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The Writings of John Muir
Volume 7 - Chapter VII. At Plover Bay and St. Michael


[Steamer Corwin,
Plover Bay, June 15, 1881.]

A LITTLE before four o'clock the next morning, June 10, I was awakened by the officer of the deck coming into the cabin and reporting that the weather was densely foggy, and that ice in large masses was crowding down upon us, which meant "The Philistines be upon thee, Samson!" Shortly afterward, the first mass struck the ship and made her tremble in every joint; then another and another, in quick succession, while the anchor was being hurriedly raised. The situation in which we suddenly found ourselves was quite serious. The ice, had it been like that about the ship of the Ancient Mariner, "here and there and all around," would have raised but little apprehension. But it was only on one side of us, while a rocky beach was close by on the other, and against this beach in our disabled condition the ice was steadily driving us. Whether backing or going ahead in so crowded a bit of water, the result for some time was only so many shoves toward shore.

At length a block of small size, twenty or thirty feet in diameter, drifted in between the Corwin and the shore, and by steaming against it and striking it on the landward bow she glinted around, head to the pack, and an opening allowed her to enter a little distance. This was gradually increased by stopping and starting until we were safe in the middle of it. Watching the compass and constantly taking soundings, we traced the edge of the pack, and in an hour or two made our escape into open water.

Alter the fog lifted we went again in search of the Lolita, and discovered her five or six miles below the Eskimo village. Dropping anchor at the edge of a sheet of firm shore-ice, we went across it to the wreck to see whether we could not get some pintles from it for our rudder. We found her rudder had been carried away, but procured some useful iron, blocks, tackle, spars, etc.; also, two barrels of oil which the natives had not yet appropriated. The transportation of these stores to the ship over ice, covered with sludge and full of dangerous holes, made a busy day for the sailors.

Back a hundred yards from the beach I found a few hints of the coming spring, though most of the ground is still covered with snow. The dwarf willow is beginning to put out its catkins, and a few buds of saxifrages, erigerons, and heathworts are beginning to swell. The bulk of the vegetation is composed of mosses and lichens. Half a mile from the wreck there is a deserted Eskimo village. All its inhabitants are said to have died of famine two winters ago. The traces of both local and general glaciation are particularly clear and telling on this island.

In the afternoon, the weather being calm and mild, we succeeded in mending and shipping the rudder, and the next morning we set out yet again for Plover Bay, where we now are, having arrived about midnight on the eleventh. The men have been busy sawing and blasting a sort of slip in the ice for the ship that she may be secure from drift ice and well situated for loading the coal that is piled on the shore opposite here. The coal belongs to the Russians. In loading, the coal was first stowed well forward in order to lift the stern high enough out of water to enable us to make the additional repairs required on the rudder, since we cannot find access to a beach smooth enough to lay her on.

The Indians here are very poor. They have offered nothing to trade. With a group of men and women that came to the ship a few mornings ago there was a half-breed girl about two years old. She had light-brown hair, regular European features, and was very fair and handsome. Her mother, a Chukchi, died in childbirth, and the natives killed her father. She is plump, red-cheeked, and in every way a picture of health. That in a Chukchi hut, nursed by a Chukchi mother-in-law, and on Chukchi food, a half-European girl can be so beautiful, well-behaved, happy, and healthy is very notable.

On the twelfth of June we had snow, rain and sleet nearly all day. The view up the inlet was very striking - lofty mountains on both sides rising from the level of the water, and proclaiming in telling characters the story of the inlet's creation by glaciers that have but lately vanished. Most of the slopes and precipices seemed particularly dreary, not only on account of the absence of trees, but of vegetation of any kind in any appreciable amount. No bits of shelf gardens were to be seen, though not wholly wanting when we came to climb, for I discovered some lovely garden spots with a tellima and anemone in full bloom. [The vegetation was] very dwarfed, and sparse, and scattered. No green meadow-hollows. The rock was fast disintegrating, and all the mountains appeared in general views like piles of loose stones dumped from the clouds. Plover Bay [Called Providence Bay on recent maps.] takes its name from H.M.S. Plover, which passed the winter of 1848-49 here while on a cruise in search of Franklin. It is a glacial fiord, which in the height of its walls is more Yosemite- like than any I have yet seen in Siberia.

In the afternoon Dr. Rosse and I set out across the ice to the cliffs. We found a great many seal holes and cracks of a dangerous kind, and a good deal of water on top of the ici that made the walking very sloppy. There were dog-sled tracks trending up and down the inlet. The ice is broken along the shore by the rise and fall of the tides, but we made out to cross on some large cakes wedged together. Just before we reached the edge of rocks, in scanning the ruinous, crumbling face of the cliffs that here are between two and three thousand feet high, I noticed an outstanding buttress harder and more compact in cleavage than the rest, and very obviously grooved, polished, and scratched by the main vanished glacier that once filled all the fiord. Up to this point we climbed, and found several other spots of the old glacial surface not yet weathered off. This is the first I have seen of this kind of glacial traces.

On the thirteenth the whaler Thomas Pope [Captain M. V. B. Millard.] arrived here and anchored to the ice near us. Getting everything in trim for the return voyage, having already taken all the [whale}-oil she can carry. All the fleet are doing well this year, or, as the natives express it, they are getting a "big grease."

[According to brief entries in Muir's journal the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth of June were spent aboard the Corwin, writing personal letters and several communications to the "San Francisco Bulletin." From Captain Hooper's report of the cruise of the Corwin, the following interesting record of events during the interval is extracted: -

On the fourteenth we worked all day, drawing coal on the sleds, assisted by the natives and two sleds with three dogs each, but the rapidly melting ice made it very tedious. On the fifteenth we continued work, although the softness of the ice compelled us to reduce the loads to one-half their former size. About four in the afternoon a slight roll of the vessel was perceptible, indicating a swell coming in from the outside. At the same time a slight undulating motion of the ice was observed. This was followed by cracks in the ice running in every direction, and we had barely time to take in our ice anchors, call our men on board, and take the Thomas Pope in tow before the ice was all broken and in motion and rapidly drifting toward the mouth of the bay. At first it looked as if we might have to go to sea to avoid it. The wind by this time was blowing fresh from the northeast with a thick snow-storm, and, judging from the roll coming into the bay, a heavy sea must be running. Added to this was the fact of the sea being filled with large fields of heavy drift ice, making the prospect anything but a pleasing one. After lying off outside the ice for an hour or two and just when it seemed as if our only hope was in putting to sea, Captain Millard reported from the masthead that the whole body of ice had started offshore, and that if we could get in through it we could find good anchorage in clear water. Although the ice was pitching and rolling badly, it was well broken up, and we determined to make the attempt, and succeeded better than I had anticipated, and about midnight we came out into clear water, and anchored near the shore in twelve fathoms, the Thomas Pope coming to just outside of us in twenty fathoms.

Muir's journal continues with the following record under date of June 17:]

Half-clear in the morning, foggy in the afternoon. Left Plover Bay at six in the morning with Thomas Pope [The San Francisco Bulletin, in its issue of July 13, 1881, noted the arrival in port of the whaling bark Thomas Pope with a series of letters from John Muir.] in tow. Left her at the mouth of the bay. It was barred with rather heavy ice, which was heaving in curious commotion from a heavy swell. We gave and received three cheers in parting. Have had a very pleasant time with Captains Millard and Kelly. Very telling views of the sculpture of the mountains along the Bay, at its head, and at the mouth, where the land-ice flowed into the one grand glacier that filled Bering Strait and Sea. The fronting cliffs of the sea glacier seem to be hardly more weathered than those of Plover Bay and adjacent fords.

St. Michael, Alaska, June 20, 1881.

Sunshine now in the Far North, sunshine all the long nightless days! ripe and mellow and hazy, like that which feeds the fruits and vines! We came into it two days ago when we were approaching this old-fashioned Russian trading post near the mouth of the Yukon River. How sweet and kindly and reviving it is after so long a burial beneath dark, sleety storm clouds! For a whole month before the begin- fling of this bright time, it snowed every day more or less, perhaps only for an hour or two, or all the twenty-four hours; not one day on which snow did not fall either in wet, sleety blasts, making sludge on the deck and rigging and afterward freezing fast, or in dry crystals, blowing away as fast as it fell. I have never before seen so cloudy a month, weather so strangely bewildering and depressing. It was all one stormy day, broken here and there by dim gleams of sunlight, but never so dark at midnight that we could not read ordinary print.

The general effect of this confusing inter-blending of the hours of day and night, of the quick succession of howling gales that we encountered, and of dull black clouds dragging their ragged, drooping edges over the waves, was very depressing, and when, at length, we found ourselves free beneath a broad, high sky full of exhilarating light, we seemed to have emerged from some gloomy, icy cave. How garish and blinding the light seemed to us then, and how bright the lily-spangles that flashed on the glassy water! With what rapture we gazed into the crimson and gold of the midnight sunsets!

While we were yet fifty miles from land a small gray finch came aboard and flew about the rigging while we watched its movements and listened to its suggestive notes as if we had never seen a finch since the days of our merry truant rambles along the hedgerows. A few hours later a burly, dozing bumblebee came droning around the pilot-house, seeming to bring with him all the warm, summery gardens we had ever seen.

The fourth of June was the most beautiful of the days we spent in the Arctic Ocean. The water was smooth, reflecting a tranquil, pearl-gray sky with spots of pure azure near the zenith and a belt of white around the horizon that shone with a bright, satiny luster, trying to the eyes like clear sunshine. Some seven whale-ships were in sight, becalmed with their canvas spread. Chukchi hunters in pursuit of seals were gliding about in light skin-covered canoes, and gulls, auks, eider ducks, and other water birds in countless multitudes skimmed the glassy level, while in the background of this Arctic picture the Siberian coast, white as snow could make it, was seen sweeping back in fine, fluent, undulating lines to a chain of mountains, the tops of which were veiled in the shining sky. A few snow crystals were shaken down from a black cloud towards midnight, but most of the day was one of deep peace, in which God's love was manifest as in a countenance.

The average temperature for most of the month commencing May twentieth has been but little above the freezing point, the maximum about 45 F. To-day the temperature in the shade at noon is 65, the highest since leaving San Francisco. The temperature of the water in Bering Sea and Strait, and as far as we have gone in the Arctic, has been about from 29 to 35. But as soon as we approached within fifty miles of the mouths of the Yukon, the temperature changed suddenly to 42.

The mirage effects we have witnessed on the cruise thus far are as striking as any I ever saw on the hot American desert. Islands and headlands seemed to float in the air, distorted into the most unreal, fantastic forms imaginable, while the individual mountains of a chain along the coast appeared to dance at times up and down with a rhythmic motion, in the tremulous refracting atmosphere. On the northeast side of Norton Sound I saw two peaks, each with a flat, black table on top, looming suddenly up and sinking again alternately, like boys playing see-saw on a plank.

The trading post of St. Michael was established by the Russians in 1833. It is built of drift timber derived from the Yukon, and situated on a low bluff of lava on the island of St. Michael, about sixty-five miles northeast of the northmost of the Yukon mouths. The fort is composed of a square of log buildings and palisades, with outlying bastions pierced for small cannon and musketry, while outside the fort there are a few small buildings and a Greek church, reinforced during the early part of the summer with groups of tents belonging to the Indians and the traders. The fort is now occupied by the employees of the Alaska Commercial Company. This is the headquarters of the fur traders of northern and central Alaska.

The Western Fur and Trading Company has a main station on the side of the bay about three miles from here, and the two companies, being in close competition, have brought on a condition of the fur business that is bitterly bewailed by the sub-traders located along the Yukon and its numerous tributaries. Not only have the splendid profits of the good old times diminished nearly to zero, say they, but the big prices paid for skins have spoiled the Indians, making them insolent, lazy, and dangerous, without conferring any substantial benefit upon them. Since they can now procure all the traders' supplies they need for fewer skins than formerly, they hunt less, and spend their idle hours in gambling and quarreling.

The furs and skins of every kind derived annually from the Yukon and Kuskoquim regions, and shipped from here, are said to be worth from eighty thousand to one hundred thousand dollars. The trade goods are brought to this point from San Francisco by the rival companies in June, and delivered to their agents, by whom they are distributed to their traders and taken up the rivers to the different stations in the interior in boats towed most of the way by small stern-wheel steamers. Then, during the winter, the furs are collected and brought to this point and carried to San Francisco by the vessels that bring the goods for the next season's trade.

On the nineteenth instant the steamer belonging to the Western Fur and Trading Company arrived from a station fifteen hundred miles up the river, towing three large boats laden with Indians and traders, together with the last year's collection of furs. After they had begun to set up their tents and unload the furs, we went over to the storerooms of the Company to look at the busy throng. They formed a strange, wild picture on the rocky beach; the squaws pitching the tents and cutting armfuls of dry grass to lay on the ground as a lining for fur carpets; the children with wild, staring eyes gazing at us, or, heedless of all the stir, playing with the dogs; groups of dandy warriors, arrayed in all the colors of the rainbow, grim, and cruel, and coldly dignified; and a busy train coming and going between the warehouse and the boats, storing the big bundles of shaggy bearskins, black and brown, marten, mink, fox, beaver, otter, lynx, moose, wolf, and wolverine, many of them with claws spread and hair on end, as if still fighting for life. They were vividly suggestive of the far wilderness whence they came -its mountains and valleys, its broad grassy plains and far-reaching rivers, its forests and its bogs.

The Indians seemed to me the wildest animals of all. The traders were not at all wild, save in dress, but rather gentle and subdued in manners and aspect, like half-paid village ministers. They held us in a long interesting conversation, and gave us many valuable facts concerning the heart of the Yukon country. Some Indians on the beach were basking in the yellow, mellow sun. Herring and salmon were hanging upon frames or lying on the rocks - a lazy abundance of food that discouraged thought of the future.

The shores here are crowded with immense shoals of herring, and the Indians are lazily catching just enough to eat. Those we had for dinner are not nearly so good as those I ate last year at Cross Sound. The Yukon salmon, however, are now in excellent condition, and are the largest by far that I have seen. Yet the Yukon Indians suffer severely at times from famine, though they might dry enough in less than a week to last a year.

We are making a short stay here to take on provisions, and intend, to go northward again to-morrow to meet the search party that we landed near Koliuchin Island. Another delightful sun-day - nearly cloudless and with lily-spangles on the bay. The temperature was 65 F. in the shade at noon. The birds are nesting and the plants are rapidly coming into bloom.


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