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if possible, to find a place of greater security. Leet, with his usual
recklessness, dug himself out what he called a "bedroom" in the snow
about fifty feet above the water, and promised me "a good night's
sleep" if I would accept his hospitality and share his cave; but under
the circumstances I thought best to decline. His "bedroom," bed, and
bedding might all tumble into the sea before morning, and his "good
night's sleep" be indefinitely prolonged. Going back a short distance
in the direction of the Viliga, I finally discovered a place where a
small stream had once fallen over the summit of the cliff, and had
worn out a steep narrow channel in its face. In the rocky, uneven bed
of this little ravine the natives and I stretched ourselves out for
the night, our bodies inclined at an angle of forty-five degrees - our
heads, of course, up-hill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Illustration: Iron Skin Scraper]



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What ship is it?" I inquired.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"'Special Dispatch to the _Bulletin_

"'New York, October 15.

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Makes what - the reflection?"

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

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

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

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

Online LibraryGeorge KennanTent Life in Siberia → online text (page 28 of 32)