During the night, the shelter-cabin’s plywood and tin roof began to shudder and vibrate. The storm we’d been anticipating had arrived. Wind assailed the little shack in gusty waves, driving fine, crystalline snow onto the walls and roof at hurricane speeds. We were less than 10 miles south of the Arctic Circle, in the midst of the second and most violent storm of our fat-bike tour of northwestern Alaska. Cozily tucked into our sleeping bags, we were relieved that we’d made the decision to push on toward the shelter-cabin the previous evening and blearily doubted we’d be traveling the next day.
I fell in love with the northwestern Arctic of Alaska in 2014. That spring my partner Kim McNett and I rode the Iditarod Trail from Knik, near Anchorage, north to the Bering Sea. In the village of Koyuk, we joined another trail, traveled over the Seward Peninsula and became the first people to bicycle to the Arctic community of Kotzebue, completing a 1,100-mile snow trail. We were already dreaming of new routes and making plans to return as we boarded the flight home to southern Alaska.
Kim McNett fat-bikes east out of Nome, Alaska, on the sea ice of Norton Sound.
We returned to the region in the middle of March of 2016, this time flying to Nome with the goal of riding to Kotzebue and beyond, if possible. In the end, we made it as far as the coastal village of Kivalina, some 90 miles north of Kotzebue before the trail petered out and rain destroyed what was left of the cold, stormy spring.
Beyond the stark Pleistocene beauty of the region and its often bikeable snowmobile trails, that interconnect villages and communities, the thing that most allures me to this region of Alaska is its people. The Iñupiat have been living in the Alaskan Arctic since before the first written language or the pyramids of Egypt. Over the millennia, Arctic peoples have developed technology, culture and attitudes that are beautiful reflections of humility, community, resiliency, and fortitude in the face of a harsh climate. The call of the trail for its own sake is strong within me, but adventure coupled with learning about new environments and shared interactions is what I crave most in a trip.
Hunters in search of caribou.
From the moment we peddaled out of Nome, Kim and I experienced the gamut of harsh, sub arctic conditions: strong wind, driving snow, ground blizzards, and the occasional dip to negative 30. Piercing, blustery wind and stormy conditions persisted with regularity throughout much of our expedition. Later, when friends would ask how our trip was, our offhanded summarization was a quick one, “Weathery.”
Kim McNett riding through a severe ground blizzard along Norton Sound.
As we awoke in the shelter cabin, dim, monochromatic light leaked through the single-pane windows, and we caught our first glimpse of the white and treeless world around us being bombarded by wind-driven snow. A genuine arctic tempest. With plenty of firewood and a fresh resupply of food, we congratulated ourselves for having made the prudent call to dash to safety. We could afford to sit the storm out.
By mid-morning we’d gotten used to the thunderous roar of wind and the nuanced sounds it made as it violently shook the roof or whistled through a crack in the window. But around noon, a new sound joined the wintry symphony; a distant rumble—hard to pinpoint or identify—and it continued to build. “What is it?” Kim asked. We both held our breath and strained our ears as it grew louder. A snowmobile, coming off the sea ice and pulling a sled, emerged suddenly into existence from the nebulous and angry world of white.
A besieged shelter cabin.
Out the window we could see a man unwrapping tarps and blankets to reveal a bundled passenger in the long sled behind the machine. Kim and I looked at each other; jaws dropped wide open. It seemed impossible that anyone could have navigated the long, featureless crossing from Elephant Point, traversing 10-miles of an unmarked sea ice trail, to the shelter, under these conditions.
Glenn and Viola Thomas, from the small, Iñupiat village of Buckland, were on their way to Kotzebue for a regional basketball game. “We finally got babysitters and time off,” Viola said. “I’m not going to miss that game.” It was impossible not to admire her enthusiasm. A one hundred mile long snowmobile trip, wrapped in blankets and a tarp, during the worst blizzard of the year, wouldn't derail her plans to play ball.
Two travelers attempt to navigate through a fierce, winter blizzard.
They smoked a cigarette in the entryway as Kim and I heated water for tea. Once back inside they removed heavy outer layers and sat down on the sleeping bench. We plied them with hot drinks and swapped stories with one another. We talked of the trail, the weather, past experiences being caught out in foul weather, and the uncertainty that lay ahead, for each of us. When their cups were drained, they donned their gear and prepared to head back out.
The trail from the shelter-cabin follows tripod markers across a series of low hills over the narrow waist of the Baldwin Peninsula to the shore of Hotham Inlet, known locally as Kobuk Lake. On the far shore, the trail hugs the coast before diagonally crossing the peninsula, once again, to Kotzebue. Alternatively, in a whiteout, travelers can follow Kobuk Lake’s shoreline and wrap around the tip of the peninsula to avoid becoming lost.
“We should be fine,” Glen said, as he donned his goggles and shook my hand in farewell. The storm had already made Viola late. “In the worst case, we can always find our way back here.” “Please do,” I said. “Be careful.”
Within a half hour they were back. “I couldn’t see the tripods at all,” Glenn said. Without the markers to guide him, the undulating landscape all looked the same in the whiteout. “I decided we better follow our track back to the shelter before the wind erased it.” Kim and I were relieved they’d decided to return and we were happy for the company.
“If we don’t make it to Kotzebue by evening, people will start searching for us,” Viola worryingly stated.
Glen and Viola take shelter from the storm with Bjørn and Kim.
“We can send a satellite email with our In-Reach to a friend, with your parents phone number,” I offered. “Our friend can call and let them know you’re safe.” The little satellite texting and tracking device had saved Kim and me the summer before and we no longer leave on remote trips without it.
After a few minutes the In-Reach twittered its response alert. “No problem. Will do,” read the return message. With everyone comfortable in the shelter, and the families advised of Glenn and Viola’s safety, the stress of the storm diminished even as it continued to rage outside.
We cooked a big meal of noodles and talked well into the night before finally bedding down. What tomorrow would bring was anyone’s guess.
The roaring wind continued to assail the shelter but it was a cold draft on my face that woke me, as two men entered the shelter in the dark of night.
“Glenn, you in here?” a soft voice asked.
“Yea,” came the sleepy reply.
“Your dad sent us with gas, food, and a thermos of coffee,” one of them said.
In the pitch dark, the men had a soft and sparse conversation—in the typical cadence of the modest, reserved Iñupiat hunter. After Glenn’s dad received the phone call from my friend, alerting him that everyone was safe, he’d gone to some of the young men of the village and asked if any of them would be willing to take resupplies to his son and stepdaughter. The two black silhouettes that stood in the middle of the room were the plucky souls that had answered the call.
“I had to stand up over the windshield to see the old tracks,” said one of the men. After a long pause he added, “Hard to find in all this wind.” A lump grew in my throat as I listened to them talk about how difficult it had been to find the shelter in the storm, at night, to deliver supplies, and confirm that both Glenn and Viola were indeed safe. “We always look out for our people,” one of them concluded.
A few minutes later the two men returned to the relentless blizzard, fired up their machines, and began the long, uncertain trip back home.
Since my late teens I have always accepted the wisdom of my elders in regards to adventure and time in the backcountry. One of the firmest rules is to be self-reliant, to never require assistance or saving. To require a rescue is to put other lives at risk and is often costly. In many people’s minds, adventure is frivolous and egocentric; and serves no purpose in society.
Listening to the men’s machines fade into the storm I realized that here in the Arctic people have a different mentality about rescue and about the value of spending time in the back-country—time on the land nurtures, not only in terms of subsistence food gathering, but also for its own sake. It is good for one’s physical and mental well-being to be connected to the land. But being in remote places can also be dangerous. Because of the inherent hazards, these northern societies have learned to work together, and have organized practical systems of search and rescue.
Kim McNett pushes her fat-bike through fresh snow on her way to Kotzebue, Alaska.
Two days after the storm, Kim and I pushed our bikes along Kobuk Lake through the new snow when Raymond, another Buckland resident traveling to Kotzebue, stopped to talk to us. He informed us that the trail would soon be improving. As we chatted, he told us about the mythical creatures that he and his ancestors believed inhabited the region we were traveling through and other stories about life in the Arctic. When the conversation turned to search and rescue, Raymond stated, “I always go out looking when someone is missing. I go every time,” he said. “Because I want everyone that I help to come looking for me, if I’m ever in trouble.”