Kamchatka (4) to the Commander Islands

The fourth post in a series inspired by my July 2009 experiences on an expedition cruise to Kamchatka, in the Russian Far East.

From Kronotsky Reserve on the Kamchatka mainland we steamed west to the Commander Islands, the westernmost end of the Aleutian chain.  Most of the other Aleutian islands lie within US territory.  Here is the last resting place of the great navigator Vitus Bering on his return from Alaska.  Georg Steller, the expedition’s naturalist,  who then took charge of the expedition.

Village on Bering Island, Commander Islands, Russian Far East

Village on Bering Island, Commander Islands, Russian Far East

Next morning we dropped anchor off the fog-bound village of Nikol’skoye, population something like 750, the only settlement on Bering Island.  Half the people of the village descend from Aleutian islanders brought from Alaska in the 1820s when the fur trade reached its height.  A very scrappy, treeless community of timber cabins and rusting machinery – much like those remote villages in National Geographic articles – although surprisingly a very smart school and an older cottage spruced up nicely as the island museum.  Also noticeable was the politely welcoming attitude of the islanders towards us strangers. Here we also farewelled the handsome and personable young Russian wildlife reserve director, Nikolai, who had hitched a ride aboard from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.

In the afternoon the ship steamed anti-clockwise around the island, to anchor in late afternoon off some steep sea cliffs for a birdwatching excursion in the rubber boats.  The sea was calm but quite a solid swell had gotten up. We all ooohed and aaahed at the gulls and kittiwakes nesting on ledges in the cliffs, snapped sea otters surfacing and so on for around two hours, then it was time for the ship to rendezvous with the flotilla of Zodiacs.  Something wasn’t quite right and we all bobbed up and down in increasingly choppy waters for half an hour, waiting for the ship to materialise, getting colder, wetter and more nervous.  Eventually all returned safely, but several cameras were drenched, including my spare.

Further on around the island we reached the west-facing Commander Bay, where the explorer Vitus Bering and his men were shipwrecked in 1741 on their return from discovering the route to Alaska.  Bering and several others died of scurvy over the long winter – nothing to eat but fish and foxes – but eventually the survivors built a new boat and got themselves back to the settlement they had founded at Petropavlovsk, on Kamchatka.

We were warned conditions could be rough and wet for this excursion, I had some doubts but joined the group which chanced it, and did enjoy the experience.

Original grave site of Vitus Bering, Commander Islands, Russian Far East

Original grave site of Vitus Bering, Commander Islands, Russian Far East

Green, treeless hills clothed in a tundra vegetation, rather like the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, and all clambered around the grassy hillside graves where Bering and his men were reinterred around 1992, after the original graves nearby had been exhumed by archaeologists.  Long, windswept beaches, totally virgin – no roads cross Bering Island.

More images of the Commander Islands

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