Ford, Corey, Where the Breaks Its Back: The Epic Story of Early Naturalist Georg Steller and the Russian Exploration of Alaska. Alaska Northwest Books: Anchorage, 1966. 206p.
This book was recommended on our recent trip to the San Juan Islands. While the San Juans are not in Alaska, they are the last in the chain of coastal islands running down the Pacific coast from Alaska, and some of the birds and animals are the same, including these Steller Sea Lions.
The book, written by a retired Air Force officer who served in the Aleutians in World War II, is mostly the story of Georg Steller, a German naturalist of the early 18th century. Steller travelled to Russia and was able to get an appointment at the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. From there, he worked his way across Russia to the Kamchatka Peninsula. (If you have either played Risk or studied geography, that may sound familiar.) There Steller linked up with Vitus Bering, a Dutch sailor serving in the Russian Navy. (Captain James Cook later named the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska after this explorer.)
Bering was organizing a second trip to sail east from Kamchatka in search of Alaska. After much effort, and delays from those in charge in St. Petersburg, Steller was finally able to get on board as the naturalist for the expedition. It was a difficult journey under the best of circumstances and the area was largely uncharted. The charts that did exist were conflicting and often somewhat fanciful.
The St. Peter, the boat on which Bering and Steller sailed, was separated from the St. Paul, the other ship on the expedition, fairly early in the trip and they never regained sight of each other. Bering sailed on and on 18 June, 1741, made landfall on the Alaskan coast. The main purpose of going ashore was to restock the ship’s supply of fresh water.
Steller, the naturalist, was granted permission to go ashore with the watering party, but was only allowed 10 hours ashore. Bering believed he had accomplished his task and was anxious to sail back to Kamchatka before winter weather. Steller was furious to be granted so little time, but took full advantage of it.
Being a truly talented man, Steller identified several new species, including the above-pictured Steller’s Jay. To those of us in the United States, especially from the eastern half of the country, we would think this looks similar to a Blue Jay, which is what Steller thought, though he had never been to America before. He had seen a drawing of a Blue Jay in a book during his studies and he remembered it, saw the resemblance, and took it as confirmation they were in fact on the North American continent.
Once the party began heading back to Russia, the adventure truly began, including shipwreck and over-wintering on Bering Island, where the commander of the expedition died. The party eventually built themselves a second boat and made it back to Russia. In the meantime, Steller described several more species new to science, many of which still bear his name.
The book is well-written and includes elements of interest to those who like nature, exploration, or adventure. It is a fascinating look into the lives of some incredibly rugged men who survived in one of the most rugged places on earth.