Chapter XIV. Sum Dum Bay
As for the salmon, as seen this morning urging their way up the swift current, - tens of thousands of them, side by side, with their backs out of the water in shallow places now that the tide was low, - nothing that I could write might possibly give anything like a fair conception of the extravagance of their numbers. There was more salmon apparently, bulk for bulk, than water in the stream. The struggling multitudes, crowding one against another, could not get out of our way when we waded into the midst of them. One of our men amused himself by seizing them above the tail and swinging them over his head. Thousands could thus be taken by hand at low tide, while they were making their way over the shallows among the stones.
Whatever may be said of other resources of the Territory, it is hardly possible to exaggerate the importance of the fisheries. Not to mention cod, herring, halibut, etc., there are probably not less than a thousand salmon-streams in southeastern Alaska as large or larger than this one (about forty feet wide) crowded with salmon several times a year. The first run commenced that year in July, while the king salmon, one of the five species recognized by the Indians, was in the Chilcat River about the middle of the November before.
From this wonderful salmon-camp we sailed joyfully up the coast to explore icy Sum Dum Bay, beginning my studies where I left off the previous November. We started about six o'clock, and pulled merrily on through fog and rain, the beautiful wooded shore on our right, passing bergs here and there, the largest of which, though not over two hundred feet long, seemed many times larger as they loomed gray and indistinct through the fog. For the first five hours the sailing was open and easy, nor was there anything very exciting to be seen or heard, save now and then the thunder of a falling berg rolling and echoing from cliff to cliff, and the sustained roar of cataracts.
About eleven o'clock we reached a point where the fiord was packed with ice all the way across, and we ran ashore to fit a block of wood on the cutwater of our canoe to prevent its being battered or broken. While Captain Tyeen, who had had considerable experience among berg ice, was at work on the canoe, Hunter Joe and Smart Billy prepared a warm lunch.
The sheltered hollow where we landed seems to be a favorite camping-ground for the Sum Dum seal-hunters. The pole-frames of tents, tied with cedar bark, stood on level spots strewn with seal bones, bits of salmon, and spruce bark.
We found the work of pushing through the ice rather tiresome. An opening of twenty or thirty yards would be found here and there, then a close pack that had to be opened by pushing the smaller bergs aside with poles. I enjoyed the labor, however, for the fine lessons I got, and in an hour or two we found zigzag lanes of water, through which we paddled with but little interruption, and had leisure to study the wonderful variety of forms the bergs presented as we glided past them. The largest we saw did not greatly exceed two hundred feet in length, or twenty-five or thirty feet in height above the water. Such bergs would draw from one hundred and fifty to two hundred feet of water. All those that have floated long undisturbed have a projecting base at the water-line, caused by the more rapid melting of the immersed portion. When a portion of the berg breaks off, another base line is formed, and the old one, sharply cut, may be seen rising at all angles, giving it a marked character. Many of the oldest bergs are beautifully ridged by the melting out of narrow furrows strictly parallel throughout the mass, revealing the bedded structure of the ice, acquired perhaps centuries ago, on the mountain snow fountains. A berg suddenly going to pieces is a grand sight, especially when the water is calm and no motion is visible save perchance the slow drift of the tide-current. The prolonged roar of its fall comes with startling effect, and heavy swells are raised that haste away in every direction to tell what has taken place, and tens of thousands of its neighbors rock and swash in sympathy, repeating the news over and over again. We were too near several large ones that fell apart as we passed them, and our canoe had narrow escapes. The seal-hunters, Tyeen says, are frequently lost in these sudden berg accidents.
In the afternoon, while we were admiring the scenery, which, as we approached the head of the fiord, became more and more sublime, one of our Indians called attention to a flock of wild goats on a mountain overhead, and soon afterwards we saw two other flocks, at a height of about fifteen hundred feet, relieved against the mountains as white spots. They are abundant here and throughout the Alaskan Alps in general, feeding on the grassy slopes above the timber-line. Their long, yellowish hair is shed at this time of year and they were snowy white. None of nature's cattle are better fed or better protected from the cold. Tyeen told us that before the introduction of guns they used to hunt them with spears, chasing them with their wolf-dogs, and thus bringing them to bay among the rocks, where they were easily approached and killed.
The upper half of the fiord is about from a mile to a mile and a half wide, and shut in by sublime Yosemite cliffs, nobly sculptured, and adorned with waterfalls and fringes of trees, bushes, and patches of flowers; but amid so crowded a display of novel beauty it was not easy to concentrate the attention long enough on any portion of it without giving more days and years than our lives could afford. I was determined to see at least the grand fountain of all this ice. As we passed headland after headland, hoping as each was rounded we should obtain a view of it, it still remained hidden.