CHAPTER XVII. A FRESH START - CROSSING THE SAMANKA MOUNTAINS - DESCENT ON A KORAK ENCAMPMENT - NOMADS AND THEIR TENTS - DOOR-HOLES AND DOGS - POLOGS - KORAK BREAD
About the 20th of October a Russian physician arrived from Tigil, and proceeded to reduce the little strength that the Major had by steaming, bleeding, and blistering him into a mere shadow of his former robust self. The fever, however, abated under this energetic treatment, and he began gradually to amend. Sometime during the same week, Dodd and Meranef returned from Tigil with a new supply of tea, sugar, rum, tobacco, and hardbread, and we began collecting dogs from the neighbouring settlements of Kinkil and Polan for another trip across the Samanka Mountains. Snow had fallen everywhere to a depth of two feet, the weather had turned clear and cold, and there was nothing except the Major's illness to detain us longer at Lesnoi. On the 28th he declared himself able to travel, and we packed up for a start. On November 1st we put on our heavy fur clothes, which turned us into wild animals of most ferocious appearance, bade good-by to all the hospitable people of Lesnoi, and set out with a train of sixteen sledges, eighteen men, two hundred dogs, and forty days' provisions, for the territory of the Wandering Koraks. We determined to reach Gizhiga this time, or, as the newspapers say, perish in the attempt.
Late in the afternoon of November 3d, just as the long northern twilight was fading into the peculiar steely blue of an arctic night, our dogs toiled slowly up the last summit of the Samanka Mountains, and we looked down from a height of more than two thousand feet upon the dreary expanse of snow which stretched away to the far horizon. It was the land of the Wandering Koraks. A cold breeze from the sea swept across the mountain-top, soughing mournfully through the pines as it passed, and intensifying the loneliness and silence of the white wintry landscape. The faint pale light of the vanishing sun still lingered upon the higher peaks; but the gloomy ravines below us, shaggy with forests of larch and dense thickets of trailing-pine, were already gathering the shadows and indistinctness of night. At the foot of the mountains stood the first encampment of Koraks. As we rested our dogs a few moments upon the summit, before commencing our descent, we tried to discern through the gathering gloom the black tents which we imagined stood somewhere beneath our feet; but nothing save the dark patches of trailing-pine broke the dead white of the level steppe. The encampment was hidden by a projecting shoulder of the mountain.
The rising moon was just throwing into dark, bold relief the shaggy outlines of the peaks on our right, as we roused up our dogs and plunged into the throat of a dark ravine which led downward to the steppe. The deceptive shadows of night, and the masses of rock which choked up the narrow defile made the descent extremely dangerous; and it required all the skill of our practised drivers to avoid accident. Clouds of snow flew from the spiked poles with which they vainly tried to arrest our downward rush; cries and warning shouts from those in advance, multiplied by the mountain echoes, excited our dogs to still greater speed, until we seemed, as the rocks and trees flew past, to be in the jaws of a falling avalanche, which was carrying us with breathless rapidity down the dark canon to certain ruin. Gradually, however, our speed slackened, and we came out into the moonlight on the hard, wind-packed snow of the open steppe. Half an hour's brisk travel brought us into the supposed vicinity of the Korak encampment, but we saw as yet no signs of either reindeer or tents. The disturbed, torn-up condition of the snow usually apprises the traveller of his approach to the yurts of the Koraks, as the reindeer belonging to the band range all over the country within a radius of several miles, and paw up the snow in search of the moss which constitutes their food. Failing to find any such indications, we were discussing the probability of our having been misdirected, when suddenly our leading dogs pricked up their sharp ears, snuffed eagerly at the wind, and with short, excited yelps made off at a dashing gallop toward a low hill which lay almost at right angles with our previous course. The drivers endeavoured in vain to check the speed of the excited dogs; their wolfish instincts were aroused, and all discipline was forgotten as the fresh scent came down upon the wind from the herd of reindeer beyond. A moment brought us to the brow of the hill, and before us in the clear moonlight, stood the conical tents of the Koraks, surrounded by at least four thousand reindeer, whose branching antlers looked like a perfect forest of dry limbs. The dogs all gave voice simultaneously, like a pack of foxhounds in view of the game, and dashed tumultuously down the hill, regardless of the shouts of their masters, and the menacing cries of three or four dark forms which rose suddenly up from the snow between them and the frightened deer. Above the tumult I could hear Dodd's voice, hurling imprecations in Russian at his yelping dogs, which, in spite of his most strenuous efforts, were dragging him and his capsized sledge across the steppe. The vast body of deer wavered a moment and then broke into a wild stampede, with drivers, Korak sentinels, and two hundred dogs in full pursuit.