CAPTAIN WIGGINS writes from Yeniseisk, Siberia, under date December 7th, 1893 :—
[page 121] I daresay you are wondering how we have succeeded in our attempt to reach this part of the world once more. Suffice it to say that we found the Kara Sea much the same as usual. During the latter part of August it was well free of ice; there was no difficulty in avoiding what ice there "was, and in reaching our port of destinalion, Golchika, in lat. 71° 40' N., at the entrance of this magnificent river. This is my fifth visit to this place, and the ninth voyage across the Kara Sea since our first successful attempt in 1874.
The most interesting fact connected with this memorable trip is that we have succeeded in convoying the first Russian Government vessels that have ever arrived on these waters. What is perhaps of more importance to the future of this country, Siberia, we" have (under private contract with the Russian Government) succeeded in landing the first section of rails for the construction of a Trans-Siberian Railway.
The Russian Government hearing of our proposed voyage with Mr. Popham in the Blencathra Arctic steam yacht, for the purpose of pleasure, and with the desire to assist Nansen with stores and coals across the Kara Sea, offered us the privilege of taking these first 1600 tons of rails. Though rather late in the season, we at once closed with the offer, and quickly despatched the Orestes, a large merchant steamer, to Vardö, where we were joined by two Government steamers and a large schooner barge, all for future use on this river. We also brought our own shallow-draught steam barge, now named the Minusinsk, and I am happy to say without any mishap. All these four riverine craft are now safely laid up in winter-quarters here. True, we have not managed to bring all the rails, owing to the wretched lighters that were sent down river to receive our cargo. They literally fell to pieces as we loaded them. A large portion of the rails now lies at Golchika, which must bo brought up river next summer. Another [page 122] portion—some 250 tons—had to return to Archangel in the Orestes, seeing that no other lighters could be obtained. Nevertheless we have landed here and at Krasnoyarsk, some 300 miles further up river, about three thousand rails; and had the river barges not failed us, we should have brought up the whole cargo with ease. As it is, we have once more proved to the world at large the feasibility of this north-east ocean route. That has been accomplished not merely by specially-prepared Arctic vessels, but by ordinary sea and riverine iron steamers, one a paddle, another a screw barge, and an ordinary schooner barge, the latter being towed, of course. True, the Arctic yacht Blencathra accompanied us, but, as I have always found it, the Kara Sea ice was no hindrance to the safe progress of the other ordinary steamers. With ease and pleasure we ran these and the huge Orestes up to Golchika, demonstrating that the largest of our merchant steamers can trade to these parts. This vessel, and Mr. Popham's yacht Blencathra, arrived safely back at Archangel, where the Orestes discharged the balance of her rails, and loaded full cargo for a home port. All this should now surely prove the Kara Sea to be a commercial route.
I must now turn to a subject which will, no doubt, interest you even more than our success-brave Nansen and his trusty companions with the Fram. You will have heard that they succeeded in passing Pett's Straits, a fortnight ahead of us ; and that they held communication with the villagers of Khabarova, or St. Nicholai, as it is now named. Nansen, before he left home, arranged with us that he would deposit letters and despatches at this village; but though we searched and made inquiries of the priest and Russian traders there, we could not discover any such documents. I now find that the gallant leader took advantage of a more speedy mode of transit, by handing them to the messenger who brought him dogs, etc.; by this foresight on his part the news reached England much sooner. Since that time nothing more has been heard of this heroic band, for I regret to say we were unable to visit and inspect Dickson's Harbour either in the coming or the returning of the Orestes and Blencathra; the weather proved very bad both times, and Mr. Popham had to continue on his voyage, which being of a commercial nature, had its serious risks at stake in regard to a Government cargo and insurances, etc.
The question with respect to Nansen now is, how has he succeeded not merely in passing the Kara Sea, and perhaps visiting Dickson's Harbour, but rather how has he managed to pass the northernmost promontory of these Arctic shores, Cape Chelyuskin ? I am rather afraid he has had some trouble, seeing that I found the drift-ice very close in-shore to the northward of Dickson's Harbour; but as our voyage did not admit of a deviation sufficient for properly inspecting that ice, and ascertaining whether or not it impinged closely on to the north-west land, I am unable to give a decided opinion as to success or non-success.
[page 123] This I must say, I never before saw the ice in that vicinity so late in the season ; still that must not be taken as a drawback or hindrance to the steady and successful progress of the Fram. I sincerely hope that the ice we saw was at a fair distance from the land, in which case we may perhaps have news, by way of the Lena, of the safe wintering of the little band at or in the vicinity of the New Siberian Islands; providing always that Nansen has an opportunity of communicating with. the mainland. On the other hand, I should not be surprised to find that Nansen has gone farther to the northward, should the lead of the outer edge of the main pack permit of his doing so. In such a case we can have no further news of his doings until we hear of his safe return by way of the Pole, or retreat by way of the Novaya Zemlya seas, the Kara Sea, or the Siberian coast.
If you remember, I recommended his keeping, if possible, in the line of and near the meridian of Cape Chelyuskin, or not farther eastward than the 100th degree, and to avoid the dangerous vicinity of the New Siberian Islands. I hope he has been able to do this. Of course, should the trend of the heavy pack-ice edge lead him eastward, he is bound to go; but I much fear the shallow water and strong erratic currents of the Siberian Islands may cause them much trouble. I have been confirmed in this belief by the experience of Dr. Bunge, of the Russian Imperial Navy, who has been located on those desolate islands for the last five years. He has but just left that spot, where he has been making scientific inquiries, to join this, our present expedition from England.
On the other hand, should Nansen have been prevented from rounding the Chelyuskin Cape, or have been compelled to retreat to Dickson's Harbour for the winter, then we ought to have heard of him by the many natives who roam about those parts. This absence of news leads me to think that he has rounded the Cape, in which case I hope he has gone well northward, where the strong and steady currents from the Kara Sea join the stream of these mighty Siberian rivers. By this route I have every faith that the expedition will reach a high latitude, discover new lands, and perhaps closely approach the vicinity of the Pole itself.
Mr. Jackson left the Orestes at Pett's Straits, where he located himself in the house of the Priest at St. Nicholai ; his desire was to examine the Yalmal Peninsula and the eastern shores of the Kara Sea. I hear that on the return of the Blencathra Mr. Popham found him still there, but I have not heard what his future arrangements were, or what he intends doing. Probably he may return home by way of the Pechora and Archangel.
We leave here in a few days, and hope to reach home by February at farthest. The Siberians gave us a grand reception here ; this voyage of ours is a momentous event to them, opening out a new era for their country.
[page 124] December 19th.
Just a line to say that we are now on the eve of our departure for St. Petersburg, and then home.
An interesting event has just happened—the arrival here of two gentlemen from the New Siberian Islands. They are Baron Toll and a naval lieutenant, who were commissioned by the Russian Government and certain scientific societies to make observations and take stores to the above-named islands, by way of the Lena River via Irkutsk, but they made a most interesting detour on their route home by coming direct from Yakutsk across the northern Tundras to Dudinka—some 1000 miles down the river—and sledging up to the city. I have not the track of their journey, so cannot send it you, but will endeavour to obtain it, as it is unique.
They are very much interested in Nansen's work. They report having landed stores, etc., at the northern islands of the Siberian group, and that dogs are awaiting Nansen in the vicinity of the Olenek River. So we must expect that Nansen has called there for these dogs, in which event news should soon reach this vicinity or Irkutsk, as the messenger with dogs would bring letters, as was the case with the messenger who delivered him the dogs at Khabarova. On the other hand, these gentlemen assure me that should Nansen require to retreat by way of the Siberian Islands and the Lena, or any part of the coast between that and Cape Chelyuskin, the natives have been given notice to assist.
Knowing the anxiety arising from the fact of our not having been able to communicate with Dickson's Harbour this season, I send this at once in order that the minds of all friends, etc., of Nansen's Expedition may realise the important fact that should any trouble arise to them, compelling them to retreat by way of the main coast, there will be assistance at hand. I may here state that next summer I shall make a point of calling in at Dickson's Harbour should there not be news in the interval of Nansen's whereabouts or safety.
The weather here is wonderfully mild for the time of year, so I hope Nansen may be able to push on northward. The Yenisei is not yet all frozen over—a thing almost unprecedented.