Here to return to
IN THE HEART OF BLIZZARDS
JOE estimated that they made their fifteen miles the first day. The tundra was smooth, and had just snow enough for good traveling. The next, the dogs, unused to their masters, balked, and they hardly did five, to their great vexation. The day after was better, and with patience and firmness they taught the animals that they must obey. Then some rough traveling bothered them. Still they got on, and at the end of the first week they had probably eighty miles to their credit. They were hopeful, and planned to do more the next, but they made Sunday a day of rest.
It was a solemn thing, this cutting loose from friends and supplies and braving the unknown interior, and it made them thoughtful of observances that they had neglected in igloo and topek. Harry took from his inner pocket the little Bible that he had carried all through the trip, and, opening its pages, stained with Bering Sea water, at random, found the book of Psalms. He read aloud to Joe, and the simple grandeur of thought and eloquent beauty of phrase steadied and heartened them both. Then they talked long of their home and friends, and, resting in the shelter of their tent while the dogs lay content in the snow outside, felt that the observance of the day had been worthy, and a wise thing. They made it their custom thereafter. Yet in all this talk of home Harry never mentioned Maisie to Joe. But that is not saying he did not think of her.
The fourth day of the next week carried them over a range of hills to a second, higher table-land. They had been helped in their journey by a river, on whose level, snow-covered ice they worked southward at a good rate of speed. Its course seemed fairly direct, and they made in speed what they lost by not going in a straight line. The four days must have added nearly another fifty miles to their journey, and Joe was jubilant. He began to predict that they would reach the Yukon in good season, and get out by steamer from St. Michael that fall.
The very next morning they waked cold, in spite of their furs, and found a gray and sunless dawn, across which a keen north wind sang. They hitched up and pressed on, but the sky grew grayer, and soon the world was a whirling mass of snow. They drifted before this wind for a mile or two, the snow getting deeper, and their progress slower every moment. Soon it was half knee deep, and the load began to be heavy for the dogs. Now and then they looked up at the boys wistfully, as if wondering why they did not seek shelter. For two hours they struggled on, not so much because they wished to as that on the level plain there seemed to be no cover.
By and by Harry began to wonder if he was dreaming. The snow under foot seemed to be trodden and the walking easier. Then he began to have what he thought were fleeting glimpses of shadowy forms that surrounded them, yet never came near enough to be really seen. He spoke of this to Joe, who had been plugging along in a sort of weary daze behind the sled while Harry led the way for the dogs.
Joe waked up at this, and together they examined the ground. There certainly were countless tracks of hoofs under foot, though the rapidly falling snow blotted them out very soon.
“They are caribou tracks,” said Harry.
“But where are the caribou?” asked Joe.
“All about us,” replied Harry. “I keep thinking I see them, but the snow is so thick and blinding that I can’t be sure. See!”
They had stopped during this consultation, and, looking directly back, they could see dim antlered forms that divided as they approached, and went to the left and right of them, passing on into the blur of snow. An immense herd of caribou, perhaps miles long, was drifting before the gale, and by some strange chance had inclosed them within itself. The animals, stupid, and dazed by the snow, paid little attention to them, but pressed aimlessly on, as if blown by the storm. It was a strange experience, this being the centre of an invisible herd that made a path for them in the wilderness of snow. It lasted for another hour, and yet they had hardly a glimpse of the deer. It came to an end when they reached a broad gully that marked the course of a stream. In the shelter of the bank of this the snow had drifted deep, and here the tracks swerved and left them in the snow.
“We’d better camp here,” said Joe. “We’ve had enough for one day, and here is a good spot.”
The weary dogs dropped panting at the word, but Joe took a rifle from the sled.
“It seems a shame,” he said, “after they’ve broken a path for us for hours, but I want one of those caribou.”
He stepped back a few rods into the fog of the storm, and in a moment a single shot sounded. After making the dogs fast, Harry went back to him. A fine buck lay dead with a bullet through his heart.
“I could have had more,” said Joe, “but one is all we can carry with our other luggage.”
As they stood, two gray, shaggy forms sprang out of the storm, and would have fallen upon the dead caribou, but seeing the boys they hesitated and drew back with red tongues hanging from between their gleaming white teeth. A shot from the rifle laid one low, and the other vanished like a flash. They were gray wolves, which always hang about the flank of the caribou herds and fall upon the weak or wounded. Half frozen as the boys were, they skinned and cut up the caribou the first thing. Then in the shelter of the gulley they set up their tent, and with their meat and sled-load inside it banked it deep in the drift. For the dogs they dug a snow igloo and made them fast to the sled, with which they blocked the entrance to it. Thus the dogs, well fed on deer meat, had shelter sufficient for their needs in spite of the blizzard. They themselves were snug in the little tent banked deep in the drift. There was no chance to get wood for fuel, but here they learned the wisdom of Harluk, who had insisted that they make a part of their load a seal poke of blubber and a rude lamp. With this they toasted caribou steak, and it added to the warmth of their den.
The storm continued for a week, the third since their departure, and when it broke and they struggled on through the deep drifts, they at once realized that their progress must be slow indeed. Yet, after all, they made about ten miles a day by patient toil, one going ahead and breaking a road for the dogs, the other following the sled and helping it along. They had ten days of beautiful weather, too, and at their end they guessed that they had made, altogether, nearly two hundred miles south. It was early October now, with the Arctic winter well upon them, yet they did not suffer from the cold, so well had they learned Eskimo methods of defense against it. To their great delight, about this time they began to find timber. It was small, it is true, and consisted of scattered clumps of little birches and alders, with here and there a pigmy fir. They danced and shouted about this first fir till the dogs no doubt thought them “molokully.” It seemed like an outpost of the home land of trees, real trees! They had seen none for a year and a half, and were fairly homesick for timber. They had wood now for their cooking, yet the timber was a hindrance to them. The wind-swept and hardened snow gave way under its protection to soft and fluffy drifts, which made the traveling far more difficult. And about this time they caught another storm. A genuine blizzard, this was, with some fall of snow, but mainly wind and cold.
TOILING ON THROUGH THE DRIFTS
They were obliged to camp, as before, nor did the gale let up for three weeks. It was maddening, but there was no help for it. These terrific Arctic gales sometimes last for literal months, and they were fortunate to escape as they did.
They fed the dogs lightly during their enforced leisure, but even thus their provisions began to run low, and they were anxious. It began to look as if it would be months instead of weeks before they reached the Yukon, yet they were not discouraged. It was better to steadily, though slowly, progress toward home than to wait in inaction. When fair weather came, Joe decided that they must hunt before going farther. This they did for two days steadily, plunging round through the waist-deep snow, with a fox, a white owl, and several ptarmigan as the result, just about what they ate during that time. This was not worth while, and they struggled south again, with the fast lowering sun as a guide. Another week passed with slow progress, but the timber got thicker and ptarmigan became plentiful. There was hardly need to shoot these. They were tame enough to be knocked over with a stick.
It was weary work, and the last of their supplies was gone when they came out on a low bluff, the bank of a considerable river. Below them, on the river ice, was a winding mark through the snow. It might be a caribou trail, and they plunged eagerly down to it.
There were the footprints of moccasins and marks of a sled!
Harry felt much as he thought Robinson Crusoe must have when he saw the famous footprints in the sand. They had been so long without seeing human beings that it seemed as if the country must be utterly uninhabited, but this proved something different. They turned and followed this trail up river. Then they rounded a bluff, saw smoke and heard the barking of many dogs, and from a cluster of timber huts a group appeared, and a man came to greet them.
“Nagouruk, nagouruk,” shouted Joe, and greeted him in Eskimo, to which the other replied hesitatingly in a few words of the same language. Others, men, women, and children, poured out of the village and received the two adventurers hospitably.
“We’ll camp with these people for a while,” said Joe. “We must till we can get provisions enough to move on.”
Harry assented. Indeed, both boys were heartily tired of their struggle against the odds of snow and fast approaching darkness. They were assigned an empty igloo, but preferred to build one of their own out of wood, brush, and snow, which had the merit of being clean. Their new-found friends were generous, had plentiful supplies of dried fish and frozen meat, and the boys lingered with them at first to rest. Later, the midwinter blizzards made it impossible for them to travel.
The inland Indians of northern Alaska are few, but scattered villages of them may be found along the larger rivers. They are much like the Eskimos in their habits and dress, but are taller and of stronger build. Their dialect is different in many respects from that of their cousins of the coast, yet they have many words in common, and meet in trade often enough to be able to talk to one another. The boys learned that the river on which they dwelt flowed into the sea to the westward, and were convinced from their chart that they had reached the headwaters of the Kowak, which empties into Kotzebue Sound. When they talked of going on, the Indians told them it would be impossible. The snows, they said, were very deep, which the boys knew to be true. The country to the south was one of rugged mountains, which they would be unable to cross. Besides, they argued, what was the need? As soon as any one could travel in the spring, they themselves were going down river to meet the tribes of the great sandspit at the meeting of rivers with the sea. Thither, they said, came all the tribes of the coast to meet those of the rivers and exchange goods. Sometimes, too, ships appeared, and they would perhaps find white men there.
Thus, still baffled, the two waited doggedly for the spring, hopeful still, not giving way to useless repinings, yet very weary of the bonds of frost that held them fast. The Indians lived a simple life, not so very different from that of their Eskimo friends. They kept their igloos in severe weather. When it was mild, they trapped red and white foxes, wolverines, and ermine, and kept a keen eye out for caribou, whose coming meant a feast and many hides for traffic in the spring trading-meet, to which they looked forward. The sun vanished and came again. The winter solstice passed, and day by day he rode a little higher in the southern sky. February came and March, with its wild gales, and the flying snow that drifted back and forth across the country in clouds that obscured the sun at noon, and sometimes wrapped the igloos deep beneath its whelming white volumes, again drifted away from them and left them half bare to the keen winds; then April with its mild air, a sun that left them little night and settled the snow till it was as hard as a floor where packed in solid drifts. The Indians prospered, and the boys shared their prosperity. Early in April a great herd of caribou shambled by the village, and the whole community turned out to slaughter them. Never had they killed so many deer; indeed, far more were shot than could be properly attended to, and many were left to the wolves. There was little hunting to this. The stupid caribou, running hither and thither, were shot down with repeating rifles, which are as plentiful among the wild tribes of Alaska as among civilized hunters. Then the herd, so great that the slaughter seemed in no wise to diminish it, passed on.
“Our white visitors,” said the head man of the village, “have brought good fortune with them. There shall be a feast.”
“Look here,” said Harry to Joe privately, on hearing this; “you don’t suppose this is any seal’s head business, this one, do you?”
“Oh, no,” said Joe, “this is to be a real banquet, I think.”
A real banquet it was, indeed. The largest igloo in the village was the scene, everybody in the place was present, and the amount of deer meat eaten was astonishing. Then there followed an entertainment in the nature of private theatricals. Each hunter in turn gave a description of the most exciting event in his life, suiting the action to the word, and making of it an exceedingly interesting and dramatic recital. Humorous scenes in everyday life, and amusing mishaps in hunting and fishing, were also acted out in realistic fashion, and brought shouts of laughter from all.
The crowning number in the entertainment, however, was a cake walk done by the boys, who blackened their faces with soot and gave the burlesque with much spirit. They were called upon to repeat this until they were obliged to quit from sheer weariness, and then they laughed themselves out of breath at the queer antics of their friends, who began immediately to imitate this novel form of entertainment. It was the first really hearty laugh they had had for a long time, and it did them both a world of good.
Then came the start down river, and the bustle of preparation, together with the homeward thought, put them in great spirits. Half a dozen sleds, each with its team of dogs, were piled high with provisions, caribou hides, fox, ermine, and wolverine pelts, and the whole community started down the stream on the hard settled snow. The boys computed that they had a journey of two hundred miles ahead of them, taking into account the windings of the river, and that their destination was the sandspit at Hotham Inlet. The Indians verified this on being shown the chart, and seemed to have a good understanding of a map. They moved by leisurely stages, stopping often for a day or two to rest or on account of bad weather. Yet the weather in the main was delightful, varying between the freezing-point and perhaps zero or a little below, with a dry air and mainly a bright sun that made it a pleasure to be alive. In traveling, the head man of the village led, over the hard crust, or breaking a path through softer snow on rude snowshoes. His own team and sled followed, then another team with a man or boy leading, and so on. The women and children strung along between the teams where the snow was soft, or on either side where it was hard. The dogs were intelligent and well trained, and the work of guiding them thus in single file was not difficult.
Early May found them a hundred miles toward their destination, and here, in one day, many interesting things happened. They had found their two slabs of whalebone, brought from the Arctic coast, of great value to them in trade. They had split one of these into small strips and peddled them out in barter to the men of the tribe, who coveted whalebone, and were as eager as stage Yankees for a trade. They had bought with this, among other things, two pair of rude snowshoes, and on the day I speak of, while the tribe rested, they started down river on an exploring trip. It was warm and bright, and thawed a little in the sun in sheltered nooks.
The Kowak in its middle course winds among cliffs, carving its way through high bluffs on one side, leaving alluvial stretches of level flats at the base of other heights opposite. From one of these sheer bluffs, facing the south, wind and sun had taken the snow, and as they approached they saw sticking from the dark soil of its surface white objects like weather-worn logs of driftwood.
“Funny!” said Joe; “they look like bones, those logs. See, there are some that look like the knuckle-bone of a ham, and there are others like rib-bones.”
“Yes,” said Harry, taking up the simile, “and there are two that stick out of the frozen mud like an elephant’s tusks, only they are curved too much and about fifteen feet long. Let’s get nearer.”
As they approached, their interest gave way to wonder. The seeming bones were bones in very truth, piled fantastically and protruding in strange profusion. Harry climbed by knobs and steps of bone part way up the bluff and shouted down to Joe.
“These are tusks, mastodon tusks, sticking right out of the bank, and here is a bit of the skull sticking out with shreds of hide and hair on it. There must be a whole one frozen into the bluff here.”
Joe climbed up and viewed the remains with him. It really seemed as if, concealed in the frozen mud behind the great tusks, the whole creature might be preserved, in cold storage as one might say, kept during the long centuries, and exposed by the crumbling of the bluff during the rush of the river torrent in spring. An astonishing number of bones were in this place, all of the mastodon, and the only explanation seemed to be that in the forgotten ages when the frozen zone was a warm one and the mastodon roamed there in large numbers, this ground must have been a deep bog, in which many of the creatures became mired and were in a great measure preserved, as peat preserves things. The boys settled it in this way to their own satisfaction, at least.
“Come on,” cried Joe, in exuberance of spirits, “let’s ride the elephant.”
“Ride the mastodon, you mean,” replied Harry; and each scrambled for a tusk. “Get up!” cried Harry, “cooping” along to the tip of his tusk. “Get up old fellow and give us a ride. Great Scott, he’s moving!”
The tusks of the mastodon, moving together, dipped gently and easily downward and both boys shot off them into space.
It was a matter of twenty feet to the soft snow, and they plunged into it out of sight.
Behind them came the great tusks, hundreds of pounds of weathered ivory, plunging through the snow nearer the base of the cliff. They missed the two by a little, but they missed them. Harry felt himself smothered in a whirl of snow, then falling again for a short distance, and finally brought up on a soft turf, where he lay for a moment half dazed by the thud with which he struck. Then he scrambled to his feet and looked around. He was in a low-roofed, wide cavern, dusky with a greenish pale twilight. Joe was sitting up on the ground by his side, rubbing his elbow and leg alternately and looking foolish, as no doubt he felt.
“Where are we, anyway?” asked Joe, and the query was pertinent if the answer which he got was not.
“Riding the elephant,” replied Harry, with a rueful grin.
Over their heads, ten feet away in the snow roof through which they had come, were four holes which let in the nebulous twilight by which they saw. They and the mastodon tusks had come that way. To get back was another matter.
They looked about with much curiosity not untempered with dismay. They were beneath the crust of an enormous drift that the winter storms had whirled over the mastodon cliff. Under their feet was a mixture of mud and bones from the cliff, carpeted with grass and moss. Around them grew willows. The slender top branches of these had been caught by the first damp snow of early autumn and bent beneath it till they twined, holding the bulk of it up. This had frozen there and the succeeding snows had piled above it, leaving the place free, an ideal natural cold frame for the shrubs and grass of the bottom land. These appreciated the shelter, and feeling the thrill of spring in their dark world, were already putting forth young green leaves. Up and down stream the cavern extended indefinitely. On one side it ended abruptly against the cliff, on the other it tapered down to the river ice, already worn thin on its edge and beginning to thaw.
For an hour they wandered back and forth in this strange cavern, their eyes becoming accustomed to the darkness. It was fortunate that this had not happened a few weeks later. Then the freshening flood of the river would no doubt have drowned them like rats in a hole. Now they were free — to wait for the flood, unless they could get out. But both boys were Yankees, and there is always a way out of a scrape, though it sometimes takes a Yankee to find it. Joe suggested that they climb the stubby willows and thence dig their way up, but his plan failed, for he could not get footing enough to get through the snow. Instead, he fell again to the bottom and rubbed his other leg. Harry suggested the plan that ultimately succeeded. With his knife he cut stout willow stakes and sharpened them at the end. Then walking toward the ice till they were blocked by the low roof, they began to dig a tunnel slanting upward and outward. It was a long dig through frozen crust and layers of damp snow, but they finally emerged like ground squirrels in the spring, and found the glare of the sun on the snow quite blinding.
That night in camp the head man of the tribe came to the boys to trade. He wanted more whalebone, and he offered them things which they had not seen before. These were rough ornaments of green jade, some mere bits of stone, others rudely chipped into shapes. One of these was a rude image of Buddha such as Harry had seen in Chinese collections. Harry marveled at this greatly, but the Indian could give no explanation concerning it except that his father had got it in trade from a coast native. By what strange mutations this had come from its Oriental fatherland may never be known, but the north has its routes of trade as have other regions. Things go from hand to hand among the tribes, and this had probably passed in centuries of time through Tartar tribes to the Chuckchis, over to the Diomedes, down the coast to Hotham Inlet, and up the river to the father of the head man. Now it was on its way back to the sea, and may ultimately reach its fatherland by circumnavigating the globe. Who knows?
It was while examining these jade ornaments that Harry noted something else that gave him a start of surprise. He thought at first it was a yellow and dirty image of a seal carved from a walrus tooth, such as he had bought at the Diomedes as a curio and lost in the sinking of the Bowhead. He picked this up carelessly and was astonished at its weight. He put the point of his knife to it and it left a clear, dull yellow streak. Then he passed it to Joe without a word.
It was a two ounce nugget of pure gold, hammered or carved into that rude semblance of a seal which is the delight of the Eskimo image maker. Joe’s eyes snapped at sight of it and he bought it forthwith, though he had to give a good deal of bone for it. The head man had seen his eyes snap when Harry handed it to him, and made him pay accordingly.
The head man could not tell whence this little image of pure gold came except that he had got it in trade from a man of the coast tribes who came in to the sandspit to trade from along the coast to the south. Like the jade Buddha, it might have passed from hand to hand for a long distance.
As they continued their journey, another tribe joined them, coming down a tributary of the Kowak; then others came, and soon the little expedition was a large one, steadily and leisurely progressing down river. It was toward the end of May. The days were long and warm; indeed, there was no night, for though the sun set for a few hours each day, only a gentle twilight marked his absence. The tributaries from the hills were running free of ice and threatened to flood the surface of the river, which was still solid. Signs of the spring break-up were numerous, and when the little army reached a long winding canyon among abrupt hills, there was much discussion whether they should continue on the ice or take to the banks. The easy but unsafe route of the main river ice was decided upon, and they entered between the hills and pressed on. They traveled rapidly now, and there was much uneasiness among the Indians, who seemed to fear something from behind. The ice was solid in the main, yet in spots it was flooded, and the increase in volume and rush of the water beneath had worn holes through it in other places. They pressed on with all the speed they could command, watchful always of the menace from behind.
It was on the second day that it came. They were between perpendicular bluffs, difficult if not impossible to climb, when a shout went up from those in the rear. As if at a signal, every one stopped and listened. Far behind them could be heard a dull sound, faint, yet ominous. Somehow it reminded Harry of a still spring night when he had been boating late on the Charles River, and had heard across the water the steady hum of electric cars, speeding hither and thither in the city, a vibrant undertone like the quivering of tense wires in a gale.
A shout went from one end of the long line of sledges to the other. “Emik kile! Emik kile! Gur!” it said. “The water is coming! The water is coming! Go!”
At the word dogs and men, women and children, sprang from listening immobility into intense action. The dogs surged against their collars, and the sleds bounded forward. The men, shouting, ran beside them, urging them on with whip and voice. Mothers caught their smaller children to their shoulders, the older ones scampered beside them, and all rushed forward down the river, fleeing from that menacing hum, which was drowned for the moment by their own uproar. On they went, splashing across the flooded places, daring the thin edges of the water-holes, unmindful of the danger under foot, thinking only of what was bearing down upon them, still miles behind. As they plunged on, they scanned the rude cliffs anxiously for a gully or a break that would give them passage to the upland, but they found none. Little need to lash the dogs; their own instinct told them the danger only too well. Their tawny sides panted, and their tongues hung from their dripping jaws.
A half mile, and still no escape to the right or the left. The women and children kept up with wonderful endurance, yet the pace was telling on them, and the weaker already lagged behind.
They had ceased to shout and urge one another on now. The race for life took all their breath. Out of the unknown distance behind them the low vibrant hum had increased to a grinding roar, in which there were sounds like cannon-shots, — the bursting of the ice under the pressure of the oncoming flood. Just ahead of Harry a youngster stumbled, then sprang to his feet, limping badly. The fall had wrenched his ankle, and he could no longer run. Harry hesitated for a second. There was an indescribable terror of that mighty uproar thrilling through him. What was the life of a little Indian boy to him? But it was only for a second, this hesitation. Then with a gasp of shame at the thought, he snatched the youngster to his shoulder, and ran on, panting for breath, his nerves quivering with the bodily fear which no man can avoid, yet strong in the determination that his manhood should not fail in the crisis.
The roar of the flood suddenly grew louder yet, and he looked behind as he fled. Round a bend in the river he caught a glimpse of what was coining. The ice sprang into the air in great cakes, that were caught by a white wall behind and crushed into whirling rubble. It did not seem to come fast, this great white wall of ice and foam, yet it gained on them rapidly. In this look behind he saw Joe. He was near the end of the line of flight, helping along an Indian grandmother, who bore in her arms her little granddaughter, while the mother with a babe stumbled along at her side, her black eyes wide with terror. Their dogs with the loaded sled had outrun them both in this wild race.
Cries of encouragement sounded ahead once more. Those in the front of flight had seen a gully in the bluffs through which they might escape. Harry saw them turn toward this, and he stumbled and gasped along under his burden with renewed hope. Dogs and men foremost in the race leaped into this gully and scrambled upward. He was near it now, running in a sort of bad dream, with the tremendous crushing roar of the flood seeming to whelm him in its waves of sound. Cannon boomed in this uproar, volleys of musketry pulsed through it, and the steady hoof-beats of the white horse cavalry of the flood rolled deafeningly on. Now he was at the bank, and plunging up it, too weak to do anything more than drop with his burden at the safety line. He was among the last to reach safety, but Joe was behind him.
The Indian mother with her babe was at the edge of the ice. Twenty feet behind them were Joe and the older woman and the child. Behind them again, not a dozen rods away, rolled the great white wave in the forefront of the flood. The river ice swelled to meet this wave. It rounded up, bulged, burst, and was tossed in the air in huge cakes, springing a dozen feet upward, engulfed in the white seething wall as they came down. In front of this the grandmother fell, sending the girl rolling ahead of her on the ice. Joe snatched up the child, turned as if to help the woman, and then the ice lifted under him, sending him spinning toward the bank. A moment and the ice burst beneath his feet.
A great cake rose and tossed him up, still clinging to the child, and then he was half smothered, bruised, and soaked in a whirl of ice-cold water, and sank and rose on the edge of the flood, washed into the eddy that whirled in the gully, and still he clung half unconsciously to the child.
It was the little one’s father that pulled him out, with Harry a good second, yet distanced by paternal love. The flood was roaring through the canyon, breaking its fierce way to the sea, but the careless travelers were safe from its tumult; all but the old grandmother, whose devotion to the child had cost her her life. She had found the death that is so common to the Eskimo and the other folk of the wild north, — to vanish into the white arms of the flood, or go out to sea with the ice.
They traveled on by land, over melting snow, and across ravines in which splashed torrents. The Kowak was open to the sea, and summer navigation had begun.