In the Straits of Magellan

ON Tuesday, the 19th of March, about noon, we left Sandy Point, where we had been passing several pleasant days. It is the only settlement in the Straits of Magellan, and lies midway between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Its position marks a sudden and decided change in the general aspect of the region, — the shores in the eastern portion of the straits being open and low, and the passages between them wide as compared with those of the western portion. I like to remember that afternoon. To me it was full of vague anticipation, for we were on the threshold of the region where, we had been taught to believe, mountains rise sharply up from narrow ocean channels, and glaciers dip into the sea ; where the scenery at once delights and stimulates the imagination, suggesting more than it reveals. The weather was beautiful, a mellow autumn day with a reminiscence of summer in its genial warmth. The cleft summit of Mount Sarmiento was clear against the sky, and its snowfields, swept over by alternate light and shadow, seemed full of soft undulations. Cloven peaks are, by the way, a common feature of mountains in the Straits of Magellan, as we afterward found. Indeed, from this time forward, for many days, our way was in the midst of scenery which, though constantly varied by local features, had a certain uniformity throughout. All those narrow passes marked on the map as Froward Reach, English Reach, Crooked Reach, and the still more intricate passage known as Smythe’s Channel, are so many ocean defiles hemmed in between mountains, the lower slopes of which are heavily wooded. Bays and inlets, deep fiords and small sheltered harbors, break the base of these mountain walls on either side, while above the sombre forests, above the line of vegetation, lie vast fields of snow and ice, glaciers in which you count every rift and crevasse as you steam past them, and from which countless cascades descend to join the waters beneath. Such were our surroundings for three delightful weeks. On the particular afternoon in question we were bound to the bay of Port Famine, where we anchored before sunset. Its name recalls the sad story of the men who landed there nearly three centuries ago, and watched and waited for the help that never came. I do not know whether the slight vestiges of ruined buildings, and the mossgrown cannon still to be found on a height above the bay, mark the site of Sarmiento’s ill-fated colony, but they naturally associate themselves with the old tradition. The beach at Port Famine is lined with singularly regular but completely upturned strata, their edges either worn down or cut to one level so as to be almost even with each other. As we returned to the ship that evening, the moon was just rising over the brow of the hill, and her light rippled across the still water, side by side with the red reflection from a huge fire built by our sailors on the beach. Sailors have a cheery affection for an open fire. Perhaps it recalls home and the domestic, cosey side of life, so far removed from the forecastle. Whatever be the reason, our men were never on shore for half an hour without building a glorious structure of drift-wood and dry branches, laid with such art that it was a pleasure to see the blaze creep through and finally burst in triumph from the top.

The great event of the next day was the rounding of Cape Froward, a huge mass of rock thrown out in a bold promontory from the north side of Froward Reach. So close did we coast along, that the geology was quite legible even in detail from the deck of our vessel. The contorted strata forming the base of Cape Froward’s rugged cliffs, the rounded shoulders of the mountains in marked contrast to their peaked and jagged crests, the general character of the snow-fields and glaciers, not crowded into narrow valleys, but spread out on the open slopes of the loftier ranges, or fitted dome-like over their single summits ; all these features passed constantly before us in an evershifting panorama. One of the most beautiful points in the view was a huge twin glacier, or rather a glacier single in its origin but divided at its lower end by a mountain spur. In the afternoon we passed Cape Holland, another very bold and striking headland, and anchored in Fortesque Bay early enough to have several hours of daylight before us. In this sheltered harbor, with Mount Cross for a breastwork against the west wind, we found ourselves in a different climate from the one in which we had passed the morning, with a strong breeze blowing dead against us.

We spent the remainder of the day in wandering along the rocky, pebbly beach ; penetrating sometimes, though on account of the underbrush but for a little way, among the trees. Here I first saw the wild fuchsia in full bloom, growing along the shore in large banks as thick and abundant as those of the mountain-laurel in New England, and also the beautiful pink bells of the “Philesia buxifolia,” an exquisite flowering shrub. We came upon a Fuegian hut on the beach. We often saw their deserted camps afterward, but they never differed from this first specimen. Dwellings they can scarcely be called. A few flexible branches are stuck in the ground in a semicircle, and their ends are drawn together so as to form a kind of hood in the shape of a chaise-top. It is too low for any posture but that of squatting or lying down. In front is always a scorched spot where their handful of fire has smouldered ; at one side is invariably a large heap of empty shells, showing that they had occupied this spot until they had exhausted the supply of mussels, their favorite, or at least their principal, food. We had already met Fuegian Indians in their canoes. The very day before, as we left Port Famine, a boat containing three men and two women had put off from a spot we had been watching with some interest, because a smoke on the edge of the wood, and a few figures moving about, indicated a camp. They showed no disposition to come on board, but seemed rather by their gestures inviting us to pay them a visit, — pointing to their fires, and frantically waving skins which no doubt they wished to barter for tobacco, though their wild shrieks and shouts were then unintelligible to us. One would hardly believe that five human beings could make so much noise. One of the men, the more prominent spokesman, (though where all screamed in unison it was difficult to give pre-eminence to any,) was decently dressed in a flannel shirt and drawers. The others were scarcely clad at all, unless scant skins hanging loose from their shoulders could be called clothing. The women were naked to the waist ; their babies were lashed to them, leaving them free to paddle lustily with both arms and nurse their children at the same time. Their boats are usually of their own making, and one can only wonder that people ingenious enough to make bark canoes so neatly and strongly put together, and so well modelled, should have invented nothing belter in the way of a house than a twig hut, compared with which a wigwam is an elaborate building ; and that they should not provide themselves with a covering for warmth, if not for decency, in a climate where snow and rain are the rule rather than the exception.

The next morning as we steamed out of our snug anchorage, the snow-fields, spite of heavy clouds behind us, lay glittering on the mountains like purest marble in the early light. They were dazzling to look upon. The weather improved as we went on, and indeed we congratulated ourselves upon having in this unkind climate a day when freakish, capricious sunshine, like a moody artist, brought out bits of landscape here and there, while from time to time a rainbow’s broken arch fell through the drifting fleece of clouds. We were bound through the so-called Narrow Reach, a long, winding corridor with rocky walls, opening right and left into narrow picturesque valleys which abut at their farther end against the loftier ranges of snow-mountains. The sides of these valleys as well as the walls of the channel itself in their lower portions, and indeed sometimes for their whole height, are moutonnés; that is, they are worn into gently rounded swelling mounds or knolls. The evening before at Fortesque Bay, Mr. Agassiz, who was always hunting the lost thread of a past glacial period and trying to recement its broken fragments, had found many glacial pebbles and boulders bearing all the characteristic marks of ice action. Did they belong to a former extension of local glaciers, or to the general all-embracing action of a still more ancient and universal ice-time ? However this may be, it became evident to him, as we advanced, that the two sets of phenomena existed together, one underlying the other, and that to unravel the whole story correctly they must be tracked separately. The well-known feature of glacial action just alluded to, the moutonnées surfaces, became a guide for him in tracing, not only the direction in which the ice-sheet had moved, but also its original thickness. The abrupt line where the undulating surfaces yield to sharply cut jagged crests indicates in the Straits of Magellan, as in the Alps, the highest limit of glacial action. One most remarkable instance of this is in Mount Tarn, whose long serrated edge is like a gigantic saw, while the lower shoulders of the mass are hummocked into a succession of rounded hills. Just at the entrance of Narrow Reach, Bachelor Peak forms a bold mountain bluff dividing two beautiful valleys, York Valley in which runs the little York River, and what we may call Jerome Valley, since Jerome Mountain forms its higher boundary. In both these valleys the summits of their lateral walls are jagged and rough, with snow-fields lying between their abrupt points; while lower down their slopes are all symmetrically rounded in the most striking way.

We sailed prosperously along through this beautiful scenery till about three o'clock in the afternoon ; but the fitful promise of the morning betrayed us in the end. The wind, which had been strong all day and coming upon us in flaws, increased with sudden fury. Rushing through the narrow tunnel in which we were caught, it seemed to gather strength and speed in proportion to its compression. I had never imagined such a tumult of the elements. In an inconceivably short time the channel was lashed into a white foam, the roar of wind and water was so great you could not hear yourself speak, though the hoarse shout of command and the answering cry of the sailors rose above the storm. To add to the confusion a loose sail slatted as if it would tear itself in pieces, with that sharp, angry, rending sound which only a broad spread of loose canvas can make. It became impossible to hold our own against the amazing power of the blast, and the captain turned the vessel round with the intention of putting her into Borja Bay, not far from which, by good fortune, we chanced to be. As she came broadside to the wind in turning, it seemed to my inexperience that she must be blown over, so violently did she careen. Once safely round, we flew before the wind, which now helped as much as it had hindered, and were soon abreast ofBorja Bay. Never was there a more sudden transition from chaos to peace, than the one we made as we turned out of the main channel into its quiet waters, — a somewhat difficult manœuvre under the circumstances, for a driving cloud of mist and rain now enveloped us. Our ship almost filled the tiny harbor shut in between mountains, and there we lay safe and sheltered in breathless quiet, while a few yards from us the storm raged and howled outside. These frequent, almost land-locked coves are the safety of navigators in these straits ; but after this day’s experience it was easy to understand how sailing vessels may be kept waiting for months between two such harbors, struggling vainly to make a few miles, and constantly driven back by sudden squalls.

The next morning fresh snow lay on the mountains around us, and we were still detained in our harbor by inclement weather. Spite of the storm, two of our companions ascended the peak on the side of the bay. They found the same smoothed and rounded surfaces which we had observed along our whole route to a height of fifteen hundred feet, above which the rocks were broken and rugged. From the brink of the snowcovered ridge on which they stood, they saw below them a cup-shaped depression holding two little lakes, and looking singularly green and peaceful as seen from the upper region of gusts, snow, and rain in which they found themselves. These lakes fed a pretty cascade, which poured over the rocks at the side of our vessel. In Borja Bay we made our first acquaintance with the so-called “Williwaws ” of the straits. A “ Williwaw ” is a curious phenomenon to the inexperienced. All may be quiet, not a breath stirring; suddenly a gust strikes the ship, and she is shaken for a moment from masthead to keel as if in a giant’s grasp, and almost before you have time to feel the shock the wind has passed, vanished into the calm out of which it came, leaving all still again.

On Saturday, the 23d of March, in weather which, though still doubtful, was not wholly unpromising, we started once more. We passed through what is called Straight Reach as distinguished from Crooked Reach, where we had been caught by the storm on Thursday. Like the latter it is narrow, bordered by the same picturesque scenery, but almost without a curve. The early part of that day is, however, like a shifting panorama in my memory. In truth, the fitful curtain of mist hanging for so much of the time over this whole region is deceptive ; one hardly knows what may be the extent or height of the mountains. Sometimes a magnificent peak is suddenly revealed behind and above the nearer mountains, and is gone again almost before you can say you have seen it. You cannot but have constantly in your mind the adventures of the early explorers, feeling their way along in their small sailing vessels through this labyrinth of mountain and ocean, half hidden, half revealed by driving fog and rain ; the channel sometimes narrowing suddenly between its rocky walls, a headland looming unexpectedly upon them out of the mist, an absolute ignorance of the safe harbors on either side, and the waters so deep that they might drop their anchor within afoot of the shore and find no bottom.

I pass over two or three days spent on and about the Hassler Glacier, having already given an account of their adventures in a previous number of the “ Atlantic,” and come to a lovely afternoon when we entered Chorocua Bay, lying on the southern side of the straits, very near their opening into the Pacific Ocean. The scenery during the morning had had a new scientific interest, because we had kept along the southern side of the channel, having hitherto held our course nearer the northern shore. There is, in truth, a marked difference between the northern and southern sides of the straits ; the latter being more abrupt and less generally rounded than the former. This fact had a special value for Mr. Agassiz, as an observer of glacial phenomena, for the following reason. In Switzerland it is well known that the surface of any rocky slope or ledge over which a glacier advances will be less influenced by its action than one toward and against which it moves. The ice, though flexible enough to fit itself to an inequality not otherwise to be passed over, is nevertheless a solid, and where it is possible will bridge a depression or hollow without touching it. A sheet of ice advancing across a valley from the south northward, for instance, will drop over the southern brink into the hollow, coming into contact only with its edge, just as a waterfall may shoot free of the ledge over which it springs ; but once in the valley, in order to ascend the opposite bank this same ice-sheet must force itself up against the slope, wearing, furrowing, and grinding the surface as it goes. These are frets daily witnessed in the Alps ; their results are readily recognized by any one familiar with glacial action. Supposing, therefore, that during the glacial period the ice sheet in the southern hemisphere advanced from south to north, (I speak now of a universal ice-time preceding and in its effects underlying all local glacial phenomena,) this difference between the two banks of the straits would be natural ; the north side being the strike side, while the opposite wall, especially where most abrupt, might not have come in contact with the ice at all. At all events, their general aspect, as compared with each other, led Mr. Agassiz to believe what he had already theoretically inferred as probable, namely, that there has been a movement of the ice in the southern hemisphere from the south northward, corresponding to that which has taken place from the north southward in the northern hemisphere. For the sake of local accuracy, I may mention one of many instances. On the southern side of the straits, just opposite the Gulf of Xualtequa, a lofty wall of rock descends into the water, the upper portions of which are everywhere modelled by glacial action, while the abrupt, steep exposure forming its lower half is quite free of rounded surfaces. From its aspect one would say that the sheet of ice had ground over its upper slopes and then dropped over the lower wall, bridging the space between it and the water. These remarks would mislead were they understood in an exclusive sense. Both sides of the straits are rugged in parts ; both are rounded and hummocked in parts ; but the southern shore is much the more abrupt of the two.

We were tempted to turn into Chorocua Bay by Captain Mayne’s mention of a glacier descending into the water. There is a large glacier in sight above it on the western side, though not directly accessible, as we had hoped to find it. Notwithstanding this disappointment, we rejoiced that we had entered this bay, for it is singularly beautiful. Deep gorges open on either side, bordered by steep richly wooded cliffs, and overhung by ice and snow-fields on loftier heights. Where these channels lead, into what dim recesses of ocean and mountain, it is impossible to say, for within them, so far as I know, no one has penetrated. The weather was most friendly to us. Chorocua Bay, with all its adjoining inlets and fiords, was glassy still ; only the swift steamer ducks, as they shot across, broke the surface of the water with their arrowy wake. Quiet as in a church, voices and laughter seemed an intrusion, and a shout came back to us in repeated echoes, dying away at last in far-off, hidden retreats. We left the place with great regret; we would gladly have explored, if only for a little distance, these narrow, winding, ocean pathways within which mountains and forest covered Walls were mirrored on this tranquil afternoon with absolute fidelity. But we could not venture to stay, with the risk of being kept there by a change of weather. Provisions, coal, the necessities of the vessel, admonished us to keep on our way, and we crossed to Cape Tamar and anchored before nightfall within Sholl Bay, the vestibule as it were of Smythe’s Channel. The shores of this large gulf, unveiled by mist, were clear in the evening light. Pearly tints, pale pink, blue, and amethyst, faded over the snow mountains opposite our anchorage ; and when the same ashy paleness came upon them which follows sunset on the Alpine snows, the whole range was reflected in dead white in the water, as if it had been built of marble.

The next day we divided forces. Botanists, zoologists, sportsmen, and sundry nondescripts, such as Mrs. Johnson and myself, landed on the beach at about six o’clock in the morning, taking with us a tent, deck-blankets, lunch, everything needful, in short, to make us comfortable for half a day’s sojourn, with possible vicissitudes of weather. The vessel put out into the straits again with the rest of the party, for the purpose of making soundings and dredgings in the neighborhood of Cape Tamar. Mr. Agassiz was much interested in the form and structure of the beach in Sholl Bay. The ridge of the beach itself is a glacial moraine, and accumulations of boulders, banked up in uniform morainic ridges concentric with one another and with the beach moraine, extend far out from the shore like partly sunken reefs. The pebbles and boulders of these ridges are not local, or at least only partially so ; they are erratic and have the same geological character as those of the drift material throughout the straits. Our morning on this beach was very interesting. Having pitched our tent, deposited our wraps, provisions, etc., and built our fires, we dispersed in various directions. It did not look like approaching winter. Luxuriant banks of fuchsia, Desfontainea, and Philesia crowned the beach ridge, and were brilliant with blossoms, while other bushes were full of sweet and juicy berries. Following a creek of fresh water that ran out upon the sands, we came to a romantic brook forming a miniature cascade and rushing down through a gorge bordered by old moss-grown trees and full of large boulders, around which the water surged and rippled. This gorge was a haunt of ferns and lichens carpeting all its nooks and corners. We tracked the brook to a small lake lying some half a mile behind the beach. The collections made along the shore were numerous, and included a great variety of animals. Among them were star-fishes, volutas, sea-urchins, seaanemones, medusæ, doris, and small fishes from the tide-pools, beside a number drawn in the seine.

Toward the middle of the day we all strayed in one by one from our wanderings, and assembled around or within the tent for lunch. All luxuries and superfluities had long dropped off from, our larder ; mussels roasted on the shell, salt pork broiled on a stick, and hard-tack formed our frugal meal ; but such as it was, we were called upon to share it with a numerous company. A boat rounded the point of the beach, and as it approached we saw that it was full of Indians, — men, women, and children. The men landed (they were five or six in number) and came toward us. I had wished to have a near view of the Fuegians, but I confess that, when my desire was gratified, my first feeling was one of utter repulsion and disgust. I have seen many Indians, both in North and South America, the wild Sioux of the West, and various tribes of the Amazons, but I had never seen any so coarse and repulsive as these ; they had not even the physical strength and manliness of the savage to atone for brutality of expression. Almost naked (for the short, loose skins tied around the neck and hanging from the shoulders could hardly be called clothing), with swollen bodies, thin limbs, and stooping forms, with a childish yet cunning leer on their faces, they crouched over our fire, spreading their hands toward its genial warmth, and all shouting at once, “Tabac, tabac,” and “ Galleta,” — biscuit We had no tobacco with us, but we gave them the remains of our hard-bread and pork, which they seemed glad to have. Then the one who appeared, from the deference paid him by the rest, to be chief, sat down on a stone and sang in a singular kind of monotone. The words were evidently addressed to us, and seemed from the gestures and expression to be an improvisation concerning the strangers. There was something curious in the character of this Fuegian song. It was rather recitation than singing, but was certainly divided into something like strophes or stanzas ; for although there was no distinct air or melody, the strain was brought to a close at regular short intervals, and ended always exactly in the same way and on the same notes with a rising inflection of the voice. When he finished we were silent with a sort of surprise and expectancy ; his blank, disappointed expression reminded us to applaud, and then he laughed with pleasure, imitated the clapping in an awkward way, and began to sing again. I do not know how long this scene might have lasted, for the man seemed to have no thought of stopping, and the flow of words was uninterrupted ; but the Hassler came in sight, her recall gun was fired, and we hastened down to the beach landing. Our guests followed us, still clamorously demanding tobacco, and we signed to them that they might follow us on board the vessel, where they would get some. Meantime the women had brought their boat close to ours at the landing. They began to laugh, talk, and gesticulate with much energy. They are, or at least they seemed whenever we saw them, a very noisy people, chattering constantly with amazing rapidity and all together. Their boat, with the babies and dogs to add to the tumult, was a perfect Babel of voices, especially after the men joined them. We reached the ship first, but they presently came along-side, still shouting and shrieking without pause and in every key, “Tabac, tabac,” “ Galleta, galleta.” We threw them down both, and they grabbed for them like wild animals. From the fierceness with which they snatched at whatever was thrown into the boat, it seemed that each one was the owner of what he could catch, and that there was no community of goods. I threw down some showy beads and bright calico to the women, who seemed pleased, though I should doubt their knowing what to do with the latter. They wore a coarse kind of amulet made of shells tied in a string around the neck, so that the beads would certainly come in play. They had some idea of trade and barter, for when they found they had received all the tobacco and biscuit they were likely to get gratuitously, they held up bows and arrows, wicker baskets, birds, and the large sea-urchin, which is an article of food with them. Before we parted from our friends, they seemed to me more human than when I first saw them. Indeed the faces of one or two were neither brutal nor ugly. One boy was eminently handsome ; a lad of some sixteen or seventeen years perhaps. He looked like an Italian, and in the garb of a lazzarone would have passed muster in a Neapolitan street without detection. His complexion was dark, but ruddy and rich in tone, his features were regular, his eyes large and soft, and his teeth superb. He showed them, for he was always on the broad grin. His figure remains in my memory as he clung like a monkey to the side of the ship, his free hand stretched toward us, his head thrown back, half laughing, and crying to the last minute, “Tabac, tabac.” Indeed, long after the steamer had started and when their position seemed really perilous, both men and women hung on the side of the vessel, dragging the boat below, trying to climb up, stretching their hands to us, praying, shrieking, screaming for more tobacco. When they found it at last a hopeless chase, they dropped off and began again the same chanting recitative which we had heard on the beach, waving their hands in farewell. So we parted. I looked after them as they paddled away, wondering anew at the strange problem of a people who learn nothing even from their own wants, necessities, and sufferings. They wander naked and homeless in snow and mist and rain as they have done for ages, asking of the land only a strip of beach and a handful of fire, of the ocean shellfish enough to save them from starvation.

Mrs. E. C. Agassiz.