Monday, February 9, 2009

Georg Steller

I've recently been reading a lot about Georg Steller and his experience with Bering on his voyage to Alaska. I read, Where the Sea Breaks its Back, (1966) by Correy Ford which is an entertaining read about Steller's last seven years of his short life. Ford took a voyage along a similar route that the Bering expedition took but 200 years later. I thought the book would be more about Ford, but was pleasantly surprised that it was a very thorough description of the actual voyage. I like maps and on the inside front cover is a map that shows the route for the St Paul (captained by Chirikov) and the St Peter (captained by Bering). These two ships took off from the Kamchatka Peninsula in 1741 in search of that mysterious land to the east. Keeping in mind that these were sailing ships, when looking at the map you can really see where they struggled with the current, tide and wind.

I also found another biography of Steller, Touched with Fire: Alaska’s George Willliam Steller by Margaret Bell. Bell has become one of my new favorite authors, mostly writing stories about life in Alaska for young adults. A lot of her stories are the same genre of Gene Stratton-Porter's writing. This is one of her non-fiction books and greatly mirrored the Ford book. One thing that was missing from the copy that I had was any references she used. It would have been really helpful to know where she was getting her information. From what I found, the original manuscript was written in Latin which got translated to German and then into English. A lot came be lost with so many translations.

I just started reading, Georg Wilhelm Steller: Journal of a Voyage with Bering, 1741–1742, from O.W. Frost which includes a short biography and then a translation of Steller's manuscript from its original. I'm very anxious to see if the first two books were accurate or what liberties were taken to tell a good story.

Steller was an amazing naturalist and collected and described so many species of flora, fauna, birds, and mammals. Everyone has heard of Steller's Jay and the Steller Sea Lion but there is also Steller's Eider, Steller's Sea Eagle, a Gumboot Chiton (cyptochiton selleri) and many more.

What intrigues me is how these early explorers were able to survive with so little and with such unsophisticated equipment and supplies. We really are spoiled! After landing on Alaska and making being the first european naturalist to make observations about the flora and fauna as well as the early Aleut people, the St. Peter became stranded on an uninhabited island not far from their final destination. Steller and about 40 others spent about 10 months on this island (Nov-Aug) living off the natural resources as well as what they could scavenge from the ship. They eventually rebuilt a new, smaller boat and make it back to the Bay of Avatcha. And upon returning, Steller immediate packed his bags (what he had left) and took off to explore and observe more of the Kamchatka Peninsula for another two years. I mean, come on, after such a long ordeal, wouldn't you think you'd want to hang out in town and have someone cook for you?

Anyway, he died before he could publish his own work. The manuscripts that he sent back to his HQ were finally published about 50 years after he submitted them.

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