A Talk with Stephen Bown, Author of ISLAND OF THE BLUE FOXES

What was the Great Northern Expedition?

Also known as the Second Kamchatka Expedition, it was the greatest scientific expedition in history—spanning three continents and nearly ten years. It was the most ambitious and well-financed scientific voyage in history, easily on par with Lewis and Clark’s epic cross-continental trek, or any of James Cook’s famous voyages. The expedition travelled overland from St. Petersburg on the Baltic Sea across Europe into Asia, spanning the entire length of Siberia, and then by ship across the Pacific Ocean to Alaska and back. It had lofty and extensive geographical, political, and scientific goals, and yet it’s also one of the great adventures from the Age of Sail, an incredible tale of shipwreck and suffering and survival. Two ships made the Pacific voyage, the St. Peter and the St. Paul, along with 150 men. Fifty-two of them died under horrifying conditions.


What did Russia hope to accomplish through this venture?

Peter the Great really wanted to elevate Russian status by displaying their ability to contribute to global knowledge by exploring an unknown region of the planet, in addition to consolidating the political claims to the farthest flung regions of his vast and sprawling empire. The First Kamchatka Expedition, that he commissioned, laid the groundwork for the much larger Great Northern Expedition that was supported and financed by his successors, Empress Catherine and Empress Anna. They hoped to establish trade routes to the Pacific and perhaps to Japan, support Russian towns and industry in Siberia, and perhaps claim new territory for the Russian Empire in western North America. Peter also envisioned grand contributions to science and geography that would burnish the luster of Russia’s image.


How did Vitus Bering come to be the Captain-Commander of the expedition?

Peter the Great not only modernized Russian institutions and government, he also founded a Baltic-based Russian Imperial Navy after conquering from Sweden the territory surrounding St. Petersburg and founding the city. Since there was a shortage of native Russians with naval experience, most of the Russian navy in its early years was staffed by foreigners—primarily Danes, English, Swedes, and Germans. Bering was a Dane who had served for two decades in the Russian Imperial navy. Respected and valued as a commander, he possessed the skills needed for an undertaking as monumental as the Great Northern Expedition.


What sort of leader was Bering?

He was methodical and cautious—admirable traits that certainly laid the foundation for the success of the first part of the expedition, the incredible logistics of transporting people and supplies thousands of miles across Siberia. But once the ships were constructed and at sea, this caution may have held the expedition back from achieving more along the coast of Alaska. Bering was not known for quick, decisive action and one of his comrades wondered after his death whether “more fire and heat” would have better overcome the dangers and challenges of the expedition. Bering was a defensive leader.


What were some of the problems and concerns that arose before the expedition even began?

Well, the enterprise involved a cavalcade of nearly three-thousand scientists, secretaries, interpreters, artists, surveyors, naval officers, mariners, soldiers, and laborers. It took them many years crossing Siberia before they even reached Okhotsk on the eastern coast of Asia—they had to haul with them all the sails, tools, metal implements, ropes, cannons, supplies, libraries, and scientific implements—as well as the clavichord belonging to Bering’s wife, Anna. It was a 5000 mile journey where there were no roads, only brutal portages between river systems through clouds of mosquitoes and heat in summer and deathly cold and wind in winter before they began construction of a dockyards that then was used to construct the ships from timber they had to cut by hand upriver and float to the coast. It was an epic adventure before a ship even hoisted a sail. The expedition also had an awkward command structure where the scientific contingent expected Bering to provide for them but they weren’t under his command. Because of the dangerous and fickle state of Russian politics under Empress Anna Ivanovna, where imprisonment for treason or perceived failure to follow orders was a common fear, officers and Bering were afraid to deviate from a literal interpretation of their orders which meant that the expedition progressed as envisioned by senior bureaucrats in St. Petersburg who had never been to Siberia or Alaska before. There was no flexibility to adapt decisions to accommodate changing situations. Everyone feared for the careers or their lives.


What was navigation technology like at the time of the Great Northern Expedition?

Primitive to say the least! It was possible to calculate both latitude and longitude, but the process required clear skies for the observation of celestial bodies and specialized tools such as astrolabes and telescopes, as well as hours of mathematical calculations. In the case of longitude, it involved observing and comparing the time of the eclipse of one of Jupiter’s moons to a table predicting when the eclipse was likely to occur at Greenwich, near London, and factoring in the known rotational speed of the earth. These tasks took many hours and were nearly impossible in rough sea conditions. Now also keep in mind that there were no maps of the regions they were sailing in—they had no idea what the coast would look like, what islands or other landmasses might exist, where the dangers lay. They were sailing nearly blind on this pioneering voyage across the north Pacific—from poorly known regions, across an unknown ocean to an unknown shore. Think of the bravery and determination, curiosity and sense of adventure, to set off on such a journey in a tiny wooden ship powered by wind and muscle—and with limited food too, and no way to communicate with any peoples they might encounter.


What factors led to the disastrous shipwreck of the St. Peter?

The voyage was plagued by ill fortune—Siberia proved more challenging and dangerous than they anticipated, a supply ship ran aground leaving the expedition short of food, officers quarreled and the ships were separated in a storm, never to meet up again. The two ships, commanded by Bering and Chirikov, had separate adventures, and problems, in Alaska. These problems became worse on both ships once scurvy spread throughout the crews. During the violent storms of the North Pacific on the return voyage, men were dying frequently from the dreaded plague of the seas. The men became too weak to work and lay moaning in agony in the dank interior of the ships as they were driven erratically about the ocean with snapped masts and ripped sails for many weeks. While the St. Paul reached Alaska and reported back to Russia with most men near death but not yet dead, Bering’s ship, the St. Peter, was wrecked on a desolate and uninhabited island in the Aleutian Chain inhabited by feral foxes. It was November, on an arctic island just before the storm season, and most of the food was lost or ruined.


Were the foxes on the Island of the Blue Foxes friendly?

They look cute and friendly in photos if you google the term. But in November of 1741, they were vicious and feral. Drawn from the hills by the scent of food—and the fact the wrecked mariners chose as their beach camp an area in the dunes previously inhabited by the foxes—they were like a plague to the weakened and dying mariners. They roamed in packs descending upon the ragged makeshift encampment of tattered tents, snarling and biting and eating the dead and immobilized men who were stricken with scurvy and unable to defend themselves, gnawing on their hands and feet. The foxes were fearless and aggressive and would defecate and urinate on the sleeping men or on any cloth or clothing they could find. They attacked at all hours and tore at clothing and dragged away utensils, tools, shoes, and blankets. It became a battle of the species. Men killed the foxes by stabbing them while they attacked and used their frozen bodies to plug gaps in the sailcloth tents. But the foxes showed no fear never having encountered humans before, and the assault of the blue foxes went on into the winter when they retreated into the hills.


What were some of the major accomplishments of the expedition?

Scientifically, the information on Siberia—previously a vast but sparsely populated and little known region of the world—was unparalleled by any other expedition. It ranged from climate and plants and animals, to minerals and geology. The German naturalist Georg Steller gave Europe its first scientific description of Pacific America’s flora and fauna, including the Steller’s sea lion, Steller’s sea cow, and Steller’s jay. Politically, it consolidated Russian control over an enormous swath of the globe’s geography, the value of which increased over time as Siberia became more than a place for political exiles once the mineral and oil and gas wealth was discovered and exploited. The most amazing aspect of the voyage to me was that they survived a winter, spring, and summer on the tiny island before building a smaller ship from the wreck and sailing home. The routine daily struggle to survive in a hostile and unfamiliar land, what they ate, how they kept warm and dry, and how they planned their eventual escape—it is a human story, a reminder of the power of nature and of the struggle and triumph over disaster, and a story of ingenuity in the face of adversity, fortitude in the face of horrible suffering. That any of them lived at all is astonishing to me and I wonder how I would fare under similar circumstances.


What do you consider to be the legacy of the Great Northern Expedition?

Well, against the odds, the expedition did accomplish all of its ambitious objectives. They did pioneer a route across Europe and Asia to the Pacific, they did establish Russian outposts and industry and settlements, they did cross the Pacific Ocean and reach Alaska, they did produce volumes of scientific observations on the flora and fauna of Siberia and Kamchatka as well as record the early Russian history of these regions. I think the most important legacy of the mighty enterprise, though, was the voyage to Alaska that resulted in the Russian conquest of the region in the decades after the expedition and the establishment of Russian settlements based on the trade in sea otter and other furs. Russia of course famously sold its colony to the U.S. in 1867 for 7.2 million dollars once the furs were depleted—but before the oil was discovered.