Our small group of explorers stood quietly in a semicircle facing the crenelated black stone slab of an unassuming grave. The raised white Cyrillic letters read “Vitusi Beringi: 1681- 1741.” A slight offshore wind blew ripples from the lead-colored bay below across this final resting place of my Danish countryman and explorer Vitus Bering. The only other spectators of this ceremony were the gulls high above, floating still like stubborn kites in the breezy midair. I pulled the bottle of finer cognac out of my life jacket and passed it around, encouraging everyone to take a swig. I then raised it to salute my sailor countryman:
“To my fellow Dane, Vitus Bering, who accomplished and suffered a lot and was only rewarded with agony. To one of the greatest explorer’s of his time—never under his own flag, often runner up and finally succumbing in a fox den.”
These words were followed by a traditional Danish triple “Hurraah!” whereafter the remainder of the good liquor was splashed on the grave. At least in his afterlife he deserved something good to cheer him up.
That same morning we had paddled our small pod of sea kayaks through the rocky entrance of the bay and made landfall at the exact place where Commander Bering’s ship, the St. Peter, had shipwrecked a quarter of a millennium ago. We were the first sea kayakers who had ever ventured into this remote spot in the Kommandorsky Islands. These westernmost islands in the Aleut Archipelago are the end of a long necklace of barren, sparsely inhabited volcanic islands spanning the Northern Pacific from Alaska to Kamchatka. The only reliable way to reach this place is by boat, since the weather on these latitudes is too inclement to rely on any scheduled flights from the Russian mainland. We had therefore hired an old, rusty, decommissioned Soviet coast guard vessel, which was ironically called The Sputnik. We had boarded her at the mouth of the Zhupanova River in Siberia, and after three full days of rough sailing due east from Kamchatka, we circumnavigated these wild Kommandorskies. And of course, we had to pay a respectful visit to the “Old Man’s” grave on Bering Island.
Here, in the late fall of 1741, after the span of 16 years, Bering ended his journeys across Siberia and the North Pacific—from St. Petersburg to North America. He became the first European to set foot on the shores of Alaska, as well as to navigate through the Arctic Passage between America and Russia, aptly named the Bering Strait.
The first time I heard of Captain Bering was from my Danish history schoolbooks, where I learned that Bering, born in Jutland, Denmark, was hired as a young mariner into the new Russian Imperial Navy by the Russian Tsar Peter the Great and had reached the rank of captain before the age of 33. He was then ordered to lead an expedition across Siberia. It became a grueling journey through the most hostile environments, including surviving -70° Celsius winter temperatures and crossing raging spring rivers. Finally, reaching the east coast of Siberia, Bering and his crew built two small sailing ships, and proceeded towards the Alaskan shores, which they reached on July 16, 1741.
The crew only stayed on the Alaskan shores for one day, then hurried back to avoid the wrath of the coming Aleutian winter storms. At that point, the crew began to suffer from scurvy and started to die off. The hardships of too many years of expeditioning started to take its toll on Bering. Their ship finally shipwrecked at Bering Island on December 19, 1741, and the captain died alone in a fox hole, suffering from depression and scurvy, half buried by sand with hungry foxes nipping at his feet.
The next spring, the surviving the crew built a small boat out of the remaining timbers and continued east to Petropavlovsk. Here, the survivors hobbled up to the small church, where they donated all of their few valuable belongings to show their gratitude for being saved by The Almighty.
This violent and tragic ordeal was a stark juxtaposition to the tranquil bay we saw below, only seen by the few. It was otherworldly, back-dropped by craggy mountains and engulfed by an abundance of wildlife. We were stunned by the density of wildlife. Myriads of previously endangered sea otters with cute pups on their stomach would lazily but warily rest in the kelp, large whales would feed close to our kayaks in the open waters, and the rocky beaches were inhabited by large colonies of undisturbed sea lions barking at each other.
The wild islands of the Kommadorsky Archipelago are completely off the tourist maps. Today, most of the islands have been made into the Komandorsky Zapovednik. It was this rich marine wildlife that the young German naturalist George Stellar (who was employed by Bering) enthusiastically described. He was perhaps the greatest naturalist of all time and is often compared to Alexander von Humboldt, his famous mentor. Ironically, it was Stellar’s detailed descriptions of the sea otter, and in particular its wonderful fur, that nearly led to its extinction. When the otter tales from the Bering expedition survivors reached the Russian capital, it did not take many years before most of the sea otters from Siberia to California had been killed for their pelts and the Stellar sea cow been made extinct. Only a few otters survived.
Through concerted conservation in Russia, Alaska and Canada, hunting sea otters has now been banned and the iconic otter is slowly recuperating. These efforts are a great example of successful international conservation efforts in marine environments, and it is uplifting to know that sea otters are coming back in force on both sides of the North Pacific.
After the ceremony at the burial site of Bering, we trotted down to the sandy beach to launch our next leg of paddling. In the deep grass beside my kayak, I found a sapphire-blue, handball-sized unbroken glass ball, which were used by fishermen to keep their nests afloat. It had broken off a net in a storm and floated ashore long ago, before the invention of plastic. This token souvenir was another sign of the untouched feeling of this place. Pushing off shore, I looked across the kelp bed that was protected from the offshore breaking waves, and low and behold, right there in the middle of the kelp bed was an alert mother otter with an adorable pup cuddling innocently on her stomach. She had broken a sea urchin to pieces and tenderly doled out the delicious food to her baby.
The lonely grave of Vitus Bering was a testament to the cruel accomplishment of a great explorer—but also to a wild place where nature is in a more peaceful balance and is rebounding. The Bering Sea and its islands are a place of historic drama, death and wonderful rebirth of a threatened natural environment.