We have arrived at our most northerly latitude, 10 miles north of the 70th parallel. Nearing Kaktovik, our footprints were dwarfed by polar bear tracks and the landscape felt fantastically wild. Walking more than two hundred miles along a coastline with little information besides outdated maps proved to be well worth the slog through the delta. We were thrilled to be seeing this landscape on foot, though we had initially considered rowing or paddling this stretch. We wanted the intimacy of wandering along the beaches and the freedom of not being tethered to a big boat, not to mention avoiding the logistics and expense of dealing with getting it shipped back home.
After crossing the Alaskan border, long ribbons of gravel and sand stretched as far as the eye could see. Many times these “reefs” or barrier islands are only a few feet above sea level and dramatically narrow. At times they pull several miles offshore and we were fortunate never to be caught in a storm. Though surrounded by icebergs and large river deltas, fresh water posed one of our biggest challenges. On one such day, we hiked with 20 lbs of water on our back for several hours before discovering it was brackish. Typically we would paddle to the mainland shore in search of water, but were often disappointed to find many of the sloughs and small ponds contaminated by the sea even far from the shore’s edge. Although the tides fluctuate by only a foot (compared to 20+ feet in the Inside Passage), the tundra is incredibly flat where river deltas meet the ocean. Even a small change in water levels, like that brought about by wind (or the threat of sea level rise due to climate warming) can flood a large area. Coastal erosion along the sea bluffs is occurring rapidly, up to 30′ a year according to permafrost scientists we met at Herschel Island. To avoid these messy banks, we often walked the tundra, which became better as we traveled west. In one tight spot, we found a rough-legged hawk nestling at the base of a bluff that had recently slid, its dead sibling nearby.
Caroline has been pointing out new bird species as quickly as I can forget the previous ones. The coastal plain is full of life–cranes, jaegers, longspurs, eiders, plovers, 4 species of loons, caribou, musk ox, and grizzlies. We’ve seen ringed and bearded seals and few belugas but we’re too early for bowheads this far west with pack ice still near shore.
From here we head almost due south into the white-capped peaks of the Brooks Range that stand in sharp contrast to the coastal plain. Our final goal is to reach Kotzebue on the Bering Sea, more than 1,000 miles away, before freeze-up. The approach of winter in the north has set the timeline for this trip and so far we are only a few days behind our estimates. We’ve been lucky to have met many knowledgeable and generous people along the way who have fed us, housed us, and educated us about the Arctic. We look forward to traveling in the mountains again, though this will undoubtedly bring a new set of challenges.