The morning of December 13th dawned clear, cold, and still, with a temperature of thirty-one degrees below zero; but as the sun did not rise until half-past ten, it was nearly noon before we could get our drivers together, and our dogs harnessed for a start. Our little party of ten men presented quite a novel and picturesque appearance in their gaily embroidered fur coats, red sashes, and yellow foxskin hoods, as they assembled in a body before our house to bid good-bye to the ispravnik and the Major. Eight heavily loaded sledges were ranged in a line in front of the door, and almost a hundred dogs were springing frantically against their harnesses, and raising deafening howls of impatience, as we came out of the house into the still, frosty atmosphere. We bade everybody good-bye, received a hearty "God bless you, boys!" from the Major, and were off in a cloud of flying snow, which stung our faces like burning sparks of fire. Old Paderin, the chief of the Gizhiga Cossacks, with white frosty hair and beard, stood out in front of his little red log house as we passed, and waved us a last good-bye with his fur hood as we swept out upon the great level steppe behind the town.

It was just midday; but the sun, although at its greatest altitude, glowed like a red ball of fire low down in the southern horizon, and a peculiar gloomy twilight hung over the white wintry landscape. I could not overcome the impression that the sun was just rising and that it would soon be broad day. A white ptarmigan now and then flew up with a loud whir before us, uttered a harsh "querk, querk, querk" of affright, and sailing a few rods away, settled upon the snow and suddenly became invisible. A few magpies sat motionless in the thickets of trailing-pine as we passed, but their feathers were ruffled up around their heads, and they seemed chilled and stupefied by the intense cold. The distant blue belt of timber along the Gizhiga River wavered and trembled in its outlines as if seen through currents of heated air, and the white ghost-like mountains thirty miles away to the southward were thrown up and distorted by refraction into a thousand airy, fantastic shapes which melted imperceptibly one into another, like a series of dissolving views. Every feature of the scenery was strange, weird, arctic. The red sun rolled slowly along the southern horizon, until it seemed to rest on a white snowy peak far away in the south-west, and then, while we were yet expecting day, it suddenly disappeared and the gloomy twilight deepened gradually into night. Only three hours had elapsed since sunrise, and yet stars of the first magnitude could already be plainly distinguished.

We stopped for the night at the house of a Russian peasant who lived on the bank of the Gizhiga River, about fifteen versts east of the settlement. While we were drinking tea a special messenger arrived from the village, bringing two frozen blueberry pies as a parting token of regard from the Major, and a last souvenir of civilisation. Pretending to fear that something might happen to these delicacies if we should attempt to carry them with us, Dodd, as a precautionary measure, ate one of them up to the last blueberry; and rather than have him sacrifice himself to a mistaken idea of duty by trying to eat the other, I attended to its preservation myself and put it for ever beyond the reach of accidental contingencies.

On the following day we reached the little log yurt on the Malmofka, where we had spent one night on our way to Gizhiga; and as the cold was still intense we were glad to avail ourselves again of its shelter, and huddle around the warm fire which Yagor kindled on a sort of clay altar in the middle of the room. There was not space enough on the rough plank floor to accommodate all our party, and our men built a huge fire of tamarack logs outside, hung over their teakettles, thawed out their frosty beards, ate dry fish, sang jolly Russian songs, and made themselves so boisterously happy, that we were tempted to give up the luxury of a roof for the sake of sharing in their out-door amusements and merriment. Our thermometers, however, marked 35 deg. below zero, and we did not venture out of doors except when an unusually loud burst of laughter announced some stupendous Siberian joke which we thought would be worth hearing. The atmosphere outside seemed to be just cool enough to exert an inspiriting influence upon our lively Cossacks, but it was altogether too bracing for unaccustomed American constitutions. With a good fire, however, and plenty of hot tea, we succeeded in making ourselves very comfortable inside the yurt, and passed away the long evening in smoking Circassian tobacco and pine bark, singing American songs, telling stories, and quizzing our good-natured but unsophisticated Cossack Meranef.

It was quite late when we finally crawled into our fur bags to sleep; but long afterward we could hear the songs, jokes, and laughter of our drivers as they sat around the camp-fire, and told funny stories of Siberian travel.

We were up on the following morning long before daylight; and, after a hasty breakfast of black-bread, dried fish, and tea, we harnessed our dogs, wet down our sledge-runners with water from the teakettle to cover them with a coating of ice, packed up our camp equipage, and, leaving the shelter of the tamarack forest around the yurt, drove out upon the great snowy Sahara which lies between the Malmofka River and Penzhinsk Gulf. It was a land of desolation. A great level steppe, as boundless to the weary eye as the ocean itself, stretched away in every direction to the far horizon, without a single tree or bush to relieve its white, snowy surface. Nowhere did we see any sign of animal or vegetable life, any suggestion of summer or flowers or warm sunshine, to brighten the dreary waste of storm-drifted snow.

White, cold, and silent, it lay before us like a vast frozen ocean, lighted up faintly by the slender crescent of the waning moon in the east, and the weird blue streamers of the aurora, which went racing swiftly back and forth along the northern horizon. Even when the sun rose, huge and fiery, in a haze of frozen moisture at the south, it did not seem to infuse any warmth or life into the bleak wintry landscape. It only drowned, in a dull red glare, the blue, tremulous streamers of the aurora and the white radiance of the moon and stars, tinged the snow with a faint colour like a stormy sunset, and lighted up a splendid mirage in the north-west which startled us with its solemn mockery of familiar scenes. The wand of the Northern Enchanter touched the barren snowy steppe, and it suddenly became a blue tropical lake, upon whose distant shore rose the walls, domes, and slender minarets of a vast oriental city. Masses of luxuriant foliage seemed to overhang the clear blue water, and to be reflected in its depths, while the white walls above just caught the first flush of the rising sun. Never was the illusion of summer in winter, of life in death, more palpable or more perfect. One almost instinctively glanced around to assure himself, by the sight of familiar objects, that it was not a dream; but as his eyes turned again to the north-west across the dim blue lake, the vast tremulous outlines of the mirage still confronted him in their unearthly beauty, and the "cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces" seemed, by their mysterious solemnity, to rebuke the doubt which would ascribe them to a dream. The bright apparition faded, glowed, and faded again into indistinctness, and from its ruins rose two colossal pillars sculptured from rose quartz, which gradually united their capitals and formed a titanic arch like the grand portal of heaven. This, in turn, melted into an extensive fortress, with, massive bastions and buttresses, flanking towers and deep embrasures, and salient and re-entering angles whose shadows and perspective were as natural as reality itself. Nor was it only at a distance that these deceptive mirages seemed to be formed. A crow, standing upon the snow at a distance of perhaps two hundred yards, was exaggerated and distorted beyond recognition; and once, having lingered a little behind the rest of the party, I was startled at seeing a long line of shadowy dog-sledges moving swiftly through the air a short distance ahead, at a height of eight or ten feet from the ground. The mock sledges were inverted in position, and the mock dogs trotted along with their feet in the air; but their outlines were almost as clear as those of the real sledges and real dogs underneath. This curious phenomenon lasted only a moment, but it was succeeded by others equally strange, until at last we lost faith in our eyesight entirely, and would not believe in the existence of anything unless we could touch it with our hands. Every bare hillock or dark object on the snow was a nucleus around which were formed the most deceptive images, and two or three times we started out with our rifles in pursuit of wolves or black foxes, which proved, upon closer inspection, to be nothing but crows. I had never before known the light and atmosphere to be so favourable to refraction, and had never been so deceived in the size, shape, and distance of objects on the snow.

The thermometer at noon marked - 35 deg., and at sunset it was - 38 deg., and sinking. We had seen no wood since leaving the yurt on the Malmofka River, and, not daring to camp without a fire, we travelled for five hours after dark, guided only by the stars and a bluish aurora which was playing away in the north. Under the influence of the intense cold, frost formed in great quantities upon everything which was touched by our breaths. Beards became stiff tangled masses of frozen iron wire, eyelids grew heavy with long white rims of frost, and froze together when we winked, and our dogs, enveloped in dense clouds of steam, looked like snowy polar wolves. Only by running constantly beside our sledges could we keep any sensation of life in our feet. About eight o'clock a few scattered trees loomed up darkly against the eastern sky, and a joyful shout from our leading drivers announced the discovery of wood. We had reached a small stream called the Usinova (Oo-seen'-ova), seventy-five versts east of Gizhiga, in the very middle of the great steppe. It was like coming to an island after having been long at sea. Our dogs stopped and curled themselves up into little round balls on the snow, as if conscious that the long day's journey was ended, while our drivers proceeded to make rapidly and systematically a Siberian half-faced camp. Three sledges were drawn up together, so as to make a little semi-enclosure about ten feet square; the snow was all shovelled out of the interior, and banked up around the three closed sides, like a snow fort, and a huge fire of trailing-pine branches was built at the open end. The bottom of this little snow-cellar was then strewn to a depth of three or four inches with twigs of willow and alder, shaggy bearskins were spread down to make a warm, soft carpet, and our fur sleeping-bags arranged for the night. Upon a small table extemporised out of a candle-box, which stood in the centre, Yagor soon placed two cups of steaming hot tea and a couple of dried fish. Then stretching ourselves out in luxurious style upon our bearskin carpet, with our feet to the fire and our backs against pillows, we smoked, drank tea, and told stories in perfect comfort. After supper the drivers piled dry branches of trailing-pine upon the fire until it sent up a column of hot ruddy flame ten feet in height, and then gathering in a picturesque group around the blaze, they sang for hours the wild melancholy songs of the Kamchadals, and told never-ending stories of hardship and adventure on the great steppes and along the coast of the "Icy Sea." At last the great constellation of Orion marked bedtime. Amid a tumult of snarling and fighting the dogs were fed their daily allowance of one dried fish each, fur stockings, moist with perspiration, were taken off and dried by the fire, and putting on our heaviest fur kukhlankas we crawled feet first into our bearskin bags, pulled them up over our heads, and slept.

A camp in the middle of a clear, dark winter's night presents a strange, wild appearance. I was awakened, soon after midnight, by cold feet, and, raising myself upon one elbow, I pushed my head out of my frosty fur bag to see by the stars what time it was. The fire had died away to a red heap of smouldering embers. There was just light enough to distinguish the dark outlines of the loaded sledges, the fur-clad forms of our men, lying here and there in groups about the fire, and the frosty dogs, curled up into a hundred little hairy balls upon the snow. Away beyond the limits of the camp stretched the desolate steppe in a series of long snowy undulations, which blended gradually into one great white frozen ocean, and were lost in the distance and darkness of night. High overhead, in a sky which was almost black, sparkled the bright constellations of Orion and the Pleiades - the celestial clocks which marked the long, weary hours between sunrise and sunset. The blue mysterious streamers of the aurora trembled in the north, now shooting up in clear bright lines to the zenith, then waving back and forth in great majestic curves over the silent camp, as if warning back the adventurous traveller from the unknown regions around the Pole. The silence was profound, oppressive. Nothing but the pulsating of the blood in my ears, and the heavy breathing of the sleeping men at my feet, broke the universal lull. Suddenly there rose upon the still night air a long, faint> wailing cry like that of a human being in the last extremity of suffering. Gradually it swelled and deepened until it seemed to fill the whole atmosphere with its volume of mournful sound, dying away at last into a low, despairing moan. It was the signal-howl of a Siberian dog; but so wild and unearthly did it seem in the stillness of the arctic midnight, that it sent the startled blood bounding through my veins to my very finger-ends. In a moment the mournful cry was taken up by another dog, upon a higher key - two or three more joined in, then ten, twenty, forty, sixty, eighty, until the whole pack of a hundred dogs howled one infernal chorus together, making the air fairly tremble with sound, as if from the heavy bass of a great organ. For fully a minute heaven and earth seemed to be filled with yelling, shrieking fiends. Then one by one they began gradually to drop off, the unearthly tumult grew momentarily fainter and fainter, until at last it ended as it began, in one long, inexpressibly melancholy wail, and all was still. One or two of our men moved restlessly in their sleep, as if the mournful howls had blended unpleasantly with their dreams; but no one awoke, and a death-like silence again pervaded heaven and earth. Suddenly the aurora shone out with increased brilliancy, and its waving swords swept back and forth in great semicircles across the dark starry sky, and lighted up the snowy steppe with transitory flashes of coloured radiance, as if the gates of heaven were opening and closing upon the dazzling brightness of the celestial city. Presently it faded away again to a faint diffused glow in the north, and one pale-green streamer, slender and bright as the spear of Ithuriel, pushed slowly up toward the zenith until it touched with its translucent point the jewelled belt of Orion; then it, too, faded and vanished, and nothing but a bank of pale white mist on the northern horizon showed the location of the celestial armory whence the arctic spirits drew the gleaming swords and lances which they shook and brandished nightly over the lonely Siberian steppes. Crawling back into my bag as the aurora disappeared, I fell asleep, and did not wake until near morning. With the first streak of dawn the camp began to show signs of animation. The dogs crawled out of the deep holes which their warm bodies had melted in the snow; the Cossacks poked their heads out of their frosty fur coats, and whipped off with little sticks the mass of frost which had accumulated around their breathing-holes; a fire was built, tea boiled, and we crawled out of our sleeping-bags to shiver around the fire and eat a hasty breakfast of rye-bread, dried fish, and tea. In twenty minutes the dogs were harnessed, sledges packed, and runners covered with ice, and one after another we drove away at a brisk trot from the smoking fire, and began another day's journey across the barren steppe.

In this monotonous routine of riding, camping, and sleeping on the snow, day after day slowly passed until, on December 20th, we arrived at the Settled Korak village of Shestakova, near the head of Penzhinsk Gulf. From this point our Gizhiga Cossacks were to return, and here we were to wait until the expected sledges from Penzhina should arrive. We lowered our bedding, pillows, camp-equipage, and provisions down through the chimney hole of the largest yurt in the small village, arranged them as tastefully as possible on the wide wooden platform which extended out from the wall on one side, and made ourselves as comfortable as darkness, smoke, cold, and dirt would permit.