The Cruise of the Corwin
by John Muir
Tapkan, Siberia, May 31, 1881.]
about the movements of the ice and the whaling fleet, we weighed anchor
and steered for Plover Bay on the coast of Siberia, taking several of the
natives with us. They had a few poles for the frame of a boat and skins
to cover it, and for food a piece of walrus flesh which they ate raw. This,
with a gun and a few odds and ends, was all their property, yet they seemed
more confident of their ability to earn a living than most whites on their
The afternoon was clear and the mountains about Plover Bay showed themselves
in bold relief, quite imposing and Yosemitic in sculpture and composition.
There was so much ice at the mouth of the bay, which is a glacial fiord,
that we could not enter. In the edge of the pack we spoke the whaler Rainbow,
and delivered the Arctic mail. Then we proceeded a short distance northward,
put into Marcus Bay, and anchored in front of a small Chukchi settlement.
A boatful of natives came aboard and told a story "important if true,"
concerning the destruction of the lost whaler Vigilant and the death of
her crew. Three Chukchi seal hunters, they said, while out on the ice last
November, near Cape Serdzekamen, discovered the ship in the pack, her masts
broken off by the ice, and the crew dead on the deck and in the cabin.
They had brought off a bag of money and such articles as they could carry
away, some of which had been shown to other natives, and the story had
traveled from one settlement to another thus far down the coast.
All this was told with an air of perfect good faith, and they seemed
themselves to believe what they were telling. We had heard substantially
the same story at St. Lawrence Island. But knowing the ability of these
people for manufacturing tales of this sort, we listened with many grains
of allowance, though of course determined to investigate further.
Here we began to inquire for dogs, and were successful in hiring a team
of six, and their owner to drive them. The owner is called "Chukchi Joe,"
and since he can speak a little English he is also to act in the capacity
of interpreter, his language being the same as that spoken by the natives
of the north Siberian coast. While we were trying to hire him, one of his
companions kept reiterating that there was no use in sending out people
to look for the crews of those ships, for they were all dead. Joe also
said that it was no use going, and that he was afraid to venture so far
for fear he would never get back. The snow, he objected, was too soft at
this time of year, and many rivers hard to cross were in the way, and he
did not like to leave his family. But after we had promised to pay him
well, whether our lost friends were found or not, he consented to go, and
when he went ashore to get ready we went with him.
The settlement consisted of only two habitations with twenty-five or
thirty persons, located back three quarters of a mile from the coast. On
reaching home Joe quickly vanished. His hut was about twenty-five feet
in diameter, and was made of poles bent down at the top, where they all
met to form a hemisphere. This frame was covered with skins of seal, sea-lion,
and walrus, chiefly the latter. . . . Since much of the flesh on which
the Chukchis subsist is eaten raw, only very small fires are made, and
the huts are cold. The ground inside of this one was wet and muddy as a
California corral in the rainy season, and seemed almost as large. But
around the sides of this cold, squalid shell, little more than a wind-break
and partial shelter from rain and snow, there were a number of very snug,
clean, luxurious bedrooms, whose sides, ceiling, and floor were made of
fur; they were lighted by means of a pan of whale-oil with a bit of moss
for a wick. After being out all day hunting in the stormy weather, or on
ice-packs or frozen tundras, the Chukchi withdraws into this furry sanctum,
takes off all his clothing, and spreads his wearied limbs in luxurious
ease, sleeping perfectly nude in the severest weather.
Chukchi Village at Plover Bay, Siberia
From a photograph by E. S. Curtis
Copyright, 1899, by E. H. Harriman
After introducing ourselves and shaking hands with a few of the most
dignified of the old men, we looked about the strange domicile. Dogs, children,
men, women, and utensils; spears, guns, whale-lances, etc., were stuck
about the rafters and hanging on the supporting posts. We looked into one
of the fur bedrooms, about six by seven, and found Joe enjoying a bath
ere putting on his fine clothes to set out with us. Soon he emerged clad
in a blue cloth army coat with brass buttons and shoulder straps and army
cap! I scarcely knew him.
In the mean time Captain H[ooper] was off taking a drive over the snow
with a dog-team and sled. When he returned Joe was having a farewell talk
with his wife, who seemed very anxious about his safety and long absence.
His little boy, too, about a year and a half old, had been told that his
father was going away and he seemed to understand somewhat, as he kept
holding him by the legs and trying to talk to him while looking up in his
face. When we started away from the house he kissed his boy and bade him
good-bye. The little fellow in his funny bags of fur toddled after him
until caught and carried back by some of the women who were looking on.
Joe's wife came aboard for a final farewell. After taking him aside and
talking with him, the tears running down her
cheeks, she left the vessel and went back with some others who had come
to trade deerskins, while we sailed away. One touch of nature makes all
the world kin, and here were many touches among the wild Chukchis.
We next proceeded to St. Lawrence Bay in search of furs and more dogs,
and came to anchor at the mouth of the bay, opposite a small Chukchi settlement
of two huts, at half-past one in the afternoon, May 29. This bay, like
all I have seen along this coast, is of glacial formation, conducting back
into glacial fountains in a range of peaks of moderate height. The wind
was blowing hard from the south and snow was failing. The natives, however,
came off at once to trade. Here we met the voluble Jaroochah, who sat gravely
on the sloppy deck in the sludge, and told the story of the wrecked Vigilant
in a loud, vehement, growling, roaring voice and with frantic gestures.
He assured us over and over again that there was no use in going to seek
any of the crew, for they were all dead and the ship with her broken masts
had drifted away again to the north with the ice-pack. When told that we
would certainly seek them whether dead or alive, he explained that the
snow and ice were too soft for sleds at this time of year. Seeing that
we were still unconvinced, he doubtless regarded us as foolish and incorrigible
We went ashore to fetch some dogs they offered to sell, but they changed
their minds and refused to sell at any price, nor were they willing to
barter deerskins that we needed for the trip and for winter clothing in
case we should be caught in the ice and compelled to pass a winter in the
Arctic. We presented them with a bucket of hardtack which no one of the
party touched until the old orator gave orders to his son to divide it.
This he did by counting it out on the deck, laying down one biscuit for
each person and then adding one to each until all was exhausted, piling
them on each other like a money-changer counting out coins. The mannerly
reserve and unhasting dignity of all these natives when food is set before
them is very striking as compared with the ravenous, snatching haste of
the hungry poor among the whites. Even the children look wistfully at the
heap of bread, without touching it until invited, and then eat very slowly
as if not hungry at all. Nor do they ever need to be told to wait. Even
when a year of famine occurs from any cause, they endure it with fortitude
such as would be sought for in vain among the civilized, and after braving
the most intense cold of these dreary ice-bound coasts in search of food,
if unsuccessful, they wrap themselves in their furs and die quietly as
if only going to sleep. This they did by hundreds two years ago on St.
Finding that we could not buy anything that we wanted here, savage eloquence
being the only article offered, we sailed for the Diomedes. Here we found
the natives eager to trade away everything they had. We bought a lot of
furs and nineteen dogs, paying a sack of flour for each dog. This Arctic
cattle market was in every way lively and picturesque, and ended satisfactorily
to all the parties concerned. The scene of barter as each Eskimo, pitching
alongside in his skin boat, hoisted the howling wolves aboard and thence
to the upper deck in front of the pilot-house, was a rare one.
The villages are perched on the steep rocky slopes of mountains which
drop at once sheer into deep water, one mountain per island. [Muir
noted in his journal that "Fairway Rock near the East Diomede is a similar
smaller island, on which the granite rock is glaciated."] No margin
is left for a village along the shore, so, like the seabirds that breed
here and fly about in countless multitudes darkening the water, the rocks,
and the air, the natives had to perch their huts on the cliffs, dragging
boats and everything up and down very steep trails. The huts are mostly
built of stone with skin roofs. They look like mere stoneheaps, black dots
on the snow at a distance, with whalebone posts set up and framed at the
top to lay their canoes beyond the dogs that would otherwise eat them.
The dreariest towns I ever beheld--the tops of the islands in gloomy storm-clouds;
snow to the water's edge, and blocks of rugged ice for a fringe; then the
black water dashing against the ice; the gray sleety sky, the screaming
water birds, the howling wind, and the blue gathering sludge!
West Diomede Village
We now pushed on through the strait and into the Arctic Ocean without
encountering any ice, and passed Cape Serdzekamen this afternoon [May 31].
The weather has been calm and tolerably clear for the last twenty-four
hours, enabling us to see the coast now and then. It showed hills of moderate
height, rising here and there to mountains.
About twelve miles northwest from Cape Serdzekamen we observed a marked
bluff where the shore ice seemed narrower than elsewhere, and we approached,
intending to examine it with reference to landing the party here. When
we were within a mile of it we saw a group of natives signaling us to land
by waving something over their heads. The Captain, Joe, and myself got
on the ice from the boat, and began to scramble over it toward the bluff,
but found the ice very rough and made slow progress. The pack is made up
of a crushed mass of blocks and pinnacles tilted at every angle up to a
height of from ten to thirty feet, and it seemed to become rougher and
more impassable as we advanced.
Fortunately we discovered a group of natives a quarter of a mile or
so to the westward, coming toward the ship, when we returned to our boat
that was lying at the edge of the ice, and went around to meet them. After
shaking hands with the most imposing of the group of eight, we directed
Joe to tell them the object we had in coming, and to inquire whether two
of their number would go with our sledge party to assist in driving the
teams. One of them, a strapping fellow over six feet tall, said that he
had a wife and four boys and two girls to hunt seals for, and therefore
could not go. As Joe interpreted him in whaler English, he was "already
hungry like hell." Another said that the journey was too long for him,
that our friends were not along the coast, else he would certainly have
heard about them, and therefore the journey would be vain. We urged that
we were going to seek them whether they were to be found or not, and that
if they would go with us we would leave more food for their families than
they could get for them by hunting.
Two of the number at length consented to go, after being assured that
we would pay them well, whether the journey proved successful or otherwise.
Then we intimated that we would like to visit their village, which seemed
to please them; for they started at once to guide us over the hummocky
ice to where they had left their dog-teams and sleds. It was a rough scramble
at best, and even the natives slipped at times and hesitated cautiously
in choosing a way, while we, encumbered with overcoats and not so well
shod, kept sinking with awkward glints and slumps into hopper-shaped hollows
and chasms filled with snow. One of them kindly gave me his balancing-stick.
Beyond the roughest portion of the hummock region we found the dogs,
nearly a hundred of them, with eleven sleds, making, as they lay at their
ease, an imposing picture among the white ice. Three of the teams were
straightened out and one of them given in charge of Joe, who is an adept
at driving, while the Captain and I were taken on behind the drivers of
the other two; and away, we sped over the frozen ceiling of the sea, two
rows of tails ahead.
The distance to the village, called "Tapkan" by the natives, was about
three miles, the first mile very rough and apparently hopelessly inaccessible
to sleds. But the wolfish dogs and drivers, seemed to regard it all as
a regular turnpike, and jogged merrily on, up one side of a tilted block
or slab and down the other with a sudden pitch and plunge, swishing round
sideways on squinted cakes, and through pools of water and sludge in blue,
craggy hollows, on and on, this way and that, with never a halt, the dogs
keeping up a steady jog trot, and the leader simply looking over his shoulder
occasionally for directions in the worst places. The driver admonished
them with loud calls of "Hoora! Hoora! Shedack! Shedack! Knock! Knock!"
but seldom struck them. He had to hold himself in constant readiness to
jump off and hold the sled while guiding it around sharp angles and across
the high cutting ridges. My sled was not upset at all, and the Captain's
Part of our way was across the mouth of a bay on smooth ice that had
not been subjected to the mashing, upheaving strain of the ocean ice, and
over this we glided rapidly. My Chukchi driver, now that he had no care
about the upsetting of the sled, frequently turned with a smile and did
his best to entertain me, though he did not understand a word of English.
It was a rare, strange ride for us, yet accomplished with such everyday
commonplace confidence, that it seemed at the time as if this might be
the only mode of land travel in the world.
Some teams were just arriving from the village as we were going to it.
When we met, the dogs passed each other to right or left as they were told
by their drivers, who kept flourishing a whip and jingling some iron rings
that were tied loosely to one end of a short stick that had an iron goad
in the other, and of which the dogs knew the use all too well. They are
as steady as oxen, each keeping its trace-line tight, and showing no inclination
to shirk--utterly unlike the illustrations I had seen, in which all are
represented as running at a wild gallop with mouths wide open.
The village is built on a sand-bar pushed up by the ice on the west
side of a narrow bay. I counted twenty huts in all. When we drove up, the
women and children, and a few old men who bad not been tempted to make
the journey to the ship, came out to meet us. Captain Hooper went to the
house belonging to his driver, I to the one belonging to mine; afterwards
we joined and visited in company. We were kindly received and shown to
good seats on reindeer skins, All of them smiled good-naturedly when we
shook hands with them, and tried to repeat our salutations. When we discussed
our proposed land journey the women eagerly joined and the children listened
We inquired about the Vega, knowing that she had wintered hereabouts.
At first they said they knew nothing about her; that no ship had wintered
here two years ago. Then, as if suddenly remembering, one of them said
a three-masted ship, a steamer like the Corwin, had stopped one season in
the ice at a point a few miles east of the village, and had gone away when
it melted in the summer. A woman, who had been listening, then went to
a box, and after turning it over, showed us a spoon, fork, and pocket compass
of Russian manufacture, which she said the captain had given them.
The huts here are like those already described, only they are dry because
of the porous character of the ground. Three or four families live in one,
each having a private polog of deerskins, of which there are several thicknesses
on the floor. We were shown into one--the snuggest storm nest imaginable,
and perfectly clean. The common hut is far otherwise; dogs mingle with
the food, hair is everywhere, and strangely persistent smells that defy
even the Arctic frosts. The children seemed in fair ratio with the adults.
When a child is to be nursed the mother merely pulls out one of her arms
from the roomy sleeve of her parka and pushes it down until the breast
is exposed. The breasts are pendulous and cylindrical, like those of the
The dishes used in domestic affairs are of wood, and in the smallest
of these the puppies, after licking them, were often noticed to lie down.
They seemed made specially for them, so well did they fit. Dogs were eagerly
licking the large kettles, also, in which seal meat had been boiled. They
seemed to be favored in these establishments like the pigs in Irish huts.
Spears, lances, guns, and nets were fastened about the timbers of the roof
and sides, but little food of any kind was visible. A pot was swinging
over a small fire of driftwood when we entered one of the huts, and an
old dame was stirring it occasionally, and roasting seal liver on the coals
beneath it. On leaving we were each presented with a pair of fur mittens.
At the last moment, when we were ready to return to the ship, one of
the men we had engaged to go with the land party changed his mind and concluded
to stay at home. The other stuck to his engagement, though evidently feeling
sore about leaving his family. His little boy cried bitterly when he learned
that his father was going away, and refused all the offers made by the
women to comfort him. After we had sped away over the ice, half a mile
from the village, we could still hear his screams. Just as the ship was
about to weigh anchor, the second man again offered to go with us, but
Joe said to the Captain, "More better not take that fellow, he too much
The group of lookers-on congregated on the edge of the ice was very
picturesque seen from the vessel as we moved away. The Chukchis are taller
and more resolute-looking people than the Eskimos of the opposite coast,
but both are Mongols and nearly alike in dress and mode of life, as well
as in religion.
The weather is promising this evening. No portion of the polar pack
is in sight, and we mean to push on westward as far as we can with safety.
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