Ice breakers: Adventure duo plans Bering Strait crossing
Tuesday December 6, 2005 - 64.8378° N, 147.7164° W
That the Fairbanks Fire Department showed up Thursday afternoon to rescue Karl Bushby and Dimitri Kieffer as they were paddling across the Chena River was ironic.
So, too, was the man wearing a kilt and playing bagpipe music on the ice.
As small crowd of media types looked on, Bushby, the 36-year-old former British paratrooper who is in middle of an attempt to walk around the world, and his partner, Kieffer, demonstrated how they planned to cross the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia this spring, which represents the most difficult part of Bushby's journey.
Dressed in black and yellow dry suits and bunny boots, Bushby and Kieffer took turns climbing into the water and backstroking to the other side, while towing their floating plastic sleds behind them. Once they reached the frozen shore on the other side, they unclipped ice axes they had attached to the front of the dry suits to pull themselves up on solid ice and snow.
The two adventurers were making their way back across the river when an ambulance pulled into the parking lot at the Pioneer Park boat launch and two paramedics with the Fairbanks Fire Department hustled down to the river to see what was going on.
Evidently, a passing motorist thought somebody was in trouble and called the fire department.
By the time they got there, Kieffer and Bushby were safely on shore, their Gore-Tex dry suits already beginning to ice up in the 5 degree below zero temperatures.
The two men told paramedic Doug Condon that they were training to cross the Bering Strait later this winter. Once he confirmed they weren't in trouble, Condon wished the men luck.
"Sounds like a fun trip," Condon said. "I hope you make it."
But there won't be any ambulances or bagpipers where Bushby and Kieffer are going. The two men are gearing up for an attempt to cross the treacherous Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia in February or March.
For Bushby, it marks the continuation of a journey he began seven years ago when he left the Chilean town of Punta Arenas. Since then, Bushby has covered more than 16,000 miles through South and North America on what he has dubbed "The Goliath Expedition." His goal is to make it home to Hull, England, a total distance of more than 36,000 miles.
Bushby showed up in Fairbanks in May 2003 after hiking up the Alaska Highway. He spent several months holed up in Fairbanks preparing for last winter's leg of his journey from Fairbanks to Cape Prince of Wales on the Bering Sea coast.
Unfortunately, Bushby received a rude awakening to Bush travel in Alaska. Right from the start his trip was marked by hardship.
Towing a sled laden with more than 200 pounds of food and gear, Bushby's decision to travel across the Minto Flats just outside of Fairbanks turned into a nightmare because of deep snow.
The same was true for his trip down the Yukon River. Bushby ended up breaking trail through deep snow for days at a time.
At one point when he was camped on the 80-mile stretch between Tanana and Ruby, an Alaska State Trooper flew out and dropped off food and fuel to keep him going until he reached Ruby. In the end, Bushby stopped in the Bering Sea coast village of Unalakleet before his visa ran out and he had to leave the country.
"I went out there pretty raw and ran into all sorts of problems," is how Bushby describes his trip across Alaska last winter. At the same time, he said, "I learned an awful lot."
This winter, Bushby will pick up where he left off last year by flying to Unalakleet sometime in the next week. From there, Bushby will tow a sled up the Iditarod Trail 220 miles to Nome, where he will then hook up with Kieffer, whom he met on the trail last year. The two men will continue north on foot to the village of Wales, where they plan to head across the strait.
There are still many "issues," as Bushby calls them, to contend with but he continues to forge ahead, consumed by his dream to walk around the world.
During Thursday's hour-long press conference and slide show at the College Coffee House, followed by the demonstration in the Chena River, Bushby and Kieffer mapped out their ambitious plans.
The Bering Strait crossing has lured a variety of adventurers in the past two decades who have used several different methods to try and get across the 56-mile stretch of moving ice and open water, including bike, car, tank, dogsled, kayak and balloon. All but two have failed or been rescued.
The only known successful crossing of the strait is by the father-son team of Dmitry and Matvey Shparo of Russia, who crossed it in 1998 after getting rescued on their previous two attempts. It took them 30 days and they drifted approximately 220 miles to get across, landing well north of Wales.
"As far as we know nobody has ever made it from Alaska to Russia," said Bushby.
In October, Bushby and Kieffer met with Belgian adventurer Dixie Dansercoer and Troy Henkels of Alaska, who attempted to cross the strait to Siberia and back in early April, only to be airlifted off the ice after eight days.
When they were picked up, the two men were 55 miles south of their starting point in Wales and their efforts to travel west were thwarted by the drifting ice pack they were traveling on.
"They'd camp and they would wake up and they'd be 20 miles south of where they were," said Bushby.
To avoid that, Bushby said he and Kieffer will be traveling at night, using night-vision scopes mounted to helmets that were provided by one of their sponsors, MoroVision.
"Some people call it foolhardy," Bushby said of night travel. "If you're going to do something like this you have got to be willing to push the limits."
In addition to the night-vision equipment, Bushby has some other new high-tech gadgets he hopes will aid in the crossing.
One is a parafoil kite that has a wireless camera attached to the string so Bushby and Kieffer can get an aerial view of the surrounding landscape. The camera is hooked up to a hand-held screen that will allow Bushby to look at the ice ahead.
"That gives us an instant aerial view," said Bushby, who plans to use a GPS for navigation.
The two men will be using kayaking dry suits made by Kokatat during the crossing. They plan to swim across open leads in the ice, towing their floating sleds behind them, rather than circumvent them.
"Most people who set out to cross the Bering Strait go out with the idea of staying dry," he said. "We're planning on getting wet.
"I figure we're going to spend 50 percent of our time on the ice and 50 percent in the water," said Bushby.
Bushby and Kieffer will have a satellite phone and emergency locator beacons in the event they need to call for help.
As for possible polar bear encounters, Bushby isn't too worried, especially since he will be armed with a shotgun and pistol.
"I cannot confirm any polar adventurer that's been attacked or eaten by a polar bear," said Bushby.
In addition to the firearms, Bushby said he will set up a motion detector on a ski pole whenever they pitch camp to alert them of possible four-legged intruders. "Anything that moves around camp and it screams like a banshee," said Bushby.
How all his high-tech equipment works in the cold and ice remains to be seen and Bushby admits as much. He isn't sure how the dry suits will work or how badly they will get iced up.
"We're still playing with a lot of ideas," he said. "That's all part of the process. This is a learning experience.
"Our chances of making it are pretty slim," a realistic Bushby said. "We may hit it like a brick wall and bounce back but we'll be back next year and the year after that and the year after that to try again.
"This is my life," Bushby said.
News-Miner outdoors editor Tim Mowry can be reached at 459-7587 or firstname.lastname@example.org .