Bering Odyssey

60 Miles on the Bering Strait

By Troy Henkels

The task before us seemed very simple. Walk across the Bering Strait from Alaska to Russia and return by the same means. On a map, this small stretch of water separating continents and cultures is miniscule. But poised on the edge of continent, looking west, the magnitude of such an endeavor is confounding.

On the Bering Strait, it doesn’t matter how many miles you travel, as long as you travel all of them. How hard can it be, really, it’s only 56 miles across from Alaska to Russia. If I had to, I could almost walk that distance in a day. More than three years earlier, Dixie, a close friend from my Antarctic days had come up with the idea to cross the Bering Strait, on foot. Always on the lookout for a new adventure and vivid life experiences, I didn’t hesitate when he asked me to be his expedition partner. A crossing from east to west had never been successful. However, there had been no lack of trying, as most expeditions attempting a crossing on foot, last less than a day.

Like any good adventure this one would entail a large component of the unknown. Dixie and I were not sure a crossing could be done, but we never believed it could not be done either. We both knew with proper preparations, adequate training, and state of the art equipment we would have a good chance at making the crossing. And of course we needed perfect weather, wind, and ice conditions. Without a doubt this was to be the most dangerous and challenging journey I would take on, to date. After three years of difficult work to secure sponsors, modify equipment, work out logistics, and whip our bodies into shape, we were ready. Dixie and I were finally on the edge of North America looking west into the unknown.

For 20 days we waited restlessly in the tiny native village of Wales, Alaska. We waited while storms pounded in from the Bering Sea, as we studied weather forecasts and ice conditions from shore as well as from up to date satellite images. Patience rewarded us with more bad weather and logistical problems. The Bering Strait poses difficulties because of a few simple elements: Weather. A constant low pressure system produces consistent bad weather and extremely windy conditions. It is wet. Due to the advent of global warming, the Strait does not freeze anymore as it did a hundred years ago. The many currents that get compressed through the two land masses keep the ice in a constant, complex state of disarray. And it is cold, very cold. Positioned just south of the Arctic Circle, in March and April this part of the world is still a winter wonderland. So, we were battling three difficult elements, wind, water, and cold. Remove any one element and this would be a straightforward expedition. Unfortunately we didn’t have that luxury or the ability to control the fickle weather.

Finally with a reasonable ten day weather forecast, Dixie and I stepped off of North America and ventured onto the Strait. Very few times in life can you begin something and not turn back. This was to be one of those times. Once we were on the Strait, we knew we would either have to make it across, drown, or be evacuated. Neither of us knew which it would be, yet we were both ready and willing to take on the risk and adventure of attempting to cross the Strait.

With a strong north wind, we skied to the edge of the land fast ice (ice solidly connected to shore). From here we were confronted with open water for as far as we could see into the fog. Our sleds had been designed to float and we lashed them together to create a small catamaran. This craft offered us stability on open water and the ability to use a small sail to harness the incessant wind. With luck we could cover a lot of miles with minimal effort.

This worked perfectly for 45 minutes, until the ice floes around us began moving with the current and compressing the area of open water that we were crossing. Within minutes, our sleds became buried with slush from all sides as walls of ice moved closer. Dixie and I knew this was the most dangerous situation we could be in, and there was nothing we could do. With our sleds getting dangerously heavy with slush, much to our surprise, everything stopped moving. We were stranded in a sea of slush, unable to move, with solid ice less than 30 feet away. As Dixie attempted to ski across very thin ice to safety, the ice gave way and he plunged into the water. Our custom dry suits saved Dixie from the frigid waters, but without warning, the ice floes began shifting again threatening to crush Dixie or at the very least drown him in slush. Unable to remove his skies and swim, Dixie was doomed. Fortunately, a quick toss of a rope and some quick movements by both of us, got Dixie back to and on top of the sleds without a second to spare. Without words I got his skis off and once again the ice movement stopped. Still stranded we slowly edged our way to solid ice by kicking in the water and pulling with shovels through the slush. We jumped to a solid ice floe and with great effort pulled the sleds to safety. With few words we disassembled the catamaran, hooked into the sleds and started pulling, west, across stable ice and away from danger. I was shaken. Less than an hour into the expedition and we were almost confronted with catastrophe. With few words about the incident we focused on the task at hand.

For many hours pulling 200 pound sleds we moved west as far as we could go. Confronted again with open water and slush we knew we had to find a different way. We traveled for hours North, South and even East back towards where we started, pulling hard through variable ice conditions and sometimes up and over 15 feet high blocks of broken ice. To our surprise we come across ski tracks that we had put down earlier in the day. This was the final information we needed. It helped us finally map out the island of ice that we were traveling on. We were stranded on a very large ice floe and unable to travel in any direction due to open water and dangerous slushy conditions. We set up camp for the night and talked about options for the following day.

The GPS told us that we had traveled only a few miles west and that the ice pack that we were on was moving 2 mph..…STRAIGHT SOUTH!!!! Both of us quickly crunched the numbers. In the ten hours that we would be camped, we would be pushed 20 miles south. And we both knew we would have to move quickly during daylight hours to counter this southerly drift and hope for a change in the wind and subsequently weather to allow us to gain mileage west towards Russia. There is no fooling Mother Nature.

On the second day, from the top of a large ice block, I could see no way to get off the ice floe that we were stranded on. New ice had formed during the night near our camp but it didn’t look thick enough to travel on. Dixie amazed me with his route finding abilities and talent at reading ice conditions. Where I could only see roadblocks, Dixie found a way through a maze of towering ice blocks and day old ice, which allowed us to continue traveling west.

Our progress was slow, usually only about 1 mph, because of the rough and variable ice conditions. Despite both of us being in peak condition, in sub zero temperatures it does take a bit of effort to drag 200 pounds of gear around. To keep things really interesting we never really had consistent ice conditions to travel on. For an hour we would have large jumbled blocks of blue ice that required us to push, pull, and finagle our sleds up and over. These pressure ridges would then give way to flat thick ice that was covered with two inches of slush, still waiting to freeze solid. The slush made for a lot of friction under foot/ski and made for very heavy pulling. Often open water would alter our course. Before long we would be back to a haphazard maze of ice blocks that could only be navigated with great effort.

Systematically we would take breaks to fuel our bodies with liquid and high caloric foods, and to look at the GPS to confirm that as we moved west we were also still moving south, with the current and drift due to the persistent north wind. (At a rate of ½ to 2 ½ MPH!) After ten minutes or so, a chill would set in and it would be time to get back in motion to keep the internal furnace pumping to stay warm.

The further south we drifted the less stable and thick the ice became. Our map told us we were drifting towards King Island. A barren, wind swept, desolate mountain/island in the middle of the Bering Sea. As expected one morning, there was King Island on the horizon. We hoped to at least make land fall on the Island, for the sake of safety and possibly a potential pick up location. For several days we made efforts to reach the island, yet in the end we could not. Vast stretches of open water and slush and dangerous ice conditions prevented us from setting foot on this beautiful piece of rock. After two days with King Island being just out the front door of our tent, the current pushed us around and past it, despite our exhausting efforts.

For seven days we did battle with the Bering Strait. Always moving west under our own power and consequently south due to the wind, drift, and current. Our routine became habit and well known to each other. In Polar exploration there is little room for error or time wasted. Our routines became systematic in everything we did. Set up camp, clean ice crystals out of clothing and boots, put on dry clothes, cook the food, melt snow for water, record our position and mileage, write the days events for the website, nightly phone call to our Expedition Manager, etc. etc. In the morning it was the same routine that got us back in motion. These things were second nature to both Dixie and I, long before we stepped onto the Bering Strait. With experience and time spent in polar environments we both had the skills and expertise to instill confidence and respect in each other.

By the seventh night, Dixie and I made the decision to call for a helicopter pickup. We both knew that our efforts were in vain. Mother Nature was too powerful for us to overcome. With 60 miles behind us, we were almost straight south from where we started, despite all the miles west we had labored to travel. The drift was pushing us further into the Bering Sea and with a storm brewing in the distance, we both knew it was in everyone’s best interest to call for a pick up now, rather than wait until we were in dire straights in the middle of some of the worst weather on the planet to call for a rescue. That would be putting more than just ourselves in danger. Dixie made the call to his wife and our expedition manager at our headquarters in Nome. We spent our last night on the Strait in quiet contemplation of how fortunate we were to have this amazing experience in such a unique environment. A place very few people have the opportunity to experience.

By lunchtime on our eighth day on the ice, we were picked up by helicopter and flown to Nome, over vast stretches of open water and thin ice. One look from the air put our small existence on this vast piece of water and ice into perspective. 45 minutes later with mixed emotions and no regrets we landed back in civilization, expedition complete. Though we didn’t make it to Russia from Alaska, we did attempt to accomplish something in the truest form of adventure into the unknown. And that opportunity comes around few times in life.

There are things experienced that I will never be able to convey in an accurate manner. What it feels like to sleep with the sound of ice under pressure, screaming and groaning all night long in the distance. How your mind races as you follow polar bear tracks through a maze of ice blocks. The wondering if you will fall through day old rubbery ice as it flexes under foot as you ski across it in search of the illusive passage to the next maze. The realization that the ice floe that Dixie is on, is moving away from the one I am on and reacting quickly to get back onto the same ice pack. Watching blocks of blue ice get heaved upwards ten feet in the air succumbing to the pressure of colliding currents. The feel of the north wind on your face first thing in the morning, before your blood is really flowing. Talking with your father, via satellite phone, who is back in Iowa, while you are in the far reaches of the Bering Sea. Relying on your partner for your life. Watching the moon rise across a barren, polar landscape. Sleeping on moving ice, not knowing exactly where you will wake up. Realizing that failure is sometimes success in disguise. These are just a few of the things that get stored in the memory banks during such an expedition.

It was much later I realized it wasn’t important how many miles we had traveled on the Bering Strait, but more so, how far I had traveled through life since I’d left Iowa more than 12 years earlier, in order to be able to set foot on the Bering Strait. With that, I sleep well at night, dreaming of all the miles yet to be traveled.

Troy Henkels lives in Eagle River, Alaska. He is a native of Dubuque, a 1985 graduate of Wahlert High School, a 1989 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa. He writes about his adventures and experiences from around the world. Copyright 2005 Troy Henkels

Originally published in the Telegraph Herald, December 4th, 2005.