7 The Writings of John Muir
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The Writings of John Muir
Volume 7 - Chapter VIII. Return of the Search Party


Steamer Corwin,
Near the mouth of Metchigme Bay,
On the west side of Bering Strait,
June 27, 1881.

AFTER leaving St. Michael, on the evening of the twenty-first, we crossed Bering Sea to Plover Bay to fill our coal-bunkers from a pile belonging to His Majesty, the Czar of Russia.

On the twenty-third we were sailing along the north side of St. Lawrence Island against a heavy wind. There was a rough sea and a clear sky, save on the island. I had a tolerably clear view of the most prominent portion of the island near the middle. It is here composed of lava, reddish in color and dotted with craters and cones, most of which seem recent, though a slight amount of glaciation of a local kind is visible. About three in the afternoon we came to anchor off the northwest end of the island opposite the village. A few natives came aboard at eight o'clock.

The next day we got under way at four in the morning, going east along the south side of St. Lawrence Island. The norther again was blowing as hard as ever. We discovered an Eskimo village, but the natives were mostly dead. Coming to anchor there at six in the evening, we went ashore and met a few Ekimos who, though less demonstrative, seemed quite as glad to see us as those on the northwest end of the island. The village, as we examined it through our glasses, seemed so still and desolate, we began to fear that, like some of the villages on the north side of the island, not a soul was left alive in it, until here and there a native was discovered on the brow of the hill where the summer houses are.

After we had landed from the life-boat, two men and a boy came running down to meet us and took us up to the two inhabited houses. They all gathered about us from scattered points of observation, and when we asked where all the people were to whom the other houses belonged, they smiled and said, "All mucky." "All gone." "Dead?" "Yes, dead!" We then inquired where the dead people were. They pointed back of the houses and led us to eight corpses lying on the rocky ground. They smiled at the ghastly spectacle of the grinning skulls and bleached bones appearing through the brown, shrunken skin.

Being detained on the twenty-fifth by the norther which was still blowing, we went ashore after breakfast, and had a long walk through graves, back to noble views of the island, telling the grandeur of its glaciation by the northern ice-sheets. Weighed anchor and steered for Plover Bay shortly after nine in the evening, and arrived there early on the morning of the twenty-sixth. While the ship was being coaled, I climbed the east wall of the fiord three or four miles above the mouth, where it is about twenty-two hundred feet above the level of the sea, and, as the day was clear, I obtained capital views of the mountains on both sides and around the head of the fiord among the numerous ice-fountains which, during the glacial winter, poured their tribute through this magnificent channel into Bering Sea.

When the glacier that formed what is now called Plover Bay, was in its prime, it was about thirty miles long and from five to six miles in width at the widest portion of the trunk, and about two thousand feet deep. It then had at least five main tributaries, which, as the trunk melted towards the close of the ice period, became independent glaciers, and these again were melted into perhaps seventy- five or more small residual glaciers from less than a mile to several miles in length, all of which, as far as I could see, have at length vanished, though some wasting remnants may still linger in the highest and best-protected fountains above the head of the fiord. I had a fine glissade down the valley of a tributary glacier whose terminal moraines show the same gradual death as those of the Sierra. The mountains hereabouts, in the forms of the peaks, ridges, lake-basins, bits of meadow, and in sculpture and aspects in general, are like those of the high Sierra of California where the rock is least resisting.

Snow still lingers in drift patches and streaks and avalanche heaps down to the sea-level, while there is but little depth of solid snow on the highest peaks and ridges, so that, there being no warm, sunny base of gentle slopes and foothills, no varying belts of climate, this region as a whole seems to consist of only the storm-beaten tops of mountains shorn off from their warm, well-planted bases. Still there are spots here and there, where the snow is melted, that are already cheered with about ten species of plants in full bloom: anemones, buttercups, primulas, several species of draba, purple heathworts, phlox and potentilla, making charming alpine gardens, but too small and thinly planted to show at a distance of more than a few yards, while trees are wholly wanting.

On our way north to-day we stopped a few minutes opposite a small native settlement, six or eight miles to the northeast of the mouth of Metchigme Bay, in search of Onmiscot, the rich reindeer owner, whom we had met further up the coast two weeks ago, and who had then promised to have a lot of deerskins ready for us if we would call at his village.

Some of the natives, coming off to the steamer to trade, informed us that Omniscot lived some distance up the bay that we had just passed, and one of them, who speaks a little English, inquired why we had not brought back Omniscot's son. He told us that he was his cousin and that his mother was crying about him last night, fearing that he would never come back.

We informed him that his cousin was crazy and had tried to kill himself, but that he was now at Plover Bay with one of his friends and would probably be home soon. This young Omniscot., whom we had taken aboard at St. Lawrence Bay, thinking that he might be useful as an interpreter, is a son of the reindeer man and belongs to the Chukchi tribe. We soon came to see that we had a troublesome passenger, for the expression of his eyes, and the nervous dread he manifested of all the natives wherever we chanced to stop, indicated some form of insanity. He would come to the door of the cabin to warn the Captain against the people of every village that we were approaching as likely to kill us, and then he would hide himself below deck or climb for greater safety into the rigging.

On the twenty-fifth, when we were lying at anchor off St. Lawrence Island, he offered his rifle, which he greatly prized, to one of the officers, saying that inasmuch as he would soon die he would not need it. He also sent word to the Captain that he would soon be "mucky," but came to the cabin door shortly afterward, with nothing unusual apparent in his face or behavior, and began a discussion concerning the region back of St. Michael as a location for a flock of reindeer. He thought they would do well there, he said, and that his father would give him some young ones to make a beginning, which he could take over in some schooner, and that they would get plenty of good moss to eat on the tundra, and multiply fast until they became a big herd like his father's, so big that nobody could count them.

In three or four hours after this he threw himself overboard, but was picked up and brought on deck. Some of the sailors stripped off his wet furs, and then the discovery was made that before throwing himself into the sea the poor fellow had stabbed himself in the left lung. The surgeon dressed his wound and gave as his opinion that it would prove fatal: He was doing well, however, when we left him, and is likely to recover. The Plover Bay natives, in commenting on the affair, remarked that the St. Lawrence people were a bad, quarrelsome set, and always kept themselves in some sort of trouble.

Having procured a guide from among the natives that came aboard here, we attempted to reach Omniscot's village, but found the bay full of ice, and were compelled to go on without our winter supply of deerskins, hoping, however, to be able to get them on the east coast.

There is quite a large Chukchi settlement near the mouth of the bay, on the north side. Seven large canoe-loads of the population came aboard, making quite a stir on our little ship. They are the worst-looking lot of Siberian natives that I have yet seen, though there are some fine, tall, manly fellows amongst them. Mr. Nelson, a naturalist, and zealous collector for the Smithsonian Institution, who joined us at St. Michael, photographed a group of the most villainous of the men, and two of the women whose arms were elaborately tattooed up to the shoulders. Their faces were a curious study while they were trying to keep still under circumstances so extraordinary.

The glaciation of the coast here is recorded in very telling characters, the movement of the ice having been in a nearly south-southwest direction. There is also a considerable deposit of irregularly stratified sand and gravel along this part of the coast. For fifteen or twenty miles it rises in crumbling bluffs fifty feet high, and makes a fiat, gently sloping margin, from one hundred yards to several miles in width, in front of the mountains. The bay, moreover, is nearly closed by a bar, probably of the same material. The weather is delightful, clear sunshine, only a few fleecy wisps of cloud in the west, and the water still as a mill-pond.

June 28. Anchored an hour or two this forenoon at the west Diomede, and landed a party to make observations on the currents and temperature of the water that sets through Bering Strait. Then proceeded on our way direct to Tapkan to seek our search party. The fine weather that we have enjoyed since the day before our arrival at St. Michael ended in the old, dark, gloomy clouds and drizzling fog on reaching the Diomedes, though the coast above East Cape has until now been in sight most of the time UI) to a height of about a thousand feet.

The glaciation, after the melting of the icesheet, has been light, sculpturing the mountains into shallow, short valleys and round ridges, mostly broad-backed. The valleys, for the most part, are not cut down to the sea. The shore seems to have been cut off by the glacier sheet that occupied the sea, after it was too shallow to flow over the angle of land formed by East Cape. This overflow is well- marked, fifteen to twenty-five miles northwest of the Cape, in the trends of the ridges and valleys as far back as I could see, that is, about twenty-five miles from the shore. The north wind is, and has been, blowing for twenty-four hours, and we fear that we will soon meet with the drifting ice from the main polar pack.

Steamer Corwin,
Off the Chukchi village of Tapkan,
Near Cape Serdzekamen, Siberia,
June 29, 1881.

We arrived here about eight this morning to meet the search party that we landed about a month ago, near Koliuchin Island. They had been waiting for us nearly two weeks. We were unable to land on account of the stormy weather, but after waiting about two hours we saw them making their way out to the edge of the drift ice, which extended about three miles from shore, and after a good deal of difficulty they reached the steamer in safety. The air was gray with falling snow, and the north wind was blowing hard, dashing heavy swells, with wild, tumultuous uproar, against jagged, tumbling ice blocks that formed the edge of the pack. The life-boat was lowered and pulled to the edge of the pack and a line was thrown from it to the most advanced of the party, who was balancing himself among the heaving bergs. This line was made fast to a light skin boat that the party had pushed out over the ice from the shore, and, getting into it, they soon managed to get themselves fairly launched and free from the tossing, wave-dashed ice which momentarily threatened to engulf them.

Mr. Herring, the officer in charge, reported that they had proceeded along the coast as far as Cape Wankarem and had been so fortunate as to accomplish the main objects of their mission, namely, to determine the value of the stories prevalent among the natives to the southward of here concerning the lost whalers Vigilant and Mount Wollaston; to ascertain whether any of the crews of the missing vessels had landed on the Siberian coast to the southeastward of Cape Yakán; and in case any party should land there in the future, to bespeak in their behalf the aid and good-will of the natives.

At the Chukchi village at Cape Onman they were told that at the village of Oncarima, near Cape Wankarem, they would find three men who could tell them all about the broken ship, for they had seen the wreck and been aboard of her, and had brought off many things that they had found on the deck and in the cabin. This news caused them to hurry on, and when they arrived at the village, and had bestowed the customary presents of tobacco and coffee, Mr. Herring stated the object of his visit.

Three natives then came forward and stated through the interpreter that last year, when they were out hunting seals on the ice, about five miles from the land, near the little island which they call Konkarpo, at the time of year when the new ice begins to grew in the sea, and when the sun does not rise, they saw a big ship without masts in the ice-pack, which they reached without difficulty and climbed on deck. The masts, they said, had been chopped down, and there was a pair of horns on the end of the jib-boom, indicating the position of them on a sketch of a ship. The hold, they said, was full of water so that they could not go down into it to see anything, but they broke a way into the cabin and found four dead men, who had been dead a long time. Three of them were lying in bunks, and one on the floor. They also got into the galley and found a number of artides which they brought away; also, some from the cabin and other parts of the ship.

While they were busy looking for things which they fancied, and considered worth carrying away, one of the three called out to his companions that the wind was blowing offshore, and that they must make haste for the land as the ice was beginning to move, which caused them to hurry from the wreck with what articles they could conveniently carry without being delayed. Next day they vent as far out towards the spot where they had left the vessel as the state of the ice would allow, hoping to procure something else. But they found that she had drifted out of sight, and as the wind had been blowing from the southwest, they supposed that she had drifted in a northeasterly direction. They had looked for this ship many times after her first disappearance, but never saw her again.

After they had finished their story, Mr. Herring requested them to show him all the things that they had brought from the wreck, telling them that he would give them tobacco for some of them that he might want to show to his friends. Thereupon they brought forward the following articles, which were carefully examined by our party in hopes of being able to identify the vessel: -

A pair of marine glasses
A pair of silver-mounted spectacles in a tin case (the lenses showing that they had belonged to an aged person)
A jack-knife
A carving-knife
A butcher's chopping-knife
Two table-knives, the handle of one of them marked V
A meat saw
A soup ladle
A stew pan
A tin collander
A hand lamp
A square tin lantern painted green
A draw-knife
An adze
Two carpenter's saws
A chisel
A file
A brace and bit
A tack hammer
A pump-handle
A shovel
A bullet-mould
A truss
A bottle of some sort of medicine
A sailor's ditty bag, with thread
A razor
A linen jumper
Two small coins
Two coils of Manila rope
Three whale spades
One harpoon

The harpoon and whale spades are marked "B.K.," and will no doubt serve to identify the owners. Not a single private name was found on any of the articles; nor did the natives produce any books or papers of any sort, though they said that they saw books in the cabin. A number of the articles enumerated above were purchased by Mr. Herring and are now on board the Corwin, namely, the marine glasses, spectacles, harpoon, and table- knives.

The fate, then, of one of the two missing ships is discovered beyond a doubt., though a portion of the crew may possibly be alive. If the statement as to the deer horns on the jib-boom is to be relied on, it is the Vigilant, as she is said to be the only vessel in the fleet that had deer horns on her jib-boom.

A party of Chukchi traders, also, were met here, being on their way to East Cape with reindeer skins. They stated that no vessel had been seen anywhere along the coast to the northwest of Wankarem as far as Cape Yakán except one, a three-masted steamer, the Vega, two years ago; that if any ships had been seen they certainly should have heard about it. The place where the Vega wintered, [Pittle Keg.] fifteen or twenty miles to the northwest of Cape Scrdzekamen, is well known to nearly all the natives living within a hundred miles of it.

The Jeannette was last seen by the natives off Cape Serdzekamen two years ago, probably just before she went north into the ice. A party of walrus hunters went aboard of her. They described her as a three-masted steamer, with plenty of coal and dogs on deck. When Wrangell Land was pointed out on a chart to the natives at Cape Wankarem, they shook their heads and said that they knew nothing of land in that direction. But one old man told them that long ago he had heard something about a party of men who had come from some far unknown land to the north, over the ice.

According to Lieutenant Reynolds, nine Chukchi settlements were passed on the coast between Tapkan and Oncarima, namely, Naskan, Undrillan, Illwinoop, Youngilla, [lintlin.] Illoiuk, Koliuchin, Unatapkan, Onman and Enelpan. The largest of these is Koliuchin, with twenty- seven houses and about three hundred people.

The natives, everywhere along the route traveled, treated the party with great kindness, giving them food for their dog-teams and answering the questions put to them with good- natured patience. At Koliuchin one of the chief men of the village invited them to dinner and greatly surprised them by giving them good tea served in handsome China cups, which he said he had bought from the Russians.


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