Across the Strait and Narrow

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Destinations, June 1998

Across the Strait and Narrow

By Patty Sullivan

The last frontier has always drawn its fair share of adventurers and explorers, both reasonable and insane. But no other spot in Alaska has held quite the mythic allure of the Bering Strait, or its extraordinary ability to frustrate all comers. For decades, the bold and the silly and the sorely underfunded have tried to cross this windswept 56-mile expanse. Russians have set out to the east on skis and dogsleds. Americans and others have driven, swum, windsurfed, and kayaked from Alaska, heading west. Last year, Monty Pythonite Michael Palin kicked off his 50,000-mile, BBC-funded tour of the Pacific Rim on Little Diomede, an island in the middle of the strait. (After signing autographs, he gratefully chartered a plane out.) Then there was the mental-ward escapee who set out in March 1996 to pedal across on his Huffy. Like every other hopeful to that point — unless you credit the stories about Spike Milligrock, an Inupiat who supposedly walked and paddled across on an ice floe in the early 1900s — he failed.

But still they come. Several people are expected to try this year, most through the helpful auspices of Dan and Ellen Richard of the coastal village of Wales. "There aren't too many places to stay here," Richard says. "So we let folks rent our spare bedroom before they set out." Spectators are welcome as well, though Richard warns that pomp and spectacle are kept to something of a minimum. "There aren't any parades or anything," he says. "Most people just take off. A few stop in at the school first and talk to the kids."

Sadly, those youngsters can no longer harbor dreams of owning the first-crossing crown. That title was claimed this past March, when two Russians reached the Alaska shore after 21 days on skis. Fifty-six-year-old mathematician Dmitry Shparo and his youngest son, Matvey, 22, traversed the semisolid ice despite a lost ski, frostbitten fingertips, and a stalking polar bear. "It was a nice vacation," Dmitry declared afterward.

Their success hasn't deflated the most obsessive of straitists, who point out that one lofty first still remains: a crossing from east to west. (Matvey, for the record, says he'll let others win that prize: "I am full of the strait.") So if you have a hankering to give it a go — or just to gawk at the swaddled lost souls who do — call the Richards at 907-664-3471 for help in setting up accommodations and equipment. Including, if it seems warranted, your very own straitjacket and gleaming Huffy.

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