CHAPTER XIII. A DISMAL NIGHT - CROSSING THE KAMCHATKAN DIVIDE - ANOTHER BEAR HUNT - BREAKNECK RIDING - TIGIL - STEPPES OF NORTHERN KAMCHATKA
I awoke about midnight with cold feet and shivering limbs. The fire on the wet muddy ground had died away to a few smouldering embers, which threw a red glow over the black, smoky logs, and sent occasional gleams of flickering light into the dark recesses of the yurt. The wind howled mournfully around the hut, and the rain beat with intermittent dashes against the logs and trickled through a hundred crevices upon my already water-soaked blankets. I raised myself upon one elbow and looked around. The hut was deserted, and I was alone. For a moment of half-awakened consciousness I could not imagine where I was, or how I came in such a strange, gloomy situation; but presently the recollection of the previous day's ride came back and I went to the door to see what had become of all our party. I found that the Major and Dodd, with all the Kamchadals, had pitched tents upon the spongy moss outside, and were spending the night there, instead of remaining in the yurt and having their clothes and blankets spoiled by the muddy droppings of its leaky roof. The tents were questionable improvements; but I agreed with them in preferring clean water to mud, and gathering up my bedding I crawled in by the side of Dodd. The wind blew the tent down once during the night, and left us exposed for a few moments to the storm; but it was repitched in defiance of the wind, ballasted with logs torn from the sides of theyurt, and we managed to sleep after a fashion until morning.
We were a melancholy-looking party when we emerged from the tent at daylight. Dodd looked ruefully at his wet blankets, made a comical grimace as he felt of his water-soaked clothes, and then declared that
"The weather was not what he knew it once -
The nights were terribly damp;
And he never was free from the rheumatiz
Except when he had the cramp!"
In which poetical lament we all heartily sympathised if we did not join.
Our wet, low-spirited horses were saddled at daylight; and as the storm showed signs of a disposition to break away, we started again, immediately after breakfast, for the western edge of the high table-land which here formed the summit of the mountain range. The scenery from this point in clear weather must be magnificent, as it overlooks the Tigil Valley and the Okhotsk Sea on one side, and the Pacific Ocean, the valleys of the Yolofka and the Kamchatka, and the grand peaks of Suveilich and Kluchefskoi on the other. We caught occasional glimpses, through openings in the mist, of the Yolofka River, thousands of feet below, and the smoke-plumed head of the distant volcano, floating in a great sea of bluish clouds; but a new detachment of straggling vapours from the Okhotsk Sea came drifting across the mountain-top, and breaking furiously in our faces, blotted out everything except the mossy ground, over which plodded our tired, dispirited horses.
It did not seem possible that human beings could live, or would care to live, on this desolate plain of moss, 4000 feet above the sea, enveloped half the time in drifting clouds, and swept by frequent storms of rain and snow. But even here the Wandering Koraks herd their hardy reindeer, set up their smoky tent-poles, and bid contemptuous defiance to the elements. Three or four times during the day we passed heaps of reindeer's antlers, and piles of ashes surrounded by large circles of evergreen twigs, which marked the sites of Korak tents; but the band of wild nomads which had left these traces had long before disappeared, and was now perhaps herding its deer on the wind-swept shores of the Arctic Ocean.
Owing to the dense mist in which we were constantly enveloped we could get no clear ideas as to the formation of the mountain range over which we were passing, or the extent and nature of this great plain of moss which lay so high up among extinct volcanic peaks. I only know that just before noon we left the tundra, as this kind of moss steppe is called, and descended gradually into a region of the wildest, rockiest character, where all vegetation disappeared except a few stunted patches of trailing-pine. For at least ten miles the ground was covered everywhere with loose slab-shaped masses of igneous rock, varying in size from five cubic feet to five hundred, and lying one upon another in the greatest disorder. The heavens at some unknown geological period seemed to have showered down huge volcanic paving-stones, until the earth was covered fifty feet deep with their broken fragments. Nearly all of these masses had two smooth flat sides, and resembled irregular slices of some black Plutonian pudding hardened into stone. I was not familiar enough with volcanic phenomena to be able to decide in what manner or by what agency the earth had been thus overwhelmed with loose rocky slabs; but it looked precisely as if great sheets of solidified lava had fallen successively from the sky, and had been shattered, as they struck the earth, into millions of angular slabs. I thought of Scott's description of the place where Bruce and the Lord of the Isles landed after leaving the Castle of Lorn, as the only one I had ever read which gave me an idea of such a scene.