Another Date with the Strait
By Troy Henkels
Kitesurfing across the Bering Strait was not a new idea for me. I had first thought about it in the winter of 2005, when I tried to walk across the Bering Strait from Alaska to Russia. The super-dynamic conditions that the Strait offers thwarted our attempts, and after 8 days and being pushed 60 miles south due to the strong currents, we called it quits
When Geza Scholtz, from Switzerland, asked me a year ago if it was possible to kitesurf across the Strait, we decided to team up and find out. Extreme expeditions to extreme places on the planet was nothing new to me. After spending 16 months living and working in Antarctica, my life had been filled with expeditions to some of the coldest and highest places on earth. A relatively warm weather expedition was a welcome opportunity. I knew if we could navigate through the labyrinth of insane logistics required for an expedition on the Bering Strait, then the kiting would seem like the easy part. Don't get me wrong, an expedition in this part of the world offers up plenty of challenges, and we had to be prepared for the worst: cold waters (40F), strong currents, and some of the most severe and unpredictable weather anywhere on the planet, not to mention the very real possibility of being stranded in the middle where a rescue may be days away.
The biggest difficulty was securing the proper permitting to enter Russia legally, at an unofficial border crossing. After eight months, the inroads into the Russian bureaucracy were proving to be a bit perplexing. With time running short and several major roadblocks, a Moscow based PR agency stepped in and was able to push our permits through in the nick of time. The Russians said the cost would be between 70-100K for the permits, which found us scrambling for cash and more sponsors. After all was said and done, we paid 45K, which was still a staggering sum.... just for permission to kite 56 miles across the Strait.
So with a year of hard work behind us, we headed for the western most point on the North American continent, Wales, Alaska. This native village is a remote outpost of 150 residents, most of which don't have running water or flush toilets. It sits on a desolate beach, in the middle of nowhere, in a place that is subjected to consistently miserable weather. Despite this, the hardy locals were not only friendly, but extremely curious about our project.
However, before we could actually think about kiting across the Strait, we needed a support boat, which had to be bought in Anchorage, shipped to Nome, assembled, trailered to Teller, (another native village on the coast), then driven 60 miles along the coast to Wales. This was a small adventure in itself, to say the least. This 20' Zodiac should have been the perfect craft for the crossing. But, fraught with engine problems, it became apparent quite quickly that this boat was a liability to us, rather than a safety tool, as it should have been. We sold the boat and hired, Ronald, a local boat captain and his twenty foot, fiberglass skiff with a 80hp engine, which was more than adequate for our support boat.
None the less, several days of epic wind passed, with Ronald saying "no way" to venturing out into rough seas with his boat. The locals in Wales have a healthy respect for the ocean and know all to well the dangers of capsizing in heavy seas. Despite the lack of a support boat, we still ventured out onto the Bering Strait for fun and some epic kiting sessions in great surf and perfect wind. It became clear that the survival gear we had to carry would take some getting used to. In addition to our boards and kites we carried a lot of extra equipment including full drysuits, helmets, lifejackets, food, water, flares, air horn and Spot trackers. After one five hour day on the water, my GPS indicated I had done 60 miles........ the same mileage it would have been to get across the Strait, so we knew a crossing was within reason.
We also really enjoyed the local culture. There was Eskimo baseball, basketball in the school gym, exploring a cold war era radar site, and helping our host Dan cut firewood. The most memorable day found our cameraman Bjorn and I hiking along the beach when we saw a polar bear ahead in the distance. As we got closer, it lumbered across the beach, crawled into the ocean, and swam off, never to be seen again. Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I would have never believed it.
After weeks of waiting we finally had the perfect conditions for crossing. Ronald fired up the boat, we donned our gear, and once on the water we watched the edge North America fall away in the distance. Just when it was looking like we might make it to Russia, the wind died and our kites fell out of the sky.
After a year of planning, countless logistical nightmares, three weeks in Wales, and fall storms imminent, we had to abandoned our efforts to get across this season. For me, this expedition turned out to be very similar to life itself. The reward is not so much in reaching the destination, but how much you enjoy the journey along the way.
Originally Published October 10th, 2010. Telegraph Herald, Dubuque, Iowa