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English explorer Benedict Allen has crossed the Amazon Basin, lived with isolated peoples in Papua New Guinea, and walked the harsh Gobi Desert with a group of reluctant camels. But his latest journey was his perhaps most extreme yet: an attempted solo crossing of the frozen Bering Strait from Siberia to Alaska. Solo, that is, except for a team of trusty sled dogs that were essential to his survival.
National Geographic News recently spoke with Allen about his Arctic odyssey as he warmed up in Washington, D.C. Excerpts:
You have a long background in exploration, but this was something new. What drew you to the Arctic?
My technique is to live with local people and learn their skills, because the places others see as exotic or scary they see as home. In the Gobi, I learned to travel with camels and had an extraordinary amount of freedom in a place which should have perhaps killed me. I thought, 'Can I carry it further? Can I go to perhaps the most extreme place, the Arctic, and survive there with the help of dogs?'
You spent months living and traveling with local Chukchi people in Siberia who taught you about handling a dog team and surviving the Arctic. What was life like among people who herd reindeer and hunt walrus and seals?
I was trying to hone in immediately on their ability with dogs, but I was also struck with how they seemed to read the landscape so easily. It can be terribly disorienting in a blizzard that's come from nowhere. Yet the local people had grown up in this place where the line between life and death is so fine. They knew when bad winds were coming and so on. That's what struck me first.
But perhaps above all I was struck by their ability to deal mentally with harsh conditions. They were always making jokes. There is a danger when you're stuck in a blizzard, when you don't know where you are and it's minus 40° Fahrenheit [minus 40° Celsius], that you can sort of turn in on yourself. You can begin feeling sorry for yourself, and you just want to go to sleep and forget the numbing cold. The Chukchi were always getting me to jump about and have a good laugh. They made me keep moving, keep thinking and be positive. For example, they once started lighting distress flares during a blizzard, and I was thinking, 'My God, I'm trusting them as guides and they are firing flares where we have no hope of being rescued.' But it was all about having fun, just a bit of fireworks to keep things light.
Did they think you were a bit crazy?
They did, especially because I was such a total beginner. They couldn't understand why I was aiming to be out there in the Bering Strait alone. They don't go on expeditions alone, and they couldn't see the point of it. They were also doubtful that I'd gain enough skills over two or three months to cope alone for even a day. Maybe they're right [that the trip was crazy.] Lots of people in our culture can't see the 'why' either. In the end, only certain sorts of people feel that they want to push themselves to the limit.
What did you first think of the dogs?
I knew I'd have to prove myself to the Chukchis, but I found that the dogs were not going to obey me until I'd earned their respect. I hadn't expected that, and it was quite startling. You don't have to prove yourself to a pet dog, but these dogs are tough creaturesthey knew the rules of the Arctic. It was humbling to see how adept they were out there. Top Dog, the lead dog, really ignored me for six weeks. He ran, but didn't heed my commands to turn right or left.
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