Vitus Bering left home, a farm outside the town of Horsens, Denmark, around 1696, at age 14, declaring he would be a sailor and sail in all the world's seas - a goal which he apparently accomplished in less than five years. He was just 20 years old and studying, in Amsterdam, to be a sea captain, when he was head-hunted for a post in the navy of czar Peter.
He joined in 1703 and rose steadily through the ranks, and came to command Russia's greatest warship, Lesnoya, where he distinguished himself in battle in the war against Sweden. Captain Bering was not appropriately promoted in rank, however, so in disgust at the xenophobia rampant in imperial bureaucracies, he left his employ and returned briefly to his homeland. Quickly bored, he returned to Russia - by way of Finland, where he took a bride.
Czar Peter had never forgotten one of his favorite officers, and in December, 1725, the dying czar called Bering out of professional limbo to cement his immortal legacy. He asked our hero to organize and lead a bold trans-continental expedition of discovery to chart the ends of his empire, and along the way look for America. Our hero quickly agreed. After only a few weeks of preparation Bering and his retinue of just 28 men (and one woman, his 22-year-old wife of ten years, Anna) left St. Petersburg, in December, 1725, just days before their emperor's death.
After two full years of godawful, torturous slogging, they arrived on Russia's eastern frontier. The following year, having assembled St. Gabriel, the ship they'd dragged with them across the length of Russia, they sailed northward, charting the empire's eastern shoreline as they went.
They established one of their mission's key objectives - that America was not connected to Asia. St. Gabriel sailed well into what's now called the Arctic Ocean, and returned along roughly the same course - each time not sighting the American coastline. At one point, in the patch of water now called the Bering Strait, laying at the northern tip of the Bering Sea, their Holy Grail lay not 25 miles to the east. They might have seen it had it not been for the excellent weather they enjoyed; the warm days created a fine mist which hung over the sea, obscuring the horizon.
This early 19th century map from the Russian Naval Archives indicates (in red) the voyage of St. Gabriel, in 1728, as it charted in detail the Russian coastline - and missed by a quirk of fate the golden prize of America, roundly suggested by large mammary-shaped land mass in the upper-right corner, to the west.
While the mission was a technical success, discovering that America was not connected to Asia was not the same as discovering America. The notion was deeply unsettling to Bering as they trudged back to St. Petersburg, and his reception there after another two+ years travel proved his fears well-founded. He had defined the physical limits of Russia, but had not taken the imperium farther. After six years, the trophies he brought were maps - eminently valuable to some, mere lines on parchment to others.
Bering lobbied three years to return to the east, to fulfill his mission as much as to redeem his pride, and finally set out again in 1733. This time, however, he went with a 16-point mandate of ambitious, and abjectly weird, orders from his political masters. He led a 1,000-person retinue known as the Great Northern Expedition, populated by scientists, soldiers, technocrats of every stripe, artists, entire families... As for Bering himself, though honored by Peter's successor, czarina Anna, with the unique rank of komandorskiye, "commander-admiral", in fact his role was reduced to that of a top bureaucrat at the head of an incessantly complaining travelling circus. Moreover, nearly six decades of hard living started to take a toll on his health, and by the time they arrived on Kamchatka - after eight years in the wilderness - Bering was badly worn down and suffering terribly from migraine headaches, a bleeding anal ulcer, and inflamed joints which ensured he lived in constant pain.
One might think that the great komandorskiye would have been glad to get away, finally, in early June of 1741, but nothing in the surviving records indicates any elation on his part. Anxious as ever to find the American continent, his orders first compelled him to sail south and west of Kamchatka, to search for fantasy islands recorded nearly a century earlier by the Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama.
This broader view of the previous map image shows > Kamchatka, jutting out top right, in relation to "Gamaland," directly south, and other cartographic anomalies farther west. Look at a modern world atlas, compare the geography.
One precious month was spent in the fruitless search before Bering ordered St. Peter to be turned east, towards America. The ship's relatively far-south starting point explains why they failed to cross the long Aleutian Island chain. Yet their wait was not long. On 17 July, a long, low crack appeared in the endless gray wall of the eastern horizon.
The crew of St. Peter were overcome with emotions - joy that their 17-year quest was fulfilled, the thrill of discovery, you can imagine. All save one. In great physical distress, their captain appeared on deck just once to survey their trophy, and give orders to fill the water barrels and weigh anchor for immediate return to Russia by the route they came. Then he returned to isolation in his cabin.
While surviving log books describe profound grumbling amongst the crew, feeling deprived of celebrating their magnificent accomplishment, nobody grumbled louder than the voyage's sole passenger, a German botanist named Georg Wilhelm Steller.
A brilliant, fey, some say arrogant academic among the leather-tough bunch of mariners who made up St. Peter's crew, Steller was universally unpopular. Bering himself appeared to enjoy toying with Steller by refusing to let him leave the ship to collect samples. A spirited conversation ensued and after three days Bering relented, allowing the scientist just hours to do his work - an almost fanciful decision which in the end saved his mission and his crew from complete destruction.
St. Elias Island
(now Kayak Island, Alaska)
Bering's instincts compelled him to sail directly for home because they did not - could not - know the region's seasonal weather, they carried limited provisions, and did not know where in the world they actually were. If he would err, it would be on the side of caution - a wise and responsible mariner's decision which has haunted Bering's place in history ever since. However, instead of following their absent captain's orders, the officers of St. Peter secretly steered the ship north- and westward, following the coastline to further record their prize on the ship's chart. It proved a catastrophic mistake.
Bering reached the American continent at a very odd point, at the very apex of the broad arc that today forms the Gulf of Alaska - the northern-most point of the Pacific Ocean. (St. Peter's course is indicated by the solid line prominent towards the bottom of the map, above.) Within a month of their circuitous voyage back to Petropavlovsk, St. Peter ran into the first of frequent storms. Just past Kodiak Island, the vessel was buffeted around rough seas, disoriented for days at a time, and so their fortune continued all down the Aleutian Chain. In September, the first of the crew died of malnutrition, and by October the crew that still clung to life were weak and suffering from the bane of mariners, scurvy.
It wasn't until November that the ship finally made a desperate run across open sea for port, but time had run out; one-third of the crew, 25 men, had died, and those who hadn't lacked the strength to manage the ship. Sighting land, a desolate and treeless island, they decided to beach their vessel and dig in for the winter - but before they could act a storm threw the ship onto the rocks. They were marooned.
The 52 survivors suffered horribly through the long winter. Their only shelter was constructed from the wreckage of their ship; their only heat came from fire made of its timbers - and preserving the wood was their only hope of survival. The only food to eat were the very foxes which crept into the hovels in the night at gnawed on their bodies. But they survived at all only through the ministrations of the ship's tourist, Steller. The grasses he brought from America appeared to have qualities that relieved the ravages of scurvy, and while eating it was initially repulsive to the mariners, the benefits were obvious.
Even Bering allowed himself to be treated by the resourceful Steller, and his physical condition did improve. But spiritually the 60-year-old man had reached the end of his long voyage. One night, amid a howling blizzard, the beams of his hovel collapsed, and its sand walls buried him. His men rushed to extricate him, but he ordered them to let him alone: the time had come for him to die. Besides, he told them, it was warm under the earth - it had been a long time since he'd been warm. And though the body was rotten, the heart was strong. Bering spoke to his men throughout the long night, reflecting on his life and his fate, and the lessons learned since leaving Horsens 45 years earlier. Then he died.