Stephen Bown’s novel takes us through Vitus Bering’s expedition to Alaska
When people think about the Age of Exploration, men like Christopher Columbus and Lewis and Clark usually come to mind. But we can now add Danish mariner Vitus Bering to that list, thanks to historian and author Stephen R. Bown’s Island of Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on Bering’s Great Voyage to Alaska, a true account tale of Bering’s voyage in 1741.
With the original idea of the expedition being put forward by Russia’s Peter the Great in the 1730s, Bering led the Great Northern Expedition along with 3,000 scientists, interpreters, artists, surveyors, labourers, and officers across the unrelenting landscape of Siberia and the Pacific Ocean.
The excursion was intended to map out the eastern reaches of Siberia and hopefully the western shores of North America. It lasted nearly 10 years and spanned three continents making it the most expensive and enthusiastic voyage in history.
“I don’t know who would sign onto those expeditions,” Bown says. “I have a map of Siberia in my office just to remind myself how far these people travelled without any maps or roads. No wonder it took them years.”
Bown does an expert job of mapping out the book in parts and providing useful expository information about Bering’s accolades and preparation for his mammoth voyage. His wife Anna writes him letters and we are given documented accounts from men like Lieutenant Sven Waxell, a commander during Bering’s sail, and Georg Steller, a German botanist.
“The ship’s log is very interesting, but it doesn’t bring anyone alive. I had to find things like Steller’s journal or Waxell’s account that was never published in his lifetime,” Bown says. “Historical context is really important to me, but without the human story, it’s all meaningless. That’s the difference between me and an academic historian. They would be getting all the facts straight, whereas I’m focused on the people and how they respond to disasters or a sudden change in their circumstances.”
While the book stretches 10 years, Bown takes his time describing Bering’s thoughts during the voyage and it’s for the books benefit. We truly see Bering wrestling with this monumental task that he has made himself responsible for.
The expedition begins with a trek across Siberia to the Kamchatka Peninsula. Bering then oversees the construction of the St. Peter and St. Paul, two ships that would become markers for the voyage.
“The conditions of these voyages were incredible,” Bown says. “No ship like that would ever be able to leave port nowadays.”
As Bown writes it, the voyage was immediately welcomed by despair. After they set sail, the supply ship holding significant resources like food runs aground. It then takes eight days for the ship to be repaired, and the food the ship was carrying is now ruined by saltwater. Without food, morale among the crew begins to seep low.
“They say, ‘Oh, I guess we’re going with no food then,’” Bown says. “It’s just an endless series of disasters and it’s easy for a reader to see them coming.”
Not soon after the St. Paul and St. Peter depart for North America’s coast, they are separated in fog and darkness, leaving Bering to sail the St. Peter alone with his crew.
“There were so many variables. Even after the Siberian trek, they didn’t really know anything,” Bown says. “They didn’t know where they were going. They didn’t know the winds.”
Often history is written in a hushed, scholarly tone that drags on to the point of apathy, but Bown’s sequence of events almost read like an action film. It comes from his writing style, which has been seen in his previous works like The Last Viking, and White Eskimo. It’s hard to put one of his books down, which is rare with many history lessons.
“I think I’ve developed a sense of what makes a good story,” he says. “I’m really interested in what people were up to and what they were doing. I think it’s because, in those primitive times, people were left up more to their own devices.”
The climax of the book comes near the end when Bering and his crew, ripe and dying of scurvy, are shipwrecked on an island in the Aleutian Chain inhabited by a legion of arctic foxes. The foxes begin slowly killing the crew, turning this story of exploration into a horror-survival.
“Blue arctic foxes are already an unusual thing,” Bown says. Those descriptions of the feral foxes forming out of the hills and attacking and eating them … no one in a million years would ever dream that this magnificent enterprise of the Russian state would end with these people dying on this island and being eaten by blue foxes.”