ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- For the first time since in more than 40 years, Soviet citizens in boats have paddled across the Bering Strait border to the American side of the International Dateline and were on an Alaskan Eskimo island Friday.
'This hasn't happened since before the Cold War,' said Dwight Milligrock Jr., town clerk on Little Diomede Island.
Three traditional Eskimo walrus skin boats called umiaks brought a dozen Soviets, six Russians and six Siberian Yupik Eskimos, to Little Diomede, where they set foot on American soil without any formal official federal government admissions procedures.
'It's just like we're next-door neighbors,' Milligrock said with a certain irony. His island is a mere 2 miles from Soviet territory but there has been little neighborly contact in more than four decades because of the political obstacles presented by the 'Ice Curtain' border, now thawing.
'We don't have any customs or agents or anything,' he said by telephone from Little Diomede, which faces Soviet Big Diomede Island in the middle of the Bering Strait.
Soviet expedition organizer Sergei Frolov said the trip took three years to organize. He noted that ocean kayaking is very unusual in the Soviet Union. The group set out from Provideniya on the Soviet coast heading for Nome with a planned rendezvous on Little Diomede with American and British kayakers doing the reverse trip.
The Soviets reached Little Diomede first, camping out Thursday night and waiting for their Western counterparts. The Soviet and Alaska mainland are separated by 56 miles of water with two islands, one American and Soviet, in the middle.
Three separate expeditions were in Wales on the Alaska mainland waiting for fog to lift Friday so they could make the 23-mile crossing to the middle of the Bering Strait.
The three groups planned to cross together and celebrate with the Soviets on Little Diomede, an island where 185 Alaska Eskimos live, and then the four expeditions would go their own ways.
The Soviets will continue on to the Alaska mainland and then head down to Nome, the starting point for the Britons and six of the nine Americans.
The four British kayakers plan to paddle up to the Arctic Circle on the Soviet side. Six Americans, five Alaskans and a Seattle man, plan to hug the Soviet coast, paddling south to Provideniya. And three California men led by paraplegic Jim Noyes of San Francisco were paddling a three-seat bidarka, a replica of old kayaks once used in the region, from Wales to Uelen on the extreme northeast Soviet coast.
Lingering ice along the Alaska coast between Nome and Wales plagued the kayakers heading toward the Soviet side.
'We had a couple kayaks damaged by ice, said Bob French, an Anchorage engineer. 'And we've all gotten by ice, said Bob French, an Anchorage engineer. 'And we've all gotten a little wet. But we all dried out and we performed minor repairs.'
'We got some knocks and squeezes in the ice,' said Peter Clark of Northumberland, England.
'But it's been a real picnic.