CHAPTER VII. STARTING NORTHWARD - KAMCHATKAN SCENERY, VILLAGES, AND PEOPLE

I cannot remember any journey in my whole life which gave me more enjoyment at the time, or which is more pleasant in recollection, than our first horseback ride of 275 versts over the flowery hills and through the green valleys of southern Kamchatka. Surrounded as we continually were by the wildest and most beautiful scenery in all northern Asia, experiencing for the first time the novelty and adventurous excitement of camp life, and rejoicing in a newly found sense of freedom and perfect independence, we turned our backs gaily on civilisation, and rode away with light hearts into the wilderness, making the hills ring to the music of our songs and halloos.

Our party, aside from drivers and guides, consisted of four men - Major Abaza, chief of Asiatic exploration, Dodd the young American, whom we had engaged in Petropavlovsk, Viushin (view'-shin) a Cossack orderly, and myself. The biting sarcasm directed by Mithridates at the army of Lucullus - that if they came as ambassadors they were too many, if as soldiers too few - would have applied with equal force to our small party made up as it was of only four men; but strength is not always to be measured by numbers, and we had no fears that we should not be able to cope with any obstacles which might lie in our way. We could certainly find subsistence where a larger party might starve.

On Sunday, September 3d, our horses were loaded and despatched in advance to a small village on the opposite side of the bay, where we intended to meet them with a whale-boat. On Monday the 4th, we made our farewell calls upon the Russian authorities, drank an inordinate quantity of champagne to our own health and success, and set out in two whale-boats for Avacha, accompanied by the whole American population of Petropavlovsk. Crossing the bay under spritsail and jib, with a slashing breeze from the south-west, we ran swiftly into the mouth of the Avacha River, and landed at the village to refresh ourselves for the fifteenth time with "fifteen drops," and take leave of our American friends, Pierce, Hunter, and Fronefield. Copious libations were poured out to the tutelary saint of Kamchatkan explorers, and giving and receiving three hearty cheers we pushed off and began to make our way slowly up the river with poles and paddles toward the Kamchadal settlement of Okuta (o-koo'-tah).

Our native crew, sharing in the universal dissipation which had attended our departure, and wholly unaccustomed to such reckless drinking, were reduced by this time to a comical state of happy imbecility, in which they sang Kamchadal songs, blessed the Americans, and fell overboard alternately, without contributing in any marked degree to the successful navigation of our heavy whale-boat. Viushin, however, with characteristic energy, hauled the drowning wretches in by their hair, rapped them over the head with a paddle to restore consciousness, pushed the boat off sand-bars, kept its head up stream, poled, rowed, jumped into the water, shouted, swore, and proved himself fully equal to any emergency.

It was considerably after noon when we left Petropavlovsk, and owing to the incompetency of our Kamchadal crew, and the frequency of sand-bars, night overtook us on the river some distance below Okuta. Selecting a place where the bank was dry and accessible, we beached our whale-boat and prepared for our first bivouac in the open air. Beating down the high wet grass, Viushin pitched our little cotton tent, carpeted it with warm, dry bearskins, improvised a table and a cloth out of an empty candle-box and a clean towel, built a fire, boiled tea, and in twenty minutes set before us a hot supper which would not have done discredit to the culinary skill of Soyer himself. After supper we sat by the fire smoking and talking until the long twilight died away in the west, and then, rolling ourselves up in heavy blankets, we lay down on our bearskins and listened to the low quacking of a half-awakened duck in the sedges, and the lonely cries of night birds on the river until at last we fell asleep.