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Dogsled diplomat: Polar explorer's DL presentation to highlight historic Bering Bridge Expedition

Ely's Paul Schurke routinely takes guests at his Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge on dogsled trips to some of the world's coldest regions. (Submitted photo)1 / 3
Members of the March-May 1989 Bering Bridge Expedition, a joint effort by U.S. and Soviet adventurers, traveled about 2,000 kilometers from Siberia to Alaska. (Submitted photo)2 / 3
Arctic explorer Paul Schurke has great affection for dogs of all ages. His Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge in Ely, Minn., routinely uses teams of dogs pulling sleds as the primary mode of transportation on their winter excursions. (Submitted photo) 3 / 3

This April will mark the 30th anniversary of the Bering Bridge Expedition, an historic 1,200 mile trek from Siberia to Alaska that was undertaken by a group of 12 Russian and American adventurers, on a mission to reconnect culturally-linked, indigenous communities that had long been separated by the two countries' Cold War.

"Through this bizarre twist of political fate, an ancient, cultural connection between the Inuit peoples along both sides of the Bering Strait had been severed," says Paul Schurke, a native Minnesotan who served as co-leader of the Bering Bridge Expedition.

But thanks to a new era of "glasnost" and "perestroika" — Russian words meaning "openness" and "change" — introduced by Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev, Schurke and some of his adventurer colleagues from the U.S. and Russia were able to organize this expedition, which would hopefully help re-establish some of those long-severed cultural connections between the remote northern communities.

"It worked," Schurke said. "In the months following the expedition, the border was reopened, and the native peoples could once again travel back and forth (between the two sides of the Bering Strait)," Schurke said.

It also led to a National Geographic documentary, and a book written by Schurke about the expedition — both of which will be referenced in his upcoming visit to Detroit Lakes for the community's 2019 Polar Fest celebration.

Schurke will feature the Bering Bridge Expedition in his Feb. 11 presentation at the Historic Holmes Theatre, "Thawing the Ice Curtain: The citizen diplomacy adventure on the Russia-America Frontier," which is being co-hosted by the theater and the Detroit Lakes Public Library.

That presentation will begin at 7 p.m., and is free and open to the public. Earlier in the day, at 1:30 p.m., Schurke will also be paying a visit to the Detroit Lakes Middle School for a presentation on "Arctic Tales & Tails," which will feature stories about Schurke's sled dogs as well as his Arctic adventures.

And in April, Schurke and some of his fellow expeditioners will be making a return visit to Russia, for a 30th anniversary celebration of the historic event. 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 some of their children and native youth.

"We're pleased and honored that this coming spring, on the 30th anniversary of that expedition, we have been invited back to the Russian Far East," he said. "We will be retracing portions of that original route, by dog sled and ski, with some of the original team members, along with some of their children, to ensure that our young people take up the cause of maintaining good relations between our country and our nearest overseas neighbor, which is Russia.

"We'll be there about a month," Schurke added. "We'll be visiting some of these remote settlements for the first time in 30 years. Some of the communities and schools there are planning to have their students join us on skis... we look forward to having some time with the young people there."

Schurke said he will also be interested to see what impact, if any, the expedition and the opening of the Russian-U.S. border to allow the native populations to interact has had upon their culture in the decades since.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 18-plus years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Detroit Lakes School Board. 

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