CHAPTER XIV. OKHOTSK SEACOAST - LESNOI - THE "DEVIL'S PASS" - LOST IN SNOW-STORM - SAVED BY BRASS BOX - WILD SCENE

On Wednesday, September 27th, we again took the field, with two Cossacks, a Korak interpreter, eight or ten men, and fourteen horses. A little snow fell on the day previous to our departure, but it did not materially affect the road, and only served as a warning to us that winter was at hand, and we should not expect much more pleasant weather. We made our way as rapidly as possible along the coast of the Okhotsk Sea, partly on the beach under the cliffs, and partly over low wooded hills and valleys, extending down to the coast from the central mountain range. We passed the settlements of Amanina (ah-man'-in-ah), Vaempolka (vah-yem'-pol-kah), Kakhtana (kakh'-tan-ah'), and Polan (po-lahn'), changing horses and men at every village and finally, on the 3d of October, reached Lesnoi - the last Kamchadal settlement in the peninsula. Lesnoi was situated, as nearly as we could ascertain, in lat. 59 deg. 20', long. 160 deg. 25', about a hundred and fifty versts south of the Korak steppes, and nearly two hundred miles in an air line from the settlement of Gizhiga, which for the present was our objective point.

We had hitherto experienced little difficulty in making our way through the peninsula, as we had been especially favoured by weather, and there had been few natural obstacles to stop or delay our progress. Now, however, we were about to enter a wilderness which was entirely uninhabited, and little known even to our Kamchadal guides. North of Lesnoi the great central range of the Kamchatka mountains broke off abruptly into the Okhotsk Sea, in a long line of tremendous precipices, and interposed a great rugged wall between us and the steppes of the Wandering Koraks. This mountain range was very difficult to pass with horses, even in midsummer, and was of course infinitely worse now, when the mountain streams were swollen by the fall rains into foaming torrents, and the storms which herald the approach of winter might be at any moment expected. The Kamchadals at Lesnoi declared positively that it was of no use to attempt to cross this range until the rivers should freeze over and snow enough fall to permit the use of dog-sledges, and that they were not willing to risk fifteen or twenty horses, to say nothing of their own lives, in any such adventure. The Major told them, in language more expressive than polite, that he didn't believe a word of any such yarn; that the mountains had to be crossed, and that go they must and should. They had evidently never had to deal before with any such determined, self-willed individual as the Major proved to be, and, after some consultation among themselves, they agreed to make the attempt with eight unloaded horses, leaving all our baggage and heavy equipage at Lesnoi. This the Major at first would not listen to; but after thinking the situation over he decided to divide our small force into two parties - one to go around the mountains by water with the whale-boat and heavy baggage, and one over them with twenty unloaded horses. The road over the mountains was supposed to lie near the seacoast, so that the land party would be most of the time within signalling distance of the whale-boat, and in case either party met with any accident or found its progress stopped by unforeseen obstacles the other could come to its assistance. Near the middle of the mountainous tract, just west of the principal ridge, there was said to be a small river called the Samanka (sa-mahn'-kah), and the mouth of this river was agreed upon as a rendezvous for the two parties in case they lost sight of each other during storms or foggy weather. The Major decided to go with Dodd in the whale-boat, and gave me command of the land party, consisting of our best Cossack, Viushin, six Kamchadals, and twenty light horses. Flags were made, a code of signals was agreed upon, the heavy baggage was transferred to the whale-boat and a large sealskin canoe, and early on the morning of October 4th I bade the Major and Dodd good-bye at the beach, and they pushed off. We started up our train of horses as the boats disappeared around a projecting bluff, and cantered away briskly across the valley toward a gap in the mountains, through which we entered the "wilderness." The road for the first ten or fifteen versts was very good; but I was surprised to find that, instead of leading us along the seashore, it went directly back into the mountains away from the sea, and I began to fear that our arrangements for cooperation would be of little avail. Thinking that the whale-boat would not probably get far the first day under oars and without wind, we encamped early in a narrow valley between two parallel ranges of mountains. I tried, by climbing a low mountain back of our tent, to get a sight of the sea; but we were at least fifteen versts from the coast, and the view was limited by an intervening range of rugged peaks, many of which reach the altitude of perpetual snow. It was rather lonely to camp that night without seeing Dodd's cheerful face by the fireside, and I missed more than I thought I should the lively sallies, comical stories and good-humoured pleasantry which had hitherto brightened the long hours of camp life. If Dodd could have read my thoughts that evening, as I sat in solitary majesty by the fireside, he would have been satisfied that his society was not unappreciated, nor his absence unfelt. Viushin took especial pains with the preparation of my supper, and did the best he could, poor fellow, to enliven the solitary meal with stories and funny reminiscences of Kamchatkan travel; but the venison cutlets had lost somehow their usual savour, and the Russian jokes and stories I could not understand. After supper I lay down upon my bearskins in the tent, and fell asleep watching the round moon rise over a ragged volcanic peak east of the valley.