CHAPTER XII. CANOE TRAVEL ON THE YOLOFKA - VOLCANIC CONVERSATION - "O SUSANNA!" - TALKING "AMERICAN" - A DIFFICULT ASCENT
There was a great variety in the different methods of transportation which we were compelled to adopt in our journey through Kamchatka; and to this fact was attributable perhaps, in a great degree, the sense of novelty and freshness which during our three months' travel in the peninsula never entirely wore off. We experienced in turn the pleasures and discomforts of whale-boats, horses, rafts, canoes, dog-sledges, reindeer-sledges, and snow-shoes; and no sooner did we begin to tire of the pleasures and ascertain the discomforts of one, than we were introduced to another.
At Kluchei we abandoned our rafts, and took Kamchadal log canoes, which could be propelled more easily against the rapid current of the Yolofka River, which we had now to ascend. The most noticeable peculiarity of this species of craft, and a remarkable one it is, is a decided and chronic inclination to turn its bottom side upward and its upper side bottomward without the slightest apparent provocation. I was informed by a reliable authority that a boat capsized on the Kamchatka, just previous to our arrival, through the carelessness of a Kamchadal in allowing a jack-knife to remain in his right-hand pocket without putting something of a corresponding weight into the other; and that the Kamchadal fashion of parting the hair in the middle originated in attempts to preserve personal equilibrium while navigating these canoes. I should have been somewhat inclined to doubt these remarkable and not altogether new stories, were it not for the reliability and unimpeachable veracity of my informant, Mr. Dodd. The seriousness of the subject is a sufficient guarantee that he would not trifle with my feelings by making it the pretext for a joke.
We indulged ourselves on Saturday morning in a much later sleep than was consistent with our duty, and it was almost eight o'clock before we went down to the beach.
Upon first sight of the frail canoes, to which our destinies and the interests of the Russian-American Telegraph Company were to be intrusted, there was a very general expression of surprise and dissatisfaction. One of our party, with the rapid a priori reasoning for which he was distinguished, came at once to the conclusion that a watery death would be the inevitable termination of a voyage made in such vessels, and he evinced a very marked disinclination to embark. It is related of a great warrior, whose Commentaries were the detestation of my early life, that during a very stormy passage of the Ionian Sea he cheered up his sailors with the sublimely egotistical assurance that they carried "Caesar and his fortunes"; and that, consequently, nothing disastrous could possibly happen to them. The Kamchatkan Caesar, however, on this occasion seemed to distrust his own fortunes, and the attempts at consolation came from the opposite quarter. His boatman did not tell him, "Cheer up, Caesar, a Kamchadal and his fortunes are carrying you," but he did assure him that he had navigated the river for several years, and had "never been drowned once." What more could Caesar ask! - After some demur we all took seats upon bearskins in the bottoms of the canoes, and pushed off.
All other features of natural scenery in the vicinity of Kluchei sink into subordination to the grand central figure of the Kluchefskoi volcano, the monarch of Siberian mountains, whose sharp summit, with its motionless streamer of golden smoke, can be seen anywhere within a radius of a hundred miles. All other neighbouring beauties of scenery are merely tributary to this, and are valued only according to their capability of relieving and setting forth this magnificent peak, whose colossal dimensions rise in one unbroken sweep of snow from the grassy valleys of the Kamchatka and Yolofka, which terminate at its base. "Heir of the sunset and herald of morning," its lofty crater is suffused with a roseate blush long before the morning mists and darkness are out of the valleys, and long after the sun has set behind the purple mountains of Tigil. At all times, under all circumstances, and in all its ever-varying moods, it is the most beautiful mountain I have ever seen. Now it lies bathed in the warm sunshine of an Indian summer's day, with a few fleecy clouds resting at the snow-line and dappling its sides with purple shadows; then it envelops itself in dense volumes of black volcanic smoke, and thunders out a hoarse warning to the villages at its feet; and finally, toward evening, it gathers a mantle of grey mists around its summit, and rolls them in convulsed masses down its sides, until it stands in the clear atmosphere a colossal pillar of cloud, sixteen thousand feet in height, resting upon fifty square miles of shaggy pine forest.
You think nothing can be more beautiful than the delicate tender colour, like that of a wild-rose leaf, which tinges its snows as the sun sinks in a swirl of red vapours in the west; but "visit it by the pale moonlight," when its hood of mist is edged with silver, when black shadows gather in its deep ravines and white misty lights gleam from its snowy pinnacles, when the host of starry constellations seems to circle around its lofty peak, and the tangled silver chain of the Pleiades to hang upon one of its rocky spires - then say, if you can, that it is more beautiful by daylight.