Arctic Coast

Kaktovik by Caroline Van Hemert

Check out the new photo gallery here. We have arrived at our most northerly latitude, 10 miles north of the 70th parallel. Nearing Kaktovik, our footprints were dwarfed by polar bear tracks and the landscape felt fantastically wild. Walking more than two hundred miles along a coastline with little information besides outdated maps proved to be well worth the slog through the delta. We were thrilled to be seeing this landscape on foot, though we had initially considered rowing or paddling this stretch. We wanted the intimacy of wandering along the beaches and the freedom of not being tethered to a big boat, not to mention avoiding the logistics and expense of dealing with getting it shipped back home.

After crossing the Alaskan border, long ribbons of gravel and sand stretched as far as the eye could see. Many times these "reefs" or barrier islands are only a few feet above sea level and dramatically narrow. At times they pull several miles offshore and we were fortunate never to be caught in a storm.  Though surrounded by icebergs and large river deltas, fresh water posed one of our biggest challenges. On one such day, we hiked with 20 lbs of water on our back for several hours before discovering it was brackish.  Typically we would paddle to the mainland shore in search of water, but were often disappointed to find many of the sloughs and small ponds contaminated by the sea even far from the shore's edge.  Although the tides fluctuate by only a foot (compared to 20+ feet in the Inside Passage), the tundra is incredibly flat where river deltas meet the ocean. Even a small change in water levels, like that brought about by wind (or the threat of sea level rise due to climate warming) can flood a large area. Coastal erosion along the sea bluffs is occurring rapidly, up to 30' a year according to permafrost scientists we met at Herschel Island.  To avoid these messy banks, we often walked the tundra, which became better as we traveled west.  In one tight spot, we found a rough-legged hawk nestling at the base of a bluff that had recently slid, its dead sibling nearby.

Caroline has been pointing out new bird species as quickly as I can forget the previous ones.  The coastal plain is full of life--cranes, jaegers, longspurs, eiders, plovers, 4 species of loons, caribou, musk ox, and grizzlies. We've seen ringed and bearded seals and few belugas but we're too early for bowheads this far west with pack ice still near shore.

From here we head almost due south into the white-capped peaks of the Brooks Range that stand in sharp contrast to the coastal plain.  Our final goal is to reach Kotzebue on the Bering Sea, more than 1,000 miles away, before freeze-up.  The approach of winter in the north has set the timeline for this trip and so far we are only a few days behind our estimates. We've been lucky to have met many knowledgeable and generous people along the way who have fed us, housed us, and educated us about the Arctic. We look forward to traveling in the mountains again, though this will undoubtedly bring a new set of challenges.

Icy Reef by Caroline Van Hemert

We crossed the border into Alaska yesterday morning, passing from Ivvavik National Park to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Since we left Herschel Island, we've seen belugas, seals, and much colder and wetter weather.  Walking along a spit littered with whale bones and eider nests, dense fog obscured all but the waves lapping at the shore.  Waking from this grey haze to sunshine the next morning, we looked out on a sea of icebergs stretching to the far horizon.  Caribou and their calves grazed along the lush coastal plain, wedged between the mountains and the ocean.  Moving through this land of extremes we are wide-eyed at its vastness.  We've alternated between hiking on the beaches and tundra and for one stretch cruised along huge sheets of ice still held fast to shore.  We are now traveling on Icy Reef, a thin shelf of sand and gravel that parallels the mainland.

Herschel Island by Caroline Van Hemert

After dragging our boats through ankle deep water more than a half mile offshore, we finally said goodbye to the Mackenzie delta.  By the time we reached deeper water, northeasterly winds had picked up.  This introduction to the Arctic Ocean was a wet one for Pat as he capsized in large following seas compounded by the outflow of the Blow River.  I looked back to see in slow motion his boat crest sideways and then topple.  He was able to right and then climb back in still holding his paddle and we continued toward the bluff onshore for an exciting surf landing.  As the seas grew larger, we were happy to pack up the raft and walk the beach.  We passed a whaling camp near Shingle Point and were treated to a hot meal of caribou soup.  The Inuvialuit people of this region have showed us incredible hospitality, sharing their knowledge about the land and our route.  Travel along the coast has re-energized us – the beaches offer good walking and the tundra is peppered with wildlife. We’ve seen caribou in velvet, musk ox grazing on a spit, and many nesting peregrine and gyrfalcon.  Eiders, scoters and long tailed ducks are congregating to raise ducklings or molt.  Yesterday we wove our way through towering icebergs to Herschel Island to pick up a re-supply and enjoy this amazing place.  Next we’ll head northwest to Kaktovik, 165 miles down the coastline. [googlemaps,+Yukon,+Unorganized,+YT,+Canada&aq=0&oq=herschel+island+&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=38.41771,86.572266&t=h&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Herschel+Island&ll=69.579457,-139.076206&spn=2.125941,10.821533&z=7&output=embed&w=425&h=350]

Lightning, Rainbow, Moon and Sun by Caroline Van Hemert

We made it to the Arctic Coast after the delta released us from its vicious hold.  It’s much nicer here, tons of birds and expansive views.  Pulled two all-nighters, saw a grizzly on a marine mammal carcass and were pursued by moose in the shallow waters of the Arctic Ocean.  Saw lightning, rainbow, moon and sun all on one horizon.  It feels like we’re in a dream world.  We are now walking and puddle jumping across the remainder of the delta, the beaches several miles ahead. In the map below, Caroline and Pat are approximately 6 miles from the Arctic Ocean on the western edge of the delta.