by Joel Gay
Anchorage Daily News
March 03, 2005
Then they'll try to return, by ski, foot, paddle and sail.
If successful, their 112-mile round trip from Alaska to Russia will go down as a first in the annals of Arctic adventure. The 38-year-old Henkels sounded hopeful this week as he talked about his upcoming expedition, though he acknowledged that the winds of fortune could determine their success.
"I think we're pretty well prepared," he said. "If we get some luck with weather and ice, I think it will work out."
A lot of people have set out to cross the 56-mile strait from Wales to the Russian coast. Some seemed crazy, others just adventurous, but few have succeeded. With its shifting ice, howling winds and long stretches of open water, the strait has defeated skiers, kayakers, hikers and amphibious vehicles. Bureaucratic red tape has stopped other expeditions cold.
The only adventurers known to have skied across were a Russian father and his son, Dmitry and Matvey Shparo, in 1998. And some would argue they didn't truly cross the strait, though they set out to. Currents carried them 300 miles to the north, forcing them ashore near Point Hope.
Henkels and Dansercoer want to take the direct route, though winds and currents could send them elsewhere.
"You can hope for a lot of things," but they don't always work out as planned, said Henkels, who lives in Eagle River, Alaska.
The two adventurers met in Antarctica in 1998. Dansercoer and a partner had just skied nearly 2,500 miles across the south polar continent, and Henkels was among those who greeted them at McMurdo Station.
"I had thought quite a few days about what I could bring these guys," Henkels said. Having grown up on an apple orchard, "I settled on fresh apples. That was quite a hit because they hadn't seen fresh fruit or colors in 90 or 100 days," he said. "I guess I made an impression."
Dansercoer married the next year and came to Alaska, where Henkels helped arrange some of the honeymoon, he said. Not long afterward, the two men began talking about crossing the strait.
Both have extensive experience in cold weather and high altitude. Henkels has climbed major peaks in Alaska and South America, worked in the Antarctic and participated in extreme sport challenges. Dansercoer, a champion windsurfer, has climbed all over the world and skied long distances at both poles.
Unlike many who attempt the Bering Strait crossing, the two also scouted the start of the route. They flew to the village of Wales last March, which pointed out some of the challenges ahead, Henkels said.
"We had heard rumors of open water," but seeing the strait for themselves "made us rethink that we needed to be amphibious," he said.
Now they're armed with special sleds, 8 feet long and more than 2 feet wide, that can be towed with skis or lashed together into a twin-hulled boat. They plan to paddle or sail across the open leads, which can be miles across, Henkels said.
The sleds will carry all the food, fuel and gear they need for 40 days, which translates into about 265 pounds apiece. The two explorers expect to spend long days in special wet suits that should insulate them from the cold and snow and allow them to swim short stretches, Henkels said.
They'll eat foods designed to keep them going through temperatures well below zero - high in calories but low in weight. To keep them heading in the right direction and in contact with friends and family at the expedition headquarters in Nome, they will pack small computers, cameras, a satellite telephone and position finders and a solar battery charger.