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Circling Owls

Short eared owl, Flickr

Beaufort Sea, not so far from the Yukon frontier, a bit west of the Kongakut Delta.

Saturday, September 4th, 8:00 A.M. — I slept late to wake to a calm and bright day and a warm tent. As soon as I can pour down some coffee and shovel down some oatmeal, I need to be on the move. I managed to sleep dry in this wet hole, an accomplishment that does wonders for my mood.

I started yesterday morning with three quarts of fresh water. I open the last quart now. Behind the tent, the water in the tundra seep, which lies so close that it threatens to overflow into my sleeping bag with the next little rain, is brackish and nasty and full of goose droppings, but fresh enough to keep a person alive, I think. It will be what I drink today. There is nothing else.

I have asked more than one old salt how they knew when water was too salty, and they all said they didn’t know. I suppose it comes down to drink the best you have and see if you live. If I read the map correctly, the day stacks up as easier than the brutality of yesterday’s heartbreaking effort to drag the boat through the shallow mazes of the Kongakut Delta.

The ice, the sky, the blues, the whites, the grays, intermingling and mixing, and bending the light, did strange things to my mind. I fought and lost the fight to draw the line between reality and mirage.

The swans mocked me. They, who adapted to this country so effortlessly. I might have dared try to kill one for its meat had I managed to get close enough, or I might not have. As hungry as I was, could I have dared raise my rifle to what might have been a shaped-changed god?

I may be able to paddle close to the high bank, receding towards the west. The high bank may mean deep water. The shore along much of the Beaufort Sea runs shallow enough to require going three miles out to find the water depth needed just to walk the boat. Three miles out puts me halfway between a coast I might not be able to reach even at high tide and the permanent polar ice pack. West of here, a few years ago, unable to return to the shore, I camped below the high tide line, which left me vulnerable to the next storm. A storm meant a wall of water coming in with the tide, high enough to wash over the low barrier islands, a circumstance I would be unlikely to survive. At these latitudes, you can never count on the next storm being more than a few hours away.

That eerie ice miles out, the place where light bent imagination, the ice of the permanent polar pack draws me, but to resist is to live. The summer ice is a death trap for a lone man in a small boat.

9:03 A.M. — Even if I woke up this morning feeling warm, it couldn’t have been too warm. Skim ice formed in the tundra pond behind the tent.

3:08 P.M. — I’ve been paddling for hours. North 69 degrees 59 minutes 146 feet. West 142 degrees 33 minutes 354 feet. I move west.

Sunday, September 5th, 7:22 A.M. — It’s over. It came to a halt rather abruptly yesterday afternoon when I reached the abandoned ruins of a cabin on Pokok Bay. Broken shards of sea ice, some pieces much larger than the Folbot, stacked against the shore for as far as the eye can see.

I threaded my way through the ice floes for a time until the degree of risk preyed upon my mind too much. Even on this calm day, if I were to bump hidden underwater ice too hard in this nylon-framed kayak or the wind picked up and pushed my little boat into an iceberg, the boat would shred under me, and I would sink.

One rotten ice floe had a hole in it large enough to paddle through. Had I chosen to try, which I had no reason to do, and it toppled at the wrong moment, I would have been crushed. I had to fight myself. That temporary portal through that ice was not a portal into another plane of existence, of being, of knowing.

At Pokok Bay, the barrier island chain I followed ended near the main shore. A bush plane could land here. I pulled out, made the call on the iridium satellite phone, and I’m being picked up tomorrow. I didn’t like to think about the presence of this phone. I have never traveled with any kind of communication device before. At first I didn’t use them because they weren’t available and then because they were too expensive. The price has come down, and they can make the difference between a slow death and an inconvenience.

Before I ran into the ice, I paddled on the seaward side of the barrier islands because the lagoon lacked the water depth necessary to drag the boat. In those last hours, ruined shoulders pushed me forward. To keep my mind off the pain, emanating from a body too damaged and unreliable for this work, I watched the rocks on the bottom of the sea pass underneath me, which the clear water magnified. I had a window into what appeared to be a sterile world that nobody knew. Every detail from what I guessed to be ten feet down leapt at me. I doubt the world down there was really sterile. I just didn’t know how to penetrate its secrets.

Last night I gave over to childish things. I used what was left of the afternoon to watch the old squaws, the red-necked phalaropes, and the seagulls as they fed among the ice floes and worked the shingle shore.

The month on the Kongakut River had been a matter of floating downstream, a few rapids, a few portages, hikes in the hills. This run down the Arctic coast was to be the test to determine what I had left. Did I have the power and the luck remaining to move through this narrow fetch of the Beaufort Sea between the high tundra of the Arctic plains and the permanent polar ice pack? Or would I find myself trapped in the tidal flats, beaten without the strength to move, waiting for the inevitable storm that would finish me? I wasn’t going to have my answer.

On dark, the short eared owls ascended upon the gravel bar. When I stepped out of the tent late, three of them circled within ten feet. This gravel bar at the end of this barrier island chain seems barren, but the owls must find something, and so too must the Arctic foxes. Lines of their tracks dot the sand. There is a world of life here that I fail to see, that I understand nothing of.

Yesterday afternoon, although I still had almost three quarts of the nasty seep water, and I could have walked to the high tundra perhaps a mile away for cleaner water, I decided I wanted to try melted sea ice. I had read that melted sea ice was fresh, and with plenty of fuel for my stove, and with an airplane coming to pick me up, I could afford to use it. I filled my four-quart pot with chunks of the ice, remembering to put a little water in the pot to avoid burning out the bottom. If the water from the sea ice was drinkable and fresh, with its strong tinge of salt it wasn’t necessarily the best.

Could I have made it into Barter Island on my own? If I had to, I would have paddled as far as I could thread through the ice to cut the distance, so long as the calm held. Then I would have loaded everything I could into one pack, concentrating on food and fuel and walked in. The distance was less than thirty miles and there were no major rivers to cross. I should have been able to find a way through the marshy ground, although I would have left a lot of valuable gear behind. Nothing, however, is certain.

It’s over. I was ready for it to be over. I am scraping the bottom of my coffee and oatmeal containers.