Loc: back to Barrow
Acc: Hilleberg Keron 4 tent in the Search and Rescue Station
Dist: 20,3 km
Start: 7:50 End: 14:55
This early morning, the three of us decide to walk out to the point to see the ice situation along the shore leading east southeast after the northernmost end of the continent. As one should watch the camp, Traci volunteers to stay as her knees have been playing badly since yesterday. Peter and I will do the five kilometers hike out to the point.
We equip ourselves with my pump gun plus ammo, bear spray, binoculars, GPS, and hiking poles only for myself. Peter shoulders the weapon, and off we go. The road ends pretty soon. We follow deep tracks of four-wheel-drive vehicles through the loose, almost bottomless gravel. It is as tough of a walk as through deep loose sand. I step into Peter’s footprints to find at least a little more firm underground to walk on. Many trash and reminders of various animals are around, plus one or two more significant but not fresh whale carcasses. Polar bears still would like to nibble on it if there is no alive, fresh meat around.
But we are not too worried. The terrain is flat beside maybe a hundred meters of piled-up ice shelves on the lagoon side. The ocean side is wide open water. An abandoned car sits on the gravel after three kilometers; we cannot find the driver walking around. The first construction a kilometer before the real spit’s end is a weather station plus two antennas. Strapped with wires, the last high pole marks the continent’s northernmost point. For now, Peter and I are the northernmost people on the continent.
But we are not the only creatures here; we are just guests. I see my second polar bear in the wilderness about three hundred meters to the east along the spit. The first one I spotted from the bush plane from Barrow to Wainwright, and now this BIG guy is out there. I calmly point him out to Peter. The bear is located on the fifteen knots upwind side and cannot have smelled us. They can see not very good, but he might have noticed our approach here on the gravel point because nothing else is moving. But who knows. He is neither scared nor aggressive but calmly moves slowly away from the whale carcass, launches into the water, and swims out to sea where there is no ice floe waiting anytime soon – for his own safety.
It is Peter’s first bear at all. He has not seen black, brown, or grizzly bears in the wilderness. Unfortunately, his reaction is a bit overdrawn, as he insists firmly on moving away from the spit as quickly as possible. In a calm voice, I speak to him about my binocular observations and reassure him that the fluffy white guy is busy swimming out to sea. I would rather have stayed, watched the bear through my binoculars, and scanned the carcass for possibly more furry fellows. There is another whale carcass, maybe five hundred meters to the east. I would also have loved to take pictures with us at the northernmost pole. But my man firmly insists by shouting some bawdy words on retracting from the gravel point as fast as possible. He is panicking over a polar bear swimming far out to sea. If I cannot calm him down, I better stay with him and follow him on the speedy retreat off the gravel point. What a pity for more exploring and pictures of this special place, but our mutual trip mood should remain positive.
We took the shotgun and bear spray out for this kind of possible encounter, and this will not be the last one. I by no means want to shoot a bear, but the chances of keeping the guy distant and at bay in case of charging us are high. There is no need to kill him. This bear did not run after us but instead looked for a safe zone for himself. Still, we are guests here and initially should keep our distance from the bear’s territory. There is a respectful space for all of nature’s creatures; ideally, none of the figures involved should panic.
Back in camp after another tough five kilometers of hiking in deep loose gravel, Traci starts an open conversation about how she felt yesterday during those dragging, pushing, and pulling efforts. She admits her knees and the whole body is not up for more of those efforts due to her rheumatic arthritis. Her medicine does not keep the pain at bay as she was hoping for. Peter and I made precisely the same observation all last day. We did not say anything yet but took over the most challenging parts requiring the most effort. But we had our talk about the situation and Traci’s issues on our hike, and we are glad Traci started a conversation about this matter.
We all agreed calmly that for her and the team’s safety, she, unfortunately, should aim for this kind of trip, but better stick to her open cockpit surf ski and a shore support crew as she has done all the last years successfully. Challenging situations like the previous day can come up any time again, and one needs to be able to move quickly without pain. Traci has a high level of pain resistance, but there are limits to what one should and can do to the body.
Another reason to return to Barrow, for now, is the still too dense and mostly unknown ice situation. A waiting time of a week or two would melt the cold barrier quickly.
The third reason is – on dragging my heavy loaded kayak over an ice edge, my Chinese-made, glued-into-the cockpit seat rail peeled off the hull, and I urgently need to glue this back to place with a more flexible glue in a dry and warm environment. I had this problem already once with another kayak brand around Australia and am aware of it, but I should have reinforced the gluing already ever since. Now is the chance.
Packing is easier without those water bags, but I need again help Traci fit all her gear load into the kayak. The paddle back to Barrow goes smoothly with close to twenty knots in the back on fully open water with no more ice close to shore. Any shore fast spot has disappeared overnight by melting, wind, and current. I cannot help but put in a few quick surfing sessions, but either turn a circle or wait for my co-paddlers. Peter does not feel challenged to follow me but stays with Traci. The polar bear encounter is still on his mind; I can see it in his face. What also bothers him is the perspective o waiting a week or two for the ice to melt further, as his holiday time is limited, and he has to pull out entirely for this matter. Reaching Deadhorse or even Kaktovik by the end of July is unlikely. I will have to rethink my paddling partners.
We reach the very same landing spot we left yesterday in good spirits. We are still doing fine, though Traci feels most sad about this development. But it is like it is. She was very accommodating in the preparation phase of the trip. As a US person, Traci opened many doors for our needs, like making contacts, shipping, and purchasing and licensing guns. I will always be thankful for her input, and we will stay friends. Traci will always be an honorable member of my trip; I am grateful to have met and learned from her!
Traci and I walk up to the Barrow Air, Sea, and Land Rescue station to ask for a warm and dry workspace for the kayaks in their shed and a corner for our tent. Jimmy is in charge of allowing us the stay and opens the workshed for us. We find a helpful person who hooks up a flatbed trailer to a strong quad bike driving us to the beach to load our kayaks and gear bags. We take two rounds and find a new temporary ‘home’ in a large heated workshed for kayaks and our tent. Thanks so much to the locals here for looking after us ‘foreigners’ so well!
While Traci and Peter arrive with the second load, I scan the shed and find a bathroom with a shower and hot water. We set up in a non-disturbing tent area, arrange our sleeping spaces and collect the mutual food bags in a ‘kitchen corner’ on a wide plastic sled. I use a water hose for the first cleaning of the three kayaks and unscrew the seats, footrests, and rudders. I am incredibly grateful Kunaq is coming to help me with a special grip plyer to undo two tough-to-remove seat screws. I can now clean the cockpit properly under the loose seat rail. All will dry out overnight in the heated shed.
There is some traffic with quad bikes going in and out of the shed during the 24-hrs of daylight. But we are tired and mostly deeply asleep, happy about the great workspace and sleeping place.
As Traci for health and Peter for limited holiday reasons have to pull out of the trip, Lilja will fly in earlier for her section on Monday 19th and start alone with me from Barrow to Kaktovik. The third, blue kayak, which is unsuitable for such a high-load-capacity expedition anyway, is sold and ships back tomorrow. For the section Kaktovik-Tuktoyaktuk, I already have a third lady lined up who is very interested but has not confirmed yet as she is away on another trip. She has paddled with me already and knows cold water conditions. I hope she will commit soon.
On Sunday morning, I fill my kayak with water in the stern and day hatch in the hope of finding the leakage. It makes the kayak wet again, and it has to dry out one more day before I can finally glue the seat and footrest rails on both kayaks with some special Marine glue I could purchase in the local hardware store. The small Sikaflex tube of my repair kit would not go far enough. I also plan to reinforce one kayak from the inside as it starts to delaminate here and there. Both hulls get even more keel stripes from the outside to make them as stiff and dragging-resistant as possible. And yes, I should have done those jobs already! Now is the perfect chance.
We talk a lot to the locals and find on the government websites more precise ice maps, which shows our suspicion is correct – not far behind the northernmost point, the ice is still shore fast. It is therefore uneasy paddling along the coast to the southeast, neither inside nor outside the barrier islands. It is the longest winter in a decade. The kayak repair needs to cure, and I have to wait until Lilja flies in on Tuesday the 19th anyway. All falls into place, just a bit delayed!