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Roshow Bezone Jr.
[pseudonym of W. H. Macy]

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. 68, No. 6 (Dec 1888)
pp. 488-493


by roshow bezone, jr.

      In the spring of 1868, the territory formerly known as Russian America was ceded to the United States; and all the trading privileges which before had been held by the Russian American Fur Company were thrown open to the world. Little was known of the country, even in our Pacific seaports; true, the Western Union Telegraph Company had explored certain parts of it in their attempt to open communication with Asia, but they had confined themselves more to its geographical bearings than its resources. American whalers, in their cruises after oil, had entered every gulf and bay on its coast; but as they had been debarred from landing, except when in need of wood and water, their knowledge, beyond that of locality, was extremely slight. Of course many reports were in circulation respecting the wonderful quantity and quality of the furs obtained there, but all of them of a vague and uncertain character. However, the people of the coast, and of San Francisco in particular, quickly prepared to take advantage of any opening that might show itself; merchants began fitting out small vessels to trade there; old miners who had "done" California and Nevada gathered their traps together for a prospecting tour to this new field of enterprise; land speculators hurried to stake out claims near the little towns of Sitka and Kodiak; needy adventurers by the score crowded every means of transportation, most of them careless or ignorant of future prospects, but going in the hope that some good would come of it.

      A desire to see the world, which had already taken me over the greater portion of it, landed me in the winter of the above year in San Francisco. Whatever wish I may have had to remain permanently in that delightful place was quickly taken out of my head when the opportunity presented itself of going to this unknown northern region. The way in which this happened was as follows: A number of gentlemen had fitted out a schooner, the Katie, for a sealing and trading voyage, but just as she was on the point of departure the supercargo was taken sick, and they had to delay sailing until they could find some one to fill his place; hearing of this, I offered my services, and though I possessed but few of the requirements necessary for the situation, I was accepted as the best substitute they could readily obtain.

      Why describe the sea voyage? They are all very similar; the alternation of wind and calm; the ineffable glories of a sunrise; the quenching, as it were, of the molten orb in the water at evening; the golden pathway made by the moon across the restless sea; all of these can be seen in any vessel and in any clime. Let it suffice, therefore, to say that on the second of May, after a fair run of three weeks, we came to anchor off the island of St. George, in the south-eastern portion of Behring Sea. It had been a foggy day, but the wind had partially cleared the air, and we could see quite plainly the outline of the jagged cliffs, and wild hilltops covered with snow.

      It was our intention to erect a station on this island, enter into an agreement with the natives, and, thereby, being the first comers, secure a monopoly of the fur seals which come there yearly in large numbers. In carrying out our design we were eminently successful, and finding that this was to constitute the principal part of our business, I concluded to let the schooner make the rest of the voyage (which was to extend to the coast of Siberia) without me, and to stay on the island, in order to more effectually superintend the business; so, having landed a large quantity of goods and provisions, the schooner prepared to take her departure.

      It was a mournful day to me when, having bade the captain and the interpreter goodby, I saw them row out through the surf, and watched them until they disappeared in the eddying mist, which had already hidden the Katie from sight. They were not to return until the latter part of November, nearly seven months, and it would be difficult for the reader to realize the feeling of loneliness that now took possession of me. I was entirely isolated, having no one with whom I could associate but the native Aleuts, whose language I understood but very imperfectly.


However, there was nothing to do but to make the best of it, and I therefore determined to thoroughly survey the island, as a means of occupying my mind for two or three weeks, until the seals should begin to arrive. Though but a small place, it was certainly a wild one; centuries of rough usage by the elements had so diversified its naturally irregular outlines as to leave it one mass of steep hills, intersected by long, dark valleys. With the exception of three or four little strips of beach, high cliffs beetled out over the water at almost every point, and into the rocky caverns at their base the sea dashed and thundered with a perpetual roar. So rocky was the soil that I could not find even a shrub, though in the summer months long, rank grasses grew everywhere in great abundance. Overhead hung almost a perpetual fogbank, making the day well nigh as gloomy as the night; sometimes the mists would scatter for a day or two, and I could see, far across the water to the northward, the tops of the hills on the island of St. Paul, another seal island, considerably larger than St. George.

      The natives were very kind and good-natured; every day they would go far across the hills, and return laden with different kinds of game, or with the eggs of sea-fowl, which they obtained by being lowered a hundred feet or more down the face of the cliff, and would always bring them to me, in order that I might have the first choice. I soon became well acquainted with all the inhabitants upon the island; used to attend the little receptione they gave upon their "name's day," as it is called by the Russians; acted as godfather for their children when they were christened – for all the Aleutians are members of the Greek Church – on which occasions I yet further endeared myself to them by keeping "open house," and provided an unlimited amount of tea, sugar and crackers for their entertainment. When the seals came there was work enough to do; what with driving, killing, salting and packing, keeping store, acting as governor, doctor and adviser, I had my time fully taken up. And so months went by, the season passed over, and I began counting the weeks that must elapse before the Katie would return to take on board the large lot of furs we had collected and stored in the Lofka on the beach.

      One night in the middle of October I was awakened from my sleep by some one coming into my little cabin and roughly shaking me by the shoulder; starting up, I saw by a strange glare of light that seemed to fill the room, the Nirachic, or head native on the island. He made an ineffectual attempt to speak, and pointed with his hand to the window, while his face wore an expression of ineffable fear and consternation. In an instant I was at the window; both heaven and earth seemed one blaze of light, and for a moment I thought that the old volcano, which had slumbered for ages beneath the island, had again started to life. A second glance, however, brought to my mind the hardly more desirable conviction that the storehouse, containing our entire supply of provisions, and the adjoining outhouses filled with salted seals, which the natives had prepared for their winter's sustenance, were wrapped in a sheet of flames.

      Now that two years have passed, and I am sitting in my quiet library writing this, I cannot recall my feelings at that moment without experiencing a thrill of horror. A bitter cold gale blew from the north, laden with the inevitable mist, which, though it prevented the fire from being seen at any distance, served by its refractions to fill with redoubled intensity of light the little space in which it was visible.

      When I reached the spot the natives had all arrived, but, too terror-stricken for motion, were stupidly gazing at the great surging flames, which they now beheld for the first time in their lives. Of course my first cry was for water. We were wholly unprepared for anything of this kind; the pond from which we obtained our supply of fresh water was more than half a mile distant, and it was, therefore, out of the question to go there; the sea, however, was within three hundred yards of the building, but in order to reach it it was necessary to descend a steep, narrow path, leading down the side of a cliff, difficult during the day, but at night dangerous. Still it must be done, and in less than two minutes I had all the inhabitants of the village – men, women and children – with the exception of three or four of the older men, whom I kept to assist me in breaking out some of the goods, despatched to obtain the precious liquid.

      All our exertions proved wholly futile; the fire, when discovered, was under too great headway to be subdued by any of the rude appliances we could command, and with the exception of three boxes of hard-


bread, which I succeeded in breaking out, the entire building, with outhouses and contents, was reduced to a smouldering heap before our eyes.

      It was about three o'clock in the morning when I told the natives, who, now that the first excitement had passed, were making loud lamentations, that they had better go to their homes and get rested, and that I would tell them, after I had had time to think it over, what had best be done. For me it was no time for resting; my mind was well nigh paralyzed by the sudden calamity that had overtaken me, and it was long before I could collect my thoughts sufficiently to give the subject reasonable consideration. What was to be done? Both seals and birds had left us for their winter's sojourn in a milder climate; fish there were none, for the seals had driven them away; there was absolutely nothing on the island that we could use for food.

      The natives had made their weekly purchase of provisions five days before, and I knew from their natural improvidence that they could not have more than two days' ordinary supply on hand; in my own house I had enough to keep them three or four days more; but what then? The Katie would not return for five weeks, and head winds might delay her two or three weeks longer. What were we to live upon in the meantime? We must certainly go to St. Paul, which was the only settlement within attainable distance, to procure food; but then the equally perplexing question arose, how should we get there? St. Paul was only forty miles away, and in good weather, with an ordinary ship's boat, I should have thought nothing of the trip; but at this season of the year fair weather was exceptional, and our only means of conveyance was a bidara, or Aleutian skin-boat. This was a large, ungainly craft, being about as symmetrically formed as a child's Noah's ark. It was made of a rude framework of driftwood and whalebone, covered with the skins of the sea-lion, which had been dried in the sun and sewn together; it was about thirty feet long by twelve beam, and propelled by oars, yet carried a small, square sail to be used when the wind was directly aft. On discharging our vessel we had found it very useful; but though very seaworthy when newly oiled, after it had been in the water a few hours, the skin covering became damp and rotten, so that a very slight pressure would break it; yet this was the only mean of transportation we had, and go we must.

      In the morning I assembled all the natives, and having told them the plan I had decided upon, made them bring all the food they had in their houses, which, with what I had, I placed under the charge of the Nirachic, in order that regular rations might be served out, and nothing wasted. It required sixteen men to man the bidara, and that no hard feelings might be created, I let the able-bodied men of the village, amounting altogether to forty, draw lots in order to see which of them should go on the expedition. Having decided this, and seen that the boat was put in proper condition for the trip, I sat down and wrote a letter containing a statement of our misfortune to the captain of the Katie, so that in case we should never return, and upon his arrival he should find no one alive on the island, he might know the cause of it; and I also told him that he would find the furs in the Lofka all right.

      Our wish now was for a moderately pleasant day, in order to start; and luckily for us we did not have to wait long, for the next morning brought an unusually calm sea, with a light breeze from the south. Parting kisses and blessing were given, and we were soon off, steering directly for our destination, and going as fast as wind and oar could carry us. It was a delightful day, the wind staying by us and aiding us so that at four o'clock in the afternoon we landed on the island whose dark cliffs we had seen for hours rising higher and higher out of the blue sea. There were several American companies on the island, and as they had an abundant supply of provisions, I found no difficulty in obtaining all I wished; so we worked late into the night in getting them from the storehouse down to the landing, that we might be in readiness to start by daylight, our skin-boat having been dried and oiled in the meantime.

      It was some time after midnight when, just as I was on the point of bidding my entertainers good-night and seeking an hour or two of rest, one of my men, named Evan Switzoff, a favorite of mine, came to me and said he would like to have me come to the church, as he was about to be married. It seemed that he had been engaged to an Aleutian girl on St. Paul, Natalia by name, for some three years, and that the present was the first time during this period that he


had had an opportunity of seeing her; and though there was a dangerous trip home in anticipation, neither of them was willing to allow so excellent an occasion for consummating their long-postponed happiness to pass by unnoticed. I endeavored to point out the danger to which he was exposing her by so doing; but though I might have convinced him, I found that argument was entirely wasted upon her, and so gave it up.

      The little church was brilliantly lighted by innumerable wax candles of all sizes, from an immense one six feet long and a foot in diameter, down to the thin tapers which some of the natives carried in their hands. The bride was wonderfully arrayed, considering the place and the short notice she had received, being resplendent in a very light nicely fitting calico dress, with crinoline, a little white bonnet, and a set of imitation coral jewelry; but the acme of style was reached through a pair of green kid gloves, in which the fair one had imprisoned her hands for the first time. Beside this "glass of fashion," poor Evan in his pea-jacket made but a sorry appearance; however, love seemed to overcome all these minor difficulties, and after a long service, rendered wearisome by perpetual bowings, but redeemed by beautiful chanting, they were pronounced man and wife, and the whole company went to the bride's father's to partake of such refreshment as he might provide; after which I, at least, sought my much-needed rest.

      The next day was also a fine one; the sun rose on a perfectly calm sea, and having bade our kind friends adieu, we slowly rowed our now heavily laden boat out of the little harbor. Hour after hour passed by, and though we did not progress as rapidly as when the boat was empty, we still went along at a very good rate of speed, and St. Paul was becoming more and more faint in the distance. Owing to the immense amount of labor, both mental and physical, I had performed during the past few days, and the very small quantity of rest I had been able to obtain, I felt very tired, and about noon, seeing that all was going on well, I stretched myself out on a pile of boxes, so that I might get a little sleep. The sun was shining with unprotested supremacy, and I put my handkerchief over my face to protect it from the unwonted heat. The men were pulling easily; Natalia was seated by her husband, and just as I dropped off I heard her singing an old Russian song, the burden of which was "Cooreet trokka tobacco."

      I must have slept several hours, for when some one awoke me a great change had taken place; the sun was completely lost to sight by dark, thick folds of fog which intervened, and though there was as yet but little wind, our boat rose and fell on each wave of a long heavy swell that came rolling towards us from the northward, which I instantly recognized as the percursor of one of our fierce gales.

      The steersman estimated that we must be about eight miles from St. George, and though he had been steering by compass for an hour or two, since the fog settled down on us, he seemed to be rather uncertain in precisely what direction our island lay. Taking the large oar by which the boat's course was directed, I sent the former helmsman forward to help row; and having made an estimation by the wind, the compass, and my predecessor's approximations, as to what our course should be, I headed the boat in that direction, and trusted to good fortune for a favorable result.

      Time passed away, night came on, but we saw no signs of the island; in vain we strained our eyes over the white caps, which were now beginning to crest the waves; no sight of land was vouchsafed to us – only a great dread darkness on every hand. This soon became so intense that I could not see the oarsman nearest to me; still they pulled on, until one of them cried in a wild, hopeless way, "We have passed by the island!" thus giving verbal utterance to a fear I had felt but had not dared to express. The rowers stopped, and our boat, losing headway, swung heavily round into the trough of the sea. After a few moments' deliberation my mind was made up. Our only chance of escape was, if possible, to lay where we were until the morning, and then endeavor to find the island; so I headed the boat into the wind, and still having three or four men row easily to keep her from drifting, let the others take any manner of rest they had the heart for.

      But what a night it was! The wind increased every hour, and, to add to our misery, about midnight our boat began to leak; first in one, and then in two, three, four and five places in quick succession, while at each lurch the slender framework would beod and twist as if it would break and let our


boat fall apart. There was no help for it – some of our goods must be thrown overboard; so clothing, sugar and tea were quickly passed over the side, and went surging along to the leeward. This lightened the boat; but every half hour showed a new leak to be stopped, while all the men were kept steadily at work rowing, or bailing out the water that came in torrents over the bows and sides.

      At last the day began to dawn, but none too soon, for it was evident to me that we could not keep above water another hour. With the growing light the fog also lifted for a time, and to our great delight we saw the island of St. George under our lee, only about a mile off.

      The shouts of joy from the natives were, however, quickly changed to cries of despair when they saw the long line of breakers which, beginning a quarter of a mile or so from the shore, swept in huge white waves with irresistible force upon the beach.

      If we were to land, we must do so here. To go around to the leeward side of the island, while such a gale was blowing, would have been absolutely impossible, even had our boat been in good condition; as it was, we should sink before we had made a tenth of the distance. To row in over the surf would result in complete destruction of our boat, cargo, and most, if not all, of our lives, those reaching the shore having only a lingering death by starvation to look forward to; remaining where we were was equally certain death. For the first time in all my troubles I lost heart entirely. "And this," thought I, "is the end of all my planning – to perish miserably when within sight of the destination!"

      It was at this moment of universal despair that Evan Switzoff, prompted to mental exertion more by the presence of a loved one than by any fear of personal danger, suggested carrying a surf-line to the shore, and by its aid thought that the boat might be safely taken through the breakers. Surflines are often used wherever it is necessary for boats to land on an unsheltered beach; it is merely a strong rope securely fastened to a buoy outside of the breakers, and thence carried through them to the land, where it is also fastened; a boat wishing to reach the shore, goes to the buoy, and the rope having been taken on board, two men stand at the bow, and two at the stern, and pull her through the surf stern forward, in much the way small ferry-boats used to be taken across our western rivers; but should the men, by any mischance, lose their hold on the rope, the boat will instantly swing round and capsize. It is a dangerous method, but far preferable to landing without it, which in the present case was impossible.

      The idea was eagerly received – but who was to take the line ashore? One suggested that it be fastened round a box, and that the waves would carry it to the beach, where we could see that the inhabitants of the village were now assembled, and that they would understand what it meant, and would fasten the line. In an instant the natives had seized a box, and had secured a line round it, preparatory to throwing it over. But I crushed their shortlived hope by telling them, what was an only too obvious fact, that there was but little chance of the box ever reaching the small strip of beach; in all probability it would be dashed to pieces on the long line of rocks which stretched for miles on either side, in which case their friends on shore would never think of looking for a line; and should the trial meet with such an end, we could not keep afloat long enough to make another. I ended by asking for a volunteer to undertake the dangerous work.

      A short, though seemingly long silence followed my words, each one looking at his neighbor in the hope that he would speak: though for my part, the danger in remaining seemed fully as great as that of going, and I would willingly have volunteered had I known how to swim. At last the silence was broken by a cry from Natalia, as Evan started up and began throwing off his clothes, while the rest of the men, as if released from some enchantment, fell to work bailing out the water which their delay had increased so much that it threatened to sink us instantly.

      We were now just outside of the breakers, so we let go the anchor, and Evan, kissing the weeping Natalia, and grasping my hand as I fastened a line round his body, was off. Over the waves he went, now lost and now appearing, holding his head high up, while the line which I had ready and was playing out dragged loosely behind. The people on the beach seemed to have seen him, for they went a little way into the surf, ready to seize him when he should come near. All went well, and he was within one hundred yards of the beach, when a huge wave,


which had well nigh swamped us, rushed in upon him, towering up a deceitful mass of curling foam. He was so far away that I could not see what took place, but knew, by the rapidity with which the line ran through my hands, that some accident had befallen him. Soon we saw the natives rush into the water, and a moment after return and go higher up the beach. Then the strain upon the line, which for a time had ceased, was renewed, and feeling certain that they must have the other end, I made mine fast to a stronger rope, of which, thank fortune, we had an abundance, and launched it over the side. In about ten minutes there was a great waving of coats and hats on the beach, a signal, we took it, that the rope had been received and made fast; so, hauling it in as lightly as we could, we secured it with a buoy to the hawser of the anchor, and cut ourselves loose. It needed all our strength and skill, and even with them we were a dozen times on the very verge of destruction. But a good Providence willed it otherwise, for in a few minutes our keel touched lightly upon the sand, a hundred hands seized our gunwale on both sides, and we were run high and dry upon the beach.

      That was indeed a joyful greeting. How many times I was embraced and kissed by men, women and children I cannot tell, and should be ashamed to, if I could; but in all this I missed Evan's face, and my first inquiry was for him. Having at length received a coherent direction, I ran to the little hut on the beach where I was told he lay. But I was not the first; poor Natalia! I found her kneeling over the cold, wet body of her husband, trying, by rubbing his face with her hands, and by kisses, to bring him back to life. I feared there was no hope; still, a moment after I was hurrying up the cliff to my house to procure some stimulants. It was useless – he had been neglected too long; and in humble likeness to One far greater, had saved our lives at the cost of his own.

      My memory will lose much that it holds dear before I forget the sweet, sad harmony of those old Slavonian chants, one of rejoicing and one of sorrow, which the men sang as they stood around the little hut, now, alas, containing a double sacrifice.

      The rest may be briefly told. By strict economy the reduced provisions we had succeeded in bringing from St. Paul proved more than sufficient. The Katie arrived in due season, landing abundant supplies, and taking on board in return the furs we had collected. With this event my banishment ended, and on the second of December, just seven months after my arrival, from the deck of our schooner, as we hurried southward, I saw the mist gather round that lone little island for the last time.


Author: Roshow Bezone Jr. (pseud.)
Title: An Adventure in Behring Sea.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol 68, No. 6 (Dec 1888)
Pages: 488-493.