After a group of 18th-century Russian explorers run aground, the ship’s naturalist saves the day.
No one can ever accuse Peter the Great of modest ambitions. The 26-year-old Russian czar Peter Alekseyevich Romanov was awed by the modern splendor he witnessed during a grand tour of Europe in the fall of 1698. In comparison, his Russian empire seemed downright doddering, an onion-domed, “semi-Oriental backwater,” hamstrung by religious orthodoxy.
This was the impetus for two incredible voyages of discovery, one of which — the Second Kamchatka Expedition — was trumpeted as “one of the most ambitious scientific and exploratory expeditions ever undertaken, writes Stephen Bown, the author of “Island of the Blue Foxes.”
The two voyages spanned decades and half a dozen subsequent Russian rulers. The mission was to travel the whole of Siberia, build the finest ships in the world, and then sail across the ocean to explore the North American coast. This would signal to the world “the awakening of the Russian Empire.”
Bown concentrates the bulk of his engrossing narrative on the second expedition, which was led by Danish explorer Vitus Bering, who led 500 brave souls, thousands of horses and (curiously) hundreds of dogs across primitive Siberia to the coast. The human contingent featured carpenters, blacksmiths, artists, officers, surveyors, scientists, students and a whole lot of luggage. Privations were many and losses mounted.
Yet the worst was yet to come. In May 1741, the expedition set sail from the Russian coast in two ships, St. Paul and St. Peter. Bering commanded St. Peter, and it was this ship with its 76 men that would eventually become lost at sea and then stranded on an island (later named Bering Island), where they suffered the winter and where Bering himself died.
The men, many of them already dying of scurvy, were repeatedly attacked by packs of blue foxes that “began to tear at the cloth of sailors’ pants and had to be driven away with kicks and shouts.” The men had mistakenly made camp on the foxes’ burrows.
Da Capo Press, 288 pages, $27