Koyuk to Unalakleet

Back at the house in Unalakleet, Laureli Ivanoff said, “Timm. You know I’m not a worrier, right? Well, right after you left, I heard that my cousin in Shaktoolik helped rescue a guy from Ikuaanak [the Little Mountain shelter]. Then, I heard that two Iditarod friends broke an ankle and clavicle on the ice. So. I was a little worried.”

Henning supervising Timm’s use of frozen blueberries to ice his wrist. We both took a few falls.

Timm Nelson and I had skied and ice skated from the Inupiat communities of Koyuk to Unalakleet over a long weekend; 85 miles in 50 hours. We had planned a leisurely pace, but strong north winds pushed us along, and also prevented us from taking many breaks.

I flew to Unalakleet, where Timm lives and works as a middle school teacher. We went straight to a regional high school and middle school ski race. The villages in northwestern Alaska have a long skiing history.

I distracted three-year-old Henning with magic tricks while Laureli and Timm prepared traditional foods for our trip. These foods were harvested by Laureli, Timm, and their family: maktak (whale skin and blubber), dryfish (smoked salmon), akutaq (rendered fat [moose in this case] and berries), and “salad.” The salad turned out to be our go-to snack. It consisted of beluga maktak, dryfish, ugruk (bearded seal), masru (a root vegetable), carrots, and tukaiyuks (a small leafy green), mixed with seal oil.

Bowhead maktak

We boarded a Bering Air flight for Koyuk. The plane landed in Shaktoolik and rocked in the wind while new passengers boarded. Shaktoolik is perched on a thin barrier island. It looked and felt exposed—the wind made me question the timing of our trip (but not the fact that we were going from north to south, wind at our backs).

The pilot announced that it was really blowing in Koyuk, and that it would be a turbulent flight. He added, “But it is totally safe.” This unsolicited addendum made me more nervous.

There must be a term to describe when planes lose loft and compress the air beneath them—the stomach-in-throat phenomenon. Our last compression coincided with the wheels contacting the ground. The woman behind me whooped. The guy in front said, “That was fun, can we do it again?” He repeated this when the engines turned off so that the pilot could appreciate it.

Wind in Shaktoolik

We bought two dollars of unleaded gas in Koyuk and I made my familiar joke about this being their biggest sale of the day. We asked a few folks about the trail and then found the snowstakes that mark the Iditarod Trail.

In previous years, the trail stayed on the coast for nine miles before making a 23- to 25-mile sea ice crossing. Because of our late arrival (5 PM), our plan was to ski the nine miles on land and then set up camp, saving the sea ice crossing for the next day. But the ice formed early and thick this year, so the trail cut 28 miles straight across from Koyuk. I assumed that no land meant no shelter from the wind.

I did some math and figured that we could move at five miles per hour given the tailwind … 28 miles at 5 mph … 5.5 hours to the first known shelter at Ikuaanak (Little Mountain). We should be able to arrive at dusk (10:30 PM) … if nothing went wrong. I’m not trying to foreshadow … nothing went wrong. But my spidey sense was tingling. [Henning, that line is for you.]

Because of the noise of our skis chattering on the ice, the constant wind, and our hoods (at one point I marveled to Timm that my left ear was cold despite being covered by six layers), we didn’t do much talking. I spent most of this time thinking about exposure and then checking in with Timm about the boots and other gear that I had found for him. Timm was new to this kind of outing, but more familiar with the area and how to get help if we needed it. A nice pairing.

I’ve been appreciating a risk assessment framework that consists of hazards (things that we have no control over and that can cause harm), exposure (the things that are exposed to hazards), and vulnerability, the consequence of exposure to a hazard. The hazard, in this case, was windchill. A conservative estimate of air temperature (-5 F / -20 C) and wind speed (25 mph / 11 m/s) corresponds to a -30 F / -34 C windchill. We likely experienced wind chills of -40 F/C during the sea ice crossing.

There wasn’t even a hint of a shelter. I played my mental risk assessment game, “What could go wrong? What would we do then?” It was clear that even a minor problem (lost glove, broken ski pole) could turn into a big deal in this environment. [This was validated the next day when folks told us about the skier that was rescued earlier this same day.]

I visualized an emergency plan that involved using our single ice screw to anchor the tail of our tent, align it with the wind, and crawl into our sleeping bags hoping that the winds would calm during the night. I congratulated myself for deciding to carry the heavier tent and use equipment that I knew and trusted—including finding and shipping several boot options to Timm before the trip. I’m trying to make the point that we helped manage risk in this exposed environment by making equipment decisions that reduced our vulnerability. You get it; I’ll stop now.

The wind slowed around 9 PM, and so did we. At this point, we were several hours and a dozen miles beyond Timm’s previous longest ski. There is probably some value to learning new things in hard conditions … they are always easier from then on! But we both would have been preferred warmer temperatures and less wind.

We shuffled the last miles to the emergency shelter, a welcome respite from the wind, even though there was no wood for the fire. After hot drinks, hot meals, and big portions of the amazing “salad,” we crawled into our sleeping bags. Our multiple hoods helped mute the sounds of the wind beating against the roofing. Our high-calorie dinners helped keep us warm through the night.

In the morning we skied fourteen miles to the village of Shaktoolik. As with the sea ice crossing, there wasn’t any brush or sufficient topography to give us any break from the wind. So, we skied it in one push. At Shaktoolik we got directions to the store, and, after buying candy bars and Gatorade, asked if we could eat in the store, out of the wind. Timm got an update on the high school basketball playoffs, which were taking place in Anchorage.

Snow drifts on the lee side of a house in Shaktoolik

I was most excited about the next leg of our journey. Based on the satellite imagery, I expected that we could ice skate most of the remaining distance to the forest. Ice skating with a tailwind is pretty much the coolest thing ever, and we were eager to reach the forest for the ability to hide from the wind [reducing our exposure!]. We carried ice safety equipment and nordic ice skates that fit our ski boots for this section.

We skied and skated the next fourteen miles in about two hours [yee-haw!]. Beeson Slough was a treat with smooth ice and fun navigation around patches of snow and marsh grasses. Without braking, the tailwind pushed us faster than we wanted to go. The hard part was snowplowing to slow down.

As anticipated, the forest was an instant relief—physical and mental. We climbed for a few miles and then enjoyed views of the sun setting behind Besboro Island to the right and snow-covered hills to the left. We skidded our way down the icy trail and arrived at the Foothills cabin—pre-warmed by two bikers and two Iditarod Trail Invitational walkers.

In the morning we skied a casual ten miles to the Egavik River and a former reindeer corral and processing plant. These photos from Alaska’s Digital Archives are from 1938. The herd size was around 200.

Based on satellite imagery, I had identified Egavik as our potential access point for skateable sea ice. We weren’t committed to the ice (the trail was fast and easy), but I was excited to give it a shot. [My pitch was something like, “We don’t need to do this, but it might be really really cool.”]. We had plenty of daylight, so, decided to evaluate the ice. We could always turn around.

Sentinel 2 satellite imagery of fast sea ice, from Sentinel EO Browser.
Timm with the Egavik reindeer processing plant in the background

The ice started rough—skateable but not planar. There were just enough good sections to keep leading us on. The good was good, the bad was bad.

We spotted some black ice, which felt like a real treat in the sea of white. And it was comforting to see thicknesses over 12 inches. None of the ice felt spooky.

The satellite imagery revealed a big triangle of homogenous ice. This was my great hope for good travel. We creatively referred to this feature as “big triangle.” As we picked our way to big triangle we heard and saw snowmachines farther out. This was another comfort … if the ice was supportable (and navigable) by snowmachines, we should have no problem.

Big triangle didn’t disappoint. The ice surface was pocked, not as smooth as I expected, but even with a weaker tailwind, travel was effortless. We saw a seal on the ice and one of the snowmachines came by to say hello. They were setting crab pots on the seafloor. Apparently, the water isn’t very deep.

The ice quality degraded after big triangle, and stayed pretty rough. Doable, but requiring constant vigilance not to snag a skate and take a tumble (which we both did).

We found a continuous lead where the ice had cracked and refrozen. The annealed ice had a seam with large hoarfrost crystals, which indicates a source of moisture. Our probe pole quickly proved that the ice was thin along that seam! We traced the seam until its geometry changed and we were able to step over to the other side.

We crossed over to a slough a few miles from Unalakleet, which rewarded us with high-quality ice for the remainder of our journey.

A short hike up the hill, and we were met by Henning and Laureli. This is when Laureli reminded Timm that she wasn’t a worrier. We loaded up the truck and drove to Heidi and Herb Ivanoff’s house for an amazing dinner and a maqii (steam bath). Herb noticed that I was about to pass out and casually mentioned that I had nothing to prove by staying in the maqii. Going back to the house with Henning was an easy exit.


Since returning home, I’ve enjoyed learning more about sea ice. I had wondered if I was missing an opportunity to skate to Besboro Island, a 15-mile distance that would be amazing on good ice. But after watching how quickly the ice formed and then deteriorated, I’ve given up on that goal! [Besboro is in the upper left, it stays white in this animation.]

I learned that people have skied and swam across the ice to Russia, and that there even used to be a dog sled race (with helicopter support). At only 43 miles across … this seems shockingly doable. But better for boats than ice skates. 🙂

And sadly, the Bering Strait is struggling with ship traffic and pollution issues—residents are working on international cooperation for environmental protection. Dryfish not rubbish. That’s what I always say.

10 Comments

  1. You guys are champions 85 miles in 50 hrs! Glad you had no mishaps, playing in -34C is, as you pointed out, risky business.

  2. Epic and well detailed! I so enjoy getting to adventure vicariously through your trip descriptions.

  3. I am Greg Mills mom and reading this gave me chills (excuse the pun!) The description of the foods consumed first got my attention. Guess we don’t eat much of that here in Georgia. Your writing and pictures are wonderful to enjoy in the comfort of my lazy home. Thank you for sharing this.

      1. We never know when the possibilities for another skate on wild ice will happen. Take advantage of the conditions when it does happen. We are fortunate enough to have wild ice in western Colorado and we crazy ones play hooky enjoying ourselves on this wonderful nature happening.

  4. Getting to my neck of the woods now, Luc! Cool stuff. Let me know if you ever want to do more trips up in NW, this sounds epic. Also, curious what boots you were using? Did you go with an AT setup and tech bindings for ease of having boots with liners in them? Imagine you also put tech fittings on the nordic skates?

    1. I’m so overdue to spend some time on the Seward Peninsula! Trying to figure out if I can make another trip up there in the next few weeks, and if I end up in Nome, I’ll definitely reach out.

      Yes, right on everything about the boots. Loved the confidence in the double liner and all-metal bindings in the cold and icy conditions. Same toe pieces for both skis and skates, so, quick transitions between the two. Pretty slick!

      The boots are a Dynafit backcountry ski model. Lots of brands to choose from … they just need to have the toe inserts for backcountry tech bindings.

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