The Cruise of the Corwin
by John Muir
In Peril from the Pack
Near the edge of the shore ice,
opposite Koliuchin Island,
6 P.M., June 2, 1881.
After leaving Tapkan, twelve miles northwest
of Cape Serdzekamen, on the evening of the last day of May, we steamed
along the coast to the westward, tracing the edge of the shore-ice, which
seemed to be from three to six miles wide. The weather was tranquil, though
rather thick at times, and the water was like glass and as smooth as a
mill-pond. About half-past five yesterday afternoon we reached the end
of the open lead that we had been following, one hundred and thirty miles
west of Cape Serdzekamen, latitude 68° 28' N., longitude 175° 10'
W., having thus early in the season gained a point farther west than the
Corwin was able to reach at any time last year.
At this point the firm coast ice united with the great polar pack, and,
as there was danger of its drifting south at any time and cutting us off,
we made haste to the eastward, keeping as far offshore as possible, that
we might be able to watch the movements of the pack. About seven o'clock
last evening, the weather becoming thick, the engine was stopped and the
vessel was allowed to proceed slowly under sail.
Shortly after one o'clock this morning I was awakened by unusual sounds
on deck, and after listening for a few minutes, concluded that we must
be entangled in the edge of the pack and were unshipping the rudder for
fear it might be carried away. Going on deck, I was surprised to see the
broken rudder being hoisted, for I had not been awakened by the blow. The
oak shaft was broken completely off, and also all three of the pintles.
It seems that about midnight, owing to the fog and snow, we got into a
field of heavy masses of ice on the edge of the main pack, which, on account
of a north wind that had commenced to blow, was now moving slowly southward,
and while backing out of it, a moderate bump that chanced to take the rudder
at the greatest disadvantage broke it off without any appreciable strain.
The situation was sufficiently grave and exciting--dark weather, the
wind from the north and freshening every minute, and the vast polar pack
pushing steadily shoreward. It was a cold, bleak, stormy morning, with
a close, sweeping fall of snow, that encumbered the deck and ropes and
nearly blinded one when compelled to look to windward. Our twenty-five
dogs made an effective addition to the general uproar, howling as, only
Eskimo dogs can. They were in the way, of course, and were heartily kicked
hither and thither. The necessary orders, however, were being promptly
given and obeyed. As soon as the broken rudder was secured on deck, four
long spars were nailed and lashed firmly together, fastened astern and
weighted to keep them in place at the right depth in the water. This made
a capital jury-rudder. It was worked by ropes attached on either side and
to the steam windlass. The whole was brought into complete working order
in a few hours, nearly everybody rendering service, notwithstanding the
blinding storm and peril, as if jury-rudder making under just these circumstances
were an everyday employment. Then, finding everything worked well, we made
our escape from the closing ice and set out for Plover Bay to repair the
About four in the afternoon, as the clouds lifted, we sighted Koliuchin
Island, which our two Chukchi natives hailed with joyful, beaming eyes.
They evidently were uneasy because of the accident, and on account of being
so long out of sight of land--a state of mind easily explained by the dangers
attending their mode of life among the ice. In front of the island the
ice seemed to be two or three miles wide and lavishly roughened with jammed,
angular hummocks. Captain Hooper was now very anxious to get his sledge
party landed. Everything was ready to be put on shore as soon as a safe
landing-place should be discovered. The two Chukchis were in the pilot-house
gazing wistfully at the gloomy snow-covered island as it loomed up in the
gray, stormy sky with its jagged reach of ice in the foreground beaten
by the waves.
The Captain directed Chukchi Joe, the interpreter, to ask his companion,
the dog-driver, who was familiar with the condition of the ice on this part
of the coast, whether this was a good point on which to land. His answer,
as interpreted by Joe, was: "He says it's good; it's pretty good, he says."
"Then get ready, Mr. Herring, for your journey," ordered the Captain. "Here,
Quartermaster, get the provisions on deck." "Lower the boats there." "Joe,
harness the dogs."
In a few minutes all was in readiness and in the boats. The party is
composed of First Lieutenant Herring, in charge; Third Lieutenant Reynolds,
a sailor [Coxswain Gessler] and the two Chukchis.
They have twenty-five dogs, four sleds, a light skin boat to cross rivers
and any open water they may find in their way, and two months' provisions.
They were directed to search the coast as far to the westward as possible
for the crew of the Jeannette or any tidings concerning the fate of the
expedition; to interview the natives they met; to explore the prominent
portions of the coast for cairns and signals of any kind, and to return
to Tapkan, where we would meet them, while in the mean time we propose
to cruise wherever, under existing conditions, we can best carry out the
objects of the expedition.
The party and all their equipments were carried from the vessel to the
ice in three boats, roped together at intervals of twenty-five or thirty
feet, the life-boat leading with the party, clothing, provisions, etc. Then
came the dinghey, loaded nearly to the water's edge with the dogs, and
one man to thrash them and keep some sort of order while they worried each
other and raised an outrageous noise, on account of their uncomfortable,
tumbled-together condition, And last, the skin boat, flying-light, with
only the sleds aboard and one man to steer, the whole making a very
Soon after the boats had left, while we were still watching the tossing
fleet from the pilot-house and scanning the shore with reference to a
we noticed three dark objects on top of a hummock near the edge of the
ice, and just back of them and to one side on a flat portion of the ice,
a group of black dots. These proved to be three natives with their dog
teams. They were out hunting seals, and had descried the ship with their
sharp eyes and now came forward to gaze. This was a glad discovery to us,
and no doubt still more so to the party leaving the ship, as they were
now sure of the passable state of the ice, and would have guides with local
knowledge to conduct them to the land. When the dogs got upon the ice,
their native heath, they rolled and raced about in exuberant sport. The
rough pack was home sweet home to them, though a more forbidding combination
of sky, rough water, ice, and driving snow could hardly be imagined by
the sunny civilized south.
After all were safely landed and our boats had returned, we went on
our way, while the land party, busied about their sledpacking and dogs,
gradually faded in the snowy gloom. All seems well this evening; no ice
is in sight to the northward, and the jury-rudder is working extremely well.
En route southward, to Plover Bay.]
Snowing nearly all day.
Cleared towards four in the afternoon. Spoke the Helen
Mar; had taken five whales; another had already nine. Seven other whalers
in sight, all of them save two smoking like steamers. They are trying out
their abundant blubber; in danger of being blubber-logged. Saw an Indian
[Mr. Muir often applies this term to the Bering Sea natives
in general, whether Innuits or Chukchis.]
canoe leaving the Helen
Mar as we approached; probably had been trading, the sea being smooth.
Had a good view of the two Diomedes; the western one is very distinctly
glaciated, nearly all of the summit being comprehended in one beautiful
ice-fountain, giving it a craterlike form. The residual glacial action,
however, has been light, comparatively, here. No deep cañons putting
back into the mountains, most of which are low. It is interesting, however,
to see undoubted traces both of general and local glaciation thus far north,
where the ground is in general rather low. Came up to the ice-pack about
ten in the evening, so turned back and lay to.
Calm, bland, foggy water, glassy and still as a mill-pond. Cleared
so that one could see a mile ahead at ten o'clock, and we got under way.
Sun nearly clear for the first day since coming into the Arctic. Mild,
too, for it is 45° F. at noon; even seemed hot. The clouds lifted from
the mountains, showing their bases and slopes up to a thousand feet; summits
capped. East Cape in fine view; high headland still streaked with snow
nearly to the base; summit white at close range. All the coast for at least
two hundred miles west of East Cape shows distinct glaciation, both general
and local. Many glacier fountains well characterized. Indian village off
here. Were boarded by 'three canoe loads of Indian seal hunters from East
Cape village. They traded ivory and shoes, called "susy" by their interpreter.
We were anxious to tell them about our sledge party and inquired of one
who spoke a few words of English whether any of their number could speak
good English. He seemed to think us very unreasonable, and said, "Me speak
good." Got a female eider duck; very fat. In one of the canoes there was
a very large seal, weighing perhaps four hundred pounds.
This has been by far the most beautiful and gentle of our Arctic days,
the water perfectly glassy and with no swell, mirroring the sky, which
shows a few blue cloudless spots, white as satin near the horizon, of beautiful
luster, trying to the eyes. More whalers in sight. Gulls skimming the glassy
level. Innumerable multitudes of eider ducks, the snowy shore, and all
the highest mountains cloud-capped--a rare picture and perfectly tranquil
and peaceful! God's love is manifest in the landscape as in a face. How
unlike yesterday! In the evening a long approach to sunset, a red sky mingling
with brown and white of the ice-blink. Growing colder towards midnight.
There is no night at all now; only a partial gloaming; never, even in cloudy
midnights, too dark to read. So for more than a week. Ice in sight, but
hope to pass it by running a few miles to shore. Are now, at half-past
eleven in the evening, beyond St. Lawrence Bay. Hope to get into Plover
Bay to-morrow morning at six o'clock.
Table of Contents ]