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The Writings of John Muir
Volume 7 - Chapter VI. Eskimos and Walrus


Steamer Corwin,
Plover Bay, June 15, 1881.

WE left our anchorage in St. Lawrence Bay at four in the morning, June 7, and steered once more for Plover Bay. The norther that had been blowing so long gave place to a light southerly breeze, and a gentle dusting of snow was falling. In the afternoon the sea became smooth and glassy as a mountain lake, and the clouds lifted, gradually unveiling the Siberian coast up to the tops of the mountains. First the black bluffs, standing close to the water, came in sight; then the white slopes, and then one summit after another until a continuous range forty or fifty miles long could be seen from one point of view, forming a very beautiful landscape. Smooth, dull, dark water in the foreground; next, a broad belt of ice mostly white like snow, with numerous masses of blue and black shade among its jagged, uplifted blocks. Then a strip of comparatively low shore, black and gray; and back of that the pure white mountains, with only here and there dark spots, where the rock faces are too steep for snow to lie upon. Sharp peaks were seen, fluted by avalanches; glacier wombs, delicate in curve and outline as shells; rounded, over- swept brows and domes, and long, withdrawing valleys leading back into the highest alpine groups, whence flowed noble glaciers in imposing ranks into what is now Bering Sea.

We had hoped the gale had broken and driven away the floe that barred our way on the fifth [of June], but while yet thirty miles from the entrance of the bay we were again stopped by an immense field of heavy ice that stretched from the shore southeastward as far as the eye could reach. We pushed slowly into the edge of it a few miles, looking for some opening, but the man in the crow's nest reported it all solid ahead and no water in sight. We thereupon steamed out and steered across to St. Lawrence Island to bide our time.

While sailing amid the loose blocks of ice that form the edge of the pack, we saw a walrus, and soon afterward a second one with its young. The Captain shot and killed the mother from the pilot-house, and the dinghey was lowered to tow it alongside. The eyes of our Indian passengers sparkled with delight in expectation of good meat after enduring poor fare aboard the ship. After floating for eight or ten minutes she sank to the bottom and was lost -a sad fate and a luckless deed.

It was pitiful to see the young one swimming around its dying mother, heeding neither the ship nor the boat. They are said to be very affectionate and bold in the defense of one another against every enemy whatever. We have as yet seen but few, though in some places they are found in countless thousands. Many vessels are exclusively employed in killing them on the eastern Greenland coast, and along some portions of the coast of Asia. Here also, the whalers, when they have poor success in whaling, devote themselves to walrus hunting, both for the oil they yield and for the valuable ivory. The latter is worth from forty to seventy cents per pound in San Francisco, and a pair of large tusks weighs from eight to ten pounds.

Along all the coasts, both of Asia and of America, the natives hunt and kill this animal, which to them is hardly less important for food and other uses than the seals. A large walrus is said to weigh from one to two tons. Its tough hide is used for cordage, and to cover canoes. The flesh is excellent, while the ivory formerly was employed for spear heads and other uses, and is now an important article of trade for guns, ammunition, calico, bread, flour, molasses, etc. The natives now kill a good many whales, having obtained lances and harpoons from the whites. Bone, in good years, is more important than the ivory, and furs are traded, also, in considerable quantity. By all these means they obtain more of the white man's goods than is well used. They probably were better off before they were possessed of a single civilized blessing - so many are the evils accompanying them!

Our Chukchi passenger does not appear to entertain a very good opinion of the St. Lawrence natives. He advised the Captain to keep a close watch of those he allowed to come aboard. We asked him to-day the Chukchi name of ice, which he gave as "eigleegle." When we said that another of his people called it "tingting," he replied that that was the way poor common people spoke the word, but that rich people, the upper aristocratic class to which he belonged, called it "eigleegle." His father, being a rich man, had three wives; most of his tribe, he said, have only one.

At nine o'clock in the evening we were still more than an hour's run from St. Lawrence Island, though according to reckoning we should have reached the northeast end of the island at eight o'clock. We had been carried north about sixteen miles, since leaving St. Lawrence Bay, by the current setting through the Strait. The water, having been driven south by the north gale, was pouring north with greater velocity than ordinary. The sky was a mass of dark, grainless cloud, banded slightly near the northwest horizon; one band, a degree in breadth above the sun, was deep indigo, with a few short streaks of orange and red. We have not seen a star since leaving San Francisco, and have seen the sun perfectly cloudless only once! We came to anchor near the northwest end of the island about midnight.

The next day, the eighth of June, was calm and mild. A canoe with ten men and women came alongside this morning, just arrived from Plover Bay, on their way home. They made signs of weariness, having pulled hard against this heavy current. The distance is fifty miles. It is not easy to understand how they manage to find their way in thick weather, when it is difficult enough for seamen with charts and compass.

In trying to account for the observed similarity between the peoples of the opposite shores of Asia and America, and the faunas and floras, scientists have long been combating a difficulty that does not exist save in their own minds. They have suggested that canoes and ships from both shores either were wrecked and drifted from one to the other, or that natives crossed on the ice which every year fills Bering Strait. As to-day, so from time immemorial canoes have crossed for trade or mere pleasure, steering by the swell of the sea when out of sight of land. As to crossing on the ice, the natives tell me that they frequently go with their dog-sleds from the Siberian side to the Diomedes, those half-way houses along the route, but seldom or never from the Diomedes to the American side, on account of the movements of the ice. But, though both means of communication, assumed to account for distribution as it is found to exist to-day, were left out, land communication in any case undoubtedly existed, just previous to the glacial period, as far south as the Aleutian Islands, and northward beyond the mouth of the Strait.

While groping in the dense fogs that hang over this region, sailors find their way at times by the flight of the innumerable sea-birds that come and go from the sea to the shore. The direction, at least, of the land is indicated, which is very important in the case of small islands. How the birds find their way is a mystery.

This canoe alongside was "two sleeps" in making the passage. Time, I suppose, is reckoned by sleeps during summer, as there is no night and only one day. They at once began to trade eagerly, seeming to fear that they would be left unvisited, now that the whalers have all gone to the Arctic. In the forenoon, after the natives had left, we took advantage of the calm weather to go in search of the wrecked Lolita, which went ashore last fall a few miles to the north of here. On the way we passed through a good deal of ice in flat cakes that had been formed in a deep still bay, sheltered from floating ice which jams and packs it. This ice did not seem to be more than two or three feet thick, possibly the depth to which it froze last winter less the amount melted and evaporated since spring commenced.

Walruses, in groups numbering from two to fifty, were lying on cakes of ice. They were too shy, however, to be approached within shooting range, though many attempts were made. Some of the animals were as bulky, apparently, as oxen. They would awaken at the sound of the vessel crunching through the loose ice, lift their heads and rear as high as possible, then drop or plunge into the water. The ponderous fellows took headers in large groups; twenty pairs of flippers sometimes were in the air at once. They can stay under water five or six minutes, then come up to blow. If they are near the ship they dive again instantly, going down like porpoises, always exposing a large curving mass of their body while dropping their heads, and, lastly, their flippers are stretched aloft for an instant. Sometimes they show fight, make combined attacks on boats, and defend one another bravely. The cakes on which they congregate are of course very dirty, and show to a great distance. Since they soon sink when killed in the water, they are hunted mostly on the ice, and, when it is rough and hummocky, are easily approached.

We were not successful in finding the Lolita, so we steamed back to our anchorage in the lee of a high bluff near the Eskimo village. Soon three or four canoes came alongside, loaded with furs, ivory, and whalebone. Molasses, which they carry away in bladders and seal skins, is with them a favorite article of trade. Mixed with flour and blocks of "black skin," it is esteemed, by Eskimo palates, a dish fit for the gods. A group of listeners laughed heartily when I described a mixture that I thought would be to their taste. They smacked their lips, and shouted "yes! yes!" One brought as a present to our Chukchi, the reindeer man's son, a chunk of "black skin" that, in color and odor, seemed to be more than a year old. He no doubt judged that our Chukchi, if not starving, was at least faring poorly on civilized trash.

A study of the different Eskimo faces, while important trades were pending, was very interesting. They are better behaved than white men, not half so greedy, shameless, or dishonest. I made a few sketches of marked faces. One, who received a fathom of calico more than was agreed upon, seemed extravagantly delighted and grateful. He was lost in admiration of the Captain, whose hand he shook heartily.

We continued at anchor here the following day, June 9. It was snowing and the decks were sloppy. Several canoe loads of Eskimos came aboard, and there was a brisk trade in furs, mostly reindeer hides and parkas for winter use; also fox [skins] and some whalebone and walrus ivory. Flour and molasses were the articles most in demand. Some of the women, heedless of the weather, brought their boys, girls, and babies. One little thing, that the proud mother held up for our admiration, smiled delightfully, exposing her two precious new teeth. No happier baby could be found in warm parlors, where loving attendants anticipate every want and the looms of the world afford their best in the way of soft fabrics. She looked gayly out at the strange colors about her from her bit of a fur bag, and when she fell asleep, her mother laid her upon three oars that were set side by side across the canoe. The snowflakes fell on her face, yet she slept soundly for hours while I watched her, and she never cried. All the youngsters had to be furnished with a little bread which both fathers and mothers begged for them, saying, "lie little fellow, little fellow."

Four walrus heads were brought aboard and the ivory sold, while the natives, men and women, sat down to dine on them with butcher-knives. They cut off the flesh and ate it raw, apparently with good relish. As usual, each mouthful was cut off while held between the teeth. To our surprise they never cut themselves. They seemed to enjoy selecting tidbits from different parts of the head, turning it over frequently and examining pieces here and there, like a family leisurely finishing the wrecked hull of a last day's dinner turkey.

These people interest me greatly, and it is worth coming far to know them, however slightly. The smile, or, rather, broad grin of that Eskimo baby went directly to my heart, and I shall remember it as long as I live. When its features had subsided into perfect repose, the laugh gone from its dark eyes, and the lips closed over its two teeth, I could make its sweet smile bloom out again as often as I nodded and chirruped to it. Heaven bless it! Some of the boys, too, lads from eight to twelve years of age, were well-behaved, bashful, and usually laughed and turned away their faces when looked at. But there was a response in their eyes which made you feel that they are your very brothers.


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