Next year, Alaska’s international border with Russia will open for the Bering Strait Festival.
The seven-day festival is an effort to bring together residents of the high north from both sides of the strait, some of whom are relatives, and to honor their shared culture. It will include a cultural summit, an Indigenous peoples’ forum, traditional sports competitions and then a 43-mile boat crossing from Uelen in Russia’s Chukotsky District to Wales, on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula.
The festival’s head U.S. coordinator in Alaska, Mille Porsild, who is also an Iditarod veteran, says the hope is that the border will open every year for these seven days.
For the first crossing, set for the first week of August 2022, Porsild says people and boats of all kinds are welcome, but there’ll be an important frontrunner.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Mille Porsild: The first boat that will go across will be a skin boat. And that skin boat will be built by the hunters (in Chukotka) and supported by hunters from St. Lawrence Island, from Savoonga. And that is a very strong statement to the meaning of the Bering Strait and the crossing of this piece of water. Because the people that first came to North America, they actually came via this route, but before there was water. They walked across the steppe — the Beringia steppe. And then eventually water came and then they started traveling by skin boats. And still today, skin boats are a very important part of life in Chukotka, and it’s also a very important part of their sport. They have skin boat races. We’ll start out this whole historic event by having them go across first — that’s absolutely of tremendous importance. Then, following, will be literally anything or any way that people want to try and cross the Bering Strait. It’ll be open for all.
Casey Grove: I’m curious, as somebody who grew up in the ‘80s and had kind of this vague idea of what the Soviet Union was. How different is this now? I mean to even have the borders opened up for this limited amount of time, it seems so different from the past, of the Cold War.
Mille Porsild: I mean this is a really, really significant event and initiative to do this. I really can’t emphasize that enough. If you had asked me two years ago if this was going to happen or be possible, I would have looked at you with a smile and said, “I wish it was different, but I don’t think that’s going to be happening.” It’s really a result of the Arctic Council and the fact that the Russians now have the chairmanship, and they hold it until 2023. And so there has been this opening and this push that they should really look at: How can this forum — the council — support the need for collaboration across countries and the opening up of borders? How can it support and facilitate events that really support that? We can’t talk about an opening Arctic and not also look at the need to make sure that it’s open for people to travel and meet.
Casey Grove: In some ways, it’s almost like it’s going to be a family reunion for some of those folks that have relatives just on the other side of the border, right?
Mille Porsild: It is, it absolutely is a family reunion. Traditionally, there were people living on Big Diomede and Little Diomede, and they will be in the path of this 43 miles. Today, there’s a Russian military base on Big Diomede, and there’s a community of Alaskan Siberian Yupik on Little Diomede, and their families will live on the land and along the coastline there in Chukotka, and they will now be able to go back and forth by boat.