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The Writings of John Muir
Volume 7 - Chapter XVIII. A Siberian Reindeer Herd


Steamer Corwin,
Plover Bay, Siberia, August 26, 1881.

This morning a party from the ship went to the head of the bay under the guidance of a pair of Chukchis to see a herd of reindeer that they told us was there. The distance, we found, is about eighteen miles from the lower harbor, where the Corwin is at anchor. The day was fine and we enjoyed the sail very much, skimming rapidly along in the steam launch over smooth water, past the huge ice-sculptured headlands and mountains that formed the walls, and the deep cafions and valleys between them that swept back to clusters of glacial fountains. The naturalist made desperate efforts now and then to obtain specimens of rare auks, petrels, ducks, etc., which were flying and swimming about us in great abundance, making lively pictures of happy, exuberant life.

The rocks bounding the bay, though beautiful in their combinations and collocations of curves and peaks, inflowing and touching delicately, and rising in bold, picturesque groups, are, nevertheless, intensely desolate-looking for want of trees, shrubs, or vegetation dense enough to give color in telling quantities visible at a distance. Even the valleys opening back from the water here and there are mostly bare as seen at the distance of a mile or two, and have only faint tinges of green derived from dwarf willows, sedges, and heathworts that creep low among the stones. Yet here, or in the larger valleys adjacent, where the main tributary glaciers came into the Plover Bay trunk, and in other valleys to the northeastward, large herds of reindeer, wild as well as tame, find sustenance, together with a few wild sheep and bears.

On the terminal moraine of the ancient glacier that formed the first main tributary of the Plover Bay Glacier, some four miles from the extreme head of the bay, we noticed two small skin-covered huts, which our guides informed us belonged to the reindeer people we were seeking, and that we should certainly find them at home, because their herd was only a little one and found plenty of weeds and moss to eat in the valleys behind their huts without going far away, as the people had to do who owned big herds. At two days' distance, they said, where the valleys are wide and green, with plenty to eat, there is a big herd belonging to one of their friends, so big that they cover all the ground thereabouts; but the herd we were to see was only a little one, and the owner was not a rich man.

As we approached the shore, a hundred yards or so from the huts, a young man came running to meet us, bounding over the moraine boulders, with easy strength as if his limbs had been trained on the mountains for many a year, until running had become a pleasant indulgence. He was presently joined by three others, who gazed and smiled curiously at the steam launch and at our party, wondering suspiciously, when the interpreter had told our object, why we should come so far and seem so eager to see their deer. Our guides, who, of course, understood their prejudices and superstitions, told them that we wanted a big, fat deer to eat, and that we would pay them well for it - tobacco, lead, powder, caps, shot, calico, knives, etc., told off in tempting order. But they said they had none to sell, and it required half an hour of cautious negotiations to get them over their suspicious alarms, and [to induce them to] consent to sell the carcass of one, provided we would leave the skin, which they said they wanted to keep for winter garments.

Then two young men, fine, strapping, elastic fellows, threw off their upper parkas, tied their handsomely embroidered moccasins firmly across the instep and around the ankle, poised their long Russian spears, which they said they always carried in case they should meet a bear or wolf, and away they sped after the herd up a long, wide glacier valley along the bank of a stream, bounding lightly from rock to rock in easy poise, and across soft bits of tundra and rough sedgy meadows with long, heaving, undulating strides. Their gait, as far as we could see, was steadily maintained and was admirably lithe and strong and graceful. Their small feet and ankles and round tapered shanks showed to fine advantage in their tight-fitting leggings and moccasins as they went speeding over the ground like trained racers glorying in their strength. We watched them through field- glasses until they were about three miles away, during which time they did not appear to slacken their pace a single moment. They were gone about three hours, so that the herd must have been at least six or seven miles from the huts.

In the meantime we ate luncheon and strolled about the neighborhood looking at the plants, at the views down the bay, and at the interior of the huts, etc. We chatted with the Chukchis about their herd, about the wild sheep on the mountains, the wild reindeer, bears, and wolves. We found that the family consisted of father, mother, a grown daughter, and the boys that were after the deer. The old folks were evidently contented and happy in their safe retreat among the hills, with a sure support from their precious herd. And they were proud of their red-checked girl and two strapping boys, as well they might be; for they seemed as healthy and rosy and robust a group of children as ever gladdened the heart of Chukchi parents. The boys appeared to be part owners of everything about the house, as well as of the deer, for in looking through the huts we saw a few curious odds and ends that we offered to purchase, but were told, in most cases, that they could not sell them until the boys came back.

Their huts are like all we have seen belonging to the Chukchis as far north and west as we have been -a balloon frame of long poles hewn on two sides so that they might be bent outward, the points coming together not in the middle, but a little to one side away from the direction of the prevailing wind, which gives them a curious humpbacked appearance. This frame is covered with skin of the walrus, if it can be had; if not, then with sealskin or deerskin. No great pains are taken to keep them rain-proof, so that in wet weather they are oftentimes damp or muddy. But there is not much rain in the Arctic regions, and the deerskin pologs, or drawing rooms inside, are kept perfectly dry and snug, whatever the state of the main outer tent may chance to be.

The two huts of this place are smaller and more leaky and dilapidated than is common. The covering is composed of different kinds of skin, perhaps a thousand pieces sewed together, some of them with the hair on, the whole appearing as one colossal patchwork, as if made up of small scraps. The head of the family seemed to be a little ashamed of them, for he explained with the air of a man making an apology, that he did not construct them; they formerly belonged to some one else, and that soon after he came to take possession one of them was torn open by a hungry bear that went in and frightened his wife and daughter and stole some grease.

The Chukchis seem to be a good-natured, lively, chatty, brave and polite people, fond of a joke, and, as far as I have seen, fair in their dealings as any people, savage or civilized. They are not savage by any means, however, but steady, industrious workers, looking well ahead, providing for the future, and consequently seldom in want, save when at long intervals disease or other calamities overtake their herds, or exceptionally severe seasons prevent their obtaining the ordinary supplies of seals, fish, whales, walruses, bears, etc., on which the sedentary Chukchis chiefly depend. The sedentary and reindeer Chukchis are the same people, and are said to differ in a marked degree, both in physical characteristics and in language, from the neighboring tribes, as they certainly do from the Eskimos. Many of them have light complexions, hooked or aquiline noses, tall, sinewy, well-knit frames, small feet and hands, and are not, especially the men, so thick-set, short-necked or fiat-faced as the Eskimos.

After we had watched impatiently for some time, the reindeer came in sight, about a hundred and fifty of them, driven gently without any of that noisy shouting and worrying that are heard in driving the domestic animals in civilized countries. We left the huts and went up the stream bank about three quarters of a mile to meet them, led by the owner and his wife and daughter, who carried a knife and tin cup and vessels to save the blood and entrails - which stirred a train of grim associations that greatly marred the beauty of the picture.

I was afraid from what I knew of the habits of sheep, cattle, and horses that a sight of strangers would stampede the herd when we met. But of this, as it proved, there was not the slightest danger; for of all the familiar, tame animals man has gathered about him, the reindeer is the tamest. They can hardly be said to be domesticated, since they are not shut in around the huts, or put under shelter either winter or summer. On they came, while we gazed eagerly at the novel sight - a thicket of antlers, big and little, old and young, led by the strongest, holding their heads low most of the time, as if conscious of the fact that they were carrying very big, branching horns. A straggler fell behind now and then to cull a choice mouthful of willow or dainty, gray lichen, then made haste to join the herd again.

They waded across the creek and came straight toward us, up the sloping bank where we were waiting, nearer, nearer, until we could see their eyes, their smooth, round limbs, the velvet on their horns, until within five or six yards of us, the drivers saying scarce a word, and the owner in front looking at them as they came up without making any call or movement to attract them. Alter giving us the benefit of their magnificent eyes and sweet breath they began to feed off, back up the valley. Thereupon the boys, who had been loitering on the stream-side to catch a salmon trout or two, went round them and drove them back to us. Then the deer stopped feeding and began to chew the cud and to lie down, with eyes partly closed and dreamy-looking, as if profoundly comfortable, we strangers causing them not the slightest alarm though standing nearly within touching distance of them. Cows in a barnyard, milked and petted every day, are not so gentle. Yet these beautiful animals are allowed to feed at will, without herding to any great extent. They seem as smooth and clean and glossy as if they were wild. Taming does not seem to have injured them in any way. I saw no mark of man upon them.

They are not so large as I have been led to suppose, nor so rough and bony and angular. The largest would not much exceed three or four hundred pounds in weight. They are, at this time of year, smooth, trim, delicately molded animals, very fat, and apparently short-winded, for they were breathing hard when they came up, like oxen that had been working on a hot day. The horns of the largest males are about four feet long, rising with a backward curve, and then forward, and dividing into three or four points, and with a number of short palmated branches putting forward and downward from the base over the animal's forehead. Those of the female are very slender and elegant in curve, more so than any horns I have seen. This species of deer is said to be the only one in which the female has horns. The fawns, also, have horns already, six inches to a foot long, with a few blunt, knobby branches begin- fling to sprout. All are now in the velvet, some of which is beginning to peel off and hang in loose shreds about the heads of some of them, producing a very singular appearance, as if they had been fighting a rag-bag.

The so-called velvet is a close, soft, downy fur, black in color, and very fine and silky, about three eighths or half an inch long, with a few hairs nearly an inch in length rising stiffly here and there over the general plushy surface. All the branches of their horns are covered, giving an exceedingly rich and beautiful effect. The eyes are large, and in expression confiding and gentle. The head, contrary to my preconceived notions derived from engravings, is, on the whole, delicately formed, the muzzle long and straight, blunt and cowlike. The neck is thin, tapering but little, rather deep, and held, while standing at ease, sloping down a little, and the large males have long hair on the under side. The body is round, almost cylindrical - the belly not at all bloated or bent out like that of a cow. The legs are stout, but not clumsy, and taper finely into the muscles of the shoulders and hips. The feet are very broad and spreading, making a track about as large as a cow's. This enables the animal to walk over boggy tundras in summer and over snow in winter.

In color they vary almost as much in some specimens as do cattle and horses, showing white, brown, black, and gray at the same time. The prevailing color is nearly black in summer, brownish-white in winter. The colors of the tame animals are not so constant as those of the wild. The hair is, when full grown, very heavy, with fine wool at the bottom, thus making a warm covering sufficient to enable the animal to resist the keenest frosts of the Arctic winter without any shelter beyond the lee side of a rock or hill.

After walking through the midst of the herd, the boys selected a rather small specimen to be killed. One caught it by the hind leg, just as sheep are caught, and dragged it backward out of the herd; then the other boy took it by the horns and led it away a few yards from the herd, no notice being taken of its struggles by its companions, nor was any tendency to take fright observed, such as would, under the circumstances, have been shown by any of the common domestic animals. The mother alone looked after it eagerly, and further manifested her concern and affection by uttering a low, grunting sound, and by trying to follow it.

After it was slain they laid it on its side. One of the women brought forward a branch of willow about a foot long, with the green leaves on it, and put it under the animal's head. Then she threw four or five handfuls of the blood, from the knife-wound back of the shoulder, out over the ground to the southward, making me get out of the way, as if this direction were the only proper one. Next she took a cupful of water and poured a little on its mouth and tail and on the wound. While this ceremony was being performed all the family looked serious, but as soon as it was over they began to laugh and chat as before. The herd, during the time of the killing and dressing, were tranquilly chewing their cud, not noticing even the smell of the blood, which makes cattle so frantic.

One of our party was anxious to procure a young one alive to take home with him, but they would not sell one alive at any price. When we inquired the reason they said that if they should part with one, all the rest of the herd would die, and the same thing would happen if they were to part with the head of one. This they excitedly declared was true, for they had seen it proved many times though white men did not understand it and always laughed about it. When we indicated a very large buck and inquired why they did not kill that big one, and let the little ones grow, they replied that that big fellow was strong, and knew how to pull a sled, and could run fast over the snow that would come by-and-by, and they needed him too much to kill him.

I have never before seen half so interesting a company of tame animals. In some parts of Siberia reindeer herds numbering many thousands may be seen together. In these frozen regions they supply every want of their owners as no other animal could possibly do - food, warm clothing, coverings for their tents, bedding, rapid transportation and, to some extent, fuel. They are not nearly so numerous in the immediate vicinity of the bay as they once were, a fact attributed to the sale of several live specimens to whalers.


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