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prayed before the picture of the Saviour, as is their custom
when starting on a long journey; Dodd and I bade good-bye to the
kind-hearted priest, and received the cordial "s' Bokhem" (go with
God), which is the Russian farewell; and then springing upon our
sledges, and releasing our frantic dogs, we went flying out of the
village in a cloud of snow which glittered like powdered jewel-dust in
the red sunshine.

Beyond the two or three hundred miles of snowy desert which lay before
us we could see, in imagination, a shadowy stove-pipe rising out of a
bank of snow - the "San greal" of which we, as arctic knights-errant,
were in search.

[Illustration: Ceremonial Masks of Wood]



I will not detain the reader long with the first part of our journey
from Anadyrsk to the Pacific Coast, as it did not differ much from
our previous Siberian experience. Riding all day over the ice of the
river, or across barren steppes, and camping out at night on the snow,
in all kinds of weather, made up our life; and its dreary monotony was
relieved only by anticipations of a joyful meeting with our exiled
friends and the exciting consciousness that we were penetrating a
country never before visited by civilised man. Day by day the fringe
of alder bushes along the river bank grew lower and more scanty, and
the great steppes that bordered the river became whiter and more
barren as the river widened toward the sea. Finally we left behind us
the last vestige of vegetation, and began the tenth day of our journey
along a river which had increased to a mile in width, and amidst
plains perfectly destitute of all life, which stretched away in one
unbroken white expanse until they blended with the distant sky. It
was not without uneasiness that I thought of the possibility of being
overtaken by a ten days' storm in such a region as this. We had made,
as nearly as we could estimate, since leaving Anadyrsk, about two
hundred versts; but whether we were anywhere near the seacoast or not
we had no means of knowing. The weather for nearly a week had been
generally clear, and not very cold; but on the night of February 1st
the thermometer sank to -35°, and we could find only just enough small
green bushes to boil our teakettle. We dug everywhere in the snow
in search of wood, but found nothing except moss, and a few small
cranberry bushes which would not burn. Tired with the long day's
travel, and the fruitless diggings for wood, Dodd and I returned to
camp, and threw ourselves down upon our bearskins to drink tea. Hardly
had Dodd put his cup to his lips when I noticed that a curious,
puzzled expression came over his face, as if he found something
singular and unusual in the taste of the tea. I was just about to
ask him what was the matter, when he cried in a joyful and surprised
voice, "Tide-water! The tea is salt!" Thinking that perhaps a little
salt might have been dropped accidentally into the tea, I sent the men
down to the river for some fresh ice, which we carefully melted. It
was unquestionably salt. We had reached the tide-water of the Pacific,
and the ocean itself could not be far distant. One more day must
certainly bring us to the house of the American party, or to the mouth
of the river. From all appearances we should find no more wood; and
anxious to make the most of the clear weather, we slept only about six
hours, and started on at midnight by the light of a brilliant moon.

[Illustration: A MAN OF THE YUKAGIRS]

On the eleventh day after our departure from Anadyrsk, toward the
close of the long twilight which succeeds an arctic day, our little
train of eleven sledges drew near the place where, from Chukchi
accounts, we expected to find the long-exiled party of Americans. The
night was clear, still, and intensely cold, the thermometer at sunset
marking forty-four degrees below zero, and sinking rapidly to -50°
as the rosy flush in the west grew fainter and fainter, and darkness
settled down upon the vast steppe. Many times before, in Siberia and
Kamchatka, I had seen nature in her sterner moods and winter garb;
but never before had the elements of cold, barrenness, and desolation
seemed to combine into a picture so dreary as the one which was
presented to us that night near Bering Strait. Far as eye could pierce
the gathering gloom in every direction lay the barren steppe like a
boundless ocean of snow, blown into long wave-like ridges by previous
storms. There was not a tree, nor a bush, nor any sign of animal or
vegetable life, to show that we were not travelling on a frozen ocean.
All was silence and desolation. The country seemed abandoned by God
and man to the Arctic Spirit, whose trembling banners of auroral
light flared out fitfully in the north in token of his conquest and
dominion. About eight o'clock the full moon rose huge and red in the
east, casting a lurid glare over the vast field of snow; but, as if it
too were under the control of the Arctic Spirit, it was nothing more
than the mockery of a moon, and was constantly assuming the most
fantastic and varied shapes. Now it extended itself laterally into a
long ellipse, then gathered itself up into the semblance of a huge red
urn, lengthened out to a long perpendicular bar with rounded ends,
and finally became triangular. It can hardly be imagined what added
wildness and strangeness this blood-red distorted moon gave to a scene
already wild and strange. We seemed to have entered upon some frozen
abandoned world, where all the ordinary laws and phenomena of Nature
were suspended, where animal and vegetable life were extinct, and from
which even the favour of the Creator had been withdrawn. The intense
cold, the solitude, the oppressive silence, and the red, gloomy
moonlight, like the glare of a distant but mighty conflagration, all
united to excite in the mind feelings of awe, which were perhaps
intensified by the consciousness that never before had any human
being, save a few Wandering Chukchis, ventured in winter upon these
domains of the Frost King. There was none of the singing, joking,
and hallooing, with which our drivers were wont to enliven a night
journey. Stolid and unimpressible though they might be, there was
something in the scene which even _they_ felt and were silent. Hour
after hour wore slowly away until midnight. We had passed by more than
twenty miles the point on the river where the party of Americans was
supposed to be; but no sign had been found of the subterranean house
or its projecting stove-pipe, and the great steppe still stretched
away before us, white, ghastly, and illimitable as ever. For nearly
twenty-four hours we had travelled without a single stop, night or
day, except one at sunrise to rest our tired dogs; and the intense
cold, fatigue, anxiety, and lack of warm food, began at last to tell
upon our silent but suffering men. We realised for the first time the
hazardous nature of the adventure in which we were engaged, and the
almost absolute hopelessness of the search which we were making for
the lost American party. We had not one chance in a hundred of finding
at midnight on that vast waste of snow a little buried hut, whose
location we did not know within fifty miles, and of whose very
existence we were by no means certain. Who could tell whether the
Americans had not abandoned their subterranean house two months
before, and removed with some friendly natives to a more comfortable
and sheltered situation? We had heard nothing from them later than
December 1st, and it was now February. They might in that time have
gone a hundred miles down the coast looking for a settlement, or have
wandered far back into the interior with a band of Reindeer Chukchis.
It was not probable that they would have spent four months in that
dreary, desolate region without making an effort to escape. Even if
they were still in their old camp, however, how were we to find them?
We might have passed their little underground hut unobserved hours
before, and might be now going farther and farther away from it, from
wood, and from shelter. It had seemed a very easy thing before we left
Anadyrsk, to simply go down the river until we came to a house on the
bank, or saw a stove-pipe sticking out of a snow-drift; but now, two
hundred and fifty or three hundred miles from the settlement, in a
temperature of 50° below zero, when our lives perhaps depended upon
finding that little buried hut, we realised how wild had been our
anticipations, and how faint were our prospects of success. The
nearest wood was more than fifty miles behind us, and in our chilled
and exhausted condition we dared not camp without a fire. We must go
either forward or back - find the hut within four hours, or abandon the
search and return as rapidly as possible to the nearest wood. Our dogs
were beginning already to show unmistakable signs of exhaustion, and
their feet, lacerated by ice which had formed between the toes, were
now spotting the snow with blood at every step. Unwilling to give up
the search while there remained any hope, we still went on to the
eastward, along the edges of high bare bluffs skirting the river,
separating our sledges as widely as possible, and extending our line
so as to cover a greater extent of ground. A full moon now high in the
heavens, lighted up the vast lonely plain on the north side of the
river as brilliantly as day; but its whiteness was unbroken by any
dark object, save here and there little hillocks of moss or swampy
grass from which the snow had been swept by furious winds.

We were all suffering severely from cold, and our fur hoods and the
breasts of our fur coats were masses of white frost which had
been formed by our breaths. I had put on two heavy reindeerskin
_kukhlankas_ weighing in the aggregate about thirty pounds, belted
them tightly about the waist with a sash, drawn their thick hoods up
over my head and covered my face with a squirrelskin mask; but in
spite of all I could only keep from freezing by running beside
my sledge. Dodd said nothing, but was evidently disheartened and
half-frozen, while the natives sat silently upon their sledges as if
they expected nothing and hoped for nothing. Only Gregorie and an old
Chukchi whom we had brought with us as a guide showed any energy or
seemed to have any confidence in the ultimate discovery of the party.
They went on in advance, digging everywhere in the snow for wood,
examining carefully the banks of the river, and making occasional
détours into the snowy plain to the northward. At last Dodd, without
saying anything to me, gave his spiked stick to one of the natives,
drew his head and arms into the body of his fur coat, and lay down
upon his sledge to sleep, regardless of my remonstrances, and paying
no attention whatever to my questions. He was evidently becoming
stupefied by the deadly chill, which struck through the heaviest
furs, and which was constantly making insidious advances from the
extremities to the seat of life. He probably would not live through
the night unless he could be roused, and might not live two hours.
Discouraged by his apparently hopeless condition, and exhausted by
the constant struggle to keep warm, I finally lost all hope and
reluctantly decided to abandon the search and camp. By stopping where
we were, breaking up one of our sledges for firewood, and boiling a
little tea, I thought that Dodd might be revived; but to go on to the
eastward seemed to be needlessly risking the lives of all without any
apparent prospect of discovering the party or of finding wood. I had
just given the order to the natives nearest me to camp, when I thought
I heard a faint halloo in the distance. All the blood in my veins
suddenly rushed with a great throb to the heart as I threw back my fur
hood and listened. Again, a faint, long-drawn cry came back through
the still atmosphere from the sledges in advance. My dogs pricked up
their ears at the startling sound and dashed eagerly forward, and in a
moment I came upon several of our leading drivers gathered in a little
group around what seemed to be an old overturned whale-boat, which lay
half buried in snow by the river's bank. The footprint in the sand was
not more suggestive to Robinson Crusoe than was this weather-beaten,
abandoned whale-boat to us, for it showed that somewhere in the
vicinity were shelter and life. One of the men a few moments before
had driven over some dark, hard object in the snow, which he at first
supposed to be a log of driftwood; but upon stopping to examine it, he
found it to be an American whale-boat. If ever we thanked God from the
bottom of our hearts, it was then. Brushing away with my mitten the
long fringes of frost which hung to my eyelashes, I looked eagerly
around for a house, but Gregorie had been quicker than I, and a joyful
shout from a point a little farther down the river announced another
discovery. I left my dogs to go where they chose, threw away my spiked
stick, and started at a run in the direction of the sound. In a moment
I saw Gregorie and the old Chukchi standing beside a low mound of
snow, about a hundred yards back from the river-bank, examining some
dark object which projected from its smooth white surface. It was the
long talked-of, long-looked-for stove-pipe! The Anadyr River party was

The unexpected discovery, at midnight, of this party of countrymen,
when we had just given up all hope of shelter, and almost of life,
was a God-send to our disheartened spirits, and I hardly knew in my
excitement what I did. I remember now walking hastily back and forth
in front of the snow-drift, repeating softly to myself at every step,
"Thank God!" "Thank God!" but at the time I was not conscious of
anything except the great fact that we had found that party. Dodd, who
had been roused from his half-frozen lethargy by the strong excitement
of the discovery, now suggested that we try to find the entrance to
the house and get in as quickly, as possible, as he was nearly dead
from cold and exhaustion. There was no sound of life in the lonely
snow-drift before us, and the inmates, if it had any, were evidently
asleep. Seeing no sign anywhere of a door, I walked up on the drift,
and shouted down through the stove-pipe in tremendous tones, "Halloo
the house!" A startled voice from under my feet demanded "Who's

"Come out and see! Where's the door?"

My voice seemed to the astounded Americans inside to come out of
the stove - a phenomenon which was utterly unparalleled in all their
previous experience; but they reasoned very correctly that any stove
which could ask in good English for the door in the middle of the
night had an indubitable right to be answered; and they replied in
a hesitating and half-frightened tone that the door was "on the
south-east corner." This left us about as wise as before. In the first
place we did not know which way south-east was, and in the second
a snow-drift could not properly be described as having a corner. I
started around the stove-pipe, however, in a circle, with the hope of
finding some sort of an entrance. The inmates had dug a deep ditch or
trench about thirty feet in length for a doorway, and had covered it
over with sticks and reindeerskins to keep out the drifting snow.
Stepping incautiously upon this frail roof I fell through just as one
of the startled men was coming out in his shirt and drawers, holding a
candle above his head, and peering through the darkness of the tunnel
to see who would enter. The sudden descent through the roof of such an
apparition as I knew myself to be, was not calculated to restore the
steadiness of startled nerves. I had on two heavy _kukhlankas_ which
swelled out my figure to gigantic proportions; two thick reindeerskin
hoods with long frosty fringes of black bearskin were pulled up over
my head, a squirrelskin mask frozen into a sheet of ice concealed my
face, and nothing but the eyes peering out through tangled masses of
frosty hair showed that the furs contained a human being. The man took
two or three frightened steps backward and nearly dropped his candle.
I came in such a "questionable shape" that he might well demand
"whether my intents were wicked or charitable!" As I recognised his
face, however, and addressed him again in English, he stopped; and
tearing off my mask and fur hoods I spoke my name. Never was
there such rejoicing as that which then took place in that little
underground cellar, as I recognised in the exiled party two of my old
comrades and friends, to whom eight months before I had bid good-bye,
as the _Olga_ sailed out of the Golden Gate of San Francisco. I little
thought when I shook hands with Harder and Robinson then, that I
should next meet them at midnight, in a little snow-covered cellar, on
the great lonely steppes of the lower Anadyr. As soon as we had taken
off our heavy furs and seated ourselves beside a warm fire, we began
to feel the sudden reaction which necessarily followed twenty-four
hours of such exposure, suffering, and anxiety. Our overstrained
nerves gave way all at once, and in ten minutes I could hardly raise a
cup of coffee to my lips. Ashamed of such womanish weakness, I tried
to conceal it from the Americans, and I presume they do not know to
this day that Dodd and I nearly fainted several times within the first
twenty minutes, from the suddenness of the change from 50° below zero
to 70° above, and the nervous exhaustion produced by anxiety and lack
of sleep. We felt an irresistible craving for some powerful stimulant
and called for brandy, but there was no liquor of any kind to be had.
This weakness, however, soon passed away, and we proceeded to relate
to one another our respective histories and adventures, while our
drivers huddled together in a mass at one end of the little hut and
refreshed themselves with hot tea.

The party of Americans which we had thus found buried in the snow,
more than three hundred versts from Anadyrsk, had been landed there by
one of the Company's vessels, some time in September. Their intention
had been to ascend the river in a whale-boat until they should reach
some settlement, and then try to open communication with us; but
winter set in so suddenly, and the river froze over so unexpectedly,
that this plan could not be carried out. Having no means of
transportation but their boat, they could do nothing more than build
themselves a house, and go into winter quarters, with the faint hope
that, some time before spring, Major Abaza would send a party of men
to their relief. They had built a sort of burrow underground, with
bushes, driftwood, and a few boards which had been left by the vessel,
and there they had been living by lamp-light for five months, without
ever seeing the face of a civilised human being. The Wandering
Chukchis had soon found out their situation and frequently visited
them on reindeer-sledges, and brought them fresh meat, and blubber
which they used for lamp-oil; but these natives, on account of a
superstition which I have previously mentioned, refused to sell
them any living reindeer, so that all their efforts to procure
transportation were unavailing. The party originally consisted of
five men - Macrae, Arnold, Robinson, Harder, and Smith; but Macrae
and Arnold, about three weeks previous to our arrival, had organised
themselves into a "forlorn hope," and had gone away with a large band
of Wandering Chukchis in search, of some Russian settlement. Since
that time nothing had been heard from them, and Robinson, Harder, and
Smith had been living alone.

Such was the situation when we found the party. Of course, there was
nothing to be done but carry these three men and all their stores back
to Anadyrsk, where we should probably find Macrae and Arnold awaiting
our arrival. The Chukchis came to Anadyrsk, I knew, every winter, for
the purpose of trade, and would probably bring the two Americans with

After three days spent in resting, refitting, and packing up, we
started back with the rescued party, and on February 6th we returned
in safety to Anadyrsk.

[Illustration: Stone Hatchet for cutting edible grass]



All the inhabitants of the settlement were in the streets to meet us
when we returned; but we were disappointed not to see among them the
faces of Macrae and Arnold. Many bands of Chukchis from the lower
Anadyr had arrived at the village, but nothing had been heard of the
missing men. Forty-five days had now elapsed since they left their
camp on the river, and, unless they had died or been murdered, they
ought long since to have arrived. I should have sent a party in search
of them, but I had not the slightest clue to the direction in which
they had gone, or the intentions of the party that had carried them
away; and to look for a band of Wandering Chukchis on those great
steppes was as hopeless as to look for a missing vessel in the middle
of the Pacific Ocean, and far more dangerous. We could only wait,
therefore, and hope for the best. We spent the first week after our
return in resting, writing up our journals, and preparing a report of
our explorations, to be forwarded by special courier to the Major.
During this time great numbers of wild, wandering natives - Chukchis,
Lamutkis (la-moot'-kees) and a few Koraks - came into the settlement
to exchange their furs and walrus teeth for tobacco, and gave us an
excellent opportunity of studying their various characteristics and
modes of life. The Wandering Chukchis, who visited us in the greatest
numbers, were evidently the most powerful tribe in north-eastern
Siberia, and impressed us very favourably with their general
appearance and behaviour. Except for their dress, they could hardly
have been distinguished from North American Indians - many of them
being as tall, athletic, and vigorous specimens of savage manhood as
I had ever seen. They did not differ in any essential particular from
the Wandering Koraks, whose customs, religion, and mode of life I have
already described.


The Lamutkis, however, were an entirely different race, and resembled
the Chukchis only in their nomadic habits. All the natives in
north-eastern Siberia, except the Kamchadals, Chuances, and Yukagirs,
who are partially Russianised, may be referred to one or another of
three great classes. The first of these, which may be called the North
American Indian class, comprises the wandering and settled Chukchis
and Koraks, and covers that part of Siberia lying between the 160th
meridian of east longitude and Bering Strait. It is the only class
which has ever made a successful stand against Russian invasion, and
embraces without doubt the bravest, most independent savages in all
Siberia. I do not think that this class numbers all together more than
six or eight thousand souls, although the estimates of the Russians
are much larger.

The second class comprises all the natives in eastern Siberia who
are evidently and unmistakably of Mongolian origin, including the
Tunguses, the Lamutkis, the Manchus, and the Gilyaks of the Amur
River. It covers a greater extent of ground probably than both of the
other classes together, its representatives being found as far west as
the Yenesei, and as far east as Anadyrsk, in 169° E. long. The only
branches of this class that I have ever seen are the Lamutkis and the
Tunguses. They are almost exactly alike, both being very slenderly
built men, with straight black hair, dark olive complexions, no
beards, and more or less oblique eyes. They do not resemble a Chukchi
or a Korak any more than a Chinaman resembles a Comanche or a Sioux.
Their dress is very peculiar. It consists of a fur hood, tight fur
trousers, short deerskin boots, a Masonic apron, made of soft flexible
buckskin and elaborately ornamented with beads and pieces of metal,
and a singular-looking frock-coat cut in very civilised style out of
deerskin, and ornamented with long strings of coloured reindeer
hair made into chenille. You can never see one without having the
impression that he is dressed in some kind of a regalia or uniform.
The men and women resemble each other very much in dress and
appearance, and by a stranger cannot be distinguished apart. Like the
Chukchis and Koraks, they are reindeer nomads, but differ somewhat
from the former in their mode of life. Their tents are smaller and

Online LibraryGeorge KennanTent Life in Siberia → online text (page 21 of 32)