Sergey Frolov: Mimicking the Ancients

Susan Woodward

Sergey Frolov: Mimicking the Ancients

Susan Woodward

Anthropologists postulate that the great landmasses of the world were once joined, permitting human beings to simply walk on their migration from Asia to North America.

Today, thousands of years after the continents have split apart like the disintegration of a giant jigsaw puzzle, no one could emulate our ancestors’ journey without drowning or freezing to death.

Someone could, however, make the journey by boat.

The Bering Strait now links Asia and America. Specifically, at their closest points, (85 kilometers), the Chukchi Peninsula in far northeast Siberia and the Seward Peninsula on Alaska’s west coast.

Danish born explorer Vitus Jonassen Bering discovered the strait in the 1720s. More than 200 years later, Sergey Frolov — a 36-year-old, third-generation ship-builder from Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula — has crossed the Bering Strait, too. Thrice. In boats no longer than 45 feet and constructed of driftwood frames and walrus skin.

In the summer of 1987, Frolov, then 24, traveled north to the Chukchi Peninsula to learn how to make the traditional skin boat. Called a "baidara," it has been the vessel of choice for the nomadic Siberian Upik Eskimo people for thousands of years. (Along the Arctic coast the most common native name for the boat is an "umiak".)

Frolov\'s simple motivation was his love of building and sailing boats, something he had spent his whole life doing with his father and grandfather in the city of Petropavlovsk Kamchatskiy, and something he was formally trained in at the Far East Marine Engineering Academy.

In the remote Eskimo village of Sireniki, Frolov eventually befriended a 60-year-old native man to teach him all about the baidara.

"If you want to do anything with the natives, you have to spend the time," Frolov says. "It's a matter of time and whether you're accepted by the people.

He spent every summer in the village from 1987 to 1991. "I hunted the walruses and built the boats with them. Then, when you're good enough at hunting and preparing the skin, then you're ready to build yourself," he recalls.

Frolov built four baidaras during his stays in Sireniki, and made three return expeditions to Alaska in them between 1988 and 1990. As with all ships he has built, he feels the task is not complete until he takes each vessel on a journey. "When you finish building, you put it in the water and you sail," he explains.

The Foundation for Social Innovations in Moscow contributed to Frolov's expeditions. In return, the two- to three-month voyages supported filmmakers, and archaeologists who excavated ancient villages along the Chukotka and Alaskan coast.

Today, Frolov operates a cargo and passenger cruise business from the Russian Far East and Seattle, Washington. He says the Eskimoes, who inhabit one of the harshest arctic regions of the world, are the most ingenious and fearless maritime people he has met.

"It's amazing. They use skin boats in waters of floating ice to hunt for a meal," he exclaims. "What they have to do for survival you can't compare to any other culture."

Footnote:
"This is one of the only places left that is untouched, unexplored, probably in the whole world," says Sergey Frolov of the Chukchi Peninsula, at the topmost part of Russia’s 3,000-mile eastern coastline. Perhaps 100 visitors mingle with the Chukchi annually, he says. Frolov organizes many of the trips, for more information contact ExpeditionTrips.com.