Empires In The Northwest

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Aboard Chirikov’s vessel was Louis Delisle, one of two map-making brothers in the Russian Academy of Sciences. The maps prepared by this pair showed (as did other maps of the period) a continent known as Gamaland. Whether Gamaland was a separate land mass or an extension of America was hotly debated. One of Bering’s assignments was to find out.

Southeast the two vessels sailed, to latitude 46°, or approximately level with the mouth of the Columbia River. About the time that even Delisle was being forced to admit that Gamaland did not exist, a storm separated the St. Peter and the St. Paul . For a few days, while short supplies and shorter water dwindled still lower, the two captains beat back and forth looking for each other. Then, taking responsibility into his own hands, Alexei Chirikov dismissed Gamaland as impossible and sailed northeast.

On July 15, near present Sitka, he sighted land. Two days later a watering party was sent ashore. The men vanished. Another party rowing out to investigate likewise disappeared. Probably these first white men to set foot on the soil of northwestern America were slain by Indians, although Russian fable later told of red-headed, light-complexioned descendants of the lost sailors being found along the coast.

Possessing no more small boats in which to hunt for the men, Chirikov sailed on. Storms and fogs enmeshed the St. Paul ; supplies gave out. When at last Kamchatka was sighted, Chirikov had to fire a distress signal to summon enough able-bodied rescuers from land to bring the ship in. Louis Delisle, whose dream of Gamaland was partly responsible for the debacle, expired as he was being carried ashore.

Meanwhile Bering, too, was trapped in the uncharted seas. After their separation he, like Chirikov, had borne northeast. On July 16, a day later than Chirikov’s landfall, he detected through a rift in the clouds an unbelievable snow peak towering above a wonderland of islands, inlets, forests, and gleaming icebergs. To this monstrous mountain he gave the name it still bears, St. Elias. But he could not share the elation of the scientists aboard his vessel—scientists he had labored so strenuously to bring so far. Vitus Bering was sixty years old now, thick-bodied, flabbyfleshed. The Siberian crossing had exhausted him. He was suffering, moreover, from the lassitude and the terrible sense of depression that accompany the initial stages of scurvy. Glumly he hove to and watched his naturalist, Georg Wilhelm Steller, leave for shore with a watering party.

Suddenly, while half the water casks remained unfilled and Steller was grubbing joyously through an abandoned Aleut fireplace, Bering gave orders that the ship weigh anchor. Dumfounded, Steller asked whether ten agonizing years of preparation were going to dwindle off into less than ten hours of exploration. Bering ignored him. Unspeakably disgusted, the naturalist gathered up such artifacts as he had had time to collect and returned aboard.

Fog closed in as the ship crept westward behind the uncharted swell of the Aleutian chain. The sea seemed haunted. Strange bird and animal voices wailed through the gray wrack. Then rain turned to sleet; rotten rigging began to snap. The dread specter of scurvy stalked unchecked; nearly every day someone perished in his fouled hammock, until a dozen men had died.

Finally, early in November, bitter weather cleared the skies and the cry of land went up. “It would be impossible,” Steller wrote later, “to describe the joy created by the sight of land; the dying crawled upon the deck to see with their own eyes what they would not believe; even the feeble commander was carried out of his cabin. To the astonishment of all a small keg of brandy was taken from some hiding place and dealt out in celebration of the supposed approach to the coast of Kamchatka.”

But it was not Kamchatka. As the desperate knowledge began to dawn, a gale struck. Long combers rolling before the Arctic wind parted one of the ship’s anchor cables, then another. A foaming breaker picked up the vessel and hurled it, with a dismal crunching of the hull, into a quiet cove. Here, willy-nilly, the crew would spend the winter.

While preparations were being made for a landing, Steller led out a scouting party. Blue foxes swarmed everywhere. Off shore in the kelp beds grazed huge sea cows 25 feet long and up to three tons in weight. But not a tree was to be seen. Adding to the desolation was inescapable proof that they had been marooned on an absolutely unknown stretch of sand and rock, since called Bering Island.

Returning to the cove, Steller started the men digging pits in the sand. These were lined and covered with driftwood and sailcloth, chinked with moss, mud, and fox skins. As fast as the shelters were completed, the sick were carried to them. Nine of the men were so far gone that they did not survive the transfer.

The blue foxes were a maddening nuisance. They had to be driven from the corpses. They bit the invalids, scattered provisions, carried off hats and boots. They were so unawed that during the first day of work on the huts Steller and another man killed sixty with their axes. Carcasses and skins were useful, however, for food and clothing, though later on better furs were obtained from sea otters and seals, better provender from the sea cows and from a dead whale cast up on the beach.