CHAPTER X. THE KAMCHATKA RIVER - LIFE ON A CANOE RAFT - RECEPTION AT MILKOVA - MISTAKEN FOR THE TSAR
To a person of an indolent disposition there is something particularly pleasant in floating in a boat down a river. One has all the advantages of variety, and change of incident and scenery, without any exertion; all the lazy pleasures - for such they must be called - of boat life, without any of the monotony which makes a long sea voyage so unendurable. I think it was Gray who said that his idea of paradise was "To lie on a sofa and read eternally new romances of Marivaux and Crebillon." Could the author of the "Elegy" have stretched himself out on the open deck of a Kamchadal boat, covered to a depth of six inches with fragrant flowers and freshly cut hay; could he have floated slowly down a broad, tranquil river through ranges of snow-clad mountains, past forests glowing with yellow and crimson, and vast steppes waving with tall, wild grass; could he have watched the full moon rise over the lonely, snowy peak of the Kluchefskoi (kloo'-chef-skoi') volcano, bridging the river with a narrow trail of quivering light, and have listened to the plash of the boatman's paddles, and the low melancholy song to which they kept time - he would have thrown Marivaux and Crebillon overboard, and have given a better example of the pleasures of paradise.
I know that I am laying myself open to the charge of exaggeration by thus praising Kamchatkan scenery, and that my enthusiasm will perhaps elicit a smile of amusement from the more experienced traveller who has seen Italy and the Alps; still, I am describing things as they appeared to me, and do not assert that the impressions they made were those that should or would have been made upon a man of more extensive experience and wider observation. To use the words of a Spanish writer, which I have somewhere read, "The man who has never seen the glory of the sun cannot be blamed for thinking that there is no glory like that of the moon; nor he who has never seen the moon, for talking of the unrivalled brightness of the morning star." Had I ever sailed down the Rhine, climbed the Matterhorn, or seen the moon rise over the Bay of Naples, I should have taken perhaps a juster and less enthusiastic view of Kamchatka; but, compared with anything that I had previously seen or imagined, the mountain landscapes of southern and central Kamchatka were superb.
At Sherom, thanks to the courier who had preceded us, we found a boat, or Kamchatkan raft, ready for our reception. It was composed of three large dugout canoes placed parallel to one another at distances of about three feet, and lashed with sealskin thongs to stout transverse poles. Over these was laid a floor or platform about ten feet by twelve, leaving room at the bow and stern of each canoe for men with paddles who were to guide and propel the unwieldy craft in some unknown, but, doubtless, satisfactory manner. On the platform, which was covered to a depth of six inches with freshly cut grass, we pitched our little cotton tent, and transformed it with bearskins, blankets, and pillows into a very cosy substitute for a stateroom. Rifles and revolvers were unstrapped from our tired bodies, and hung up against the tent poles; heavy riding boots were unceremoniously kicked off, and replaced by soft buckskin torbasses [Footnote: Moccasin boots.]; saddles were stored away in convenient nooks for future use; and all our things disposed with a view to the enjoyment of as much luxury as was compatible with our situation.
After a couple of hours' rest, during which our heavy baggage was transferred to another similar raft, we walked down to the sandy beach, bade good-bye to the crowd which had assembled to see us off, and swung slowly out into the current, the Kamchadals on the shore waving hats and handkerchiefs until a bend in the river hid them from sight. The scenery of the upper Kamchatka for the first twenty miles was comparatively tame and uninteresting, as the mountains were entirely concealed by a dense forest of pine, birch, and larch, which extended down to the water's edge. It was sufficient pleasure, however, at first, to lie back in the tent upon our soft bearskins, watching the brilliantly coloured and ever varying foliage of the banks, to sweep swiftly but silently around abrupt bends into long vistas of still water, startling the great Kamchatkan eagle from his lonely perch on some jutting rock, and frightening up clouds of clamorous waterfowl, which flew in long lines down the river until out of sight. The navigation of the upper Kamchatka is somewhat intricate and dangerous at night, on account of the rapidity of the current and the frequency of snags; and as soon as it grew dark our native boatmen considered it unsafe to go on. We accordingly beached our rafts and went ashore to wait for moonrise.
A little semicircle was cut in the thick underbrush at the edge of the beach, fires were built, kettles of potatoes and fish hung over to boil, and we all gathered around the cheerful blaze to smoke, talk, and sing American songs until supper time. The scene to civilised eyes was strangely wild and picturesque. The dark, lonely river gurgling mournfully around sunken trees in its channel; the dense primeval forest whispering softly to the passing wind its amazement at this invasion of its solitude; the huge flaming camp-fire throwing a red lurid glare over the still water, and lighting up weirdly the encircling woods; and the groups of strangely dressed men lounging carelessly about the blaze upon shaggy bearskins - all made up a picture worthy of the pencil of Rembrandt.