CHAPTER XI. ARRIVAL AT KLUCHEI - THE KLUCHEFSKOI VOLCANO - A QUESTION OF ROUTE - A RUSSIAN "BLACK BATH"

The valley of this river is unquestionably the most fertile part of the whole Kamchatkan peninsula. Nearly all of the villages that we passed were surrounded by fields of rye and neatly fenced gardens; the banks everywhere were either covered with timber or waving with wild grass five feet in height; and the luxuriant growth in many places of flowers and weeds testified to the richness of the soil and the warm humidity of the climate. Primroses, cowslips, marsh violets, buttercups, wild-roses, cinquefoil, iris, and azure larkspur grow everywhere throughout the valley in the greatest abundance; and a peculiar species of umbelliferae, with hollow-jointed stems, attains in many places a height of six feet, and grows so densely that its huge serrated leaves hide a man from sight at a distance of a few yards. All this is the growth of a single summer.

There are twelve native settlements between the head-waters of the river and the Kluchefskoi volcano, and nearly all are situated in picturesque locations, and surrounded by gardens and fields of rye. Nowhere does the traveller see any evidences of the barrenness, sterility, and frigid desolation which have always been associated with the name of Kamchatka.

After leaving our hospitable native friends and our imperial dignity at Milkova, on Monday morning, we floated slowly down the river for three days, catching distant glimpses of the snowy mountain ranges which bounded the valley, roaming through the woods in search of bears and wild cherries, camping at night on the river-bank among the trees, and living generally a wild, free, delightful life. We passed the native settlements of Kirganic (keer-gan'-ic), Marshura (mar'-shoo-rah), Shchapina (shchap'-in-ah), and Tolbachic, where we were received with boundless hospitality; and on Wednesday, September 13th, camped in the woods south of Kazerefski (kaz-er-ef'-ski), only a hundred and twenty versts distant from the village of Kluchei (kloo-chay'). It rained nearly all day Wednesday, and we camped at night among the dripping trees, with many apprehensions that the storm would hide the magnificent scenery of the lower Kamchatka, through which we were about to pass. It cleared away, however, before midnight; and I was awakened at an early hour in the morning by a shouted summons from Dodd to get up and look at the mountains. There was hardly a breath of air astir, and the atmosphere had that peculiar crystalline transparency which may sometimes be seen in California. A heavy hoar-frost lay white on the boats and grass, and a few withered leaves dropped wavering through the still cool air from the yellow birch trees which overhung our tent. There was not a sound to break harshly upon the silence of dawn; and only the tracks of wild reindeer and prowling wolves, on the smooth sandy beach showed that there was life in the quiet lonely wilderness around us. The sun had not yet risen, but the eastern heavens were aglare with yellow light, even up to the morning-star, which, although "paling its ineffectual fires," still maintained its position as a glittering outpost between the contending powers of night and day. Far away to the north-eastward, over the yellow forest, in soft purple relief against the red sunrise, stood the high sharp peaks of Kluchei, grouped around the central wedge-like cone of the magnificent Kluchefskoi volcano. Nearly a month before I had seen these noble mountains from the tossing deck of a little brig, seventy-five miles at sea; but I little thought then that I should see them again from a lonely camp in the woods of the Kamchatka River.

For nearly half an hour Dodd and I sat quietly on the beach, absent-mindedly throwing pebbles into the still water, watching the illumination of the distant mountains by the rising sun, and talking over the adventures which we had experienced since leaving Petropavlovsk. With what different impressions had I come to look at Siberian life since I first saw the precipitous coast of Kamchatka looming up out of the blue water of the Pacific!

Then it was an unknown, mysterious land of glaciers and snowy mountains, filled with possibilities of adventure, but lonely and forbidding in its uninhabited wildness. Now it was no longer lonely or desolate. Every mountain peak was associated with some hospitable village nestled at its feet; every little stream was connected with the great world of human interests by some pleasant recollection of camp life. The possibilities of adventure were still there, but the imaginary loneliness and desolation had vanished with one week's experience. I thought of the vague conceptions which I had formed in America of this beautiful country, and tried to compare them with the more recent impressions by which they had been crowded out, but the effort was vain. I could not surround myself again with the lost intellectual atmosphere of civilisation, nor reconcile those earlier anticipations with this strangely different experience. The absurd fancies, which had seemed so vivid and so true only three months before, had now faded away into the half-remembered imagery of a dream, and nothing was real but the tranquil river which flowed at my feet, the birch tree which dropped its yellow leaves upon my head, and the far-away purple mountains.