At first, in the excess of their friendliness, the natives wanted to go below, and visit the private rooms of the ship, and being prevented from so doing, resented the interference so much that they occasionally declined to allow the whites to enter their tents on shore, but with kindness and firmness, they soon became accustomed to the deprivation; though not thieves, they were intolerable beggars, and made heroic efforts to cheat the whites in every conceivable way; they would bring the bodies of foxes which had been skinned, and endeavor to pass them off on the crew as hares; learning that the whites bought geese and ducks by weight they soon learned to fill the bodies with stones, so that great caution was necessary in dealing with them. Many curious observations were made by the Vega's crew on the habits and customs of these simple savages. Even in the coldest weather, the Chukchies carry on fishing through holes in the ice. After the holes had been cut by the men, the women attended to the rest of the business, being protected from the cutting winds and the driving snow by a small wall of ice built in a semi-circle to the windward of the ice hole. Placing themselves on hands and knees, they would utter a peculiar clattering cry which attracted the fish, and then with wonderful dexterity would throw them out on the ice by means of a small hook fastened on the end of a stick.
A CHUKCHIE POTENTATE.
Not many weeks had passed before a visit was received from a most important personage. One morning the attention of the crew was attracted by a procession, at once unusual and imposing, advancing from the land to the ship. A number of natives were drawing a large sledge, which, on a nearer approach, was seen to be occupied by a man lying at full length. At first it was supposed that this was some sick person who was being brought to the ship for medical treatment, but, to the astonishment of the crew, as the sledge came along side, the occupant arose and walked on board in great state, and with much solemnity announced himself as the representative of the Russian government.
A Chukchie like the others, he knew but few words of Russian and even those were mispronounced, but his official position seemed undoubted, and on further investigation it appeared that a request having been sent by the King of Sweden to the Czar to extend such aid as was possible to the expedition should it stand in need of any, a circular order to that effect had been despatched to all the Siberian provinces, and the Governor had communicated its import to the Russian representative among the Chukchies, who, in obedience to the mandate, had come to tender his services and transact a little business on his own account. Wassili Menka, for such was the name of this individual, was anxious to impress the Chukchies with an abiding sense of his greatness, and therefore refused to walk to the ship, but lay down in the sledge and insisted that he must be drawn by men instead of dogs, for otherwise the strangers would think that their master was only a common king instead of a great potentate. They complied with his whim, but later took occasion to protest, declaring that any one of themselves was just as good as Menka, the only difference being that, in some way, he had secured the favor of the Russian Governor.
SENDING LETTERS HOME.
As Menka intended to return at once to his village in the interior, the opportunity was seized of sending letters which might or might not reach their destination. Several were accordingly written, detailing, in brief, the state of the expedition, the health of those on board and the position of the ship. These letters were, after the fashion of the country, securely tied between two boards; and to Menka was given, to be forwarded to the Governor, a large open letter on parchment, being a request to all officials of the Russian government to forward the package without delay. Of this document, imposing from its size and the big red seal at the bottom, Menka made a shrewd use. After returning to the village, he called the population about him, and commanding silence, stood on a sledge and produced the official looking parchment. Holding it upside down from the impression that, of course, the seal must be at the top, he proceeded to read from it long sentences of fluent Chukchie, lavishly commendatory of himself and telling the high opinion that was expressed to him by his white brothers in the ship. The proceeding evidently raised him greatly in the estimation of his people, as he had intended it should and from that time on Menka was a man of distinction and gave himself airs.
Six months later, in June, of the following year, the crew was thrown into a state of feverish excitement by the arrival of a native, who announced himself the bearer of a letter. As it had already been ascertained by the Chukchies that good news was well paid for, and the men of the ship had, on more than one occasion, been lavish of their liquor and delicacies given in receipt of false and unimportant intelligence, there was a disposition to be incredulous about the letter till it was produced. On being questioned on this point, it was discovered that the native really brought a document of some kind, but had left it at the village, until he could make sure of being paid for his long journey. On being satisfied on this point, he produced the letter, which, to the disappointment of every one, proved to be nothing more than an extremely short, and formal note from the Governor of the province, stating that the letters had been received and would be forwarded in accordance with the request. Save these few words, no other communication from civilization was received during the winter, though of course there was nothing extraordinary in this fact, for more than one Arctic expedition passed two or more years with no news from the outside world.
IN THE MIDST OF A STRONG ODOR.
With the aid of Menka, who was a capitalist, as he owned a large herd of reindeer, several excursions were made, even in the dead of winter, but little of interest was developed by these land journeys, which were so unpleasant that they were soon abandoned. The Chukchies were by no means civilized in their notions of cleanliness, and after an officer had slept three or four nights in a tent twelve feet in diameter with twenty or thirty natives and their dogs he was quite willing to abandon the search for knowledge and let somebody else go on the next journey. Every one who undertook these jaunts, however, was amazed at the endurance both of the Chukchies and their dogs, for frequently the natives and their canine steeds would make a journey of thirty-six hours, with very few halts and without food, and at the end seem as fresh as when they started.
As soon as the vessel was frozen in, the scientific work of the winter began in earnest, an observatory was erected on the mainland, blocks of ice being utilized for the walls and a sail for the roof, and attempts were made to render its temperature a little more endurable by means of a wood stove, with the result that the observatory nearly went to pieces. The observers were, therefore, compelled to content themselves with what heat could be derived from their lamps, but so efficient were these that when the temperature outside was thirty-six below zero, within the walls it was only seventeen below, so that while almost unendurably cold it was great improvement on the open air.
The days passed in the routine noted by every explorer in Arctic regions. There were observations to be made, daily exercise to be taken for the sake of health, the hungry Chukchies were to be fed, and much amusement was derived from seeing the earnestness with which they gathered round the cook's galley. Every plate which, with its broken fragments, came from below was carefully scraped and even licked by the hungry unfortunates, and when no more remained from the dinner a large pot of soup, containing a little of everything that happened to be handy, was set out by the cook, and the Chukchies helped themselves as best they could. Courses of lectures and other entertainments were provided for officers and men, amusements of various kinds were improvised to help pass away the time, and thus the long dark winter was rendered endurable.
THE JANUARY THAW.
In January there came hope of a release, for the natives declared that frequently several weeks of good weather were known at that time of year. Sure enough, soon after the first day of the New Year, the south-west wind blew softly, the ice began to melt, large fields broke from the shore and floated slowly away to the north. The Chukchies prepared their fishing hooks and tackle and the crew of the Vega felt their spirits revive, for with a few days good weather they would pass the narrow strait between Asia and America and soon be in seas where ice is unknown. But these bright anticipations were doomed to disappointment, for after a few pleasant days, heavy winds set in from the north, followed by intense cold. The floes which, under the influence of the southern breeze, had drifted away, were brought back by the northern blast with such force as to pile them up round the Vega, the great broken masses lying in disordered fragments almost as high as the tops of her masts.
A CHUKCHIES' FEAST.
With the northern ice came also the Chukchies. On the approach of good weather the natives had deserted the ship, having made a large capture of seals along the shore. They had taken enough, with economy, to last them the whole winter, but not having the slightest notion of forethought, the abundance lasted only a few days. During the season of plenty they had turned up their noses at the fare given them on the ship, but when starvation came again, the daily barter was renewed; blocks of ice, for the use of the cook, pieces of wood, whale-bone, clothing, weapons, anything that would buy food, were brought in abundance, and found ready sale. While, in case of necessity, they could live on very little, they made themselves compensation for the compulsory fast by astounding gormandizing when food was abundant. Nordenskiold saw a party of eight persons, three men, two women and three children, dispose of over thirty pounds of solid food at one sitting. The meal was in courses; for the first, came raw fish, frozen, pieces being snapped off with as much gusto as an American youngster bites off a bit of candy. Then came a soup made of the mossy contents of the stomachs of reindeer, after which a course of boiled fish was undertaken with as much earnestness as though the feast had just begun. Frozen seal blubber in long hard strips came next, and the dinner was ended by the production of a large lump of seal flesh, weighing about twelve pounds. Each took the mass in one hand and held it to his face. Finding a point where it could be conveniently attacked, he opened his mouth to its utmost width and took in as much as he could; then, with a knife in the other hand, cut off his mouthful from the main body and proceeded to chew, working as hard as he could so as to be in readiness when it had completed the circle and got back to him.
The leader of the expedition being on this occasion an honored guest, the lady of the house did him the special favor of tendering him the first bite, previously nibbling the whole piece to ascertain the most tender part and then showing him its situation that he might know where to attack it. He declined the honor, when she, supposing his reluctance arose from an inability either to understand or to comply with their customs, herself bit off a large piece which she then took in her hand and offered for his acceptance.
DAYBREAK AFTER A WINTER'S NIGHT OF SIX MONTHS.
Thus in one way and another, by feasting, dancing, fishing, hunting, eating and sleeping the long winter passed away. In February the light was so bright as to necessitate the use of colored glasses to protect the eyes. The effects of the incessant glare were very apparent on the optics of the Chukchies, many of whom were almost deprived of sight, while even the hares shot by the hunters were snow-blind and thus unable to escape. Gradually the light increased and little by little the snow began to disappear. There were other signs of spring. Before the snow was gone the geese, ducks and gulls began to appear, coming in large flocks from the south where they had passed the winter in comfort. Travelling cost them nothing; they had no preparations to make, no hotel bills to pay, their passes needed no renewal and they really enjoyed the trip. Beginning to arrive in April, they were followed a month later by song birds. The flight of the feathered denizens of the woods had been no longer, but their wings were less adapted to the labors of the way, and they arrived in a state of great exhaustion. To the wearied prisoners on the ship they were welcome as harbingers of speedy release and when they fell on the deck, or alighted among the ropes, they were fed and protected. Hundreds found on the ship that shelter and food which the land denied, and the deck was made merry with their chirping.
As spring came on and the snow and ice was drenched with water a curious phenomenon was observed. Wherever the foot sank a bluish light flashed, remaining for some minutes after the disturbing cause had ceased. At first this
In July the snow had disappeared from the land, and lines of bare, unattractive brown hills, with little vegetation and scarcely any apparent means of supporting animal life, were presented to view. There was apparently nothing to tempt human beings to remain in such a country, and yet the Chukchies, although they had abundant opportunity for a change of residence preferred their own hills and their ten months of snow to any country on the globe.
THE VEGA FREE.
Still the ice showed no signs of breaking up, and from its density and Quantity the tired voyagers calculated that they would not be able to break their frozen fetters before the last of the month or the first of August. While the Vega's crew was at the midday meal on the 18th of July a heavy shock was felt, and the vessel moved uneasily as she settled down in the ice. In an instant all was excitement. The ice was breaking up. Under the influence of a warm south wind the floes were moving and here and there long rifts appeared in the ice-fields which for ten months had held the Vega a prisoner. Hurried preparations were made for immediate departure. Not a moment was to be lost. The engines were in perfect order, for, in anticipation of the thaw the boilers had been cleaned and all made ready for a start. Fires were at once lighted, and smoke began to pour from the funnel. Two hours later, at 3.30 in the afternoon, the screw began to revolve, and the Vega crashed through the floating ice on her way to the south. As she passed the peninsula where the Chukchie village was situated, the whole population came out to witness the departure of their friends of the winter and from the deck men and women could be seen wringing their hands and weeping while the "smoky reindeer," as they called the vessel, bore away those who for many months, had stood between them and starvation.
THE RETURN HOME.
Two days later, the Vega passed through Behring Strait and began a homeward voyage that was a continued ovation. Stops were made at various ports in Japan, China, and India; the Suez Canal was passed through and pauses were indulged in at several points of the Mediterranean, the officers and crew every where receiving evidence of the popular appreciation of their exploit; and so, through the Strait of Gibraltar and by way of the English Channel, the Vega finished her circumnavigation of Asia and Europe.
The voyage of the Vega was the most remarkable achievement in the history of Arctic exploration, for without the loss of a man, with little suffering, and hardly any sickness, the problem of the north-east passage was solved. The journey was almost made in one season for, as indicated, the vessel was within two days' sail of Behring Strait when enclosed in the ice. More than this time would have been lost in halts at different points on the route; over two days, in all, had been spent in dredging, and all this time would have been utilized in pressing on, had the explorers guessed how near they would come in making the voyage in a single summer.
The route thus pointed out by Nordenskiold is no longer needed for commerce, for the uncertain navigation of a treacherous sea is rapidly being supplanted by railroads through every part of Siberia, but man feels a natural and commendable pride in doing what has been pronounced an impossibility. The leader of the Vega expedition accomplished his object and enrolled his name at the head of the list of Arctic explorers, for however long that roll in future years may become, no copy of it will be complete which does not begin with the name of Nordenskiold.