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The Writings of John Muir
Volume 7 - Chapter IV. In Peril from the Pack


Steamer Corwin,
Near the edge of the shore ice,
opposite Koliuchin Island,
6 P.M., June 2, 1881.

AFTER leaving Tapkan, twelve miles northwest of Cape Serdzckamcn, on the evening of the last day of May, we steamed along the coast to the westward, tracing the edge of the shore- ice, which seemed to be from three to six miles wide. The weather was tranquil, though rather thick at times, and the water was like glass and as smooth as a mill-pond. About half-past five yesterday afternoon we reached the end of the open lead that we had been following, one hundred and thirty miles west of Cape Serdzekamen, latitude 68 28' N., longitude 175 10' W., having thus early in the season gained a point farther west than the Corwin was able to reach at any time last year.

At this point the firm coast ice united with the great polar pack, and, as there was danger of its drifting south at any time and cutting us off, we made haste to the eastward, keeping as far offshore as possible, that we might be able to watch the movements of the pack. About seven o'clock last evening, the weather becoming thick, the engine was stopped and the vessel was allowed to proceed slowly under sail.

Shortly after one o'clock this morning I was awakened by unusual sounds on deck, and after listening for a few minutes, concluded that we must be entangled in the edge of the pack and were unshipping the rudder for fear it might be carried away. Going on deck, I was surprised to see the broken rudder being hoisted, for I had not been awakened by the blow. The oak shaft was broken completely off, and also all three of the pintles. It seems that about midnight., owing to the fog and snow, we got into a field of heavy masses of ice on the edge of the main pack, which, on account of a north wind that had commenced to blow, was now moving slowly southward, and while backing out of it, a moderate bump that chanced to take the rudder at the greatest disadvantage broke it off without any appreciable strain.
The situation was sufficiently grave and exciting - dark weather, the wind from the north and freshening every minute, and the vast polar pack pushing steadily shoreward. It was a cold, bleak, stormy morning, with a close, sweeping fall of snow, that encumbered the deck and ropes and nearly blinded one when compelled to look to windward. Our twenty-five dogs made an effective addition to the general uproar, howling as only Eskimo dogs can. They were in the way, of course, and were heartily kicked hither and thither. The necessary orders, however, were being promptly given and obeyed. As soon as the broken rudder was secured on deck, four long spars were nailed and lashed firmly together, fastened astern and weighted to keep them in place at the right depth in the water. This made a capital jury-rudder. It was worked by ropes attached on either side and to the steam windlass. The whole was brought into complete working order in a few hours, nearly everybody rendering service, notwithstanding the blinding storm and peril, as if jury- rudder making under just these circumstances were an everyday employment. Then, finding everything worked well, we made our escape from the closing ice and set out for Plover Bay to repair the damage.

About four in the afternoon, as the clouds lifted, we sighted Koliuchin Island, which our two Chukchi natives hailed with joyful, beaming eyes. They evidently were uneasy because of the accident, and on account of being so long out of sight of land - a state of mind easily explained by the dangers attending their mode of life among the ice. In front of the island the ice seemed to be two or three miles wide and lavishly roughened with jammed, angular hummocks. Captain Hooper was now very anxious to get his sledge party landed. Everything was ready to be put on shore as soon as a safe landing-place should be discovered. The two Chukchis were in the pilot-house gazing wistfully at the gloomy snow-covered island as it loomed up in the gray, stormy sky with its jagged reach of ice in the foreground beaten by the waves.

The Captain directed Chukchi Joe, the interpreter, to ask his companion, the dog- driver, who was familiar with the condition of the ice on this part of the coast, whether this was a good point on which to land. His answer, as interpreted by Joe, was: "He says it's good; it's pretty good, he says." "Then get ready, Mr. Herring, for your journey," ordered the Captain. "Here, Quartermaster, get the provisions on deck." "Lower the boats there." "Joe, harness the dogs."

In a few minutes all was in readiness and in the boats. The party is composed of First Lieutenant Herring, in charge; Third Lieutenant Reynolds, a sailor [Coxswain Gessler.] and the two Chukchis. They have twenty-five dogs, four sleds, a light skin boat to cross rivers and any open water they may find in their way, and two months' provisions. They were directed to search the coast as far to the westward as possible for the crew of the Jeannette or any tidings concerning the fate of the expedition; to interview the natives they met; to explore the prominent portions of the coast forcairns and signals of any kind, and to return to Tapkan, where we would meet them, while in the mean time we propose to cruise wherever, under existing conditions, we can best carry out the objects of the expedition.

The party and all their equipments were carried from the vessel to the ice in three boats, roped together at intervals of twenty-five or thirty feet, the life-boat leading with the party, clothing, provisions, etc. Then came the dinghey, loaded nearly to the water's edge with the dogs, and one man to thrash them and keep some sort of order while they worried each other and raised an outrageous noise, on account of their uncomfortable, tumbled- together condition. And last, the skin boat, flying-light, with only the sleds aboard and one man to steer, the whole making a very extraordinary show.

Soon after the boats had left, while we were still watching the tossing fleet from the pilothouse and scanning the shore with reference to a landing-place, we noticed three dark objects on top of a hummock near the edge of the ice, and just back of them and to one side on a flat portion of the ice, a group of black dots. These proved to be three natives with their dog teams. They were out hunting seals, and had descried the ship with their sharp eyes and now came forward to gaze. This was a glad discovery to us, and no doubt still more so to the party leaving the ship, as they were now sure of the passable state of the ice, and would have guides with local knowledge to conduct them to the land. When the dogs got upon the ice, their native heath, they rolled and raced about in exuberant sport. The rough pack was home, sweet home to them, though a more forbidding combination of sky, rough water, ice, and driving snow could hardly be imagined by the sunny civilized south.

After all were safely landed and our boats had returned, we went on our way, while the land party, busied about their sled-packing and dogs, gradually faded in the snowy gloom. All seems well this evening; no ice is in sight to the northward, and the jury-rudder is working extremely well.

[Steamer Corwin,
En route southward, to Plover Bay.]

June 3. Snowing nearly all day. Cleared towards four in the afternoon. Spoke the Helen Mar; had taken five whales; another had already nine. Seven other whalers in sight, all of them save two smoking like steamers. They are trying out their abundant blubber; in danger of being blubber-logged. Saw an Indian [Mr. Muir often applies this term to the Bering Sea natives in general, whether Innuits or Chukchis.] canoe leaving the Helen Mar as we approached; probably had been trading, the sea being smooth.

Had a good view of the two Diomedes; the western one is very distinctly glaciated, nearly all of the summit being comprehended in one beautiful ice-fountain, giving it a craterlike form. The residual glacial action, however, has been light, comparatively, here. No deep caflons putting back into the mountains, most of which are low. It is interesting, however, to see undoubted traces both of general and local glaciation thus far north, where the ground is in general rather low. Came up to the ice-pack about ten in the evening, so turned back and lay to.

June 4. Calm, bland, foggy water, glassy and still as a mill-pond. Cleared so that one could see a mile ahead at ten o'clock, and we got under way. Sun nearly clear for the first day since coming into the Arctic. Mild, too, for it is 450 F. at noon; even seemed hot. The clouds lifted from the mountains, showing their bases and slopes up to a thousand feet; summits capped. East Cape in fine view; high headland still streaked with snow nearly to the base; summit white at close range. All the coast for at least two hundred miles west of East Cape shows distinct glaciation, both general and local. Many glacier fountains well characterized. Indian village off here. Were boarded by three canoe loads of Indian seal hunters from East Cape village. They traded ivory and shoes, called "susy" by their interpreter. We were anxious to tell them about our sledge party and inquired of one who spoke a few words of English whether any of their number could speak good English. He seemed to think us very unreasonable, and said, "Me speak good." Got a female eider duck; very fat. In one of the canoes there was a very large seal, weighing perhaps four hundred pounds.

This has been by far the most beautiful and gentle of our Arctic days, the water perfectly glassy and with no swell, mirroring the sky, which shows a few blue cloudless spots, white as satin near the horizon, of beautiful luster, trying to the eyes. More whalers in sight. Gulls skimming the glassy level. Innumerable multitudes of eider ducks, the snowy shore, and all the highest mountains cloud-capped - a rare picture and perfectly tranquil and peaceful! God's love is manifest in the landscape as in a face. How unlike yesterday! In the evening a long approach to sunset, a red sky mingling with brown and white of the ice-blink. Growing colder towards midnight. There is no night at all now; only a partial gloaming; never, even in cloudy midnights, too dark to read. So for more than a week. Ice in sight, but hope to pass it by running a few miles to shore. Are now, at half-past eleven in the evening, beyond St. Lawrence Bay. Hope to get into Plover Bay to-morrow morning at six o'clock.


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