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The Writings of John Muir
Volume 7 - Chapter III. Siberian Adventures

Steamer Corwin, Tapkan, Siberia, May 31, 1881.

AFTER inquiring about the movements of the ice and the whaling fleet, we weighed anchor and steered for Plover Bay on the coast of Siberia, taking several of the natives with us. They had a few poles for the frame of a boat and skins to cover it, and for food a piece of walrus flesh which they ate raw. This, with a gun and a few odds and ends, was all their property, yet they seemed more confident of their ability to earn a living than most whites on their farms.

The afternoon was clear and the mountains about Plover Bay showed themselves in bold relief, quite imposing and Yosemitic in sculpture and composition. There was so much ice at the mouth of the bay, which is a glacial fiord, that we could not enter. In the edge of the pack we spoke the whaler Rainbow, and delivered the Arctic mail. Then we proceeded a short distance northward, put into Marcus Bay, and anchored in front of a small Chukchi settlement. A boatful of natives came aboard and told a story "important if true," concerning the destruction of the lost whaler Vigilant and the death of her crew. Three Chukchi seal hunters, they said, while out on the ice last November, near Cape Serdzekamen, discovered the ship in the pack, her masts broken off by the ice, and the crew dead on the deck and in the cabin. They had brought off a bag of money and such articles as they could carry away, some of which had been shown to other natives, and the story had traveled from one settlement to another thus far down the coast.

All this was told with an air of perfect good faith, and they seemed themselves to believe what they were telling. We had heard substantially the same story at St. Lawrence Island. But knowing the ability of these people for manufacturing tales of this sort, we listened with many grains of allowance, though of course determined to investigate further.

Here we began to inquire for dogs, and were successful in hiring a team of six, and their owner to drive them. The owner is called "Chukchi Joe," and since he can speak a little English he is also to act in the capacity of interpreter, his language being the same as that spoken by the natives of the north Siberian coast. While we were trying to hire him, one of his companions kept reiterating that there was no use in sending out people to look for the crews of those ships, for they were all dead. Joe also said that it was no use going, and that he was afraid to venture so far for fear he would never get back. The snow, he objected, was too soft at this time of year, and many rivers hard to cross were in the way, and he did not like to leave his family. But after we had promised to pay him well, whether our lost friends were found or not, he consented to go, and when he went ashore to get ready we went with him.

The settlement consisted of only two habitations with twenty-five or thirty persons, located back three quarters of a mile from the coast. On reaching home Joe quickly vanished. His hut was about twenty-five feet in diameter, and was made of poles bent down at the top, where they all met to form a hemisphere. This frame was covered with skins of seal, sea- lion, and walrus, chiefly the latter. Since much of the flesh on which the Chukchis subsist is eaten raw, only very small fires are made, and the huts are cold. The ground inside of this one was wet and muddy as a California corral in the rainy season, and seemed almost as large. But around the sides of this cold, squalid shell, little more than a wind-break and partial shelter from rain and snow, there were a number of very snug, clean, luxurious bedrooms, whose sides, ceiling, and floor were made of fur; they were lighted by means of a pan of whale-oil with a bit of moss for a wick. After being out all day hunting in the stormy weather, or on ice-packs or frozen tundras, the Chukchi withdraws into this furry sanctum, takes off all his clothing, and spreads his wearied limbs in luxurious ease, sleeping perfectly nude in the severest weather.

After introducing ourselves and shaking hands with a few of the most dignified of the old men, we looked about the strange domicile. Dogs, children, men, women, and utensils; spears, guns, whale-lances, etc., were stuck about the rafters and hanging on the supporting posts. We looked into one of the fur bedrooms, about six by seven, and found Joe enjoying a bath ore putting on his fine clothes to set out with us. Soon he emerged clad in a blue cloth army coat with brass buttons and shoulder straps and army cap! I scarcely knew him.

In the mean time Captain H[ooper] was off taking a drive over the snow with a dog-team and sled. When he returned Joe was having a farewell talk with his wife, who seemed very anxious about his safety and long absence. His little boy, too, about a year and a half old, had been told that his father was going away and he seemed to understand somewhat, as he kept holding him by the legs and trying to talk to him while looking up in his face. When we started away from the house he kissed his boy and bade him good-bye. The little fellow in his funny bags of fur toddled after him until caught and carried back by some of the women who were looking on. Joe's wife came aboard for a final farewell. After taking him aside and talking with him, the tears running down her cheeks, she left the vessel and went back with some others who had come to trade deerskins, while we sailed away. One touch of nature makes all the world kin, and here were many touches among the wild Chukchis.

We next proceeded to St. Lawrence Bay in search of furs and more dogs, and came to anchor at the mouth of the bay, opposite a small Chukchi settlement of two huts, at half- past one in the afternoon, May 29. This bay, like all I have seen along this coast, is of glacial formation, conducting back into glacial fountains in a range of peaks of moderate height. The wind was blowing hard from the south and snow was falling. The natives, however, came off at once to trade. Here we met the voluble Jaroochah, who sat gravely on the sloppy deck in the sludge, and told the story of the wrecked Vigilant in a loud, vehement, growling, roaring voice and with frantic gestures. He assured us over and over again that there was no use in going to seek any of the crew, for they were all dead and the ship with her broken masts had drifted away again to the north with the ice-pack. When told that we would certainly seek them whether dead or alive, he explained that the snow and ice were too soft for sleds at this time of year. Seeing that we were still unconvinced, he doubtless regarded us as foolish and incorrigible white trash.

We went ashore to fetch some dogs they offered to sell, but they changed their minds and refused to sell at any price, nor were they willing to barter deerskins that we needed for the trip and for winter clothing in case we should be caught in the ice and compelled to pass a winter in the Arctic. We presented them with a bucket of hardtack which no one of the party touched until the old orator gave orders to his son to divide it. This he did by counting it out on the deck, laying down one biscuit for each person and then adding one to each until all was exhausted, piling them on each other like a money-changer counting out coins. The mannerly reserve and unhasting dignity of all these natives when food is set before them is very striking as compared with the ravenous, snatching haste of the hungry poor among the whites. Even the children look wistfully at the heap of bread, without touching it until invited, and then eat very slowly as if not hungry at all. Nor do they ever need to be told to wait. Even when a year of famine occurs from any cause, they endure it with fortitude such as would be sought for in vain among the civilized, and after braving the most intense cold of these dreary ice-bound coasts in search of food, if unsuccessful, they wrap themselves in their furs and die quietly as if only going to sleep. This they did by hundreds two years ago on St. Lawrence Island.

Finding that we could not buy anything that we wanted here, savage eloquence being the only article offered, we sailed for the Diomedes. Here we found the natives eager to trade away everything they had. We bought a lot of furs and nineteen dogs, paying a sack of flour for each dog. This Arctic cattle market was in every way lively and picturesque, and ended satisfactorily to all the parties concerned. The scene of barter as each Eskimo, pitching alongside in his skin boat, hoisted the howling wolves aboard, and thence to the upper deck in front of the pilot-house, was a rare one.

The villages are perched on the steep rocky slopes of mountains which drop at once sheer into deep water, one mountain per island. [Muir noted in his journal that "Fairway Rock near the East Diomede is a similar smaller island, on which the granite rock is glaciated."] No margin is left for a village along the shore, so, like the seabirds that breed here and fly about in countless multitudes darkening the water, the rocks, and the air, the natives had to perch their huts on the cliffs, dragging boats and everything up and down very steep trails. The huts are mostly built of stone with skin roofs. They look like mere stone-heaps, black dots on the snow at a distance, with whalebone posts set up and framed at the top to lay their canoes beyond the dogs that would otherwise eat them. The dreariest towns I ever beheld - the tops of the islands in gloomy storm-clouds; snow to the water's edge, and blocks of rugged ice for a fringe; then the black water dashing against the ice; the gray sleety sky, the screaming water birds, the howling wind, and the blue gathering sludge!

We now pushed on through the strait and into the Arctic Ocean without encountering any ice, and passed Cape Serdzekamen this afternoon [May 31]. The weather has been calm and tolerably clear for the last twenty- four hours, enabling us to see the coast now and then. It showed hills of moderate height, rising here and there to mountains.

About twelve miles northwest from Cape Serdzekamen we observed a marked bluff where the shore ice seemed narrower than elsewhere, and we approached, intending to examine it with reference to landing the party here. When we were within a mile of it we saw a group of natives signaling us to land by waving something over their heads. The Captain, Joe, and myself got on the ice from the boat, and began to scramble over it toward the bluff, but found the ice very rough and made slow progress. The pack is made up of a crushed mass of blocks and pinnacles tilted at every angle up to a height of from ten to thirty feet, and it seemed to become rougher and more impassable as we advanced.

Fortunately we discovered a group of natives a quarter of a mile or so to the westward, coming toward the ship, when we returned to our boat that was lying at the edge of the ice, and went around to meet them. After shaking hands with the most imposing of the group of eight, we directed Joe to tell them the object we had in coming, and to inquire whether two of their number would go with our sledge party to assist in driving the teams. One of them, a strapping fellow over six feet tall, said that he had a wife and four boys and two girls to hunt seals for, and therefore could not go. As Joe interpreted him in whaler English, he was "already hungry like hell." Another said that the journey was too long for him, that our friends were not along the coast, else he would certainly have heard about them, and therefore the journey would be vain. We urged that we were going to seek them whether they were to he found or not, and that if they would go with us we would leave more food for their families than they could get for them by hunting.

Two of the number at length consented to go, after being assured that we would pay them well, whether the journey proved successful or otherwise. Then we intimated that we would like to visit their village, which seemed to please them; for they started at once to guide us over the hummocky ice to where they had left their dog-teams and sleds. It was a rough scramble at best, and even the natives slipped at times and hesitated cautiously in choosing a way, while we, encumbered with overcoats and not so well shod, kept sinking with awkward glints and slumps into hopper-shaped hollows and chasms filled with snow. One of them kindly gave me his balancing-stick.

Beyond the roughest portion of the hummock region we found the dogs, nearly a hundred of them, with eleven sleds, making, as they lay at their ease, an imposing picture among the white ice. Three of the teams were straightened out and one of them given in charge of Joe, who is an adept at driving, while the Captain and I were taken on behind the drivers of the other two; and away we sped over the frozen ceiling of the sea, two rows of tails ahead.

The distance to the village, called "Tapkan" by the natives, was about three miles, the first mile very rough and apparently hopelessly inaccessible to sleds. But the wolfish dogs and drivers seemed to regard it all as a regular turnpike, and jogged merrily on, up one side of tilted block or slab and down the other with sudden pitch and plunge, swishing round sideways on squinted cakes, and through pools of water and sludge in blue, craggy hollows, on and on, this way and that, with never a halt, the dogs keeping up a steady jog trot, and the leader simply looking over his shoulder occasionally for directions in the worst places. The driver admonished them with loud calls of "Hoora! Hoora! Shedack! Shedack! Knock! Knock!" but seldom struck them. He had to hold himself in constant readiness to jump off and hold the sled while guiding it around sharp angles and across the high cutting ridges. My sled was not upset at all, and the Captain's only twice.

Part of our way was across the mouth of a bay on smooth ice that had not been subjected to the mashing, upheaving strain of the ocean ice, and over this we glided rapidly. My Chukchi driver, now that he had no care about the upsetting of the sled, frequently turned with a smile and did his best to entertain me, though he did not understand a word of English. It was a rare, strange ride for us, yet accomplished with such everyday commonplace confidence, that it seemed at the time as if this might be the only mode of land travel in the world.

Some teams were just arriving from the village as we were going to it. When we met, the dogs passed each other to right or left as they were told by their drivers, who kept flourishing a whip and jingling some iron rings that were tied loosely to one end of a short stick that had an iron goad in the other, and of which the dogs knew the use all too well. They are as steady as oxen, each keeping its trace-line tight, and showing no inclination to shirk - utterly unlike the illustrations I had seen, in which all are represented as running at a wild gallop with mouths wide open.

The village is built on a sand-bar pushed up by the ice on the west side of a narrow bay. I counted twenty huts in all. When we drove up, the women and children, and a few old men who had not been tempted to make the journey to the ship, came out to meet us. Captain Hooper went to the house belonging to his driver, I to the one belonging to mine; afterwards we joined and visited in company. We were kindly received and shown to good seats on reindeer skins. All of them smiled good- naturedly when we shook hands with them, and tried to repeat our salutations. When we discussed our proposed land journey the women eagerly joined and the children listened attentively.

We inquired about the Vega, knowing that she had wintered hereabouts. At first they said they knew nothing about her; that no ship had wintered here two years ago. Then, as if suddenly remembering, one of them said a three-masted ship, a steamer like the Corwin, had stopped one season in the ice at a point a few miles east of the village, and had gone away when it melted in the summer. A woman, who had been listening, then went to a box, and after turning it over, showed us a spoon, fork, and pocket compass of Russian manufacture, which she said the captain had given them.

The huts here are like those already described, only they are dry because of the porous character of the ground. Three or four families live in one each having a private polog of deerskins, of which there are several thicknesses on the floor. We were shown into one - the snuggest storm nest imaginable, and perfectly clean. The common hut is far otherwise; dogs mingle with the food, hair is everywhere, and strangely persistent smells that defy even the Arctic frosts. The children seemed in fair ratio with the adults. When a child is to be nursed the mother merely pulls out one of her arms from the roomy sleeve of her parka and pushes it down until the breast is exposed. The breasts are pendulous and cylindrical, like those of the Tlingits.

The dishes used in domestic affairs are of wood, and in the smallest of these the puppies, after licking them, were often noticed to lie down. They seemed made specially for them, so well did they fit. Dogs were eagerly licking the large kettles, also, in which seal meat had been boiled. They seemed to be favored in these establishments like the pigs in Irish huts. Spears, lances, guns, and nets were fastened about the timbers of the roof and sides, but little food of any kind was visible. A pot was swinging over a small fire of driftwood when we entered one of the huts, and an old dame was stirring it occasionally, and roasting seal liver on the coals beneath it. On leaving we were each presented with a pair of fur mittens.

At the last moment, when we were ready to return to the ship, one of the men we had engaged to go with the land party changed his mind and concluded to stay at home. The other stuck to his engagement, though evidently feeling sore about leaving his family. His little boy cried bitterly when he learned that his father was going away, and refused all the offers made by the women to comfort him. After we had sped away over the ice, half a mile from the village, we could still hear his screams. Just as the ship was about to weigh anchor, the second man again offered to go with us, but Joe said to the Captain, "More better not take that fellow, he too much talk."

The group of lookers-on congregated on the edge of the ice was very picturesque seen from the vessel as we moved away. The Chukchis are taller and more resolute-looking people than the Eskimos of the opposite coast, but both are Mongols and nearly alike in dress and mode of life, as well as in religion.

The weather is promising this evening. No portion of the polar pack is in sight, and we mean to push on westward as far as we can with safety.

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