Steamer Corwin, Tapkan,
Siberia, May 31, 1881.
AFTER inquiring about the
movements of the ice and the whaling fleet, we weighed anchor and steered
for Plover Bay on the coast of Siberia, taking several of the natives with
us. They had a few poles for the frame of a boat and skins to cover it, and
for food a piece of walrus flesh which they ate raw. This, with a gun and a
few odds and ends, was all their property, yet they seemed more confident of
their ability to earn a living than most whites on their farms.
The afternoon was clear and
the mountains about Plover Bay showed themselves in bold relief, quite
imposing and Yosemitic in sculpture and composition. There was so much ice
at the mouth of the bay, which is a glacial fiord, that we could not enter.
In the edge of the pack we spoke the whaler Rainbow, and delivered the
Arctic mail. Then we proceeded a short distance northward, put into Marcus
Bay, and anchored in front of a small Chukchi settlement. A boatful of
natives came aboard and told a story "important if true," concerning the
destruction of the lost whaler Vigilant and the death of her crew. Three
Chukchi seal hunters, they said, while out on the ice last November, near
Cape Serdzekamen, discovered the ship in the pack, her masts broken off by
the ice, and the crew dead on the deck and in the cabin. They had brought
off a bag of money and such articles as they could carry away, some of which
had been shown to other natives, and the story had traveled from one
settlement to another thus far down the coast.
All this was told with an air
of perfect good faith, and they seemed themselves to believe what they were
telling. We had heard substantially the same story at St. Lawrence Island.
But knowing the ability of these people for manufacturing tales of this
sort, we listened with many grains of allowance, though of course determined
to investigate further.
Here we began to inquire for
dogs, and were successful in hiring a team of six, and their owner to drive
them. The owner is called "Chukchi Joe," and since he can speak a little
English he is also to act in the capacity of interpreter, his language being
the same as that spoken by the natives of the north Siberian coast. While we
were trying to hire him, one of his companions kept reiterating that there
was no use in sending out people to look for the crews of those ships, for
they were all dead. Joe also said that it was no use going, and that he was
afraid to venture so far for fear he would never get back. The snow, he
objected, was too soft at this time of year, and many rivers hard to cross
were in the way, and he did not like to leave his family. But after we had
promised to pay him well, whether our lost friends were found or not, he
consented to go, and when he went ashore to get ready we went with him.
The settlement consisted of
only two habitations with twenty-five or thirty persons, located back three
quarters of a mile from the coast. On reaching home Joe quickly vanished.
His hut was about twenty-five feet in diameter, and was made of poles bent
down at the top, where they all met to form a hemisphere. This frame was
covered with skins of seal, sea- lion, and walrus, chiefly the latter. Since
much of the flesh on which the Chukchis subsist is eaten raw, only very
small fires are made, and the huts are cold. The ground inside of this one
was wet and muddy as a California corral in the rainy season, and seemed
almost as large. But around the sides of this cold, squalid shell, little
more than a wind-break and partial shelter from rain and snow, there were a
number of very snug, clean, luxurious bedrooms, whose sides, ceiling, and
floor were made of fur; they were lighted by means of a pan of whale-oil
with a bit of moss for a wick. After being out all day hunting in the stormy
weather, or on ice-packs or frozen tundras, the Chukchi withdraws into this
furry sanctum, takes off all his clothing, and spreads his wearied limbs in
luxurious ease, sleeping perfectly nude in the severest weather.
After introducing ourselves
and shaking hands with a few of the most dignified of the old men, we looked
about the strange domicile. Dogs, children, men, women, and utensils;
spears, guns, whale-lances, etc., were stuck about the rafters and hanging
on the supporting posts. We looked into one of the fur bedrooms, about six
by seven, and found Joe enjoying a bath ore putting on his fine clothes to
set out with us. Soon he emerged clad in a blue cloth army coat with brass
buttons and shoulder straps and army cap! I scarcely knew him.
In the mean time Captain
H[ooper] was off taking a drive over the snow with a dog-team and sled. When
he returned Joe was having a farewell talk with his wife, who seemed very
anxious about his safety and long absence. His little boy, too, about a year
and a half old, had been told that his father was going away and he seemed
to understand somewhat, as he kept holding him by the legs and trying to
talk to him while looking up in his face. When we started away from the
house he kissed his boy and bade him good-bye. The little fellow in his
funny bags of fur toddled after him until caught and carried back by some of
the women who were looking on. Joe's wife came aboard for a final farewell.
After taking him aside and talking with him, the tears running down her
cheeks, she left the vessel and went back with some others who had come to
trade deerskins, while we sailed away. One touch of nature makes all the
world kin, and here were many touches among the wild Chukchis.
We next proceeded to St.
Lawrence Bay in search of furs and more dogs, and came to anchor at the
mouth of the bay, opposite a small Chukchi settlement of two huts, at half-
past one in the afternoon, May 29. This bay, like all I have seen along this
coast, is of glacial formation, conducting back into glacial fountains in a
range of peaks of moderate height. The wind was blowing hard from the south
and snow was falling. The natives, however, came off at once to trade. Here
we met the voluble Jaroochah, who sat gravely on the sloppy deck in the
sludge, and told the story of the wrecked Vigilant in a loud, vehement,
growling, roaring voice and with frantic gestures. He assured us over and
over again that there was no use in going to seek any of the crew, for they
were all dead and the ship with her broken masts had drifted away again to
the north with the ice-pack. When told that we would certainly seek them
whether dead or alive, he explained that the snow and ice were too soft for
sleds at this time of year. Seeing that we were still unconvinced, he
doubtless regarded us as foolish and incorrigible white trash.
We went ashore to fetch some
dogs they offered to sell, but they changed their minds and refused to sell
at any price, nor were they willing to barter deerskins that we needed for
the trip and for winter clothing in case we should be caught in the ice and
compelled to pass a winter in the Arctic. We presented them with a bucket of
hardtack which no one of the party touched until the old orator gave orders
to his son to divide it. This he did by counting it out on the deck, laying
down one biscuit for each person and then adding one to each until all was
exhausted, piling them on each other like a money-changer counting out
coins. The mannerly reserve and unhasting dignity of all these natives when
food is set before them is very striking as compared with the ravenous,
snatching haste of the hungry poor among the whites. Even the children look
wistfully at the heap of bread, without touching it until invited, and then
eat very slowly as if not hungry at all. Nor do they ever need to be told to
wait. Even when a year of famine occurs from any cause, they endure it with
fortitude such as would be sought for in vain among the civilized, and after
braving the most intense cold of these dreary ice-bound coasts in search of
food, if unsuccessful, they wrap themselves in their furs and die quietly as
if only going to sleep. This they did by hundreds two years ago on St.
Finding that we could not buy
anything that we wanted here, savage eloquence being the only article
offered, we sailed for the Diomedes. Here we found the natives eager to
trade away everything they had. We bought a lot of furs and nineteen dogs,
paying a sack of flour for each dog. This Arctic cattle market was in every
way lively and picturesque, and ended satisfactorily to all the parties
concerned. The scene of barter as each Eskimo, pitching alongside in his
skin boat, hoisted the howling wolves aboard, and thence to the upper deck
in front of the pilot-house, was a rare one.
The villages are perched on
the steep rocky slopes of mountains which drop at once sheer into deep
water, one mountain per island. [Muir noted in his journal that "Fairway
Rock near the East Diomede is a similar smaller island, on which the granite
rock is glaciated."] No margin is left for a village along the shore, so,
like the seabirds that breed here and fly about in countless multitudes
darkening the water, the rocks, and the air, the natives had to perch their
huts on the cliffs, dragging boats and everything up and down very steep
trails. The huts are mostly built of stone with skin roofs. They look like
mere stone-heaps, black dots on the snow at a distance, with whalebone posts
set up and framed at the top to lay their canoes beyond the dogs that would
otherwise eat them. The dreariest towns I ever beheld - the tops of the
islands in gloomy storm-clouds; snow to the water's edge, and blocks of
rugged ice for a fringe; then the black water dashing against the ice; the
gray sleety sky, the screaming water birds, the howling wind, and the blue
We now pushed on through the
strait and into the Arctic Ocean without encountering any ice, and passed
Cape Serdzekamen this afternoon [May 31]. The weather has been calm and
tolerably clear for the last twenty- four hours, enabling us to see the
coast now and then. It showed hills of moderate height, rising here and
there to mountains.
About twelve miles northwest
from Cape Serdzekamen we observed a marked bluff where the shore ice seemed
narrower than elsewhere, and we approached, intending to examine it with
reference to landing the party here. When we were within a mile of it we saw
a group of natives signaling us to land by waving something over their
heads. The Captain, Joe, and myself got on the ice from the boat, and began
to scramble over it toward the bluff, but found the ice very rough and made
slow progress. The pack is made up of a crushed mass of blocks and pinnacles
tilted at every angle up to a height of from ten to thirty feet, and it
seemed to become rougher and more impassable as we advanced.
Fortunately we discovered a
group of natives a quarter of a mile or so to the westward, coming toward
the ship, when we returned to our boat that was lying at the edge of the
ice, and went around to meet them. After shaking hands with the most
imposing of the group of eight, we directed Joe to tell them the object we
had in coming, and to inquire whether two of their number would go with our
sledge party to assist in driving the teams. One of them, a strapping fellow
over six feet tall, said that he had a wife and four boys and two girls to
hunt seals for, and therefore could not go. As Joe interpreted him in whaler
English, he was "already hungry like hell." Another said that the journey
was too long for him, that our friends were not along the coast, else he
would certainly have heard about them, and therefore the journey would be
vain. We urged that we were going to seek them whether they were to he found
or not, and that if they would go with us we would leave more food for their
families than they could get for them by hunting.
Two of the number at length
consented to go, after being assured that we would pay them well, whether
the journey proved successful or otherwise. Then we intimated that we would
like to visit their village, which seemed to please them; for they started
at once to guide us over the hummocky ice to where they had left their
dog-teams and sleds. It was a rough scramble at best, and even the natives
slipped at times and hesitated cautiously in choosing a way, while we,
encumbered with overcoats and not so well shod, kept sinking with awkward
glints and slumps into hopper-shaped hollows and chasms filled with snow.
One of them kindly gave me his balancing-stick.
Beyond the roughest portion
of the hummock region we found the dogs, nearly a hundred of them, with
eleven sleds, making, as they lay at their ease, an imposing picture among
the white ice. Three of the teams were straightened out and one of them
given in charge of Joe, who is an adept at driving, while the Captain and I
were taken on behind the drivers of the other two; and away we sped over the
frozen ceiling of the sea, two rows of tails ahead.
The distance to the village,
called "Tapkan" by the natives, was about three miles, the first mile very
rough and apparently hopelessly inaccessible to sleds. But the wolfish dogs
and drivers seemed to regard it all as a regular turnpike, and jogged
merrily on, up one side of tilted block or slab and down the other with
sudden pitch and plunge, swishing round sideways on squinted cakes, and
through pools of water and sludge in blue, craggy hollows, on and on, this
way and that, with never a halt, the dogs keeping up a steady jog trot, and
the leader simply looking over his shoulder occasionally for directions in
the worst places. The driver admonished them with loud calls of "Hoora!
Hoora! Shedack! Shedack! Knock! Knock!" but seldom struck them. He had to
hold himself in constant readiness to jump off and hold the sled while
guiding it around sharp angles and across the high cutting ridges. My sled
was not upset at all, and the Captain's only twice.
Part of our way was across
the mouth of a bay on smooth ice that had not been subjected to the mashing,
upheaving strain of the ocean ice, and over this we glided rapidly. My
Chukchi driver, now that he had no care about the upsetting of the sled,
frequently turned with a smile and did his best to entertain me, though he
did not understand a word of English. It was a rare, strange ride for us,
yet accomplished with such everyday commonplace confidence, that it seemed
at the time as if this might be the only mode of land travel in the world.
Some teams were just arriving
from the village as we were going to it. When we met, the dogs passed each
other to right or left as they were told by their drivers, who kept
flourishing a whip and jingling some iron rings that were tied loosely to
one end of a short stick that had an iron goad in the other, and of which
the dogs knew the use all too well. They are as steady as oxen, each keeping
its trace-line tight, and showing no inclination to shirk - utterly unlike
the illustrations I had seen, in which all are represented as running at a
wild gallop with mouths wide open.
The village is built on a
sand-bar pushed up by the ice on the west side of a narrow bay. I counted
twenty huts in all. When we drove up, the women and children, and a few old
men who had not been tempted to make the journey to the ship, came out to
meet us. Captain Hooper went to the house belonging to his driver, I to the
one belonging to mine; afterwards we joined and visited in company. We were
kindly received and shown to good seats on reindeer skins. All of them
smiled good- naturedly when we shook hands with them, and tried to repeat
our salutations. When we discussed our proposed land journey the women
eagerly joined and the children listened attentively.
We inquired about the Vega,
knowing that she had wintered hereabouts. At first they said they knew
nothing about her; that no ship had wintered here two years ago. Then, as if
suddenly remembering, one of them said a three-masted ship, a steamer like
the Corwin, had stopped one season in the ice at a point a few miles east of
the village, and had gone away when it melted in the summer. A woman, who
had been listening, then went to a box, and after turning it over, showed us
a spoon, fork, and pocket compass of Russian manufacture, which she said the
captain had given them.
The huts here are like those
already described, only they are dry because of the porous character of the
ground. Three or four families live in one each having a private polog of
deerskins, of which there are several thicknesses on the floor. We were
shown into one - the snuggest storm nest imaginable, and perfectly clean.
The common hut is far otherwise; dogs mingle with the food, hair is
everywhere, and strangely persistent smells that defy even the Arctic
frosts. The children seemed in fair ratio with the adults. When a child is
to be nursed the mother merely pulls out one of her arms from the roomy
sleeve of her parka and pushes it down until the breast is exposed. The
breasts are pendulous and cylindrical, like those of the Tlingits.
The dishes used in domestic
affairs are of wood, and in the smallest of these the puppies, after licking
them, were often noticed to lie down. They seemed made specially for them,
so well did they fit. Dogs were eagerly licking the large kettles, also, in
which seal meat had been boiled. They seemed to be favored in these
establishments like the pigs in Irish huts. Spears, lances, guns, and nets
were fastened about the timbers of the roof and sides, but little food of
any kind was visible. A pot was swinging over a small fire of driftwood when
we entered one of the huts, and an old dame was stirring it occasionally,
and roasting seal liver on the coals beneath it. On leaving we were each
presented with a pair of fur mittens.
At the last moment, when we
were ready to return to the ship, one of the men we had engaged to go with
the land party changed his mind and concluded to stay at home. The other
stuck to his engagement, though evidently feeling sore about leaving his
family. His little boy cried bitterly when he learned that his father was
going away, and refused all the offers made by the women to comfort him.
After we had sped away over the ice, half a mile from the village, we could
still hear his screams. Just as the ship was about to weigh anchor, the
second man again offered to go with us, but Joe said to the Captain, "More
better not take that fellow, he too much talk."
The group of lookers-on
congregated on the edge of the ice was very picturesque seen from the vessel
as we moved away. The Chukchis are taller and more resolute-looking people
than the Eskimos of the opposite coast, but both are Mongols and nearly
alike in dress and mode of life, as well as in religion.
The weather is promising this
evening. No portion of the polar pack is in sight, and we mean to push on
westward as far as we can with safety.