Crossing the Bering Strait on a home-made raft
In Crescent City, California, I stayed in a church that acted as a Warmshowers host. While I was there, Sergey and Yana, from Moscow, arrived on foot, having crossed the Bering Strait from Russia on a home-made raft! Their unique story was the motivation I needed to start this new section of my website, an idea I have been kicking around in my mind for a while. Over a couple of days it was my pleasure to get to know this personable, modest, adventurous couple and they were happy for me to share it with you.
All photos courtesy of Sergey Lekay.
Sergey (43), a rope access technician, and Yana (32), an English tutor and translator, left Moscow on 11th June 2018 on a journey by land and water to North America, South America and, if all goes to plan, to Africa. From Moscow they took a train to Yakutia (Siberia), a journey of five days. From there they hitch-hiked to the remote Chukotka Peninsula. They obtained passage down the Kolyma River on a cargo barge for the princely bribe of one bottle of rum. “The captain was very angry, he wanted two bottles. He kept threatening to kick us off the boat”, said Yana. After ten days on the barge they reached the Chukotka road network. In summer it is isolated from the rest of the country by rivers and swamps. There they hitch-hiked to Egvekinot, a town on the Pacific Coast.
Around 20th July, 90km north of Egvekinot, they set about building their raft, using two inflatable pontoons and an outboard motor, which they had sent ahead through the postal network a month before they left Moscow. The wood and binding cords for the structure they scavenged locally. It took three days to build the raft, which they tested on a four day, 200km float down the Amguema River into the Arctic Ocean.
Sergey explained, “we had a choice of crossing by the Arctic side or the Pacific. The distance is about the same, but the Arctic coast has beaches, whereas the Pacific coast has rocks. The Pacific side is also more controlled by the coastguard and military. On the Arctic side, it is just native Chukchi villages. The boat was constructed for rivers, not for the sea”. So the real test was still ahead of them. Not to mention the bears.
Yana: “At the ocean, that’s when we saw our first polar bear. I was in a state of panic, but Sergey was calm.”
Sergey: “Brown bears are afraid of polar bears – they run away.”
But what about polar bears? Aren’t they predatory?
Sergey: “Not really. We took the oar [from the boat] and held it up. We moved towards the bear. They always run away.”
Yana: “We saw maybe a dozen polar bears.”
They hugged the coast, spending around eight hours a day on the raft. Their longest day was fourteen hours at sea. Every day they came ashore to camp. After 500km, they reached the Chukchi village of Uelen. This was their point of departure from Russia to Alaska at the shortest part of the Bering Strait. It was hard work, being unable to move around much on the craft.
Sergey: “It is easier to cross from Alaska to Russia, because of strong currents in the Strait. We had to cross by going upstream.”
They left Russia on a calm but foggy day. Their two-horsepower outboard engine proved adequate for the currents. 90km later they made landfall at the native Inuit village of Wales, Alaska. They rested in Wales for a couple of days before taking to the raft again to continue to Nome, the where they could register with U.S. immigration.
Yana: “They interrogated us for seven hours. The FSB [Federal Serurity Bureau, the modern KGB] had issued a warrant asking USA to deport us back to Russia. They accused us of ‘illegal human traficking’!”
Sergey: “It has a sentence of six years in prison in Russia.”
It seems that the FSB is angry because Sergey and Yana did not leave Russia through the approved channel. The only way is to charter a plane or helicopter and pay officials lots of money.
Yana: “They [the FSB] sent us a Whatsapp message, saying ‘are you okay, did you get lost in the fog? We can help you come back.'”
Fortunately, US immigration officers established to their satisfaction that the couple are clearly just independent travellers and not traffickers and let them go on their way. They continued along the Alaskan coast on their raft for two more weeks to the town of Unalakleet. They had spent over five weeks on the raft, covering 1300km of river, strait and coastline.
In Unalakleet they stored the raft, although it seems unlikely that they will use it again. Then began the most arduous part of their journey so far – hiking through trackless muskeg (the mossy bogs that cover land between the boreal forest and Arctic tundra). They carried all their gear in backpacks, about 40kg for Sergey, half that for Yana. They followed the route of the Iditarod husky race, but during the summer this is incredibly heavy going when the ground is not frozen.
Yana: “We were miserable all day, every day. Sergey was crying.”
Sergey: “No I wasn’t.”
Unalakleet locals told them it was impossible to cross the muskeg on foot in summer. But, after eight spirit-sapping days they had hiked the 70km to the the Yukon River.
Sergey: “At that time of year, there are no barges going up river from Yukon mouth.” So they intercepted the river higher up where they were able to hitch a ride on speedboats that took them up the Yukon to connect with the road network at Manley Hotsprings. From there they hitched rides into Canada, via Whitehorse and Jasper, following a route broadly similar to my own.
Yana: “When we got to the roads, we had no more problems.”
Except now Sergey and Yana are concerned that their government may have sent a deportation request to other countries on their route ahead. This is of particular concern for their next country, Mexico, which has a good relationship with Russia. Through intermediaries, they are seeking to establish what the FSB want from them and how they can smooth things over without returning to Russia.
Sergey and Yana are now hitching south through California, visiting the Redwood forests and attractions on the way.
Sergey: “Maybe if we can’t get lifts, we switch to bicycles.”
Sergey has in the past travelled extensively in Asia, spending most of his summers mountaineering in Central Asia, in the Pamir and Karakorum ranges. He has also made overland trips for two years in Africa and crewed sailing boats. He has done many backpacking trips in Siberia. “You can travel for weeks between villages. You see no one.”
Yana has also travelled independently, volunteering in France and a more conventional tour in India and South East Asia. This is their first big trip together, after meeting three years ago, introduced through mutual friends in Moscow.
However they travel, you can be sure that they will continue to inspire others to dare to do impossible things!
Best of luck guys – a pleasure to meet you!
You can see more photos from their incredible adventure on Sergey’s Russian social media page: https://vk.com/lekay and read more in this slightly inaccurate Russian news article (use the ‘translate this page’ option in each case).