To Russia and back on a Sea Doo - Soviet guns pointed our way - boating magazine adventure feature

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To Russia and back on a Sea Doo
Pack Ice Pas De Deux


In 1998 I worked on an adventure TV show that saw a group of Canadian and American boaters travel from Alaska to Russia on Sea Doos. I wrote the show script and went on the trip. The Globe and Mail took the following story and held onto it for almost a year before giving it back (with a kill fee check) ... a boating magazine and a Vancouver based boating newspaper subsequently bought and carried the piece. The actual adventure aired as part of Power Boat TV.


By Stephen Weir


Passing through the Anchorage airport, Russian wilderness expert Andrey Velikanov stopped in front of the departure lounge newsstand, looked at the stack of clear plastic wrapped Playboy Magazines and gave loud thanks to Hugh Hefner. “Yeah, and to Jim Beam and the Marlboro Man too.”
Mr. Velikanov was tipping his baseball cap to the American icons of sin because a gift of cigarettes, alcohol and “adult” magazines helped facilitate his release from arrest on a remote Russian island outpost in the middle of the Bering Sea. It was the conclusion of a strange Arctic Circle boating adventure that saw Andrey and a team of Canadian and American media types travel from Alaska to Russia and back aboard three Sea Doos and a custom built Glacier Bay (a 9 metre long catamaran power boat).
Aside from the loss of one Sea Doo to an acre wide chunk of pack ice, and the arrest and subsequent release of Velikanov, participants in the expedition achieved a number of Personal Watercraft (PWC) records earlier this summer. They are the first people to pilot watercraft across the International Dateline, the first to travel from the America to Russia on Sea Doos and the only madmen to drive PWCs in both the Chukchi and Bering Seas in a single day.
The records are no more than simple bragging rights that will knock ‘em dead at the next few boat shows. However, this summer’s expedition signals an extreme change in the way that the Canadian designed (and now US built) Sea Doo can be used. In the land of the midnight sun, the PWC morphed from a noisy cottage country gadfly to a low cost, unsinkable vessel that can be used by just about anyone to explore just about any watercourse in the world ... even the tumultuous Bering Straits!
The Bering Strait is the 60 km wide channel that separates Asia from North America. Long considered the land bridge between the two continents, this narrow waterway is also the only link between the Arctic and North Pacific Oceans. It is a barren, bleak Arctic Circle passageway that is the collision point between southbound ice packs and the warmer northbound currents of the Pacific.
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To reach the Straits most expeditions begin in Nome Alaska. This city of 4,000 is America’s last saltwater port on the western seaboard. Even though the harbour is free from ice for just five months, it is the lifeline for the community. Food and medical supplies are flown in daily, however it is by barge that fuel, automobiles, hardware, and even Sea Doos and a catamaran power boat, arrive in Nome.
Just as the Russian expedition was getting started, the community of Nome was preparing to marks its 100th anniversary. The 1899 discovery of gold on the beach created an instant city around the mouth of the Snake River. Although the community is now best known as the finish line for the Iditarod -- the famous 1,500 km long dog sled race -- gold still plays a role in Nome.
A litre of water for $3.25 US. A loaf of bread costs $3.00 US. $95 US a day to rent a battered 7 year old van. The last frontier comes with a hefty price tag! Despite the expense, Nome has modern hotels, garages, grocery stores and full service airport, is best equipped to support the Russian expedition.
The personal watercraft had been in storage at the local Ski Doo dealership for over a year. A lack of Russian visas in 1998 and a concern over the weather had forced a lengthy delay in the project. While the machines were being prepared for the cold water conditions ahead, the expedition drivers -- a parade of Who’s Who in the boating world --started to arrive in Nome. David Seidman, the editor of New York based Boating Magazine; Ted Rankine, the host of Canada’s Power Boat Television Show and National Geographic columnist Jim Thornton were to share driving duties with Andrey Velikanov and Tim McKercher, a professional personal watercraft racer and executive with Sea Doo.
The expedition was taking place while the Bering Sea was in the middle of an unexpected heat wave. It was June 28 and temperatures were approaching 28 degrees Celsius -- this blistering heat melted away the pack ice that days before had clogged the Bering Strait.
The Seward Peninsula is shaped like a human face. Nome is down around the fleshy part of the chin and the American end of the Bering Strait is the tip of its long nose! There is also a mouth and that is where the village of Teller is located. The route was easy, chin to mouth to nose and back again!
The Glacier Bay sailed from Nome to Teller while the expedition’s three PWC were trucked up to Teller. During the summer the State maintains a gravel road from Nome to Teller. The true beauty of the region lies in the countryside and this 110 km trail passes through a land of snow tipped mountains, tundra, salmon runs, grazing musk ox and spring busting washboards.
Some towns decorate their waterfront with fancy lights, but, in the village of Teller the colour comes naturally. In season there are racks of dangling red salmon lining the long beach. Native fishermen fillet their catches and hang the salted ruby red meat out.
47 year old Rick Blodgett controls most of what goes on, economically speaking, in town. He owns the power generating station, the town’s grocery store and restaurant, the gas station, and a 10 room Bed and Breakfast. He also drives the local school bus.
“Watch out for the south wind. It blows across the pack ice and when it hits the Straits it creates a fog so thick you can’t see your hands,” warned Mr. Blodgett as he fueled the expedition boat. “Last summer we lost a family of six to the pack ice and fog when they were making the crossing. They’ve lived on Diomede all their lives; they haven’t found the bodies yet!”
The expedition was using a satellite cell phone to stay in contact with a New Jersey weather guru. He predicted that there would be no dreaded South winds for the next 48 hours and recommended that the voyage begin.
The sun had been up for five hours -- it was nine in the morning -- when the eight man expedition gathered on the beach and prepared to leave. Looking like mini-Michelin men, each Sea Doo rider was wearing a dry suit overtop of a wet suit. They also wore neoprene hoods, gloves and booties. Yellow duct tape was used to tape ankles and wrists to make sure that the water couldn’t get in.
The three watercraft and the catamaran headed out into the Bering Sea, prepared to meet the worst conditions that Nature could throw at them. Everyone was happily disappointed. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the seas were flat.
There isn’t a tree to be seen en route to Wales. The craggy hills and mountains that line the shore are green with lichen and blooming tundra flowers. Dirty white snow linger in gullies and clefts. Save for the diving cormorant, there were no signs of life.
A course was set for the town of Wales, 100 kms northwest of Teller. Print journalists don’t always make the best expedition members! Endorphins flowing and the wild unexplored coast beckoning, the drivers roared off to explore; all at different speeds and in different directions.
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The PWCs were equipped with radios and global positioning sensors. Still, It took an hour to find the wayward drivers. The flotilla regrouped near Tin City, a huge gray mothballed mining installation that silently towers over the coastline.
Bobbing on the water, a mile off shore, the expedition changed drivers and refueled the Sea Doos. Facing Northwest, the Russian island of Big Diomede and the America’s Little Diomede could easily be seen 30 kms away. Asia’s eastern coast was low on the horizon. A course to Little Diomede was set and the watercraft headed out into the Bering Strait.
The Sea Doos and the Glacier Bay fought the current and waves as they approached Little Diomede and the International Date Line. Suddenly conditions changed. The waves stopped and the current slacked. Although the sky was cloudless, a wispy fog lightly drifted in and covered the sea’s blue surface. The boats had entered a slowly moving floating ice pack.
In amongst the large flat pieces of ice, the boaters encountered life. Loons waddled onto the ice floe weary from hunting herring. All heads turned sternward when the dorsal fin of a bow whale broke the water a scant few meters away. The whale came up for air two more times before disappearing into the mist at the edge of our pack ice.
“Each hunk of pancake ice was so huge that it effectively blocked out the wave action. In between each chunk the water was as smooth as glass,” explained TV host Ted Rankine. “What a rush. It was amazing to whiz between flats of ice that were bigger than a city park!”
Personal Watercraft have a shallow and can function safely in water only as deep as a cup of coffee. The same is not true for the Glacier Bay -- it was prudent to travel slowly through the icefield. It was slow going and the decision was made to beach the boat on the largest and thickest pancake.
The PWCs ran themselves right up off the water onto an acre sized slice of ice. The Glacier Bay nudged up against the block and let her passengers step regally onto the temporary island. There were small hillocks on the block and in the middle there were puddles of sweet meltwater, great for drinking if one doesn’t mind lying prone on a moving ice floe.
After taking the obligatory group photos it was time to set off again. As the personal watercraft prepared to leave, disaster struck. One Sea Doos was pushed backward, engine running, smack into another ice floe. The driver yanked it sideways and in doing so dismantled a vital steering cable. The camera boat was a floating repair shop, but this was one malfunction that could not be handled at sea.
A rope was attached to the PWC and it was towed to Little Diomede Island. On board the boat the mood had suddenly switched from elation to group depression -- the Glacier Bay was using too much fuel pulling the craft and we were heading towards a land that reportedly had no gas.
Rising vertically 360 meters into the air, the granite rock known as Little Diomede is home to hundreds of thousands of noisy water birds. There is a small beach area on the west coast where people have lived for centuries. The slope from water’s edge to the base of the rock is so steep that the 80 homes village are built on tall wooden stilts.
Whale bones line the rock path that lead from house to house up the mountain. The water’s edge is covered with the bloody skins of walrus. Diomede is a killing field for walrus, seal, polar bear and whales and a tenuous toe hold for 200 Inglikmiut Eskimos. Yes they have MTV, but the Diomede people live in America’s harshest environment.
“We are just like any other community. We live by subsistence (hunting),” said Pat Omiak, the owner of a walrus hunting boat and president of the Native council. “The majority that we eat are marine mammal. There are very few jobs here. We use walrus ivory for carvings here on the island and sell them. We do the Eskimo dancing which is the strongest cultural tie here.”
Despite warnings from the islanders not to wander into Russia waters, the expedition was off again, this time towards Big Diomede just 4 kms away. It takes a day and 20 minutes to reach Big Diomede since theInternational Date Line runs between the two islands -- it was Wednesday when the boats left America and Thursday when they arrived in Soviet waters.
Big Diomede is … big, but like it’s sister island, offers marginal protection for humans. At one time a thriving Eskimo population lived here. Following the Russian revolution all native residents were moved to mainland Asia and a military installation was established. A dozen soldiers now live on the island year round keeping tabs on America.
When the two personal watercraft arrived at the rocky shores of the Big Diomede it was a rag tag version of the mighty Soviet Army that greeted the vessels. Wearing a mishmash of uniforms, sweat pants and running shoes, the armed soldiers immediately arrested Andrey Velikanov as he climbed up the rocky shore.
“As I was being taken away, I signaled behind my back at Timmy and Jim to keep their Sea Doo away from land,” explained Velikanov. “No point in all of us getting arrested.”
“I was taken to a wooden building above the beach. All of the structures were in very very bad condition. The room that I was in had one light bulb and several chairs, however, most of the seats were broken,” continued Andrey Velikanov. “They gave me a tea and examined our papers. I had arranged visas for everyone to enter Russia legally, but, according to the soldiers Big Diomede was off limits.”
The story does have a happy ending ... sort of. The Russians gave permission for the two Ski Doos to proceed to the mainland some 40 kms away but they would not let the big boat to proceed any farther into Russian waters. The Sea Doers were not prepared to travel to Asia without the safety boat and the expedition officially ended on the Russian island.
Velikanov was formally released from arrest and the second PWC landed. The senior officer gave the men his dress hat and wished all of the USA a Happy Fourth of July. As they were leaving the Americans presented the soldiers with cigarettes, beer, liquor and adult magazines.
Chef Omiak, dressed in a blood stained white fur coat was preparing his skin boat for an evening hunt when the expedition arrived back on Little Diomede. Made of wood and walrus pelt, the ancient craft carries six armed hunters. Dead walrus don’t float., the skin boat is needed to get the men quietly onto an ice floe where they attempt to shoot the beasts before they reach the water.
Before launching his boat Mr. Omiak told the visitors to report to the town hall. Once in the office high on the cliff we received a bill for $800 US -- there is a fee to step onto the island. Anyone not paying has to leave; the cash starved expedition departed immediately!
It took eight hours to tow the damaged Sea Doo back to Teller. By the Fourth of July all of the machines and the Glacier Bay were back in Nome. As the eight explorers prepared to head south, there was talk of returning next Spring Equinox, crossing the Strait and actually beaching the Sea Doos on mainland Russia. Those dreams ended when bargain hunting Alaskians bought up the boats!

CUTLINES
Top: Ted Rankine pulls his Sea Doo up to a floating ice pancake. The ice pancake straddles the International Dateline north of the Arctic Circle.
Middle: Author Stephen Weir gets a warm welcome from the children of Little Diomede Island (USA). In the background you can see Big Diomede Island (Russia).
Bottom: The expedition (minus me - I was on another ice floe taking this picture). Russia in the background.

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