Slim Chance on the Bering Strait

Kiting across the Bering Strait isn’t a new idea for me. I first thought about it while attempting to walk across the frozen Strait from Alaska to Russia in the winter of 2005. During that expedition, my team spent eight days on the pack ice, but after being pushed 60 miles off-course by strong currents, we called it quits. When Geza Scholtz from Switzerland asked if a summer crossing by kiteboard was possible, I decided to find out.

Over the past decade, I’ve taken part in expeditions all over the world. From those experiences, I knew if my team and I could navigate the labyrinth of insane logistics, kiting would seem like the easy part. Don’t get me wrong, there are challenges involved in kiting in Alaska: freezing water temperatures, extremely strong currents, huge seas, unpredictable weather and the very real possibility of being stranded with no way back. But the biggest difficulty by far is securing the proper permits to enter Russia at an unofficial border crossing.

After eight months of frustrations with the Russian bureaucracy and with time running short, we turned to the Moscow-based PR agency PR Fact for help. Fortunately, the company pushed the permits through just in time, but then came the price tag. The Russians said the permits would cost between $70,000 and $100,000, which left us scrambling for more cash and sponsors. In the end, we paid $45,000 for permission to kite just 56 miles.

Alaska Or Bust
With the diplomatic matters settled, we headed for North America’s westernmost point — Wales, Alaska. This remote outpost is a village of only 150 residents, most of whom don’t have running water or flush toilets. The village sits on a desolate beach abutting the Bering Sea and is subjected to consistently miserable weather year-round. Despite this, the hardy locals were not only very friendly but also extremely curious to learn about and help with our project.

Our first major task was transporting our support boat, a 20-foot Zodiac, to Wales. We bought the boat in Anchorage, shipped it to Nome, assembled it, towed it to Teller (another native village) and then piloted it 60 miles up the coast to Wales. After all of that, we discovered the boat was plagued with engine problems and would be more of a liability than a safety tool. We ended up selling the Zodiac and hiring a local captain named Ronald Ozenna Jr., who owned a 20-foot fiberglass skiff with an 80 hp engine, which was more than adequate for our support boat.

The Waiting Game
With the diplomatic matters settled, we headed for North America’s westernmost point — Wales, Alaska. This remote outpost is a village of only 150 residents, most of whom don’t have running water or flush toilets. The village sits on a desolate beach abutting the Bering Sea and is subjected to consistently miserable weather year-round. Despite this, the hardy locals were not only very friendly but also extremely curious to learn about and help with our project.

Our first major task was transporting our support boat, a 20-foot Zodiac, to Wales. We bought the boat in Anchorage, shipped it to Nome, assembled it, towed it to Teller (another native village) and then piloted it 60 miles up the coast to Wales. After all of that, we discovered the boat was plagued with engine problems and would be more of a liability than a safety tool. We ended up selling the Zodiac and hiring a local captain named Ronald Ozenna Jr., who owned a 20-foot fiberglass skiff with an 80 hp engine, which was more than adequate for our support boat.

The Waiting Game
With the boat secured, several days of great wind came and went with Ozenna telling us “no way” each time we suggested crossing. The locals have a healthy respect for the ocean and know all too well the dangers of capsizing in heavy seas. We made the best of the downtime and actually had some epic kiting sessions on the Strait and along the Wales coast. After a few runs, however, it became clear the survival gear we had to carry would take getting used to.

In addition to our boards and kites, we carried a lot of extra equipment, including full drysuits, helmets, life jackets, food and water, flares, air horns and spot trackers. Over time, we grew accustomed to the extra gear. After one five-hour session, my GPS indicated I’d kited 60 miles — the distance across the Strait — so we knew the crossing was within reach.

We also 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 Richard cut firewood. The most memorable experience was seeing a polar bear. Our cameraman, Bjorn Detre, and I were hiking on the beach one day and saw something in the distance. As we got closer, the bear lumbered across the beach, crawled into the ocean and swam off. Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I never would’ve believed it.

After weeks of waiting, we finally had the perfect conditions for crossing. Ozenna fired up his boat, we hurriedly donned all of our gear and before long, we were on the water. As we watched the edge of North America fall away, it looked like nothing could stop us from reaching Russia! But right as our hopes peaked, the wind died and our kites fell slowly from the sky, forcing us to once again head back in defeat.

After a year of planning, countless logistical nightmares, three weeks in Wales and with fall storms just around the corner, we had no choice but to abandon our efforts to make it across this season. For now, the Bering Strait still stands as one of the ultimate kite crossings yet to be conquered. Rest assured, after being so close to making it this year, that won’t be the case for much longer.

For more on the expedition, visit beringstraitexpedition
.com
or www.troyhenkels.com

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