The next morning the day broke fine and clear. Captain West affirmed that to see a perfect summer day one must go to the far north. The _Corwin_ took the lead, and a five-mile run brought us to the edge of the ice-pack. There the _Corwin_ slowed down, and we ran as close alongside as was safe. Captain West shouted through the megaphone, "Good-morning. I find the ice pretty heavy, but it is loose, and with care you will be able to follow us." He then sent to us Captain Coffin, an old-time whaling captain, whom he happened to have with him on the _Corwin_, to act as ice pilot for our boat. Captain Coffin has a record of over forty years in the north seas. As I was anxious to have the experience of smashing through the ice on an icebreaker, I went aboard the _Corwin_. The _Progress_ followed about six lengths behind.
The _Corwin_ has twelve feet of solid green-heart timber in her bows, four feet of the same on the sides, and two feet aft. She is barkentine rigged, a hundred and twenty feet long, with a speed of nine knots. She is twenty-four years old, all but one of which have been spent in Arctic waters.
[Illustration: Natives at Indian Point, Siberia.]
When all is ready Captain West mounts to the crow's-nest to con the ship, and Captain Forrest, another old whaler, is on the bridge. The wheel is in the hands of two intelligent Boston sailors. Captain West sings out, "One bell--starboard--steady!" and we are off. It looks as if it were going to be a ticklish business for the _Progress_, with only half an inch of steel to withstand the pressure of the loose bergs, but I say to myself that with Captain Coffin in the crow's-nest, and the _Corwin_ in the lead, it is ten to one that she comes through without even knocking the paint off.
As we gather speed I hurry to the stern to see how the _Progress_ is coming on. She winds her way beautifully between the bergs, in and out through the passage which we are making.
Some of the ice the _Corwin_ can push to one side or the other, but when this is not possible she backs up in order to get good headway, and charges the obstruction, and strikes it fairly between the eyes.
She comes to a dead stop, and quivers from stem to stern with the tremendous impact. A rending, grinding noise is heard, and the berg which challenged us is a berg no longer; and its fragments are brushed aside as we push our way through. Captain West laughingly calls from above, "Get out of the way, if you don't want to get hit."
So on we go, backing and turning, and plunging and wriggling through the ice.
As we were thus engaged I espied a seal, about three hundred yards off our starboard bow, and, seizing a Winchester, I let drive. The captain called down, "Killed; good shot." I should have done well to rest on my laurels, for though I had above forty more shots that day I did not kill anything.
By six o'clock we were through the ice and in open water again, with Indian Point, or Cape Chaplain, dead ahead. Almost immediately we were boarded by the natives, who called out:
"Hello, hello, how d'ye do?"
We answered in kind. Then, after a string of lurid oaths in bad English, they said:
"Plenty man cough--make die--you got medicine?" But to our question as to how many people there were in their village they replied:
"Why, can't you count?"
"No; Siberia side all d--n fools." At which we were forced to smile.
"Say, you got chaw tobacco?" I could not remain deaf to this appeal, so I cut up a cigar and watched it go into their mouths. Then, after I had taken their photograph in a group, we all went ashore, where I found a few native skin huts and one or two houses built with timber which they had obtained in trade from whalers. These were modeled after the houses that the whalers or missionaries had erected.
[Illustration: Eskimo Village, East Cape--Northeastern Point of Asia.]
Indian Point is a long, low spit of land, and is a freak of nature, being nothing more nor less than a moraine in the sea. The great icebergs ground here and melt, dropping the stone and gravel which they have brought from some distant bay where they were born.
Kovarri, the old chief of the tribe, came aboard, and we interviewed him. He said there were no American miners on the Siberian side. We did not believe him implicitly, but found later that he had told the truth. We succeeded in hiring a noted native pilot to show us along the coast. He was named "Shoo Fly," and came of very mixed parentage.
These natives were all large, strong, and hearty, and were good sailors, having had experience on many United States whalers, which recruit their crews among these men before going up into the Arctic Sea. These fellows are splendid oarsmen, and as good as Americans at chasing whales. They speak a little English, especially the bad words, and chew as much tobacco as they can lay their hands on, while as for drink, they are crazy for it. The natives just to the south of them are very different, for they have not come in contact with the whalers to so great an extent.
I shipped a boat's crew of these men, and steamed north to St.
Lawrence Bay. In the steam-launch we explored every portion of the shore of this bay, but could find no trace of gold, although this was the very spot that Count Unarliarsky was depending upon to make the fortune of his company. Then we steamed north into Bering Strait. Here lie the two islands, "Big Diomed" and "Little Diomed," one Russian and the other American. After prospecting in vain we returned to the mainland, and rounded East Cape, and found ourselves, for the first time, on the waters of the Arctic Ocean. We landed at a little village built on the steep slope of a high hill. It had just lost one half its population through measles and the grippe. Corpses were lying about, half eaten by the dogs. A little child had a leather thong tied through the eye-holes of a skull, and was dragging it about for a cart. The child's father said he did not know whose skull it was.
After the dogs had gotten through with it how was he to tell! These people live in regular Eskimo huts, built of stone, in the shape of a half-sphere, and with a long tunnel for an entrance, through which they crawl on hands and knees.
Nothing could be more desolate than the prospect at this point.
Behind the village was a bleak hill. The beach was only fifty feet wide, and before it lay the grim Arctic Sea. There was only one thing of beauty, and that was the skin boats of the natives, which were drawn up on the beach. They were shaped like an American whale-boat, and were capable of carrying forty men. In these they follow the ice-pack, and capture seals and walruses, and occasionally a whale. A few of the natives have secured bomb-guns from the whalers.
Whenever a whaling-vessel completes its cargo and is ready to turn toward home, it disposes of all its whale-boats to the natives, taking, in return, whalebone, ivory, and skins. A good boat will bring one thousand dollars' worth of such goods. The condition of these natives is pitiable in the extreme. Disease and filth are doing their work, and it is a wonder that any of them have survived as long as they have. The whalers sell them spirits at a small price, and, being utterly without self-control, they speedily become slaves to drink.
The American Government makes no effort to stop this sort of thing, and the Russian Government can do but little to stop it with a single little gunboat.
We went as far north as the Arctic Circle, but, finding no gold in the beach sands nor in the float-rock in the rivers, we turned south again, and, after picking up some men whom we had left to finish prospecting St. Lawrence Bay, we continued south, examining the coast as we went. We looked into Plover Bay, with the expectation of finding the _Samoa_ there; and not seeing her we steamed out, and, with the aid of the launch and the native boat crews, examined the southern part of the Tchuktche peninsula. There were splendid deposits of steaming-coal, but the general geologic formation made it plain that there was no gold to be found.
Once more we steamed into Plover Bay, but the _Samoa_ had not yet arrived, and we determined to wait for her. Two days were spent in the pleasant occupation of hunting eider-duck and making a short trip into the interior. On the third day we heard, through the fog, the sound of a siren whistle. Of course we answered, and an hour later the _Samoa_ came nosing through the fog and picking her way through the light drift-ice. As soon as her anchor was down I went aboard. As I went up the gangway I saw half a dozen Russians and as many Americans standing in a group on the deck. I walked up to them, but before I had time to introduce myself Count Bogdanovitch said:
"Captain, I am glad to see you. You Have some coal for us, I believe?"
"No; I have not any for you," I said, smiling.
[Illustration: Plover Bay, Siberia, in July.]
"Oh, you are a steam-whaler," and his face fell.
"No, not a whaler," I said.
"Well, then, what are you here for?" he asked, curiously.
"I am on the same errand as you."
As soon as he comprehended he was terribly angry, and apparently wished me at the bottom of the sea. He turned on his heel and walked away, without doing me the courtesy of asking me into the cabin, although it was raining. But one of the Americans stepped forward, and I was taken to their quarters, where explanations followed. I told them the situation, how that we had carefully prospected all along the coast, but had found no gold. I felt I was doing them a favor to let them know that there was no use in spending time and money in a search for gold along the Siberian coast of Bering Sea. Whether or not they believed me I cannot tell, but the next morning we weighed anchor, and left them there waiting for the arrival of the _Yakut_.
The search for a Siberian Klondike was over.