THE FAR NORTH­WEST

Cruising World - - Contents - By Ellen Massey Leonard

Dif­fi­cult sail­ing, tra­di­tional cul­ture and stun­ning wildlife greet an ad­ven­tur­ous pair on their cruise of Alaska’s Arc­tic coast.

DIF­FI­CULT SAIL­ING, TRA­DI­TIONAL CUL­TURE AND STUN­NING

WILDLIFE ON ALASKA’S ARC­TIC COAST MAKE FOR AN

UN­FOR­GET­TABLE CRUISE TO AMER­ICA’S NORTH­ERN­MOST POINT.

It’s not of­ten that you get buzzed by a Coast Guard he­li­copter won­der­ing what you could pos­si­bly be do­ing so far from civ­i­liza­tion. But then, it’s rare to be sail­ing a wooden cut­ter to­ward the U.s.-rus­sia bor­der in the Bering Sea in the first place.

My hus­band, Seth, and I were a few miles away from the bor­der — an imag­i­nary but im­por­tant line across the heav­ing, gray seas — on a cold, over­cast day in July when the he­li­copter ap­peared. Our Amer­i­can voices blithely re­spond­ing over the VHF that we were bound to Nome, Alaska, and thence to Bar­row, to see the north­ern­most point of our coun­try, sat­is­fied them, al­though I wouldn’t be sur­prised if they were pri­vately still mys­ti­fied. A lit­tle wooden sail­boat? Head­ing for the churn­ing seas of the Bering Strait and the hard plates of ice cov­er­ing most of the Alaskan Arc­tic? Crazy.

Maybe, but then again, maybe not. Seth and I had done the “30-year re­fit” that was due on our cold-molded cut­ter, Ce­leste, at Platy­pus Marine in Wash­ing­ton state a year and a half ear­lier. It had in­cluded a Kevlar belt at the wa­ter­line to pro­tect against ice, a new diesel en­gine, new satel­lite com­mu­ni­ca­tions from OCENS, new elec­tron­ics, a re­vamped elec­tri­cal sys­tem that in­cluded new Rolls AGM bat­ter­ies (see cruis­ing­world .com/1707bat­tery), and all kinds of safety equip­ment down to a Kata­dyn Sur­vivor man­ual de­sali­na­tor in our ditch bag.

Even if we were pre­pared — and ex­pe­ri­enced, with al­most 40,000 miles un­der our life vests — we might still be crazy, be­cause why would any­one sail up there? Why risk the ice? Why en­dure the cold and the nau­se­at­ing waves? Our an­swer was sim­ply that we wanted to see the Arc­tic Ocean from the deck of our own lit­tle boat. That’s akin to Ever­est ex­plorer Ge­orge Mal­lory’s “Be­cause it’s there” and moun­taineer Sir Ed­mund Hil­lary’s “You re­ally climb for the hell of it” — not a very sat­is­fac­tory re­ply for those who don’t share the same de­sire, but the truth.

In 2014, we had made — to our minds — a breath­tak­ing voy­age north­west from Wash­ing­ton state to the Aleu­tian Is­lands (see cruis­ing­world.com/cruis­ing-alaska). We’d ob­served black bears and sea ot­ters on west­ern Van­cou­ver Is­land, sailed past wa­ter­falls drop­ping hun­dreds of feet to the sea, gawked at the snow­capped peaks of south­east Alaska and picked our way among ice­bergs calv­ing off glaciers in Prince Wil­liam Sound. We’d mar­veled at hump­back whales bub­ble-net feed­ing and brown bears fish­ing for sal­mon. At the end, we’d reached the misty is­lands of the Aleu­tians, a for­got­ten out­post of Amer­ica that lies far­ther west than Hawaii.

In­stead of re­trac­ing our steps in 2015, how­ever, we swung the bow north out of Dutch Har­bor. As we hoisted sail, the moun­tains and glaciers of the Aleu­tians be­hind us glowed in the sun­set. Ahead lay the Bering Sea, Bering Strait and the Arc­tic Cir­cle. Two days passed among lumpy seas, 20-knot south­east winds and hun­dreds of seabirds: mur­res, ful­mars, storm pe­trels, even a Laysan al­ba­tross. We even saw a hump­back whale spy-hop­ping, just be­fore we reached the Pri­bilof Is­lands. Orig­i­nally un­in­hab­ited, the Pri­bilofs served as a kind of pe­nal colony for Rus­sians and en­slaved Aleut na­tives, who turned the fur seal pop­u­la­tion into coats and hats, but are now — more hap­pily — known for

IT’S NOT OF­TEN THAT YOU GET BUZZED BY A COAST GUARD HE­LI­COPTER WON­DER­ING WHAT YOU COULD POS­SI­BLY BE DO­ING SO FAR FROM CIV­I­LIZA­TION. BUT THEN, IT’S RARE TO BE SAIL­ING A WOODEN CUT­TER TO­WARD THE U.S.-RUS­SIA BOR­DER IN THE BERING SEA IN THE FIRST PLACE.

their nest­ing seabirds. Be­ing ama­teur bird nerds and ob­ses­sive wildlife en­thu­si­asts, Seth and I spent sev­eral days — in rain, fog and sun — ly­ing above the cliffs, train­ing binoc­u­lars on red-faced cor­morants, crested auk­lets, tufted puffins and red-legged kit­ti­wakes. We crouched in blinds to watch bull fur seals bark at each other over their harems, and we hid be­hind rocks to pho­to­graph the blue morph arc­tic foxes that are en­demic to the Pri­bilofs. We also made friends with the fish­er­men shar­ing the har­bor with us and cel­e­brated our cold­est and windi­est Fourth of July ever in a mod­ern Aleut com­mu­nity.

There are in fact three def­i­ni­tions of the “Arc­tic:” the Arc­tic Cir­cle (66° 33” N), the tim­ber­line and the 50-de­greefahren­heit sum­mer isotherm. The Arc­tic Cir­cle is the best known, but in terms of cli­mate, the lat­ter two are ac­tu­ally bet­ter def­i­ni­tions. They ex­clude most of Scan­di­navia, which is warmed by the Gulf Stream, and some of in­te­rior Alaska, Canada and Rus­sia, but they in­clude all of Green­land, the Bering Sea and the Aleu­tian Is­lands. Cli­mat­i­cally, we were al­ready well into the Arc­tic.

Cer­tainly our next pas­sage, 500 miles to Nome, felt arc­tic. De­spite the fog, we had al­most no dark­ness, only three hours of twi­light. And de­spite our well-in­su­lated boat, we slept in two lay­ers of long un­der­wear in sub-zero-rated sleep­ing bags. We were bun­dled in down jack­ets, foul-weather gear and in­su­lated sea boots when the Coast Guard he­li­copter buzzed us.

Sur­pris­ingly, though, when we reached Nome it­self, we dis­cov­ered why most of main­land Alaska isn’t in­cluded in the 50-de­gree isotherm: It ac­tu­ally heats up in sum­mer! Off came the lay­ers as soon as we’d ma­neu­vered Ce­leste into the dock, and we rev­eled in sun­shine and 65-de­gree highs.

A gen­er­ous lo­cal cou­ple took us un­der their wing there. They re­galed us with tales of their own Arc­tic voy­ages, of win­ters in Nome with the Bering Sea frozen, and of Idi­tarod sled-race cham­pi­ons they’d hosted. They took us fish­ing and pointed out the ex­act spot on the river where gold was dis­cov­ered in 1898, start­ing the rush that cre­ated Nome. To­day Nome is still a miner’s town: home­made dredg­ing boats vac­uum up rocks from the seabed and sluice them for nuggets. We shared the dock with sev­eral dredge-boat min­ers, and like gold rush­ers from the be­gin­ning, there were some hard work­ers and more big talk­ers.

Best of all, our new friends lent us bi­cy­cles to ex­plore the vast Se­ward Penin­sula on which Nome is just a speck. Ped­al­ing along dirt roads, we found the hilly tun­dra alive with its short sum­mer breed­ing sea­son. Red-throated loons pa­trolled their ponds; arc­tic terns dived at our heads; a mother mer­ganser fed her new­born flock. Most ex­cit­ing — and high on our list of hoped-for Arc­tic sight­ings — were the four herds of musk oxen we saw. Musk oxen are a relic from be­fore the last ice age, a pre­his­toric-look­ing crea­ture with big horns and long, fra­grant guard hair (hence the name musk ox) cov­er­ing some of the warm­est fur on Earth. Their range has been much re­duced, and the Se­ward Penin­sula was the only place on our voy­age we could hope to see them. So it was with near dis­be­lief that we spot­ted our first placid gi­ant munch­ing tun­dra plants.

um­mer in the Arc­tic is short, so we couldn’t linger with the musk oxen if we wanted to voy­age far­ther north. Con­se­quently, Seth and I set out from Nome in worse

conditions than we’d have liked. Beat­ing against strong west­er­lies in or­der to round the Se­ward Penin­sula and get into the Bering Strait was slow thanks to the steep chop that tried hard to stop Ce­leste dead. The strait’s rip­ping cur­rents then helped us north, but they added to the al­ready sick­en­ing mo­tion of 100-foot-deep wa­ter and a 30-knot breeze. To add in­sult to in­jury, pea-soup fog en­veloped us de­spite the high winds.

Conditions didn’t im­prove for three days — we crossed the Arc­tic Cir­cle still shrouded in fog and lashed by spray — un­til the wind clocked into the north. At first this was a re­lief, but the fore­cast called for it to build, reach­ing 30 knots two days later. We didn’t want to spend days beat­ing against that, es­pe­cially given the short, nasty chop of the shal­low Chukchi Sea. But there was nowhere to hide. The only place was 50 miles be­hind us: Point Hope, a low penin­sula that would block the waves if not the wind.

It turned out that noth­ing bet­ter could have hap­pened than our re­treat. Point Hope was ev­ery­thing we’d an­tic­i­pated when we dreamed up the voy­age. At first glance, the penin­sula ap­peared flat and bleak, with dust swirling through a mod­ern Iñu­piat vil­lage. But then we saw the blue foothills of the Brooks Range ris­ing in the east, and the sun cir­cling low in the sky but never touch­ing the hori­zon. It brought a sense of eter­nity. We wit­nessed wild­flow­ers flaunt­ing their vi­brant col­ors, ground squir­rels hur­ry­ing to their bur­rows and a re­gal snowy owl lift­ing off from his whale­bone perch. We watched thou­sands of gulls and terns, spot­ted seals, sal­mon, bel­u­gas and gray whales.

Seth and I also got to know some of the vil­lagers, who showed us the deep hu­man his­tory of the place. Point Hope has been con­tin­u­ously in­hab­ited longer than any­where else in North Amer­ica, and the mod­ern res­i­dents have re­tained a tra­di­tional way of life. The last per­son to move out of her sod and whale­bone igloo did so in 1975, and many peo­ple still use per­mafrost cel­lars to keep their whale meat cold in the sum­mer. Racks of dry­ing sal­mon lined the peb­bled beach, and even smart­phone-wield­ing teenagers de­scribed the spring whale hunt — in open seal­skin umi­aks pro­pelled by wooden pad­dles — with en­thu­si­asm.

So it was hard to tear our­selves away when southerly ar­rows ap­peared on our GRIB charts. But sail we did. The an­chor­age was an open road­stead ex­posed to the south for 200 miles, and as wet and nau­se­at­ing as the low-pres­sure sys­tem would un­doubt­edly be, it was our only chance to reach Point Bar­row.

For nearly 10 months a year, the Beaufort and Chukchi seas sur­round­ing Point Bar­row are frozen and im­pass­able. In July, the sea ice along the coast breaks up and, if southerly winds push the pack and floes north, an al­ley of open wa­ter ap­pears. In 2012, this was more a 12-lane high­way than an al­ley, but 2013, 2014 and 2015 had colder sum­mers, with more ice. Seth and I had watched the ice charts, satel­lite images and we­b­cams closely while we were in Nome and had seen the ice stick stub­bornly to the shore. The norther­lies we’d had while at Point Hope had kept it there: The one other plea­sure craft we’d met — a big mo­tor­sailer in Nome — had emailed us to re­port get­ting badly stuck in 70 per­cent ice near Bar­row. We’d also been in touch with Jimmy Cor­nell, bound on his North­west Pas­sage tran­sit, who re­ported sim­i­larly. But th­ese strong souther­lies, we hoped, would push it off.

IT WAS HARD TO TEAR OUR­SELVES AWAY WHEN SOUTHERLY AR­ROWS AP­PEARED ON OUR GRIB CHARTS, BUT THE AN­CHOR­AGE WAS EX­POSED TO THE SOUTH FOR 200 MILES. AS WET AND NAU­SE­AT­ING AS THE LOW-PRES­SURE SYS­TEM WOULD UN­DOUBT­EDLY BE, IT WAS OUR ONLY CHANCE TO REACH POINT BAR­ROW.

This time, we left in the calm be­fore the storm and mo­tored through glassy wa­ter. We passed the cliffs of Cape Lis­burne where the Point Hope Iñu­piat har­vest seabird eggs by dan­gling on ropes. The place was teem­ing with mur­res — thou­sands upon thou­sands — one of the awe-in­spir­ing sights of an Arc­tic sum­mer. Then low pres­sure over­took us and we had yet an­other taste of the white-crested chop that comes with high winds and a shal­low ocean. Two days later, we suc­cess­fully rounded Point Bar­row, the north­ern­most tip of the United States, at 71.4° N.

We were lucky: The ice had re­treated as we’d ex­pected, and the strong winds mod­er­ated just long enough for us to nav­i­gate the 8-foot-deep en­trance to Bar­row’s la­goon. Once in­side, it wasn’t long be­fore we made friends with the lo­cals; ours was the only sail­boat they’d seen all year, and pos­si­bly the only one ever to make Bar­row its des­ti­na­tion rather than a place to scrounge for fuel for a North­west Pas­sage tran­sit. Very soon we were run­ning with a dog team on its sum­mer ex­er­cises, play­ing on ATVS and ex­plor­ing the end­less tun­dra.

On a tip from a sci­en­tist, we took a day to sail north to the po­lar pack ice and look for wal­ruses. We didn’t find any, though we did see gray whales and ringed seals. But my strong­est im­pres­sion was of the ice it­self. See­ing the ocean in a frozen state filled me with a sense of awe. The up­lifted and twisted shapes of pres­sure ridges marched into the dis­tance as far as we could see. White, foamy floes drifted all around us, and as we ap­proached even closer, I could hear surf break­ing as the liq­uid swell met the solid Arc­tic ice cap.

One day the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice an­nounced that the sun would set that night. It would rise less than an hour later, but it marked an im­por­tant tran­si­tion. Then, a week later, great flocks of birds dark­ened the sky, and we knew it was time to leave the Beaufort Sea and head south. Black brants, white­fronted geese and long-tailed ducks gath­ered by the thou­sands on tun­dra ponds to be­gin their own southerly mi­gra­tion. So as soon as a mod­er­ately hope­ful fore­cast came over both the VHF and GRIBS, we weighed an­chor.

The rhumb line back to Dutch Har­bor in the Aleu­tians was a lit­tle over 1,200 miles, but we must have sailed a good deal more. At first, we could lay a course to the Bering Strait, and we flew along, av­er­ag­ing 8 knots be­fore a rip­ping north­east­erly. This time we could ac­tu­ally see the fa­mous wa­ter­way: The Diomede Is­lands — one Amer­i­can, one Rus­sian — and St. Lawrence Is­land were wreathed in cloud. Then the wind came south and we ceased to make head­way on our course, so we hove to. When the breeze came south­west, we made two long tacks to reach Nu­ni­vak Is­land, where we planned to wait out the souther­lies at an­chor. But that was not to be: A north­west­erly drove us out of the ex­posed an­chor­age, only to clock back into the south­west at 35 knots. For­tu­nately, we’d made enough west­ing to be able to reach for a day with­out hit­ting land; then fi­nally the wind came north again and let us lay our course to Dutch Har­bor. On the last day, we for­got all our tra­vails as we dropped off the con­ti­nen­tal shelf and re­gained the long, smooth swells of deep wa­ter. Be­fore we knew it, we were back in Dutch, snug among the Dead­li­est Catch boats and al­ready reminiscing about the Arc­tic.

Was it crazy? Prob­a­bly. But we’d wit­nessed the Arc­tic Ocean from the deck of our own lit­tle sail­boat, seen rare birds and an­i­mals, learned about Iñu­piat cul­ture and run with a dog team. In the end, not a bad way to spend the sum­mer.

GREAT FLOCKS OF BIRDS DARK­ENED THE SKY, AND WE KNEW IT WAS TIME TO LEAVE THE BEAUFORT SEA AND HEAD SOUTH. THEY GATH­ERED BY THE THOU­SANDS ON TUN­DRA PONDS TO BE­GIN THEIR OWN SOUTHERLY MI­GRA­TION. SO AS SOON AS A MOD­ER­ATELY HOPE­FUL FORE­CAST CAME IN, WE WEIGHED AN­CHOR.

Ellen Massey Leonard has a new video chan­nel! Watch Ellen and Seth’s ad­ven­tures at cruis­ing­world.com/gone-floatabout.

Ellen and Seth nav­i­gated Ce­leste through sea ice while ap­proach­ing the po­lar ice pack, in search of wildlife. The frozen Arc­tic Ocean was a sur­real ex­pe­ri­ence.

The shal­low depth of the Chukchi Sea paired with more than 20 knots of wind made for gru­el­ing conditions: short, nasty chop; tem­per­a­tures in the 40s; and oc­ca­sional ice.

A bird nerd’s dream: A snowy owl perched on a whale­bone in Point Hope’s mid­night sun (op­po­site). Ellen and Seth ran with a husky dog team over the tun­dra out­side Bar­row (be­low left). A relic of the ice age, musk oxen now live only in small pock­ets in the Amer­i­can Arc­tic. This one was for­ag­ing on the Se­ward Penin­sula out­side Nome (be­low).

Af­ter visit­ing the coun­try’s north­ern­most tip, Ellen and Seth raised the sails and swung the bow south from Point Bar­row back to­ward the Aleu­tian Is­lands.

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