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Sunday, July 28, 2002

Finding my Berings

Japan Times nature columnist

Imagine traveling halfway around the world overland, building a ship, then being the first to navigate an unknown sea . . . only to have your sponsors disbelieve you. That was the fate of Cmdr. Vitus Jonassen Bering, the Danish seafarer whose name lives on in those of the Bering Sea, the Bering Straits, Bering Island and the Commander Islands . . . but who had to go back and do it all again before he was believed!

Born in 1681 in Jutland, Bering joined the newly formed Russian navy in the early 1700s. Distinguished in battle, he was promoted to commander. Then, in 1724, he was selected by Tsar Peter I (Peter the Great) to lead the First Kamchatka Expedition (1725-30) across Siberia to the Pacific, thence to determine whether or not the Asian and American continents were connected.

Reaching Okhotsk (today a small, grimy, isolated settlement on the north shore of the Sea of Okhotsk; back then no doubt tinier and grimier, and certainly more isolated) entailed a two-year journey for Bering, who left St. Petersburg on Feb. 5, 1725. However, Okhotsk was only another starting point for him. There he built a ship for the crossing to Kamchatka.

Finally, from his third starting point on Kamchatka, having built a new expedition ship, he set sail. Much of the world remained uncharted, so Bering spent the summer of 1728 exploring through the then unknown sea that now bears his name. His journey took him so far north without sight of Alaska (through his strait) that he believed he had proved that Asia and North America were separated, though it was not until 1730 that he was able to reach St. Petersburg to personally deliver the news.

Three years later Bering was back, leading an even larger expedition, determined to put beyond any doubt that Asia and America were not connected. The Second Kamchatka Expedition (1733-43) was a mission of exploration and scientific research on an astounding scale. It was, no less, an attempt to map the entire Russian-Siberian coast, and the western coast of America as far south as Mexico.

In two ships, the St. Peter and the St. Paul, Bering's expedition set off across the Pacific; Bering commanding the St. Peter and Aleksey Ilich Chirikov the St. Paul. The ships, which became separated soon after departure, are commemorated today in the name of Kamchatka's largest city -- Petropavlovsk Kamchatskiy. The culmination of this voyage came in 1741, when Bering finally reached Alaska.

Alas, on the return journey, after sailing west past the Aleutians, Bering's ship was wrecked just 200 km east of the Kamchatkan Peninsula. There, in December 1741, he and almost half his crew died on the island that now bears his name. The sea named after Bering, a roughly fan-shaped 2,274,020-sq.-km northward extension of the Pacific Ocean between Siberia and Alaska, is connected to the Arctic Ocean by the narrow, 90-km-wide Bering Strait. The cold waters of this sea are icebound for much of the year, and sea passage is only safe from ice between June and October.

Bering's story, though centuries old, has a modern ending. Because there were no known authenticated portraits of this great hero, a Soviet-Danish expedition set out for Bering Island in 1991 to search for his grave, their goal being to reconstruct a likeness of Bering from his skull. In August that year archaeologists found his grave and transported his remains to Moscow, where forensic scientists successfully recreated his appearance. The following year, Bering's remains, and those of five other members of his crew, were reburied in a marked grave on Bering Island.

Bering Island, the largest of the group known now as the Commander Islands (after Cmdr. Vitus Bering), is 90 km long and in places up to 20 km wide. This low, treeless island is frequently exposed to severe storms, and my own attempt to visit the great man's grave in summer 1999 failed because rough seas preventing my landing.

By the time you read this, I will be off again in a second attempt. Wish me luck.

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