VOYAGES OF NORDENSKIOLD.
In 1875, seeking for worlds to explore, he turned his attention to the north coast of Siberia, and became convinced of the practicability of circumnavigating it by following the course of the ocean currents. In the year mentioned he reached the Yenisei through the Kara Sea, and in the following year, the charge having been made that the season favored the voyage, he successfully repeated his exploit.
Determined to attack the problem of the north-east passage, Nordenskiold was successful in interesting the King of Sweden and leading capitalists of that country in his plan, and elaborate preparations were made to carry it out. In this proposed expedition, he had the advantage of perfect familiarity with the mistakes of all previous explorers, and was thus enabled to guard against the dangers which befell others who went before. Four vessels composed the expedition; the one in which he designed to make the passage, the Vega, was manned by two officers and seventeen men, volunteers of the Swedish navy. It was a staunch whaler of two hundred and ninety-nine tons, built of oak, and filled with a good sixty horse-power engine. The bottom was supplied with iron tanks, which would afford resistance to the ice, and a casing of oak and steel covered all the surface which would be exposed to floating bergs. A small tender called the Lena was to accompany the Vega to the mouth of the Lena river, and in two other ships stores and coal were to be carried, for a last supply after the Vega should leave the bounds of civilization.
The expedition sailed from Karls Krona June 22, 1878, called at Copenhagen for provisions, stopped at Gothenberg, and then passed up the Norway coast to Tromsal where it was joined by Nordenskiold and his officers, and on July 21, the Arctic voyage began in earnest. A halt was made at Maosoe, near the North Cape, and the last homeward bound letters were mailed at the most northern post-office in the world. It is a dreary place, surrounded in summer by black rocks, in winter by everlasting snow and ice. The principal food of the population is fish from the neighboring seas. Potatoes may be good if the year is exceptionally favorable, which, however, is frequently not the case. Radishes, lettuce and spring onions grow readily, and these constitute the sole fresh food of the population from year to year. At the North Cape they were detained several days by bad weather, but on July 25th Nordenskiold started east to Nova Zembla, determined to skirt the coast of that forbidding land and get through the first available opening into the Kara Sea. Three days later Gooseland was sighted, so called from the immense flocks of geese and swans which there make their nests and raise their young. Leaving Gooseland to the east, the expedition passed to the Yagor Schar, and there sighted the Fraser and the Express, the other two ships of the expedition, which, having better weather, had passed the Vega on the way. The ships cast anchor before the village of Chaberoba, a collection of huts inhabited by the Samoyeds. Few more desolate regions can be conceived of than this most northerly inhabited region of the globe, yet the natives carry on a considerable trade in furs and skins, worship in a wooden church lighted with brass lamps, and annually bring from the south more tea than bread.
ABUNDANCE OF ANIMAL LIFE.
During the short stay at this point, the members of the expedition could not fail to notice the astounding abundance and variety of animal life : petrels, auks, guillemots, puffins, gulls, geese, swans, terns, ducks, waders, fill the air and sea; while reindeer cover the hills. Bears and foxes prowled among the rocks, and seals and whales disported themselves in the waters, even near the coast, and fish were to be had for the trouble of taking. The walrus, however, at the time of Nordenskiold's visit, was almost extinct. The crews of previous ships had wantonly slaughtered the defenceless animals, sometimes killing as many as one thousand in six hours, and at present there is scarcely one to be seen.
Passing into the Kara Sea, on August 6th the expedition reached the mouth of the Yenisei at a point where, although the population is now thin, there are evidences of previous habitation. Many cabins were found, each containing a number of small rooms, while every house was provided with a bake-oven, kitchen, cellars, and even with rooms, which, by no great stretch of imagination, could be conceived to be bath-rooms. Here the explorers found also places of sacrifice, where the skulls of animals were mounted on poles; they found graves almost on the surface, with bodies which, from the extreme severity of the climate, were perfectly frozen, and although they had the appearance of having been buried for generations, presented not the slightest evidence of decomposition. The few inhabitants who still remained were exceedingly hospitable, eagerly invited the strangers to land, and an acceptance of the invitation was at once followed by a feast of the best the country afforded, and a grand dance in which the first girls of the neighborhood, dressed not unlike the men, participated.
Port Dixon, the bay at the mouth of the Yenisei, was left behind on August 10th, and the Vega with her tender started forward on an unknown sea. The Arctic Ocean had there but few of the terrors which it possessed along the northern shores of America; it was shallow, and what ice to be seen was evidently the rotten remains of river ice from the previous winter. The fogs, however, were incessant, and constant care was necessary for the safety of the ship, for during many miles their course lay among islands and islets. A singular feature of this portion of the Arctic Ocean was in the myriads of dead fish which could be clearly seen at the bottom of the sea. They had evidently been frozen in the river ice and thus had perished, but their discovery excites a pertinent observation on the part of the explorer, who remarks how seldom a "self-dead" animal is found. What becomes of them is a problem he does not attempt to solve, nor does he account for the fact that the birds they shot on the island had their crops full of insects in a country where the utmost diligence on the part of a naturalist could find few or no specimens of the insect world. On the snow still
Actinia Bay, so called from the number of actinia brought up by the dredge was reached on August I4th, and here they remained four days, for although there was very little ice, the fog was so bad that progress was almost impossible. In this far off corner of the world the Swedish explorer came near meeting one of his countrymen, a whaler named Johannesen, who in that summer was driven there by bad weather and heavy gales from the north-west. Johannesen's ship, however, passed along the horizon just out of sight, and the Vega sailed and steamed for several days along the coast in a fog which prevented much observation, and on the nineteenth of August the explorers saw before them a dark ice-free cape, rising but little above the fog, marking the most northern point of Asia, and the vessels came to anchor where ships had never been before.
REMARKABLE CUSTOMS OF SIBERIANS.
Both on the Yenesei and on the Lena abundant opportunities were given the travellers for observing peculiarities of Siberian river-life. The river boats are not large, seldom exceeding twenty feet in length, and midway of each stands a small cabin which, summer and winter, is kept intensely hot by the bake-oven employed to prepare the bread, which every day is cooked fresh for the boatman's family. So warm is the cabin that even in the severest weather the occupants are constantly in a perspiration. Nor does it seem to harm them in the least to pass from the torrid heat within to the temperature of thirty-five or forty degrees below zero without. They seldom take cold, and in this connection it may be noted that the natives of Siberia have accustomed themselves to a great many practices which would probably be fatal to the inhabitants of other countries. For instance, after taking a steam bath they will rush out of the house and throw themselves into beds of snow for the purpose of cooling off. The result is satisfactory, since so far as appearances go they do not seem to be in the least harmed by so extraordinary a change.
On the banks of the Siberian rivers the houses are mostly log cabins, but the further one goes to the south the better is the style of architecture, and not very many miles from the mouth of the Yenesei the houses are of frame, with lintels and cornices elaborately carved. A large part of the population is made up of exiles, but there is little distinction between them and the original colonists, nor is there any difference between the man exiled for crime and the man exiled for politics. "I was unfortunate" is an expression which describes any offense resulting in transportation to Siberia, from the crime of murder to abuse of the Czar.
The river boats bear to and fro a large part of the commerce of the interior, and during their journeys up the rivers, if the winds fail, dogs are used to pull the boat; and so frequently are these animals employed for this purpose that they have worn a path at intervals along the river, and by the side of country roads graves appear, the bodies being interred two or three feet below the ground and then the grave being boarded up to keep away the wolves. The conditions of climate in Siberia are so different from those in other parts of the world that many practices there perfectly natural would elsewhere seem out of place. In the northern portion the ground is thawed only a few inches by the hottest summer. A cellar is dug with extreme difficulty, but when once prepared, meats, fruits and the like, placed in it, are really in an ice-house, and may be kept frozen all the year around. Bodies of the dead, sometimes removed for interment elsewhere, are found to be in as complete a state of preservation as though buried but yesterday, even though the interment has lasted many years.
THE NEW SIBERIAN ISLANDS.
After parting with the Lena, the Vega set forward alone, steering direct for the New Siberian Islands. This curious group of islets has for many years been the resort of searchers for fossil ivory. It seems strange that in this far away part of the world, so far to the north as to be beyond the bounds of civilization, there should be a mine of ivory, but Africa is not more productive of this article than are the Siberian Islands. Not alone is the ivory of elephants found, but also that of the mammoth. Tusks of prodigious length are sometimes discovered, attesting in the strongest manner the size and strength of this prehistoric world. The ivory is sometimes dug out of the earth, but more frequently is exposed by heavy ocean swells which have prevailed for several days, washing away the banks of the islands and leaving the tusks to be easily recovered. But not only the ivory, but even the bodies of these gigantic animals have frequently been found. When discovered they are frozen fast in the earth, and the flesh is in such a state of preservation from the intense cold to which it has been exposed for ages that the natives sometimes use it for food. Nearly thirty entire bodies of the mammoth have been discovered at different times by Europeans, to say nothing of those which have probably been found and destroyed by the natives; and in each case the enormous carcass was covered with hair sometimes two or three feet in length. The bodies of hairy elephants have also been found, the remains of a kind of rhinoceros covered with wool and hair, and having a horn often five feet long. One such find, the body of a mammoth, was made by Nordenskiold. Intelligence was brought to the vessel that a large carcass had been partly unearthed at some distance, and a detachment was sent to examine the body and detach such portions as could conveniently be taken away. The enormous carcass was frozen hard, but as the body far exceeded in size that of the largest elephant, it was impossible to bring it away, and so the expedition contented itself with rescuing the tusks and a large part of the skin.
Time was beginning to be precious, and although the temptation was strong to make a stay at the Siberian Islands, the commander was afraid of delay, and, as he had been able to proceed thus far, had a strong hope of pushing through Behring Strait before the fall ice formed in the bays to the north. So on they pressed, through seas absolutely unknown, the constant fog rendering it necessary to lie by at night, and even for several days at a time the ship was obliged either to remain tied to an ice-floe, or to proceed very slowly, with one or more boats in the van, to prevent all danger of sudden collision with icebergs.
MEETING THE CHUKCHIES.
September 6th was a day long to be remembered. During the whole of their voyage from the mouth of the Lena to the Siberian Islands, no human beings had been seen. For anything to the contrary noticed by the crew of the Vega, they might be proceeding along the coast of a desert island. But on the afternoon of that day a cry arose that boats were in sight. The shout brought everyone to the deck save the cook. This individual appears to have confined himself strictly to his duties, and as the historian of the expedition remarks, "he seldom appeared on deck, and circumnavigated Europe and Asia without once having been on land." Leaving the cook behind, therefore, the rest of the crew took up a favorable position on the deck to view the strangers who were coming along in boats to pay them a visit. They were Chukchies, a strange people of Siberia and better looking than Esquimaux. The men were tall, well formed
A CHUKCHIE FEAST.
The day following the meeting with the Chukchies being too foggy to proceed the crew visited the natives on shore and were well received wherever they went, being treated to the best in the savage larder. A feast was made for the strangers, and the hospitality of the Chukchies prompted them to treat their visitors to walrus meat, reindeer steak, seal fat, blubber, with a soup made from vegetables which had been taken from the stomachs of dead reindeer, and an after-course of train oil, drunk hot. It was evidently the first time a steam vessel had been seen on this coast, and the "fiery reindeer," as the natives called the vessel, created intense excitement. The news spread up and down the coast and natives from every direction came with offers to trade. They wanted needles, pots, knives and axes, and were willing to pay the best prices for saws, iron tools, bright-colored shirts and handkerchiefs, and would have parted with all they had for tobacco, sugar and spirits. Unfortunately, the Vega had not come prepared to barter, and the Chukchies knew nothing of the value of money, so the trading was limited. This was greatly to their disappointment, for it seems they were accomplished traders and had already established commercial intercourse with the American Indians at Behring Strait. Greatly to their surprise the people of the Vega cared nothing for the articles they were most anxious to sell. Nordenskiold was not a trader and soon gave the Indians to understand this, but that if they had garments, weapons, domestic utensils or any ethnological specimens for sale, they would find him a purchaser, although they seemed to regard him as out of his wits for wishing to obtain articles which to them had no value, and paying for them prices which seemed to them to be extravagant. They readily supplied all his demands, however and in a very short time a complete set of Chukchies clothes, weapons and household goods was provided.
THE APPROACH OF WINTER.
Day by day the quantity of ice increased, and every night new fields were formed through which it was necessary to plow in the morning. Still the vessel pressed on, past the bay, behind Cape Ikraipji, which had been seen by Cook in 1778, past a number of inlets, capes and promontories, everywhere greeted by the Chukchies with enthusiasm. These people it seems were not the original inhabitants of the country, for even in the little time allowed, the members of the expedition discovered the remains of an older race that had been driven away by the modern invaders. In and around abandoned houses were discovered bones and stone monuments of uncertain age. Uncertain, because in the Arctic regions great caution is necessary in forming a judgment as to the antiquity of ruins or remains. Paths from village to village along the shore are sometimes visible after the lapse of a century. It was comparatively easy for Nordenskiold and his men to establish friendly relations with the amicable people who now inhabit the extreme north-western corner of Asia, but on several occasions they made the mistake, with ludicrous results, of supposing some particular native to be the chief of his village. In this they were invariably mistaken, for all persons in the tribes were equal; there was no distinction in rank in the community.
THE VEGA FROZEN IN.
Progress became daily more difficult, finally was stopped, and on October 2d the Vega was frozen in on an open road, exposed to every danger, both from the wind, the moving ice, and the swell of the sea which constantly kept the pack in motion. The result was a bitter disappointment to the crew, who had hoped that in a few days more they would pass through Behring Strait into a sea where ice is unknown, and instead, found themselves condemned to winter on an inhospitable coast and under circumstances of such great peril. But there was no help for it, and for the next ten months they were compelled to make the best of the situation, which, although unpleasant, nevertheless had redeeming features. Preparations were made to render the vessel comfortable; the snow which up to that time had been carefully swept away, was allowed to remain on the deck until a coating of six or seven inches thick had accumulated, and thereby the comfort of the vessel was greatly increased. Snow banks were also piled up against the sides, and a staircase of ice was constructed from the gangway down to the level of the sea. Above the deck a canvas tent was stretched, and although this tent did not materially increase the warmth of the ship, it nevertheless made a shelter from the wind, and provided a sort of reception room where the Chukchies, whom it was not thought advisable to admit below deck, could be received and entertained. To provide against every emergency, provisions, ammunition, clothing and guns were removed to the mainland, and a store made, containing sufficient supplies for thirty men for one hundred days. There was danger of the vessel being nipped in the ice, and in case she should be sunk or cut through at the water line, it was highly important that provision should be made for the future. The stores thus removed from the ship were placed on the land; no watch was kept, and they were covered only by a sail cloth held fast by stones; but notwithstanding that the Chukchies had seen the removal, and knew that the heap contained what to them were goods of priceless value, not a thing was touched throughout the entire winter.