Authors: Janet Dailey
THE GREAT ALONE
Copyright © 1986 by Janbill, Ltd.
While America was being settled by westward Expansion, Russia was expanding its territory by moving east. Throughout its early history, the one commodity Russia had in abundance to trade to both Europe and China was furs—sable, ermine, fox, bear, and other valuable pelts. Everything was computed in furs; taxes, salaries, penalties, and rewards were paid in furs.
It was the
in the plural—a breed of
coureurs des bois
comparable to American mountain men, who exploited this natural resource. While serfdom prevailed in the rest of the country, forcing people to work the land for the nobles, these men were free to go where they pleased, traveling in bands, electing their own leaders, and sharing the profits from a season’s hunt among themselves and the merchants financing the expeditions. When they had hunted out a fur grounds, they moved to a new area—ultimately confronting the vast wilderness of furrich Siberia.
scouted, and the Cossacks followed to claim. A warlike people from the steppes above the Black Sea, they were a social rather than an ethnic class who robbed as frequently as they traded, and prized their freedom highly. They had reached the Pacific in the 17th century and heard rumors of a “great land” across the waters to the east. At the same time, European scientists were speculating that Asia and America were connected at some northern point.
It was Peter the Great who ordered the first expedition to explore the uncharted North Pacific and Arctic Oceans and to ascertain whether the two continents were joined. In July of 1728, Vitus Bering, a Dane serving in the Russian navy, sailed the newly built packet boat
from the shipyard he’d constructed near the mouth of the Kamchatka River onto the sea that would bear his name. Two short months later he returned, satisfied that no land mass connected Asia and America, but bringing no proof.
A larger, more comprehensive exploration was ordered by Empress Elizabeth, an expedition so massive it required eight years to transport all the men, equipment, and supplies across Siberia and to construct two square-riggers, the
, commanded again by Vitus Bering, and the
commanded by a Russian named Alexei Chirikov. In June of 1741, the two ships set sail from Avatcha Bay on the Kamchatka Peninsula. After two weeks of sailing, the
became separated in the rain and fog.
It is believed the crew of the
saw what is now known as the Prince of Wales Island in extreme southern Alaska. They turned north and followed the broken shoreline with its labyrinth of channels, bays, and inlets surrounding the large and small islands of the Alexander Archipelago. Two days after the first sighting of land, they anchored at the entrance of a great bay, believed to be Sitka harbor. Chirikov ordered one of the ship’s two longboats to be put over the side and sent his mate and ten men to explore the entrance. The boat was never seen again. Several days passed before Chirikov sent his boatswain and six men in the second longboat to look for the first. It, too, disappeared. The
remained in the general area for several days, but there were no more boats, and the drinking water was running low. Chirikov consulted with his officers, and it was decided to return to Kamchatka with all possible haste.
reached Petropavlovsk, its point of origin, in October of 1741 and the returning sailors told of the abundant wildlife they had seen—the swarms of sea otter, seals, and sea lions along the rocky coasts.
The sister ship, the
had taken a northeasterly course after losing sight of the
Its crew also saw land—the towering peaks of Alaska’s St. Elias range.
During the return voyage to Kamchatka, the now scurvy-ridden crew had to battle fog and rain, gale-force winds, and a violent storm which blew the ship hundreds of miles into the Pacific. It wasn’t until the first of November that they finally encountered a land mass, which turned out to be an island, one of the Commodore group off the Siberian coast of Kamchatka. Bering, the captain, died and was buried on the island that took his name. Other members of the crew survived, recovered their strength and built a boat from the remains of their ship, which had been wrecked when they landed. In August of 1742, forty-six of the original seventy-seven-member crew sailed into Petropavlovsk with a cargo of valuable furs obtained from the island.
Here was proof for the
and the Cossacks that the land to the east was rich in furs. The sea otter that ventured so rarely onto the Siberian coastline existed elsewhere in great numbers. Undaunted by distance—after all, they had already covered some five thousand miles—they were drawn by this far-off land. The longing to see what lay beyond those waters was strong, a craving to conquer this new land and claim it, too, for the Tsar. Russia already stretched across Europe and Asia. Why not America as well?
By 1742, England had a dozen colonies along the Atlantic seaboard of North America; France had claimed the territory of the Mississippi River from its headwaters to its mouth; Spain had conquered Mexico and the California coast. Russia looked to take her share of the rich North American continent.
Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski, Siberia August 1742
Muffled shouts from outside roused Luka Ivanovich Kharakov from his slumber. He came out of the crude bunk reaching for the musket he’d laid beside it the night before. Nerves twitched along the jagged scar that half closed his left eye and scored his cheekbone before it disappeared into a heavy beard. Now fully awake and alert, he paused to determine the direction of attack, then caught the tenor of the commotion outside, the lack of alarm in it. Simultaneously it registered that he was inside the stockaded walls of the
at Petropavlovsk, not in some isolated winter hut in the wilds of Siberia.
As the twitching near his eye eased, Luka felt the heavy pounding in his head take over, the result of a night spent drinking
The sounds of excited cries and barking dogs continued outside. He slipped the hide-trimmed cloth mantle over his head but didn’t bother to girdle the open sides shut with his belt. He pulled a homespun hood over his shaggy hair, then went outside to investigate.
A dreary misting rain fell from the leaden clouds hanging over the August green hills surrounding Petropavlovsk. Mindless of the miserable weather, the inhabitants of the fortress were hurrying toward the harborfront located on a quiet inlet of Avatcha Bay.
Luka followed them. Ships came painfully seldom to this southeasternmost tip of the Romanov Empire of Russia, and any appearance of one was an event.
Only weeks ago, Luka had been told, Chirikov had sailed from this very port in the
, bound for Okhotsk. The Cossacks stationed at the ostrog had related to him the stories that the
crew had told them of their voyage to northern coasts of the American continent, confirming the native rumors of a
—a great land—beyond the dark waters, a voyage from which their sister ship the
had never returned. Perhaps the wretched, often stormy weather of these seas had forced the
to turn back.
Luka hoped so. He wanted to learn more about the multitude of islands where they claimed the sea otter, which were so rarely seen on the Kamchatka coast, abounded in vast numbers.
—fur hunter—he knew the value of skins, especially the rare sea otter. Its pelt would fetch ninety rubles—more, it was claimed—on the China frontier.
As he neared the wharf, Luka saw no ship at anchor in the bay, only a crudely built craft no more than thirty-six feet in length tied up to the dock. Screeching seagulls wheeled overhead, adding chorus to the turmoil attending the arrival of the strange vessel. Everywhere, people were embracing wild-looking men dressed in skins.
He recognized a Cossack who was hurrying back to the ostrog as one he’d drunk with the night before and stopped him. “What is all this excitement? Who are these men?”
They did not die!”
Luka stared at the ragged bunch of men, some forty in number, many of them with toothless grins and all of them with long, straggly beards, and dressed in animal skins. The ship had not been lost at sea with all hands aboard as everyone had believed, Luka realized. Some had lived to tell the tale—the tale of the great land that Luka wanted most to hear. He moved into their midst, catching snatches of conversation while he stared at their fur garments, recognizing the pelts of sea otter, fox, and seal.
“Our cables broke and the ship was thrown onto the rocks …”
“… thought we had reached Kamchatka …”
“No. Bering is dead. Lagunov, too. We …”
“It turned out to be an island …”
Stopping, Luka turned toward the man who had just spoken. Half of his teeth were gone and the rest were blackened from scurvy. But Luka observed the fox-skin garment the man wore, not the stench of his body.
“Where is this island?” Luka wanted to know.
“East of here. I don’t know how far,” the man responded, eager to talk of the misadventure now that it was over. “We sailed ten days ago, but our boat began leaking only three days out. We had to throw most of our lead and ammunition overboard to keep from taking more water. It’s a miracle we got here at all.” Quickly he crossed himself, the gesture from right to left in the Russian Orthodox fashion. “We built the boat ourselves from the wreckage of the
All the ship’s carpenters had died and—”
Luka Ivanovich Kharakov was a promyshlenik, not a sailor; his interest centered on the fur the man wore and where it had come from, not how the man got here. “There were fox on this island?”
“Everywhere.” His unpleasant grimace exposed toothless gums on top. “When we first went ashore on the island, the Arctic fox was the only animal we saw. Bold they were, too,” he declared and cursed them roundly. “When somebody died, we didn’t have a chance to get him buried before the foxes were there tearing away at his corpse. It was nearly impossible to drive them away, and we couldn’t spare the powder to shoot them. All of us were weak. Only a few had the strength to hunt in the beginning.”
“What about the sea otter?” Luka indicated one of the other survivors clad in a long garment made of sea otter pelts sewn together. “Were there many of them, too?”
“The waters around the island were filled with them.” The man smiled triumphantly, then caught Luka by the arm with taloned fingers and led him to the wharfside. “Look.”
Bundles of furs sat on the ground, the stacks growing as more were unloaded from the hold of the boat. Amidst the bales of fox and seal skins, Luka recognized the dark, glossy pelts of the sea otter and knelt beside one of the bundles. With a knife, he cut the rawhide strings that tied them together and the skins tumbled loose.
He picked up one and ran his hand over the nearly black fur, watching the iridescent shimmer the action created. He dug his fingers into the soft, thick hair, burying them nearly an inch in depth before touching the hide. And the size of the pelt—five feet long and two feet wide—almost three times the size of a sable skin. It was a prime fur—worth its weight in gold. It was “soft gold.” All around him were more bales, containing forty skins to a bale.
Once, two years ago, he had killed ten sea otter trapped on a massive ice floe that had ground into the Kamchatka coast. Ten pelts, and Luka had thought himself most fortunate. Now he looked on these hundreds with a reverent greed.
“… maybe nine hundred pelts. And that’s not counting the skins of the blue fox and fur seals.”
Luka caught the last half of the man’s boast. The muscles in his throat constricted with frustration and half-formed resentment. He was the hunter. What were these sailors doing with a fortune in furs? Every winter he went out into the wilds to trap sable and came back with fewer and fewer, barely making a living while risking his life in the brutal Siberian cold among uncivilized tribes of hostile natives, like the Chukchi, who had given him this scar he carried on his face.