Remembering the coast's first sighting by European explorers

Posted: Friday, September 09, 2005

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

The first sighting of the fabled Northwest Coast by European visitors was on the ship St. Paul on July 15, 1741. The captain of the St. Paul was Aleksei Chirikov. He was part of a two-ship expedition led by Vitus Bering, who was skipper of the St. Peter.

Since the Russian calendar was different than ours - at that time there was a 12-day separation - the discovery for us would be July 27.

Chirikov sent a small party of 11 men ashore in one of the ship's launches to reconnoiter. But it did not return. So a smaller boat with four men was dispatched, but it also failed to come back.

The St. Paul had no more boats, so after waiting in vain for several days the captain and crew decided to return to Russia.

Recently, my son, Allan, entertained two visitors from Russia who came to see the coast where the original Russians were lost without a trace.

Vladimir Kolychev is the president of the Russian American Historical Enlightenment Society of Moscow, and he was accompanied by Vladimir Latyntsev, a talented oil painter from the city of Vologda. Aeroflot helped to sponsor their visit.

On July 27, the trio left Juneau for Hoonah where they spent an afternoon with the local congregation of the Russian Orthodox Church. Kolychev presented an icon of a mother and child that he had brought from Moscow.

The next day, the three hoisted the Russian American Co. flag and headed aboard my son's 23-foot boat to Pelican and the outer coast.

What an experience it was for the Russians to see the area where Chirikov had first sighted Alaska. Chirikov's logbook stated that he was at latitude 57' 51" which placed the St. Paul somewhere near the mouth of Lisianski Strait and Greentop Harbor on Yakobi Island. The rugged coast has probably changed little in the last 260 years.

The weather was similar as well, with fog, wind and rain. In returning from Takanis Bay to Greentop Harbor, my son's boat got caught in a squall that blew with nine- and 10-foot breaking seas.

The Russians were especially thankful when they got back into the safety of Greentop. Out came a bottle of homemade raspberry vodka and they toasted the little boat as well as the skipper, in friendship and camaraderie.

The following day, they lowered a bouquet of wild flowers into the calm water off Lisianski Strait, in memory of Aleksei Chirikov and the 15 lost crew members of the St. Paul.

• Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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