Whaling festival a welcome respite for Arctic cyclists
In part one, Homer residents Bjorn Olson, Kim McNett, Daniel Countiss, and Alayne Tetor flew to Point Hope to attempt a human-powered expedition, by fat-bike and packraft, to Utqiaġvik. Twelve days after leaving Point Hope, the party made it to Point Lay, just in time for Nalukatak, the spring whaling festival.
Through still water on a rare calm morning, I paddled one final forward stroke and let my packraft lazily drift the last few feet to shore. When my bow made contact, I stepped out onto a beach below the village of Point Lay and swatted at the mosquitoes buzzing around my head.
Before I began to unstrap the bike from the bow of my raft, I turned toward the lagoon and watched my three traveling companions make landfall. "I'm getting on the plane with Alayne from here," our friend Daniel said. I wasn't surprised. For the last several days, Daniel had been withdrawn and suffering in silence as a sore throat and general malaise overtook him. Human-powered expeditions are hard in the best of times but when compounded with sickness they become insufferable. We could all sense his misery over the previous days, as he stoically forged through.
From here on, it would just be Kim and I.
As we rode our bikes around and got our bearings, the village seemed energized. Four-wheelers pulled loaded trailers to and fro, kids were outside playing and riding bikes, and many people stood in front of their houses butchering and processing meat. "Welcome to Point Lay," everyone said as we passed. The day before, the community had taken 33 beluga whales and today was Nalukataq — the spring whaling festival — auspicious timing on our part.
People gathered outside the school and into the gymnasium tray upon tray of food were being carried and set out for the upcoming feast. Kids flocked to us and our freakish looking oversized bikes. "Can I try," they asked. "If my bike can withstand what I just put it through, I don't see how you can hurt it," Kim said, as she stabilized her bike for an enthusiastic little boy. "Me next. Me next," came the cacophony.
Five days of pre-packaged food awaited us at the post office, which we'd sent from home two weeks earlier. As we reorganized the bags on our bikes to make room for the resupply, and a redistribution of group gear Daniel had been carrying, people from the village stopped to ask questions and offer advice. "Nalukataq is beginning soon. Come eat," they told us.
Inside the gymnasium we sat at one of the school cafeteria lunch tables that had been set up for the feast. Round after round of food was passed out, with Elders respectfully being served first. We were treated to a delicious meal of traditional native food —boiled beluga, bird soup, black and white muktuk, fry-bread, and sweets. While eating, we received advice from the whaling captain and others. Our biggest concern about the route ahead was finding fresh water. On our unrolled map, fingers full of wisdom and local knowledge pointed to our best options.
After the meal and before the dancing began, we were again surrounded by kids. They each in turn told us stories of Iñupiat lore, excitedly cutting one another off to tell their version of Silla, the Big Mouth Baby or the Woman in White. Within these kids were the ancient stories, passed down through the millennia. In their capable care, Iñupiaq culture is safe.
Two days later, Kim and I crouched low behind our bikes as a herd of caribou steadily marched toward us on a narrow island. Earlier in the trip we'd similarly encountered a brown bear. In that instance, we were glad that the bear stopped, caught our scent, turned tail and ran, but now we hoped for the opposite. A medium-sized bull led the small herd to within a few yards of us. They stopped, sniffed the air and casually ambled on their way.
Wildlife encounters permeated our expedition. We were treated to sightings of substantial beluga pods, a bowhead whale, spotted and bearded seal, brown bear, foxes, and rare bird sightings. Eventually, we reached a point in our trip where we no longer excitedly blurted out, "Spectacled eider!" every time we saw a flock. Traveling by human power has enriched my life in a way that money or material wealth could never purchase; the Arctic rewarded us generously.
On the far shore of Wainwright Inlet, we scouted around, looking for the narrowest place to cross the channel. For the first time since the Lisburne Hills, we'd been gratefully accompanied by a tail wind. As we prepared to make the final crossing before the village, the wind built and the skies darkened. Not until everything was strapped onto our small, one-person, inflatable rafts did I grasp how strong it had become. We decided to risk it. Halfway through the crossing I leaned hard to windward; paddled for everything I had and regretted our decision.
Safely on the other side, I reflected on the idiom, 'don't race back to the barn.' Many adventurers, hunters, and other cold, hungry, or tired people have made the mistake of disregarding safety when they are near comfort or the finish line. Impatience can have terrible consequences. Fortune may favor the bold, but long life favors the prudent.
"My great uncle used to live in that sod hut," a Wainwright hunter, with two field-dressed caribou draping over his four-wheeler, told us. He was pointing to a collapsing but intact house site. Since leaving Cape Lisburne, we'd seen several of these traditional huts and had always assumed that it had been hundreds of years since people last inhabited them. There, in Nunagiaq, just north of Wainwright, we listened to stories of this hunter's family and how life on the North Slope of Alaska used to be, not that long ago. Few stories or trail advice are ever as impactful or memorable as those heard on the trail.
In the back of Peard Bay, I attempted to circumvent a short bluff by riding in front, through hub-deep water. As I rode, my bike got heavier and heavier from freshly eroded, floating chunks of loose peat, which glommed onto my spokes and drivetrain.
Roughly one quarter of the land in the Northern Hemisphere is permafrost, and it is thickest in the Arctic. Trapped within permafrost is more than double the amount of carbon already in our atmosphere. As our planet rapidly warms, from our wholesale combustion of fossil fuels, the melting of permafrost is accelerating, releasing this trapped carbon into the atmosphere. This is known as a positive feedback loop. The outcome for Alaska, however, will be anything except positive.
As I cleaned the peat chunks from my bike I looked ahead at the rapidly thawing landscape eroding into the sea and wondered how different it would look here in five or 10 years ... or even next month. I also wondered when Alaska and the rest of the nation would get serious about reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and mitigating climate change. Will we choose to take action before reaching a critical tipping point? Again, the saying I'd heard in Wevok came to my mind, "There is no tomorrow." The time for action is now.
Past Peard Bay, we knew there was one more obstacle before reaching Utqiaġvik — the Skull Cliffs. We rode on until the sand and pebble beach turned to mudstone slabs and the walls of the cliff steepened above us. Although the Elders in Wainwright told us we wouldn't be able to ride in front, I convinced Kim to keep trying. Waves crashed under our feet as we jumped from one slab to another until we made it around the first headland. Looking ahead at the steep cliffs, with no shore below, we knew we'd have to change strategy.
That evening, we camped in a beautiful sun-drenched valley, saving the rest of the Skull Cliffs for morning. As the wind died, the bugs came out and we discussed our plans. Originally, we had hoped to continue traveling east out of Utqiaġvik. We'd begun to reconsider.
Before leaving home, we often looked at the map and wondered how we would approach the vast terrain — full of long bays, massive lakes, and wet tundra —between Utqiaġvik and Prudhoe Bay. This stretch would be the longest between resupply of the whole route and so far no one had offered any reassuring advice. "Maybe better for you in the spring, when there's still snow and the lakes are frozen," we heard more than once.
As we tightened the mosquito netting under our shelter and prepared to tuck in for the night, we resigned ourselves to a decision. The summit of Alaska, Utqiaġvik, would be the end of our route ... for now.
Over the last 10 years, the fat-bike and packraft have rapidly evolved in form and functionality. Both of these instruments of human-powered wilderness exploration were originally conceived and developed in Alaska, but the efficiency and practicality of both have caught the imagination of people worldwide. What can be done with a fat-bike in conjunction with a lightweight, one-person packraft is still being discovered.
On past wilderness trips with the bike I have been happy when we were able to ride anything more than half of the distance. On this trip, however, we were able to pedal more than 90 percent of the route. And often, the riding was fun and engaging.
Kim and I cheersed pizza slices together in the first restaurant we stumbled across in Utqiaġvik and continued to eat the whole pie, like there was no tomorrow.