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A Heroine of the North
Memoirs of Charlotte Selina Bompas (1830-1917)
Wife of the First Bishop of Selkirk (Yukon)

With Extracts from Her Journal and Letters

Compiled by S.A. Archer

London: SPCK, 1929.

Chapter VII. A Journey to the Yukon


MRS. BOMPAS left Yale on May 7, 1892, and, after breaking her train journey at New Westminster, and at Victoria to visit Bishop Hills, arrived at San Francisco, where she remained for three weeks.

In her Journal, written at the Occidental Hotel, she said:

"Here I fell in with Mr. and Mrs. Wallis. He is one of our clergy from the Selkirk diocese and is in charge of the church near Rampart House. He has been home to England to be married, and brings out his bride.

"It is the time of the 'Convention'—or, as we should call it, the 'Synod'—of North and South California, and there has been a large gathering of all the clergy and the two bishops. Bishop Nichols, of North California, held an 'At Home' on Wednesday evening. I was introduced to him and Mrs. Nichols, and they received me most kindly and asked me to stand with them, and I was introduced to everybody and shook hands until I seemed to have no hand left to shake."

On another day she attended a beautiful service, a meeting and a luncheon organized by the Women's Auxiliary, and wrote: "It was altogether a charming day, and my respect and admiration for the American women are greatly increased."

She left San Francisco on board the S.S. St. Paul on June 5.


S.S. "ST. PAUL." June 9.

Out of sight of land. "Water, water everywhere." This is the fifth day of our long voyage, and the Captain says the weather has been unusually fine and the sea exceptionally smooth.

My fellow passengers include Mr. and Mrs. Wallis, a Moravian missionary, an Italian Roman Catholic priest, and three Sisters who are going to open a mission in the Far North, also a Greek Patriarch and his two associates.

The St. Paul is a well-built, steady vessel, but small compared with the Atlantic steamers. My cabin is a nice airy one on deck, with windows which open—to my great comfort. We have an immense amount of freight on board, the hold being completely full and half the deck covered, so that our space for walking is very limited. Most of the cargo on the deck consists of cases of potatoes for the northern whalers, who would starve but for these. Some of the boxes on deck are marked "Arctic Ocean," which makes one feel rather far away. The Captain said yesterday that we are now a thousand miles from land every way, and the Pacific here is three miles deep.

UNALASKA. June 16.

This is such a pretty tranquil spot—so very northern. The entrance to the Bay was grand, great jutting rocks and mountains, reminding me of scenery round Mull. One sees here clearly the demarcation of the Pacific Ocean and Behring Sea. The people are all of the Greek Church, and the Unalaskas are mostly half-breeds, Indian and Russian. I think there are now nine hours' difference of time between us!

June 22.

I have had a very pleasant, restful time here, and it is all so wondrous strange and interesting! One morning lately there was a tremendous explosion from one of the mountains near. All these hills are volcanic, but most of them are extinct. The wild flowers are exquisite; violets as large as heartsease! And lovely white star-shaped blossoms of which I cannot find the name. I send you a small bag of native work, made of part of the inside of a seal. We dined off the seal one day, and were very doubtful whether we liked it. It has much the taste of the fur.

BEHRING SEA. July 4, 1892.

St. Michael is a quiet little island, consisting of the offices and buildings of the Alaskan Company and a few Indian tents and huts spread about here and there. The Indians here are a curious mixed race—Russian, Indian, and Esquimaux. Their language is peculiar, and their dress like the typical Esquimaux—skins and furs and elaborate leggings and moccasins in one.

We are anchored half a mile from the shore, as the coast is very shallow, and the Indians come out to us every day in their wonderful little skin boats with one hole in the centre for the man to sit in and paddle. They are such frail little canoes and dance upon the waves, but they appear perfectly safe, and the Indian sits bolt upright, his head covered with a fur hood, and he keeps on paddling away with a broad grin at the great vessel he is nearing.

We are now in Norton Sound—forty miles north of us is Behring Strait, which is only thirty miles from Asia, and north of that begins the Arctic Ocean.

In my letter from Unalaska I told you of our voyage there, where we remained for eight days and a half. I enjoyed the latter part of the voyage even more than the former. There was hardly any sea sickness among the passengers, so I had less nursing to do, and then came the interesting approach to the Pribiloff Islands. The first sight is here of the pretty seals sporting about in the water, popping straight up to look at us with such pretty, intelligent eyes! We saw several whales, too, and some creatures called "killers," a kind of fish of enormous size with a huge fin in its back! It is most destructive, both to whales and seals. One of them was caught and opened and found to have devoured eighteen seals! There is a smaller kind of whale found here which is perfectly white. The birds, too, are very beautiful. Plenty of eider-ducks, swans of great size, sea-parrots, etc.

When we reached the Pribiloff Islands, I found, to my great satisfaction, that the Captain was going to put in for an hour or two to enable the Greek Bishop to go on shore and hold a service for the people there. I asked permission to accompany him, and he was very gracious and willingly assented. We landed on St. Paul's Island, the largest of the group. As we drew near there were seals in every direction all round us, some climbing the rocks, some in the water, and we heard their strange, plaintive bark, something between a dog's bay and a cow's "moo." As soon as we landed we hurried up to the church and the bells were ringing prettily. The Bishop soon appeared vested in magnificent robes. The church was soon quite full and a short service followed, in which all seemed to join most heartily. There the children were all taken up to be blessed. The singing and the chanting was really beautiful. (It was the Liturgy of St. Basil.) I have attended several of these services and much enjoyed them.

After this I was invited into the house of the Greek priest and had a nice cup of tea made, of course, in a "samovar." Then I left him to talk to the Bishop, and wandered out by myself up the hill, where was a lovely view of the sea and islands and our steamer at anchor. The hill was strewn with seal skulls, and I was told that the next morning 500 of them were to be killed. I picked up a skull and brought it away, and I gathered some flowers and beautiful moss. The whole of the population of St. Paul's Island came down to the beach to see the Bishop and his two boy attendants off, and to receive his blessing. We all shook hands very affectionately, and I wanted to speak to the people, but could only remember a few Russian words which I resolved to hazard, and my Russ seemed to take, for the people one and all came up to me with extended hands and broad smiles, and we exchanged "Preschetchi," etc., most lovingly.

Then I got into the boat and the Bishop stood up and gave the people his blessing, and all the people stood or knelt with bowed heads most reverently. The people kept following us as long as we were visible, and waving to us from the top of the banks and hills.

We hope to leave this in the small river steamer on the 8th. I fear we shall have rather a crush, as the Arctic has not much accommodation.

I did hope to meet my husband at Fort Yukon, and a letter from him met me here. He seemed rather in low spirits, and has had none of his letters. I am most impatient to reach him.

July 26.

Only think of my having been seven weeks on board! A month on board the St. Paul and now three the Arctic. There is a nice covered deck on the Arctic, and we sit there a good part of the day with our deck chairs.

The scenery on the Yukon was rather disappointing for the first hundred miles. The water was very low, and owing to this we met with our first accident, namely, the pilot got us on the sand-bank, on which we stuck, in spite of all efforts and nearly emptying the boat of its cargo. We were on it for four days, and it was anxious work, for the Arctic is not a strong boat and carried 200 tons of freight. Relief came at last in an unexpected manner.

At about three o'clock a.m., on the morning of the fifth day, a shout of joy and triumph from the Indians roused me from sleep, and told me that we were once more afloat! A high tide had come in and dislodged the steamer from the sand-bar. Then all was hurry-skurry and a great rush to get all the cargo on board again, and by 8 o'clock we were off, and going on as if nothing had happened. After this event all went smoothly with us, the scenery becoming more and more grand and beautiful, the mountains rising on either side of the river, sometimes in the far distance and then again quite near, sometimes only rocks with but little vegetation, but of such fantastic jagged outlines, then covered with verdure down to the shore, like mountains at Yale.

Now to tell you of the meeting with my dear husband, which was almost too thrilling to put into words. The Captain thought that he would probably come off in a boat to meet the steamer, which idea kept me on the qui vive. One night (the nights here are quite light, of course), as I was lying in my berth, I heard voices on the river bank and seemed to recognize my husband's among them. I jumped up from my berth and looked out, and there he was, standing with a group of Indians, conspicuous amongst them by his tall figure and long white beard. We were between laughing and crying when he saw me. The steamer stopped and he was soon on board and I on deck, which, happily, we had to ourselves. He looks older, and his hair very grey, but I suspect has altered less during the five years since we parted than I have, and he says he is fairly well.

We had, after this, pleasant stopping places each day to take in wood for our engine, or at some Indian camp to lay in a store of fresh meat or fish; such immense salmon and white fish, fresh and smoked, which are delicious. . . .

We came near to Fort Yukon, which is close to Porcupine River, where Mr. and Mrs. Wallis, with their hundred pieces of goods (!), left us to ascend the Porcupine River to Rampart House, where Mr. Wallis is to be stationed for the present and where a church is already built. Fort Yukon is 1,200 miles from St. Michael.

At length—on August 4, 1892—we reached Forty Mile Creek, close to which is the small Mission station, which is for the present to be our home. It is the most central part of the diocese, and therefore the Bishop prefers it to Selkirk.

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