4. Chodotka Autonomous Okrug, 1994
This trip was planned and organized by Tom, Dick and Louise. Originally there were four involved. They had ordered two double kayaks from my company, but when one person dropped out they had considered cancelling the trip. Their plan was to fly with the kayaks from Boston, Maine to Nome, Alaska and from there to Provideniya, Chukotka, which is on the Chukotka Peninsula, in the Russian Far East. From there they would paddle the 240 miles or so north up to the Bering Strait, cross the Strait to Alaska and then follow the coast south-east back to Nome. Apparently they had permission from the Russian authorities. When I learned of their trip plan I knew right away that I had to go. They were planning to follow the path of peoples who, over 14,000 years ago, had crossed over to North America and foraged all the way down to Patagonia. Our trip would include crossing the Bering Strait from the Russian side to its Big Diomede Island, (also called “Tomorrow Island”, because it lies right beside the International Date Line) 20 nautical miles away, across the date line to Little Diomede Island, in the U.S., just 2 1/4 nm from Diomede, and then over to the North American continent, another 20 kn. The area is hugely prolific, especially once the sea ice melts, which triggers a spring phytoplankton bloom. Thousands of sea lions and walrus compete for salmon, pollock, halibut, sole, and red king crab with beluga, blue, sperm, sei and right whales. There are massive flocks of tufted puffins, short tailed albatross, eider, auklets and kittiwakes. This, too, is where kayaks and their larger cousins, umiaks, were first developed and have been used for thousands of years for travel and for hunting. There are people living on Little Diomede who I would be keen to meet. Wow. I suggested that I join them and supply my own double kayak. I had never met them. They agreed.
I first met my future paddling partner, Louise Masaillo, very briefly on July 14, 1994 at the Boston airport. I was on my way to a three-day kayak symposium at Bangor, Maine, and she came to meet me during my stopover. She had a warm smile and easy-going manner. She was a successful kayak racer in Boston and I could see why. She was a lanky bundle of energy.
I met up with Tom and Dick a few days later at the same airport in Boston. Tom strode through security as if he owned the place. He’s large. Not taller than me, but built up. The man lifts weights. What’s left of his yellow hair was just left straggling around his broad face. One of his eyes is glass. He reminded me of a cross between Hulk Hogan and a pirate. He looked me up and down like some men look at women. I guessed he was checking for muscle mass. I’m slim, scrawny maybe. I think he found me wanting. Although he races kayaks successfully he relies on raw power. My old friend, Ken Fink, once confided in me that if Tom “ever got a real [paddle] stroke he would be unbeatable”.
Then Dick came through. What a curious duo! Whereas Tom was large and muscular; Dick was short and slim. Tom was 34, peak age for this type of trip; Dick was 72. Tom was direct and forceful; Dick was engaging and warm. He was also a competitor. He and Tom had raced double kayaks many times. Dick was an expert ice-boat racer and had competed in the States and Russia. He had run a boat-building and tending business for about 20 years and before that had been in the merchant marine. About 15 years before I met him, he had sold his business, gone back to university, earned a PhD in psychology and started playing the violin. An aging Renaissance Man. Instantly likeable.
I learned on the plane that there were problems with the trip. It seems that the permission to cross the strait had been rescinded, or maybe had been previously issued by the wrong person. Permission not granted.
Once again, Tom and Dick considered abandoning the whole thing. It turned out that my three mates had agreed to raise money for a charity funding epilepsy treatment and just paddling down the Bering Coast wouldn’t be a big enough deal for fundraising.
There was also the cost. Both Louise and Tom had borrowed for this trip.
We pulled all of our bags from the flight to Homer and talked again. I figured, “Hell, we’ve come this far. Let’s go paddling.” Tom wanted to paddle up to the strait, wait for fog and then sneak across. That seemed crazy to me. The Russians have radar. I think that Louise, being more diplomatic, sided with me. Five minutes before the plane took off for Homer we told them to put our gear back on. We hopped over to Homer and then a couple of days later to Provideniya.
Journal, July 22, 1994, Provideniya (64.4,-173.22)
Provideniya, 5am. With all this light we haven’t been sleeping more than 5 to 6 hours each night. Trying to sit on a spring bed that looks like a chain link fence. It has an amazing amount of sag. In same room as Louise. We were going to give her a break from us three guys and sleep 3 guys one room, but she didn’t want to sleep in this place alone.
In N.A. this would definitely be a dive. An underlying scent of poo and must dominates. The rooms are narrow, with faded off-pink wallpaper, brown lino floor, these 2 or 3 spring cots, a radiator, one table with pink cover full of holes, one wood chair. Light bulb hanging from ceiling. That’s it. We thought of putting the mattresses on the floor, but wanted separation from the many cockroaches. I can hear outside the powerful pumping of the central power station that heats this whole town, when it’s working. Beside it is a tall brick chimney surrounded by a huge mound of black coal. Black smoke belches out.
The town has gravel roads, very rocky. There are large chunks of concrete and pieces of steel lying around everywhere amongst the concrete block and pre-formed concrete tenement buildings. No private homes. Because this is not a consumer society there is no plastic litter as we know it. Just monumental state junk. 4000 residents, but seemingly less because they are concentrated in these dilapidated buildings. I suspect, though, that inside these buildings there are some comfortable suites. No one has much here, but it looks as if everyone eats. This place is very sparse, like the land.
Flying in was spectacular. Above the low clouds across the Bering Sea in a Navahoe. The clouds parted as we reached the coast, revealing scenes of raw splendor. Rugged mountains drop precipitously to the sea. Snow in the valleys. Rocky headlands, some beaches. And nobody. We can’t wait to get started.
Getting through customs was O.K. They X-rayed everything. Their machine worked. It found our flare guns, but not Tom’s 3-inch army issue knife. Nor mine, nor my smaller flares. We had eleven 70-pound bags, plus carry-ons. Customs took about 45 minutes.
Oleg met us. Dark hair, 5'10", strong nose and eyes, wiry. We shoved everything into a small bus and bounced to his office. Like all buildings here, no attempt has been made to pretty the place up. His building is wood plank (most are concrete). Inside was O.K., though.
Roman and two other guys came by. We all sat in a small room and discussed our situation. They smoked. Roman is the mover here. He organizes the tour boats, gets his cut. He supplies food and other things brought over from Alaska to local merchants. He broke off our conversation and talked repeatedly on his VHF radio, emergency channel 16, while we were meeting. They all use these things because nothing else works. He and his wife have a part-time store, which they open after working hours, after their regular jobs. He is not to be trusted. Still, he is, we hope, on our side.
Still no clearance to cross the strait and very unlikely to get it. Roman said he will send a telegram to Moscow, over 6,000 km away. Great. He said that there is a new commander here who is taking no initiatives, no chances. Provideniya is the only “official” exit point in the Russian Far East. To leave from any other point such as Uelen, on the Bering Strait, 240 nautical miles north, is an exception. We won’t pay for privilege.
We went to the only bar/restaurant in town with Oleg. It opens at 9pm. Looked like a 1950s party room. Delicious dinner. But first, vodka, multiple times, “here’s to your family, here’s to your ancestors, here’s to friendship, here’s to…”.Bottoms up, pickled cucumbers with mayo. Then smoked salmon with cucumbers rolled up inside, followed by hamburger steak, potatoes, more cucumbers. Smokey place. Russian music, jazzy. Surprise: Leonard Cohen, one of his more depressing songs. Dancing, including men with men. Oleg’s new girlfriend came by. Pretty. Older than Oleg. He’s crazy about her. She has a daughter by another marriage. There was a guy in a suit and black hat at the back of the room who Oleg deferred to. Hard look, just stared at us. A cop? It all got a little blurry.
We never got permission to cross. After much negotiation it was decided that we would paddle from Provideniya around the south end of the peninsula to Mys Chaplino. There we would wait for a small Russian tour ship to pick us up and take us up to Uelen on the Bering Strait. From there we would paddle south back to Provideniya. We would also have to take with us an English-speaking guide.
The next morning we set up our kayaks beside a junkyard, loaded everything and waited all day for our guide. He never arrived.
The following day Gennady Khokhorin did arrive, with a fiberglass kayak. We set off.
It was obvious that Gennady had not kayaked before. Partly it was because of his kayak — something called a McNulty, a British boat, narrow, soft chines, tippy, that had been abandoned nearby.
On the first day his rudder broke and jammed sideways. He couldn’t steer. I was able to dismantle it while we were underway with tools from my fishing gear, but without a rudder he had a lot of difficulty. He almost kept up with us in calm seas, but when the weather came up he fell far behind. This was not the kayak for a beginner.
On the second day we had to surf over a gravel bar and make it into a stream. Louise and I led. Gennady was edgy, missed the entrance and slammed into the rocks onshore. I caught him before he capsized and he was O.K. but we knew that we had to be more careful after that. Soon we realized that he had never been in this area before either. Some guide.
But here’s the thing about Gennady: he’s tough, strong, can fix anything, speaks good English, is great company, is an excellent fire maker and is generous to a fault. He offered us a window into the people, customs and, of course, the bureaucracy that we encountered as we journeyed along the coast.
Tom, Gennady, Louise
Journal, July 26, 1994 Mys Chaplino (64.42,-172.36)
On board Fodor Mattison. Small ship. Fog. It’s very hot in this cabin. We leave tomorrow at 6 am or earlier. Tom and I paddled 4 miles up the lake at Chaplino for better water. Paddled hard, in thick fog. Climbed up a beautiful hill above the fog. Exquisite. When we got back Gennady was waiting. The ship was here! Big hurry. More later.
Journal, July 27, 1994 Uelen, (66.16,-169.81)
If you described this town as a face it would be one that only a mother could love. Lonely wood shacks on a windswept gravel bar. It looks as if an angry sea could sweep the whole town away in a moment. Why here? Only for strategic reasons. It’s right at the entrance to the Bering Strait. We saw Chukchi or Yupik people arrive here in a large skin umiak. Not a museum piece like I’ve seen before, but a real, sealskin boat. They didn’t stay long. No local people would live here unless a white Russian told them to.
The ship dropped us off right on time at 6 am. The kayaks and gear were put onto the skiff and we proceeded against pitching waves and strong wind to shore. Water shipped over our faces, we in our dry suits, the three crewmen in increasingly soggy wool. Nobody said anything. 4 uniformed soldiers with large guns met us at the beach and demanded passports. I bought a couple of small ivory pieces from a big jolly Russian woman. Really nice pieces — seals and a round necklace. We set off.
We find ourselves in a curious place. It’s a very small bay with the opening almost blocked with ice pans. A fast stream and boulders. Steep cliffs behind. There’s no flat land. We will be sleeping on the boulders because we have to be here. Coming around an ice flow in 25–30 knot winds Gennady capsized. He was being swept towards the ice, under an overhanging pan. Tom and Dick were closest. Tom righted the kayak and steadied it while Gennady got back in. Dick paddled. Louise and I found this place to pull in. Fortunately, with Tom holding and Dick paddling they were able to get him here. Gennady has a dry suit. He was O.K. No more big winds, please.Gennady and I went up a talus slope onto a ridge for a great panorama. The sweep of the land and sea was vast. We could see the clouds, just above the water, blasting by like a freight train. On the way down I stepped on a large boulder, similar to countless others, except this one started to roll. Over and over, with me climbing like a hamster on a wheel, trying not to get pinned. I couldn’t quite jump clear because other rocks were now being swept down, so I kept climbing. Luckily, the slide ended and I was fine, though scared. Haven’t had a close call like that for a long time. Tom and Louise saw it, said I was rock surfing. Not to be repeated.
We get gusts in this bay. As we were setting up a tent it got away from us and flew up in the air beside the cliff about 50 feet. It hovered there for a while. Gennady and I ran and intercepted it on the way down. So, tomorrow at 4 am we rise and check the wind. We’ve got to get out of here.
Journal July 28, 1994
Up at 4:30, out by 6:30. A little wind from the south greeted us, but as we rounded Mys Petek (southern cape on Mys Dezhneva), the wind abated, the fog cleared and what could we see, incredibly clearly? O. Ratmanova (Big Diomede). There it was, an island in the middle of the Bering Strait, with Little Diomede no doubt just on the other side of it, in the U.S. Still yesterday for them, as it’s on the other side of the date line. It was a beautiful, flat, clear sunny day, perfect for the crossing. No wind, no waves.
We rafted together and had an interesting discussion. A mad dash to Alaska and damn the consequences? Or continue south, against the prevailing winds and current?
Tom would have gone for Alaska. Louise was against. Dick was prevaricating. Gennady wanted to visit his kids, who lived in Alaska, and he seemed to want to go even without a visa. I was against. Crossing the strait: a private goal of five adventurers. We would put Gennady in jeopardy back in mother Russia. What sort of jail would they put him in? Our Russian friend would be punished, the Epileptic foundation would have to disown any connection, the kayaks would be confiscated, etc. etc. Sanity prevailed.
We headed south. Shortly after that a big Russian military helicopter buzzed us. It’s hard to outrun a chopper in a kayak. An hour later we saw two orcas, an adult male and younger male. Then later, grey whales. As fascinating as that morning was, we had no way of knowing at that time what an incredible sight awaited us, just around Dezhneva.
Cape Dezhnev is a cape that forms the eastmost mainland point of Asia