Schurke returning to Russia

Three decades after historic Bering Bridge Expedition, Ely explorer going back for speaking tour, reunion

by Tom Coombe -

Three decades after a historic trek that mixed diplomacy and dogged determination, Paul Schurke is returning to the former Soviet Union.
Next spring, the Ely explorer will mark the 30th anniversary of the Bering Bridge Expedition with a speaking tour in Russia, as well as a commemorative ski and dogsled trek on part of the route - with many of the original 12-member expedition team and some of their children.
During a presentation Tuesday at the Grand Ely Lodge, Schurke looked ahead to that journey as well as back to a time when Mikhail Gorbachev was dominant on the world scene and glasnost was a buzzword for a new era of openness as the Cold War came to an end.
More than 50 people watched a brief slideshow along with a half-hour National Geographic documentary that aired on Twin Cities television station KSTP, as Schurke shared memories and anecdotes from an expedition that commanded international attention.
Three years after a dogsled expedition to the North Pole with fellow Ely explorer Will Steger, Schurke made headlines with a 2,000-mile, two-month journey that united him with Soviet team members and American Inuits as they crossed the Bering Strait.
At its narrowest point, only 53 miles separate the coastlines of the United States and Russia, and Schurke said part of his mission was to “reconnect indigenous communities of Siberia and Alaska whose centuries-old cultural connections had been severed when Soviet-American tensions closed off any contact between east and west in the Bering Strait.”
The dozen explorers faced immense challenges during their journey, not the least of which were windstorms that lasted as long as three-to-four days, morning, afternoon and night, with gusts of 80 miles per hour or more.
The team faced cultural clashes as well, as the documentary made note of infighting among expedition members, with Americans such as Schurke pushing for a faster pace to the journey while facing Soviet resistance.
“We wanted to keep marking miles and the Soviets were saying ‘hey, relax, have some tea,’” Schurke recalled.
The dispute led to some spirited conversations and eventually compromise, Schurke said, as the team carried on, at times stopping in small villages.
Schurke recalled that the group was “tailed” by a pair of KGB agents, who followed behind them every step of the way, keeping pace despite their propensity to smoke cigarettes whenever they took a break.
Eventually, the expedition team cozied up to the agents, who even joined them for games of pickup basketball in small village gymnasiums.
“They were friendly, fun guys,” said Schurke.
The expedition had other tense moments, particularly when two Soviet journalists defected to the United States while following the team.
Schurke and his team eventually completed the expedition, earning a visit with Gorbachev and leading to the sale of Ely-made Winterngreen anoraks in Siberia.
Shortly after the Soviet Union came to an end and Schurke said “the floodgates opened in the Bering Strait,” leading to numerous cultural legacy events and flights back and forth to the United States.
“Sadly it has all since gone dark again and the ‘ice curtain’ by most accounts is back and formally in place,” said Schurke.
Cut to the present and an effort is underway to perhaps melt some of that ice and “reignite the connections that were once in place.”
Schurke has been invited, via a call from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, to take part in a speaking tour of the Russian far east, to many of the communities he visited on the trek, followed up by a celebration at the U.S. Embassy.
Several original team members will join him, and plans call for them to reenact part of their trip, this time with their children and native youth.
In advance of the trip, Schurke will offer a sneak-preview of his talk in Ely, sometime early next year before the Tuesday Group.