James Bingham takes a selfing during his attempt to cross the Bering Strait in March 2016. He and Neil Laughton endured 40 mile-per-hour winds. Courtesy James Bingham.

Traversing the Bering Land Bridge, bands of Siberians craving mammoth or milder climes became the first Americans. Daredevils 14,000 years later trickled back, though by then the route had been flooded. One, Lynne Cox from southern California, wore only goggles, a Speedo swimsuit, and a bright yellow bathing cap to avoid resembling a seal.

The marathon swimmer who’d claimed the English Channel record at 15 dreaded sleeper sharks—whale, walrus, and seal parts have been found inside their stomachs. She also feared rips sloshing between Little and Big Diomede that doubled the distance and could have swept her into the Chukchi Sea. Accounting for drift, fighting the “big dishwasher,” Cox managed the 2.7-mile inter-island stretch in two hours and five minutes, stroking 70 times per minute through disorienting fog; cameramen in fins could not keep up with her. She checked on her shoulders, afraid they’d turn blue, while the sea sucked heat “like a huge vampire.” A subcutaneous wetsuit of 35 percent body fat saved her. In Nome, before freestyling from today to tomorrow across the International Dateline, the woman who hates cold showers had carb-loaded and acclimatized to 38-degree brine. Helped ashore on rocky Big Diomede, she thawed out with hot-water bottles in a sleeping bag. “I do this because I can,” she said and “to help open the border…and promote peace.” Relations between the U.S. and USSR had been tense until Soviet leaders lifted the “Ice Curtain” for Cox, for the first time in five decades. Reagan and Gorbachev toasted a nuclear arms treaty and her contribution to perestroika later that year. 

Cox might have known about Lillian Alling’s 1927 attempt to reach Russia. The homesick Polish immigrant was 30, Cox’s age, when she braved the unknown. Lacking steamer fare, Alling left New York on what grew into a three-year journey a year after Amundsen’s North Pole zeppelin trip. She was jailed near Vancouver for vagrancy. “I go to Siberia” uttered in a throaty accent didn’t cut it with constables. The broad-faced, “wraith-like,” taciturn exile spent 30-mile days on the muskeggy, buggy Yukon Telegraph Trail, arriving in Dawson in mismatched men’s shoes, with a knapsack, and an 18-inch iron bar for protection against men. Rumors that the “Mystery Woman” was a grand duchess or counterrevolutionary spy were just that. When it died, she may or may not have skinned and stuffed the mongrel pack-dog a kind linesman provided. Having wintered waitressing in Dawson, she launched a skiff she’d repaired and on the heels of outgoing ice sculled to the Yukon delta. 

She was last seen pulling a two-wheeled cart outside Nome, beyond the old Teller reindeer station, Amundsen’s landing site. Cape Dezhnev and Slavic homelands beckoned. The Chukchi Peninsula’s easternmost point lay a mere 109 miles away. 

She possibly crossed.

Responding to a 1972 article about Alling, one reader related a Russian friend’s story. The friend in the fall of 1930 had watched officials ringed by a crowd question three Diomeders disembarked at Provideniya’s waterfront—a white woman with the trio said she’d come from America, walking “a terrible long way.”  

Men shelter on kayak platform over frozen sea ice
A cold night in hell. The adventurers spent long hours on the kayaks they’d tied together as a sleeping platform before being rescued. Photo courtesy James Bingham

At least one other person tackled the strait’s 56 endless miles like Alling out of nostalgia. In 2018, to join his Chinese wife and son in Guangdong, John Martin, a homeless, six-foot two-inch Anchorage man raised on a Soldotna homestead, sailed a dinghy slightly bigger than he down the Tanana and the Yukon, tacking north, past St. Lawrence Island, sighting the Diomedes, and beaching at Lavrentiya, Chukotka. He carried little more than a compass, blanket, water and grape juice jugs, salmon bellies a cannery donated, and The Crown of Truth for spiritual orientation. After detention in Anadyr where he wrestled six months with apparatchiks, Martin flew back to Alaska. He’d already quit twice, before even spotting his country’s coast, hoofing it, years ago, stopped by too little ice on rivers he therefore forded swimming. 

Few have completed the direct crossing on foot. The first on record, the German trader Max Gottschalk, channeling the Beringians, mushed from Dezhnev to Shishmaref in 1913, while a companion perished. Gottschalk was wanted for murder. A second sledder chasing him lost both hands to frostbite.

Luckier souls arrived standing on a paddleboard for 11 hours or, threatened by shifty seas, were choppered out. Two caught between freeze-up and hell shivered a long night in mummy cocoons on kayaks parked in slush. “There’s success, there’s rescue, and there’s death,” one of them said, a five-time Everest summiteer and veteran of both poles who embraced the middling outcome. Another six, straddling jet skis for a TV-stunt, scootered into a restricted zone and, betrayed by their headlights, straight into four-day custody. Four days—did Martin laugh? Perseverance and courage, not bluster, earn respect: The Soviets greeted Lynne Cox not with a tank but with biscuits, samovar tea, and a warm hug. 


Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. An inveterate cabin dweller, he lives in Fairbanks and works as a wilderness guide. Read more of his work at michaelengelhard.com and read Ice Bear here.

Comments are closed.