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The Writings of John Muir
Volume 7 - Chapter XVII. Meeting the Point Barrow Expedition

Steamer Corwin,
Plover Bay, Siberia, August 25, 1881.

WE left icy, gloomy Point Barrow on the afternoon of the eighteenth, with fine Arctic weather, which held out good hopes that we would be able to lie two days at the mine twenty miles east of Cape Lisburne, in order to take out and get on board a sufficient quantity of coal to last the Corwin the remainder of the season in the Arctic. But by the time we got down the coast near the mine the weather was rough, with a heavy sea sending stormy breakers against the exposed coal bluff, rendering it impossible to land and work. And as there is no shelter whatever for a vessel anywhere in the vicinity, and no likelihood from any indications that the weather would improve, it was decided that we should proceed at once to Plover Bay, our next nearest coaling point.

This Arctic mine, the nearest to the North Pole, as far as I know, of any yet discovered on the American continent, produces coal of excellent quality in great abundance and easily worked. There are five principal veins, from two to ten feet thick, fully exposed on the face of a bluff about two hundred feet high, excepting some of the lower sections that are covered with icy snowbanks. The latter are derived from drift that comes from the wind-swept hills, and does not melt till late in the summer, or not at all. The lower exposed portions of all the veins are beaten and worn by the sea waves. There can scarcely be any doubt, from what I have seen of the formation in which it occurs, that this is a true carboniferous coal, and superior to the great bulk of the tertiary and cretaceous coal found on this side the continent farther south. The Corwin coaled here twice last summer, and again this summer, July 27 and 28. So also did the steam whale-ship Belvedere. During calm weather the crew of the Corwin can dig out and put in sacks, and bring off in boats, about thirty tons per day.

On the twenty-first we passed through Bering Strait in a dense fog without sighting either of the Diomede Islands, which even in weather clear elsewhere are almost constantly enveloped in fog, causing no little anxiety to the navigator, inasmuch as they stand directly in the middle of the narrow part of the strait. A third islet called Fairway Rock, together with the uncertain flow of the currents hereabouts, renders the danger all the greater. The larger Diomede is about six miles long, the other half as large, and Fairway Rock still smaller. All three are simply residual masses of granite brought into relief by glacial action before the strait was in existence. These rocks rise above the general level because of their superior strength considered with reference to the resistance they offered to glacial degradation.

Approaching the islands in thick weather, the first intimation the navigator has of his being near them, and of the direction in which they bear, is either from the winds which gurgle and reverberate in passing over them, or from the birds - auks, murres, and gulls - which dwell on the rocks in myriads, and come and go several miles into the adjacent waters to feed. To persons acquainted with their habits it is not difficult to determine whether their flight is directed homewards or away from borne. Thus the natives who dwell on these gloomy, dripping rocks and visit the shores of the adjacent continents in their frail skin- covered canoes, are directed. But how the birds themselves find their way, flying in arrowlike courses to their nests, when every direction seems to us the same, is truly marvelous.

On cloudy nights it is dark now at midnight. The sun sets before eight o'clock, but because it sinks only a few degrees below the horizon, the twilight lasts nearly all night. In a week or two, however, we shall have seven or eight hours of real night, for, of course, the transition from constant day to day and night is very rapid in these high latitudes. This new order of things will be delightful. A few days ago we saw two stars in the twilight, which to us was an exceedingly interesting event after two months of starless day. The glories of the midnight sun in this mysterious polar world are truly enchanting, but not nearly so much so as the glories of the midday sun in lower latitudes, succeeded by the glories of the night, the deep sky of stars and the grateful change and repose they bring.

After passing through the Strait we had two gray, howling days, with head winds and rain, and thick fog, through which the Corwin beat her way, or was held lying to, heaving and rolling somewhere between St. Lawrence Island and Indian Point, as near as could be made out at the time by dead reckoning, and guessing the speed of the northerly current. Lying to in a gale, enveloped in old fogs, [Fogs that have lasted a long time and prevented the taking of observations for the position of the ship.] and with little sea-room, and variable currents, is anything but pleasant, to say nothing of the tedious discomforts caused by the movements of the vessel, the unceasing see-saw, creaking, pitching, and complaining. At such times only the gulls, those light-winged rovers of the sea, appear to be patient and comfortable as they gracefully drift and glide over the wild-tossing waves, or circle on easy wing about the ship, veering deftly from side to side, and wavering up and down through the gray, sleety gloom.

On the morning of the twenty-fourth, when the fog lifted, we found ourselves far north of our supposed position; the flow of the current to the northward during the two preceding days having been nearly eighty miles. We arrived here at five in the afternoon.

Entering the harbor, we discovered the schooner Golden Fleece lying at anchor, and shortly afterward a party from her came aboard the Corwin, which proved to be Lieutenant Ray, and his company of Signal Service officers on their way to establish a station at Point Barrow - ten persons in all. [This was the International Polar Expedition to Point Barrow, Alaska. The report of the valuable series of scientific observations and explorations made from 1881 to 1883 at the Point Barrow Station was published as House Executive Document, No. 44, of the Forty-eighth Congress. Among the members of the party were John Murdoch and Middleton Smith.] Mr. Ray seems to be the right man for the place. He hopes to be able to get his buildings up and everything put in order before the coming on of winter, making a home in that stern wilderness for three years.

Point Barrow is a low, barren spit putting out into the icy ocean, and, before the discovery of Wrangell Land, the northernmost point of the territory of the United States. For many years it was believed to be the northern extremity of the American continent. But the extreme point of the peninsula of Boothia proves to be a few miles farther north than this. At first sight it would seem a gloomy time to look forward to - three years in so remote and so severely desolate and forbidding a region, generally regarded as the topmost frost-killed end of creation!

But, amid all the disadvantages of position, these men have much in their lot for which they might well be envied by people dwelling in softer climates. There is the freshness of their field of research in natural history, the immense number of summer birds that visit this region to molt and rear their young; the fine opportunities they will have to study the habits of the reindeer on the tundras, and the magnificent polar bear among the ice - the master animal of the north. Then there is the chance to study the little-known western Eskimos, who have a village [Nuwuk] on the point, numbering about two hundred persons. [An admirable study of these Eskimos was, indeed, made by John Murdoch, a member of the party, and published in House Executive Document, No. 44 (1885), and in the Ninth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology (1892).]

Advantage, too, I am told, will be taken of the opportunity offered to explore the Colville and Inland Rivers, both of them large streams, the one flowing into the [Arctic] Ocean about one hundred and thirty miles to the east of Point Barrow, the other into Bering Sea through Hotham Inlet and Kotzebue Sound. They are almost entirely unexplored. Some of their upper branches must approach each other, as the Eskimos ascend the Colville and, making a portage, descend the Inland River to Hotham Inlet every year to trade, or at the portage meet natives from the other river and trade there. The exploration of these rivers is a very interesting piece of work, and Mr. Ray tells me that he intends to make an effort to accomplish it at the earliest opportunity. Furthermore, he is ambitious to achieve something in the way of new discoveries out in the Polar Ocean to the northward of his station.

From the fact that a current sets northward past Herald Island, and keeps a long lane reaching far beyond Herald Island open every summer, while the ice remains jammed only a few miles off Point Barrow and Cape Yakn, Siberia, and some years does not leave the shores at all, it would seem that there is a land lying to the east of Wrangell Land, making a strait up which the northerly current flows, while the unknown land prevents any great movement in the ice immediately to the north of the American continent, as Wrangell Land [stays] the ice opposite Cape Yakán and the coast in its vicinity. Again, migratory birds in large flocks have been seen flying north from Point Barrow in the spring, and returning in the fall. Besides, certain vague reports, which may have their foundation in fact, have been in circulation to the effect that land in this direction has been actually seen by a whaler, who was well offshore to the northeastward from Point Barrow, in an exceptionally open season.

With the experience that he will gain among the ice at Point Barrow, and the resources at command in the way of good assistants, skilled native travelers, with good dogs and sleds, etc., Mr. Ray may possibly be able to cross over the ice to this land, if land there be. In any case, whatever journeys may be made, over the ice or over the land, in summer or in winter, some new facts will surely be gained well worth the pains, for no portion of the world is so barren as not to yield a rich and precious harvest of divine truth.

Nor will these men be likely to suffer greatly. The winter cold, when skillfully met in soft hair and fur, is not hard to bear, while in summer it is so warm that the Eskimo children run about naked. The piling up of the ice on the shore in winter and spring must make a magnificent border for a home; and the auroral curtains and the deep starry nights, lasting for weeks, must be glorious.

The Corwin towed the Golden Fleece to sea this morning, and we hope to finish coaling, etc., in a day or two, and set out once more to the shores of Wrangell Land.

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