The man who loved winter: Explorer Paul Schurke has made a career out of navigating some of the world's coldest regions by dogsled
Detroit Lakes' annual Polar Fest celebration was created as a means for inspiring local residents and visitors alike to get out and experience the beauty, and the fun, of winter: On Monday night, that goal reached a new level, with a presentation hosted by the Detroit Lakes Public Library at the Historic Holmes Theatre.
Guest presenter Paul Schurke, who hails from Ely, Minn., is a man who has truly embraced winter as a way of life. Expeditions to the North Pole, Siberia and Greenland that he has either led or been involved with have made news headlines all over the globe, and even inspired a handful of books, television specials and film documentaries.
His Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge, established over 35 years ago, is considered to be one of the premier destinations for winter adventurers the world over. And while many Minnesota residents tend to head south during the winter months, Schurke heads northward, often extending his winter exploration opportunities into the spring months by leading or participating in dogsled expeditions to Greenland, the Russian Arctic, and beyond — something he has done pretty much every spring since 1984.
"We have 70 dogs," said Schurke, noting that theirs are all Canadian Inuit, also known as Eskimo dogs,.a breed closely related to Arctic wolves.
"They have this amazing instinct to pull," Schurke said, which along with their temperament and resistance to cold weather, is what makes them so ideal for dogsledding — an instinct that was, in fact, bred into them by the Inuit people.
Along with colleagues Will Steger and Ann Bancroft — both of whom have visited Detroit Lakes for similar presentations, in 2011 and 2018, respectively — Schurke was among the expedition members who successfully completed a two-month trek to the North Pole back in the spring of 1986.
"It was the pinnacle of our career," said Schurke of the day they reached the North Pole on May 1 of that year.
What many people may not realize, he said of the trip, is that unlike the South Pole, the North Pole is not located on land, but on water.
"The top of our planet is a big ocean basin — about three miles deep," Schurke said — which meant that much of their trip was spent navigating long stretches of ice that were constantly shifting, pushing together to form dangerous, steep "pressure ridges," or pulling apart and leaving behind open channels of water, which they needed to leap over quickly before the rift became too wide for them to get across.
They also came across polar bears — the world's largest known species of land predator — but fortunately, they never came close enough to be a real threat, he said.
Some days, too, the wind would be so strong that the gusts could literally sweep the expedition members right off their feet, so they would have to stay hunkered down in their tents for a day or more, until the weather became slightly more hospitable.
As conditions became more treacherous, they'd have to get "pretty creative" to navigate the shifting ice floes; eventually, Schurke said, they learned to harness floating cakes of ice to serve as ferry boats, carrying them across the open stretches of water until they managed to find more firm footing once again.
In fact, on the last night of the expedition, they slept on one of these drifting ice floes; the next morning, they found that the ice had carried them all the way to the Pole.
"So there we were... happy people, and happy dogs," Schurke said; their trip became known as "a landmark" in polar exploration, he noted, because they were the first expedition team to make the trip without having to stop to resupply, having taken all their supplies with them at the start of the journey. The historic expedition was eventually memorialized in a best-selling book, a National Geographic cover story and a television special.
Three years later, from March to May of 1989, Schurke and Russian counterpart Dmitry Shparo would serve as co-leaders on the Bering Bridge Expedition from Siberia to Alaska, which crossed the Bering Strait, a 50-mile stretch of water that separates Russia from the U.S. — making Russia our nearest overseas neighbor.
"They're even closer to us than Cuba," Schurke said.
Yet due to the Cold War between the two countries that reached its peak in the mid-20th century, a political 'Ice Curtain' had fallen over the Bering Strait, separating Inuit communities on both sides of the strait that had historically been close to each other, both culturally and genealogically.
The people on the Russian side of the strait became quite culturally isolated, Schurke said, as geographically, the Bering Strait is separated from Moscow by 11 time zones, across some pretty inhospitable country.
Then in the 1980s, two things happened: Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev initiated a new era of "perestroika" and "glasnost" — Russian words meaning "openness" and "change" — and U.S. long distance swimmer Lynne Cox completed the first-ever swim across the Bering Strait in 1987.
"She pulled off quite a feat," Schurke said. "It was clear that the times were changing."
Encouraged by these signs of thawing diplomatic relations between the two countries, Schurke and Shparo applied for permission to make a historic, 2,000 mile trek from Siberia to Alaska, recruiting five more explorers from the U.S., and five from Russia, to make the trip with them.
So excited were the people in Siberia by this cultural event that they declared the start of the expedition a state holiday, and organized a parade to greet the explorers upon their arrival.
"They came out by the hundreds (for the parade)," Schurke said, noting that they were "warmly received" by the Russian people as a whole — and for the Inuit members of their expedition, it was a very emotional experience as well, as some of them were reunited with relatives that they hadn't seen or heard from in decades.
"These kinds of connections and reunions happened all along our route," Schurke said, which made all the challenges posed by the trip worth the time and effort they spent on solving them.
For instance, the weather proved quite challenging, and despite Schurke's best efforts, they were unable to reach the Bering Strait before the ice had started to melt.
This meant that they had to navigate the strait using the same type of boats the ancient Inuits did, which proved to be a truly memorable, and sometimes harrowing, experience.
"If the boat overturned, our chances of survival were minimal," Schurke said — yet the view was truly spectacular as they made their way across.
Aside from that experience, the wind proved to be the most challenging threat, weather-wise.
"We would end up tent-bound for several days," Schurke said — but this proved to be a great bonding experience for the expedition members, U.S. and Russian alike, he added.
Another challenge was the fraying tempers as the expedition wore on — not just on the part of the expedition's human members, but the dogs as well.
Schurke noted that the Russians were used to a much more relaxed pace than the U.S. explorers, which led to "quarrels about the use of time," he added, which "took a lot of discussion, compromise and patience" to solve, and were further complicated by the language barrier, though Schurke said he did learn to speak at least passable Russian by the end of the trip.
Along the way, the explorers were also required to make several stops at towns and villages in remote areas, many of which hadn't received visitors in decades.
"The villages started to blend together," Schurke admitted — yet at each stop, they needed to exercise "citizen diplomacy," and be good ambassadors for their respective cultures.
All that hard work was nearly ruined, however, when two Soviet journalists from Moscow who were assigned to cover the event asked for political asylum when they arrived in Alaska.
Their Russian team members' reaction was that the journalists were "very selfish," because their actions could undo all of the work the expedition members had done to generate good will along their journey.
"But that setback was temporary," Schurke said, noting that the expedition proved to be such a success that Gorbachev and U.S. President George W. Bush signed a treaty reopening the border between their two countries and allowing the Inuit peoples to renew their historic ties once again.
In the three decades since, however, relations between the countries have chilled considerably, Schurke noted — yet he and his fellow expedition members from the U.S. have been invited to return to Siberia this April to celebrate the 30th anniversary, and recreate a portion of the trip — this time, bringing some of their children along for the journey.
Unfortunately, Schurke said, the recent government shutdown has created some delays with obtaining the necessary security clearance, but he remains hopeful that they will be able to make the trip as scheduled.
"It's been a fun ride," he said, adding that he and Shparo have remained close friends — so much so, in fact, that two of Shparo's children have come to work at Wintergreen Lodge as guides on some of Schurke's expeditions, which are available from early December until late March of each year, and include a variety of options for everyone from beginners through the most experienced explorers.
Some openings for Wintergreen's four-night expeditions in late February and March are still available. Visit www.dogsledding.com for details, or to help plan a dogsled vacation for next year.