Kotzebue to Kivalina

The 85-mile stretch of Chukchi coast between Kotzebue and Kivalina was the final remote leg in my Molly of Denali-inspired 3,500-mile route from Kaktovik to Juneau. It has taken ~10 years to string these segments together.

By a plane or sled or snowshoe
She is ready to explore
From Kaktovic down to Juneau
Always wanting to learn more

Molly of Denali theme
All trips in yellow, “Molly of Denali” Kaktovik to Juneau in red

I monitored the weather in Kotzebue all spring, and was impressed with the consistent winds and cold temperatures. Kris Rose kept me updated with less-than-promising reports:

I didn’t pay much attention to windchill growing up in McGrath, and I was dismissive when folks fussed about it. It was never very windy, because McGrath is deep within forested lands. I was impressed that the California band Pavement got it right when they sang, “There’s no wind in Alaska … ” (Starlings of the Slipstream).

But then, last year, I experienced -30 to -40 ºF windchills while crossing Norton Bay with Timm Nelson and I thought, “Oh! This is what people are worried about!” The combination of cold temperatures, consistent winds, and limited shelter put me on edge. I played through my head what to do if something went wrong … we couldn’t count on anchoring the tent in the thin snow and hard ice … and there was no other shelter during our 25-mile crossing. Even losing a single mitten would be a big deal.

All that to say, I have a new-found respect for windchill and a lack of shelter, which is a pretty good description of Alaska’s Arctic coasts.

After a month of monitoring, I spotted a gap in the forecast. Here is a screen grab from windy.com showing Kivalina’s observed weather during our trip—gusts of 44 mph the weekend before, and 37 mph the weekend after! We skied in the lull, Tuesday-Friday.

Pat Gault and I flew to Kotzebue Monday morning. We walked to Seth Kantner‘s chicken-coop-converted-home for a lunch of musk ox, carrots, and cinnamon rolls. Stacey and China joined and we chatted about Seth’s most recent book, the winter, and life in the Arctic. Seth lent us white gas, bear spray, and a shovel.

Our afternoon flight to Kivalina was canceled due to snow drifts on the runway. We wanted to start in Kivalina because the forecast indicated a light north breeze—which we wanted as a tailwind. We stashed our gear and had a nice visit with Jared, Jim, and Eric at the Golden Eagle / Arctic Backcountry hangar before finding a room to rent for the night. The view from the room was amazing:

Just by luck we happened to overlap with James Austin who used to live in Kotz but was out of state this year. We met her and Wil on the sea ice and watched as they pulled in sheefish. Pat hooked one too. Big fish!

Planes still weren’t landing in Kivalina Tuesday morning, and with a finite weather window, we decided to start skiing from Kotz. This ended up being the right decision and we never had much of a headwind.

After crossing the Hotham inlet we reached hunting shacks at Sisualik (Sheshalik), Iñupiaq for “place that has beluga whales.” This region has a very long history—with Native trade dating back hundreds of years. Sisualik attracted people from the Northwest Alaska, interior Koyukon, Seward Peninsula, and even Siberia!

We skied 25 miles to camp at the Anigaak ranger station. We’d been warned that all three of the ’emergency shelters’ on the route were in bad shape—this turned out to be true. Wind-transported snow partially buried the shelters and worked its way through gaps and cracks to fill the inside as well.

Anigaak’s oldest structure was filled with snow, so we excavated a second shelter to the point that we determined the door wasn’t locked. Fortunately there was a full-sized steel shovel on site so we didn’t have to use Seth’s aluminum shovel.

After clearing the door we still couldn’t push it open—it was blocked by snow on the inside. Next we checked the windows, found one that wasn’t latched, and Pat crawled through. I passed him the shovel and he went to work from the inside.

In the morning, Pat noticed that melting snow was burning a lot of our fuel (melting from subzero temperatures). We checked the fuel bottle and were disturbed to find that we had already used half of our supply. Something wasn’t quite right, and then I realized … a good rule-of-thumb is 6 oz/person/day for subzero camping. But I had forgot the ‘per person’ part of the equation! I’d only brought enough gas for one person—we had half of what we needed.

This is a pretty big deal in the winter in Arctic Alaska. We knew that there were two other shelter cabins ahead of us, and people at the Red Dog mine port, but we didn’t know if we could get into those shelters or what they might have inside. We’d seen some driftwood sticking out through the snow, but not a lot. There were no other fuel or fire sources.

I dug out the older shelter and was giddy when Pat spotted a gallon of white gas. We were extremely lucky to have found this cache. We probably could have stretched our fuel supply, but we would have been quite vulnerable if anything went wrong. More likely, we would have turned back to Kotzebue and cancelled the trip.

Anigaak Ranger Station

The next day we saw a herd of ~20 musk ox on the hills above us, as well as several foxes. The winds had stripped the snow down to ice and a rain crust, so the travel was fast.

The next emergency shelter was less helpful—we couldn’t even guess where the door was. The roof was made from flattened 50-gallon drums.

We saw the massive Red Dog Port from many miles away and finally reached the Red Dog shelter, a heated cargo container, at 6 PM. This was Pat’s first long cross-country tour with a full pack on the ‘Monster Nordic’ setup: backcountry ski boots on metal-edged xc skis. This system has serious advantages in terms of warmth and reliability, but the boots can be really hard on our feet. I’ve got a dedicated pair of sloppy boots and loose-fitting liners that treat my feet well, but Pat only had his high-performance backcountry boots, which brutalized his feet, even with preventative taping.

The Red Dog shelter provided a luxurious setting to refuel and let our feet recover. We melted water, cooked dehydrated dinners, and dried our liners. We left the shelter at 8 PM and Pat didn’t have any boot issues for the rest of the trip.

We didn’t have a place to stay or hang out in Kivalina, so we wanted to time our arrival to match the flight schedule. But we also didn’t want to get caught far from town in the winds that were supposed to start picking up. We ended up camping on the sea ice about eight miles from town and set an alarm for the middle of the night—if the wind was picking up, we’d start skiing. If not, we’d take a casual morning and mosey into town.

It wasn’t blowing when the alarm went off, so we went back to sleep. Via inReach, Sarah confirmed our flight and that the airstrip was fixed. We spent an hour behind a pressure ridge wind-break about a mile from Kivalina. This might have been my favorite part of the trip … I inflated my sleeping pad, read a Russian spy novel in the sun, and high-graded my remaining food—my “cookie bars” were the first thing to go (2c flour, 2c oats, 1 stick butter, 1/2c sugar, 3 bananas, raisins and chocolate chips).

When we reached Kivalina, it was obvious why the airstrip had been closed—the winter’s strong winds had built massive drifts throughout town. Several buildings had tunneled entrances and the main street, which is perfectly flat in the summer, was a wild rollercoaster on skis. We reached the airstrip with an hour to spare, just as the winds started to pick up.

The winds were even stronger when we landed in Kotzebue, but when I mentioned the wind to Seth, coordinating his equipment return, he said, “Oh, this? We don’t really call this wind around here.”


Thanks to Pat for being game to join on a last-minute and odd-destination outing. Thanks to Kris, Seth, James, Jared, Jim, and Eric for help.

I’m thinking about what I want to tell, and how to tell it, regarding the ‘Molly of Denali’ route. It will be some time before I put energy into it, but I’m thrilled to have completed this gap!

4 Comments

  1. Great to have some good forcasting available! Thanks for sharing your methods.
    Have you tried Engo blister patches? They go on the boots, not your skin…

    1. I did try them once, but it wasn’t a memorable test. I bet they’d work great on seams, etc., in tennis shoes. But for the ski boots … it seems like the most common problems are pressure points from the plastic shells.

      Have you had good luck with the patches? On what footwear?

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