We last wrote from Nome, just south of the Bering Strait and a milestone as our most northerly port in the Bering Sea. We’ve now crossed the Arctic Circle and are in the Chukchi Sea! We’re currently anchored off Point Hope, a low sand-and-tundra spit 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Our stop in Nome was fascinating. The town was created in 1899 when gold was found on the beaches and set off Alaska’s biggest gold rush. Apparently it’s experiencing a kind of resurgent gold rush, judging from the number of home-made dredger boats that suck gravel off the ocean floor just off the beaches—very strange craft! We were lucky enough to make friends with a very generous couple from Nome who had made a voyage to the Arctic in the 1980’s. They loaned us bicycles so that we could explore more of the tundra of the Seward Peninsula. We were particularly excited to see a whole herd of muskox!
We left Nome on July 18 at the first sign of SW winds to push us north. Unfortunately the winds were significantly stronger than forecast so we had bit of a rough time. The boat did wonderfully, sailing fast under triple-reefed main, jib, and staysail, but the two of us were seasick and we’d also caught a bug in Nome which compounded things. (Shawn, our AlpineAire meals were very much appreciated!) Still, we made fast progress through the thick fog, steep seas, and strong currents of the Bering Strait and crossed the Arctic Circle on the 19th.
On the 20th were were closing the Russian border, so jibed over to keep in Alaskan waters and close the coast just north of Cape Lisburne at 69* 10′ N. The sun started to come out and the wind moderated considerably, so we pulled out the computer and satellite phone to download weather files and see what was coming. Strong NE winds were forecast, from exactly the direction we wanted to sail! Our options were to battle against the inevitable steep waves that would be the result of 30kt winds and the shallow depths of the Chukchi Sea, or to backtrack 50 miles. Point Hope is the only “anchorage” in the 500 miles between the Bering Strait and Barrow, and even this is merely a spit of low land protecting us from the swell.
Because N winds push the polar ice pack south and because the steep seas would make progress slow and painful, we decided to backtrack for Point Hope. We had a lovely downwind sail in the sun and 50* temperatures and reached it early on the 22nd. After anchoring and a hearty meal, we caught up on our sleep and were astonished to find we slept 14 hours! We’d finally beaten whatever illness it was we’d caught in Nome.
Our chart of Point Hope (an official US chart) was not terribly accurate, and among its inaccuracies was the fact that a thriving Inupiaq village of 900 people lies just off our anchorage! The chart only indicated the ruins of the older Inupiaq village so we were quite surprised! In the time we’ve been here we’ve rowed ashore everyday. We’ve met several very welcoming Inupiat who’ve showed us around the old village of sod and whale bone iglus and told us much about their history and culture. It turns out that Point Hope is the oldest continuously inhabited village in North America and that the modern residents retain the most traditional culture on the North Slope of Alaska, still hunting bowhead whales from skin boats in the spring. We’ve also hiked around the tundra and beaches quite a bit and noticed how very Arctic this place is. Everywhere we’ve called has been special and unique, but we are now definitely in the Arctic with the eternal sunlight, the silence of the land except for wind, and the animals, particularly snowy owls and spotted seals. Point Hope has certainly been one of our best stops and we’re glad the NE winds sent us here!
The NE winds have blown for almost a week now, but it looks like we should get a break in their strength from Thursday through Sunday, so we’re hoping to head north on Wednesday evening, though we’ll see—the forecasts seem to change daily! We’ve been in email contact with two powerful aluminum boats north of us (Jimmy Cornell with a crew of 4, and a Dutch motorsailer with twin engines and a crew of 3) who have passed on ice and charting information. It sounds as though we made a good decision to anchor at Point Hope: Jimmy was trapped in 8/10ths ice south of Barrow and spent 8 hours extracting his boat; the Dutch boat reached Point Barrow when the winds were still southerly, but then encountered “massive ice” (their words) of at least 70% coverage. There is an area of relatively little ice around the Mackenzie River delta, but reaching that looks tricky, and then beyond Cambridge Bay conditions look just like last year on this date: 10/10ths complete coverage. By contrast, in 2012 on this date, that whole area had started to break up. So it’s looking like another difficult year for boats. The good news of course is that perhaps the ice isn’t melting so tragically fast and the animals who make the Arctic their home have a longer lease on life! From our point of view, we’re pleased to have gotten to know this Arctic village of Point Hope and look forward to more Arctic encounters and experiences as we head north!
Apologies for not sending any pictures with this update: we’re sending it from our satellite phone. It’s a slow and expensive dial-up connection, but considering we’re sending this from the middle of nowhere, pretty impressive technology!
All the best,
Ellen and Seth
For more information about Ellen and Seth’s Journey follow their blog at http://gonefloatabout.com/