Adventurers prepare to cross Bering Strait

Posted: Friday, March 18, 2005

WALES (AP) — Two men who met at the bottom of the world are in another frigid corner of it, attempting to cross the partly frozen Bering Strait.

Dixie Dansercoer, a Belgian who makes a living from extreme athletic feats, and Alaskan Troy Henkels, a telephone company troubleshooter, say they will walk, ski, sail, kite and even swim to get across the moving water and colliding ice floes of the strait.

''Human beings, they're strivers,'' Dansercoer said Friday by telephone from Nome. ''We're probably the next generation of all those pioneers that have done the same thing. It's a good tradition.''

Dansercoer, a father of four, lives in Huldenburg, Belgium. Henkels is from Eagle River.

They are not the first to expose themselves to ripping currents and polar bears in the pursuit of adventure. Since the 1980s, many have come to this gap between continents and tried to bicycle, swim, drive, dog-mush, kayak and balloon across. Most failed or chickened out.

Only a Russian mathematician, Dmitry Shparo, and his son, Matvey, have made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for crossing the strait on foot in 1998. It was their third attempt.

Although the strait is just 56 miles across at its narrowest point between Alaska and Siberia, the Shparos zigzagged on drifting sheets of ice for 300 miles and 21 days before they walked ashore, skinny and euphoric, at Point Hope, Alaska. Some critics say the Russians really crossed the more solidly frozen Chukchi Sea to the north.

Dansercoer, 42, and Henkels, 38, want to one-up the Russians by crossing the unpredictable strait twice.

Last week, however, they had a tough time just getting there. The village of Wales, 111 miles northwest of Nome, is the last community before the western shelf of the North America continent drops into water. The men had hoped to arrive at this starting point on Thursday, but blowing snow and driving wind kept the plane in Nome until late Friday.

''This is standard really,'' Dansercoer said just before killing time by testing equipment before a TV crew and Swiss photographer. Dansercoer, an inspirational speaker, hooked corporate shareholders into funding the expedition with about $250,000. He also persuaded Belgium's Crown Prince Philippe to help out.

The pair hopes to leave Wales on Monday or Tuesday.

Those who live along the strait say Dansercoer and Henkels will be lucky to survive a single trip. Just this winter, a local man disappeared in a blizzard in Wales when he tried to walk four blocks home.

Dansercoer and Henkels will be taking far greater risks by putting moving ice under their feet. Along with walking and skiing, the men plan to lash two bouyant sleds together like catamarans and unfurl a sail, hoping wind will nudge them across open water. They also hope the Arctic gusts won't be too erratic so body-size kites can push them across ice on skis. Dressed in drysuits that are light enough to walk in, the adventurers will also swim across leads between ice floes and pull their 265 pounds of equipment behind them.

Dansercoer is comfortable on thin ice. In 2002, he tried to ski across the Arctic Ocean from Siberia to Canada but he and a partner called it quits after 69 days on fractured ice and rolling waves.

At just 145 pounds, Dansercoer pulled a 400-pound sled part way across 2,480 miles of Antarctica in 1997-98. He claims he and his partner made the longest unsupported crossing of that continent on skis with power kites.

Henkels was at the finish line offering a crisp apple to the adventurer. The Alaskan was working an entry level job at the McMurdo research station for the unusual experience of it.

Henkels didn't plan on getting into newspapers for Arctic expeditions. He grew up on an apple orchard in Dubuque, Iowa. But after climbing Denali, north America's tallest peak, and reaching 25,000 feet on Mount Everest, he fell into a life of adventure.

Henkels said Friday he wasn't scared. ''It's a lot of unknowns. Yes, there's a certain potential for things to be scary out there but you can't let that stuff get to you. When that situation comes up, that'll be the time to deal with it.''

The men are taking along a .44-caliber Magnum revolver for bears. They also have a satellite phone, a computer and a global positioning device.

These two may have the fortitude and the gear, but walking the strait is nearly impossible, said Dan Richard, who has helped similar expeditions for two decades from his home in Wales. The two stayed at his house last March when they scouted the ice.

''I watched them out there swimming around and having a ball,'' Richard said. ''I just think Mother Nature will give them more of a hand than they expect.

''I wouldn't mind being wrong,'' said Richard, who described the weather there this year as exceptionally ''weird.'' He lost part of his roof this winter to winds over 100 mph, and seawater usually 200 yards away knocked on his door.

Richard doesn't doubt their methods. ''The ice just moves in ways you never expected,'' he said. ''It's nothing to go out there and see (ice the size of) your house or something bigger out there float by or rolling around.''

The trouble begins, Richard said, when they stop to rest or sleep. The ice, current and wind keep moving and could sweep the men north to the Chukchi Sea and back to Alaska, he said.

Richard said the men will also have to contend with the moisture in the strait. Sea spray could freeze onto the men and their equipment, threatening them with hypothermia and sagging their kites and sail with ice. If their sail doesn't work, they'll have to paddle. Richard said the 5 mph current is faster than they can paddle.

And then there are polar bears. Richard said he's recently seen a few in town.

''They're always around. This is their time of life. They're out hunting. Guys sleeping on the ice might seem like pretty good food,'' he said.

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