Sea-kayaking the Coast of Arctic Alaska

Shishmaref to Herschel Island

Northern Paddling Trip #3

78 days, 1,440 miles, Jun-Aug 1996

Ray & Jenny Jardine

Alaska Arctic Coast page 1 of 1

Along the coast of
Arctic Alaska
1,440 Miles in 78 days

Ray Jardine

To most sea-kayakers the Arctic is one of the least appealing destinations on earth. Its distances are vast and its solitude profound. Its seas are frigid and often choked with pack ice. Frequent gales can drop its wind-chill factor off the scales. Mosquitoes, midges and black flies can swarm furiously during rare periods of calm. Grizzly bears are common, and polar bears are possible. And the weather can be so volatile and unforgiving that even small mistakes can have enormous consequences.

Yet to Jenny and me, the Arctic is paradise. It is relatively untouched, teeming with wildlife, and beautiful beyond description. One key point, we feel, is to realize that one's kayaking experience elsewhere does not count for much in the Arctic. Like climbing a ladder, the skills are more safely learned and refined step at a time, in more forgiving regions.

In 1987 we set off from Anacortes, Washington, intent on gaining some of those necessary higher-latitude skills as we progressed gradually north. On this trip we paddled the Inside Passage 1,100 miles to Skagway, Alaska, and after portaging the Chilkoot National Historic Trail we followed the Yukon River 2,000 miles to the Bering Sea.

The spring of 1995 we flew our first home-built kayak (featured in Sea-Kayaker June 1996 "One of a Kind") to St. Marys, Alaska. Leaving no unpaddled gap beyond our first Alaska trip, we paddled the hundred miles to the Bering Sea again, and continued around Norton Sound to Nome. En route we dubbed the boat "Headwind Magnet." For it almost seemed that every time we put it into the water it attracted headwind. This was not the kayak's fault, of course, but the season proved to be the most difficult in our experience, fraught with incessant head winds and unremitting storms. Continuing beyond Nome we reached the village of Shishmaref, for a trip total of only 600 miles. But if this mileage was rather scant, at least we were learning valuable lessons about paddling and camping in the higher latitudes. We knew that this knowledge would be invaluable on future trips.

For this, our third season's foray, we returned to Shishmaref the summer of 1996. The ensuing kayaking journey proved to be more interesting and rewarding than we possibly could imagined. It was also the most difficult and dangerous, but by then we felt we had developed the appropriate skills, and were better equipped to handle the conditions.

After a long day's paddling on the gnarly Bering Sea, we misjudged the surf while returning ashore. Caught in a large wave the kayak broached and capsized. I hastily snapped this photo after we had swam the yak ashore and bailed it out.

For this trip we had designed and built our second kayak, with a finer bow to better penetrate the oncoming wind and waves, and a greatly reduced rocker for better tracking. It tracked better, all right, but on the journey's first day we discovered that rock-solid tracking is not always desirable. The seas were huge, and after 12 hours of struggling we underestimated the size of the surf while heading to shore. Unable to turn out of a big wave quickly enough, the kayak broached and capsized. This could have spelled disaster had we not trained for such contingencies in the wintertime-frigid lakes back home. Time and again we had flipped the boat over while wearing our waterproof dry suits. This new boat had a 30-inch beam and a fairly flat bottom, providing excellent lateral stability, so there in the lake we could right the kayak and easily dolphin-kick ourselves back into its cockpits. But here in the Arctic we simply swam the swamped kayak the 30 yards to shore.

As a result of this incident the boat acquired the whimsical name "Broach Coach." But she ultimately proved her true worth. Two months and 1,400 miles later, while paddling resolutely among the floes of the polar ice pack, we re-christened her "Siku Kayak," which in the Inupiaq Eskimo language means "ice boat."

After that first - and thankfully only - incident, we paddled a few more days, stopping occasionally to admire the seal pups lounging on the beaches, and arrived at the mouth of Kotzebue Sound in uncharacteristically perfect weather. This bay is huge, and the excellent conditions tempted us to continue the 30 miles directly across it. This direct route would save more than a week's time and effort. From on our previous summer's experiences, however, we knew that crossing large bodies of Arctic sea can be dangerous, owing to the weather's volatility. So we spent that night in sleepless anxiety, listening to the deafening quiet. Fortunately by morning, when our muscles had recovered sufficiently to carry on, a rising gale reduced the temptation to zero. A few hours later we found ourselves dragging the boat through shallows leading around the sound, in the teeth of a freezing, fog-enshrouded blow.

Seal pups were a common sight on the beaches north of Shishmaref

Rounding Kotzebue Sound took us nine days, but we would not have traded the experiences for anything. Most memorable were the three days pinned down in a gale, camped in a beautiful meadow in the bay's southeast corner.  Moose Meadows  we named it, for a pair of moose that accepted our presence and continued browsing on a rare patch of willow not 50 yards from our tent. And when the gale intensified and prompted us to relocate into the willow for its protection, the moose simply moved aside.

The tent we carried was an expensive Stevenson model. It was reasonably light-weight and - we quickly discovered - entirely unsuitable in hammering winds. We were always looking for some sort of wind-block to pitch it behind, and even then we worried that it would come crashing down, leaving us unprotected at a time when we needed shelter the most. We bypassed many exposed camping places, or built driftwood wind-blocks. Ultimately we concluded that when it comes to tents for Arctic sea-kayaking, light-weightness is not one's primary concern. This tent cost us five days of waiting in the next village for a different and much more robust tent. Despite the new one's 11 pounds of weight, we could now camp in comfort, fully exposed to practically anything the elements could hurl at us.

The China Everest, weighted down with hundreds of pounds of rocks. The wind blew so fiercely that it deformed the tent's windward panels.

Even the most sturdy tent is not to be trusted completely, and should it fail, the Arctic paddler must improvise repairs. A week after acquiring the new tent we were slammed by winds so vicious they stretched the fly's panels permanently. And in the ensuing weeks and months the cold and prolonged vibration caused stress fatigue in the tent's poles. Of the seven poles, three of them exploded like gunshots. After the first one went, I found an abandoned carbon-fiber fishing pole near one of the villages. Hack-sawed into a few 6-inch lengths, it made excellent tent pole repair sleeves.

People in Kotzebue had warned us about the seven mile crossing to Shesualek [she-SWOL-ek] Point, saying that the outflows of the three big rivers emptying into the basin can create hazards for small boats. The wind was less than five knots that day, and the tide less than three inches; yet we encountered standing, breaking waves five feet tall. Not just one patch, but miles of them. We managed to stay safely inside the worst of the breakers, but when we reached Shesualek Point we found them extending right to the shore, blocking our way. We landed and pitched the tent, and waited a few hours for the turn of the 3-inch tide.

Cape Thompson is a series of high rocky cliffs plunging into the sea, causing williwaws well known for rebuffing mariners. We managed to time our transit to coincide with fine weather, and enjoyed a marvelous display of what must have been hundreds of thousands of kittwakes, murres, guillemots, and puffins perched shoulder-to-shoulder on its rocky outcrops.

The miles of cliffs leading to Cape Lisburne are wildly spectacular, and after holing up in the tent for a few days, listening to it shake, rattle and roll, we enjoyed fine weather for paddling along them. Here again we admired seabirds uncountable, watching thousands of them pour into the air like water and fan out over the water. It was an unforgettable experience, seeing them swooping, soaring, diving all around us, and listening to their chortles, clucks, and cries.

Also this region was home to a few musk ox in the valleys, as had been the case sporadically along much of the coast, and a few dall sheep grazing the higher slopes. And of course all along the way we had seen seals, and the occasional beluga and minke.

Cape Lisburne itself gave us a bit of a trouncing. Even though the wind was practically non-existent, the cape tossed out a mighty rip that set the sea on edge and sent our kayak reeling. The cliffs themselves certainly offered no refuge for a haplessly capsized kayaker, and we could not imagine attempting to round this cape in any kind of wind.

Grizzly bears were very common along the next 100 miles of coastline, known as Ledyard Bay. During our first storm-tossed day along the  bay  we saw three. The next day, another three. Then, fourteen and by then our nerves were beginning to fray. For the entire summer we cooked only during shore-breaks; never at camp where the odors might have attracted these extremely smell-sensitive animals. But during our  14-bear day  we were feeling so paranoid that while Jenny prepared to cook. I stood by with shotgun in hand. And even then we had to throw everything into the boat and quickly shove off, when a big bruin came sauntering our way. We joked about the incident later. All along the coast we had been seeing what the locals refer to as  Alaskan Brown Barrels,  rusty old 55 gallon drums. These are so abundant that we more or less ignored them. But sometimes a reclining bear really does look like a barrel, and this particular bear must have caught a whiff of us and decided to come investigate.

This grizzly was disappointed that we wouldn't come ashore and join him for lunch. His lunch.

Altogether we saw 24 grizzles on this trip. Most were either ripping apart some ground squirrel's sea-side burrow, or sauntering along the beach in search of dead walrus, seal or other carrion. These enormous, darkly colored animals are visible at quite a distance, giving kayakers plenty of time to move safely offshore. Most of the bears ignored us, or became only slightly unsettled by our presence. Apparently they do not see well, and they seem to ignore much of what they hear, I imagine because of the constant commotion made by the pack ice. As a result, we ordinarily paddled past them without much reaction - until they caught our scent. Then they would turn and flee. This reassured us greatly, seeing that these huge and voracious creatures were afraid of humans. Then one particularly mammoth and aggressive male ran into the sea towards us, stood on its hind legs for a better look, then began trouncing along the shore parallel to us, jumping this way and that in its eagerness to rip us to shreds.

How did we survive, camping among the bears? By paddling until fairly exhausted and past worrying about them. But also by noting the many well-worn trails of bear tracks, and pitching the tent well away from them. By packaging all our food in re-sealable plastic bags, stowed in the kayak's waterproof (and largely odor-proof) compartments. By not using smelly ointments such as lotions or even insect repellents. By arming ourselves with a 12-gauge signal-flare to frighten an approaching bear away; and a canister of pepper spray for a close-encounter. And as a last resort by keeping a shotgun loaded with rifled slugs close at hand.

These ancient sod dwellings were common along much of the coast of Arctic Alaska. They told of lifestyles far removed from the creature comforts that we know today.

We did not see many grizzlies north of Cape Beaufort, only the occasional tracks along the beaches. This was in contrast with the previous summer when we had seen them all along the coast, most prominently between St. Michael and Unalakleet. Back then, nine was our highest day's count.

When we reached the village of Wainwright the postmaster asked whether we had seen any bears. We told him about one sauntering along the spit a ways east of Icy Cape. It, too, had acted aggressively toward us. The postmaster said it was probably the same rascal that had been vandalizing Eskimo hunting cabins all along the 50 mile stretch between Wainwright and Icy Cape. He said this bear had smashed through the wall of his own cabin and grabbed a Coleman lantern hanging from the ceiling. He found the wall in splinters and the lantern lying a hundred yards across the tundra.

Like most Eskimo villages, Wainwright is a cluster of ramshackle houses mixed with a few modern ones, centered around a large and surprisingly modern school, courtesy of the government. We usually camped a quarter mile from the towns, hoping the extra distance would serve as a barrier of sorts to the kids. They meant no harm, but usually did not go to bed until the wee hours, and they liked to visit regardless of our need for sleep. Unjustifiably perhaps, we were also a little wary of them, and felt it best if one us always remained in camp.

Kids were not the only interruption. The adults often came riding their four-wheeled ORVs, again at all hours of the day and  night.  They were far more enlightening than the kids, so we always enjoyed talking with them. Usually they called out  Hello camp!  or something like that before approaching. But some simply stuck their heads into the tent's doorway and started asking questions. At times like these we felt like museum pieces in a little diorama.  Oh, so that's how you sleep,  one fellow said, grinning ear to ear and face pressed against the doorway's mosquito netting (not to keep out the mosquitoes, but the Eskimo). No, this is how we try to sleep, I wanted to say.  No heater in there!? Come to my house and warm up. I have coffee and hot chocolate.  Many even invited us to sleep in their homes, but we always declined on the basis that we had adapted to the cold and wanted to maintain the edge. Well, if we wouldn't go to their houses, then they brought us food. Most notable was Charles Aniskett who presented us with a fresh-baked salmon still wrapped in aluminum foil.

Bang! Someone threw a rock at the tent. Jumping outside we discovered a young lad shooting his imaginary gun at the real grey whales swimming half-a-mile offshore. Realizing that sleep was out of the question here, we broke camp and loaded the kayak - in the company of nearly a dozen local residents gathered on the beach and wishing us fond farewells.

We had seen very little pack ice, for one reason because the season happened to be favorable, and because we had begun the trip not until June 19. But as we neared Barrow we found ourselves paddling among widely-scattered floes, gazing at the edge of the pack ice gleaming on the horizon. Reaching Barrow, we learned that the ice had moved offshore only two days earlier.

We pulled into Barrow July 21st and camped near the library, semi-hidden between a couple of small buildings. Most of the town's structures were sturdily built without much emphasis on aesthetics, and at first encounter the residents seemed a little stand-offish. One fellow told me that the town attracts fugitives, due to its extreme remoteness from the lower 48. Humorously he added that it is also the first place the police come looking.

We were glad for the fresh food, the variety of provisions, and hot showers. Then we were glad to press on. From Shishmaref we had paddled 790 miles of Bering and Chukchi Sea coastline to Barrow. Beyond was another 425 miles of Beaufort coastline to the next village of Kaktovik. Few had paddled this stretch in modern times, so we knew very little about it. For some reason we expected it to be easier than the west coast, but this soon proved incorrect. The storms were more frequent, perhaps because of the season's lateness. The coast was far more irregular, with deeply-set bays too wide to paddle directly across in safety. And most troublesome were the many huge rivers emptying into the Beaufort Sea. Their shoals often extended two miles out, requiring us to circumvent them well out of sight of land. Good camping was also a little less tangible. The shoreline normally comprised river-like cutbanks covered in soggy, lumpy tundra. Drier, smoother places could be found, but they had to be searched out. The cutbanks themselves were three to fifteen feet high, and consisted of vertical slabs of frozen mud or clear ice. Capping this was eight inches of soil supporting a carpet of lush green tundra, embellished with small but beautiful wildflowers.

After a long stint of paddling, we relax at a typical campsite on Alaska's Beaufort Sea coastline.

We saw no Eskimo along this stretch, and very little evidence of their presence in modern times. But we did find plenty of ancient sod dwellings, awesome relics of people surviving and probably even thriving in the severe climate. These reminded us how much we had to learn outside the bounds of modern technology.

Reaching the oil fields around Prudhoe Bay, we saw widespread construction of sterile, futuristic-like facilities, along with an associated paucity of wildlife. In the dusky wee hours, lights in their thousands brought to mind a sprawling Las Vegas built on the back side of the Moon. We saw only two people between Barrow and Kaktovik: a pair of security guards who one morning prompted us from one of our camp sites and advised us not to land on the artificial islands or causeways. Ostensibly, they were concerned with our safety in the presence of poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas, sometimes found in proximity to the drilling and processing operations, and in fact throughout the entire region. I later learned that this gas originated when the drillers injected bacteria-laden pond water into the wells, as a means of increasing production. Deep within the earth the bacteria oxidized the sulfurous petroleum compounds, producing the gas as byproduct.

We take a quick shore break to warm ourselves and cook a round of pancakes. Ray dries his three pair of wool socks, worn inside his drysuit.

Both west and east of Prudhoe the wildlife was another story. We saw caribou in their thousands, grazing on the lush grasses of the mind-boggling expanse of tundra. Most often these animals occurred in widely-spaced groups of half a dozen or so. Generally they were shy and retiring - fast running and beautifully fluid. But occasionally they would stumble onto us unaware. One time we were enjoying a hasty shore break for cooking, and were huddled around our camp stove for its meager warmth when a noise startled us from behind. We turned and saw a large-antlered caribou shuffling past, not three feet away. Dumbfounded, we watched it continue along the beach paying us no heed. Soon a mother and her calf approached, and to our surprise they lay down behind a nearby log for a nap. Perhaps they felt safeguarded by a young buck watching over them from the top of the cut-bank. Eventually the buck wandered almost into our camp, and by now our cameras were ready. We remained perfectly still, and the buck - now just a few yards away - seemed not to notice us.

In addition to the caribou, ubiquitous ground squirrels, and the ducks, geese and other waterfowl in their tens of thousands, we saw a few musk ox, Arctic fox, and spectacular snowy owls.

Driven ashore by a fast approaching midnight storm.

From Barrow the coastline led gradually more south, so we expected a little more warmth. Instead, the days became progressively colder. Fifty miles from Kaktovik we came to the pack ice, lying a scant hundred yards offshore. Most days were cloudy and sometimes foggy, but occasionally the scud lifted to reveal the spectacular Brooks Range - jagged, snow-capped mountains standing surprisingly near the coast.

We reached Kaktovik August 9, seventeen days from Barrow, and set up camp on the gravel beach fronting the village. Nearly out of food, we were glad to find the small stores well stocked. And we were most grateful for the showers and laundry.

That night a storm blanketed the region in its first snow, and drove the pack ice right to the beach. We were eager to continue along the coast to Canadia and beyond, but we were fairly exhausted, mainly from living and paddling in the frigid climate, and from the prolonged lack of nutrition associated with such vast distances between villages. So we allowed ourselves a four day's rest.

During this time we met many villagers and found them most personable. Of particular note was a retired whaling captain by the name of Daniel Akootchook, and his wife Lillian. They practically adopted us, fed us native foods, and even took us on a picnic. In fact, our experiences with them would practically fill an entire book, in iteslf.

Even though the paddling season was rapidly waning, we decided to press on. Fortunately, a lagoon afforded several miles of ice-free water. But eventually it ended, and forced us into open ocean to paddle among the floes. The weather had now become positively frigid, with frequent icy gales and considerable snowfall. Some days frozen sea spray glistened on the kayak's deck; some days snow. Yet even this part of the trip was enchanting and we relished every minute of it. The expanse of virgin coastline, the beauty of the sparkling sea and its ice floes, the tundra adorned in its fall colors and the jagged mountains glistening with fresh snow - all defied description. The wildlife also remained interesting. One morning we encountered a polar bear swimming among the floes. For a long while it paced us, no doubt testing our speed. Fortunately we were a little faster, but not by much.

The way ahead is becoming increasingly blocked.

 There's a bear outside!  Jenny warned. I sprung to my knees, grabbed the shotgun, snapped its action closed and poked the muzzle out the open tent doorway - just in time to see a huge grizzly dashing away. It ran 300 yards across the open tundra towards the mountains, then slowed to a purposeful gait and kept right on going. Examining its tracks in the soft gravel and three inches of fresh snow, we found that it had come to within a few feet of the tent. Fortunately it bounded away, and I joked that it must have smelled my socks.

We crossed the Alaskan border into Canadian waters, and the farther we progressed, the larger and more closely spaced were the floes. The ice was abnormally heavy for this time of year. One fellow in Kaktovik had said that in the 30 years he had lived there, he saw only two other summers in which the ice had not moved off shore. Dragging the boat over the floes was not an option because they were usually undercut around their edges by as much as six feet, and constantly collapsing and rolling over. So we wove among them, occasionally elbowing our way between. Our biggest problem was reaching the shore, now lined with smaller but tightly-packed floes. Usually we had to search for a semi-open lead, then shove the floes aside to gain access to the beach.

The land was white; the shore-fast floes extended half-a-mile away from shore; and just beyond was the polar pack ice itself, gleaming ominously. But more disconcerting, the sea was starting to freeze around the shorefast bergs, as seen in this photo.

Winter was fast approaching and we had reached our Rubicon. Both of sensed very deeply that if we continued ahead, we might not survive.

Winter is fast approaching and the sea is beginning to freeze. Here we are cutting through a half-inch layer of salt-free surface ice, while pushing and shoving our way out to an open lead.

Reluctantly we turned around, and faced the hundred mile retreat back to Kaktovic. The next four days were quite beautiful, but also extremely challenging. The pack ice was closing in fast, and we were shoving big blocks aside to squeeze through, and paddling leads up to a half mile offshore with few openings back to land. Icicles were forming on the sleeves of our paddling suits. Snowstorms, sub-freezing nights, and days not much warmer - were all telling of winter soon to come. But still this was a fabulous adventure!

In strong, cold winds we eventually arrived back at Kaktovik. Saying good-bye to our friends and the mighty Arctic, we boarded a plane for home. And how ironic it felt to step off the plane in Oregon to temperatures in the high 90's. But ice cubes in our lemonade? No thanks!

See also Newspaper Article

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