CHAPTER I. THE OVERLAND TELEGRAPH LINE TO RUSSIA - SAILING OF THE FIRST SIBERIAN EXPLORING PARTY FROM SAN FRANCISCO.
The two American parties would have comparatively advantageous bases of operations at Victoria and Fort St. Michael; but the Siberian party, if left on the Asiatic coast at all, must be landed near Bering Strait, on the edge of a barren, desolate region, nearly a thousand miles from any known settlement. Thrown thus upon its own resources, in an unknown country, and among nomadic tribes of hostile natives, without any means of interior transportation except canoes, the safety and success of this party were by no means assured. It was even asserted by many friends of the enterprise, that to leave men in such a situation, and under such circumstances, was to abandon them to almost certain death; and the Russian consul at San Francisco wrote a letter to Colonel Bulkley, advising him strongly not to land a party on the Asiatic coast of the North Pacific, but to send it instead to one of the Russian ports of the Okhotsk Sea, where it could establish a base of supplies, obtain information with regard to the interior, and procure horses or dog-sledges for overland explorations in any desired direction.
The wisdom and good sense of this advice were apparent to all; but unfortunately the engineer-in-chief had no vessel that he could send with a party into the Okhotsk Sea, and if men were landed at all that summer on the Asiatic coast, they must be landed near Bering Strait.
Late in June, however, Colonel Bulkley learned that a small Russian trading-vessel named the Olga was about to sail from San Francisco for Kamchatka (kam-chat'-kah) and the south-western coast of the Okhotsk Sea, and he succeeded in prevailing upon the owners to take four men as passengers to the Russian settlement of Nikolaievsk (nik-o-lai'-evsk), at the mouth of the Amur River. This, although not so desirable a point for beginning operations as some others on the northern coast of the Sea, was still much better than any which could be selected on the Asiatic coast of the North Pacific; and a party was soon organised to sail in the Olga for Kamchatka and the mouth of the Amur. This party consisted of Major S. Abaza, a Russian gentleman who had been appointed superintendent of the work, and leader of the forces in Siberia; James A. Mahood, a civil engineer of reputation in California; R. J. Bush, who had just returned from three years' active service in the Carolinas, and myself, - not a very formidable force in point of numbers, nor a very remarkable one in point of experience, but strong in hope, self-reliance, and enthusiasm.
On the 28th of June, we were notified that the brig Olga had nearly all her cargo aboard, and would have "immediate despatch."
This marine metaphor, as we afterward learned, meant only that she would sail some time in the course of the summer; but we, in our trustful inexperience, supposed that the brig must be all ready to cast off her moorings, and the announcement threw us into all the excitement and confusion of hasty preparation for a start. Dress-coats, linen shirts, and fine boots were recklessly thrown or given away; blankets, heavy shoes, and overshirts of flannel were purchased in large quantities; rifles, revolvers, and bowie-knives of formidable dimensions gave our room the appearance of a disorganised arsenal; pots of arsenic, jars of alcohol, butterfly-nets, snake-bags, pill-boxes, and a dozen other implements and appliances of science about which we knew nothing, were given to us by our enthusiastic naturalists and packed away in big boxes; Wrangell's (vrang'el's) Travels, Gray's Botany, and a few scientific works were added to our small library; and before night we were able to report ourselves ready - armed and equipped for any adventure, from the capture of a new species of bug, to the conquest of Kamchatka!
As it was against all precedent to go to sea without looking at the ship, Bush and I appointed ourselves an examining committee for the party, and walked down to the wharf where she lay. The captain, a bluff Americanised German, met us at the gangway and guided us through the little brig from stem to stern. Our limited marine experience would not have qualified us to pass an ex cathedra judgment upon the seaworthiness of a mud-scow; but Bush, with characteristic impudence and versatility of talent, discoursed learnedly to the skipper upon the beauty of his vessel's "lines" (whatever those were), her spread of canvas and build generally, - discussed the comparative merits of single and double topsails, and new patent yard-slings, and reef-tackle, and altogether displayed such an amount of nautical learning that it completely crushed me and staggered even the captain.