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Dennis Schmitt, Arctic Explorer

Dennis Schmitt

How does someone become an Arctic explorer? Not by answering an ad in the newspaper or taking a few night school classes. For Dennis Schmitt it began with linguistics. A gifted student of languages from an early age, in the late 1960s he studied under Noam Chompsky, then a professor of linguistics at the University of California-Berkeley. As part of a special program, Chompsky recruited Dennis, then aged 19, to travel to Alaska's northern Brooks Range and attempt to learn the language of the Nunamiut Eskimos, which no outsider had yet accomplished. After living in their remote villages for several months, Dennis succeeded.

While in Alaska he also accomplished a daring feat of exploration—crossing the sea ice of the Bering Straits and traveling through the Eskimo villages of Soviet-controlled eastern Siberia. The FBI detained him upon his return for three days, eventually releasing him without charge, whereupon he began known around the world as "the boy who crossed the Bering Straits."

That episode is only one of many that make Dennis the ideal subject for a documentary film. He has lived for years at a time among the Eskimos, driving dogsleds across the sea ice and sleeping in an igloo. He speaks several Eskimo dialects. And his forty years exploring the islands, mountain ranges and ice shelves of the polar rim, he has acquired a knowledge of the North American Arctic that is unprecedented. He truly is an 'Ice Man'.

His talents for music and poetry also make him a modern-day Renaissance man. As a classical composer, his works have been featured in films and performed by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and other ensembles. His poetry has been published internationally and translated into a half-dozen languages.

When not exploring the edges of the earth, Dennis lives in a Victorian house, several blocks from the Berkeley campus, handed down to him through his family over four generations.

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