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Island of the Blue Foxes

Disaster and Triumph of the World's Greatest Scientific Expedition

Short Listed for the RBC Taylor Prize & Longlisted for the BC Award for Non-Fiction




IN THE FALL OF 1741, the Russian vessel St. Peter, more a wreck than ship, with tattered sails and snapped masts, limped west across the stormy North Pacific Ocean. A chill descended from the north, turning the rain to snow. Ice crusted the rigging and the railings. But the deck was curiously free from activity, as most of the men were lying below in their hammocks, despondent and immobilized from scurvy.

When the waves subsided and the skies cleared from the latest squall, a handful of mariners came on deck and stared at a distant outcropping of land that one of the officers assured them was Kamchatka. The vessel floated quietly into a harbor and dropped anchor as night fell. When the tide changed, however, a great current spun the ship about, snapped the anchor cable, and dragged the helpless vessel toward a concealed reef. Panic-stricken men dashed about, crying out questions as the hull ground sickeningly on the jagged rocks. If it were sundered, they all knew they would be sucked to their doom in the frigid waters. At the last moment, however, a large wave lifted the battered ship over the reef and deposited it in a shallow lagoon near the shore. Scarcely believing their deliverance, the few reasonably able-bodied men began ferrying the sick, the dead, and supplies to the stony beach, a task that consumed many days because of winds and snow flurries.

The sight that greeted them was bleak. Wind-lashed grassy dunes stretched back to a base of low snow-covered mountains. No sooner had the mariners shambled up the beach than a pack of snarling blue foxes swarmed toward them, began tearing at their pant legs, and had to be driven away with kicks and shouts. A small band of mariners, still strong enough to walk, set out to survey the coast and discovered they were on a treeless, uninhabited, and uncharted island. They had not, in fact, reached Kamchatka, their home base, but, as they later learned, were somewhere between America and Asia at the end of the Aleutian chain. The men immediately set about searching for shelter against the rapidly approaching winter and decided to enlarge a series of burrows they found near the dunes and a creek. They collected a rude framework of driftwood, to which they affixed fox hides and the tattered remnants of the sails.

Hordes of starving foxes swarmed about the makeshift camp, drawn from the barren hills by the scent of food. They stole clothing and blankets, dragged away tools and utensils, and became increasingly aggressive. Scratching at shallow graves, the foxes dragged away corpses and gnawed on them within sight of the enfeebled mariners. For the several dozen men who had scrambled ashore from the ship, things could not have seemed bleaker. The pitiable survivors were to spend the dark winter huddled in a collection of primitive shelters on this stony beachhead, subsisting on whatever animals they could hunt, sucking nourishment from withered roots and grasses, while their numbers dwindled. They had no proper clothing and only meager provisions and supplies from the ship. As winter wore on, they endured relentless Arctic winds, waist-deep snow, the ravages of scurvy, and continuous assaults by the feral blue foxes.

The ST. PETER was one of two ships commissioned for the Great Northern Expedition (1733-1743), also known as the Second Kamchatka Expedition. It was the most ambitious and well-financed scientific voyage in history. Lasting nearly ten years and spanning three continents, its geographic, cartographic, and natural history accomplishments are on par with James Cook's famous voyages, the scientific circumnavigations of Alessandro Malaspina and Louis Antoine de Bougainville, and Lewis and Clark's cross-continental trek. The observations of the expedition's naturalist, German 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. Conceived by Russia's Peter the Great in the early 1720s and led by Danish mariner Vitus Bering, the cost of this incredible enterprise was about 1.5 million rubles, an astonishing one-sixth of the annual income of the Russian state. Yet despite the lavish financing and lofty goals, the Great Northern Expedition is also one of the Age of Sail's darkest tales of shipwreck, suffering, and survival.

The Great Northern Expedition was intended to show Europe the grandeur and sophistication of Russia, while extending its imperial boundaries throughout northern Asia and across the Pacific Ocean to America. The scientific goals, though tethered to the interests of the state, were staggering in their scope. Russia had only recently been transformed, in the estimation of western European nations, from a barbarous backwater to a somewhat civilized state. The politics in Russia at the time were dangerous, corrupt, and fickle, as many of the expedition members found out during and after their years on the frontier. Bering's original proposal for a voyage of exploration was modest, but when he saw his final instructions from Empress Anna, they had swollen to grandiose proportions. He would be at the head of a huge troop of nearly three thousand scientists, secretaries, students, interpreters, artists, surveyors, naval officers, mariners, soldiers, and skilled laborers, all of whom had first to cross through Siberia and many of whom had to travel as far as the eastern coast of Kamchatka.

They had to trek across five thousand miles of roadless forests, swamps, and tundra, along with a supply of tools, iron, canvas, food and medicine, libraries, and scientific implements. Bering's second in command would be the impetuous and proud Russian officer Aleksei Chirikov, both men veterans of a previous major expedition. The scientific objectives were equally vast and included investigating the flora, fauna, and minerals of Siberia as well as settling outlandish rumors about the Siberian peoples. Most important, the expedition was intended to consolidate Russian political control over the entire region and somehow promote the Russian settlement of Okhotsk and Kamchatka, found schools, introduce cattle raising, discover and operate iron mines and a smelter, and construct a dockyard for deepwater ships. Once the weary cavalcade arrived in Okhotsk, Bering was supposed to build ships and sail south to survey the northern coast of Japan and the Kuril Islands.

Then he was ordered to build two more ships and sail to Kamchatka, found an outpost, and then sail east to Pacific America, where it was hoped the group would explore the coastline as far south as California. It was a wildly ambitious project that an absolute dictator with unlimited resources might possibly have accomplished. But Bering had to contend with both limited supplies and an awkward hierarchy. At any time, Bering's commands could be, and sometimes were, unexpectedly countermanded by additional directives from St. Petersburg, usually a result of slanderous letters dispatched by those under his command who didn't agree with his decisions. The expedition was a venomous circle of striving, conniving, and self-interest. Ill fortune plagued the expedition. In June 1741, after years spent crossing Siberia and just as shipwrights had finally built and outfitted the St. Peter and the St. Paul, a supply ship carrying most of the provisions for the voyage ran aground on a sandbar. When the two ships sailed to America, they did so with food for only one summer, not the period of two years that was originally planned. Disagreements between the officers began as soon as the shore receded from sight and the sister ships headed east with no clear directive. The approximately 150 men on board were destined for one of the most tragic and ghastly trials of suffering in the annals of maritime and Arctic history.