Koyuk to Kotzebue: Arctic Contrasts

Arctic Contrasts

While skiing from Koyuk to Kotzebue, northwest Alaska, I was struck by a number of arctic contrasts.

Caribou antlers and office chairs
170 miles, six days

Green grass was already peeking up in Anchorage. It was a shock to spend these days back in the cold; I had two close-calls with frostbite.

I haven’t spent any time on the Seward Peninsula, despite being fascinated with the geology (blueschists!) and history (Bering Land Bridge). My interest was piqued when a friend mentioned ski-accessible hot springs between Koyuk and Buckland. I flew to Nome, joined Brooks and Calvin Fry in an NHL hockey game (Nome Hockey League), and continued on to Koyuk the next morning.

New ways / Old ways

I bought a liter of gas in Koyuk and started a conversation with Tex outside the store. An Inupiaq friend once said “just ask!” in a conversation about how to be a respectful visitor in rural Alaska. So, I’ve been getting better at asking … for directions, permission, etc.

Tex gave me very specific and accurate directions to reach the hot springs: ” … When you get to Sweepskates creek, you know that one? The creek, it’s about as wide as this road. The main trail goes straight across. Take the trail to the left that goes up the bank into the willows … “

I never caught Tex’s real name, but he said he was born in Texas. Maybe this is just a joke that Inupiaq guys tell tourists.

The hills north of Koyuk

My navigation skills are about as non-verbal as it gets—Gaia GPS on my iPhone—I’m a lat/lon kind of guy. I checked the maps on my phone and didn’t see Sweepstakes Creek.

Once on the trail, a guy with a loaded sled pulled over to chat. I commented on his cargo: five caribou! Raymond Lee Jr. introduced himself and casually mentioned that he was the 2010 Alaska Federation of Natives hunter fisher of the year. Ray told me that he was “bringing the old ways back.” He playfully knocked the side of his head a few times and said, “Here, let me fix the GPS.” Ray was taking meat to family in Elim.

Raymond Lee Jr. of Buckland

Hot springs / Cold spring

Based on Tex’s description, I had no problem finding Sweepstakes Creek and the trail to the hot springs.

Granite Hot Springs features an abandoned shelter and a large pool, maybe twenty feet across and six feet deep. The air temperature was at least -10 F while I was there, maybe -20 F. The water was hot, but not so hot that I could stand around waiting to dry off. I slept with three liters of boiled water to help keep me warm, and reheated the water at 4:00 AM.

No Fear / Know Fear

The south wind picked up and it started to snow as I left the hot springs. I quickly lost visibility. I relied on the old snowmachine tracks and my phone navigation to reach the Bear Creek shelter cabin. Tex had warmed the cabin and left Pop-Tarts for me. The wind and snow continued the next day, so I stayed put.

I heard a snowmachine pull up and was pleased to see Ramond Lee Jr. again. Ray was on his way home from Elim. His sled was still full, but now with beluga whale meat. Ray said the travel was really bad and then described some of the landmarks he used to find his way to the cabin (in near-zero visibility).

A group of snowmachines arrived from Buckland, and Ray left to take advantage of their fresh tracks. I’d see Ray one more time, on his way back from delivering the whale meat to elders in Noorvik. He had harvested another caribou on his way back from Noorvik. Ray was more animated each time that I saw him—his enthusiasm for my progress was a major highlight. I met Ray’s son (Raymond Lee III) later that day; he had three caribou in his sled.

The group from Buckland included two kids out for their first long snowmachine ride (35 miles to the cabin—and they were hoping to go all the way to the hot springs). One of the adults, Aucha, asked if the kids were worried or scared riding through the headwind and ground blizzard. When the kids said no, she said that it was okay to be worried—it was a good thing. Art, another adult, added, “You need to have a clear mind when you come out here. Things go wrong.”

Aucha, Art, Raymond B., Sam, Steven, and Arvid

A few days after returning to Anchorage, I had a conversation with Daryl Miller, a legendary Denali Ranger. Daryl told me that the rangers once made “Know Fear” shirts to counter the “No Fear” messaging popular in the 1990s. I think this captures the same sentiment that Aucha and Art were conveying: fear keeps us safe.

Bayer / Bearded Seal

I enjoyed a tailwind and fast travel for the rest of the trip, stacking two 45-mile days back-to-back. This was my first remote trip on (fragile) skate skis, and they worked great. I started to recognize landmarks on Kobuk Lake from when Greg Mills and I ice skated there in 2019.

Soon after I reached the Aklaq shelter cabin for my final night, three snowmachines pulled up. One of them was Morris Wilson, an 82-year-old elder, had been working alone at his hunting camp. Morris explained that he’d had a hard time out there and that his body hurt. The other two guys had gone out to check on Morris.

I offered Morris ibuprofen, but he shrugged it off. I mentioned that I had ugruk, dry bearded seal meat, and his eyes lit up. “Yeah, I’d have some of that.” When he dressed to get back on the trail, Morris said, “When did you turn Eskimo? That seal meat was just the medicine I needed.” This was another highlight of the trip.

Whale / Wheeler

Tim Tate, one of the guys with Morris, shared a story about a young whaler in Point Lay (or Point Hope?) that landed his first whale (bowhead?) earlier that week. Apparently, after a first kill, the elders can visit the hunter’s home and take anything they want. “My auntie said, ‘I’ll take that new four-wheeler.’ And she did!”

I love how both the hunt and the tradition are about sharing. This feels like … if you are capable of hunting a whale, it is time to give thanks to your mentors.

Fuel / Fish

Tim also mentioned that an end loader had broken through the Noatak River (north of Kotzebue). The plan was that the end loader would help build an ice road to transport fuel to the village of Noatak, where gas currently costs 16-17 dollars per gallon.

Morris said, “I hope they get that machine out of the river before it leaks gas and oil. It’s gonna kill all the fish.”


I skied into Kotzebue the next afternoon and met Kris & Amy Rose and their kids out ice fishing. They didn’t catch any fish (shefish), so we headed to the house for caribou, coleslaw, and leftover birthday cake. Kris loaded me up with caribou and musk ox for the flight home.

Anchorage was dirty; snow and roadgrime melting at every corner. I stripped down to a t-shirt and did the only hunting that I do, shopping for imported fruit and veggies at the grocery store.

3 Comments

  1. Getting out of the hot spring would be a bit of a challenge. Exotic food. Nice story Luc

    1. Getting out was a challenge! Especially the first night, coldest, and not wanting to get my sleeping bag wet. I expected to instantly air dry, but instead I just got ice crystals everywhere. I ended up just grabbing my clothes and running barefoot to the shelter. Oh, and the clothes got frosty due to being near the open water! So then I jumped up and down tried to flick water and ice off me, and eventually just got in the bag a bit damp.

      I had a much better approach the next morning, but it involved using a piece of abandoned (and kind of gross) towel. I stood waist deep in the water while I dried and dressed my top half, then stepped out of the water for my legs.

      The learning lesson for me was to bring a towel next time! Duh.

  2. A great trip for skate skis, and open mind and eyes, you learned a lot and made some friends, and will have great memories of this trip.

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