[Footnote 49: The Kolyma Russians have apparently always held this tribe in great awe, for as far back as 1820 Von Wrangell wrote: "Our sled-drivers were certainly not free from the deeply-rooted fear of these people (the Tchuktchis), generally entertained by the inhabitants of Kolymsk."]
Yartsegg begged me to visit some of his relatives in New York and acquaint them of his existence, but although furnished with their address I could never trace these people, and the exile talked so wildly at times that my failure to execute the commission was perhaps due to his impaired mind and memory. But half-witted and almost repulsive as this poor fellow had become, it went to my heart to leave him in that God-forsaken settlement, when on the morning of April 2nd we again set out, in the teeth of a biting north-easter, for the shores of the Arctic Ocean.
A CRUEL COAST
A few miles below Nijni-Kolymsk vegetation entirely disappears, and in winter nothing is visible on all sides but vast and dreary plains of snow-covered tundra. The first night was passed in a tiny log hut belonging to a trapper and bearing the name, like any town or village, of Tchorniusova. It was pleasant to reach even this rude shelter, the last but one to separate us from the homeless immensity of the Arctic, for the strong breeze of the morning increased by sunset to a northerly gale which the dogs would not face. Towards midnight two Yukagirs (a small tribe inhabiting the country due east of the Kolyma) arrived in a dog-sled and begged for shelter, having with difficulty reached the hut after several hours of battling against a furious poorga which had succeeded a change of wind to a westerly quarter. A poorga is a kind of Arctic typhoon justly dreaded on this coast, for its fury is only equalled by the suddenness with which it overtakes the traveller. During these tempests (which sometimes last two or three days) the snow is whirled up in such dense clouds that objects a few yards away become invisible, and it is impossible to make headway, for the dogs, instinctively aware of peril, generally lie down and howl, regardless of the severest punishment. The trapper here told me that on one occasion he observed, after one of these storms, an unusual mound of snow near his dwelling, and extricated from it the frozen remains of a Yukagir driver and five dogs. The former had lain down to die within fifty yards of shelter and salvation.
The weather improved towards daybreak and enabled us to make an early start. A hard day's travelling followed, for the wind had cleared the river of snow, and we sledded over slippery black ice, which would have made a schoolboy's mouth water, but sadly impeded the dogs. Nearing the ocean the Kolyma widens by several miles, and here we made our first acquaintance with the ice-hummocks or "torosses" formed by the breakers of the Polar Sea. Towards sunset a black speck was sighted on the snowy waste, and two hours later we reached Sukharno, the Tsar's remotest outpost on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, about eight thousand miles from Petersburg. Here there was a single hut, so low in stature and buried in the drifts that we had to crawl into it through a tunnel of snow. The occupant was an aged Cossack who lived amid surroundings that would have revolted an English pig, but we often recalled even this dark, fetid den as a palace of luxury in the gloomy days to come.
We were awakened the following morning by the roaring of the wind, for another poorga had swooped down during the night, which kept us prisoners here for the three following days. It was madness to think of starting in such weather, and there was nothing for it but to wait for a lull, alternately smoking, sleeping, and cursing Mikouline, the cause of the delay. Fortunately the hut was weather-proof, and but for perpetual anxiety I could almost have enjoyed the rest and warmth out of reach of the icy blast. But who could sit down in peace or sleep for more than five consecutive minutes when tortured by the thought that the poorga might rage for an indefinite period and that the journey to Tchaun Bay must occupy at least three weeks, while our stock of food was slowly but surely diminishing? Even the scanty allowance I had fixed upon for each man was doled out by Harding reluctantly, and with a doubtful glance, as much as to say, "Will it last?" a question which for the past week had dinned itself into my brain several thousand times within the twenty-four hours. Here again Mikouline showed signs of mutiny, and I was compelled to broach our store of vodka to keep him up to the mark, which I did so successfully that my driver started from Sukharno in an advanced state of intoxication, after a bout of fisticuffs with his aged host. But the little scoundrel would certainly not have started in a sober condition.
We left Sukharno on the morning of April 6, in a strong north-westerly gale accompanied by driving snow, but later in the day the sky brightened and we forged ahead as rapidly as rough sea ice would permit. Soon it became much colder, a favourable sign, for here a falling thermometer invariably precedes clear, still weather. But it seemed ages before we lost sight of Sukharno, and while it was still in sight I often glanced back for a last look at that lonely snow-covered hut, for it was our last link with civilisation, indeed with humanity. This is, however, not strictly correct, for later in the day we passed the wooden beacon erected by the Russian explorer Lieutenant Laptief in the year 1739. The tower, which stands on a prominent cliff, is still in a remarkable state of preservation and is visible for a great distance around. And talking of Laptief reminds me of other travellers who have explored these frozen wastes. I had before leaving Europe ransacked the book-stores of London and Paris, but had failed to obtain any practical knowledge of the country which we were about to traverse. Nordenskjold's "North-East Passage, or the Voyage of the Vega," was invariably produced by every bookseller I questioned, but as the Swedish explorers never left their ship, this work, as a guide, was quite useless to me. So far, therefore, as finding the Tchuktchis was concerned I was much in the position of a wild Patagonian who, set down at Piccadilly Circus, is told to make his way unassisted to the Mansion House. For although Mikouline affected a knowledge of the coast, I doubt if he knew much more than I did. My literary researches showed me that the journey we were undertaking had only twice been performed by Europeans, or rather Americans (in a reverse direction) about twenty years ago. This was when the U.S. surveying ship Rodgers was destroyed by fire in the ice of Bering Straits, and Captain Berry (her commander) and Mr. W. Gilder (correspondent of the New York Herald) started off in midwinter to report her loss, travelling through Siberia to Europe, which was reached, after many stirring adventures, in safety.
The works of the earlier explorers afforded me almost as little assistance as the "Voyage of the Vega." In a volume, however, written by the famous Russian explorer Admiral Von Wrangell, I gleaned that, "The first attempt to navigate the Polar Ocean to the east of the Kolyma was made in 1646 by a company of fur hunters under the guidance of Issai Ignatiew. The sea was covered with thick drift-ice, nevertheless the travellers found a narrow passage, through which they advanced for two days, when they ran into a bay surrounded by rocks and obtained by barter some walrus teeth from the Tchuktchis dwelling there. Their ignorance of the language of the natives and the warlike disposition of the latter made it appear prudent not to venture further, and Ignatiew returned to the Kolyma. From his imperfect report it is difficult to judge how far his voyage extended. From the time expended, however, it is probable that he reached Tchaun Bay."
The subsequent expedition and fate of the Russian explorer Schalarof are thus chronicled by the same author:
"The ice in the Kolyma did not break up in 1762 until July 21, when Schalarof put to sea and steered for a whole week on a N.-E. and N.-E.-by-1/4-E. course. On August 19 the ship was completely beset by large fields of ice. In this dangerous situation, rendered more alarming by a dense fog which concealed the shore, they continued until the 23rd, when they found means to work themselves out of the ice and to gain open water again. They tacked for some time among the fields of ice, in the hope of making and doubling Cape Shelagskoi; but being detained by ice and contrary winds, the advanced season at length obliged Schalarof to seek for a convenient wintering place. This he hoped to find in an inlet on the west side of the cape which led into Tchaun Bay, first visited and surveyed by him. On the 25th he passed between the mainland and the island of Arautan. On the 26th he struck upon a sand-bank, from which it cost the crew much labour to get afloat again. Schalarof went on shore, but finding neither trees nor drift-wood, was obliged to sail further, in search of some place provided with this indispensable requisite. He shaped his course along the southern shore of the bay, as far as the island of Sabadei. Finally, he resolved to return to the Kolyma, which he entered on September 12, and reoccupied his quarters of the preceding winter."
"On the return of spring, Schalarof desired to put to sea again, in the hope of effecting his favourite object, the doubling of Cape Shelagskoi; but his crew, weary of the hardships and privations they had endured, mutinied, and left him. This forced him to return to the Lena. He then went to Moscow, and having obtained some pecuniary assistance from the Government, undertook, in 1764, another voyage to Cape Shelagskoi, from which he never returned."
"For a long time none but vague rumours circulated respecting his fate. I was so fortunate in 1823 as to discover the spot, about seventy miles from Cape Shelagskoi, where Schalarof and his companions landed, after they had seen their vessel destroyed by the ice. Here, in a black wilderness, struggling against want and misery, he ended his active life; but a late posterity renders this well-deserved tribute of acknowledgment to the rare disinterested spirit of enterprise by which he was animated."
"On Schalarof's chart, the coast from the Yana to Cape Shelagskoi is laid down with an accuracy that does honour to its author. He was the first navigator that examined Tchaun Bay, and since his time no fresh soundings have been taken there."
Apparently the Russian explorer Laptief only once made an attempt to travel by land from the Kolyma to Bering Sea, but this was by an entirely different route to ours.
"Considering it impossible to effect by sea the task assigned him by surveying the Anadyr River, Laptief resolved on an undertaking attended by equal danger and difficulty, namely, to proceed overland with his whole crew, crossing the mountains, and traversing the country of the hostile Tchuktchis. With this view he left Nijni-Kolymsk on October 27th, 1741, and directed his course towards the Anadyr, with forty-five nartas drawn by dogs. On November 4th he arrived at Lobasnoie, on the Greater Anui. As that river forms the boundary of the country inhabited by the wandering Tchuktchis, Laptief deemed it prudent, during his passage through what might in some measure be considered an enemy's territory, to observe the utmost caution, and to subject his men to a strict military discipline. They ascended the Greater Anui, crossed the chain of mountains Yablonoi Khrebet, and reached the Anadyr Ostrog on November 17th without having seen a single Tchuktchi on the way."
[Footnote 50: Which in those days was supposed to fall into the Polar Sea.]
Concerning another expedition Von Wrangell writes: "The Geodets undertook a third excursion over the ice in 1771. Starting from the Kolyma they arrived on the last of the Bear Islands on March 9th. There they remained six days on account of bad weather, and then started for Tchaun Bay. Three days they continued in a due east direction, and having gone forty-eight versts, turned off to the Baranov rocks, from which they were fifty versts distant, and where they arrived on the 18th. Having rested there and killed a white bear, they continued their journey along the coast in an easterly direction, but on the 28th, their provisions running short, they were forced to return. On April 6th they arrived again at Nijni-Kolymsk, after driving about 433 versts."
All this was not very encouraging, especially the fact, recorded by Von Wrangell, that a traveller named Hedenstrom once made an attempt to reach Shelagskoi about the same time of year as ourselves, but "found the ice already so thin that he was obliged to renounce the plan. He even found it difficult to retrace his own track to the Kolyma, where, however, he arrived in safety and spent the following summer."
This was the sole information which I was able to extract from a score of volumes dealing with Arctic exploration, and, briefly, it came to this: Von Wrangell had once travelled in winter, with dogs, from Nijni-Kolymsk to Koliutchin Bay (about two-thirds of the distance to Bering Straits). Berry and Gilder had traversed the entire distance, from the Straits to the Kolyma River, under similar conditions; and why, therefore, should we not do likewise? There was a "but," however, and a formidable one. These three travellers had made the coast journey in the depth of winter (with a good three months of solid ice before them), while we were about to attempt it in the declining spring.
On the first day, when travelling about two miles out to sea not far from the mouth of the Kolyma River, Harding, with an exclamation of surprise, drew my attention to a group of men apparently gathered together on the brink of a cliff. But a moment's reflection showed me that, viewed from this distance, these figures, if human beings, must have been giants of fifty feet high. The resemblance, however, was so startling that we steered inshore for a closer inspection, and my glasses then revealed the rocky pinnacles which nature has so weirdly fashioned in the shape of man. The effect in this desolate and ice-bound wilderness was uncanny in the extreme. Von Wrangell noticed these pillars in 1820, and measuring one found it forty-three feet in height. He describes it as "something like the body of a man, with a sort of cap or turban on his head, and without arms or legs," but to us they appeared much more lifelike.
We made good headway during the greater part of the first day in clear and cloudless weather, but towards evening the sky became overcast and a rapidly rising wind brought down another shrieking poorga, which compelled us to encamp in haste under the lee of a rocky cliff, luckily at hand when the storm burst upon us. At this time a breastplate of solid ice was formed by driving snow on our deerskins, and an idea of the intense and incessant cold which followed may be gleaned by the fact that this uncomfortable cuirass remained intact until we entered the first Tchuktchi hut nearly three weeks later. But this first poorga, although a severe one, was nothing compared to the tempests we afterwards encountered. Nevertheless, our flimsy tent was twice blown down before morning, its re-erection entailing badly frozen hands and faces, for having encamped without finding drift-wood there was no fire and therefore no food. Cold and hunger precluded sleep, and I passed the cold and miserable hours vainly endeavouring to smoke a pipe blocked by frozen nicotine. This may be taken as a fair sample of a night in dirty weather on that cruel coast. At daybreak we commenced another hunt for drift-wood, which was not discovered for several hours, when every one was utterly worn out from the cold and lengthened fast.
Sometimes a poorga would rage all day, and in this case progress was out of the question. The solitary meal would then consist of frozen fish or iron-like chunks of Carnyl which were held in the mouth until sufficiently soft to be swallowed. There was of course no means of assuaging thirst, from which we at first suffered severely, for the sucking of ice only increases this evil. And want of water affected even the sleds, the runners of which should be sluiced at least once a day, so as to form a thin crust of ice which slides easily over a frozen surface.
On April 7 we reached a landmark for which Mikouline had been searching in some anxiety, the Bolshaya-Reka or Big River. All that day we had been at sea, picking our way through mountainous bergs and hummocks, some quite sixty feet in height, while the sleds continually broke through into crevasses concealed by layers of frozen snow. On the right bank of this river we found a deserted village once occupied by trappers; half a dozen ruined huts surrounding a roofless chapel. The place is known as Bassarika, a corruption of Bolshaya-Reka, and Mikouline had known it ten years ago as the abode of prosperous fur traders. But one hard season every living being perished from smallpox and privation, and the priest alone escaped to carry news of the disaster to Nijni-Kolymsk.
[Footnote 51: Twenty or thirty years ago there were three or four Russian settlements, and at least as many Tchuktchi villages between the Kolyma River and Tchaun Bay, but there is now not a solitary being on the coast throughout the whole distance of nearly six hundred miles.]
Our drivers camped here with reluctance, for the place is said to be haunted, and its silent, spectral appearance certainly suggested an abiding-place of evil spirits. But one of the ruined huts, although pitch dark and partly filled with snow, offered a pleasanter shelter than our draughty tent, and I insisted upon a halt. Drift-wood was plentiful (it always was near the mouth of a river), and a fire was soon kindled, or rather a bad imitation of one, for this fuel only yields a dull, flickering flame. This latter, however, melted the snow sufficiently to convert the floor of our shanty into a miniature lake, and we therefore left it in disgust and adjourned to the deerskin tent shared by Stepan and the drivers, hard snow being a preferable couch to several inches of icy-cold water. This happened to be my birthday, and Harding triumphantly produced a tiny plum pudding, frozen to the consistency of a cannon-ball, which he had brought all the way from England in honour of the occasion. But we decided to defer the feast until we could enjoy it in comparative comfort, perhaps on the shores of Bering Straits—if we ever reached them! My notes between Bassarika and Tchaun Bay are very incomplete, for they were generally made at night, when the temperature inside the tent seemed to paralyse the brain as completely as it numbed the fingers. Oddly enough there is nothing colder than paper, and when the bare hand had rested upon it for a few moments it had to be thrust back into a fur mit to restore circulation.
Imagine a barren, snow-clad Sahara absolutely uninhabited for the first six hundred miles, and then sparsely peopled by the filthiest race in creation, and you may faintly realise the region traversed by my expedition for nearly two months of continuous travel from the last Russian outpost to Bering Straits. Place a piece of coal sprinkled with salt on a white tablecloth, a few inches off it scatter some lump sugar, and it will give you in miniature a very fair presentment of the scenery. The coal is the bleak coast-line continually swept clear of snow by furious gales; the sugar, sea-ice, and the cloth the frozen beach over which we journeyed for over 1600 miles. The dreary outlook never changed; occasionally the cliffs vanished and our way would lie across the tundras—marshy plains—which in summer encircle the Polar Sea with a belt of verdure and wild flowers, but which in winter-time are merged with the frozen ocean in one boundless, bewildering wilderness of white. In hazy weather land and sky formed one impenetrable veil, with no horizon as dividing line, when, even at a short distance away, men and dog-sleds resembled flies crawling up a white curtain. But on clear days, unfortunately rare, the blue sky was Mediterranean, and at such times the bergs out at sea would flash like jewels in the full blaze of the sunshine, while blocks of dark green ice, half buried in snow under shadow of the cliffs, would appear for all the world like cabochon emeralds dropped into a mass of whipped cream. But the reverse of this picture was depressing in the extreme. For on cloudy days the snow would assume a dull leaden appearance, and the sea-ice become a slate grey, with dense banks of woolly, white fog encircling the dismal scene. Fair and foul weather in the Arctic reminded me of some beautiful woman, bejewelled and radiant amid lights and laughter, and the same divinity landing dishevelled, pale, and sea-sick from the deck of a Channel steamer.
But we had little time, or indeed inclination, to admire the beauties of nature, which are robbed of half their charms when viewed by the owner of an empty stomach. Did not Dr. Johnson once truthfully remark that, "the finest landscape is spoiled without a good inn in the foreground"? Time also in our case meant not merely money, but life, and we were therefore compelled to push on day after day, week after week, at the highest rate of speed attainable by our miserable teams, which, to do them justice, did their best. The poor beasts seemed to be instinctively aware that our food would only last for a limited period. When the coast was visible we steered by it, travelling from 6 A.M. until we struck drift-wood, the traveller's sole salvation on this coast. Sometimes we found it and sometimes we didn't, in any case it was seldom more than sufficient to boil a kettle, and bodily warmth from a good fire was an unknown luxury. Even a little oil would have been a godsend for heating purposes, but we had used up every drop we possessed before reaching Sredni-Kolymsk, where no more was attainable, and I dared not waste the alcohol brought for the purpose of bartering with the Tchuktchis. I can safely say I have never suffered, physically or mentally, as I did during those first two weeks along the shores of North-Eastern Siberia. We were often compelled to go without food throughout the twenty-four hours, and sometimes for thirty-six, our frozen provisions being uneatable uncooked. At night, after a cheerless meal, we would crawl into sleeping-bags and try to sleep in a temperature varying from 35 deg. to 45 deg. below zero. And sometimes lying sleepless, miserable, and half frozen under that flimsy tent, I resolved to give it all up and make an attempt to return to the Kolyma River, although even retreat would now have been attended with considerable peril. And yet, somehow, morning always found us on the march again eastward. On the beach we got along fairly well, but steep, precipitous cliffs often drove us out to sea, where the sleds had to be pushed and hauled over rough and often mountainous ice, about the toughest work I know of. We then travelled about a mile an hour, and sometimes not that. The end of the day generally found us all cut about, bruised, and bleeding from falls over the glassy ice; and the wounds, although generally trifling, were made doubly painful by frost and the absence of hot water. I enter into these apparently trivial details as at the time they appeared to us of considerable importance, but the reader may think them unnecessary, just as the man who has never had toothache laughs at a sufferer. Toothache, by the way, was another minor evil that greatly increased our sufferings during those dark days of hunger and incessant anxiety.
And yet, if all had gone well, all these troubles—added to intense cold and semi-starvation—would have been bearable; but everything went wrong. First it was the dogs, as famished as ourselves, who dragged their tired limbs more and more heavily towards evening as the weary days crawled on, and every morning I used to look at their gaunt flanks and hungry eyes, and think with despair of the thousand odd miles that lay between us and Bering Straits. Then the Russian drivers, secretly backed by Mikouline, threatened almost daily to desert us and return to the Kolyma. One morning all three burst into my tent and vowed that nothing should induce them to proceed a mile further. Finally, force had to be employed to keep these cowards together, and, luckily, we were well armed, which they were not. But this trouble necessitated a watch by night, as exhausting as it was painful in the pitiless cold. Only ten days out from the Kolyma we were living on a quarter of a pound of Carnyl and a little frozen fish a day, a diet that would scarcely satisfy a healthy child. Bread, biscuits, and everything in the shape of flour was finished a week after leaving Kolymsk, but luckily we had plenty of tea and tobacco, which kept life within us to the last.
Then sickness came. Owing to the frequent dearth of fuel our furs and foot-gear were never quite dry, and during sleep our feet were often frozen by the moisture formed during the day. One fireless night De Clinchamp entirely lost the use of his limbs, and a day's delay was the result. Four days later he slipped into a crevasse while after a bear and ruptured himself. This bear, by the way, was the only living thing we saw throughout that journey of nearly six hundred miles to Tchaun Bay. Then I was attacked by snow-blindness, the pain of which must be experienced to be realised. Goggles gave me no relief, and in civilisation the malady would have necessitated medical care and a darkened room. Here it meant pushing on day after day half blinded and in great agony, especially when there was no drift-wood and therefore no hot water to subdue the inflammation. Sleep or rest of any kind was impossible for nearly a week, and for two days my eyes closed up entirely and I lay helpless on a sled, which was upset, on an average, twice every hour on the rough, jagged ice. At last we struck a fair quantity of wood and halted for forty-eight hours, and here I obtained relief with zinc and hot water, while Mikouline proceeded to rub tobacco into his inflamed optics, a favourite cure on the Kolyma, which oddly enough does not always fail. About this time one of the dogs was attacked with rabies, and bit several others before we could shoot it. We lost over a dozen dogs in this way before reaching Bering Straits, this being probably due to the casual manner in which Stepan treated the disease. When one animal had to be destroyed he coolly led it about at the end of a string to find a suitable spot for its execution, and when another went mad, and I was for despatching it, suggested that we could ill spare it from the team for a few days longer! And yet, notwithstanding these hourly difficulties, privations, and hardships, I am proud to say that I never once heard a word of complaint from a single member of my party, although those days of constant toil and suffering in that grave of nature, the Arctic, might well have tried the constitution of a Sandow and the patience of a Job! And I may add that no leader of an expedition could wish for three more courageous and unselfish companions than the Vicomte de Clinchamp, George Harding, and last, but not least, the Cossack Stepan Rastorguyeff, whose invaluable services throughout this journey will, I am informed, be suitably rewarded by the Russian Government.
About one day in four was bright and sunny, and would have been almost pleasant under other circumstances. Even our chicken-hearted drivers would become less gloomy under the genial influence of bright sunshine, and join together in the weird songs of their country until darkness again fell, bringing with it disquieting fears of the murderous Tchuktchi. Most of that memorable journey was made through a constant succession of snowstorms, gales and poorgas. We met three of the latter between the Kolyma River and Cape North, the last one striking us on the twentieth day out, as we were crossing Tchaun Bay, on the eastern shores of which I hoped to find a settlement. Although the weather just before had been perfectly clear and calm, in five minutes we were at the mercy of such a tempest that men and dogs were compelled to halt and crouch under the sleds to escape its fury.
During a temporary lull we got under way again, and for seven of the longest hours of my life we floundered on. As even a gentle zephyr up here, blowing against the face, means considerable discomfort, and anything like a gale, acute distress, the reader may imagine what it meant to struggle against a howling poorga. During those terrible hours one could only glance hastily to windward, for the hard and frozen snow cut like a whip into cheeks and eyeballs. Every few minutes the weak, half-starved dogs would lie down, and were only urged on by severe punishment which it went to my heart to see inflicted, but to reach land was a question of life or death. Sometimes the coast would loom ahead through the blinding snow, but we had to steer by the compass, which, for some occult reason, was that day useless, for it pointed east and led us due north towards the sea. At last, after a journey from the opposite coast of ten hours, with faces, feet and hands badly frozen, we reached land exhausted, and, for the time being, safe. Some drift-wood and the shelter of a friendly cave were handy, or that night some of us must inevitably have perished. But after a painful struggle up a steep cliff, waist-deep in snow, and a crawl into the cheerless refuge, the cry was raised, "A sled is lost!" and there was nothing for it but to face the poorga again in search of the missing narta and its driver, one of the Kolyma men. For perhaps an hour every man floundered about the hummocks and crevasses of the bay with a dogged perseverance born of the knowledge that at this time of the year large floes are often detached from the main pack and blown out to sea. But at last even Stepan's pluck and endurance were exhausted (to say nothing of my own), and I blew the whistle for a general retreat to our cavern, only to find the missing sled triced up with the others and its occupant snugly reposing inside the rock. And right glad we were to find not only the man in charge of it but also the missing sled, which had contained the last remnants of our provisions!
That night, after the evening meal, every mouthful of food we had left was two pounds of Carnyl and fourteen frozen fish, and this must suffice for nine men and sixty ravenous dogs! Hitherto we had joked about cannibalism. Harding, we had said, as being the stoutest member of the party, was to be sacrificed, and Stepan was to be the executioner. But to-night this well-worn joke fell flat. For we had reached the eastern shores of Tchaun Bay, and this was where we should have found a Tchuktchi village. When the sun rose next morning, however, not a sign of human life was visible. Even Stepan's features assumed a look of blank despair, but the plucky Cossack aroused our miserable drivers as usual with his cruel nagaika and compelled them to make a start, although the poor wretches would willingly have resigned themselves to a death which undoubtedly overtook them a few days later.
[Footnote 52: Cossack whip.]
We had lost three dogs during the blizzard on Tchaun Bay, and the rest were so weary and footsore that it seemed little short of brutal to drive them on. But to stop here meant starvation, so we struggled painfully onwards to the eastward, growing weaker and weaker every hour. At times I felt as if I must lie down in the snow and give way to an overpowering feeling of drowsiness, and Harding and De Clinchamp afterwards confessed that they frequently experienced the same feeling. But Stepan, perhaps more inured to hardships than ourselves, was the life and soul of our party during that long, miserable day, and it was chiefly due to his dogged determination (combined with a small slice of luck) that on that very night, when things seemed to be on the very verge of a fatal termination, we came upon signs of human life in the shape of a kayak with a paddle propped against it on the snowy beach. An hour later we sighted our goal—the first Tchuktchi settlement! And the relief with which I beheld those grimy, walrus-hide huts can never be described, for even this foul haven meant salvation from the horrors of a lingering death.
IN THE ARCTIC
Our reception by the Tchuktchis at Cape Shelagskoi was so surly that I began to think there might be some reason for the repeated warnings of our friends on the Kolyma. Two or three woebegone creatures in ragged deerskins, crawled out of the huts and surveyed us with such suspicion and distrust that I verily believe they took us for visitors from the spirit world. As a rule the Tchuktchi costume is becoming, but these people wore shapeless rags, matted with dirt, and their appearance suggested years of inactivity and bodily neglect. I noticed, however with satisfaction that their churlish greeting was not unmingled with fear, although they obstinately refused the food and shelter begged for by means of signs, pointing, at the same time, to a black banner flapping mournfully over the nearest hut. This I knew (from my experiences at Oumwaidjik in 1896) to be the Tchuktchi emblem of death. Our sulky hosts then indicated a dark object some distance away upon the snow, which I sent Stepan to investigate, and the Cossack quickly returned, having found the corpses of several men and women in an advanced stage of decomposition. An infectious disease was apparently raging, for several sufferers lay helpless on the ground of the first hut we entered. I imagine the malady was smallpox, for a lengthened experience of Siberian prisons has made me familiar with the characteristic smell which accompanies the confluent form of this disease. On the other hand, it may have been kor, the mysterious epidemic which had lately desolated the Kolyma district, and of which we had heard even as far south as Yakutsk.
[Footnote 53: Von Wrangell writes that during his coast journey an old Tchuktchi near here told him that he was descended from the Chelagi, or, as they are usually called by the Tchuktchi, the Tchewany, who many years since migrated towards the west and have not since been seen. He adds: "The first of these names has been preserved in Cape Shelagskoi, and the second in that of Tchewan or Tchaun Bay."]
But food must be obtained at any cost. To leave this place without an adequate supply would have been sheer madness, especially as we had ascertained from the natives that the next settlement was at least nine "sleeps" (or, in Tchuktchi dialect, days) away. Our own stores had now dwindled down to a few frozen fish, but here, for the first (and by no means the last) time, vodka came in useful, for there lives no Tchuktchi who will not sell his soul for alcohol. The fiery spirit procured seal-meat sufficient to last us, with care, for ten days. I can safely say that this is the most disgusting diet in creation, but we devoured it greedily, with keen appetites sharpened by the knowledge that twenty-four hours more would have seen us starving.
There were about thirty people in this place who had escaped the prevailing pestilence, but all showed such a marked aversion to our presence that I sparingly dispensed our vodka. A drunken Tchuktchi is a murderous devil, and I had no desire to repeat my experiences amongst these people of 1896, when my life was more than once in jeopardy during their orgies. However, the natives of Erktrik (as this place is called), were so openly hostile that even the usually truculent Mikouline, who once, under the influence of his favourite beverage, had offered to accompany me to a much warmer and remoter place than this, was paralysed with fear. I therefore resolved to push on early the following day (April 22), but that night we were all too exhausted to keep the usual watch, and when we awoke late the next morning our three Kolyma friends had bolted, taking some of our seal-meat with them. There can be no doubt that the fugitives perished trying to reach their home, for panic had deprived them of the reasoning power to steal a sled and dogs, or even a compass, which they might easily have done. The food the poor fellows took was perhaps sufficient for a week's consumption, certainly not for a journey of at least a couple of months on foot. A more vicious and unprincipled scoundrel than Mikouline probably never existed, and yet I missed him sorely afterwards, and would give a good deal, notwithstanding all the trouble he gave me, to know that the little ruffian had reached the Kolyma in safety. But this is, I fear, outside the bounds of possibility. We did not leave the next day, for Erktrik, or rather Cape Shelagskoi, proved a Pandora's box of unpleasant surprises, including another tempest, which, though not so severe as the poorga which preceded it, detained us here for forty-eight hours. These were passed in scouring the coast in search of the drivers, but although their footsteps were visible for a couple of miles they ceased abruptly where the runaways had taken to the ice in order to recross Tchaun Bay.
On the morning of April 23 we left Erktrik, now each driving a sled, the fifth team being hitched on to Stepan's narta. A dead calm had now succeeded the wind, and we halted at midday for a rest of an hour. There being drift-wood near camp, I decided to eat our daily meal here instead of waiting, as usual, until the evening. And that was one of the pleasantest hours throughout the whole of that distressing journey, for the air was still, and the sun blazed down upon our little tent and filled it with a bright warm light, which, but for the desolate surroundings and unsavoury odour of seal-meat, would have recalled Nice or Monte Carlo. The ice, too, on beard and moustache, and clinking against the drinking-cup, was scarcely suggestive of the Riviera; but, nevertheless, the momentary peace and warmth were little short of luxurious. And the dogs seemed to relish the sun and warmth as much as ourselves, as they lay around, asleep or indulging in the quaint antics which often made me wonder whether they were not in some way distantly allied to the human race. For the Siberian sled-dog is unquestionably the most sagacious animal in existence, and many a time have his comical vagaries lightened my hours of despondency. In appearance the Siberian differs essentially from the Eskimo dog, and is a stronger though smaller animal, seldom of a uniform colour, being generally black and white, black and tan, &c. His eyes are often of a light blue colour from the incessant snow-glare, which has a queer effect, especially, as often happens, when one pupil has retained its original colour. The leader of my team, a lean, grizzled old customer with the muzzle of a wolf, was the quaintest of all. Oddly enough, kicks gained his friendship much more readily than kindness, if the kicker happened to be a favoured acquaintance; if not, trouble was likely to ensue, as De Clinchamp once found to his cost! Towards the other male dogs of my team "Tchort," or the Devil, assumed an air of almost snobbish superiority, but to the females he was affability itself. The reader will scarcely believe that I have seen this weird animal squat gravely in front of one of the opposite sex, extend his right paw and tap her playfully on the jowl, the compliment being returned by an affectionate lick on Tchort's right ear. But this is a fact, and only one of many extraordinary eccentricities which I observed amongst our canine friends while journeying down the coast. Tchort, however, was a sad thief and stole everything he could lay his hands, or rather teeth, upon, from seal-meat to a pair of moccasins. At night, therefore, when other dogs were free to roam about camp, my leader was invariably fastened firmly to a sled, where he usually revenged himself by howling dismally at intervals. But he was a capital leader and as steady as a rock, excepting when the team, at the sight of a distant object on the snow, would give one piercing yelp of joy, and bolt towards it at breakneck speed, utterly regardless of the brake or curses of the driver. I am bound to say that on these occasions Tchort was the most unruly of the lot.
Beyond Erktrik the coast becomes so rocky and precipitous that we travelled chiefly over the sea, and progress was slower than it had been yet on account of the mountainous ice we encountered around the numerous headlands. There was little driving to do, every man having to turn to and haul with the dogs, or lift the sleds bodily across crevasses, or over steep, slippery icebanks. For a week the sky remained unclouded, and the sun beat down so fiercely that during the day our garments were soaked with perspiration, which would freeze to the skin at night and intensify the cold. West of Cape North the coast is of no great height, and although distance and the rarefied atmosphere often made the cliffs appear of formidable dimensions, a nearer approach generally showed that a man could stand on the beach and, metaphorically, shake hands with one on their summits. With plenty of decent food this part of the journey would have been comparatively enjoyable, but as we had only enough seal-meat to last for ten days, and as I feared that the Erktrik natives, wishing to be rid of us, had misinformed me as to the distance away of the next village, I could only issue provisions very sparingly. Luckily my fears were unfounded, for in a week we reached the second settlement, Owarkin, which was more prosperous, and where a goodly supply of food was produced in exchange for half a dozen dogs, some tea and a few articles of barter. The natives here were less unfriendly, but as most of them had never seen a white man we were regarded with great curiosity. All day the tent was packed with eager faces, and at night-time the canvas opening was continually pushed aside, much to our discomfort, for the cold here was very severe. But these people were such a welcome contrast to the sulky, ill-conditioned natives down coast that we gladly suffered this minor discomfort. We remained in this place for one night only, and pushed on with renewed hope, encouraged by the kindly demeanour of the natives, for Cape North. But now the fair weather broke up, and almost daily we had to fight against gales and blizzards, which weakness, caused by filthy diet, almost rendered us incapable of. But we pegged away cheerfully enough, although every one was suffering more or less from troublesome catarrh; De Clinchamp was partially crippled by frost-bite, and snow-blindness caused me incessant pain—agony on sunny days when there was a glare off the ice. To make matters worse, drift-wood was so scarce at this time that a small fire was only attainable every second day. Luckily I had kept a few wax candles, and with the aid of these enough snow was melted to serve as a lotion for De Clinchamp and myself. I was harassed, too, by the thought that at our slow rate of speed Koliutchin Bay (still eight hundred miles away) would probably be found broken up and impassable, in which case the entire summer would have to be passed amongst these treacherous natives. For should the Revenue cutter, which the American Government had kindly undertaken to send to our assistance in June, not find us at East Cape, she would probably sail away again, under the impression that we had returned to the Kolyma. In any case she would scarcely come more than a hundred miles or so west of Bering Straits, and Koliutchin was quite three times that distance. There is probably no region in the world more inaccessible than North-Eastern Siberia, and even had the ill-fated Andre managed to effect a landing, say between Tchaun Bay and the Kolyma River, he would, unless well supplied with provisions, in my opinion, have perished.
Near Cape Kyber a huge bear and its cub were seen in the ice off the island of Shalarof, about three miles from the coast. De Clinchamp, Stepan and half a dozen dogs at once went in pursuit, less for the sake of sport than of replenishing our larder, but after an exciting chase the brute got away, leaving its cub to be devoured by the dogs before Stepan could secure it, a keen disappointment to us all. We frequently came across tracks after this, but saw no more bears, which from everything but a gastronomical point of view was no loss. For there is no more sport in shooting the polar species than in knocking over a rook or a rabbit.
[Footnote 54: About three and a half versts north of Cape Kyber there is a rocky island of two and a half versts in circumference, entirely surrounded by hummocks. I gave it the name of Shalarof, after the man whose enterprise, courage, and perseverance, and finally whose death in these regions, have well deserved that his name should be so recorded.—"The Polar Sea," by Von Wrangell.]
[Footnote 55: Von Wrangell writes that dogs have a remarkable aversion to bear's flesh as long as it is warm, but this was not our experience on this occasion.]
Finally Areni, a large village near Cape North, was reached, and here we found food in plenty, even some deer-meat, which, although putrid, was most acceptable. The kor, or smallpox, had not visited this place, and we saw and heard no more of this dread disease eastward of this. From here on to Cape North villages became more frequent and natives more friendly. In one place the sight of a San Francisco newspaper filled us with joy and a pleasant sense of proximity, although it was two years old. We traced it to an American whaler, for the trade of this coast is now no longer in Russian hands, but in those of the whaling fleet from the Golden Gate. At present there is no communication whatsoever between the Tchuktchis and the Kolyma, as we had already found to our cost.
A hard journey of over two days from here, during which scarcity of drift-wood caused us much trouble, brought us to Cape North. Darkness had now almost left us, and on April 28 we travelled nearly throughout the night in a dim daylight, arriving the next morning at a small village of three huts called Yugetamil. "And it's about time," murmured Harding, on hearing the name. But the atrocious pun was justly received in silence. About fifteen miles east of this we sighted mountains, perhaps thirty miles to the southward, known to the Tchuktchis as the Puk-tak range. The highest peak, Mount Uruni, about 3000 feet high, was visible in clear weather.
[Footnote 56: Concerning this region Von Wrangell wrote: "Drift-wood is scarce along this coast, partly from the consumption by Tchuktchis, and partly from natural causes. The greater part of the drift-wood found between the Shelagskoi and the Bering Straits is probably of American origin, for it consists chiefly of stems of pines and firs. My opinion that the drift-wood on this part of the coast comes from America is confirmed by the assertion of the Tchuktchis that among the trunks of fir they not unfrequently find some that have been felled with stone axes."]
Nearing Cape North the ice was so bad that our progress seldom exceeded two miles an hour, but the cliffs here are quite perpendicular, so that it was impossible to travel by land. In places they were covered to a height of forty feet or so by the clear green or blue ice formed by breakers of the preceding year, and the dazzling colours reflected by the sunshine on the glassy surface of the rocks was marvellous to behold. Nearing the cape the ice was piled up so high that I feared at one time we should never succeed in rounding the headland. The sleds were constantly hauled up hummocks sixty to seventy feet high, and much care was needed to prevent them falling headlong from the summits with the dogs. Every one had over a score of bad falls that day, and although no bones were broken I slipped up towards midday and landed heavily on the back of my head with my feet in the air. But for three thick fur caps my skull must have been fractured, and for several minutes I lay unconscious. All that day we toiled along, now scrambling over mountainous "torosses," now wading waist-deep in soft snow, which occasionally gave way to precipitate us into invisible holes. When, late at night, we reached a small village of two huts (name unknown), men and dogs were quite exhausted, and had the tiny settlement been half a mile further we could never have reached it. Here again we disposed of three dogs for more seal-meat, and went on the next morning rejoicing, notwithstanding a stiff gale from the eastward accompanied by snow.
At Cape North the natives were the friendliest we had yet seen, and we actually obtained flour and molasses, priceless luxuries. Pancakes fried in seal oil may not sound appetising, but to us they tasted like the daintiest of petits fours. And the welcome news that Koliutchin Bay would remain frozen until late in May enabled me to hope that we might now reach Bering Straits, a contingency which only a few days before had seemed extremely remote. This information was furnished by a Tchuktchi named Yaigok, whose home was within a few miles of Bering Straits, and who spoke a few words of English picked up from the American whalemen. This man was returning with a sled-load of bearskins and fox furs, to trade to the whaling fleet. He was a fine, strapping fellow, and I gladly accepted his offer to guide us as far as his village, for twelve dogs, some tobacco and a couple of clasp-knives. Several natives here had travelled as far as the Bering Straits, which they called the "Big River," the land beyond it, Alaska, being known as "Nagurok" in the Tchuktchi dialect.
The village at Cape North is known to the natives as Irkaipien. From a distance the promontory presents almost the appearance of an island, as it is joined to the low land by a landspit hidden in winter by stranded ice. This is probably the point seen in 1777 by Captain Cook, from whom it received its present name, but I rechristened it Cape Despair, on account of the difficulty we experienced in reaching it from the time when it was first sighted. Mentioning the fact to Stepan, I was much entertained by an anecdote related by the Cossack in connection with the names of places. He had once accompanied a German traveller, who was compiling a volume of his experiences, down the Yenisei River in Siberia. On several occasions the tourists' inquiries as to topographical names were met with the reply, "Imia niet," for the country they were travelling was new to Stepan. When, however, the book of travel was published in Berlin, a mountain, two rivers and a village were carefully described under the title of the above two words which in Russian signify: "It has no name!"
I was rather disturbed while at Cape North to hear the name of my old friend Koari of Oumwaidjik continually mentioned by the natives, for although I well knew the old scoundrel's influence extended along the coast in a southerly direction, I was not prepared to find it existing amongst the Tchuktchis of the north-eastern seaboard. One of my chief objects had been to avoid the Oumwaidjik people, and I had therefore planned our route so as to steer north of the place by over two hundred miles. However, nothing was known here of the enmity existing between myself and this old bandit, who, by reason of the punishment inflicted on him on my account by the United States Government, would probably have made things warm for us had he been aware of my proximity, I had hitherto imagined that no land communication existed between Oumwaidjik and the Arctic Coast, and that by the time navigation re-opened we should be far away from the clutches of my old enemy, with whom our guide, Yaigok, was apparently on intimate terms. I therefore resolved to be careful, the more so that at Natska, a village about ten days east of Cape North, we found a caravan of sixteen dog-sleds, laden down with furs, on the point of departure.
"Where are those people going?" I inquired of Yaigok, as the team started away across the tundra in a south-easterly direction.
"Over the mountains to Koari!" replied the Tchuktchi, and I prudently refrained from questioning him further.
Another unpleasant incident occurred at Cape North, where a gale and heavy snow detained us for two days. A young native, having imbibed our vodka, clamoured loudly for more, and when Stepan refused to produce the drink, drew a knife and made a savage lunge which cut into the Cossack's furs. In an instant the aggressor was on his back in the snow, and foreseeing a row I seized a revolver and shouted to my companions to do likewise. But to my surprise the crowd soundly belaboured their countryman, while Yaigok apologised on behalf of the chief, for the man's behaviour. Nevertheless, there were dissentient voices and ugly looks, so that I was not altogether sorry to leave Irkaipien behind us.
We made rapid headway after this, for most of the way lay over tundra as smooth and flat as a billiard-table. Our guide's sled continually left us far behind, for the Tchuktchi's nartas are far superior to those made on the Kolyma. Yaigok's dogs, too, were fresh and hardy, while ours were exhausted by hunger and hardship. Our method of harnessing was also inferior to the Tchuktchi method, which brings the strain on the shoulders instead of the neck. These people, like the Yakutes, are very kind to animals. I never once saw them strike their dogs, which were urged on by rattling an iron ring fixed for the purpose to the end of the brake. Yaigok knew every inch of the road and saved many a mile by short cuts taken across land or sea. The cold here was great and drift-wood scarce, but one could be sure now of passing some settlement at least every three or four days, where even a foul glimmer of a seal-oil lamp was better than no fire at all. About this time the sleds gave us much trouble—the rough usage they had undergone necessitating constant repairs, but these were quickly made, for not a scrap of metal enters into the construction of a Kolyma dog-sled; merely wooden pegs and walrus-hide thongs, which are more durable and give more spring and pliancy than iron nails. Three days after leaving Cape North, and in fine weather, Wrangell Land was sighted, or, I should perhaps say, was probably sighted, for at times huge barriers of icebergs can easily be mistaken for a distant island. Yaigok, however, averred that it was an island, and his judgment was probably correct.
The journey from here eastwards to Bering Straits would under ordinary circumstances of travel have seemed a severe one, for we travelled through head winds and constant snowstorms, which now, with a rising temperature, drenched our furs and made the nights even more miserable than those of intense, but dry, cold. One thing here struck me as curious, every snow-flake was a most perfect five-pointed star, as accurately shaped as though it had passed through a tiny mould. Discomforts, as I have said, continued, not to say hardships, but we had become so inured to the latter that we could now, with well-lined stomachs, afford to despise even blizzards with shelter never more than twenty or thirty miles distant. Our diet was not appetising, consisting as it did for the most part of oily seal and walrus-meat, but drift-wood was now more plentiful, and we could usually reckon on that blessing, a fire at night. There was now little difficulty in finding settlements, one of which was reached on an average every twenty-four hours, but it was necessary to keep a sharp look-out, for the low, mushroom-like huts of the Tchuktchis are invisible a short distance away and are easily passed unnoticed during a fog or in driving snow. Fogs, by the way, were very prevalent as we neared the Straits, and became denser in proportion as the spring advanced.
East of Cape North we had no bother whatever with the natives, who in many places even refused payment for food and assistance. Passing the villages of Wankarem and Onman we reached, on May 10, Koliutchin, a large village situated on an island in the bay of that name. Here we were received with open arms by the chief, who spoke a little English, picked up, like Yaigok's, from American whalemen at East Cape. Professor Nordenskjold's ship the Vega wintered here some years ago, and the natives showed us souvenirs of the Swedish explorer's visit in the shape of clasp-knives and tin tobacco-boxes. The irony of fate and obstinacy of pack-ice are shown by the fact that all on board the Vega were expecting an easy passage through Bering Straits to the southward, and yet within twenty-four hours were compelled to remain for another winter securely ice-locked off this dreary settlement.
[Footnote 57: Our American charts made these villages sixty miles apart, whereas they are not divided by a third of the distance.]
Koliutchin Island was called Burney Island by Captain Cook, but Whale Island would be a better name for it than either, for it exactly resembles a narwhal on the surface of the sea. There appeared to be frequent communication with the mainland, for we reached the island (about four miles in circumference and twenty-five miles from the coast) by a well-defined sled-track; perhaps luckily, for the bay was otherwise obstructed by heavy ice. News travels like lightning along this part of the coast, and Kouniang, the chief, and a crowd of natives received us as we landed along the beach. As soon as our tent was pitched, deer-meat (only slightly tainted!), flour and molasses were brought us, also some sticky American sweets, which having reposed for some time in the chief's deerskin parka, were covered with hairs. But we were used to this slight inconvenience, for since leaving Yakutsk I had seldom partaken of a meal which was not freely sprinkled with capillary particles, either from our own furs or the surroundings. I verily believe that between Verkhoyansk and East Cape I consumed, in this way, enough hair to stuff a moderately sized pillow!
Kouniang was one of the richest natives on the coast, and his trade with the whale-ships was extensive; he providing the Americans with whalebone, walrus tusks and furs, in exchange for cotton goods, canned provisions and rubbish of all kinds "made in Germany." The chief would take no payment for his hospitality, and this was perhaps fortunate, as I had very little to give him. So many of our dogs had died or been bartered that only thirty-one were now left, and these, with four sleds, about fifteen pounds of Circassian tobacco and under a gallon of vodka, represented the entire assets of the expedition. Poverty is a serious crime in a civilised country, but in some savage lands it means absolute starvation, and the problem of tiding over perhaps a couple of months at East Cape without means of paying for food now caused me considerable anxiety. A credit was awaiting me at Nome City in Alaska, but the Tchuktchi scarcely understands banking transactions. Everything depended upon the charity or otherwise of the chief at East Cape; and, as the reader may imagine, I left Koliutchin in a very perplexed state of mind.
Koliutchin Bay was negotiated in beautiful weather, much to my relief, for I had experienced misgivings after our terrible experiences in Tchaun Bay. But a blue sky and perfect stillness enabled our now exhausted dogs to carry us across in under seven hours, and I was glad to reach the eastern shore, for great lakes of open water on every side showed that we were not a day too soon. The sun had now become so powerful that most of our travelling was done by night, for during the daytime the ice was often inch-deep in water, and the runners were imbedded in the soft and yielding snow. The coast from here on to Bering Straits is said to be rich in minerals; but although coal was frequently seen cropping out from the cliffs and mica is plentiful, we saw no gold, and only heard on one occasion of the precious metal. This was at Inchaun, about a day's journey from East Cape, where one Jim, an English-speaking Tchuktchi informed me that he knew of "a mountain of gold" about ten miles away. The lad offered to walk to the place (now almost inaccessible on account of melting snow), and to bring me specimens of the ore, which I agreed to, undertaking to repay him with one of our much-battered sleds on arrival at East Cape. The next day Jim returned with several attractive bits of rock, which, however, when tested by an expert at Nome City, were found to be absolutely worthless. I had heard of this mountain of gold in London, where I believe it once figured in an alluring prospectus! Jim, I fancy, was a bit of a humbug, who had served on a whaler and was therefore not wholly unacquainted with iron pyrites. Indeed this was the most intelligent Tchuktchi I ever met, although his language would have startled an English bargee. The white man he regarded with extreme contempt, alluding to us indiscriminately as "disfellah" as he sat in our tent, calmly sharing (without invitation) any repast that was going on, and occasionally pausing to exclaim, between the mouthfuls, "By G—! you come a long way!"
At Inchaun, Yaigok left us, and we proceeded alone and rapidly along the now level beach and rolling tundra. The comparative ease and comfort with which we accomplished the last three hundred miles of the coast journey was due to the fact that the natives are in yearly touch with the American whaling fleet, and are therefore generally well provided with the necessaries of life. On May 19 we reached East Cape, the north-easternmost point of Asia, after a voyage of nearly two months from Sredni-Kolymsk. At this point the expedition had accomplished rather more than half the entire journey, and had travelled, from Paris, a distance of about 11,263 English miles.
AMONG THE TCHUKTCHIS
The wintry aspect of nature around Bering Straits seemed to predict a late summer, and it looked as though months must elapse before the Revenue cutter courteously placed at my disposal by the United States Government could break through the ice and reach us. My original idea was to try and cross over the frozen Straits to Cape Prince of Wales, in Alaska, a feat never yet attempted by a white man, but I found on arrival at East Cape that the passage is never essayed by the Tchuktchis, and only very rarely by the Eskimo. During the past decade perhaps a dozen of the latter have started from the American side, but only a third of the number have landed in Siberia, the remainder having either returned or perished. The distance from shore to shore at the nearest point is about forty miles, the two Diomede Islands and Fairway Rock being situated about half-way across. Bering Straits are never completely closed, for even in midwinter floes are ever on the move, which, with broad and shifting "leads" of open water, render a trip on foot extremely hazardous. Our subsequent experience on nearly seven miles of drifting ice, across which we were compelled to walk in order to land on American soil, inspired me with no desire to repeat the experiment.
East Cape, Bering Straits, practically "the end of the end of the world," is about the last place where you would expect to find a white man, especially in springtime, which, in this far North, answers to the depth of winter in England. When we arrived there, East Cape had been cut off by ice from the world ever since the previous summer, which rendered the presence of "Billy," as the natives called him, the more remarkable. At first I mistook the man for a Tchuktchi, for he had adopted native costume, and a hard winter passed amongst these people, combined with a painful skin disease, had reduced him to a skeleton. The poor fellow had suffered severely, mentally and physically, and could only crawl about the settlement with difficulty, and yet, when news first reached the cape of our approach, he had set out to walk along the coast and meet us, and was brought back from the first village, fifteen miles away, more dead than alive. Billy was a young man, about twenty-five years old, whose hardships had given him a middle-aged appearance. He belonged to the American middle class and was apparently well educated, and, as I suppress his name, there can be no harm in giving his history.
A year before we found him, Billy had left his home in San Francisco to ship as ordinary seaman on board a whaler. But a rough life and stormy weather soon cured him of a love for the sea, and while his ship was lying at Nome City he escaped, intending to try his luck at the diggings. A report, however, had just reached Nome that tons of gold were lying only waiting to be picked up on the coast of Siberia, and the adventurous Billy, dazzled by dreams of wealth, determined to sink his small capital in the purchase of a boat in which to sail away to the Russian "El Dorado." Having stocked his craft with provisions, Billy started alone from Nome, and after many hair-breadth escapes from shipwreck in the Straits, managed to reach East Cape. This was early in the month of August, when an American Revenue cutter is generally cruising about, and the Californian was delighted with his kindly reception from the Tchuktchis, ignoring that the latter are not so pleasantly disposed when alone in their glory and fortified by a frozen sea. For nearly a month Billy remained at East Cape, prospecting every day, and working like a galley slave in the marshy "tundras" swarming with mosquitoes, only to return, every night, to his walrus-hide hut with growing despair. For although the streams teemed with fish, not a glimmer of gold rewarded his labours. Time crept away and the coming winter had shown her teeth with a cutting blizzard, while ice was forming around the coast, when one gloomy October day the Revenue cutter anchored, for the last time that season, off the settlement. And Billy regarded her hopelessly, knowing that desertion from his ship had rendered him an outlaw. To board the Bear would mean irons and imprisonment, and the deserter dared not face an ordeal which, a few months later, he would gladly have undergone to escape from Siberia. Billy watched the Government vessel sink below the horizon with some uneasiness, for his sole property now consisted of the furs he stood up in. His boat, clothes and even mining tools had all been bartered for food, and the discomfited prospector was now living practically on the charity of his savage hosts. The reflection, therefore, that nine long months must be passed in this Arctic prison was not a pleasant one, especially as the natives had already indulged in one of the "drink orgies" which were afterwards resumed at intervals throughout that terrible winter.
How the man survived is a mystery—treated as a rule like a slave, clothed in ragged furs, nourished on disgusting food, and ever at the beck and call of every man, woman and child in the settlement. Christmas-time found Billy suffering severely from scurvy, and covered from head to foot with painful boils. Throughout this period, however, he received every attention and care from the women, who, however, without medical appliances, could do little to alleviate his sufferings. Billy said that at times these strange people showed a consideration and kindness only surpassed on other occasions by their brutality and oppression. One day gifts of food and furs would be showered upon the white man, and nothing be too good for him; on the next he would be cursed and reviled, if not actually ill-treated by all. On drink-nights Billy concealed himself, even preferring to sleep in the snow rather than brave the drunken fury of the revellers, which, as the reader will presently see, was one of my greatest anxieties during our sojourn on these barren shores. All things considered, our arrival on the scene was a godsend to this poor castaway, who averred that another month of solitude would assuredly have driven him out of his mind. But our presence worked a marvellous difference in a short space of time, and Billy visibly gained in health and strength as the days went on, chiefly on account of congenial companionship; for we were almost as badly off, in material comforts, as our poor friend himself.
East Cape consists of a few walrus-hide huts which cling like limpets to the face of a cliff overhanging the Straits. In anything like windy weather you can't go out without danger of being blown bodily into the sea. Also, on the occasion of my last overland trip, I had been warned by the officers of the Bear against dangerous natives here, so I resolved to move on to Whalen, a village a few miles west of East Cape on the Arctic Ocean, to await the arrival of the Thetis.
[Footnote 58: The name Whalen should probably be written as it is pronounced—Oo-aylin, but I have adopted the mode of spelling in use amongst the whaling fraternity.]
Whalen consists of about thirty yarats (as a Tchuktchi dwelling is called) and about three hundred inhabitants. The village stands on a sandy beach only a few yards from the sea, but when we arrived here the entire country was knee-deep in partly melted snow, which rendered locomotion very wet and unpleasant. Here we were kindly received, indeed rather too kindly, for our presence was the signal for a feast, and in a few hours every man in the settlement was mad with drink. Fortunately the chief remained sober and we hid in his hut until the orgie was over. But all that night men were rushing about the village, firing off Winchesters, and vowing to kill us, although that morning when sober they had been quite friendly. We did not pass a very pleasant night, but the next day all was quiet, and remained so until the appearance of a whaler again demoralised the settlement. When a Tchuktchi gets drunk, his first impulse is to get a rifle and shoot. He prefers a white man to practise upon, but if there are none handy he will kill anybody, even his mother, without compunction, and be very sorry for it when he is sober, which unfortunately does not mend matters. Many whalemen have been slain on this coast during the past ten years, and during the few weeks we were at Whalen two natives were killed, also a German trader on the Diomede Islands in Bering Straits. But as the latter individual had set up a primitive still and announced his intention of flooding the coast with "tanglefoot," his own poison was probably seized by the islanders, who, when intoxicated, murdered its manufacturer.
[Footnote 59: A slang term for whisky on the Alaskan coast.]
Teneskin, the chief of Whalen, was, luckily for ourselves, a very different type of man to the ruffian Koari; and his stalwart sons, Yemanko and Mooflowi, who were, like their father, teetotalers, became our powerful allies when the demon of drink was rampant. Yemanko, the elder, spoke English fairly well, and the comparative comfort in which we lived here was chiefly due to his intelligence, for he managed to persuade his father that my cheques, or rather receipts for food, would be honoured by the commander of the Thetis on her arrival. This was our only way out of a tight corner, and I awaited the chief's verdict with intense anxiety, for should his decision be unfavourable starvation stared us in the face, and the worst kind of starvation, in the midst of plenty. For Billy told me that Teneskin received a yearly consignment of goods, in exchange for native produce, from the whalers, and that a shed adjoining his hut was packed from floor to ceiling with canned provisions, groceries and other luxuries. To my great relief the conclave, which lasted for several hours, terminated satisfactorily, and it was agreed that every article furnished by Teneskin should on her arrival be doubly repaid from the store-room of the Revenue cutter. And notwithstanding some anxious qualms as to subsequent repayment which occasionally assailed our host, this plan worked well, for while here we never once suffered from actual hunger. Stepan alone was disgusted with the preliminary discussion regarding the food supply. These Tchuktchis were subjects of the Tsar, he urged, and should therefore be compelled to furnish goods free of cost to the illustrious travellers under His Majesty's protection. The Cossack even donned his uniform cap with the gold double eagle in order to impress the natives with a sense of our official importance. But although the head-dress was at once removed by irreverent hands and passed round with some amusement, I regret to say that its effect (from an awe-inspiring point of view) was a total failure.
As a matter of fact the Tchuktchis know nothing whatever about Russia, and even the Great White Tsar has less influence here than a skipper of the grimiest Yankee whaler. For the latter is the unfailing source, every summer, of the vile concoction known as whisky, for which a Tchuktchi will barter his existence, to say nothing of whalebone and walrus tusks. Indeed, were it not for the whalers these people would undoubtedly perish, for although a Russian gunboat generally visits them once during the summer, it is more with the object of seizing anything her commander can lay his hands upon than of affording assistance. The "Stars and Stripes" are therefore the only colours with which the coast Tchuktchis are familiar, and I had therefore brought an American flag as well as our now tattered Union Jack, which proved a wise precaution. The British ensign they had never seen before.
There are perhaps twelve thousand Tchuktchis in all, the race consisting of two tribes: the coast Tchuktchis, inhabiting the shore from Tchaun Bay to the mouth of the Anadyr River; and the land Tchuktchis, who are more or less nomads, roaming amongst the plains and mountains of the interior with herds of reindeer, which form their sole means of existence, while their brethren of the coast are entirely dependent upon the sea for a living. Although nominally Russian subjects, these people are the freest subjects in the world, paying no taxes and framing their own laws, which is perhaps only just seeing that they have never been really conquered by Russia. Samoyedes, Buriates and Yakutes have all gone down before the iron heel of the Cossack, but for two centuries the Tchuktchi has stood his ground, and with cold and desolation for allies, has invariably routed all invaders. Thus, to this day, these people are respected, if not feared, by their Russian neighbours, and although several attempts have been made in St. Petersburg to establish a yassak amongst them, no official has yet penetrated far enough into the Tchuktchi country to collect it. Although Russia is their common foe, the land and sea Tchuktchis are staunch friends, for each tribe is more or less dependent on the other; the coast Tchuktchis furnishing whalebone, walrus tusks, hides, seal-meat and oil to the landsmen, and receiving deer-meat for food, and skins for clothing, in return.
[Footnote 60: "These people for many years resisted every attempt made by the Russians either to subdue them or to pass through their country. Of a force numbering two hundred armed men who were sent into their territory, rather for the purpose of scientific exploration than with any views of conquest, not a soul returned, nor has their fate ever been ascertained."—"Frozen Asia," by Professor Eden.]
[Footnote 61: The fur-tax formerly paid to the Crown by the Yakutes and other Siberian races.]
It is a far cry from Bering Straits to Borneo, and I was therefore surprised to find many points of resemblance between the coast Tchuktchis and the Dyaks of that tropical island, with whom I became well acquainted some years ago while in the service of Raja Brooke. The Tchuktchi is perhaps physically stronger than the Dyak—unquestionably he is, by nature, a greater drunkard—but otherwise these races might pass for each other so far as features, complexion and characteristics are concerned. And although I have heard men assert that the Tchuktchis originally migrated to Asia from the American continent, my own experience leads me to doubt that this fact, the more so that there is not an atom of resemblance (save perhaps in a partiality for strong drink) between the Eskimo of Alaska and their Siberian neighbours. As a rule the coast native is intelligent, and of strong and graceful build, owing to his life of almost ceaseless activity; out in all weathers, in summer fighting the furious gales of the Arctic in skin boats, in winter tracking the seal, walrus or bear, sometimes for days together, amid the cold, dark silence of the ice. Towards springtime this becomes a dangerous occupation, for floes are often detached without warning and carried away from the main pack into Bering Sea, whence there is generally no return, although marvellous escapes are recorded. Yemanko, the chief's son, had lived for six days floating about on a block of ice, and subsisting upon a seal which he had caught before he was swept into Bering Sea, eventually grounding near East Cape. His only companion was frozen to death.
I was relieved to find that the country between this and Koari's village (about three hundred miles south) was now impassable on account of melting snow, for, if only for the sake of revenge, this wily old thief would probably have set the natives here against us. Communication between the two places had been frequent throughout the winter, and Koari's son, Oyurapok (a deadly enemy of mine), had lately been at Whalen, but had of course ignored my movements. An Oumwaidjik man, however, who accompanied him had remained here on account of sickness. He was almost a lad and therefore knew nothing of Harding and myself, but we were much amused one day to see him proudly produce a many-bladed clasp-knife, once my property (!) which Koari had confiscated, with our other goods, in 1896! There seemed to be no love lost between the Whalen and Oumwaidjik people, whom I had found as surly and inhospitable as these were (when sober) friendly and well disposed. It is curious to notice how the various settlements of this coast vary with regard to the reputation of their inhabitants. Thus, although we were generally well treated here, a stay at East Cape would probably have meant serious trouble with the natives, from whom Billy had fled to take refuge at Whalen. But the East Cape people are probably the worst on the coast, although the natives at St. Lawrence Bay are nearly as bad, and those at Oumwaidjik even worse. And yet, unless a drink feast is in progress, a stranger who behaves himself is safe enough in most Tchuktchi villages, so much so that these people are known as Masinker (which in their dialect signifies "good") amongst the American whalemen. The odour of a Tchuktchi is indescribable, but so powerful and penetrating as to be noticeable some distance from a settlement, this characteristic smell being caused by a certain emanation of the human body which enters largely into the Masinker's daily use. The fluid is employed chiefly for tanning purposes, but it is also used for cleaning food platters, drinking cups and, worst of all, for washing the body, which it is said to protect from cold. Both here and at Oumwaidjik I tried in vain to discover the origin of this disgusting habit, which also prevails to a lesser extent amongst the Alaskan Eskimo. This is only one of the many revolting customs which I unfortunately had an opportunity of studying at close quarters while at Whalen, where I came to the conclusion that the Tchuktchi race must be the filthiest in the world. Were I to describe one-tenth of the repulsive sights which came under my daily notice, the reader would lay down this book in disgust.
[Footnote 62: See "Through the Gold Fields of Alaska," by Harry de Windt. London: Chatto and Windus.]
Furs are worn by the coast Tchuktchis throughout the year, which, as they are seldom removed, did not make them pleasant neighbours in a crowded hut. The men wear a deerskin parka, a loose garment reaching a little below the waist and secured by a belt or walrus thong, and hair seal boots and breeches. In rainy weather a very light and transparent yellow waterproof, made of the intestines of the walrus, is worn. Men and boys wear a close-fitting cap covering the ears, like a baby's bonnet, and have the crown and base of the skull partly shaved, which gives them a quaint monastic appearance, while every man carries a long sharp knife in a leather sheath thrust through his belt. The women are undersized creatures, some pretty, but most have hard weather-beaten faces, as they work in the open in all weathers. Many have beautiful teeth, which, however, are soon destroyed by the constant chewing of sealskin to render it pliable for boots and other articles. They wear a kind of deerskin combinations made in one piece and trimmed at the neck and wrists with wolverine, a pair of enormous sealskin moccasins, which gives them an awkward waddling gait, completing their attire. The hair is worn in two long plaits, intertwined with gaudy beads, copper coins and even brass trouser buttons given them by whalemen. Unlike the men, all the women are tattooed—generally in two lines from the top of the brow to the tip of the nose, and six or seven perpendicular lines from the lower lip to the chin. Tattooing here is not a pleasant operation, being performed with a coarse needle and skin thread—the dye (obtained from the soot off a cooking-pot moistened with seal oil) being sewn in with no light hand by one of the older squaws. Teneskin's daughter, Tayunga, was not tattooed, and therefore quite good-looking, but even the prettiest face here is rendered unattractive by the unclean personality and habits of its owner. So filthy are these people that even the parkas of both sexes are made so that the hand and arm can be thrust bodily inside the garment, not, as I at first imagined, for the sake of warmth, but to relieve the incessant annoyance caused by parasites. Hours of idleness were often passed by a couple of friends in a reciprocal hunt for vermin.
I was naturally anxious to avoid the close companionship with the natives, which residence in a Yarat would have entailed. Teneskin's hut was the cleanest in the village, but even this comparatively habitable dwelling would have compared unfavourably with the foulest den in the London slums. The deep, slushy snow made it impossible to fix up a tent, but Teneskin was the proud possessor of a rough wooden hut built from the timbers of the whaler Japan, which was wrecked here some years ago, and in this we took up our abode. The building had one drawback; although its walls were stout enough a roof was lacking, and our tent was a poor substitute. However, the place was cleaned out and made fairly cosy with our rugs, furs and four sleds which were used as bunks. Then came a serious difficulty, artificial warmth, which, without a roof, was sorely needed at night. Teneskin's trading goods comprised a small iron cooking stove, which seemed to be the very thing, with plenty of drift-wood about, and which Stepan, with Cossack promptitude, annexed without leave. But an hour later Yemanko rushed into the hut, pale with rage, and without a word seized our treasure and carried it away. Things looked even more ugly when very shortly afterwards the Chief, accompanied by a crowd of natives, entered our dwelling, with Billy as spokesman in their midst. Then amidst frequent interruptions from the Chief the mystery was explained. It appeared that a superstition exists amongst these people that if a cooking place is used by strangers in a hut belonging to the father of a newly born child, the latter dies within a moon or month. Teneskin's family had recently received an addition which was the cause of our trouble, but during the height of the argument, Stepan quietly seated himself beside me and whispered the word "Mauser," which reminded me that our host had cast longing eyes on a rifle in my possession. Much as I prized it a fire was essential, and the rifle had to go; which it did without delay, for Teneskin, once possessed of the precious weapon, the baby, to use a sporting expression, was knocked out at a hundred to one! The stove was replaced by willing hands with one proviso: that only the Chief's pots and pans were to be used for the preparation of our food, which proved that a Tchuktchi is not unlike some Christians in the soothing of his conscience.
As the spring wore on, strong gales accompanied by storms of sleet drove us to seek the warmth and filth of Teneskin's residence, which was of walrus hide, about forty feet round and fifteen feet high in the centre. The only aperture for light and air was a low doorway. There was a large outer chamber for fishing and hunting tackle where dogs roamed about, and inside this again a small dark inner room, called the yaranger, formed of thick deerskins, where the family ate and slept. In here seal-oil lamps continually burning make it average about 85 deg. throughout the winter. Beyond the tiny doorway there was no ventilation whatsoever, and the heat and stench of the place were beyond description. At night men, women and children stripped naked, and even then the perspiration poured off them. The nights we passed here were indescribable. Suffice it to say that the hours of darkness in the inner chamber of that yarat were worthy of Dante's Inferno. And the days were almost as bad, for then the indescribable filth of the dwelling was more clearly revealed. At the daily meal we reclined on the floor, like the Romans in "Quo Vadis," by a long wooden platter, and lumps of seal or walrus meat were thrown at us by the hostess, whose dinner costume generally consisted of a bead necklace. Rotten goose eggs and stale fish roe flavoured with seal oil were favoured delicacies, also a kind of seaweed which is only found in the stomach of the walrus when captured. Luckily a deer was occasionally brought in from inland, and Stepan then regaled us with good strong soup followed by the meat which had made it. Every part of the animal was greedily devoured by the natives, even the bones being crushed and the marrow extracted from them, flavoured with seal oil, and eaten raw. Teneskin, however, had plenty of flour, and this, with desiccated vegetables, was our mainstay during the greater part of the time. As spring advanced, game was added to our bill of fare in the shape of wild duck, which flew in enormous clouds over the settlement. A large lagoon hard by swarmed with them, and one could always bag a couple at least every morning and evening without leaving the hut. But a shooting party was usually made up every day, and we sallied out with the natives, perhaps a score of men and boys, the former armed with Winchesters and the latter with slings, which projected a row of five or six balls cut out of walrus teeth. To shoot a duck on the wing with a bullet is not easy, but the natives seldom returned empty handed; and many a time I have seen a tiny lad of ten or twelve years old bring down his bird with a sling at twenty or thirty yards. Once I saw Yemanko, with the same weapon, put a stone clean through a biscuit tin at twenty yards range. And one memorable day (for once only) a regal repast was served of three courses consisting of reindeer, wild duck, and Harding's plum pudding, which, notwithstanding its novel experiences, proved delicious. It only had one irreparable fault—there was not enough of it. All things considered, our stay here was by no means the worst part of the journey, for beyond filthy food and surroundings and the deadly monotony of existence, there was little to complain of. Every now and then a drunken orgie would necessitate close concealment, but this was practically the only annoyance to which we were subjected. Once, however, Stepan ventured out during one of these outbursts, and was instantly fired at by a band of ruffians who were reeling about the village. The man who fired the shot was, when sober, one of our best friends, and, luckily for the Cossack, was too far gone to shoot straight. This incident was therefore a comparatively trivial one, although it served to show the unpleasant affinity between a barrel of whisky and bloodshed, and the undesirability of Whalen as a sea-side resort for a longer period than was absolutely necessary. But Teneskin and his sons were always ready to protect us by force if necessary against the aggression of inebriates. Indeed had it not been for these three giants I doubt if the Expedition would have got away from Whalen without personal injury or perhaps loss of life.
Although our host himself did not indulge in alcohol, he was the sole retailer of it to our neighbours. I only once saw the stuff, which was religiously kept hidden save when an orgie had been decided upon and Teneskin, after receiving payment, barricaded himself and prepared for squalls. When we arrived at Whalen, most of the fiery spirit left by the whalers the preceding year was exhausted, and Teneskin was issuing an inferior brand of his own brewing, concocted much in the same way as the "gun-barrel water" of the Eskimo and even more potent, if possible, than San Francisco "Tangle-foot." This is made by mixing together one part each of flour and molasses with four parts of water and then letting the mixture stand for four days in a warm atmosphere until it ferments. The distillery consists of a coal oil tin, an old gun-barrel, and a wooden tub. The mash is put in the coal oil tin, and the gun-barrel, which serves as the coil, leads from this tin through the tub, which is kept filled with cracked ice. A fire is then built under the tin, and as the vapour rises from the heated mess it is condensed in the gun-barrel by the ice in the tub, and the liquor comes out at the end of the gun barrel drop by drop, and is caught in a drinking cup. This process is necessarily slow, and it took a long time to obtain even a half pint of the liquor, but the whisky made up in strength what it lacked in quality, and it did not take much of it to intoxicate, which (from a Tchuktchi standpoint) was the principal object. I am told on reliable authority that, on the Alaskan coast, the Eskimo women join freely in the drunken debauches of the men, but this was certainly not the case amongst the Siberian natives, at any rate those at Whalen. For throughout our stay there I only once saw an intoxicated female. This was the wife of Teneskin, who during an orgie was invariably the only inebriated member of his household. But she certainly made up for the rest of the family!
AMONG THE TCHUKTCHIS—(continued)
The time at Whalen passed with exasperating slowness, especially after the first ten days, when monotony had dulled the edge of success and worn off the novelty of our strange surroundings. On the Lena we had experienced almost perpetual darkness; here we had eternal daylight, which, with absolutely nothing to do or even to think about, was even more trying. Almost our sole occupation was to sit on the beach and gaze blankly at the frozen ocean, which seemed at times as though it would never break up and admit of our release from this natural prison. Every day, however, fresh patches of brown earth appeared through their white and wintry covering, and wild flowers even began to bloom on the hillsides, but the cruel waste of ice still appeared white and unbroken from beach to horizon. One day Harding fashioned a rough set of chessmen out of drift-wood, and this afforded some mental relief, but only for a few days. "Pickwick" had been read into tatters, even our Shakespeare failed us at last, and having parted with the "Daily Mail Year Book" at Verkhoyansk, this was our sole library. Sometimes we visited our neighbours, where we were generally kindly received, presents occasionally being made us. One day the Chief's eldest daughter worked and presented me with a pair of deerskin boots with a pretty pattern worked in deerskins of various colours, obtained from dyes of native manufacture. I naturally wondered how these could be extracted from natural products in this barren land of rock, sand and drift-wood, but Billy partly explained the secret of the operation which is, I fancy, peculiar to the coast. The ex-whaleman furnished me with this information during a talk we had over his experiences of the previous winter. From the same source I also gleaned many facts concerning these people, who invariably try to mislead the ingenuous stranger. Billy, however, enjoyed their complete confidence, and had stored up a fund of interesting information, some of which I reproduce for the reader's benefit.