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Vitus Bering
10.26.2018 92605927978

“Who knows what trade winds may arise, which may prevent us from returning? We do not know this land. We are not supplied with provisions to last us through winter.”


Vitus Jonassen Bering was born in Horsens, Denmark in the Summer of 1681.  He grew up by the sea, in the land of Vikings like Leif Ericsson, and when he was just a young boy he joined on with a ship that was sailing back and forth between Europe and the Caribbean.  Being a cabin boy wasn't the easiest job in the world – you had to scrub the decks, clean up the dishes after meals, and basically get bossed around by everyone on the ship, but for a lot of kids it was really the only way they were ever going to leave their boring towns and see the world.  Bering was a good sailor, he worked hard, and before long he was working as a ship's navigator – one of the most important jobs on the ship.

One day, when he was in port in Amsterdam, Bering was talking to a Norwegian Admiral named Cruys, who had a pretty exciting business opportunity for Vitus.  The new Tsar (Emperor) of Russia was a guy named Peter the Great, and Peter had just spent a ton of time and money building an awesome new fleet for the Imperial Russian Navy.  The only bad thing was that Peter didn't really have that many guys who knew how to sail, so he was paying good money to hire foreigners to join the Russian Navy.  Bering joined up and was made a navigator for the Russian Navy that same day.  He'd end up working for the Tsar for the next forty years.

Bering actually ended up fighting in a couple of wars with the Russian Navy.  He fought against Sweden in the Great Northern War, and then he commanded a ship in the Sea of Azov during the Russian-Turkish War that raged from 1710-1712.  He was a great leader, calm under pressure, and was promoted from Navigator to Captain.

 

 

The wars were all over by 1725, when 44-year old Captain Vitus Bering was given a special mission by the Tsar.  It kind of sounds like the charter of the USS Enterprise in Star Trek – explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no man has gone before.  Here were his full orders:

 “At Kamchatka or some other place you are to build one or two boats with decks.  With these you are to sail along the land that goes to the north, and according to expectations (because it’s end is not known) that land, it appears, is part of America.  You are to search for where it is joined by America, and to go to any city of European possessions, or if you see any European vessel, to find out from it what the coast is called and to write it down, and go ashore yourself and find first-hand information, and placing it on a map, to return here.”

That’s it!  Sail out where nobody has ever gone before, see if anyone lives there, and if they do, write it down and bring back a map.  It might not sound that exciting on paper, but Bering was being asked to do something that had never been done in history… and he didn't even really know where to start.  This guy was a sea captain and navigator, not an explorer, adventurer, or diplomat.  Now he was being asked to conquer the West Coast of America for Russia and establish a trade lane with Imperial China.

Well it turned out that Vitus Bering was definitely the man for the job.  He set out on his first mission in 1725, and the first question was this – were Asia and North America connected?  Nobody knew at the time.  Today, if you look at a map, you can see that the end of Alaska allllllmost touches the tip of Russia, but they’re separated by a very narrow little strip of water.  Want to guess what that waterway is called?

The Bering Strait.  Named after the dude who discovered it.

 

 

The journey wasn’t easy – there was no Trans-Siberian Railroad, and Russia is the biggest country on Earth and completely covered with ice throughout basically the entire winter.  But Bering wasn't about to give up.  He started in Saint Petersburg, all the way on the east side of Russia, and traveled – on foot and by dog sled – hundreds of miles through one of the coldest and most dangerous places in the world.  The journey from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean took him two years of just walking, which is really insane if you think about it… if you were in 3rd grade when he left home, you’d be in 5th grade by the time he even got to the place where he was supposed to start his voyage!  The journey itself was an epic adventure, 685 miles of frostbite, hunger, and danger.  Their horses all froze to death, so the guys had to carry all their food and building supplies.  They traveled the distance from New York City to Indianapolis, Indiana, on food, through the farthest reaches of icy cold Russia. 

After a grueling trip, Bering and his crew got all the way to Kamchatka, cut down a bunch of trees, and built a strong ship they named the St. Gabriel.  It had to be a tough ship to survive the freezing cold, tearing winds, and powerful boat-crushing storms of the Arctic.  If you’ve ever seen Deadliest Catch or some of those other deep-sea Alaska fishing TV shows, that’s what this guy had to survive – and he had to do it in a wooden ship he and his friends built with their bare hands.

 



 

St. Gabriel finally set sail in the summer of 1728, heading north through a thick fog into a sea no man had ever mapped.  After four months at sea, Bering entered the strait that would bear his name, passing right between Russia and Alaska.  Now, on a clear day, you can stand on the Russian side and actually see Alaska, and Bering was soooooo close to it, but the fog was so thick that he didn’t realize how close he was.  He sailed around, saw that Asia and North America were not connected, then turned around and went all the way back home (this took him two more years!).

When he got back, Vitus learned that Peter the Great was dead.  The new leader of Russia was Peter’s wife, the Tsarina Anna, and she had a mission for Bering… and she told him to go all the way back to Kamchatka and explore this new waterway further. 

Bering's second incredible journey, known as the Great Northern Expedition, was way huger than the first one.  Almost a thousand people, from sailors to scientists to doctors, and even Bering's wife for a little bit, journeyed with Bering across Siberia towards the Pacific Ocean.  It took another two years to reach the sea, and this time Bering built two ships, the St. Peter and the St. Paul.  They set sail in 1741, but a storm separated the ships almost right away.

But then, pushing through the freezing cold and the thick white fog, Vitus Bering and his crew made an incredible discovery: 

Snow-covered mountains.  Land.  America.  And a part of it that nobody knew existed or have ever visited before.  Today we know it as Alaska.

 

 

Bering sent a party ashore to investigate, and they found evidence that there had once been a human settlement there.  His crew collected a few samples and explored the area, but after a few hours, Bering was pretty anxious to get going back home.  His men pushed him to keep going forward – they hadn’t come all this way just to turn right back around again so quickly.

Now, at this point Vitus Bering was a 60 year old man, and he had just walked the entire length of Russia three times in the last couple of years.  He was also getting sick with a horrible, nasty disease called scurvy.  Now, scurvy just sounds like a cool pirate word, but it's a pretty awful illness that ruined the lives of a lot of sailors during this time.  It comes from not getting enough Vitamin C, which is the vitamin you find in citrusy fruits like oranges, lemons, and limes.  Since sailors didn't have a ton of fresh O.J. on board their ships, they were at high risk for this illness.  Scurvy starts by you just feeling tired, then your legs hurt, and you start getting real cranky.  Then eventually your gums start bleeding, your teeth fall out, your joints start bleeding so bad it hurts to stand up, and then finally you die.  So eat your fruits and vegetables kids!

 

 

Anyway, Bering was coming down with a pretty hardcore case of scurvy, and he got so sick that he had to stay in his cabin and let his lieutenants take over the expedition.  And those guys were basically idiots who had no idea what the heck they were doing or where they were going.  At first it went OK, the ship headed a little further into Alaska, and the crew saw a lot of cool stuff like whales, seals, sea otters, and foxes.  They also met their first Americans – a tribe of American Indians who had animal-bone nose-rings, earrings, and lip-rings and wore hats made out of tree bark that they'd painted red and green (these hats were so weird-looking that the Russian crew started laughing when they saw them).  But then Bering’s lieutenants got their navigation equipment messed up, and instead of heading more towards America they ended up turning around and landing on the Kuril Islands, which aren't that far from Japan (if you couldn’t tell, Japan is really the wrong direction).  Finally, running out of food, lost, and with the weather getting colder and most of the men catching scurvy, the lieutenants made the tough decision to just land at one of these little islands, build a shelter, and try and survive through a brutal Russian the winter while stranded on a remote icy island.

The ship ran arounds at a place we know today as Bering Island.  The crews dug holes, hunted foxes and otters for food and warm furs, tried to collect fresh water, and cut down trees for firewood.

 

 

The next four months living on that island were absolutely miserable.  Everyone was sick, hungry, and freezing cold all of the time.  Foxes would attack at night, and during the day the survivors had to walk dozens of miles to get firewood, hunt for food, or gather clean water.  Most of the crew died, including Vitus Bering. The survivors, led by a German botanist and doctor named Georg Wilhelm Steller, struggled through an insanely difficult winter, but somehow, against all odds, many of them managed to survive.  Unfortunately, when the snow melted and spring arrived, there was more bad news:  The St. Peter was wrecked.

Dr. Steller and the survivors pulled the broken boat apart, cut down some trees, and used the last of their strength to build a new one.  After nine long months on Bering Island, they somehow found the courage and energy to get this new ship underway and row it back to the tiny Russian trading town of Kamchatka.  From there, they took a few months to rest, and then made the long walk back to report their findings to the Tsarina.

It had been an incredible journey, full of hardship, discovery, danger, and tragedy, but the men of Vitus Bering's Great Northern Expedition had done it.  They'd crossed the Intercontinental Divide between Asia and North America, discovered the Bering Strait, the Bering Sea, and a number of Alaskan islands.  They'd found America by going East, been the first people to map the land, and tied the New World to the globe from both directions.  Their adventures opened the path for Russian expansion into Alaska, and found trade lanes to Japan and China.  Russia would colonize Alaska in 1774, and over the next hundred years the territory would be home to around 700 Russian trappers, traders, and colonists.  “Russian America”, as it was known at the time, was sold to the United States in 1867 for $7.2 million dollars.  It became the 49th state in 1959.

Vitus Bering, meanwhile, remains a national hero among his native people of Denmark, and one of their true exploration legends.  He still lies buried on the island that bears his name.

 



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Tags: 17th Century | 18th century | Denmark | Explorer | Naval/Maritime | Russia | Survivalist | United States

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