- Historic Sites
The (almost) Russian-American Telegraph
June 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 4
Leaving Gizhiga, the two men plunged northward into the deep snows of the steppes. Tremendous clouds of snow a hundred feet high swirled across the open spaces, and the temperature dropped to 60° below zero. Despite these extreme conditions the winter months were the only time when travel was possible on the steppes. In the summer, when the snow disappeared, a deep, spongy matting of moss covered the ground so heavily that the legs of animals and men sank far into it. Swarms of mosquitoes rose in clouds from the damp vegetation. Walking was virtually impossible beyond a few steps. Travel stopped, to be resumed when the early snows of October made a path for the dog sleds again.
At night on the steppes the travellers survived by following the techniques employed by their native drivers. Three dog sledges were drawn up like three sides of a square about ten feet across. The dogs curled in balls in the snow, breathing small clouds of steam. The drivers shovelled snow out of the square and scattered twigs on the frozen ground. On these they spread shaggy bearskins, on which the men placed their fur sleeping bags. Pulling masses of a tundra vine from the snow, they piled the material high at the open end of the square and set it afire. The travellers were wrapped in layers of fur, including masks. Warmed by the tea they brewed, the party settled into their bivouac for a few hours of sleep while the drifting snow piled up around their barricade and ice coated their beards and almost froze their eyes shut. Awakened one night because his feet were cold, Kennan was struck by the winter night’s “strange, wild appearance”:
High over head, in a sky which was almost black, sparkled the bright constellations of Orion and the Pleiades—the celestial clocks which marked the long, weary hours between sunrise and sunset. The blue mysterious streamers of the Aurora trembled in the north, now shooting up in clear bright lines to the zenith, then waving back and forth in great majestic curves over the silent camp. … The silence was profound, oppressive. Nothing but the pulsating of the blood in my ears, and the heavy breathing of the sleeping men at my feet, broke the universal lull. Suddenly there rose upon the still night air a long, faint, wailing cry like that of a human being in the last extremity of suffering. Gradually it swelled and deepened until it seemed to fill the whole atmosphere with its volume of mournful sound, dying away at last into a low, despairing moan. It was the signal-howl of a Siberian dog; but so wild and unearthly did it seem in the stillness of the arctic midnight, that it sent the startled blood bounding through my veins to my very finger-ends. In a moment the mournful cry was taken up by another dog, upon a higher key—two or three more joined in, then ten, twenty, forty, sixty, eighty, until the whole pack of a hundred dogs howled one infernal chorus together, making the air fairly tremble with sound, as if from the heavy bass of a great organ. For fully a minute heaven and earth seemed to be filled with yelling, shrieking fiends. … Suddenly the Aurora shone out with increased brilliancy, and its waving swords swept back and forth in great semicircles across the dark starry sky, and lighted up the snowy steppe with transitory flashes of colored radiance, as if the gates of heaven were opening and closing upon the dazzling brightness of the celestial city. …
A party of natives from the north, whom Kennan and Dodd met on the trail, told of reports from bands of Chukchis that Americans had appeared earlier in the winter at the mouth of the Anadyr. The news had been passed from mouth to mouth. Little was known about the party except that it apparently had dug in for the winter. At this point in their exploration five hundred desolate miles separated Kennan and Dodd from the Anadyr party, whose condition struck them as potentially dangerous.
From the start it was recognized that landing an exploring party at the Anadyr as winter approached constituted a risky undertaking, the most dangerous aspect of the entire project. The Russian consul in San Francisco had written Colonel Bulkley urging him not to do it. Bulkley pressed ahead nevertheless, and the schooner Milton Badger had put ashore a party led by C. L. Macrae at the river’s mouth in early fall, weeks later than planned.
Bulkley, on an inspection tour in the steamer George S. Wright , visited Macrae shortly after he landed. Bulkley made a trip thirty miles upriver in a whaleboat just before the winter freeze. Ice was closing in as he sailed back blithely confident that all would be well. In fact, however, the situation with the Macrae party was perilous. It had only casual contacts with wandering natives, no transportation of its own in winter, only the food supplies it brought from the ship, no housing, and only the slightest knowledge of the terrain it faced. It was, indeed, stranded in one of the most remote, forbidding corners of the world.
The five men in the party gathered driftwood from the shores of the Anadyr, combined this with planks brought ashore from the Milton Badger , and hacked out an underground retreat in the partially frozen tundra. All they could do was hole up for the winter. Snow soon buried their rough building until only the top of the stovepipe was visible from outside.