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Tent Life in Siberia by George Kennan

Part 6 out of 7

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San Francisco to Gizhiga with a force of about sixty men, and large
assorted cargoes to the value of sixty thousand dollars. One of these,
the _Clara Bell_, loaded with brackets and insulators, had already
arrived; and the other two, with commissary stores, wire, instruments,
and men, were _en route_. A fourth vessel with thirty officers and
workmen, a small river-steamer, and a full supply of tools and
provisions, had also been sent to the mouth of the Anadyr River, where
it would be received by Lieutenant Bush. The corvette _Varag_ had been
detailed by the Russian Navy Department to assist in laying the cable
across Bering Strait; but as the cable, which was ordered in England,
had not arrived, there was nothing in particular for the _Varag_ to
do, and Colonel Bulkley had sent her with the Russian Commissioner to
Gizhiga. Owing to her great draught of water--twenty-two feet--she
could not safely come within less than fifteen or twenty miles of the
Okhotsk Sea coast, and could not, of course, give us much assistance;
but her very presence, with a special Russian Commissioner on board,
invested our enterprise with a sort of governmental authority and
sanction, which enabled us to deal more successfully with the local
authorities and people than would otherwise have been possible.

It had been Major Abaza's intention, as soon as one of the Company's
vessels should arrive, to go to the Russian city and province of
Yakutsk, on the Lena River, engage there five or six hundred native
labourers, purchase three hundred horses, and make arrangements for
their distribution along the whole route of the line. The peculiar
state of affairs, however, at the time the _Varag_ and the _Clara
Bell_ reached Gizhiga, made it almost impossible for him to leave.
Two vessels--the _Onward_ and the _Palmetto_--were yet to arrive with
large and valuable cargoes, whose distribution along the coast of the
Okhotsk Sea he wished to superintend in person. He decided, therefore,
to postpone his trip to Yakutsk until later in the fall, and to do
what he could in the meantime with the two vessels already at his
disposal. The _Clara Bell_, in addition to her cargo of brackets and
insulators, brought a foreman and three or four men as passengers,
and these Major Abaza determined to send under command of Lieutenant
Arnold to Yamsk, with orders to hire as many native labourers as
possible and begin at once the work of cutting poles and preparing
station-houses. The _Varag_ he proposed to send with stores and
despatches to Mahood, who had been living alone at Okhotsk almost five
months without news, money, or provisions, and who it was presumed
must be nearly discouraged.

On the day previous to the _Varag's_ departure, we were all invited by
her social and warm-hearted officers to a last complimentary dinner;
and although we had not been and should not be able with our scanty
means to reciprocate such attentions, we felt no hesitation in
accepting the invitation and tasting once more the pleasures of
civilised life. Nearly all the officers of the _Varag_, some thirty in
number, spoke English; the ship itself was luxuriously fitted up; a
fine military band welcomed us with "Hail, Columbia!" when we came
on board, and played selections from _Martha, Traviata_, and _Der
Freischuetz_ while we dined, and all things contributed to make our
visit to the _Varag_ a bright spot in our Siberian experience.

On the following morning at ten o'clock, we returned to the _Clara
Bell_ in one of the latter's small-boats, and the corvette steamed
slowly out to sea, her officers waving their hats from the
quarter-deck in mute farewell, and her band playing the Pirate's
Chorus--"Ever be happy and blest as thou art"--as if in mockery of our
lonely, cheerless exile! It was a gloomy party of men which returned
that afternoon to a supper of reindeer-meat and cabbage in the bare
deserted rooms of the government storehouse at Gizhiga! We realised
then, if never before, the difference between _life_ in "God's
country" and _existence_ in north-eastern Asia.

As soon as possible after the departure of the _Varag_, the _Clara
Bell_ was brought into the mouth of the river, her cargo of brackets
and insulators discharged, Lieutenant Arnold and party sent on board,
and with the next high tide, August 26th, she sailed for Yamsk and
San Francisco, leaving no one at Gizhiga but the original Kamchatkan
party, Dodd, the Major, and myself.



The brief excitement produced by the arrival of the _Varag_ and the
_Clara Bell_ was succeeded by another long, dreary month of waiting,
during which we lived as before in lonely discomfort at the mouth of
the Gizhiga River. Week after week passed away without bringing any
tidings from the missing ships, and at last the brief northern summer
closed, snow appeared upon the mountains, and heavy long-continued
storms announced the speedy approach of another winter. More than
three months had elapsed since the supposed departure of the _Onward_
and _Palmetto_ from San Francisco, and we could account for their
non-appearance only by the supposition that they had either been
disabled or lost at sea. On the 18th of September, Major Abaza
determined to send a messenger to the Siberian capital, to telegraph
the Company for instructions. Left as we were at the beginning of a
second winter without men, tools, or materials of any kind, except
50,000 insulators and brackets, we could do nothing toward the
construction of the line, and our only resource was to make our
unpleasant situation known to the Company. On the 19th, however,
before this resolution could be carried into effect, the long-expected
bark _Palmetto_ arrived, followed closely by the Russian
supply-steamer _Saghalin_, from Nikolaievsk. The latter, being
independent of wind and drawing very little water, had no difficulty
in crossing the bar and gaining the shelter of the river; but the
_Palmetto_ was compelled to anchor outside and await a higher tide.
The weather, which for several days had been cold and threatening,
grew momentarily worse, and on the 22d the wind was blowing a
close-reefed-topsail gale from the south-east, and rolling a
tremendous sea into the unprotected gulf. We felt the most serious
apprehensions for the safety of the unfortunate bark; but as the water
would not permit her to cross the bar at the mouth of the river,
nothing could be done until another high tide. On the 23d, it became
evident that the _Palmetto_--upon which now rested all our hopes--must
inevitably go ashore. She had broken her heaviest anchor, and was
drifting slowly but surely against the rocky, precipitous coast on the
eastern side of the river, where nothing could prevent her from being
dashed to pieces. As there was now no other alternative, Captain
Arthur slipped his cable, got his ship under way, and stood directly
in for the mouth of the river. He could no longer avoid going ashore
somewhere, and it was better to strike on a yielding bar of sand than
to drift helplessly against a black perpendicular wall of rock, where
destruction would be certain. The bark came gallantly in until she
was only half a mile distant from the lighthouse, and then grounded
heavily in about seven feet of water. As soon as she struck she began
pounding with tremendous violence against the bottom while the seas
broke in great white clouds of spray entirely over her quarter-deck.
It did not seem probable, that she would live through the night. As
the tide rose, however, she drove farther and farther in toward the
mouth of the river until, at full flood, she was only a quarter of
a mile distant. Being a very strongly built ship, she suffered less
damage than we had supposed, and, as the tide ran out, she lay high
and dry on the bar, with no more serious injury than the loss of her
false keel and a few sections of her copper sheathing.

As she was lying on her beam-ends, with her deck careened at an angle
of forty-five degrees, it was impossible to hoist anything out of her
hold, but we made preparations at once to discharge her cargo in boats
as soon as another tide should raise her into an upright position.
We felt little hope of being able to save the ship, but it was
all-important that her cargo should be discharged before she should go
to pieces. Captain Tobezin, of the Russian steamer _Saghalin_, offered
us the use of all his boats and the assistance of his crew, and on the
following day we began work with six or seven boats, a large lighter,
and about fifty men. The sea still continued to run very high; the
bark recommenced her pounding against the bottom; the lighter swamped
and sank with a full load about a hundred yards from shore, and a
miscellaneous assortment of boxes, crates, and flour-barrels went
swimming up the river with the tide. Notwithstanding all these
misfortunes, we kept perseveringly at work with the boats as long as
there was water enough around the bark to float them, and by the time
the tide ran out we could congratulate ourselves upon having saved
provisions enough to insure us against starvation, even though the
ship should go to pieces that night. On the 25th, the wind abated
somewhat in violence, the sea went down, and as the bark did not seem
to be seriously injured we began to entertain some hope of saving both
ship and cargo. From the 25th until the 29th of September, all the
boats of the _Saghalin_ and of the _Palmetto_, with the crews of both
vessels, were constantly engaged in transporting stores from the bark
to the shore, and on the 30th at least half of the _Palmetto's_ cargo
was safely discharged. So far as we could judge, there would be
nothing to prevent her from going to sea with the first high tide
in October. A careful examination proved that she had sustained no
greater injury than the loss of her false keel, and this, in the
opinion of the _Saghalin's_ officers, would not make her any the
less seaworthy, or interfere to any extent with her sailing. A new
difficulty, however, presented itself. The crew of the _Palmetto were_
all negroes; and as soon as they learned that Major Abaza intended to
send the bark to San Francisco that fall, they promptly refused to go,
declaring that the vessel was unseaworthy, and that they preferred
to spend the winter in Siberia rather than risk a voyage in her to
America. Major Abaza immediately called a commission of the officers
of the _Saghalin_, and requested them to make another examination
of the bark and give him their opinion in writing as to her
seaworthiness. The examination was made, and the opinion given that
she was entirely fit for a voyage to Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka, and
probably to San Francisco. This decision was read to the negroes,
but they still persisted in their refusal. After warning them of the
consequences of mutiny, the Major ordered their ringleader to be put
in irons, and he was conveyed on board the _Saghalin_ and imprisoned
in the "black hole"; but his comrades still held out. It was of vital
importance that the _Palmetto_ should go to sea with the first high
tide, because the season was already far advanced, and she must
inevitably be wrecked by ice if she remained in the river later than
the middle of October.

Besides this, Major Abaza would be compelled to leave for Yakutsk on
the steamer _Saghalin_, and the latter was now ready to go to sea. On
the afternoon of the 1st, just as the _Saghalin_ was getting up steam
to start, the negroes sent word to the Major that if he would release
the man whom he had caused to be put in irons, they would do their
best to finish unloading the _Palmetto_ and to get her back to San
Francisco. The man was promptly released, and two hours afterwards
Major Abaza sailed on the _Saghalin_ for Okhotsk, leaving us to do the
best we could with our half-wrecked stranded ship and her mutinous

The cargo of the bark was still only half discharged, and we
continued for the next five days to unload in boats, but it was hard,
discouraging work, as there were only six hours in the twenty-four
during which boats could reach the ship, and those six hours were from
eleven o'clock P.M. to five in the morning. At all other times the
ship lay on her beam-ends, and the water around her was too shallow to
float even a plank. To add, if possible, to our difficulties and to
our anxiety, the weather became suddenly colder, the thermometer fell
to zero, masses of floating ice came in with every tide and tore off
great sheets of the vessel's copper as they drifted past, and the
river soon became so choked up with icy fragments that we were obliged
to haul the boats back and forth with ropes. In spite of weather,
water, and ice, however, the vessel's cargo was slowly but steadily
discharged, and by the 10th of October nothing remained on board
except a few hogsheads of flour, some salt-beef and pork which we
did not want, and seventy-five or a hundred tons of coal. These we
determined to let her carry back to San Francisco as ballast. The
tides were now getting successively higher and higher every day, and
on the 11th the _Palmetto_ floated for the first time in almost three
weeks. As soon as her keel cleared the bar she was swung around into
the channel, head to sea, and moored with light kedge-anchors, ready
for a start on the following day. Since the intensely cold weather of
the previous week, her crew of negroes had expressed no further
desire to spend a winter in Siberia, and, unless the wind should veer
suddenly to the southward, we could see nothing to prevent her from
getting safely out of the river. The wind for once proved favourable,
and at 2 P.M. on the 12th of October the _Palmetto_ shook out her
long-furled courses and topsails, cut the cables of her kedge-anchors,
and with a light breeze from the north-east, moved slowly out into the
gulf. Never was music more sweet to my ears than the hearty "Yo heave
ho!" of her negro crew as they sheeted home the topgallant sails
outside the bar! The bark was safely at sea. She was not a day too
soon in making her escape. In less than a week after her departure,
the river and the upper part of the gulf were so packed with ice that
it would have been impossible for her to move or to avoid total wreck.

The prospects of the enterprise at the opening of the second winter
were more favourable than they had been at any time since its
inception. The Company's vessels, it is true, had been very late in
their arrival, and one of them, the _Onward_, had not come at all;
but the _Palmetto_ had brought twelve or fourteen more men and a full
supply of tools and provisions, Major Abaza had gone to Yakutsk to
hire six or eight hundred native labourers and purchase three hundred
horses, and we hoped that the first of February would find the work
progressing rapidly along the whole extent of the line.

As soon as possible after the departure of the _Palmetto_, I sent
Lieutenant Sandford and the twelve men whom she had brought into the
woods on the Gizhiga River above the settlement, supplied them with
axes, snow-shoes, dog-sledges, and provisions, and set them at work
cutting poles and building houses, to be distributed across the
steppes between Gizhiga and Penzhinsk Gulf. I also sent a small party
of natives under Mr. Wheeler to Yamsk, with five or six sledge-loads
of axes and provisions for Lieutenant Arnold, and despatches to be
forwarded to Major Abaza. For the present, nothing more could be done
on the coast of the Okhotsk Sea, and I prepared to start once more
for the north. We had heard nothing whatever from Lieutenant Bush
and party since the first of the previous May, and we were of course
anxious to know what success he had met with in cutting and rafting
poles down the Anadyr River, and what were his prospects and plans for
the winter. The late arrival of the _Palmetto_ at Gizhiga had led us
to fear that the vessel destined for the Anadyr might also have
been detained and have placed Lieutenant Bush and party in a very
unpleasant if not dangerous situation. Major Abaza had directed me,
therefore, when he sailed for Okhotsk, to go by the first winter road
to Anadyrsk and ascertain whether the Company's vessels had been at
the mouth of the river, and whether Bush needed any assistance. As
there was no longer anything to detain me at Gizhiga, I packed up my
camp-equipage and extra fur clothes, loaded five sledges with tea,
sugar, tobacco, and provisions, and on November 2d started with six
Cossacks for my last journey to the Arctic Circle.

In all my Siberian experience I can recall no expedition which was so
lonely and dismal as this. For the sake of saving transportation, I
had decided not to take any of my American comrades with me; but by
many a silent camp-fire did I regret my self-denying economy, and
long for the hearty laugh and good-humoured raillery of my "fidus
Achates"--Dodd. During twenty-five days I did not meet a civilised
being or speak a word of my native language, and at the end of that
time I should have been glad to talk to an intelligent American dog.
"Aloneness," says Beecher, "is to social life what rests are to
music"; but a journey made up entirely of "aloneness" is no more
entertaining than a piece of music made up entirely of rests--only a
vivid imagination can make anything out of either.


At Kuil, on the coast of Penzhinsk Gulf, I was compelled to leave
my good-humoured Cossacks and take for drivers half a dozen stupid,
sullen, shaven-headed Koraks, and from that time I was more lonesome
than ever. I had been able to talk a little with the Cossacks, and
had managed to pass away the long winter evenings by the camp-fire in
questioning them about their peculiar beliefs and superstitions, and
listening to their characteristic stories of Siberian life; but now,
as I could not speak the Korak language, I was absolutely without any
resource for amusement.

My new drivers were the ugliest, most villainous-looking Koraks that
it would have been possible to select in all the Penzhinsk Gulf
settlements, and their obstinacy and sullen stupidity kept me in
a chronic state of ill-humour from the time we left Kuil until we
reached Penzhina. Only by threatening them periodically with a
revolver could I make them go at all. The art of camping out
comfortably in bad weather they knew nothing whatever about, and in
vain did I try to teach them. In spite of all my instructions and
illustrations, they would persist night after night in digging a deep
narrow hole in the snow for a fire, and squatting around the top of it
like frogs around the edge of a well, while I made a camp for myself.
Of the art of cooking they were equally ignorant, and the mystery of
canned provisions they could never fathom. Why the contents of one can
should be boiled, while the contents of another precisely similar
can should be fried--why one turned into soup and another into a
cake--were questions which they gravely discussed night after
night, but about which they could never agree. Astounding were the
experiments which they occasionally tried upon the contents of these
incomprehensible tin boxes. Tomatoes they brought to me fried into
cakes with butter, peaches they mixed with canned beef and boiled for
soup, green corn they sweetened, and desiccated vegetables they broke
into lumps with stones. Never by any accident did they hit upon
the right combination, unless I stood over them constantly and
superintended personally the preparation of my own supper. Ignorant as
they were, however, of the nature of these strange American eatables,
they always manifested a great curiosity to taste them, and their
experiments in this way were sometimes very amusing. One evening, soon
after we left Shestakova, they happened to see me eating a pickled
cucumber, and as this was something which had never come within the
range of their limited gastronomical experience, they asked me for
a piece to taste. Knowing well what the result would be, I gave the
whole cucumber to the dirtiest, worst-looking vagabond in the party,
and motioned to him to take a good bite. As he put it to his lips his
comrades watched him with breathless curiosity to see how he liked it.
For a moment his face wore an expression of blended surprise, wonder,
and disgust, which was irresistibly ludicrous, and he seemed disposed
to spit the disagreeable morsel out; but with a strong effort he
controlled himself, forced his features into a ghastly imitation
of satisfaction, smacked his lips, declared it was "akhmel
nemelkhin"--very good,--and handed the pickle to his next neighbour.
The latter was equally astonished and disgusted with its unexpected
sourness, but, rather than admit his disappointment and be laughed at
by the others, he also pretended that it was delicious, and passed it
along. Six men in succession went through with this transparent farce
with the greatest solemnity; but when they had all tasted it, and all
been victimised, they burst out into a simultaneous "ty-e-e-e" of
astonishment, and gave free expression to their long-suppressed
emotions of disgust. The vehement spitting, coughing, and washing out
of mouths with snow, which succeeded this outburst, proved that the
taste for pickles is an acquired one, and that man in his aboriginal
state does not possess it. What particularly amused me, however, was
the way in which they imposed on one another. Each individual Korak,
as soon as he found that he had been victimised, saw at once the
necessity of getting even by victimising the next man, and not one of
them would admit that there was anything bad about the pickle until
they had all tasted it. "Misery loves company," and human nature is
the same all the world over. Dissatisfied as they were with the result
of this experiment, they were not at all daunted, but still continued
to ask me for samples of every tin can I opened. Just before we
reached Penzhina, however, a catastrophe occurred which relieved
me from their importunity, and inspired them with a superstitious
reverence for tin cans which no subsequent familiarity could ever
overcome. We were accustomed, when we came into camp at night, to set
our cans into a bed of hot ashes and embers to thaw out, and I had
cautioned my drivers repeatedly not to do this until after the cans
had been opened. I could not of course explain to them that the
accumulation of steam would cause the cans to burst; but I did tell
them that it would be "atkin"--bad--if they did not make a hole in the
cover before putting the can on the fire. One evening, however, they
forgot or neglected to take this precaution, and while they were all
squatting in a circle around the fire, absorbed in meditation, one of
the cans suddenly blew up with a tremendous explosion, set free an
immense cloud of steam, and scattered fragments of boiling hot mutton
in every direction. Had a volcano opened suddenly under the camp-fire,
the Koraks could not have been more dismayed. They had not time to get
up and run away, so they rolled over backward with their heels in the
air, shouted "Kammuk!"--"The Devil!"--and gave themselves up for lost.
My hearty laughter finally reassured them, and made them a little
ashamed of their momentary panic; but from that time forward they
handled tin cans as if they were loaded percussion shells, and could
never again be induced to taste a morsel of their contents.

Our progress toward Anadyrsk after we left the coast of the Okhotsk
Sea was very slow, on account both of the shortness of the days, and
the depth and softness of the freshly fallen snow. Frequently, for ten
or fifteen miles at a stretch, we were compelled to break a road on
snow-shoes for our heavily loaded sledges, and even then our tired
dogs could hardly struggle through the soft powdery drifts. The
weather, too, was so intensely cold that my mercurial thermometer,
which indicated only -23 deg., was almost useless. For several days the
mercury never rose out of the bulb, and I could only estimate the
temperature by the rapidity with which my supper froze after being
taken from the fire. More than once soup turned from a liquid to a
solid in my hands, and green corn froze to my tin plate before I could
finish eating it.

On the fourteenth day after leaving Gizhiga we reached the native
settlement of Penzhina, two hundred versts from Anadyrsk. Ours was
the first arrival at that place since the previous May, and the whole
population of the village--men, women, children, and dogs--turned out
_en masse_ to meet us, with the most joyful demonstrations. Six months
had elapsed since they last saw a strange face or heard from the
outside world, and they proceeded to fire a salute from half a dozen
rusty old muskets, as a faint expression of their delight.

I had confidently expected when I left Gizhiga that I should meet
somewhere on the road a courier with news and despatches from Bush;
and I was very much disappointed and a little alarmed when I reached
Penzhina to find that no one had arrived at that place from Anadyrsk,
and that nothing had been heard from our party since the previous
spring. I felt a presentiment that something was wrong, because Bush
had been expressly directed to send a courier to Gizhiga by the first
winter road, and it was now late in November.

On the following day my worst anticipations were realised. Late in the
evening, as I was sitting in the house of one of the Russian peasants
drinking tea, the cry was raised that "Anadyrski yaydoot"--"Some one
is coming from Anadyrsk"; and running hastily out of the house I met
the long-haired Anadyrsk priest just as he stepped from his sledge in
front of the door. My first question of course was, "Where's Bush?"
But my heart sank as the priest replied: "Bokh yevo znaiet"--"God
only knows." "But where did you see him last?--Where did he spend the
summer?" I inquired. "I saw him last at the mouth of the Anadyr River,
in July," said the priest, "and since that time nothing has been heard
from him." A few more questions brought out the whole dismal story.
Bush, Macrae, Harder, and Smith had gone down the Anadyr River in June
with a large raft of station-houses, intended for erection along its
banks. After putting up these houses at necessary points, they had
gone on in canoes to Anadyr Bay, to await the arrival of the Company's
vessels from San Francisco. Here the priest had joined them and had
lived with them several weeks; but late in July their scanty supply
of provisions had given out, the expected ships had not come, and the
priest returned to the settlement, leaving the unfortunate Americans
in a half-starving condition at the mouth of the river. Since that
time nothing had been heard from them, and, as the priest mournfully
said, "God only knew" where they were and what had happened to them.
This was bad news, but it was not the worst. In consequence of the
entire failure of the salmon fisheries of the Anadyr River that
season, a terrible famine had broken out at Anadyrsk, part of the
inhabitants and nearly all the dogs had died of starvation, and the
village was almost deserted. Everybody who had dogs enough to draw a
sledge had gone in search of the Wandering Chukchis, with whom they
could live until another summer; and the few people who were left in
the settlement were eating their boots and scraps of reindeerskin to
keep themselves alive. Early in October a party of natives had gone in
search of Bush and his comrades on dog-sledges, but more than a month
had now elapsed since their departure and they had not yet returned.
In all probability they had starved to death on the great desolate
plains of the lower Anadyr, as they had been compelled to start with
only ten days' provisions, and it was doubtful whether they would meet
Wandering Chukchis who could supply them with more.

Such was the first news which I heard from the Northern District--a
famine at Anadyrsk, Bush and party absent since July, and eight
natives and dog-sledges missing since the middle of October. I did
not see how the state of affairs could be any worse, and I spent a
sleepless night in thinking over the situation and trying to decide
upon some plan of operations. Much as I dreaded another journey to the
mouth of the Anadyr in midwinter, I saw no way of avoiding it. The
fact that nothing had been heard from Bush in four months proved that
he had met with some misfortune, and it was clearly my duty to go to
Anadyr Bay in search of him if there was a possibility of doing so. On
the following morning, therefore, I began buying a supply of dog-food,
and before night I had collected 2000 dried fish and a quantity of
seals' blubber, which I felt sure would last five dog teams at least
forty days. I then sent for the chief of a band of Wandering Koraks
who happened to be encamped near Penzhina, and prevailed upon him to
drive his herd of reindeer to Anadyrsk, and kill enough to supply the
starving inhabitants with food until they could get other help. I also
sent two natives back to Gizhiga on dog-sledges, with a letter to the
Russian governor, apprising him of the famine, and another to Dodd,
directing him to load all the dog-sledges he could get with provisions
and send them at once to Penzhina, where I would make arrangements for
their transportation to the famine-stricken settlement.

I started myself for Anadyrsk on November 20th with five of the best
men and an equal number of the best dog-teams in Penzhina. These men
and dogs I intended to take with me to the mouth of the Anadyr River
if I heard nothing from Bush before I reached Anadyrsk.

[Illustration: Box for holding cups and teapot]



Availing ourselves of the road which had been broken by the sledges
of the priest, we made more rapid progress toward Anadyrsk than I had
anticipated, and on November 22d we camped at the foot of a range of
low mountains known as the "Russki Krebet," only thirty versts south
of the settlement. With the hope of reaching our destination before
the next morning, we had intended to travel all night; but a storm
sprang up most inopportunely just before dark and prevented us from
getting over the pass. About midnight the wind abated a little, the
moon came out occasionally through rifts in the clouds, and, fearing
that we should have no better opportunity, we roused up our tired dogs
and began the ascent of the mountain. It was a wild, lonely scene.
The snow was drifting in dense clouds down the pass, half hiding from
sight the bare white peaks on either side, and blotting out all the
landscape behind us as we ascended. Now and then the misty moonbeams
would struggle faintly through the clouds of flying snow and light up
for a moment the great barren slope of the mountain above our heads;
then they would be suddenly smothered in dark vapour, the wind would
come roaring down the ravine again, and everything would vanish in
clouds and darkness. Blinded and panting for breath, we finally gained
the summit, and as we stopped for a moment to rest our tired dogs, we
were suddenly startled by the sight of a long line of dark objects
passing swiftly across the bare mountain-top only a few yards away and
plunging down into the ravine out of which we had just come. I caught
only a glimpse of them, but they seemed to be dog-sledges, and with a
great shout we started in pursuit. Dog-sledges they were, and as we
drew nearer I recognised among them the old sealskin covered _pavoska_
which I had left at Anadyrsk the previous winter, and which I knew
must be occupied by an American. With heart beating fast from
excitement I sprang from my sledge, ran up to the _pavoska_, and
demanded in English, "Who is it?" It was too dark to recognise faces,
but I knew well the voice that answered "Bush!" and never was that
voice more welcome. For more than three weeks I had not seen a
countryman nor spoken a word of English; I was lonely and disheartened
by constantly accumulating misfortunes, when suddenly at midnight on
a desolate mountain-top, in a storm, I met an old friend and comrade
whom I had almost given up as dead. It was a joyful meeting. The
natives who had gone to Anadyr Bay in search of Bush and his party had
returned in safety, bringing Bush with them, and he was on his way to
Gizhiga to carry the news of the famine and get provisions and help.
He had been stopped by the storm as we had, and when it abated a
little at midnight we had both started from opposite sides to cross
the mountain, and had thus met upon the summit.

We went back together to my deserted camp on the south side of the
mountain, blew up the embers of my still smouldering fire, spread down
our bearskins, and sat there talking until we were as white as polar
bears with the drifting snow, and day began to break in the East.

Bush brought more bad news. They had gone down to the mouth of the
Anadyr, as the priest had already informed me, in the early part of
June, and had waited there for the Company's vessels almost four
months. Their provisions had finally given out, and they had been
compelled to subsist upon the few fish that they were able to catch
from day to day, and go hungry when they could catch none. For salt
they scraped the staves of an old pork-barrel which had been left at
Macrae's camp the previous winter, and for coffee they drank burned
rice water. At last, however, salt and rice both failed, and they were
reduced to an unvarying and often scanty diet of boiled fish, without
coffee, bread, or salt. Living in the midst of a great moss swamp
fifty miles from the nearest tree, dressing in skins for the want of
anything else, suffering frequently from hunger, tormented constantly
by mosquitoes, from which they had no protection, and looking day
after day and week after week for vessels which never came, their
situation was certainly miserable. The Company's bark _Golden Gate_
had finally arrived in October, bringing twenty-five men and a small
steamer; but winter had already set in, and five days afterwards,
before they could finish discharging the vessel's cargo, she was
wrecked by ice. Her crew and nearly all her stores were saved, but by
this misfortune the number of the party was increased from twenty-five
to forty-seven, without any corresponding increase in the quantity of
provisions for their subsistence. Fortunately, however, there were
bands of Wandering Chukchis within reach, and from them Bush succeeded
in buying a considerable number of reindeer, which he caused to be
frozen and stored away for future use. After the freezing over of the
Anadyr River, Bush was left, as Macrae had been the previous winter,
without any means of getting up to the settlement, a distance of 250
miles; but he had foreseen this difficulty, and had left orders at
Anadyrsk that if he failed to return in canoes before the river
closed, dog-sledges should be sent to his assistance. Notwithstanding
the famine the dog-sledges were sent, and Bush, with two men, had
returned on them to Anadyrsk. Finding that settlement famine-stricken
and deserted, he had started without a moment's delay for Gizhiga, his
exhausted and starving dogs dying along the road.

The situation of affairs, then, when I met Bush on the summit of the
Russki Krebet, was briefly as follows:

Forty-four men were living at the mouth of the Anadyr River, 250 miles
from the nearest settlement, without provisions enough to last them
through the winter, and without any means whatever of getting away.
The village of Anadyrsk was deserted, and with the exception of a few
teams at Penzhina, there were no available dogs in all the Northern
District, from the Okhotsk Sea to Bering Strait. Under such
circumstances, what could be done? Bush and I discussed the question
all night beside our lonely camp-fire under the Russki Krebet, but
could come to no decision, and after sleeping three or four hours
we started for Anadyrsk. Late in the afternoon we drove into the
settlement--but it could be called a settlement no longer. The two
upper villages--"Osolkin" and "Pokorukof," which on the previous
winter had presented so thriving an appearance, were now left without
a single inhabitant, and Markova itself was occupied only by a few
starving families whose dogs had all died, and who were therefore
unable to get away. No chorus of howls announced our arrival; no
people came out to meet us; the windows of the houses were closed with
wooden shutters, and half buried in drifts; the snow was unbroken by
paths, and the whole village was silent and desolate. It looked as if
one-half of the inhabitants had died and the other half had gone
to the funeral! We stopped at a small log-house where Bush had
established his headquarters, and spent the remainder of the day in
talking over our respective experiences.

The unpleasant situation in which we found ourselves placed was due
almost entirely to the famine at Anadyrsk. The late arrival and
consequent wreck of the _Golden Gate_ was of course a great
misfortune; but it would not have been irretrievable had not the
famine deprived us of all means of transportation. The inhabitants of
Anadyrsk, as well as of all the other Russian settlements in Siberia,
are dependent for their very existence upon the fish which enter the
rivers every summer to spawn, and are caught by thousands as they make
their way up-stream toward the shallow water of the tributary brooks
in the interior of the country. As long as these migrations of
the fish are regular the natives have no difficulty in providing
themselves with an abundance of food; but once in every three or four
years, for some unexplained reason, the fish fail to come, and the
following winter brings precisely such a famine as the one which I
have described at Anadyrsk, only frequently much worse. In 1860
more than a hundred and fifty natives died of starvation in four
settlements on the coast of Penzhinsk Gulf, and the peninsula of
Kamchatka has been swept by famines again and again since the Russian
conquest, until its population has been reduced more than one-half.
Were it not for the Wandering Koraks, who come to the relief of the
starving people with their immense herds of reindeer, I firmly believe
that the _settled_ population of Siberia, including the Russians,
Chuances, Yukagirs, and Kamchadals, would become extinct in less than
fifty years. The great distance of the settlements one from another,
and the absence of any means of intercommunication in summer, make
each village entirely dependent upon its own resources, and prevent
any mutual support and assistance, until it is too late to be of any
avail. The first victims of such famines are always the dogs; and the
people being thus deprived of their only means of transportation,
cannot get away from the famine-stricken settlement, and after eating
their boots, sealskin thongs, and scraps of untanned leather, they
finally die of pure starvation. For this, however, their own careless
improvidence is primarily responsible. They might catch and dry fish
enough in one year to last them three; but instead of doing this, they
provide barely food enough to last them through one winter, and
take the chances of starvation on the next. No experience, however
severe--no suffering, however great, teaches them prudence. A man who
has barely escaped starvation one winter, will run precisely the same
risk on the next, rather than take a little extra trouble and catch a
few more fish. Even when they see that a famine is inevitable, they
take no measures to mitigate its severity or to obtain relief, until
they find themselves absolutely without a morsel to put in their

[Illustration: AN ARCTIC FUNERAL]

A native of Anadyrsk once happened to tell me, in the course of
conversation, that he had only five days' dog-food left. "But," said
I, "what do you intend to do at the end of those five days?"--"Bokh
yevo znaiet"--God only knows!--was the characteristic response,
and the native turned carelessly away as if it were a matter of no
consequence whatever. If God only knew, he seemed to think that it
made very little difference whether anybody else knew or not. After he
had fed his dogs the last dried fish in his storehouse, it would be
time enough to look about for more; but until then he did not propose
to borrow any unnecessary trouble. This well known recklessness and
improvidence of the natives finally led the Russian Government to
establish at several of the north-eastern Siberian settlements a
peculiar institution which may be called a Fish Savings Bank, or
Starvation Insurance Office. It was organised at first by the gradual
purchase from the natives of about a hundred thousand dried fish, or
_yukala_, which constituted the capital stock of the bank. Every male
inhabitant of the settlement was then obliged by law to pay into this
bank annually one-tenth of all the fish he caught, and no excuse was
admitted for a failure. The surplus fund thus created was added every
year to the capital, so that as long as the fish continued to come
regularly, the resources of the bank were constantly accumulating.
When, however, the fish for any reason failed and a famine
was threatened, every depositor--or, more strictly speaking,
tax-payer--was allowed to borrow from the bank enough fish to supply
his immediate wants, upon condition of returning the same on the
following summer, together with the regular annual payment of ten per
cent. It is evident that an institution once thoroughly established
upon such a basis, and managed upon such principles, could never fail,
but would constantly increase its capital of dried fish until the
settlement would be perfectly secure against even the possibility
of famine. At Kolyma, a Russian post on the Arctic Ocean, where the
experiment was first tried, it proved a complete success. The bank
sustained the inhabitants of the village through severe famines during
two consecutive winters, and its capital in 1867 amounted to 300,000
dried fish, and was accumulating at the rate of 20,000 a year.
Anadyrsk, not being a Russian military post, had no bank of this kind;
but had our work been continued another year, we intended to petition
the Government for the organisation of such institutions at all the
settlements, Russian and native, along the whole route of our line.

In the meantime, however, the famine was irremediable, and on December
1, 1867, poor Bush found himself in a deserted settlement 600 versts
from Gizhiga without money, without provisions, and without means of
transportation--but with a helpless party of forty-four men, at the
mouth of the Anadyr River, dependent upon him for support. Building a
telegraph line under such circumstances was out of the question. All
that he could hope to do would be to keep his parties supplied with
provisions until the arrival of horses and men from Yakutsk should
enable him to resume work.

On November 29th, finding that I could be of no further assistance at
Anadyrsk, and that I was only helping to eat up more rapidly Bush's
scanty supply of provisions, I started with two Penzhina sledges for
Gizhiga. As I did not again visit the Northern District, and shall
have no further occasion to refer to it, I will relate briefly here
the little which I afterward learned by letter with regard to the
misfortunes and unhappy experiences of the Company's employes in that
region. The sledges that I had ordered from Gizhiga reached Penzhina
late in December, with about 3000 pounds of beans, rice, hard-bread,
and assorted stores. As soon as possible after their arrival Bush sent
half a dozen sledges and a small quantity of provisions to the party
at the mouth of the Anadyr River and in February they returned,
bringing six men. Determined to accomplish something, however
little, Bush sent these six men to a point on the Myan River, about
seventy-five versts from Anadyrsk, and set them at work on snow-shoes
cutting poles along the route of the line. Later in the winter another
expedition was sent to Anadyr Bay, and on the 4th of March it also
returned, bringing Lieutenant Macrae and seven more men. This party
experienced terrible weather on its way from the mouth of the river
to Anadyrsk, and one of its members--a man named Robinson--died in
a storm about 150 versts east of the settlement. His body was left
unburied in one of the houses which Bush had erected the previous
summer and his comrades pushed on. As soon as they reached Anadyrsk
they were sent to the Myan, and by the middle of March the two parties
together had cut and distributed along the banks of that river about
3000 poles. In April, however, their provisions began again to run
short, they were gradually reduced to the verge of starvation,
and Bush started a second time for Gizhiga with a few miserable
half-starved and exhausted dog-teams, to get more provisions. During
his absence the unfortunate parties on the Myan were left to take
care of themselves, and after consuming their last morsel of food and
eating up three horses which had previously been sent to them from
Anadyrsk, they organised themselves into a forlorn hope, and started
on snow-shoes for the settlement. It was a terrible walk for
half-starving men; and although they reached their destination in
safety, they were entirely exhausted, and when they approached the
village could hardly go a hundred yards at a time without falling.
At Anadyrsk they succeeded in obtaining a small quantity of
reindeer-meat, upon which they lived until the return of Lieutenant
Bush from Gizhiga with provisions, some time in May. Thus ended the
second winter's work in the Northern District. As far as practical
results were concerned, it was an almost complete failure; but it
developed in our officers and men a courage, a perseverance, and a
patient endurance of hardships which deserved, and which under more
favourable auspices would have achieved, the most brilliant success.
In the month of February, while Mr. Norton and his men were at work
on the Myan River, the thermometer indicated more than forty degrees
below zero during sixteen days out of twenty-one, sank five times to
-60 deg. and once to -68 deg., or one hundred degrees below the freezing point
of water. Cutting poles on snow-shoes, in a temperature ranging
from 40 deg. to 60 deg. below zero is, in itself, no slight trial of men's
hardihood; but when to this are added the sufferings of hunger and the
peril of utter starvation in a perfect wilderness, it passes human
endurance, and the only wonder is that Norton and Macrae could
accomplish as much as they did.

Returning from Anadyrsk, I reached Gizhiga on the 15th of December,
after a hard and lonely journey of sixteen days. A special courier
had just arrived there from Yakutsk, bringing letters and orders from
Major Abaza.

He had succeeded, with the sanction and cooperation of the governor of
that province, in hiring for a period of three years a force of eight
hundred Yakut labourers, at a fixed rate of sixty rubles, or about
forty dollars a year for each man. He had also purchased three hundred
Yakut horses and pack-saddles, and an immense quantity of material
and provisions of various kinds for the equipment and subsistence of
horses and workmen. A portion of these men were already on their way
to Okhotsk, and the whole force would be sent thither in successive
detachments as rapidly as possible, and distributed from there along
the whole route of the line. It would be necessary, of course, to
put this large force of native labourers under skilled American
superintendence; and as we had not foremen enough in all our parties
to oversee more than five or six gangs of men, Major Abaza determined
to send a courier to Petropavlovsk for the officers who had sailed
from San Francisco in the bark _Onward_, and who he presumed had been
landed by that vessel in Kamchatka. He directed me, therefore, to make
arrangements for the transportation of these men from Petropavlovsk to
Gizhiga; to prepare immediately for the reception of fifty or sixty
Yakut labourers; to send six hundred army rations to Yamsk for the
subsistence of our American party there, and three thousand pounds of
rye flour for a party of Yakuts who would reach there in February.
To fill all these requisitions I had at my disposal about fifteen
dog-sledges, and even these had gone with provisions to Penzhina for
the relief of Lieutenant Bush. With the assistance of the Russian
governor I succeeded in getting two Cossacks to go to Petropavlovsk
after the Americans who were presumed to have been left there by the
_Onward_, and half a dozen Koraks to carry provisions to Yamsk, while
Lieutenant Arnold himself sent sledges for the six hundred rations. I
thus retained my own fifteen sledges to supply Lieutenant Sandford
and party, who were now cutting poles on the Tilghai River, north of
Penzhinsk Gulf. One day late in December, while Dodd and I were out
on the river above the settlement training a team of dogs, word was
brought to us that an American had arrived from Kamchatka, bringing
news from the long-missing bark _Onward_ and the party of men whom
she landed at Petropavlovsk. Hurrying back to the village with all
possible speed, we found Mr. Lewis, the American in question, seated
comfortably in our house drinking tea. This enterprising young
man--who, by the way, was a telegraph operator, wholly unaccustomed
to rough life--without being able to speak a word of Russian, had
traversed alone, in mid-winter, the whole wilderness of Kamchatka from
Petropavlovsk to Gizhiga. He had been forty-two days on the road, and
had travelled on dog-sledges nearly twelve hundred miles, with no
companions except a few natives and a Cossack from Tigil. He seemed
disposed to look upon this achievement very modestly, but in some
respects it was one of the most remarkable journeys ever made by one
of the Company's employes.

The _Onward_, as we had supposed, being unable to reach Gizhiga, on
account of the lateness of the season, had discharged her cargo and
landed most of her passengers at Petropavlovsk; and Mr. Lewis had been
sent by the chief of the party to report their situation to Major
Abaza, and find out what they should do.

After the arrival of Mr. Lewis nothing of special importance occurred
until March. Arnold at Yamsk, Sandford on the Tilghai, and Bush at
Anadyrsk, were trying, with the few men they had, to accomplish some
work; but, owing to deep snow-storms, intensely cold weather, and a
general lack everywhere of provisions and dogs, their efforts were
mostly fruitless. In January I made an excursion with twelve or
fifteen sledges to Sandford's camp on the Tilghai, and attempted to
move his party to another point thirty or forty versts nearer Gizhiga;
but in a severe storm on the Kuil steppe we were broken up, dispersed,
and all lost separately, and after wandering around four or five
days in clouds of drifting snow which hid even our dogs from sight,
Sandford with a portion of his party returned to the Tilghai, and I
with the remainder to Gizhiga.

Late in February the Cossack Kolmagorof arrived from Petropavlovsk,
Kamchatka, bringing three of the men who had been landed there by the

In March I received by a special courier from Yakutsk another letter
and more orders from Major Abaza. The eight hundred labourers whom he
had engaged were being rapidly sent forward to Okhotsk, and more than
a hundred and fifty were already at work at that place and at Yamsk.
The equipment and transportation of the remainder still required his
personal supervision, and it would be impossible, he wrote, for him to
return that winter to Gizhiga. He could come however, as far as
the settlement of Yamsk, three hundred versts west of Gizhiga, and
requested me to meet him at that place within twelve days after the
receipt of his letter. I started at once with one American companion
named Leet, taking twelve days' dog-food and provisions.

The country between Gizhiga and Yamsk was entirely different in
character from anything which I had previously seen in Siberia. There
were no such great desolate plains as those between Gizhiga and
Anadyrsk and in the northern part of Kamchatka. On the contrary, the
whole coast of the Okhotsk Sea, for nearly six hundred miles west
of Gizhiga, was one wilderness of rugged, broken, almost impassable
mountains, intersected by deep valleys and ravines, and heavily
timbered with dense pine and larch forests. The Stanavoi range of
mountains, which sweeps up around the Okhotsk Sea from the Chinese
frontier, keeps everywhere near the coast line, and sends down between
its lateral spurs hundreds of small rivers and streams which run
through deep wooded valleys to the sea. The road, or rather the
travelled route from Gizhiga to Yamsk, crosses all these streams and
lateral spurs at right angles, keeping about midway between the great
mountain range and the sea. Most of the dividing ridges between these
streams are nothing but high, bare watersheds, which can be easily
crossed; but at one point, about a hundred and fifty versts west of
Gizhiga, the central range sends out to the seacoast, a great spur of
mountains 2500 or 3000 feet in height, which completely blocks up the
road. Along the bases of these mountains runs a deep, gloomy valley
known as the Viliga, whose upper end pierces the central Stanavoi
range and affords an outlet to the winds pent up between the steppes
and the sea. In winter when the open water of the Okhotsk Sea is
warmer than the frozen plains north of the mountains, the air over the
former rises, and a colder atmosphere rushes through the valley of the
Viliga to take its place. In summer, while the water of the sea is
still chilled with masses of unmelted ice, the great steppes behind
the mountains are covered with vegetation and warm with almost
perpetual sunshine, and the direction of the wind is consequently
reversed. This valley of the Viliga, therefore, may be regarded as
a great natural breathing-hole, through which the interior steppes
respire once a year. At no other point does the Stanavoi range afford
an opening through which the air can pass back and forth between the
steppes and the sea, and as a natural consequence this ravine is swept
by one almost uninterrupted storm. While the weather everywhere else
is calm and still, the wind blows through the Viliga in a perfect
hurricane, tearing up great clouds of snow from the mountain sides and
carrying them far out to sea. For this reason it is dreaded by all
natives who are compelled to pass that way, and is famous throughout
north-eastern Siberia as "the stormy gorge of the Viliga!"

On the fifth day after leaving Gizhiga, our small party, increased
by a Russian postilion and three or four sledges carrying the annual
Kamchatkan mail, drew near the foot of the dreaded Viliga Mountains.
Owing to deep snow our progress had not been so rapid as we had
anticipated, and we were only able to reach on the fifth night a small
_yurt_ built to shelter travellers, near the mouth of a river called
the Topolofka, thirty versts from the Viliga. Here we camped, drank
tea, and stretched ourselves out on the rough plank floor to sleep,
knowing that a hard day's work awaited us on the morrow.

[Illustration: Head covering used in stalking seals]



"Kennan! Oh, Kennan! Turn out! It's day light!" A sleepy grunt and a
still more drowsy "Is it?" from the pile of furs lying on the rough
plank floor betrayed no very lively interest on the part of the
prostrate figure in the fact announced, while the heavy, long-drawn
breathing which soon succeeded this momentary interruption proved that
more active measures must be taken to recall him from the land of
dreams. "I say! Kennan! Wake up! Breakfast has been ready this
half-hour." The magic word "breakfast" appealed to a stronger feeling
than drowsiness, and, thrusting my head out from beneath its covering
of furs, I took a sleepy, blinking view of the situation, endeavouring
in a feeble sort of way to recollect where I was and how I came there.
A bright crackling fire of resinous pine boughs was burning on the
square log altar in the centre of the hut, radiating a fierce heat to
its remotest corner, and causing the perspiration to stand in great
beads on its mouldy logs and rough board ceiling. The smoke rose
lazily through the square hole in the roof toward the white,
solemn-looking stars, which winked soberly at us between the dark
overhanging branches of the larches. Mr. Leet, who acted as the Soyer
of our campaign, was standing over me with a slice of bacon impaled
on a bowie-knife in one hand, and a poker in the other--both of which
insignia of office he was brandishing furiously, with the intention
of waking me up more effectually. His frantic gesticulations had the
desired result. With a vague impression that I had been shipwrecked on
the Cannibal Islands and was about to be sacrificed to the tutelary
deities, I sprang up and rubbed my eyes until I gathered together my
scattered senses. Mr. Leet was in high glee. Our travelling companion,
the postilion, had manifested for several days an inclination to shirk
work and allow us to do all the road-breaking, while he followed
comfortably in our tracks, and by this strategic manoeuvre had
incurred Mr. Leet's most implacable hatred. The latter, therefore, had
waked the unfortunate man up before he had been asleep five hours, and
had deluded him into the belief that the aurora borealis was the first
flush of daylight. He had accordingly started off at midnight and was
laboriously breaking a road up the steep mountain side through three
feet of soft snow, relying upon Mr. Leet's promise that we would be
along before sunrise. At five o'clock, when I got up, the voices of
the postilion's men could still be heard shouting to their exhausted
dogs near the summit of the mountain. We all breakfasted as slowly as
possible, in order to give them plenty of time to break a road for us,
and did not finally start until after six o'clock.

It was a beautifully clear, still morning when we crossed the mountain
above the _yurt_, and wound around through bare open valleys, among
high hills, toward the seacoast. The sun had risen over the eastern
hill-tops, and the snow glittered as if strewn with diamonds, while
the distant peaks of the Viliga, appeared--

"Bathed in the tenderest purple of distance
Tinted and shadowed by pencils of air"--

as calm and bright in their snowy majesty as if the suspicion of
a storm had never attached to their smooth white slopes and sharp
pinnacles. The air, although intensely cold, was clear and bracing;
and as our dogs bounded at a gallop over the hard, broken road, the
exhilarating motion caused the very blood in our veins

"--to dance
Blithe as the sparkling wine of France."

About noon we came out of the mountains upon the sea beach and
overtook the postilion, who had stopped to rest his tired dogs. Our
own being fresh, we again took the lead, and drew rapidly near to the
valley of the Viliga.

I was just mentally congratulating myself upon our good fortune in
having clear weather to pass this dreaded point, when my attention was
attracted by a curious white cloud or mist, extending from the mouth
of the Viliga ravine far out over the black open water of the Okhotsk
Sea. Wondering what it could be, I pointed it out to our guide, and
inquired if it were fog. His face clouded up with anxiety as he
glanced at it, and replied laconically, "Viliga dooreet," or "The
mountains are fooling." This oracular response did not enlighten me
very much, and I demanded an explanation. I was then told, to my
astonishment and dismay, that the curious white mist which I had taken
to be fog was a dense driving cloud of snow, hurled out of the mouth
of the ravine by a storm, which had apparently just begun in the upper
gorges of the Stanavoi range. It would be impossible, our guide said,
to cross the valley, and dangerous to attempt it until the wind should
subside. I could not see either the impossibility or the danger, and
as there was another _yurt_ or shelter-house on the other side of the
ravine, I determined to go on and make the attempt at least to cross.
Where we were the weather was perfectly calm and still; a candle
would have burned in the open air without flickering; and I could
not realise the tremendous force of the hurricane which, only a mile
ahead, was vomiting snow out of the mouth of that ravine and carrying
it four miles to sea. Seeing that Leet and I were determined to cross
the valley, our guide shrugged his shoulders expressively, as much as
to say, "You will soon regret your haste," and we went on.

As we gradually approached the white curtain of mist, we began to feel
sharp intermittent puffs of wind and little whirlwinds of snow, which
increased constantly in strength and frequency as we drew nearer and
nearer to the mouth of the ravine. Our guide once more remonstrated
with us upon the folly of going deliberately into such a storm as this
evidently would be; but Leet laughed him to scorn, declaring in broken
Russian that he had seen storms in the Sierra Nevadas to which this
was not a circumstance--"Bolshoi storms, you bet!" But in five minutes
more Mr. Leet himself was ready to admit that this storm on the Viliga
would not compare unfavourably with anything of the kind that he had
ever seen in California. As we rounded the end of a protecting bluff
on the edge of the ravine, the gale burst upon us in all its fury,
blinding and suffocating us with dense clouds of driving snow, which
blotted out instantly the sun and the clear blue sky, and fairly
darkened the whole earth. The wind roared as it sometimes does through
the cordage of a ship at sea. There was something almost supernatural
in the suddenness of the change from bright sunshine and calm still
air to this howling, blinding tempest, and I began to feel doubtful
myself as to the practicability of crossing the valley. Our guide
turned with a despairing look to me, as if reproaching me with my
obstinacy in coming into the storm against his advice, and then urged
on with shouts and blows his cowering dogs. The sockets of the poor
brutes' eyes were completely plastered up with snow, and out of many
of them were oozing drops of blood; but blind as they were they still
struggled on, uttering at intervals short mournful cries, which
alarmed me more than the roaring of the storm. In a moment we were at
the bottom of the ravine; and before we could check the impetus of our
descent we were out on the smooth glare ice of the "Propashchina," or
"River of the Lost," and sweeping rapidly down toward the open water
of the Okhotsk Sea, only a hundred yards below. All our efforts to
stop our sledges were at first unavailing against the force of the
wind, and I began to understand the nature of the danger to which our
guide had alluded. Unless we could stop our sledges before we should
reach the mouth of the river we must inevitably be blown off the ice
into three or four fathoms of water. Precisely such a disaster had
given the river its ominous name, Leet and the Cossack Paderin, who
were alone upon their respective sledges, and who did not get so far
from the shore in the first place, finally succeeded with the aid of
their spiked sticks in getting back; but the old guide and I were
together upon one sledge, and our voluminous fur clothes caught so
much wind that our spiked sticks would not stop or hold us, and
our dogs could not keep their feet. Believing that the sledge must
inevitably be blown into the sea if we both clung to it, I finally
relinquished my hold and tried to stop myself by sitting down, and
then by lying down flat upon my face on the ice; but all was of no
avail; my slippery furs took no hold of the smooth, treacherous
surface, and I drifted away even faster than before. I had already
torn off my mittens, and as I slid at last over a rough place in
the ice I succeeded in getting my finger-nails into the little
corrugations of the surface and in stopping my perilous drift; but I
hardly dared breathe lest I should lose my hold. Seeing my situation,
Leet slid to me the sharp iron-spiked _oerstel_, which is used to
check the speed of a sledge in descending hills, and by digging this
into the ice at short intervals I crept back to shore, only a short
distance above the open water at the mouth of the river, into which my
mittens had already gone. Our guide was still sliding slowly and at
intervals down stream, but Paderin went to his assistance with another
_oerstel_, and together they brought his sledge once more to land. I
would have been quite satisfied now to turn back and get out of the
storm; but our guide's blood was up, and cross the valley he would if
we lost all our sledges in the sea. He had warned us of the danger and
we had insisted upon coming on; we must now take the consequences.
As it was evidently impossible to cross the river at this point, we
struggled up its left bank in the teeth of the storm almost half a
mile, until we reached a bend which put land between us and the open
water. Here we made a second attempt, and were successful. Crossing a
low ridge on the west side of the "Propashchina," we reached another
small stream known as the Viliga, at the foot of the Viliga Mountains.
Along this there extended a narrow strip of dense timber, and in this
timber, somewhere, stood the _yurt_ of which we were in search. Our
guide seemed to find the road by a sort of instinct, for the drifting
clouds of snow hid even our-leading dogs from sight, and all that we
could see of the country was the ground on which we stood. About an
hour before dark, tired and chilled to the bone, we drew up before
a little log hut in the woods, which our guide said was the Viliga
_yurt_. The last travellers who had occupied it had left the chimney
hole open, and it was nearly filled with snow, but we cleared it out
as well as we could, built a fire on the ground in the centre, and,
regardless of the smoke, crouched around it to drink tea. We had seen
nothing of the postilion since noon, and hardly thought it possible
that he could reach the _yurt_; but just as it began to grow dark we
heard the howling of his dogs in the woods, and in a few moments he
made his appearance. Our party now numbered nine men--two Americans,
three Russians, and four Koraks--and a wild-looking crowd it was, as
it squatted around the fire in that low smoke-blackened hut, drinking
tea and listening to the howling wind. As there was not room enough
for all to sleep inside the _yurt_, the Koraks camped out-doors on the
snow, and before morning were half buried in a drift.

painting by George A. Frost]

All night the wind roared a deep, hoarse bass through the forest which
sheltered the _yurt_, and at daylight on the following morning there
was no abatement of the storm. We knew that it might blow without
intermission in that ravine for two weeks, and we had only four days'
dog-food and provisions left. Something must be done. The Viliga
Mountains which blocked up the road to Yamsk were cut by three gaps
or passes, all of which opened into the valley, and in clear weather
could be easily found and crossed. In such a storm, however, as the
one which had overtaken us, a hundred passes would be of no avail,
because the drifting snow hid everything from sight at a distance of
thirty feet, and we were as likely to go up the side of a peak as up
the right pass, even if we could make our dogs face the storm at all,
which was doubtful. After breakfast we held a council of war for the
purpose of determining what it would be best to do. Our guide thought
that our best course would be to go down the Viliga River to the
coast, and make our way westward, if possible, along what he called
the "pripaika"--a narrow strip of sea ice generally found at the
water's edge under the cliffs of a precipitous coast line. He could
not promise us that this route would be practicable, but he had heard
that there was a beach for at least a part of the distance between the
Viliga and Yamsk, and he thought that we might make our way along this
beach and the _pripaika_, or ice-foot, to a ravine, twenty-five or
thirty miles farther west, which would lead us up on the tundra beyond
the mountains. We could at least try this shelf of ice under the
cliffs, and if we should find it impassable we could return, while if
we went into the mountains in such a blizzard we might never get back.
The plan suggested by the guide seemed to me a bold and attractive one
and I decided to adopt it. Making our way down the river, in clouds of
flying snow, we soon reached the coast, and started westward, along a
narrow strip of ice-encumbered beach, between the open water of the
sea and a long line of black perpendicular cliffs, one hundred and
fifty to three hundred feet in height. We were making very fair
progress when we found ourselves suddenly confronted by an entirely
unexpected and apparently insurmountable obstacle. The beach, as far
as we could see to the westward, was completely filled up from the
water's edge to a height of seventy-five or a hundred feet by enormous
drifts of snow, which had been gradually accumulating there throughout
the winter, and which now masked the whole face of the precipice, and
left no room for passage between it and the sea. These snow-drifts,
by frequent alternations of warm and cold weather, had been rendered
almost as hard and slippery as ice, and as they sloped upward toward
the tops of the cliffs at an angle of seventy-five or eighty degrees,
it was impossible to stand upon them without first cutting places for
the feet with an axe. Along the face of this smooth, snowy escarpment,
which rose directly out of two or three fathoms of water, lay our only
route to Yamsk. The prospect of getting over it without meeting with
some disaster seemed very faint, for the slightest caving away of
the snow would tumble us all into the open sea; but as there was no
alternative, we fastened our dogs to cakes of ice, distributed our
axes and hatchets, threw off our heavy fur coats, and began cutting
out a road.

We worked hard all day, and by six o'clock in the evening had cut a
deep trench three feet in width along the face of the escarpment to a
point about a mile and a quarter west of the mouth of the Viliga. Here
we were again stopped, however, by a difficulty infinitely worse than
any that we had surmounted. The beach, which had previously extended
in one unbroken line along the foot of the cliffs, here suddenly
disappeared, and the mass of snow over which we had been cutting a
road came to an abrupt termination. Unsupported from beneath, the
whole escarpment had caved away into the sea, leaving a gap of open
water about thirty-five feet in width, out of which rose the black
perpendicular wall of the coast. There was no possibility of getting
across without the assistance of a pontoon bridge. Tired and
disheartened, we were compelled to camp on the slope of the escarpment
for the night, with no prospect of being able to do anything in the
morning except return with all possible speed to the Viliga, and
abandon the idea of reaching Yamsk altogether.

A wilder, more dangerous location for a camp than that which we
occupied could hardly be found in Siberia, and I watched with the
greatest uneasiness the signs of the weather as it began to grow dark.
The huge sloping snow-drift upon which we stood rose directly out of
the water, and, so far as we knew, it might have no other foundation
than a narrow strip of ice. If so, the faintest breeze from any
direction except north would roll in waves high enough to undermine
and break up the whole escarpment, and either precipitate us with
an avalanche of snow into the open sea, or leave us clinging like
barnacles to the bare face of the precipice, seventy-five feet above
it. Neither alternative was pleasant to contemplate, and I determined,
if possible, to find a place of greater security. Leet, with his usual
recklessness, dug himself out what he called a "bedroom" in the snow
about fifty feet above the water, and promised me "a good night's
sleep" if I would accept his hospitality and share his cave; but under
the circumstances I thought best to decline. His "bedroom," bed, and
bedding might all tumble into the sea before morning, and his "good
night's sleep" be indefinitely prolonged. Going back a short distance
in the direction of the Viliga, I finally discovered a place where a
small stream had once fallen over the summit of the cliff, and had
worn out a steep narrow channel in its face. In the rocky, uneven bed
of this little ravine the natives and I stretched ourselves out for
the night, our bodies inclined at an angle of forty-five degrees--our
heads, of course, up-hill.

If the reader can imagine himself camping out on the steep sloping
roof of a great cathedral, with a precipice a hundred feet high over
his head and three or four fathoms of open water at his feet, he will
be able, perhaps, to form some idea of the way in which we spent that
dismal night.

With the first streak of dawn we were up. While we were gloomily
making preparations to return to the Viliga, one of the Koraks who
had gone to take a last look at the gap of open water came hurriedly
climbing back, shouting joyfully, "Mozhno perryekat, mozhno
perryekat!"--"It is possible to cross." The tide, which had risen
during the night, had brought in two or three large cakes of broken
ice, and had jammed them into the gap in such a manner as to make a
rude bridge. Fearing, however, that it would not support a very heavy
weight, we unloaded all our sledges, carried the loads, sledges, and
dogs across separately, loaded up again on the other side, and
went on. The worst of our difficulties was past. We still had some
road-cutting to do through occasional snow-drifts; but as we went
farther and farther to the westward the beach became wider and higher,
the ice disappeared, and by night we were thirty versts nearer to our
destination. The sea on one side, and the cliffs on the other, still
hemmed us in; but on the following day we succeeded in making our
escape through the valley of the Kananaga River.

The twelfth day of our journey found us on a great steppe called the
Malkachan, only thirty miles from Yamsk; and although our dog-food and
provisions were both exhausted, we hoped to reach the settlement
late in the night. Darkness came on, however, with another blinding
snow-storm, in which we again lost our way; and, fearing that we might
drive over the edges of the precipices into the sea by which the
steppe was bounded on the east, we were finally compelled to stop. We
could find no wood for a fire; but even had we succeeded in making a
fire, it would have been instantly smothered by the clouds of snow
which the furious wind drove across the plain. Spreading down our
canvas tent upon the ground, and capsizing a heavy dog-sledge upon one
edge of it to hold it fast, we crawled under it to get away from the
suffocating snow. Lying there upon our faces, with the canvas flapping
furiously against our backs, we scraped our bread-bag for the last few
frozen crumbs which remained, and ate a few scraps of raw meat which
Mr. Leet found on one of the sledges. In the course of fifteen or
twenty minutes we noticed that the flappings of the canvas were
getting shorter and shorter, and that it seemed to be tightening
across our bodies, and upon making an effort to get out we found that
we were fastened down. The snow had drifted in such masses upon the
edges of the tent and had packed there with such solidity that it
could not be moved, and after trying once or twice to break out we
concluded to lie still and make the best of our situation. As long as
the snow did not bury us entirely, we were better off under the tent
than anywhere else, because we were protected from the wind. In half
an hour the drift had increased to such an extent that we could no
longer turn over, and our supply of air was almost entirely cut off.
We must either get out or be suffocated. I had drawn my sheath-knife
fifteen minutes before in expectation of such a crisis, and as it was
already becoming difficult to breathe, I cut a long slit in the canvas
above my head and we crawled out. In an instant eyes and nostrils were
completely plastered up with snow, and we gasped for breath as if the
stream of a fire-engine had been turned suddenly in our faces. Drawing
our heads and arms into the bodies of our _kukhlankas_, we squatted
down upon the snow to wait for daylight. In a moment I heard Mr. Leet
shouting down into the neck-hole of my fur coat, "What would our
mothers say if they could see us now?" I wanted to ask him how this
would compare with a gale in his boasted Sierra Nevadas, but he was
gone before I could get my head out, and I heard nothing more from him
that night. He went away somewhere in the darkness and squatted down
alone upon the snow, to suffer cold, hunger and anxiety until
morning. For more than ten hours we sat in this way on that desolate
storm-swept plain, without fire, food, or sleep, becoming more and
more chilled and exhausted, until it seemed as if daylight would never

Morning dawned at last through gray drifting clouds of snow, and,
getting up with stiffened limbs, we made feeble attempts to dig out
our buried sledges. But for the unwearied efforts of Mr. Leet we
should hardly have succeeded, as my hands and arms were so benumbed
with cold that I could not hold an axe or a shovel, and our drivers,
frightened and discouraged, seemed unable to do anything. By Mr.
Leet's individual exertions the sledges were dug out and we started.
His brief spasm of energy was the last effort of a strong will to
uphold a sinking and exhausted body, and in half an hour he requested
to be tied on his sledge. We lashed him on from head to foot with
sealskin thongs, covered him up with bearskins, and drove on. In about
an hour his driver, Padarin, came back to me with a frightened look in
his face, and said that Mr. Leet was dead; that he had shaken him and
called him several times, but could get no reply. Alarmed and shocked,
I sprang from my sledge and ran up to the place where he lay, shouted
to him, shook him by the shoulder, and tried to uncover his head,
which he had drawn down into the body of his fur coat. In a moment, to
my great relief, I heard his voice, saying that he was all right and
could hold out, if necessary, until night; that he had not answered
Padarin because it was too much trouble, but that I need not be
alarmed about his safety; and then I thought he added something about
"worse storms in the Sierra Nevadas," which convinced me that he
was far from being used up yet. As long as he could insist upon the
superiority of Californian storms, there was certainly hope.

Early in the afternoon we reached the Yamsk River and, after wandering
about for an hour or two in the timber, came upon one of Lieutenant
Arnold's Yakut working-parties and were conducted to their camp, only
a few miles from the settlement. Here we obtained some rye bread and
hot tea, warmed our benumbed limbs, and partially cleared the snow out
of our clothing. When I saw Mr. Leet undressed I wondered that he had
not died. While squatting out on the ground during the storm of the
previous night, snow in great quantities had blown in at his neck,
had partially melted with the warmth of his body, and had then frozen
again in a mass of ice along his whole spine, and in that condition he
had lived to be driven twenty versts. Nothing but a strong will and
the most intense vitality enabled him to hold out during these last
six dismal hours. When we had warmed, rested, and dried ourselves at
the camp-fire of the Yakuts, we resumed our journey, and late in the
afternoon we drove into the settlement of Yamsk, after thirteen
days of harder experience than usually falls to the lot of Siberian
travellers, Mr. Leet so soon recovered his strength and spirits that
three days afterwards he started for Okhotsk, where the Major wished
him to take charge of a gang of Yakut labourers. The last words that I
remember to have ever heard him speak were those which he shouted to
me in the storm and darkness of that gloomy night on the Malkachan
steppe: "What would our mothers say if they could see us now?" The
poor fellow was afterwards driven insane by excitements and hardships
such as these which I have described, and probably to some extent
by this very expedition, and finally committed suicide by shooting
himself at one of the lonely Siberian settlements on the coast of the
Okhotsk Sea.

I have described somewhat in detail this trip to Yamsk because it
illustrates the darkest side of Siberian life and travel. It is not
often that one meets with such an experience, or suffers so many
hardships in any one journey; but in a country so wild and sparsely
populated as Siberia, winter travel is necessarily attended with more
or less suffering and privation.

[Illustration: Iron Skin Scraper]



When, in the latter part of March, Major Abaza returned to Yakutsk to
complete the organisation and equipment of our Yakut labourers, and I
to Gizhiga to await once more the arrival of vessels from America, the
future of the Russian-American Telegraph Company looked much brighter.
We had explored and located the whole route of the line, from the Amur
River to Bering Sea; we had half a dozen working-parties in the field,
and expected to reinforce them soon with six or eight hundred hardy
native labourers from Yakutsk; we had cut and prepared fifteen or
twenty thousand telegraph poles, and were bringing six hundred
Siberian ponies from Yakutsk to distribute them; we had all the wire
and insulators for the Asiatic Division on the ground, as well as an
abundant supply of tools and provisions; and we felt more than hopeful
that we should be able to put our part of the overland line to
St. Petersburg in working order before the beginning of 1870. So
confident, indeed, were some of our men, that, in the pole-cutting
camps, they were singing in chorus every night, to the air of a well
known war-song.

"In eighteen hundred and sixty-eight
Hurrah! Hurrah!
In eighteen hundred and sixty-eight
Hurrah! Hurrah!
In eighteen hundred and sixty-eight,
The cable will be in a miserable state,
And we'll all feel gay
When they use it to fish for whales.

"In eighteen hundred and sixty-nine
Hurrah! Hurrah!
In eighteen hundred and sixty-nine
Hurrah! Hurrah!
In eighteen hundred and sixty-nine
We're going to finish this overland line;
And we'll all feel gay
When it brings us good news from home."

But it was fated that our next news from home should not be brought by
the overland line, and should not be of such a nature as to make any
of us "feel gay."

On the evening of May 31, 1867, as I sat trying to draw a
topographical map in the little one-story log house which served as
the headquarters of the Asiatic Division, I was interrupted by the
sudden and hasty entrance of my friend and comrade Mr. Lewis, who
rushed into the room crying excitedly: "O Mr. Kennan! Did you hear
the cannon?" I had not heard it, but I understood instantly the
significance of the inquiry. A cannon-shot meant that there was a ship
in sight from the beacon-tower at the mouth of the river. We were
accustomed, every spring, to get our earliest news from the civilised
world through American whaling vessels, which resort at that season of
the year to the Okhotsk Sea. About the middle of May, therefore, we
generally sent a couple of Cossacks to the harbour at the mouth of
the river, with instructions to keep a sharp lookout from the log
beacon-tower on the bluff, and fire three cannon-shots the moment they
should see a whaler or other vessel cruising in the Gulf.

In less than ten minutes, the news that there was a vessel in sight
from the beacon-tower had reached every house in the village, and a
little group of Cossacks gathered at the landing-place, where a boat
was being prepared to take Lewis, Robinson, and me to the sea-coast.
Half an hour later we were gliding swiftly down the river in one of
the light skiffs known in that part of Siberia as "lodkas." We had a
faint hope that the ship which had been signalled would prove to
be one of our own vessels; but even if she should turn out to be a
whaler, she would at least bring us late news from the outside world,
and we felt a burning curiosity to know what had been the result of
the second attempt to lay the Atlantic cable. Had our competitors
beaten us, or was there still a fighting chance that we might beat

We reached the mouth of the river late in the evening, and were met at
the landing by one of the Cossacks from the beacon-tower.

"What ship is it?" I inquired.

"We don't know," he replied. "We saw dark smoke, like the smoke of a
steamer, off Matuga Island just before we fired the cannon, but in a
little while it blew away and we have seen nothing since."

"If it's a whaler trying out oil," said Robinson, "we'll find her
there in the morning."

Leaving the Cossack to take our baggage out of the _lodka_, we all
climbed up to the beacon-tower, with the hope that, as it was still
fairly light, we might be able to see with a glass the vessel that had
made the smoke; but from the high black cliffs of Matuga Island on one
side of the Gulf, to the steep slope of Cape Catherine on the other,
there was nothing to break the horizon line except here and there a
field of drifting ice. Returning to the Cossack barrack, we spread
our bearskins and blankets down on the rough plank floor and went
disconsolate to bed.

Early the next morning, I was awakened by one of the Cossacks with
the welcome news that there was a large square-rigged vessel in the
offing, five or six miles beyond Matuga Island. I climbed hastily up
the bluff, and had no difficulty in making out with a glass the masts
and sails of a good-sized bark, evidently a whaler, which, although
hull down, was apparently cruising back and forth with a light
southerly breeze across the Gulf.

We ate breakfast hastily, put on our fur _kukhlankas_ and caps, and
started in a whale-boat under oars for the ship, which was distant
about fifteen miles. Although the wind was light and the sea
comparatively smooth, it was a hard, tedious pull; and we did not get
alongside until after ten o'clock. Pacing the quarter-deck, as we
climbed on board was a good-looking, ruddy-faced, gray-haired man whom
I took to be the captain. He evidently thought, from our outer fur
dress, that we were only a party of natives come off to trade; and he
paid no attention whatever to us until I walked aft and said: "Are you
the captain of this bark?"

At the first word of English, he stopped as if transfixed, stared at
me for a moment in silence, and then exclaimed in a tone of profound
astonishment: "Well! I'll be dod-gasted! Has the universal Yankee got
up here?"

"Yes, Captain," I replied, "he is not only here, but he has been here
for two years or more. What bark is this?"

"The _Sea Breeze_, of New Bedford, Massachusetts," he replied, "and I
am Captain Hamilton. But what are you doing up in this God-forsaken
country? Have you been shipwrecked?"

"No," I said, "we're up here trying to build a telegraph line."

"A telegraph line!" he shouted. "Well, if that ain't the craziest
thing I ever heard of! Who's going to telegraph from here?"

I explained to him that we were trying to establish telegraphic
communication between America and Europe by way of Alaska, Bering
Strait, and Siberia, and asked him if he had never heard of the
Russian-American Telegraph Company.

"Never," he replied. "I didn't know there was such a company; but I've
been out two years on a cruise, and I haven't kept up very well with
the news."

"How about the Atlantic cable?" I inquired. "Do you know anything
about that?"

"Oh, yes," he replied cheerfully, as if he were giving me the best
news in the world, "the cable is laid all right."

"Does it work?" I asked, with a sinking heart.

"Works like a snatch-tackle," he responded heartily. "The 'Frisco
papers are publishing every morning the London news of the day before.
I've got a lot of 'em on board that I'll give you. Perhaps you'll find
something in them about your Company."

I think the captain must have noticed, from the sudden change in the
expression of our faces, that his news about the Atlantic cable was
a staggering blow to us, for he immediately dropped the subject and
suggested the expediency of going below.

We all went down into the cosy, well-furnished cabin, where
refreshments were set before us by the steward, and where we talked
for an hour about the news of the world, from whaling in the South
Pacific to dog-driving in Arctic Asia, and from Weston's walk across
the North American continent to Karakozef's attempt to assassinate the
Tsar. But it was, on our side at least, a perfunctory conversation.
The news of the complete success of the Atlantic cable was as
unexpected as it was disheartening, and it filled our minds to the
exclusion of everything else. The world would have no use for an
overland telegraph-line through Alaska and Siberia if it already
possessed a working cable between London and New York.

We left the hospitable cabin of the _Sea Breeze_ about noon, and
prepared to return to Gizhiga. Captain Hamilton, with warm-hearted
generosity, not only gave us all the newspapers and magazines he had
on board, but literally filled our boat with potatoes, pumpkins,
bananas, oranges, and yams, which he had brought up from the Sandwich
Islands. I think he saw that we were feeling somewhat disheartened,
and wanted to cheer us up in the only way he could--by giving us some
of the luxuries of civilised life. We had not seen a potato, nor
tasted any other fresh vegetable or fruit, in nearly two years.

We left the ship reluctantly, at last, giving three cheers and a
"tiger" for Captain Hamilton and the _Sea Breeze_, as we went over the

When we had pulled three or four miles away from the bark, Lewis
suggested that instead of returning at once to the mouth of the river
we should go ashore at the nearest point on the coast, and look
over the newspapers while the Cossacks made a fire and roasted some
potatoes. This seemed to us all a good plan, and half an hour later we
were sitting around a fire of driftwood on the beach, each of us with
a newspaper in one hand and a banana or an orange in the other, and
all feeding mind and body simultaneously. The papers were of various
dates from September, 1866, to March, 1867, and were so mixed up that
it was impossible to follow the course of events chronologically or
consecutively. We were not long, however, in ascertaining not only
that the new Atlantic cable had been successfully laid, but that the
broken and abandoned cable of 1865 had been picked up in mid-ocean,
repaired, and put in perfect working order. I think this discouraged
us more than anything else. If cables could be found in the middle of
the Atlantic, picked up in ten or twelve thousand feet of water, and
repaired on the deck of a steamer, the ultimate success of submarine
telegraphy was assured, and we might as well pack up our trunks and go
home. But there was worse news to come. A few minutes later, Lewis,
who was reading an old copy of the San Francisco _Bulletin_, struck
his knee violently with his clenched fist and exclaimed;

"Boys! The jig is up! Listen to this!

"'Special Dispatch to the _Bulletin_

"'New York, October 15.

"'In consequence of the success of the Atlantic
cable, all work on the Russian-American telegraph
line has been stopped and the enterprise has been

"Well!" said Robinson, after a moment of thoughtful silence, "that
seems to settle it. The cable has knocked us out."

Late in the afternoon, we pulled back, with heavy hearts, to the
beacon-tower at the mouth of the river, and on the following day
returned to Gizhiga, to await the arrival of a vessel from San
Francisco with an official notification of the abandonment of the

[Illustration: Women's Knives used in making clothing]



On the 15th of July, the Company's bark _Onward_ (which should have
been named _Backward_) arrived at Gizhiga with orders to sell all of
our stores that were salable; use the proceeds in the payment of our
debts; discharge our native labourers; gather up our men, and return
to the United States. The Atlantic cable had proved to be a complete
success, and our Company, after sinking about $3,000,000 in the
attempt to build an overland line from America to Europe, had finally
decided to put up with its loss and abandon the undertaking. Letters
from the directors to Major Abaza, stated that they would be willing
to go on with the work, in spite of the success of the Atlantic cable,
if the Russian Government would agree to complete the line on the
Siberian side of Bering Strait; but they did not think they should be
required, under the circumstances, to do all the work on the American
side and half of that on the Russian.

Major Abaza, hoping that he could prevail upon the Russian Minister of
Ways and Communications to take the Asiatic Division off the hands of
the American Company, and thus prevent the complete abandonment of
the enterprise, decided at once to go to St. Petersburg overland. He
therefore sailed in the _Onward_ with me for Okhotsk, intending to
disembark there, start for Yakutsk on horseback, and send me back in
the ship to pick up our working parties along the coast.

The last of July found us becalmed, about fifty miles off the harbour
and river of Okhotsk. I had been playing chess all the evening in the
cabin, and it was almost eleven o'clock when the second mate called to
me down the companionway to come on deck. Wondering if we had taken a
favourable slant of wind, I went up.

It was one of those warm, still, almost tropical nights, so rarely
seen on northern waters, when a profound calm reigns in the moonless
heavens, and the hush of absolute repose rests upon the tired,
storm-vexed sea. There was not the faintest breath of air to stir even
the reef-points of the motionless sails, or roughen the dark, polished
mirror of water around the ship. A soft, almost imperceptible haze
concealed the line of the far horizon, and blended sky and water into
one great hollow sphere of twinkling stars. Earth and sea seemed to
have passed away, and our motionless ship floated, spell-bound, in
vacancy--the only earthly object in an encircling universe of stars
and planets. The great luminous band of the Milky Way seemed to sweep
around beneath us in a complete circle of white, misty light, and far
down under our keel gleamed the three bright stars in the belt of
Orion. Only when a fish sprang with a little splash out of one of
these submarine constellations and shattered it into trembling
fragments of broken light could we realise that it was nothing but a
mirrored reflection of the heavens above.

Absorbed in the beauty of the scene, I had forgotten to ask the mate
why he had called me on deck, and started with surprise as he touched
me on the shoulder and said: "Curious thing, ain't it?"

"Yes," I replied, supposing that he referred to the reflection of the
heavens in the water, "it's the most wonderful night I ever saw at
sea. I can hardly make myself believe that we _are_ at sea--the ship
seems to be hanging in space with a great universe of stars above and

"What do you suppose makes it?" he inquired.

"Makes what--the reflection?"

"No, that light. Don't you see it?"

Following the direction of his outstretched arm, I noticed, for the
first time, a bank of pale, diffused radiance, five or six degrees in
height, stretching along the northern horizon from about N.N.W. to
E.N.E. and resembling very closely the radiance of a faint aurora. The
horizon line could not be distinguished; but the luminous appearance
seemed to rise in the haze that hid it from sight.

"Have you ever seen anything like it before?" I inquired.

"Never," the mate replied; "but it looks like the northern lights on
the water."

Wondering what could be the nature of this mysterious light, I climbed
into the shrouds, in order to get a better view. As I watched it, it
suddenly began to lengthen out at both ends, like a rapidly spreading
fire, and drew a long curtain of luminous mist around the whole
northern horizon. Another similar light then appeared in the
south-east, and although it was not yet connected with the first, it
also seemed to be extending itself laterally, and in a moment the two
luminous curtains united, forming a great semicircular band of pale,
bluish-white radiance around the heavens, like a celestial equator
belting a vast universe of stars. I could form, as yet, no conjecture
as to the cause or nature of this strange phenomenon which looked and
behaved like an aurora, but which seemed to rise out of the water.
After watching it five or ten minutes, I went below to call the

Hardly had I reached the foot of the companionway when the mate
shouted again; "O Kennan! Come on deck quick!" and rushing hastily
up I saw for the first time, in all its glorious splendour, the
phosphorescence of the sea. With almost incredible swiftness, a mantle
of bluish-white fire had covered nearly all the dark water north of
us, and its clearly defined edge wavered and trembled for an instant,
like the arch of an aurora, within half a mile of the ship. Another
lightning-like flash brought it all around us, and we floated,
literally, in a sea of liquid radiance. Not a single square foot of
dark water could be seen, in any direction, from the maintop, and all
the rigging of the ship, to the royal yards, was lighted up with a
faint, unearthly, blue glare. The ocean looked like a vast plain of
snow, illuminated by blue fire and overhung by heavens of almost inky
blackness. The Milky Way disappeared completely in the blaze of light
from the sea, and stars of the first magnitude twinkled dimly, as if
half hidden by fog.

Only a moment before, the dark, still water had reflected vividly a
whole hemisphere of spangled constellations, and the outlines of the
ship's spars were projected as dusky shadows against the Milky Way.
Now, the sea was ablaze with opaline light, and the yards and sails
were painted in faint tints of blue on a background of ebony. The
metamorphosis was sudden and wonderful beyond description! The polar
aurora seemed to have left its home in the higher regions of the
atmosphere and descended in a sheet of vivid electrical fire upon the
ocean. As we stood, silent with amazement, upon the quarter-deck, this
sheet of bluish flame suddenly vanished, over at least ten square
miles of water, causing, by its almost instantaneous disappearance, a
sensation of total blindness, and leaving the sea, for a moment, an
abyss of blackness. As the pupils of our eyes, however, gradually
dilated, we saw, as before, the dark shining mirror of water around
the ship, while far away on the horizon rose the faint luminous
appearance which had first attracted our attention, and which
was evidently due to the lighting up of the haze by areas of
phosphorescent water below the horizon line.

In a moment the mate shouted excitedly: "Here it comes again!" and
again the great tide of fire came sweeping up around the vessel, and
we floated in a sea of radiance that extended in every direction
beyond the limits of vision.

As soon as I had recovered a little from the bewildered amazement into
which I was thrown by the first phosphorescent flash, I observed, as
closely and carefully as possible, the nature and conditions of the
extraordinary phenomenon. In the first place, I satisfied myself
beyond question, that the radiance was phosphorescent and not
electrical, although it simulated the light of the aurora in the
rapidity of its movements of translation from one area to another.
When it flashed around the ship the second time, I got down close to
the luminous surface and discovered that what seemed, from the deck,
to be a mantle of bluish fire was, in reality, a layer of water
closely packed with fine bright spangles. It looked like water in
which luminous sand was constantly being stirred or churned up. The
points of light were so numerous that, at a distance of ten or twelve
feet, the eye failed to notice that there was any dark water in
the interspaces, and received merely an impression of diffused and
unbroken radiance.

In the second place, I became convinced that the myriads of
microscopic organisms which pervaded the water did not light up
their tiny lamps in response to a mechanical shock, such as would be
produced by agitation of the medium in which they floated. There was
no breeze, at any time, nor was there the faintest indication of
a ripple on the glassy surface of the sea. Between the flashes of
phosphorescence, the polished mirror of dark water was not blurred by
so much as a breath. The sudden lighting up of myriads of infusorial
lamps over vast areas of unruffled water was not due, therefore, to
mechanical agitation, and must have had some other and more subtle
cause. What the nature was of the impulse that stimulated whole square
miles of floating protoplasm into luminous activity so suddenly as
to produce the visual impression of an electric flash, I could not
conjecture. The officers of the U. S. revenue cutter _McCulloch_
observed and recorded in Bering Sea, in August, 1898, a display of
phosphorescence which was almost as remarkable as the one I am trying
to describe [Footnote: _N.Y. Sun_, Nov. 11 1899.]; but in that case
the sea was rough; there were no sudden flashes of appearance and
disappearance; and the excitation of the light-bearing organisms may
have been due--and probably was due--to mechanical shock.

In the third place, I observed that in the intervals between the
flashes, when the water was dark, all objects immersed in that water
were luminous. The ship's copper was so bright that I could count
every tack and seam; the rudder was lighted to its lowest pintle; and
medusae, or jelly-fish, drifting past, with slow pulsations, at a
depth of ten or twelve feet, looked like submerged moons. It thus
appeared that protozoa floating freely in the water lighted their
lamps only in response to excitation, of some sort, which affected,
almost instantaneously, areas many square miles in extent; while those
that were attached to, or in contact with, solid matter kept their
lamps lighted all the time.

During one of the periods of illumination, which lasted several
minutes, I hauled up a bucketful of the phosphorescent liquid and took
it into the cabin. Nothing whatever could be seen in it by artificial
light, but when the light had been removed, the inside of the bucket
glowed, although the water itself remained dark.

The sea in the vicinity of the ship became phosphorescent three or
four times; the sheet of fire in every case, sweeping down upon us
from the north at a rate of speed that seemed to be about equal to the
speed of sound-waves in air. The duration of the phosphorescence, at
each separate appearance, was from a minute and a half to three or
four minutes, and it vanished every time with a flash-like movement of
translation to another and remoter area. The whole display, so far as
we were concerned, was over in about twenty minutes; but long after
the sheet of phosphorescence disappeared from the neighbourhood of the
ship, we could see it lighting up the overhanging haze as it moved
swiftly from place to place beyond the horizon line. At one time,
there were three or four such areas of bright water north of us, but
as they were below the curve of the earth's convexity we could not
see them, and traced them only by the shifting belts or patches of
irradiated mist.

[Illustration: Reindeer Bridle Snow Shovel]



We reached Okhotsk about the 1st of August, and after seeing the Major
off for St. Petersburg, I sailed again in the _Onward_ and spent
most of the next month in cruising along the coast, picking up our
scattered working-parties, and getting on board such stores and
material as happened to be accessible and were worth saving.

Early in September, I returned to Gizhiga and proceeded to close
up the business and make preparations for final departure. Our
instructions from the Company were to sell all of our stores that were
salable and use the proceeds in the payment of our debts. I have no
doubt that this seemed to our worthy directors a perfectly feasible
scheme, and one likely to bring in a considerable amount of ready
money; but, unfortunately, their acquaintance with our environment
was very limited, and their plan, from our point of view, was open to
several objections. In the first place, although we had at Gizhiga
fifteen or twenty thousand dollars' worth of unused material, most of
it was of such a nature as to be absolutely unsalable in that country.
In the second place, the villages of Okhotsk, Yamsk, and Gizhiga,
taken together, did not have more than five hundred inhabitants, and
it was doubtful whether the whole five hundred could make up a purse
of as many rubles, even to ensure their eternal salvation. Assuming,
therefore, that the natives wanted our crowbars, telegraph poles,
and pickaxes they had little or no money with which to pay for them.
However orders were orders; and as soon as practicable we opened, in
front of our principal storehouse, a sort of international bazaar,
and proceeded to dispose of our superfluous goods upon the best terms
possible. We put the price of telegraph wire down until that luxury
was within the reach of the poorest Korak family. We glutted the
market with pickaxes and long-handled shovels, which we assured the
natives would be useful in burying their dead, and threw in a lot of
frozen cucumber pickles and other anti-scorbutics which we warranted
to fortify the health of the living. We sold glass insulators by the
hundred as patent American teacups, and brackets by the thousand
as prepared American kindling-wood. We offered soap and candles as
premiums to anybody who would buy our salt pork and dried apples, and
taught the natives how to make cooling drinks and hot biscuits,
in order to create a demand for our redundant lime-juice and
baking-powder. We directed all our energies to the creation of
artificial wants in that previously happy and contented community, and
flooded the whole adjacent country with articles that were of no more
use to the poor natives than ice-boats and mouse-traps would be to the
Tuaregs of the Saharan desert. In short, we dispensed the blessings of
civilisation with a free hand. But the result was not as satisfactory
as our directors doubtless expected it to be. The market at last
refused to absorb any more brackets and pickaxes; telegraph wire did
not make as good fish-nets and dog-harnesses as some of our salesmen
confidently predicted that it would; and lime-juice and water, as
a beverage, even when drunk out of pressed-crystal insulators,
beautifully tinted with green, did not seem to commend itself to
the aboriginal mind. So we finally had to shut up our store. We
had gathered in--if I remember rightly--about three hundred rubles
($150.), which, with the money that Major Abaza had left us, amounted
to something like five hundred. I did not use this cash, however, in
the payment of the Company's debts. I expected to have to return to
the United States through Siberia, and I did not propose to put myself
in such a position that I should be compelled to defray my travelling
expenses by peddling lime-juice, cucumber pickles, telegraph wire,
dried apples, glass insulators, and baking-powder along the road. I
therefore persuaded the Company's creditors, who, fortunately, were
not very numerous, to take tea and sugar in satisfaction of their
claims, so that I might save all the cash I had for the overland trip
from Okhotsk to St. Petersburg.

Our business in Gizhiga was finally adjusted and settled; our
working-parties were all called in; and we were just about to sail in
the bark _Onward_ for Okhotsk, when we were suddenly confronted by
the deadliest peril that we had encountered in more than two years of
arctic experience. Every explorer who goes into a wild, unknown part
of the world to make scientific researches, to find a new route for
commerce, or to gratify an innate love of adventure, has, now and
then, an escape from a violent death which is so extraordinary that he
classifies it under the head of "narrow." The peril that he incurs may
be momentary in duration, or it may be prolonged for hours, or even
days; but in any case, while it lasts it is imminent and deadly. It is
something more than ordinary danger--it is peril in which the chances
of death are a hundred and of life only one. Such peril advances, as
a rule, with terrifying swiftness and suddenness; and if one be
unaccustomed to danger, he is liable to be beaten down and overwhelmed
by the quick and unexpected shock of the catastrophe. He has no time
to rally his nervous forces, or to think how he will deal with the
emergency. The crisis comes like an instantaneous "Vision of Sudden
Death," which paralyses all his faculties before he has a chance to
exercise them. Swift danger of this kind tests to the utmost a man's
inherited or acquired capacity for instinctive and purely automatic
action; but as it generally passes before it has been fairly
comprehended, it is not so trying, I think, to the nerves and to
the character as the danger that is prolonged to the point of full
realisation, and that cannot then be averted or lessened by any
possible action. It is only when a man has time to understand and
appreciate the impending catastrophe, and can do absolutely nothing to
avert it, that he fully realises the possibility of death. Action of
any kind is tonic, and when a man can fight danger with his muscles or
his brain, he is roused and excited by the struggle; but when he can
do nothing except wait, watch the suspended sword of Damocles, and
wonder how soon the stroke will come, he must have strong nerves long
to endure the strain.

Just before we sailed from Gizhiga in the _Onward_, eight of us had
an escape from death in which the peril came with great swiftness and
suddenness, and was prolonged almost to the extreme limit of nervous
endurance. On account of the lateness of the season and the rocky,
precipitous, and extremely dangerous character of the coast in the
vicinity of Gizhiga, the captain of the bark had not deemed it prudent
to run into the mouth of the Gizhiga River at the point of the long
A-shaped gulf, but had anchored on a shoal off the eastern coast, at a
distance from the beacon-tower of nearly twenty miles. From our point
of view on land, the vessel was entirely out of sight; but I knew
where she lay, and did not anticipate any difficulty in getting on
board as soon as I should finish my work ashore.

I intended to go off to the ship with the last of Sandford's party on
the morning of September 11th, but I was detained unexpectedly by the
presentation of a number of native claims and other unforeseen matters
of business, and when I had finally settled and closed up everything
it was four o'clock in the afternoon. In the high latitude of
north-eastern Siberia a September night shuts in early, and I felt
some hesitation about setting out at such an hour, in an open boat,
for a vessel lying twenty miles at sea; but I knew that the captain
of the _Onward_ was very nervous and anxious to get away from that
dangerous locality; the wind, which was blowing a fresh breeze off
shore, would soon take us down the coast to the vessel's anchorage;
and after a moment of indecision I gave the order to start. There were
eight men of us, including Sandford, Bowsher, Heck, and four others
whose names I cannot now recall.

Our boat was an open sloop-rigged sail-boat, about twenty-five feet in
length, which we had bought from a Russian merchant named Phillipeus.
I had not before that time paid much attention to her, but so far as I
knew she was safe and seaworthy. There was some question, however, as
to whether she carried ballast enough for her sail-area, and at the
last moment, to make sure of being on the safe side, I had two of
Sandford's men roll down and put on board two barrels of sugar from
the Company's storehouse. I then bade good-bye to Dodd and Frost, the
comrades who had shared with me so many hardships and perils, took a
seat in the stern-sheets of the little sloop, and we were off.

It was a dark, gloomy, autumnal evening, and the stiff north-easterly
breeze which came to us in freshening gusts over the snow-whitened
crest of the Stanavoi range had a keen edge, suggestive of approaching
winter. The sea, however, was comparatively smooth, and until we got
well out into the gulf the idea of possible danger never so much
as suggested itself to me. But as we left the shelter of the high,
iron-bound coast the wind seemed to increase in strength, the sea
began to rise, and the sullen, darkening sky, as the gloom of night
gathered about us, gave warning of heavy weather. It would have been
prudent, while it was still light, to heave the sloop to and take
a reef, if not a double reef, in the mainsail; but Heck, who was
managing the boat, did not seem to think this necessary, and in
another hour, when the necessity of reefing had become apparent to
everybody, the sea was so high and dangerous that we did not dare to
come about for fear of capsizing, or shipping more green water than we
could readily dispose of. So we staggered on before the rising gale,
trusting to luck, and hoping every moment that we should catch sight
of the _Onward's_ lights.

It has always seemed to me that the most dangerous point of sailing
in a small open boat in a high combing sea is running dead before
the wind. When you are sailing close-hauled, you can luff up into a
squall, if necessary, or meet a steep, dangerous sea bow on; but when
you are scudding you are almost helpless. You can neither luff, nor
spill the wind out of the sail by slackening off the sheet, nor put
your boat in a position to take a heavy sea safely. The end of your
long boom is liable to trip as you roll and wallow through the waves,
and every time you rise on the crest of a big comber your rudder comes
out of water, and your bow swings around until there is imminent
danger of an accidental jibe.

Heck, who managed our sloop, was a fairly good sailor, but as the wind
increased, the darkness thickened, and the sea grew higher and higher,
it became evident to me that nothing but unusually good luck would
enable us to reach the ship in safety. We were not shipping any water,
except now and then a bucketful of foam and spray blown from the crest
of a wave; but the boat was yawing in a very dangerous way as she
mounted the high, white-capped rollers, and I was afraid that sooner
or later she would swing around so far that even with the most skilful
steering a jibe would be inevitable.

It was very dark; I had lost sight of the land; and I don't know
exactly in what part of the gulf we were when the dreaded catastrophe
came. The sloop rose on the back of an exceptionally high, combing
sea, hung poised for an instant on its crest, and then, with a wide
yaw to starboard which the rudder was powerless to check, swooped down
sidewise into the hollow, rolling heavily to port and pointing her
boom high up into the gale. When I saw the dark outline of the leech
of the mainsail waver for an instant, flap once or twice, and then
suddenly collapse, I knew what was coming, and shouting at the top of
my voice, "Look out Heck! She'll jibe!" I instinctively threw myself
into the bottom of the boat to escape the boom. With a quick, sudden
rush, ending in a great crash, the long heavy spar swept across the
boat from starboard to port, knocking Bowsher overboard and carrying
away the mast. The sloop swung around into the trough of the sea, in a
tangle of sails, sheets, halyards, and standing rigging; and the next
great comber came plump into her, filling her almost to the gunwales
with a white smother of foam. I thought for a moment that she had
swamped and was sinking; but as I rose to a crouching posture and
rubbed the saltwater out of my eyes, I saw that she was less than half
full, and that if we did not ship another sea too soon, prompt and
energetic bailing might yet keep her afloat.

"Bail her out, boys! For your lives! With your hats!" I shouted: and
began scooping out the water with my fur hood.

Eight men bailing for life, even with hats and caps, can throw a great
deal of water out of a boat in a very short time; and within five or
ten minutes the first imminent danger of sinking was over. Bowsher,
who was a good swimmer and had not been seriously hurt by the boom,
climbed back into the boat; we cut away the standing rigging, freed
the sloop from the tangle of cordage, and got the water-soaked
mainsail on board; and then, tying a corner of this sail to the stump
of the mast, we spread it as well as we could, so that it would catch
a little wind and give the boat steerage-way. Under the influence of
this scrap of canvas the sloop swung slowly around, across the seas;
the water ceased to come into her; and wringing out our wet caps and
clothing, we began to breathe more freely.

When the first excitement of the crisis had passed and I recovered
my self-possession, I tried to estimate, as coolly as possible, our
prospects and our chances. The situation seemed to me almost hopeless.
We were in a dismasted boat, without oars, without a compass, without
a morsel of food or a mouthful of water, and we were being blown out
to sea in a heavy north-easterly gale. It was so dark that we could
not see the land on either side of the constantly widening gulf; there
was no sign of the _Onward_; and in all probability there was not
another vessel in any part of the Okhotsk Sea. The nearest land was
eight or ten miles distant; we were drifting farther and farther away
from it; and in our disabled and helpless condition there was not the
remotest chance of our reaching it. In all probability our sloop would
not live through the night in such a gale; and even should she remain
afloat until morning, we should then be far out at sea, with nothing
to eat or drink, and with no prospect of being picked up. If the wind
should hold in the direction in which it was blowing, it would carry
us past the _Onward_ at a distance of at least three miles; we had no
lantern with which to attract the attention of the ship's watch, even
should we happen to drift past her within sight; the captain did not

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