The Steller’s jay, common to the western American coast from southcentral Alaska to Central America, is a relation of the eastern blue jay, common to central and east coastal America. The Steller’s jay is gorgeous, a graduated blue with an aggressive crest that stands straight up and makes it look like Mr. T in a really bad mood. I’ve grown up around the Steller’s jay, they’re the default blue jay for me, and so it was with a delightful shock of recognition that I read this passage in Corey Ford’s Where the Sea Breaks Its Back
He sent Lepekhin to shoot some of the strange and unknown birds he had noticed…He “placed in my hands a single specimen, of which I remember have seen a likeness painted in lively colors and described in the newest account of the birds of the Carolinas.” Steller’s fantastic memory had recalled a hand-colored plate of the eastern American bluejay in Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida, etc., which he had seen years before in the library of the St. Petersburg Academy; and he identified Lepekhin’s find as its west coast cousin, known today as Cyanocitta stelleri, or Steller’s Jay. Now his last doubts about the land they had discovered were resolved. “This bird proved to me that we were really in America.”
The words are Georg Steller’s, a German naturalist in the employ of Russia. It was July 20, 1741, and after six weeks of wandering all over what today is known as the Gulf of Alaska with no maps, too few provisions, a to put it politely fractious multinational crew, having lost sight of the second ship in their expedition, Steller stepped ashore on what is today known as Kayak Island in what today is known as Prince William Sound. He was the first white naturalist ever to observe and sample the flora and fauna and Native life of Alaska.
He was a capable scientist and a terrific writer. He was also a difficult personality frustrated by what he perceived to be the idiots he sailed with.
“Just at the time when it was most necessary to apply reason in order to attain the wished-for object,” he wrote in his journal, “the erratic behavior of the naval officers began. They commenced to ridicule sneeringly and to leave unheeded every opinion offered by anybody not a seaman, as if, with the rules of navigation, and they had also acquired all the other science and logic. And at a time when a single day–so many of which were afterwards spent in vain–might have been decisive for the whole enterprise, the course was suddenly changed to north.”
He was generally right about the crew, especially the execrable sailing master Khitrov, who knew everything about sailing except how to navigate. It didn’t make Steller any more beloved on board. He wanted to winter in Alaska but the captain, the Dane Vitus Bering, decides to make for Kamchatka instead. The Mother of Storms loses her temper with them and it amazes me how well the St. Peter stands up under all the horrific storms she throws at them, but eventually they wreck on what is today known as Bering Island and spend the winter there. To which wreck we owe our knowledge of Steller’s sea cow, a northern relative of the manatee which went extinct shortly thereafter.
The following spring, after the death of fully a third of the crew from scurvy and exposure, including Bering, after a winter of being literally nibbled to death by the blue foxes that overran the Aleutians at that time, they cannibalize the wreck of the St. Peter into a longboat and set off again for home, reaching it in less than six weeks. All of Steller’s carefully preserved specimens had to be left behind.
In such fraught circumstances is born an astonishingly thorough and thoughtful examination of this new land. Steller is the first to describe the life cycles and to name the five species of Pacific salmon. He is the first white man to discover the salmonberry. He is the only naturalist ever to have observed the Steller’s sea monkey. Alas, while they’ve been gone there has been a regime change in St. Petersburg and the old spirit of exploration is gone. Steller’s report is filed and forgotten in the archives of the Russian Academy of Science, where it can still be seen today, and he himself died in penury and ignominy.
This book was first published in 1966 but there is nothing dry or dated about either the subject matter or style. This is a riveting, rip-snorting survival tale along the lines of Alfred Lansing’s Endurance. The last chapter, in which Ford describes what happened after the Bering expedition brought back news of the abundance of sea otters and fur seals in Alaska, stimulating a horde of promyshlenniki and the subsequent slaughter of Alaskan wildlife and rape of Alaska Natives is a cautionary tale that carries a grim warning into the present day. Highly, highly recommended.