Our short stay at Shestakova, while waiting for the Penzhina sledges, was dismal and lonesome beyond expression. It began to storm furiously about noon on the 20th, and the violent wind swept up such tremendous clouds of snow from the great steppe north of the village, that the whole earth was darkened as if by an eclipse, and the atmosphere, to a height of a hundred feet from the ground, was literally packed with a driving mist of white snowflakes. I ventured to the top of the chimney hole once, but I was nearly blown over the edge of the yurt, and, blinded and choked by snow, I hastily retreated down the chimney, congratulating myself that I was not obliged to lie out all day on some desolate plain, exposed to the fury of such a storm. To keep out the snow, we were obliged to extinguish the fire and shut up the chimney hole with a sort of wooden trap-door, so that we were left to total darkness and a freezing atmosphere. We lighted candles and stuck them against the black smoky logs above our heads with melted grease, so that we could see to read; but the cold was so intense that we were finally compelled to give up the idea of literary amusement, and putting on fur coats and hoods, we crawled into our bags to try to sleep away the day. Shut up in a dark half-underground dungeon, with a temperature ten degrees below the freezing-point, we had no other resource.

It is a mystery to me how human beings with any feeling at all can be satisfied to live in such abominable, detestable houses as those of the Settled Koraks. They have not one solitary redeeming feature. They are entered through the chimney, lighted by the chimney, and ventilated by the chimney; the sunshine falls into them only once a year - in June; they are cold in winter, close and uncomfortable in summer, and smoky all the time. They are pervaded by a smell of rancid oil and decaying fish; their logs are black as jet and greasy with smoke, and their earthen floors are an indescribable mixture of reindeer hairs and filth dried and trodden hard. They have no furniture except wooden bowls of seal oil, in which burn fragments of moss, and black wooden troughs which are alternately used as dishes and as seats. Sad is the lot of children born in such a place. Until they are old enough to climb up the chimney pole they never see the outside world.

The weather on the day after our arrival at Shestakova was much better, and our Cossack Meranef, who was on his way back to Tigil, bade us good-bye, and started with two or three natives for Kamenoi. Dodd and I managed to pass away the day by drinking tea eight or ten times simply as an amusement, reading an odd volume of Cooper's novels which we had picked up at Gizhiga, and strolling along the high bluffs over the gulf with our rifles in search of foxes. Soon after dark, just as we were drinking tea in final desperation for the seventh time, our dogs who were tied around the yurt set up a general howl, and Yagor came sliding down the chimney in the most reckless and disorderly manner, with the news that a Russian Cossack had just arrived from Petropavlovsk, bringing letters for the Major. Dodd sprang up in great excitement, kicked over the teakettle, dropped his cup and saucer, and made a frantic rush for the chimney pole; but before he could reach it we saw somebody's legs coming down into the yurt, and in a moment a tall man in a spotted reindeerskin coat appeared, crossed himself carefully two or three times, as if in gratitude for his safe arrival, and then turned to us with the Russian salutation, "Zdrastvuitia." - "At kooda?" - "Where from?" demanded Dodd, quickly. "From Petropavlovsk with letters for the Maiur," (mai-oor'), was the reply; "three telegraph ships have been there, and I am sent with important letters from the American nachalnik [Footnote: Commander.]; I have been thirty-nine days and nights on the road from Petropavlovsk." This was important news. Colonel Bulkley had evidently touched at the southern end of Kamchatka on his return from Bering Sea, and the letters brought by the courier would undoubtedly explain why he had not landed the party at the mouth of the Anadyr River, as he had intended. I felt a strong temptation to open the letters; but not thinking that they could have any bearing upon my movements, I finally concluded to send them on without a moment's delay to Gizhiga, in the faint hope that the Major had not yet left there for Okhotsk. In twenty minutes the Cossack was gone, and we were left to form all sorts of wild conjectures as to the contents of the letters, and the movements of the parties which Colonel Bulkley had carried up to Bering Strait. I regretted a hundred times that I had not opened the letters, and found out to a certainty that the Anadyr River party had not been landed. But it was too late now, and we could only hope that the courier would overtake the Major before he had started from Gizhiga, and that the latter would send somebody to us at Anadyrsk with the news.

There were no signs yet of the Penzhina sledges, and we spent another night and another long dreary day in the smoky yurt at Shestakova, waiting for transportation. Late in the evening of December 2d, Yagor, who acted in the capacity of sentinel, came down the chimney with another sensation. He had heard the howling of dogs in the direction of Penzhina. We went up on the roof of the yurt and listened for several minutes, but hearing nothing but the wind, we concluded that Yagor had either been mistaken, or that a pack of wolves had howled in the valley east of the settlement. Yagor however was right; he had heard dogs on the Penzhina road, and in less than ten minutes the long-expected sledges drew up, amid general shouting and barking, before our yurt. In the course of conversation with the new arrivals, I thought I understood one of the Penzhina men to say something about a party who had mysteriously appeared near the mouth of the Anadyr River, and who were building a house there as if with the intention of spending the winter. I did not yet understand Russian very well, but I guessed at once that the long-talked-of Anadyr River party had been landed, and springing up in considerable excitement, I called Dodd to interpret. It seemed from all the information which the Penzhina men could give us that a small party of Americans had mysteriously appeared, early in the winter, near the mouth of the Anadyr, and had commenced to build a house of driftwood and a few boards which had been landed from the vessel in which they came. What their intentions were, who they were, or how long they intended to stay, no one knew, as the report came through bands of Wandering Chukchis, who had never seen the Americans themselves, but who had heard of them from others. The news had been passed along from one encampment of Chukchis to another until it had finally reached Penzhina, and had thus been brought on to us at Shestakova, more than five hundred miles from the place where the Americans were said to be. We could hardly believe that Colonel Bulkley had landed an exploring party in the desolate region south of Bering Strait, at the very beginning of an arctic winter; but what could Americans be doing there, if they did not belong to our expedition? It was not a place which civilised men would be likely to select for a winter residence, unless they had in view some very important object. The nearest settlement - Anadyrsk - was almost two hundred and fifty miles distant; the country along the lower Anadyr was said to be wholly destitute of wood, and inhabited only by roving bands of Chukchis, and a party landed there without an interpreter would have no means of communicating even with these wild, lawless natives, or of obtaining any means whatever of transportation. If there were any Americans there, they were certainly in a very unpleasant situation. Dodd and I talked the matter over until nearly midnight, and finally concluded that upon our arrival at Anadyrsk we would make up a strong party of experienced natives, take thirty days' provisions, and push through to the Pacific Coast on dog-sledges in search of these mysterious Americans. It would be an adventure just novel and hazardous enough to be interesting, and if we succeeded in reaching the mouth of the Anadyr in winter, we should do something never before accomplished and never but once attempted. With this conclusion we crawled into our fur bags and dreamed that we were starting for the Open Polar Sea in search of Sir John Franklin.

On the morning of December 23d, as soon as it was light enough to see, we loaded our tobacco, provisions, tea, sugar, and trading-goods upon the Penzhina sledges, and started up the shallow bushy valley of the Shestakova River toward a mountainous ridge, a spur of the great Stanavoi range, in which the stream had its source. We crossed the mountain early in the afternoon, at a height of about a thousand feet, and slid swiftly down its northern slope into a narrow valley, which opened upon the great steppes which bordered the river Aklan. The weather was clear and not very cold, but the snow in the valley was deep and soft, and our progress was provokingly slow. We had hoped to reach the Aklan by night, but the day was so short and the road so bad that we travelled five hours after dark, and then had to stop ten versts south of the river. We were rewarded, however, by seeing two very fine mock moons, and by finding a magnificent patch of trailing-pine, which furnished us with dry wood enough for a glorious camp-fire. The curious tree or bush known to the Russians as kedrovnik (keh-drove'-nik), and rendered in the English translation of Wrangell's Travels as "trailing cedar," is one of the most singular productions of Siberia. I hardly know whether to call it a tree, a bush, or a vine, for it partakes more or less of the characteristics of all three, and yet does not look much like any of them. It resembles as much as anything a dwarf pine tree, with a remarkably gnarled, crooked, and contorted trunk, growing horizontally like a neglected vine along the ground, and sending up perpendicular branches through the snow. It has the needles and cones of the common white pine, but it never stands erect like a tree, and grows in great patches from a few yards to several acres in extent. A man might walk over a dense growth of it in winter and yet see nothing but a few bunches of sharp green needles, sticking up here and there through the snow. It is found on the most desolate steppes and upon the rockiest mountain-sides from the Okhotsk Sea to the Arctic Ocean, and seems to grow most luxuriantly where the soil is most barren and the storms most severe. On great ocean-like plains, destitute of all other vegetation, this trailing-pine lurks beneath the snow, and covers the ground in places with a perfect network of gnarled, twisted, and interlocking trunks. For some reason it always seems to die when it has attained a certain age, and wherever you find its green spiny foliage you will also find dry white trunks as inflammable as tinder. It furnishes almost the only firewood of the Wandering Koraks and Chukchis, and without it many parts of north-eastern Siberia would be absolutely uninhabitable by man. Scores of nights during our explorations in Siberia, we should have been compelled to camp without fire, water, or warm food, had not Nature provided everywhere an abundance of trailing-pine, and stored it away under the snow for the use of travellers.

We left our camp in the valley early on the following morning, pushed on across the large and heavily timbered river called the Aklan, and entered upon the great steppe which stretches away from its northern bank toward Anadyrsk. For two days we travelled over this barren snowy plain, seeing no vegetation but stunted trees and patches of trailing-pine along the banks of occasional streams, and no life except one or two solitary ravens and a red fox. The bleak and dreary landscape could have been described in two words - snow and sky. I had come to Siberia with full confidence in the ultimate success of the Russian-American Telegraph line, but as I penetrated deeper and deeper into the country and saw its utter desolation I grew less and less sanguine. Since leaving Gizhiga we had travelled nearly three hundred versts, had found only four places where we could obtain poles, and had passed only three settlements. Unless we could find a better route than the one over which we had been, I feared that the Siberian telegraph line would be a failure.

Up to this time we had been favoured with unusually fine weather; but it was a season of the year when storms were of frequent occurrence, and I was not surprised to be awakened Christmas night by the roaring of the wind and the hissing sound of the snow as it swept through our unprotected camp and buried up our dogs and sledges. We were having a slight touch of a Siberian purga (poor'-gah = blizzard). A fringe of trees along the little stream on which we were camped sheltered us in a measure from the storm, but out on the steppe it was evidently blowing a gale. We rose as usual at daylight and made an attempt to travel; but no sooner did we leave the cover of the trees than our dogs became almost unmanageable, and, blinded and half suffocated with flying snow, we were driven back again into the timber. It was impossible to see thirty feet, and the wind blew with such fury that our dogs would not face it. We massed our sledges together as a sort of breastwork against the drifting snow, spread our fur bags down behind them, crawled in, covered up our heads with deerskins and blankets, and prepared for a long dismal siege. There is nothing so thoroughly, hopelessly dreary and uncomfortable, as camping out upon a Siberian steppe in a storm. The wind blows with such violence that a tent cannot possibly be made to stand; the fire is half extinguished by drifting snow, and fills the eyes with smoke and cinders when it burns at all; conversation is impossible on account of the roaring of the wind and the beating of the snow in one's face; bearskins, pillows, and furs become stiff and icy with half-melted sleet, sledges are buried up, and there remains nothing for the unhappy traveller to do but crawl into his sleeping-bag, cover up his head, and shiver away the long, dismal hours.

We lay out on the snow in this storm for two days, spending nearly all the time in our fur bags and suffering severely from the cold during the long, dark nights. On the 28th, about four o'clock in the morning, the storm began to abate, and by six we had dug out our sledges and were under way. There was a low spur of the Stanavoi Mountains about ten versts north of our camp, and our men said that if we could get across that before daylight we should probably have no more bad weather until we reached Penzhina. Our dog-food was entirely exhausted, and we must make the settlement within the next twenty-four hours if possible. The snow had been blown hard by the wind, our dogs were fresh from two days' rest, and before daylight we had crossed the ridge and stopped in a little valley on the northern slope of the mountain to drink tea. When compelled to travel all night, the Siberian natives always make a practice of stopping just before sunrise and allowing their dogs to get to sleep. They argue that if a dog goes to sleep while it is yet dark, and wakes up in an hour and finds the sun shining, he will suppose that he has had a full night's rest and will travel all day without thinking of being tired. An hour's stop, however, at any other time will be of no use whatever. As soon as we thought we had deluded our dogs into the belief that they had slept all night, we roused them up and started down the valley toward a tributary of the Penzhina River, known as the Uskanova (Oo-skan'-o-vah). The weather was clear and not very cold, and we all enjoyed the pleasant change and the brief two hours of sunshine which were vouchsafed us before the sun sank behind the white peaks of Stanavoi. Just at dark we crossed the river Kondra, fifteen miles from Penzhina, and in two hours more we were hopelessly lost on another great level steppe, and broken up into two or three separate and bewildered parties. I had fallen asleep soon after passing the Kondra, and had not the slightest idea how we were progressing or whither we were going, until Dodd shook me by the shoulder and said, "Kennan, we're lost." Rather a startling announcement to wake a man with, but as Dodd did not seem to be much concerned about it, I assured him that I didn't care, and lying back on my pillow went to sleep again, fully satisfied that my driver would find Penzhina sometime in the course of the night.

Guided by the stars, Dodd, Gregorie, and I, with one other sledge which remained with us, turned away to the eastward, and about nine o'clock came upon the Penzhina River somewhere below the settlement. We started up it on the ice, and had gone but a short distance when we saw two or three sledges coming down the river. Surprised to find men travelling away from the village at that hour of the night, we hailed them with a "Halloo!"


"Vwe kooda yaydetia?" - "Where are you going?"

"We're going to Penzhina; who are you?"

"We're Gizhigintsi, also going to Penzhina; what you coming down the river for?"

"We're trying to find the village, devil take it; we've been travelling all night and can't find anything!"

Upon this Dodd burst into a loud laugh, and as the mysterious sledges drew nearer we recognised in their drivers three of our own men who had separated from us soon after dark, and who were now trying to reach Penzhina by going down the river toward the Okhotsk Sea. We could hardly convince them that the village did not lie in that direction. They finally turned back with us, however, and some time after midnight we drove into Penzhina, roused the sleeping inhabitants with a series of unearthly yells, startled fifty or sixty dogs into a howling protest against such untimely disturbance, and threw the whole settlement into a general uproar.

In ten minutes we were seated on bearskins before a warm fire in a cozy Russian house, drinking cup after cup of fragrant tea, and talking over our night's adventures.