'They hushed it up': Canmore author sheds light on secretive and doomed Russian expedition

Canmore's Stephen Bown is back with a new book telling the incredible story of Peter the Great and his Northern Expedition, led by famed Danish Mariner Vitus Bering.

'Island of the Blue Foxes' brings North American readers into a part of history seldom written about anywhere

Alberta author Stephen Bown says Bering's continued setbacks on the 10-year-long journey helped the author weave an epic tale of scientific discovery and adversity.

In his latest book, Island of the Blue Foxes, Canmore author Stephen Bown tells the incredible and secretive story of Russian Emperor Peter the Great's Northern Expedition, led by famed Danish Mariner Vitus Bering.

Fascinated by historical accounts of "disasters or extreme adventures," Bown says Bering's continued setbacks on the 10-year journey helped Bown weave an epic tale of discovery and adversity.

The author sat down with Daybreak Alberta host Russell Bowers to share some details about one of the greatest scientific undertakings of the 18th century and how, against the odds, Bering and his team crossed Siberia, the Pacific Ocean, and laid claim to Alaska.

The following is an excerpt from that interview:

Q: What is it about adventures that you find so fascinating?

A: This expedition had 3,000 people involved in it. It was a massive undertaking, and that's why it's considered to be one of these greatest scientific expeditions in history. 

And in this particular case the disaster began over a period of months. It was a slow, creeping disease of scurvy which began its insidious influence of them.

Q: Did Bering know how close Russia was to the north American continent?

A: There were different points of view, let's put it that way, which was cause of some of the disagreements on the voyage and perhaps contributed to the extreme adventure and disaster they ended up encountering.

Back then maps of the world were not very accurate. So somewhere in the Pacific Ocean there was sketched on some early French maps these islands, which of course we know now don't exist. 

Part of the instructions from the Russian government was 'you've got find these valuable islands'... so they spent a lot of time going back and forth in the Pacific Ocean searching for these islands that didn't exist.

Q: For explorers in Canada, the Northwest Passage was the Holy Grail. What were the Russians looking for?

A: Well, for them it was the Northeast Passage. I mean, ships had been looking for that Northeast Passage for a while too, and as late as the early 20th century.

But that's what this expedition did, is it consolidated the Russian Empire's political control over all of northern Asia. [Bering] pioneered the route by which future people could actually cross Siberia.

Q: Why didn't the Russians go further south and take over more land after they claimed Alaska?

A: One of the things Bering was supposed to do was to sail as far south as California.

They weren't stopped necessarily by an inability to conquer more people, they were stopped by the political intrusions of British and Americans and Spanish who were coming up the coast the other direction.

Q: What does the expedition tell us about the modern world?

A: When there was a disaster on this expedition they [the Russians] hushed it up. They didn't want any news of it coming out… none of the people were ever allowed to release any of their information. None of the maps were ever released.

We don't know as much about this expedition because the Russians wanted to keep it secret. It wasn't until the 1950s that one of the key accounts of the voyage was published into English.

It's been overlooked.

Bown is the author of eight literary non-fiction books on the history of science and exploration. He lives in Canmore with his wife and two kids.

With files from Daybreak Alberta