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The Cruise of the Corwin

by John Muir

Chapter XV
The Land of the White Bear

[Steamer Corwin,
Wrangell Land, August 12, 1881.
]

A notable addition was made to the national domain when Captain Calvin L. Hooper landed on Wrangell Land [The landing was made August 12, 1881.], and took formal possession of it in the name of the United States. We landed near the southeast cape, at the mouth of a river, in latitude 71° 4', longitude 177° 40' 30" W. The extent of the new territory thus acquired is not definitely known, nor is likely to be for many a century, or until some considerable change has taken place in the polar climate, rendering the new land more attractive and more accessible. For at present even its southmost portion is almost constantly beset with ice of a kind that renders it all but inaccessible during both the winter and summer, while to the northward it extends far into the frozen ocean.

Going inland, along the left bank of the river, we found it much larger than it at first appeared to be. There was no snow left on the lowlands or any of the hills or mountains in sight, excepting the remnants of heavy drifts; nevertheless, it was still about seventy-five yards wide, twelve feet deep, and was flowing on with a clear, stately current, at a speed of about three miles an hour, While the snow is melting it must be at least two hundred yards wide and twenty feet deep, and its sources must lie well back in the interior of the island.

[First Landing on Wrangell Land]
First Landing on Wrangell Land

Not the slightest trace, however, could we find along the river, along the shore, or on the bluff to the northeastward, of the Jeannette party, or of any human inhabitant, A land more severely solitary could hardly be found anywhere on the face of the globe.

The beach was well tracked by polar bears, but none of the party could discover any sign of reindeer or musk oxen, though the country seems to abound in the kind of food they require. A single fox track was observed, and some burrows of a species of spermophile [E. W. Nelson, in Mammals of Northern Alaska (1886), identified this spermophile as Spermophilus empetra empetra (Pallas), and remarks, "upon the hill where we planted our flag on Wrangell Island were many of their burrows."]; also a number of birds [The following birds were observed by Mr. Nelson on Wrangell Land and Herald Island: Snow Bunting, Snowy Owl, Pacific Golden Plover, Pectoral Sandpiper, Red Phalarope, some kind of wild goose (perhaps Black Brant), King Eider Duck, Red-faced Cormorant, Ivory Gull, Pacific Kittiwake, Glaucous Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull, Ross's Gull, Sabine's Gull, Pomarine Jaeger, Long-tailed Jaeger, Rodgers's Fulmar, Horned Puffin, Crested Auk, Black Guillemot, Pigeon Guillemot, Thick-billed Guillemot, and a dead specimen of the Crested Shrike. This list is made from E. W. Nelson's Birds of Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean, published with Muir's botanical observations in Treasury Department Document No. 4.29 (1883).], and about twenty species of plants [See "Botanical Notes," [Appendix 2 (Wrangell Land),] p. 272. ], most of them in bloom. The rock is clay slate, which weathers smoothly, and is covered with a sparse growth of mosses, lichens, and flowering plants, not unlike that of the adjacent coasts of Siberia and Alaska.

Some small fragments of knowledge concerning this mysterious country have been in existence for nearly a century, mostly, however, of so vague and foggy a character as to be scarce at all available as geography, while up to the time of Captain Hooper's visit no explorer so far as known had set foot on it. In the year 1820 Lieutenant Wrangell was ordered by Alexander, Emperor of Russia, to proceed from the mouth of the Kolyma as far as Cape Schelagskoj, and from thence in a northerly direction over the ice with sledges drawn by dogs, to ascertain whether an inhabited country existed in that quarter, as asserted by the Chukchis and others.

But the land in question was far from being generally known even by tradition among the Chukchis inhabiting the Siberian coast nearest to it. Wrangell seems to have found only one person during his long search for this land that had heard or could tell him anything concerning it. This man, an intelligent chief or head of a family, drew with charcoal a correct sketch of Cape Schelagskoj, Aratuan Island, and another to the east of the Cape, and then assured Wrangell in the most positive manner that there was no other island along the coast. When asked whether there was any other land to the north beyond the visible horizon, he seemed to reflect a little, and then said that, between Cape Schelagskoj and Cape North, there was a part of the coast where, from some cliffs near the mouth of a river, one might on a clear summer day descry snow-covered mountains at a great distance to the north, but that in winter it was impossible to see so far, He said also that formerly herds of reindeer sometimes came across the ice, probably from thence, but that they had been frightened back by hunters and wolves. He claimed to have himself once seen a herd returning to the north in this way in April, and followed them in a sledge drawn by two deer for a whole day until the roughness of the ice forced him to turn back. His opinion was that these distant mountains he had seen were not on an island, but on an extensive land similar to his own country.

He had been told by his father that a Chukchi elder had once gone there with a few followers in large boats, but what they found there, or whether they ever returned, he did not know. Still he maintained that the distant land was inhabited, and adduced as proof of it that some years ago a dead whale was found at Aratuan Island pierced by spears pointed with slate; and as his people did not use such weapons he supposed that the whale must have been killed by the people of the northland.

After spending three winters Baron Wrangell wrote concerning this country: "Our return to Nishne Kolymsk closed the series of attempts made by us to discover a northern land, which though, not seen by us, may nevertheless exist, and be attainable under a combination of very favorable circumstances, the principal of which would be a long, cold, and stormless winter, and a late spring. If another attempt should be made, it would be advisable to leave the coast about Cape Yakán, which all the native accounts concur in representing as the nearest point to the supposed northern region."

Steamer Corwin,
Off Point Barrow, Alaska,
August 17, 1881
The Corwin made a very short stay at Wrangell Land, partly because of the condition of the ice, which threatened to shut us in; and partly because it seemed improbable that a prolonged search in the region about our landing-point could in any way advance the main objects of the expedition. A considerable stretch of the bluff coast where we landed was scanned closely as we approached. Captain Hooper, Mr. Nelson, and myself examined a mile or two of the left bank of the river, a gently sloping hillside back from the river, and a stretch of smooth beach at its mouth. Meanwhile a party of officers, after erecting a cairn, depositing records in it, and setting the flag on the edge of the bluff fronting the ocean, went northeastward along the brow of the shore-bluff to a prominent headland a distance of three or four miles, searching carefully for traces of the Jeannette explorers, and of any native inhabitants that might chance to be in the country; then all were hurriedly recalled, and we forced our way back through ten miles of heavy drifting ice to open water.

[The American Flag on Wrangell Land, near East Cape]
The American Flag on Wrangell Land, near East Cape

On the shore we found the skeleton of a large bowhead whale, an oak barrel stave, a piece of a boat mast about seven feet long and four inches in diameter, a double kayak paddle with both blades broken, and a small quantity of driftwood. Every bit of flotsam was much scoured and abraded, showing that the articles had long been exposed to the action of waves and ice.

Back on the hills and along the river-bank the tracks of geese, marmots, foxes, and bears were seen, but no trace whatever of human beings, though the mouth of a river would above all others be the place to find them if the country were inhabited or had been visited by Europeans within a decade or two. Not a stick of the driftwood seemed to have been turned over or stirred in any way, though, from the steepness of the slate bluffs for miles along the coast, and the heavy snowbanks drifted over them, this low, open portion of the shore is about the only place in the neighborhood where driftwood could come to rest on a beach and be easily accessible to natives or others while traveling along the coast either on the ice or on land, and where they would also find a good camp-ground and water.

A few yards back from high-water mark there is a low pile of broken slate, with level ground about it, where any traveler passing this way would naturally choose to camp. But the surface of the slate is covered with gray, brown, and yellow rock-lichens of slow growth, showing that not one of these stones had been moved for many a year. Again, neither the low nor the high ground in this vicinity is at all mantled with spongy tundra mosses and lichens like most of the Arctic shores over which a man might walk without leaving a footprint. On the contrary, it is mostly bare, presenting a soft clay soil, derived from the disintegration of slates, the scanty dwarf vegetation--saxifrages, drabas, potentillas, carices, etc.--occurring in small tufts at intervals of a yard or so, with bare ground between them, smooth and mellow and plastic, with gentle drainage, admirably adapted for the reception and preservation of footprints. Had any person walked on this ground any time in summer when the snow was gone, and where the drainage slopes are not too steep, his track would remain legible to the dullest observer for years.

We concluded, therefore, that this part of the country was not inhabited. Nor should the absence of inhabitants be wondered at, notwithstanding they might be derived from the Siberian coast at long intervals in accordance with the traditions bearing on the question among the Chukchis, or even from the coast of Alaska about Point Barrow or Cape Lisburne. For, though small parties of Eskimos or Chukchis might reach the land on floes detached from the pack while they chanced to be out hunting seals, or in boats driven by storm-winds or otherwise, such parties would probably seek to get back to their old homes again, or would die of famine. The seal and walrus, the two animals on which the natives of the Arctic shores chiefly depend for subsistence, are not to any great extent available, inasmuch as the ice seldom or never leaves the south Wrangell shores, and journeys twenty or thirty miles long would have to be made over rough ice to reach them.

Reindeer and musk oxen may exist in some other portions of the country, but if they occur in such numbers as would be required for the support of any considerable population the tracks of at least some few stragglers should have been seen hereabouts. Migratory water birds are no doubt abundant during the breeding and moulting season, producing sufficient food to last through a few of the summer months, and there are plenty of white bears, huge animals weighing from ten to twenty hundred pounds. Most of them, however, roam far out from land on the rugged edge of the ice-pack among the seals and walruses, and even under the most advantageous circumstances polar bears are poor cattle to depend on for a living. They certainly do not seem to have been fed upon lately to any marked extent, for we found them everywhere in abundance along the edge of the ice, and they appeared to be very fat and prosperous, and very much at home, as if the country had belonged to them always. They are the unrivaled master-existences of this ice-bound solitude, and Wrangell Land may well be called the Land of the White Bear.

Commander De Long, in a letter to his wife, written at sea, August 17, 1879, said that be proposed to proceed north by the way of the east coast of Wrangell Land, touching at Herald Island, where he would build a cairn and leave records; that if he reached Wrangell Land from there he would leave records on the east coast under a series of cairns twenty-five miles apart. In a previous letter, dated July 17, 1879, he said:--
 

In the event of disaster to the ship, we shall retreat upon the Siberian settlements, or to those of the natives around East Cape, and wait for a chance to get back to our depot at St. Michael. If a ship comes up merely for tidings of us, let her look for them on the east side of Wrangell Land and on Herald Island. If I find that we are being carried east against our efforts to get north, I shall try to push through into the Atlantic by way of the east coast of Greenland, if we are far enough north; and if we are far south, then by way of Melville Bay and Lancaster Sound.


While evidently pursuing this plan, he was seen by the whaler Sea Breeze on the second of September, 1879, about fifty miles south of Herald Island, entering a lead in heavy ice, which probably closed in upon his vessel and carried him past Herald Island. The search we made over Herald Island shows pretty clearly that he did not succeed in landing there, for if a cairn had been built on any conspicuous point we could not have failed to see it, as we traveled over it all in good bright weather. Nor would the failure of this part of his plan be unlikely when it is considered that he was fifty miles from the island so late in the season as September, and when heavy ice a hundred feet thick was already about him, and packed around the island. Neither does it seem at all probable from what we have seen this summer that he could have been successful in reaching Wrangell Land so late in the season under so many adverse circumstances of weather and ice. That he did not build a cairn or leave any trace of his presence within a few miles of our landing point does not prove by any means that he did not reach Wrangell Land at all, or that cairns with records may not exist elsewhere to the northward or westward. But the point where we landed being the easternmost point of the lower portion of Wrangell Land, it would seem from his plans as well as from known conditions of the ice to be of all others the likeliest place to find traces of the expedition.

In the case of the loss of his vessel and his reaching the land farther up the coast, he would be likely, in following his plan of retreat, to travel southward past this east point where the ice is more broken and extends a shorter distance offshore than elsewhere--conditions that seem applicable to the last two years at least, judging by what we have observed. Even should he not have built a cairn on so prominent and comparatively accessible a point, likely to be discovered by relief vessels, he could hardly have been able to pass without leaving some sign on the bank of the river, whether he made efforts to mark his presence or not. In case the explorers passed their first winter on Wrangell Land, they might either try to cross over the ice to Siberia toward spring from some point to the westward of our landing, or in case they reached the easternmost cape, near the south extreme of the land, about midsummer, they would probably find it the most favorable point of departure in making their way to the Siberian coast with sleds over the shore pack, and thence in boats. But as no trace of the explorers appears here, and no tidings have been obtained concerning them from the Chukchis, this, with all the evidence discovered thus far, goes to show that the Jeannette expedition either did not reach Wrangell Land at all, or did not make any extended stay upon it.

Notwithstanding the improbability of finding the expedition, the Corwin would gladly have been fast to a stranded berg, for a few days at least, during the fine August weather we were enjoying at the time, in order to send out exploring and search parties along the coast fifty or sixty miles in opposite directions, and back into the mountains, to learn something about the topography, geology, and natural history of the country, and to determine as surely as possible whether the missing explorers had touched this portion of the coast. But in so doing we should have risked being shut in, losing the vessel, and thus making still another party to be searched for. Besides, we might then be prevented from making other landings farther north in case the ice should leave the shores in that direction, and from extending relief to other vessels that might stand in need of it among the ice of this dangerous sea.

[Map of Wrangell Land]
Map of Wrangell Land,
as surveyed by the Officers of the U.S.S. Rogers,
Lieut. R. M. Berry Commanding, September 1881.
From the Report of the Secretary of the Navy for 1881

The floe outside of our anchorage was drifting along shore to the northeast with a powerful current at a speed of fifty miles a day, the majestic movement being made strikingly manifest by large bergs that were aground in water sixty feet deep, standing like islands, while the main mass of the pack went grating past them. With so much motion in the ice, the open lane and the strip of loose blocks and cakes through which we had forced our way in coming in was liable to close at any time, making escape impossible, at least until some chance change in the winds and currents might result in setting us free.

As it was, we escaped with difficulty after both engine and hull had been severely tested, the lane by which we entered having almost vanished, and the point where we reached open water was several miles to the northward of our ingoing track. Had our retreat been cut off, we would not, perhaps, have suffered greatly for a year or thereabouts, inasmuch as we had nine months' provisions aboard, which, with what game we might chance to kill in the nature of seals, bears, and walruses, could easily have been made to last considerably longer. We also had plenty of reindeer clothing and pologs, bought with a view to spending a winter in the Arctic, in case it should be necessary to do so. Everything could have been landed under favorable auspices, and preparations could have been made in the way of building shelters and storehouses. Then we would have had a fine long opportunity to explore this grand wilderness in its untouched freshness during the remaining months of summer and all the winter, while the vessel might possibly have escaped being smashed if laid up at the mouth of the river, and by a hairbreadth chance have been gotten out next summer.

Perhaps the ice does not leave the shore free more than once in ten years. The small quantity of driftwood on the beach would seem to indicate open water at times, but it might have been brought in by shifting, tumbling ice, after being held fast and gradually worked inshore after years of change in its position among the shifting floes, without the occurrence of any perfectly free channel of communication with the open part of the ocean. Our plan of retreat would have been similar to that proposed by Commander De Long, that is, to the coast of Siberia. The loss of the vessel, however, and any work and hardship that might follow would not have been allowed to weigh against any reasonable hope of finding the lost explorers and carrying relief to them. But it was decided that more could be done, in all probability, towards carrying out the objects of the expedition by keeping the Corwin free. Only about half of the workdays of the summer were spent as yet, the weather was mild, the ice melting, and we had good hopes of finding open water reaching well inshore farther north, through which some other portion of the coast might be found accessible where the danger of being permanently beset would be less, and from whence extended land journeys might be made. Our efforts, however, to get northward along the eastern shore of Wrangell Land have, thus far, been unavailing.


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