The New Eldorado. A Summer Journey to Alaska
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“The Alaska banks would be an ocean paradise to the Newfoundland fishermen,” says Professor Davidson. “The eastern part of Behring Sea ‘is a mighty reserve of cod,’ and the area within the limits of fifty fathoms of water is no less than eighteen thousand miles.” “What I have seen,” said W. H. Seward at Sitka, in 1869, “has almost made me a convert to the theory of some naturalists, that the waters of the globe are filled with stores for the sustenance of animal life surpassing the available productions of the land.” The coast also abounds in oysters, clams, mussels, and crabs. The oysters are small, but of excellent flavor, and might be greatly improved by cultivation. Clams and mussels are much esteemed by the aborigines, the first-named being large and of prime quality. They dry the clams, as they do salmon and cod, using no salt in the process, but stringing them by the score on long blades of strong grass, and in this shape laying them away for winter use. There is certainly some special preservative quality in the atmosphere here which enables the natives to keep clams unfrozen in good condition for several months. The matter of “ripeness,” however, makes no difference to these Indians, who seem actually to prefer their fish a little putrid, and oil is purposely kept until it becomes so before they will use it.
The hills and valleys of the islands and the mainland support more fur-bearing animals than can be found on any other part of this continent, and we certainly believe of any other part of the world. The great variety includes bears of several species, wolves, beavers, deer, foxes, caribou, martens, mountain goats, moose, musk-oxen, and others. Herds of walruses are found on the far north coast, as well as in Behring Sea, which yield food to the natives, and the best of ivory for sale to the traders. It is a curious fact that no reptile, toad, lizard, or similar animal is to be found in Alaskan territory. The waters of the North Pacific, from the most westerly of the Aleutian Islands up to Behring Strait, swarm with cod, haddock, sturgeon, large flounders, and halibut, while our hardy whale men successfully pursue their mammoth game both north and south of the strait. When the country was first discovered, there was another important animal found here in considerable numbers, known as the sea-cow, which furnished Vancouver and his crew with wholesome and palatable meat, and which had formed a source of food supply for the aborigines probably for centuries. But this large, amphibious animal, thirty feet long and seal-like in shape, has now entirely disappeared. This was owing to merciless slaughter by the Russians, who found the sea-cow an easy prey to capture, because of its inactivity and clumsiness in the water, besides which, the creature is said to have been utterly fearless of man, making no effort to escape when attacked. They are represented to have been fierce when attacked by the wolves, and to have been fully able to defend themselves.
Two islands lying to the north of the Aleutian group form a favorite resort of the fur-seal, which so abounds in this region that nearly a century of active war waged upon them by the hunters, for the sake of their valuable skins, has produced no perceptible diminution in their numbers.This is partly owing, however, to the fact that of late years the killing has been restricted as to the aggregate annual number, and also as to the sex and age of the seals. The pelts sent from Alaska have not fallen short of a hundred thousand annually for the last twenty years, and it is believed by those who should be able to judge correctly that this number has been very much exceeded. There is hardly an uninterested person in the Territory who will not express this opinion.
The two islands referred to in Behring Sea, namely, St. Paul and St. George, together with two smaller and unimportant ones named respectively Otter Island, which is situated six miles south of St. Paul, and Walrus Island, about the same distance to the eastward, are known as the Prybiloff group. St. Paul is thirteen miles long by four broad; St. George is ten miles long and between four and five broad. Neither of them have any harbor in which vessels can safely lie, but they anchor half a mile or more off shore, and freight is taken or delivered by means of lighters. So violent is the surf at times on these islands in mid-ocean that if the wind is unfavorable no attempt at landing is made. Otter Island is peculiar in being nothing more nor less than an extinct volcano, with a still gaping, threatening crater, and an elevation of three hundred feet above the surrounding sea. Its only occupants consist of water-fowl and blue foxes, both as plentiful as peas in a pod. The animals were introduced long ago for breeding purposes, and have greatly increased. These are the “seal islands” so often spoken of, and which furnish four fifths of all the sealskins used in the markets of the world. This sounds like an extravagant estimate, but it is believed to be quite correct.
The islands are of volcanic origin, having been thrown up from the bottom of the sea in comparatively modern times. When one speaks of geological facts, one or two thousand years are considered very brief periods. At the time of their discovery, St. George and St. Paul were uninhabited, but native Aleuts, the nearest of whom lived about two hundred miles south of these islands, were brought hither and domesticated, to work for the Russian Fur Company. Since the transfer to our government these people have worked uninterruptedly for the Alaska Commercial Company, which has, in addition to the headquarters of the seal-fishery, some forty trading stations in the Territory.
We speak of the “seal-fisheries,” but there is in reality no fishing about the business. The seals are all taken on land. The employees of the company get between the seals and the water and drive such as are selected inland like a flock of sheep. They move slowly, pulling themselves along by their fore flippers, as a dog might do with his hind legs broken, but they get over the ground at the rate of one or two miles in the hour, and are driven the latter distance to the warehouse before the killing takes place.
It is curious that these two islands only, with a few small spots in the North Pacific, should possess the peculiar conditions of landing-ground and climate combined which are necessary for the perfect life and reproduction of the fur-seal. H. W. Elliott, who acted as United States government agent for four seasons at the seal islands, and who is good authority upon this special subject, says: “With the exception of these seal islands of Behring Sea, there are none elsewhere in the world of the slightest importance to-day. When, therefore, we note the eagerness with which our civilization calls for sealskin fur, in spite of fashion and its caprices, and the fact that it is and always will be an article of intrinsic value and in demand, it at once occurs to us that the government is exceedingly fortunate in having this great amphibious stock-yard, far up and away in this seclusion of Behring Sea, from which it can draw continuous revenue, and on which its wise regulations and its firm hand can continue the seals forever.”
This writer’s remarks should be qualified, however, so far as to state that the Russians possess some profitable “rookeries” situated on the Commander Islands, seven hundred miles to the southwest of the Prybiloff group, where the same policy of protection for breeding purposes is enforced as govern the traffic of our own islands. It is true that the product of the Russian islands is as nothing compared with that of St. Paul and St. George. A small number of fur-seal are also secured on the coast of Brazil, and at the Shetland and Falkland Islands, giving perhaps twenty thousand pelts annually from other sources than those named in Alaska. It is our own opinion that at least forty thousand pelts are sent to market by unauthorized people from the islands and coast of Alaska, which number should be added to the hundred thousand which the regular company are entitled to export, in getting at the aggregate produced by the Territory.
The two seal islands leased to the Alaska Commercial Company are about thirty miles apart, and are seemingly among the most insignificant landmarks known in the ocean. It is only on very modern maps that they are designated at all, but they afford to the seals the happiest isolation and shelter, their position being such as to envelop them in fog banks nine days out of ten during the entire season of resort. Neither the seals nor the natives can long bear the glare of the summer sun, and so find no fault with this prevailing screen between them and the sky. There are no icebergs, properly so called, in these waters. Behring Strait is too shallow for anything but light field ice to pass into the North Pacific or Behring Sea; there is therefore no fear of visits from the polar bears often seen floating about in the frozen sea at the north. They would make sad havoc among the seals were they to get so far south, and drive them away altogether. Ice floats off from the immediate shores in the spring, but encountering the thermal current, this soon dissolves, and is no impediment to navigation. It is marvelous that the natives dwelling on the group do not die of the poisoned atmosphere arising from the thousands upon thousands of seal carcasses annually slaughtered, and which are left to decay upon the ground. The stench thus created is so powerful that vessels sailing to leeward, three or four miles off shore, are permeated by it, and though their captains may not have been able to get a solar observation for many days, they can easily tell their exact latitude and longitude by “dead reckoning.” Naval surgeons have been detached by government to visit and examine the physical condition of the people on St. George and St. Paul, touching this very matter, and they have reported that the natives enjoyed good health, the mortality among them being at a very low average compared with that of other semi-civilized communities favorably situated. There is a church and school-house on each of the islands, with white teachers, and also a skilled physician, who is paid for his services by the Commercial Company.
The fur-seal traffic has heretofore exceeded all other regular business in value conducted in this Territory, though the product of the precious metals will in future probably take the lead, hard pressed by the rapidly growing development of the fisheries. The habits of the seal are interesting and very peculiar. It is a social animal, and evinces a degree of intelligence nearly approaching that of the dog. Occasionally a young one is found domesticated among the natives of the more populous islands, and when thus brought up among human beings they become very tractable, and are easily taught many amusing tricks. They move in herds, coming to the breeding grounds in large numbers, and at regular periods of the year, that is in the latter part of May and early in June. The contrast between the male and female seal is great, the former being large, bold, and aggressive, the latter small, peaceful, and quiet; both are models of grace and symmetry after their kind. While the males are specimens of great physical strength, the females are delicate, timid, and affectionate. The young are born blind and so remain for a couple of weeks, or more. When they are about six weeks old the mother takes them into the water to teach them to swim. They are very shy of the sea at first, but persistent effort on the mother’s part soon makes them expert swimmers, and rapidly develops that side of their nature. During the breeding season the old males remain on shore, fasting all the while, and growing extremely thin, living by absorption of the blubber which they accumulate while at sea, so that upon retiring at the end of the season they are but a mere shadow of their former selves. They return again the next season, however, as plethoric as ever.
“All the bulls,” says Mr. Elliott, “from the very first, that have been able to hold their positions, have not left them from the moment of their landing, for a single instant, night or day; nor will they do so until the end of the rutting season, which subsides entirely between August 1st and 10th. It begins shortly after the coming of the cows in early June. Of necessity, therefore, this causes them to fast, to abstain entirely from food of any kind, or water, for three months at least; and a few of them actually stay out four months, in total abstinence, before going back into the ocean for the first time after ‘hauling up.’ They then return as so many bony shadows of what they were a few months previously, covered with wounds; abject and spiritless, they laboriously crawl back to the sea to obtain a fresh lease of life.”
The natural food of the seal is believed to be small fishes and kelp, that prolific product of the ocean which is found floating in nearly all latitudes, being torn from its rocky bed by storms and carried everywhere on the tides and currents. The females seldom give birth to more than one at a time, and though they are naturally a very docile animal, the mother will fight savagely for her young. The old males weigh from two to three hundred pounds each, when they first land, soon gathering a harem about them of a dozen females or more, and permitting no other bull to approach the circle. There are occasional elopements among the females, enticed away by young bachelor seals, who have no family ties to occupy them, but as a rule the females remain loyal, at least during the season. The full grown male reaches seven feet in length, and the female about five feet; the latter averages about a hundred pounds in weight, the former weigh twice as much and often more. Nature seems to produce a much larger number of females than of males, besides which the law protects the female from the hunter. The killing of these animals on St. Paul and St. George is nearly all done in six weeks of each year, say from the 10th of June to the 20th of July. As regards the fur, a seal at four years of age is thought to yield the best, and is therefore considered to be at that time in his prime. It is the males of this age, accordingly, which are selected for slaughter. So numerous are these animals that the shore is often black with them, three or four thousand being in sight within the space of a hundred square rods. The pups are full of playfulness, rolling and tumbling about like a litter of kittens. The rule not to kill the old bulls and female young is a necessary precaution to prevent the extermination of the race, which indiscriminate slaughter has probably done in so many other places.
Surgeon J. B. Parker tells us in a published article upon the fur-seals of Alaska, that just previous to the transfer of the country to this government five hundred thousand sealskins were being taken from these islands annually, though it was pretended by the Russians that they restricted the number to one quarter of this total. The strange instinct of the animals which causes them to return yearly in such marvelous numbers to be slaughtered is a mystery difficult to solve. Persistent cruelty exercised towards them for a century has not disturbed their affection for this chosen breeding-place of their ancestors in Behring Sea.
The seals are universally killed by a sharp blow upon the head from a club, which fractures the skull and produces instant death. The natives are so skillful in dealing this blow that a second one is not necessary, and the seal cannot reasonably be supposed to suffer any pain, so that the operation is robbed of all cruel features. The frequent battles fought between the old bulls to maintain possession of their chosen ground and their harems are represented to be of the fiercest character, sometimes ending in the death of one of the combatants, though they are so very hardy and tenacious of life that this is by no means common. The breeding season is at its height in the middle of July. Early in September, the pups having learned to swim, the “rookeries” are gradually broken up for the season, old and young departing together for the deep-sea feeding grounds, nothing being seen of them again as a body until the following May or June. It is quite a mystery as to where they go, but that they promptly disperse in various directions seems most probable, as no seals are met with in large numbers by navigators of the Pacific or the South Seas, and they only land for breeding purposes. The author has seen a few in the month of March off the Samoan group of islands, also in the month of December near the coast of Cochin China. And again, in crossing the Indian Ocean from Bombay to the mouth of the Red Sea, in February, an occasional head of the fur-seal would appear above the surface of the ocean, showing how widely dispersed these animals are. There is a theory which has long existed, to the effect that when the seals depart from Behring Sea they seek a lonely island group in the central Pacific Ocean, somewhere between 53° and 55° north latitude, and longitude 160° to 170° west, where they pass their winter months in peace and plenty. Expeditions have been fitted out at San Francisco for the purpose of discovering these possible islands, but no one has ever seen them. Those most conversant with seal-life do not entertain this supposition, and for good reasons. If any such land existed in the region designated it would surely have been discovered, as it is too near the direct track of commerce not to have been sighted long ago.
The flesh of the fur-seal is eaten by the natives, and the blubber also serves for fuel, as well as furnishing a much-used oil. The stench of the burning fat is extremely disgusting to one not accustomed to it. There is but little lean meat on the animal; nearly the whole body is composed of blubber. The whites eat the flesh of the young seal, which is not unpalatable when properly prepared, and is called Alaska pork. When the females arrive at the “rookeries,” like the old males, they are in remarkably good flesh, so much so, indeed, as to render locomotion difficult; but though they do not fast like the bulls, they nevertheless become quite thin by the end of the season.
St. George and St. Paul islands contain about three hundred and fifty Aleuts, whose sole business is killing and skinning the seals, and afterwards salting and packing the pelts for shipment. They are all in the regular employment of the Commercial Company, which leases the islands. By the terms of the lease from our government, only natives of the Aleutian group of islands can be employed to kill the seals; no whites except the overseers are permitted to remain on the two islands. An agent of the United States occasionally visits them to see that the spirit of the lease is faithfully adhered to; otherwise they are quite isolated from the outer world. Under the protective system, which is presumedly adhered to, the number of seals is said to be on the increase, and the space on the shores which they occupy is enlarged yearly. It has been officially estimated, after actual inspection, that over one million seals are born on these islands every year. It is asserted that double the number of pelts now authorized could safely be taken from the Pribyloff group annually, and it would certainly seem so, when this extraordinary fecundity is realized. But it must also be taken into consideration that man is not the only enemy which the fur-seal has to encounter. When the young ones leave the shore to begin their deep-sea life, they become the prey of many marine cormorants, among which the shark is said to be the most active. This tiger of the ocean does not attack the large, full-grown seals, who are too wary and active for him, but the young ones often fill his capacious maw.
The aborigines employed upon the seal islands do not reach a very old age; persons of over fifty years are seldom found among them. Consumption is the most fatal disease which they encounter; this runs its course with singular speed after being once contracted. All attempts of the physicians are in vain; the patient, falling into a condition of hopeless indifference, soon passes away. We were told that the natives of Alaska generally were very difficult to treat medically, ignoring the benefit of medicines, and generally refusing to take them. These semi-savages will not hesitate to resort to incantations to exorcise evil spirits (or disease, which to them is the same thing), but they fear to use the white man’s agent to remove these evil influences.
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