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In whose footsteps they will walk
By Jonathan Doll


March 09, 2005

On March 11, Dixie Dansercoer and Troy Henkels will attempt the crossing of the Bering Strait a 55 mile chasm as the raven flies or about a two hundred mile journey given their route as well as the shifting ice and turbulent seas. They will be wearing arctic gear, waterproof boots, and will bring skis along with two aquatic floats that can be joined in a makeshift boat. This is a daunting task that only a handful of westerners have attempted without the aid of powered ships or snowmachines. Once, back in 1987, a swimmer named Lynne Cox even swam across the part of the strait that was between the Diomede Islands. Amazing feats have been attempted in the past and Troy and Dixie will surely be numbered among this group of adventurers. For a moment, however, let s look at the impressive history of the crossing of the Bering Strait.

Textbooks proudly report that Alaska s first people came across the Bering Strait when it was a land bridge some 11-13,000 years ago. The story is presented such a way that the land bridge is half the reason that people came to Alaska. It is made to sound like an easy and prudent solution to a thorny problem among the archaeologists of that day. Moreover, this well-crafted tale seems to make the journey that Troy and Dixie will be taking look very difficult, but should it be considered that difficult?

In 1711, a Russian tax collector named Petr Popov arrived in the Chukchi peninsula of eastern Russia and interacted with the Native Chukchi people there. In a short time, Popov found out that Native people in Russia and their neighbors in America interacted quite frequently. They also traversed the Bering Strait quite often. His journal records that people could do it in one day in baydars with paddles, and in the winter the crossing is made easily in one day on reindeers .

Baydars was simply the Russian way of saying biadarka or skin-boat . So both the Inupiat Eskimos and Yupik Eskimos, as well as the Chukchis on the other side, had access to the use of boats and could cross the strait in a day s time. This means traveling at about 5 miles per hour (which is a pretty good clip that would likely require changing paddlers) for 15 hours. It is possible; and Popov recorded it happening. On the hand, on reindeers might mean either mounting and riding this animal as the Laplanders have done historically or perhaps harnessing the animals to pull sleds, which has also been done by Laplanders and recorded by early Westerners in Alaska.

Some people imagine that this 55-mile distance of open sea in the summer and ice in winter is insurmountable. In fact, there are even those who wonder at how many thousands of years Native people could have lived on either side without crossing it. But what a travesty of foolishness are such thoughts. There are mountain ranges on both sides and noted explorers John Muir and Otto van Kotzebue both marked in their own journals at being able to see across the strait to the other side.

So if the work of Popov suggests that Alaska Natives and Russian Chukchis had the opportunity to be crossing the Bering Strait for centuries, then why is that textbooks will offer a more elaborate tale about a land bridge and a walking expedition across it.

This gets back to the story of Dixie and Troy. Perhaps if their journey is looked upon as being highly difficult, then the recorded journeys of early Alaskans can be overshadowed by stories of bigger bridges and more difficult conditions.

While Dixie and Troy deserve applause and admiration for the epic step of courage they are taking, I would suggest that a larger honor should be bestowed. If we really put our ear to the railway tracks of time and listen hard, we will hear the shouts of the Native people hurrying their dogs and reindeer along across the ice-covered strait. We will hear the joy and songs of Native people on baydars even racing each other to prove their wit and strength in taking the fastest path. Yes, if we listen hard and begin to rediscover the paths of the past, we would find that Troy and Dixie are going to be walking in the footsteps of bigger men and women and indeed paddling in the wake of even stronger paddlers of skin-boats.

Jonathan Doll
College Station, TX - USA

Jonathan Doll is a doctoral student in education at Texas A&M University, has studied the impacts of the land bridge ideology, and also works for the Center for the Study of First Americans in Texas.

Related News:

Adventurers trying round-trip crossing of Bering Strait



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