Saturday, July 11, 2020
Vladimir Obruchev (1863-1956)
In 1913 Pyotr Kashtanov, Professor of Geology, was invited by Nikolai Trukhanov, an expert on Siberia and builder of astronomical observatories, to take part in an expedition to the northern Arctic Ocean to discover a new continent. For years, polar explorers had reported seeing remote mountains in the far north, and there was a theory, current at that time, that a large ice-covered continent lay underneath the polar ice-cap. Kashtanov had spent several years arranging for financial and material backing for an exploration of that area and now he was ready to undertake the voyage. He had had a ship constructed after the famous design originated by Fridtjof Nansen, with a double-walled hull and storage room for several years worth of supplies. The North Star, manned by Trukhanov, Kashtanov, Papochkin (zoologist), Gromeko (botanist), and Borovoi (meterologist), left Vladivostok on May 4th and sailed north through the Sea of Okhotsk, the Kuril Islands and the 16 active volcanos in the Kamchatka rift zone, headed for the Beaufort Sea. They stopped briefly at Petropavlosk to acquire sledges and a dog manager, Igolkin. Passing through the Bering Strait, they picked up another member of the party, Yakov Maksheyev, a mining engineer who they discovered paddling a canoe across the Strait, who expressed a willingness to join the expedition. He had just discovered gold in the Chukotka area of north-eastern Siberia.
At 76 degrees latitude, they sighted a range of mountains in the north, and soon after they dropped anchor in a small bay after sailing through the pack ice for several weeks. The six left the ship there, planning to mush north with sledges and dogs while the crew members of the North Star mapped the coastline. The first two days the party covered 34 miles and shortly afterwards they discerned, through the fog and mist, a range of mountains looming above them. Casting about for a way forward, they came upon a pass of sorts, 4500 feet high, which permitted them to cross the mountains and to descend the far side. After topping out, they slogged down through 3 feet of snow and fog for what seemed like an overly long interval when they happened to check their barometer and discovered they were 1200 feet below sea level. Also the compass needle was wavering all over the dial, so they worried about losing their bearings. Fortunately there was a strong south wind blowing, so they used that as a direction indicator. They chopped their way through a number of ice walls, cutting steps and path-finding their way through the windy, fractured ice blocks that impeded their progress. One night while fixing dinner they observed that the boiling temperature of their water for tea was 248 degrees. Also the atmospheric pressure had increased to 2.5 atmospheres. All the instruments indicated that they were, although traveling on a more or less flat slope, 4000 feet below sea level. They continued on and the pressure of the air dropped again at about the same time that the ambient light started to increase. But the air was a peculiar reddish tint and, as the fog began to clear, they saw that the sun was smaller and dimmer than the one they were used to. Soon, the snow fields thinned out and vanished altogether, as the temperature warmed up and the south wind died down somewhat.
The group decided to establish a base camp, as they had to abandon the sledges and dogs in order to continue their explorations. They found a convenient hill and built a small cabin and a storage hut. The decision was made to leave two members at the camp while the rest continued exploring the unknown region ahead. By this point they realized that they were no longer traveling north, but had somehow gotten turned around and were descending into a warmer environment, with fields of coarse grass and occasional patches of shrubbery. In the distance they could see small grey hills, which, as they watched, moved from place to place. Maksheyev and Kashtanov left to investigate and they found that the hills were actually mammoths browsing on the yellow grasses and shrubbery. Not paying attention to their surroundings, they were unpleasantly surprised by a crashing in the brush and, turning around, saw a very large rhinoceros charging them. They managed to escape and return to camp, where speculation was rife as to what was actually going on. At first they thought the Earth had rotated on its axis while they were traveling, but later they realized that the red sun was probably a captured red dwarf star, and that they were in fact inside the planet, apparently living in a portion of a past geological era that had somehow been preserved through some sort of ancient cataclysm in which a meteor (so they speculated) had penetrated the earth's surface and dragged part of the Tertiary fauna and flora with it, creating another sub- surface Terra. They spent time examining the local rocks and botany and realized that they were indeed in the presence of living fossils from the Tertiary period. There was some discussion about the gravitational anomalies that should effect life traveling upside down on the inside of the planet, but none of the scientists could agree on what exactly could account for such a situation.
Two party members, Igolkin and Borovoi stayed at the cabin to take care of the dogs and supplies and the other four men prepared themselves to further explore the southern regions of the territory. There was a small creek or brook nearby, so they built two canoes and began paddling downstream. The savannah disappeared fairly quickly and as the river widened, the banks became laden with bushes and trees, interspersed with glimpses of vast plains with mammoths, giant yak-like kine, giant deer, shaggy proto-horses, rhinoceroses, hordes of giant mosquitos, horse-flies and gnats. Giant boars and saber-toothed tigers occasionally made an appearance. Once, when camped for the night, Gromeko was picked up in the twilight by vulture with a 15 foot wing span. A dose of buckshot discouraged him, however, and the botanist suffered nothing more than indignity and a few bruises. Wandering on the prairie one day, Kashtanov saw another moving mountain and discovered it to be a giant turtle. Several times, giant hippopotami charged the camp, once dragging off a canoe until Maksheyev raced after it and cut the rope by which it was being carried off. Monster storms were frequent, with thunder like cannon shots and rivers of rain accompanied by sheets of lightning. Kashtanov found outcrops to analyze occasionally, some of which he was able to identify as aerolites from a mesosiderite group, half iron with olivine and nickel.
Eventually the party arrived at a large lake, which they paddled across and found themselves, briefly, in a Cretaceous environment with the appropriate fossils living around them. Soon, as they continued south, they entered a Jurassic zone, however, with it's brontosauri, camel-giraffes, glyptodonts, iguanodons and other titanotheriums. They had run-ins with Creodonts, Triceratops, Hesperornis (large birds), and foot long dragonflies that bit. There was an archeopteryx, some ammonites, pterodactyls and plesiosuarises. An ichthyosaur made its appearance with a stinky stegosaur that was 12 feet high and 25 feet long.
The worst encounter they had was with an ant colony. These insects were 3 feet long and voraciously aggressive. They stole most of the party's supplies at one point, and after considerable thought, two of the party climbed a local volcano and scraped 200 pounds of sulfur off the inside walls of the crater, with which they made a poisonous gas that they used to kill all the ants in their nest. They were able to recover their provisions and accouterments and journey onward. Inside another volcano, they felt the ground shake and a deep rumble; they left with all dispatch, just in time to observe a Plinian eruption, like Mt. St. Helens, with nuee ardentes (flowing ash clouds), explosive eruptions and ejecta flying about their ears.
The adventures continued, including yet another erupting volcano (which they named "Old Grouchy" because it spit black gravel at them) which trapped them in a mudslide and caught them between two lava flows. There was a battle with more ants, there were boggy sloughs that stole their boots, and they had constant battles with iguanodons. At one point, on top of a high peak, they saw nothing to the south but bleak, arid desert that was lifeless so far as they could tell, so they decided to return to base camp. Winter was coming on, and they hurried to avoid being trapped in the northern snows. Making about 25 miles a day, they reached the camp only to find that it was deserted. After investigation, they found that Igolkin and Borovoi had been kidnapped by a tribe of primitive ancestors of modern humanity who worshipped the captives as gods because of their weapons and clothes. So there was an episode of tracking and rescuing, after which the reunited explorers made their way back through the snowy mountains to the North Star. Setting sail for home, the ship was accosted by a destroyer which captured them and stole all their records and samples. World War One had just begun, and travel was discouraged by the authorities. Abandoned at Kamchatka, the friends drifted away one by one, until only Kashtanov and Trukhanov were left. These last two finally got a Japanese fishing boat to carry them to Japan from which they took a ferry to the Chinese mainland and contrived to catch the train across Siberia and back to Moscow.
This was an exciting and well written book. Obruchev lived a very long time and supposedly wrote one thousand books, only a few of which have been translated. The geology was interesting and the portrayal of the antediluvian creatures was accurate and detailed. The plotting was well thought out and realized. I have to say that this was the most believable and convincing account of hollow earth experiences that i've read, comparing it to the works of Margaret Cavendish, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Captain Symm, and the others i've had the opportunity of perusing. It's a subject that was of considerable importance and interest in centuries past even though it's not paid much attention today. But studying all the various ramifications and theories , from scientific based ones, to spiritually oriented productions, has given me a kind of overview of how humans have dealt with unusual concepts, or actually how they have gone about explaining the real world to themselves. Curious clues to the operation of the psyche, one might say...
NB: this novel meets Cirtnecce's challenge of reading a summer book of more than 400 pages... it had 404...