CHAPTER XXI. FIRST FROST-BITE - THE SETTLED KORAKS HOUR-GLASS YURTS - CLIMBING DOWN CHIMNEYS - YURT INTERIORS - LEGS AS FEATURES - TRAVELLING BY "PAVOSKA" - BAD CHARACTER OF SETTLED KORAKS
On the morning of November 23d, in a clear, bracing atmosphere of twenty-five degrees below zero, we arrived at the mouth of the large river called the Penzhina, which empties into Penzhinsk Gulf, at the head of the Okhotsk Sea. A dense cloud of frozen mist, which hung over the middle of the gulf, showed the presence there of open water; but the mouth of the river was completely choked up with great hummocks, rugged green slabs, and confused masses of ice, hurled in by a south-westerly storm, and frozen together in the wildest shapes of angular disorder. Through the grey mist we could see dimly, on a high bluff opposite, the strange outlines of the X-shaped yurts of the Kamenoi Koraks.
Leaving our drivers to get the reindeer and sledges across as best they could, the Major, Dodd, and I started on foot, picking our way between huge irregular blocks of clear green ice, climbing on hands and knees over enormous bergs, falling into wide, deep crevices, and stumbling painfully across the chevaux-de-frise of sharp splintered fragments into which the ice had been broken by a heavy sea. We had almost reached the other side, when Dodd suddenly cried out, " Oh, Kennan! Your nose is all white; rub it with snow - quick!" I have not the slightest doubt that the rest of my face also turned white at this alarming announcement; for the loss of my nose at the very outset of my arctic career would be a very serious misfortune. I caught up a handful of snow, however, mixed with sharp splinters of ice, and rubbed the insensible member until there was not a particle of skin left on the end of it, and then continued the friction with my mitten until my arm ached. If energetic treatment would save it, I was determined not to lose it that time. Feeling at last a painful thrill of returning circulation, I relaxed my efforts, and climbed up the steep bluff behind Dodd and the Major, to the Korak village of Kamenoi.
The settlement resembled as much as anything a collection of titanic wooden hour-glasses, which had been half shaken down and reduced to a state of rickety dilapidation by an earthquake. The houses - if houses they could be called - were about twenty feet in height, rudely constructed of driftwood which had been brought down by the river, and could be compared in shape to nothing but hour-glasses. They had no doors, or windows of any kind, and could be entered only by climbing up a pole on the outside, and sliding down another pole through the chimney - a mode of entrance whose practicability depended entirely upon the activity and intensity of the fire which burned underneath. The smoke and sparks, although sufficiently disagreeable, were trifles of comparative insignificance. I remember being told, in early infancy, that Santa Claus always came into a house through the chimney; and although I accepted the statement with the unreasoning faith of childhood, I could never understand how that singular feat of climbing down a chimney could be safely accomplished. To satisfy myself, I felt a strong inclination, every Christmas, to try the experiment, and was only prevented from doing so by the consideration of stove-pipes. I might succeed, I thought, in getting down the chimney; but coming out into a room through an eight-inch stove-pipe and a narrow stove-door was utterly out of the question. My first entrance into a Korak yurt, however, at Kamenoi, solved all my childish difficulties, and proved the possibility of entering a house in the eccentric way which Santa Claus is supposed to adopt. A large crowd of savage-looking fur-clad natives had gathered around us when we entered the village, and now stared at us with stupid curiosity as we made our first attempt at climbing a pole to get into a house. Out of deference for the Major's rank and superior attainments, we permitted him to go first. He succeeded very well in getting up the first pole, and lowered himself with sublime faith into the dark narrow chimney hole, out of which were pouring clouds of smoke; but at this critical moment, when his head was still dimly visible in the smoke, and his body out of sight in the chimney, he suddenly came to grief. The holes in the log down which he was climbing were too small to admit even his toes, covered as they were with heavy fur boots; and there he hung in the chimney, afraid to drop and unable to climb out - a melancholy picture of distress. Tears ran out of his closed eyes as the smoke enveloped his head, and he only coughed and strangled whenever he tried to shout for help. At last a native on the inside, startled at the appearance of his struggling body, came to his assistance, and succeeded in lowering him safely to the ground. Profiting by his experience, Dodd and I paid no attention to the holes, but putting our arms around the smooth log, slid swiftly down until we struck bottom. As I opened my tearful eyes, I was saluted by a chorus of drawling "zda-ro'-o-o-va's" from half a dozen skinny, greasy old women, who sat cross-legged on a raised platform around the fire, sewing fur clothes.