Yes! After a 14 months hiatus, partly caused by a bad fracture in January 2009 in my vertebral column which required a Posterior Spinal Instrumental Fusion surgery in the L1 vertebrae with 4 screws and 2 rods as well as a subsequent year of imposed recovery, I am definitely baaaaack! Past the "Ice curtain" in Anadyr, Chukotka and on the verge to secure transport across 700 kms of frozen rivers and open tundra to reach my starting point on the outskirts of Vayegi (N 64° 16.659; E 171° 14.107) where I was last forced to stop my expedition on Dec 6th 2008 because of my old broken & worn out sled!
This time, to increase my personal safety while travelling through this remote section deprived of any traffic / aka "zimnik" winter roads (at least for the first 250kms between Vayegi and Slautnoye in Kamchatka) , I have decided NOT to travel alone.
Therefore I am looking forward to embark on this next section which should last a little bit less than 3 months and cover approximatively 1060 kms (660 miles) from Vayegi to Omsukchan, with a 34 years old experienced Yakut путешествиник ("traveller") named Nyurgun Efremov (Нюргун Ефремов).
Nyurgun is a native of Yakutsk and a lawyer for the post office in Anadyr and in his "spare time" over the last few years as taken on during summer months a few kayaking and biking expeditions single-handely or with a partner. One of his most admirable accomplishments was the completion of the section Yakutsk-Anadyr over a few months switching back and forth between his mountain bike and his inflatable kayak which he carried both all the way!
When we first talked about travelling together, Nyurgun tried to convince me that we should travel on "ski bikes" rather than skiing while pulling sleds. It took a while for me to be able to convince this avid biker that in the open tundra, weeks away from any type of trail, I was not prepared to push one of these bikes in the deep snow while pulling a large amount of gear/food/fuel. Needless to say that upon landing in Anadyr, one of the first thing Nyurgun wanted to show me in his apartment was his beautiful ski bike! ;-)
Nyurgun speaks Russian and Yakut and only a few words of English.
Even though this might lead to potential frustration from time to time in our communication, I am actually welcoming this fact which is going to force me to make some serious progress in Russian! I can only hope!
Until now, Nyurgun has not had the "pleasure" to embark on long winter expeditions and is looking forward to honing his winter sled-pulling and skiing skills!
Thank you David from Eagan & Associates , as in previous years, we are definitely going to make use of these great, comfortable and warm products on the trail!
And of course the same thanks go to all of our other numerous and generous sponsors!
To return to my starting point near Vayegi, Chukotka, I left my home in Seattle on Feb 22d and flew on Alaska Airlines with my 440lbs of gear to Anchorage where after having spent a few hours in the terminal, I caught on a flight to Kotzebue which eventually took me on to Nome, where I had the pleasure to fly with some of the supporting crew for the famous Iron Dog snowmobile race.
In Nome, I had a few hours to spare allowing me to pick up my 2 new Acapulka Scandic Tour 210 sleds which freshly arrived straight from Norway, and add 30 more lbs of white gas as cargo (which will be the main fuel allowing us to melt snow into water and therefore cook our dehydrated meals).
In "no place like Nome", Alaska, I also had the oportunity to briefly catch up with old friends that I have known over the years such as Josie from the tourism bureau and caught a meal with Roger Thompson, an intriguing friend, character, trapper, builder, "global warming endangered village potential mover", miner, eskimo artifacts trader, with whom my father Henri Kieffer had the pleasure to stay when he came to surprisingly meet me (from France!) on a snowmobile back in 2005 while I was finishing the 1100 miles iditarod by foot!
Then, it was time to catch my 4th plane, aboard the "somewhat weekly" Bering Air flight chartered by the Canadian gold mining company Kinross which was on his way to collect some of its employees in Anadyr, returning from the gold mine in Kupol and taking them back to Canada.
Besides the pilot and co-pilot, I had the pleasure to "travel in style", being the only passenger on this flight with my 470 lbs of gear while staring at the window at the partly frozen Bering Strait below with all its open gaps / "rivers" and reminiscing of my crossing in 2006 with Karl Bushby...
In deed, it always feel great to be able to fly over territories such as the iditarod course Anchorage-Nome and the Bering Strait which I have already completed by foot!!!
We crossed the international dateline / also previously known as the infamous "ice curtain" and landed in Anadyr where I first spent a fraction of time in the company of the border guards, proudly able to display my new Chukotkan propusk/entry permit as well as my new 1 year multiple entry Russian visa.
Got the green light fairly quickly, which is always a reassuring matter in this part of the world!
However, my multiple entry visa only allows me to stay a maximum of 90 days at a time, which means that I will have to complete this section within 90 days, time spent waiting in Anadyr included.... This and the approaching warmer spring season (which will melt rapidly snow as well as frozen rivers, bays and lakes...) explains why I want to be able to return to Vayegi as soon as I can to resume my trek.
After having completed my meeting with the border guards, I had the pleasure to spend the next 4 hours with the Russian Federation Customs department, which as ever, took great care at analyzing entirely my camping & electronic gear, sleds, food and fuel that I brought across the border.
Consequentely, in accordance with Russian laws, I had to pay an import tax of about 500$ for the 94 kgs of dehydrated meals and white gas I was bringing in.
Trust me, it quickly adds up when one is charged a fee of 4 euros per kilogram for all perishable/ non permanent goods brought in the Russian federation!
However in Chuktoka, white gas and dehydrated completed meals such as Mountain House and complete nutritious bars which do not freeze in -40C such as Larabar are non-existent and therefore needed to be brought in for this winter section.
Once these administrative matters were resolved, I was able to finally catch up face to face with Nyurgun with whom I only had communicated over email and phone since I first met him in Anadyr in Spring 2008.
Nyurgun and I went on to stuff all of the gear in a Russian "mini van" and departed for Anadyr, crossing the bay on the ice road which I was contempted to see completely frozen at this time of the year!
In Anadyr, we went straight to his kommunalka /shared apartment located on the 3rd floor of a traditional Soviet Arktika Model building where we carried on all of the gear upstairs and stuffed it up in his apartment! A good day at the gym!
Over the last week, since I arrived, we have spent our time registrating me as a temporary resident of Anadyr, (as it is required in any major Russian cities for any extended stay of 3 days or more), finalizing our gear, and searching for the right type of transport which is going to take us from the capital of Chukotka, Anadyr to the outpost village of Vayegi, deeply buried in the Southeastern corner of Chukotka, way out there, amongst meandering frozen rivers and open tundra....
We were planning to originally travelled with a "military surplus" Wezdehod which belongs to a reindeer "brigade"/farm located near Vayegi and which was planning to return home after having completed its delivery of cargo meat in Anadyr. However, this wezdehod needs to be repaired at this stage and will not return to Vayegi for another 2 weeks!!!
We check for the next "regular" flight and found out that it is not til March 15th, which is also still 10 days away! And that is only if it does not get delayed by days/weeks for multiple reasons as I have experienced in the past..
So, we are looking for an alternate solution without having to spend thousand and thousands of dollars to contract our own wezdehod or our own all terrain massive vehicle such as a Trico.
We are indeed currently trying to see how the two of us (with our 2 sleds and about 500 lbs of gear) can be transported/ squeezed in with regular cargo for a reasonable sum to Vayegi in either a Cargo Ural Truck, Trico or Wezdehod.
Think of it as a complex way of partial hitchhiking for a 3 days trip in the middle of the peaceful tundra!
We are also trying to evaluate if by chance for us (malchance for others) we could "benefit" from a sanris/ambulance large helicopter that could take us as extra cargo for part of the way...
We are also looking potentially at travelling the 700 kms on skidoos snowmachines....
Finally, we even thought for a minute of travelling by dog sled, which is obviously not a reasonable option with 500 lbs of gear and 700 kms to cross.... but it would have been fun!
On this note... thanks to Nyurgun and his connections, I had the pleasure to enjoy a bit of mushing in the bay of Anadyr earlier this week....
I hope to be able to post a few pictures on this and Anadyr, if time allows, before I leave...
We also had a short TV interview with our journalist friends from Chukotka TV where I was even asked what I thought of the current rapprochement between French president Sarkozy and Russian president Medvedev...
Luckily... this part did not make the final cut!
Now... on to Gear, gear and more gear!
I could write chapters on this alone....
Just to give you a little idea of what it entails, here is an older picture of the gear Karl Bushby and I took during our Bering Crossing back in 2006.
The gear we are taking for this section is somewhat similar with of course a few notable exceptions such as new Acapulka Scandic Tour 210 sleds and new skis with dual binding systems allowing us to either use 3 pins back country ski bindings or Berwyn bindings which was provided to me by snowsled. The dual system was set up in Seattle with the help of the crew at 2d Ascent and Pro Ski Sports.
The Berwyn bindings will allow us to use our Baffin Doug Stop boots on colder days!
Now on to a topic that always bring a lot of attention...
Fire power to protect ourselves from potential bear, moose and wolves attacks:
Nyurgun and I have talked a lot about this and we have both decided for multiple reasons (weight, cost, potential malfunction in colder temperatures) to not purchase any fire arms, even though Nyurgun is now allowed to acquire some, after having passed specific Russian examinations testifying that he is neither psychologically insane nor alcoholic....
Not a bad thing to find out, in any case, before we start trekking together for multiple months in the middle of the tundra!
Wolves tend to be mostly a problem when one travels with dogs which is not going to be our case.
Bears will hopefully still be hibernating and when they will finally come out, we don't expect them to be too hungry and aggressive, still living off their hibernated cumulated fat.
Chukotkan Moose, the biggest in the world... well, with those, we will just have to pay a close attention to not cross their paths!
We also have two massive and efficient machetes to allow us to cut our way through the bushes when needed and which we might have to use for other means...
Finally, for when the weather warms up a bit, we will also have bear spray made of cayenne pepper which I can testify from a previous annoying experience is very potent!
Ok, that's all for now, folks!