Table of Contents
Editorial: Defining the Inuit Sled Dog
Featured Inuit Dog Owner: Sylvia Feder
All the Wrong Reasons
Last Trip of the Century to the North Pole
Bering Bridge Expedition - 10 Years Later
Ways of the North
Behavioral Notebook: Watching TV
Poem: Standing Invitation
Video Review: Dog of the Midnight Sun
Janice Howls: Observations
In My Humble Opinion: Work, et. al.
Navigating This Site
Index of articles by subject
Index of back issues by volume number
Search The Fan Hitch
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Ordering Ken MacRury's Thesis
Our comprehensive list of resources
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The Bering Bridge Expedition -
10 years later
by Geneviève Montcombroux
In 1986, Paul Schurke and Will Steger led an expedition to the North Pole. It was this adventure that sparked an even greater expedition.
Preparing for the North Pole trip, Paul spent much time with the Inuit. He was impressed by their generosity and the help they eagerly offered. What intrigued him was the fact the Inuit belong to one circumpolar ethnic group, extending from Siberia to Greenland. Political events had cut off these people, separating families and interfering with a way of life that was thousands of years old. "I could not understand that people so peacable had their destiny severely impacted by the powers in Washington and Moscow," Paul recalls.
Slowly, an idea germinated in his mind. He wanted to re-establish that connection. Until the Second World War, the Inuit of Siberia and Alaska - speaking the same basic language - had traveled back and forth across the Bering Strait to hunt and attend each other's festivals. Some of the Inuit lived on the Diomede islands, straddling the international date line in the middle of the strait. But in 1948, the Stalin and the Truman governments closed the borders. It was the start of the Cold War.
Paul began to study the area and learn more about the people. In his research he came across an incident where an Alaskan Inuit went across the Straits to hunt walrus despite the interdiction. The man was caught by the guards and imprisoned on Big Diomede (Russia). When he did not return, his family assumed he was lost at sea. He was eventually released, but never understood why he had been incarcerated.
By 1987, there were signs of political tensions easing between the super powers. Perestroika and Glasnost were in fashion. Paul wanted to do something for the Inuit people and in a broader sense to help end the Cold War. In his typical fashion, he fired off a letter to Washington and to Moscow proposing they open the borders to a sled dog expedition.
Next, Paul - who never doubted he would succeed - searched for a Soviet adventurer to lead the Russian team. In April 1988, Dmitry Shparo phoned him from Canada to arrange a meeting in Toronto. Dmitry is a highly regarded Arctic adventurer. Paul was thrilled. The North American press had done little coverage of Dmitry's exploits, yet he had led more polar expeditions than anyone else and reached the Pole twice on skis. Paul's plans began to take shape.
Paul was eventually able to travel to the Kremlin to get the green light for the expedition. A reconnaissance trip by helicopter to the villages the expedition would visit was heartwarming as Paul discovered many young people who wanted to be included. The team totaled twelve members: six Americans and six Russians, half of them Inuit. It included three women - two of them Inuit.
This expedition was not a simple matter of preparing for an expedition to the polar regions by dog sled. It was a political adventure as well. Various levels of government were involved in drawing up a protocol, which the Governors of both Alaska and Chukotka were to sign on the ice between Little and Big Diomede Islands.
Paul fondly remembers how the team would make gruelling progress on the trail and suddenly, there was "a pocket of life in the middle of nowhere." The inhabitants had never met people from another country. They opened their hearts and their homes to the travelers. It was very gratifying to see how excited and moved the villagers were to reconnect with old ties.
The Russian media covered the expedition, and the Soviet government even issued a postage stamp. The expedition did not receive the same high-profile treatment in the U.S., but that suited Paul, who did not want a media circus. The protocol was signed at the end of April 1989. The goal of the expedition had been achieved. Native Chukotkans and Alaskans began traveling freely and had resumed their age-old customs of trading, hunting and dancing.
Ten years later, with the all the wisdom of hindsight, Paul recognizes that when the Gorbachev government gave him permission to travel in Siberia, it was probably some kind of a test. The Russians wanted to find out what would happen if they did open their borders. It also made them look good as reform spread throughout the Communist Bloc. "The twelve citizen-diplomats of the expedition had positively influenced Soviet-American relations," said Paul. When Gorbachev visited the U.S, he asked to meet with Paul Schurke and Dmitry Shparo.
Not long after the expedition was completed, further restrictions were lifted. Then the Berlin Wall came down. Did Paul Schurke's mission have some small part in these events? Perhaps not directly, but the expedition in the Polar ice did help thaw the political ice between the two nations.
Paul loves the Russian Arctic and its people. What impresses him most is how everyone is such avid reader and the children know all the classics - Mark Twain being a favorite. The Alaskans have gained the most of the return to free exchange. "They have lost their connection to the land...they tap the Siberian knowledge, particularly in the knowledge of healing."
He will never forget how his dog Kohojotak, seriously injured after an attack by a pack of unfriendly Russian dogs, was taken in by the local vet who was also the shaman. Three days later, Kohojotak was healed enough to travel in the sled, and he completely recovered by the end of the trip. "There are some things we just do not understand," said Paul.
He stays in touch with the members of the expedition and has made several trips to Siberia, the Russian-American Friendship Trips, which are not part of his business and therefore non-profit. In 2000, he will lead a back-packing trip to Wrangell Island. The proceeds go to groups such as the Diplomacy Group. Most of his Arctic trips fall into that category. This summer's Ellesmere Island tour will raise funds for the International Wolf Center in Ely (Minnesota).
Paul is hoping to have a reunion of the team members to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the expedition. Although it was not supposed to be a romantic adventure, it became so for team members Gina Beresford of Alaska and Alexander "Sasha" Belayev, a Muscovite. During the trip they fell in love. They are now married and live in Seattle.
If the expedition did not get all the media hype it deserved, it did have a far-reaching and permanent effect on the lives of thousands of people. And that is more important than the fleeting glory of publicity.
Editor's notes: The expedition spanned the period of early March to early May 1989. For the complete story of this historic event, read Bering Bridge: The Soviet-American Expedition from Siberia to Alaska written by Paul Schurke and published by Pfeiffer-Hamilton of Duluth, Minnesota.