Be First recipients Troy Henkels and Geza Scholtz set out to kiteboard from the United States to Russia over the Bering Strait, widely considered one of the most dangerous bodies of water in the world. Our Be First program is an opportunity to get sponsored when you go for your own summit, whatever that may be. To learn more and submit your proposals, visit Be First.
Before we could actually think about kiting 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-foot Zodiac should have been the perfect craft for the crossing. But it became apparent that it was fraught with engine problems and we realized quite quickly that this boat was a liability to us, rather than a safety tool, as it should have been. This boat proved to be the single biggest point of frustration throughout the entire expedition. As a result, we eventually sold the boat and hired Ronald, a local boat captain from Little Diomede, and his 20-foot fiberglass skiff with an 80hp engine, which was more than adequate for a support boat.
Surprisingly, several days of epic wind passed, with Ronald saying “no way” to venturing out into rough seas with his boat. The locals have a healthy respect for the weather and ocean on the Strait and know the dangers of being caught out in building storms and seas. The thought of being capsized in big swells will keep even an experienced captain on shore. Despite the lack of a support boat, we still ventured out onto the Bering Strait for some epic kiting sessions in great surf and perfect wind. After one five-hour day on the water and venturing far out into the main current and big rollers, my GPS said I’d done 60 miles … the same mileage it would have been to get across the Strait. But I wasn’t in Russia, I was still in Wales. This assured both of us that actually crossing the Strait was within reason.
The locals told us that August this year had an uncommon number of no-wind days, and with nothing left to do but wait, we enjoyed the local culture and community the best we could. Eskimo baseball on Main Street, basketball in the school gym at night, helping our host and old friend Dan cut driftwood for firewood, and exploring a cold war era radar site called White Alice were some of the highlights. 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.
The most surprising element of the Bering Strait is the wild weather conditions that change extremely quickly. You can experience all four seasons in less than an hour. This was a huge concern for our team, as we would have to rely on a consistent wind to take us the full 56 miles to Russia. If the wind changes part way across, it could mean stalling our kites, or finding ourselves in perilous danger, confronting overpowering winds and building, turbulent seas.
We were searching for a fine line of a steady, strong wind (20 knots), and fairly calm seas to allow a safe passage for not only the kiters, but our support boat as well. Finally, after patient anticipation, the wind did blow and the seas were calm. As we kited away from Wales we watched the edge of 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. With a mixture of frustration and awe, we climbed aboard our support boat and returned to Wales.
For that one attempt to be first at doing something no one has done before, we invested a year of planning, endured countless logistical nightmares, traveled halfway around the world, patiently spent three weeks on the edge of the North American continent, and quietly watched several perfect days evaporate due to logistical nightmares. With fall storms on the Bering Strait imminent, we had to abandon our efforts to get across this season. Although we didn’t reach our goal by kiteboarding from Alaska to Russia, we did realize that our experience on the Bering Strait seemed to emulate life itself. The reward is not so much in reaching the destination, but how much you enjoy the journey along the way. And, this turned out to be the journey of a lifetime.
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