, but dry. Left the Eskimo "Long Branch" at four o'clock in the morning and sailed to Cape Thompson, where we mean to look into the condition of the Eskimos and inquire whether they have obtained whiskey, from any of the traders, contrary to law. The coast is rather low. Mountains are visible thirty miles back; low hills between.

July 18. Numerous snow squalls. Came to anchor at five this morning in the lee of Point Hope. Norther blowing. Remained all day in company with the Sea Breeze. [A whaling bark.] A few of the natives came off shore - good-natured fellows. A negro, who wintered here last season, was well used by them, for he was given the best of what they bad. He had lost an axe overboard, so the story goes, and deserted on account of trouble he had over the matter with the second officer of the brig Hidalgo. He was taken on board again this spring.

We landed and walked through the village. Found a fine gravel beach, beautifully flowered beyond the reach of the waves. Most of the natives seem to be away - at the summer gathering, perhaps. The graveyard is of great extent and very conspicuous from the custom of surrounding the graves with poles.

July 19. Cold, stiff, north wind; clear. Left our anchorage at five o'clock this morning and proceeded north, but found the gale too strong to make much headway and, therefore, turned back and anchored at Cape Thompson, thirty miles south of Point Hope. Watering ship all day; the wind is blowing hard. Going north again since seven o'clock this evening. Wind moderating slightly.

I went ashore this forenoon and, after passing a few minutes interviewing a group of vagabond natives from Point Hope who were camped here to gather eggs, kill murres, and loaf, I pushed on up the hillside, whose sheer scarped face forms the Cape. I found it five hundred and fifty feet high, composed of calcareous slates, much bent and contorted, arid a considerable portion was fossiliferous. Where hills of this rock have steep slopes, and so much drainage and wash that soil is not allowed to form, nor the usual moss mantle to grow, they bleach white and present a remarkably desolate aspect in the distance. Such hills are common back of Kotzebue Sound. These barren slopes, however, alternate with remarkably fertile valleys, where flowers of fifty or more species bloom in rich profusion, making masses of white, purple, and blue. Sometimes this occurs on a comparatively thin soil where the leaves do not veil the rocky ground; but at the bottom of the valleys there usually is a green ground below the bloom.

The slopes over which I passed in to-day's walk are planted chiefly with sweet fern - Dryas with its yellowish-white flowers. A purple silene is also very abundant, making beautiful bosses of color. Phlox is present in dwarfed masses, only the stems and leaves being dwarfed, not the flowers. Anemones occur in fine patches, and buttercups, and several species of daisies and lupines. Dodecatheon I met here for the first time this season. Dwarf willows are abundant. There was one fern and one heathwort along a streamside. I saw no true tundra here, its absence, no doubt, being due to the free drainage of the surface. The winds from the north are violent here, as evidenced by the immense snow-drifts still unmelted along the shore where we landed, and also back in the hollows where they feed the stream at which we got water for the ship. They probably will last all summer. This circumstance, of course, leaves the hill slopes all the barer and dryer.

The trends of two main ridges, of which I obtained approximate measurements, probably coincide with the direction of the movement of the ice. There is a small wasted moraine in the lower part of the stream valley, extending to the shore. Partial after-glaciation has been light, and on rocks of this sort has left only very faint traces.

July 20. Last night we again anchored on the south side of Point Hope, the norther still blowing hard. About noon to-day it began to abate, and we again pushed off northward. Now, at eight o'clock in the evening, we are approaching Cape Lisburne, a bold bluff of gray stratified rocks about fifteen hundred feet high. All along the coast, from the neighborhood of Cape Prince of Wales, the peculiar gray color of the rocks, and the forms into which they are weathered and glaciated, indicate one continuous formation, partially described yesterday. Magnificent sections are exposed between the north side of Point Hope and Cape Lisburne. The age of the formation I do not as yet certainly know. The existence of coal- veins here and there in connection with conglomerates, and the few fossils, would tend to identify it as Carboniferous, though some of the sections show a wide vertical range. Probably a considerable amount of the formation is older. The few fossils I have seen point to the Carboniferous, or older formations.

Between eleven and twelve o'clock this forenoon several white whales were seen near the shore, showing their white backs above the water when they rose to breathe, so white at a little distance that they might easily have been mistaken for breaking waves. We saw the Indians shoot and kill one, and went ashore to have a good look at this Beluga. It proved to be a small one, only about seven feet long, and of a pale gray ashen color, probably a young specimen. In general form it is like a whale, but more slender. The head is narrow and rather high in the forehead. The eyes are very small, about five eighths of an inch in diameter. The ears are hardly visible, would scarcely admit a common lead pencil. The blow-hole, as in the true whales, is about an inch in diameter. The forefeet, the only limbs, are in the form of short flippers, and the tail, which is large, is formed by an expansion of the thick skin. They are more nearly related to the dolphins than to the whales - the dolphins, porpoises, and grampuses forming one of the divisions of the three Cetacea deiphinoidea.

While we were ashore looking at this specimen, a much larger one came along parallel with the shore-line and not more than twenty or thirty yards from it. The natives were on the watch and shot it through the body when it rose to blow. Instead of making out to sea when wounded, it kept its course alongshore and the natives followed excitedly, ready to get another shot. They kept it in sight while it was ten or twelve feet under water, which they were enabled to do on account of its whiteness. Eight or ten men jumped into a canoe and followed it, one standing in the bow with a spear. After swimming about half a mile and receiving four or more bullets from Henry and Winchester rifles, it began to struggle and die. The boat came up, an Eskimo drove in a spear, and the whale was taken in tow and brought back to where the first was killed, the crew, meanwhile, singing in triumph. Then a rolling hitch was made, and a dozen willing hands landed the animal, a female. She measured about twelve feet in length and nine in circumference. They at once began to eat the tail and back fin raw, cutting off blocks of it and giving it to the children, not because they were hungry, but because they regarded it as so very palatable. Then a fire was built of driftwood. Looking back from the ship, only two red spots were visible on the beach - and a group of fifty feasting Eskimos! Probably not a bit of the Belugas, except a little of the blubber, will be left by night.

The attitudes of the riflemen, legs spread, rifle to shoulder, and eyes vividly on the alert, as they watched the animal's appearance above water, were very striking. These animals are quite abundant hereabouts, and used to be killed with spears that had heads made of stone or ivory. Whales were killed in the same manner. A much larger number of right whales is killed by the natives about the shores of Bering Sea and along the polar shores than is supposed. Almost every village gets from one to five every season. Then comes a joyful time. The bone belongs to the boat's crew that strikes the whale, the carcass to all the village.

A mountain slope just to the northeast of Cape Lisburne is so covered at the top with slender, spirey columns of rock, that I at first glance took them for trees. A slight dusting of snow has lately whitened the peaks. To the south of the Cape twelve or fifteen miles two small valleys, cut nearly to the level of the sea, exhibit terminal and lateral moraines. After-glaciation has been light. The higher mountains do not approach the coast nearly. No deep fords like those of the west coast.


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