Here is your geography question for today: Which country is the third closest neighbor to the USA, with Mexico and Canada occupying the top two slots? Here’s a clue: it is across the water. No, it is not Cuba, nor is it in the Atlantic. Second clue: it is the biggest country in the world. Yes, Russia has a border quite close to Alaska. Just ask Sarah Palin. From mainland Asia (Easternmost Siberia) to mainland North America the distance across the Bering Strait is a few marathons. But there are two islands in the middle of the Strait that are only four kilometers apart, about two and a half miles apart, with the border only about a mile from Alaska. The Russian island is Ratmanova(aka Big Diomede) and the much smaller Alaskan island is Little Diomede. In the summer of 1987 the great Lynne Cox did a first, a memorable swim from the Alaskan side to the Russian island, Little Diomede to Ratmanova. But nobody had ever made the swim in the opposite direction. What a temptation it would be to swim from Asia to North America!
“Men swim frigid Bering waters”, Anchorage Daily, reported by Rosanne, Pagano, Associated Press, July 21, 1993.
The temptation was indeed too great for me. Here is why: I was in eastern Siberia, nearing the end of my seemingly endless ‘Non-motorized Circumnavigation of the Earth,’ and I had to find a way to get from Asia back to North America, and on to Fairbanks, the starting point of my journey. My 60th birthday was in view. I saw the possibility of doing something that no one else had ever done at any age. What the hell? Why not me? Sylvia knows that I am nuts, so she suggested that I call someone a bit wiser, someone from whom I could seek good advice. So I phoned my old travelling companion, Coloradan Ted Epstein. Ted was a fine athlete, an elder statesman and (!) a lawyer. Here is what Ted shouted over the phone that day: “Do it, Joe, and I am going to go with you.”
Four separate problem areas needed solutions. First, I had to get my body ready for the swim in very cold water. Second, I needed permission from the Russian government to land on their very remote island. The third was getting to that speck of land in the Bering Strait. Finally, I would have to actually do the swim, and I was not at all confident that it was within my ability. Might I would even die in the process? “Nah,” I kept telling myself “Piece of cake”. Sure.
Preparation involved swimming in San Francisco Bay all winter, sans wetsuit, sometimes in the Pacific at Half Moon Bay. (I was living in the Bay Area at the time.) The good people at O’Neill gave me a thick wetsuit for the swim. Thick, but not as flexible as I would like. Getting there was complicated: It took three flights on Alaska Airlines, a bush plane from Nome to Cape Wales and the weekly Monday mail helicopter from Cape Wales to Diomede. Getting permission from the Russians proved to be a battle of shoveling sand against the tides. To start with, everyone wanted a big bribe. In the end, I did the swim illegally, no permission from the Russians: the worst they could would be to put me in a gulag. (If you want the full story of dealing with the Russians, and of my circumnavigation, see the information at the end of this article.)
So Ted and I arrived on tiny Diomede on July 20, 1993. I had made contact with Moses Milligrock, the head of the Diomede Band of Eskimos, and Moses was there to welcome us when the helicopter touched down on the steel plate that was the landing pad. He made sure that we had brought the two cases of fresh fruit he had requested. I figured that we would spend a day or two getting acclimated. Nope. Moses laughed and told us, “Get ready to swim right now, Joe. Conditions are perfect.” Ted and I looked at each other, surprised, but glad that it was finally coming together. We put on our wetsuits and got into the put-put umiak that would take us across to Russia. I noted that one of the cases of fruit was in the boat.
“Here is the plan. Listen carefully,” Moses told us. “When we get to Big D, Joe, carry the case of fruit out of the boat and put it high on the rocks. Then wave to the guard on the cliff. He will be 1,000 feet above you. He might aim his Kalishnakov at you, but he won’t shoot. When you get the fruit in place, back up and ‘accidentally’ fall into the water. Then you will have to swim, right? While you are swimming, Ted will be your lifeguard while we drive the boat. Aim for that long streak of snow on the south end of Little Diomede and the current will take you back to the village.” At Moses’ direction I had written a note to the guard and placed it on the case of fruit: “MalinkiipodarkiiizvashAmericanetsdruzhei,” “a small gift from your American friends.” He explained that these poor Russian guards had probably never had an apple or a peach in their entire lives.
I climbed onto the rocks and Ted handed me the case of fruit. The curious guard above watched my every move as I put it on a high rock. When I waved at him, he waved back and started to descend the long stairway down to the rocks. Then I backed up and fell unceremoniously into the water. “Oops! Well, what do you know? Now I’ll have to swim.” And swim I did, getting away from the island without delay, fast, but not fast enough to wear me out for the long swim ahead of me. Wetsuit, booties, gloves, hood and goggles in place, the first shock of 45 degree water wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated, except around my uncovered face. Ted, Moses and Patrick, another Eskimo, chatted away as I swam. From time to time Moses used his video camera to record my swim for posterity. (Watching a long swim or a marathon run is like watching grass grow.) As we approached the halfway point, the current caused an up-welling that dropped the temperature several degrees. Ted’s thermometer read 35 degrees. But the wetsuit was working well. The only distress came when I turned over to stretch with some backstroke and icy water ran down the back of my wetsuit. Brrrrr.
But it was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, a variety of arctic birds were flying everywhere, and that big streak of snow on Diomede was getting closer. All of a sudden I was stopped in mid-stroke. Maybe ten feet below me a whale was crossing, barnacles speckling its back, headed north. It kept coming and coming and I could feel the pressure wave. I was awestruck and stopped swimming, just staring at the beautiful, graceful being gliding across my path. I turned to the boat. The three of them were still yacking away. Not one of them saw it, my whale.
I was getting closer with every stroke. My winter training was paying off. The snow streak looked taller now and the rocks flanking it were clearly defined. All of a sudden my hand was grabbing kelp, then rock. In another minute I was standing on the rocks on Little Diomede, not far south of the village. At that moment I became the first person ever to swim from Ratmanova to Little Diomede, from Russia to Alaska, from Asia to North America. And I was home in the good old USA.
I climbed back into the boat and we headed back. Now it was time for Ted to swim. His swim was as memorable as mine, and he has written about it. When we finally landed, the entire village was waiting, kids taking pictures, yelling and singing. We went up to the school house where they had prepared a celebration, Eskimo dancing, boiled sea bird eggs (a few with chicks inside), tea and pop. (Alcohol is not allowed on Little Diomede.)
Ted and I relished the moment. His wife contacted the Associated Press, and they called us for an interview. When we got to Nome and again in Anchorage, we were still enjoying our few minutes of fame. But fame, such as it is, slowly fades away. Ted and I went home to our wives, thankful for a successful conclusion to our plans and efforts.
That, of course, was 23 years ago. When people ask me how long the swim took, I tell them that I started mid-day on July 20, 1993, and finished about 22 hours earlier on July 19, 1993, on the other side of the International Date Line.
NOTE: If you are interested in reading the full story about the swim or about his non-motorized circumnavigation, you can buy the book, “WITH A SINGLE STEP” either on line at Amazon.com or directly from his daughter, Victoria Mead, at 503-913-4269. 100% of the proceeds support AIDS orphans in Namibia.