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In ‘Island of the Blue Foxes,’ the fraught, unruly mission that led to Russia’s discovery of Alaska

  • Author: David A. James
  • Updated: March 17
  • Published March 17

Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World's Greatest Scientific Expedition

“Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World’s Greatest Scientific Expedition,” by Stephen R. Bown

Stephen R. Bown, Da Capo Press, 352 pages, 2017. $28

"The most eloquent pen would find itself too weak to describe our misery," wrote the famed naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller from aboard the Russian ship St. Peter in the North Pacific in the fall of 1741. Battered by storms and racing to find their way back to Siberia after sighting Alaska, the scurvy-ridden crewmen were dying in their bunks while the ship's commander, Vitus Bering, barely clung to life himself. Then they ran aground on an uncharted island.

It wasn't supposed to come to this, but the entire enterprise had been poorly planned from the start. It was in its time the greatest expedition for scientific and geographical knowledge ever assembled, tasked with exploring Russia's vast eastern frontier of Siberia and claiming land in the New World for the Russian throne. How it played out is the tale Canadian historian Stephen R. Bown tells in "Island of the Blue Foxes," a compact and highly engaging account of the events that resulted in the discovery of Alaska.

Bown, whose numerous prior works include biographies of Roald Amundsen and Knud Rasmussen, begins with Peter the Great. The first czar to orient the Russian empire toward Europe, Peter was a polymath driven to establish glory for his nation as a geographical and military force and a great center of learning. The pathway for that objective led directly through Siberia, which Russia held but knew little about, and onward to America.

Although Peter didn't live to see the expedition off, he did choose the man who would lead it. Bering, a Dane who had risen through the Russian navy, was placed in charge of what became known as the First Kamchatka Expedition, which departed St. Petersburg in 1725. The men blazed a path across the breadth of Siberia while dragging the goods to keep themselves alive and build a ship once they reached the shoreline. It was a brutal journey through land with no roads, wild tribes and only a few tiny settlements. They reached Kamchatka and built the ship, which they sailed north into the sea that now bears Bering's name. Their objective was to determine if North America was connected to Asia, a supposition they found no evidence for.

Bering returned to St. Petersburg after five years with thoughts of a second journey. Knowing the difficulties of crossing Siberia and the limited resources available along the way, he envisioned a lean and streamlined affair. But the government got involved, and despite his protestations it quickly grew into a massive expedition encompassing thousands of scientists, surveyors, military personnel, laborers and more, "all of whom had to be brought to the eastern coast of Asia across thousands of miles of roadless forests, swamps, and tundra, again hauling vast quantities of equipment and supplies," Bown writes. By horse, dogsled and foot, they would travel nearly halfway around the world.

Bown brings to life the unruly expedition and the internal frictions such a large contingent was bound to develop. Departing early in 1733, it was nearly five years before they began trickling into the tiny Siberian village of Okhotsk, where they first built shipyards and then built ships. Only in 1741 did two vessels, the St. Peter under Bering and the St. Paul captained by Aleksei Chirikov, set sail for America.

The story of Bering's journey across Asia has been told elsewhere, but this is the first account for to cover it in depth for a general audience, and that alone makes this a worthy addition to any Alaska history bookshelf. But Bown doesn't stop there. As the ships head to sea, the focus of his story shifts from Bering, who immediately took ill, to Steller, without whom probably none of the crewmen aboard the St. Peter would have returned alive.

The ships initially traveled south based on a mistaken map and squandered much of the short sailing season looking for America in the wrong direction, part of what led to the calamity. They became separated from each other early on, and both crews sighted Alaska within a day of each other, the first Europeans to do so. After an ordeal of their own, Chirikov's crew got back to Siberia before winter hit, but for Bering's men, shipwreck awaited.

First, however, nearly all took ill with scurvy. "Day by day," Bown recounts, "mariners perished with agony frozen on their ghastly countenances, and the living hauled the stiff corpses above deck and hove their erstwhile companions overboard."

Running aground proved a blessing, though not for Bering, who died soon after. Trapped on what is now Bering Island and beset by blue foxes that robbed them of goods and fed on their corpses, the men established a camp where Steller slowly nursed the survivors back to health.

Steller was brilliant but mercurial, often belligerent, and not particularly liked. But he was also a keen observer of both the natural world and its Native inhabitants, and in a time when the cause of scurvy was unknown, he would correctly surmise that diet was critical to preventing it (after all, the Natives didn't suffer the condition). He also devised a means of capturing the sea mammals that kept the men from starvation. While mostly known today for the many species he discovered, it's his humanitarian accomplishment that Bown celebrates most heartily.

The survivors built a smaller vessel from the wreck of the St. Peter and reached Kamchatka the following summer. Out of their sacrifice, Russia's empire reached its height and in their wake the first European colonists were soon arriving on Alaska's shores.

"Island of the Blue Foxes" moves quickly, and Bown does a fine job of giving readers a strong feel for both what the men endured and how the personal characters of the major players were tested by their tribulations. We come to know several of these people as complex, often flawed, but still admirably capable when necessary. For aficionados of the genre a friend of mine recently dubbed "armchair suffering," this is a must-read.

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