Pair scout Bering Strait for 2005 expedition

Posted: Friday, April 02, 2004

ANCHORAGE A Belgian and an Alaskan are scouting the ice conditions on the treacherous Bering Strait for an expedition across it next year.

Dixie Dansercoer, 42, and Troy Henkels, 37, on Friday were in the village of Wales, the last community before North America drops into water.

The two men experienced adventurers in the extreme cold said they hadn't expected the wild winds and expanses of frigid water, which have forced them to scrap their initial plans of using kites to propel them on skis across the ice of the strait.

''It shifts our focus from a foot-skiing expedition and makes us aware we have to be amphibious,'' said Henkels, who lives in Eagle River and has been preparing himself for the 2005 expedition by dragging a sled loaded with 200 pounds of sandbags to work since November.

Kites aren't out of the picture. The men might rig kites to their buoyant sleds and harness the wind to sail across the water.

''It's the game of obeying nature's will and trying very carefully to play along with it,'' Dansercoer said by phone from the village on the tip of the Seward Peninsula, 111 miles northwest of Nome.

The team joins a host of others, usually foreigners, who have been fixated on getting across the 56-mile stretch of ice and water between Alaska and Far East Russia. Since the mid-1980s, all types of people, including elite athletes and the mentally ill, have tried to cross the strait in a variety of ways, including swimming, mushing and bicycling.

Most recently British multimillionaire Steve Brooks and a partner clawed through the ice, part way to the international dateline, in an amphibious vehicle in 2002. Russian border guards cut the journey short.

Though the obscure challenge isn't long on distance, most expeditions fail because of the erratic conditions: ice, wind and water currents. Polar bears, hypothermia and frostbite are other hazards.

One man says he made it Russian explorer Dmitry Shparo and his son Matvey entered the Guinness Book of World Records in 1998 after they crossed from Siberia to Alaska, mostly drifting hundreds of miles north on sheets of ice.

Dansercoer, famous for polar exploration in his home country of Belgium, plans to push the boundaries on the feat. He wants to cross the strait twice. If plans to return from Siberia in a hot air balloon don't get financial sponsors, Dansercoer said he and Henkels will do it on foot.

At just 145 pounds, Danser-coer pulled a 400-pound sled part way across 2,480 miles of Antarctica in 1997-98.

That's where Dansercoer, who lives in Huldenberg, Belgium, met Henkels, who was working at the McMurdo research station in Antarctica.

When he's not engaged in extreme challenges, Dansercoer makes a living giving inspirational speeches to corporations.

''Coming back from the expedition, I come home with overcharged batteries that last a long time,'' Dansercoer said. ''These experiences I share with people and maybe raise their eyebrows, make them think about their own lives and see what personal goals they can reach.''

Now the Bering Strait beckons. The expedition budget is $300,000, he said.

Henkels, who grew up on an apple orchard in Dubuque, Iowa, worked in the hospitality industry until 15 years ago when he decided instead to seek a life of adventure. He's climbed to the top of Mount McKinley. He recently climbed Mount Everest as a finalist in a cable TV extreme challenge program. Henkels turned back at 25,000 feet, short of the 29,035-foot summit.

Henkels believes the strait will be even more challenging than Everest.

''I've never dealt with moving ice under my feet, and that I'm sure will be mentally challenging,'' he said.

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