Arctic Circle Skate

Hard things to plan for: love, loss… expedition ice skating.

Conditions were right, and they usually aren’t. I’d done my homework, the weather forecast was good and I had vacation days to burn. We bought tickets, but then Roman realized he needed to be back to town Monday and Josh Mumm decided he better stick around, settling into a new job. I wracked my brain to think of who could join a spur-of-the-moment ice skating trip to remote Alaska. It was a short list, people that:

  1. have done a winter Wilderness Classic (not critical, but the easiest way for me to think of people who are good at winter camping and difficult travel)
  2. have a flexible schedule
  3. would not be frustrated if the trip was a complete failure

Team Heavy

I texted Greg Mills at 5:39 pm. “Can you leave tomorrow, back Tuesday, Kotzebue?” In ten minutes I heard back:

“As usual, I’ve got no plans and can leave at any time for an adventure.”

I thought Greg’s response might be facetious, like, just because I’m not working doesn’t mean I can drop everything on your whim. Nope. Less than twelve hours later we boarded the flight to Kotzebue. I emphasized that it might be a total bust, and Greg reminded me how many times he made an ‘alternate finish’ on the Classics with Rob Kehrer.

Greg Mills

Greg and I haven’t travelled together since 2014, when I tagged along with “Team Heavy” at the start of the Wilderness Classic from Thompson Pass to McCarthy. Team Heavy was Rob Kehrer and whoever he travelled with, because Rob always carried gear that other people considered extraneous. Some of that excess was intentional, like long johns and extra food, but other times it was accidental, like when Rob forgot to remove a snowmachine repair kit from his pack. The Classics provided something so important for Rob that, to a degree, he sculpted his life around them. Participating in the Classics was part of his wedding vows.

Four people, including me, travelled with Team Heavy for part of the 2014 course. We all regret not sticking with Rob and Greg, wondering if somehow our presence would have prevented Rob’s drowning on the Tana River. Rob and Greg chose to portage around the technical canyon section, but Rob wasn’t able to recover from a panicked swim below the canyon.

Rob’s death changed my life. His death forced me to reevaluate my own risk assessment and motivated me to get certified as a swiftwater safety instructor, hoping that my courses will save someone else. 

Rob’s life changed Greg’s life. Rob inspired Greg to explore Alaska’s wilderness. Greg and Rob aren’t typical Alaska mountain athletes. Retired semi-pro rugby players, their big builds are better suited for breaking tackles than slinking through alder. Most of their ‘alternate finishes’ on the Classics were due to breaking equipment– boots, skis, bindings.

Greg grew up in South Carolina, moved to Alaska with a commitment to stay long enough to earn the Permanent Fund Dividend (two years), and never left. Greg was enthralled by Rob’s hilarious and unrelatable wilderness stories. He built a friendship with Rob and began to join Rob on progressively more committing trips into Alaska’s wilderness.

Pancakes in Kotzebue

We arrived in Kotzebue, tracked down white gas for our stove, and went on a blind breakfast date at Kris and Amy Rose’s house. I had seen Instagram photos of Kris’ kids ice skating, so thought he could tell us about ice conditions. His kids were too shy to introduce themselves while Kris cooked pancakes, so I called them Pancake 1 and Pancake 2. Over breakfast we discovered that Kris and Amy had been at my best friend’s wedding, where I was terrified that kids would step on my nail-less toes, days after finishing the 2012 Wilderness Classic. Rob and Greg had turned around on that course, defeated by a 3-mile section of insanely thick forest that took Josh and I eight hours to navigate. Rob and Greg returned the next year and completed the course.

I asked Kris, who has been in Kotzebue for 11 years, advice on how to be a native ally. As I get older I’m growing more aware of village challenges, social and environmental, and actively trying to be a village ally. I grew up in McGrath, on the Kuskokwim River, half of my school friends were Athabaskan, but in villages I always feel like an outsider. I am an outsider. I’m a middle class white guy from Anchorage that shows up in funny clothes to do funny things. 

Kris said that it helps to come to town as a known entity, for example, as a volunteer with Skiku, the program that gets kids on skis in 60 villages. Showing up without an affiliation makes you a wildcard. Kris also mentioned that villages are overwhelmed with people coming in to give (trainings, advice) and take (stories, resources), and that it was okay to just be there, appreciative of the place these Alaskans have called home for generations.

Mud Sharks in Selawik

Kris gave us a ride to the airport and we caught a small plane (4 other passengers) to the Inupiaq village of Selawik. During the flight we studied the ice on Kobuk and Selawik Lakes, rough gray ice featuring nearly connected leads of glassy black ice. What was most obvious was the absence of snow. We made a spontaneous decision in Selawik to send back our skis, gambling on the cold and clear weather forecast.

Without skis, we committed to an ice route back to Kotzebue. We brought nordic skates, steel blades that attach to ski boots, modified to accommodate our downhill ski boots. I prefer downhill boots for these remote trips because I trust the closed-cell liner to keep my feet warm. The temperature was -10 F in Selawik and the sun’s low angle on the horizon meant it wouldn’t get warmer during the day.

We stepped into our skates and started gliding down the Selawik River on rough gray ice. The first strides of the season always feel awkward, unsure of the skates and how to manage the free-pivot toe (the heel of the skate drags with each stride). After gaining confidence on the skates, we came around a corner and saw a father and son checking a fishing net under the ice. As an introvert, and with my outsider complex, I usually default to a smile and a nod when passing locals. This time, motivated by Kris’ advice over breakfast, I turned toward the fishermen.

We watched as the father smoothed the ice at the lip of a hole and started pulling the net onto clean ice. He explained that he was teaching his son how to fish, in the same way that his father had taught him. I asked if he expected to have any fish in the net and he said yes, several. He was hoping for ‘mud sharks’ (Kris told us afterwards that these are burbot, freshwater cod), but today he only had whitefish, and maybe sheefish. He showed us the rock-filled-socks that were used to pull the net down under the ice, and explained that a caribou hide over the hole would limit how much it re-freezes each night.

I thanked them for sharing with us. The father said it was okay, no problem. He didn’t ask why we were there or where we were going, and we didn’t volunteer it. We shook hands. He took off his thin rubber glove, I took off the down mitten I had carried up Denali. When we were down river Greg asked if I had noticed how hot his hand had been. Kris had said this about his Inupiaq kids too, that “they were built for this place,” furnaces.

Map and Compass My Ass

After 12 miles on the river we reached Selawik Lake (Alaska’s third largest), and took a snack break while watching caribou distorted by Fata Morgana (an optical illusion due to a thermal inversion). The wind was at our back, and would stay there throughout the trip.

As part of my trip preparation I had studied satellite imagery from NASA and Sentinel (European satellites). I determined that the ice had fractured two weeks earlier and that the re-frozen leads were probably gloriously smooth. I traced the outline of each re-frozen polygon, and loaded them into my phone with Gaia GPS. We’d skate to the limit of the good ice, then check the phone for the most direct path to the next patch of good ice. This worked incredibly well. After using the phone to skip a section of particularly rough ice, I cheered to Greg, “Map and compass my ass!” The sun set at four, with dusk extending to 5:30, and we continued for another hour by headlamp.

Skating in the dark is a bit unnerving. In addition to the cones illuminated by our headlamps, we used the sound of the skate to help guide us to smoother ice. Quiet ice was smooth, tinny ice was still fast but could have surprises, crunchy ice could grab a skate and cause a spill.

We skated 100 miles in two days, on two feet of ice, sleeping each night in an emergency shelter provided by the Northwest Arctic Borough. The black ice was incredibly fast, easily 10 miles per hour with the constant tailwind. The gray ice was still skateable, but slower. After picking our way through a rough section of gray ice, we skated to a 3-foot annealed crack that was bordered by rough re-frozen dinner plate sized chunks. We expected the smooth lead to last a few hundred feet, but it provided a fast lane through miles of rough ice. We were ecstatic.

Sea Ice

During our flight to Selawik, we got a glimpse of glassy sea ice on the other side of the Baldwin Peninsula. I’ve never even imagined skating sea ice, my mental picture of Alaska’s sea ice is polar bears wandering between pressure ridges and snow drifts. But if we could skate some of the coastal ice, what a treat! We were at the decision point, choosing between staying on the lake’s known rough ice toward Kotzebue, or hiking a few miles across the tundra to try for sea ice. We headed for the beach.

We reached the coast above 50 foot cliffs, and checked satellite imagery to decide whether to turn north or south to the nearest beach access point. From the beach, the sea ice looked smooth, but gray, less-dense, and featuring feathery crystals. The only open water on the lakes had been marked by feathery crystals, so this wasn’t a good sign. I tender-footed my way over plates of sea ice to the edge of the smooth ice, and quickly broke through. The dunking wasn’t bad, but my left boot filled with water, not ideal at subzero temperatures. I poured the water from my boot and wrung out my socks. Dealing with wet feet is fairly common for us, and the worst part is that I eat snacks whenever we aren’t moving, and at these times my hands have stinky foot juice on them, so I cringe at what I’m putting into my mouth.

Greg and I really enjoyed the beach walk. The sand was frozen (fast walking), the light was amazing, and the sea ice was dynamic, holding our interest. The ice on the beach was permeated in several places by long tongues that had been pushed to a higher perch. In other places, ice blocks butted up against the cliffs, forcing us up onto the tundra. Several stretches of the beach had a perched ice shelf that we could skate. We perfected a technique using just our right skate on the best ice, inches from the sand, double poling and occasionally pushing off with the left skate. We covered 21 miles after the 10:00 am sunrise.

When the sea cliffs encroached on the beach, we went inland through the tundra and spent the night at a small lake. The lake popped and moaned all night, impressively loud given that I could hear it through my hat, two hoods, sleeping bag, and the tent. In the morning we walked a few miles back to the coast, to a fishing camp situated at the transition from sea cliffs to walkable beach. We were able to skate the rest of the way to Kotzebue on stranded lagoons and perched sea ice. Within miles of Kotzebue the sea ice stabilized and we were able to skate sea ice to town. In all, we had skated ~110 miles out of 125.

Learning to Listen

We changed into our tennis shoes and found burgers in Kotzebue, followed by dinner with Kris and Amy, deep-fried Sheefish. Greg found a perfectly ripe pineapple in the grocery store ($20), which was a big hit with Pancake 1 and Pancake 2.

Kris was excited to hear details from the trip, and I was eager to tell him how helpful his advice had been for our time in Selawik.

When Greg first joined Rob on the summer Wilderness Classic, he said he’d never do a winter route. But after learning how to tolerate pain (Greg’s words) on the summer courses, his friendship with Rob motivated him through several winter courses. I thought of how pleased Rob would be to see us out there, to see Greg ice skating over the Arctic Circle with the skillset he developed through Rob’s mentorship. It was a listener’s trip, an easy fit for Greg, used to listening to Rob’s stories, and a new approach for me, eager for Kris’ village-savvy advice, listening to the Inupiaq father, and tuned in to different textures and sounds as my skates glided along the ice.

6 Comments

  1. As the Southern mom of Greg Mills, reading this is beyond belief. I am very proud to call him my son yet as I read about these trips, I do feel slightly fearful. I know he has always loved the outdoors whether surfing in the Atlantic or adventuring through Alaska. He is fortunate to be in such a beautiful place with men (and a fabulous wife) who also love the land and are willing to share time with him. He has made my heart happy for almost 40 years now. Thank you for including him in this adventure.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The risk assessment part is hard, and something we all continue to develop. Losing Rob was a real awakening, for many people. I would put Rob pretty far on the ‘playing it safe’ end of the mountain risk spectrum. His willingness to turn around attests to that, as well as the decision to take the hard path walking around the Tana canyon. Those factors made his death feel even more unfair.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I will never forget that conversation with Greg as he told me of losing Rob. He had texted me at 3:30 AM to let me know he was back and safe. Hours later we talked and I learned what had transpired. I was so sad for Greg and equally scared realizing it could have been my son. Moms always worry and this mom totally loves her son so much. I put my trust in God to watch over him. Thanks for being Greg’s friend.

        On Wed, Dec 18, 2019 at 3:42 PM Things To Luc At wrote:

        > lucmehl commented: “The risk assessment part is hard, and something we all > continue to develop. Losing Rob was a real awakening, for many people. I > would put Rob pretty far on the ‘playing it safe’ end of the mountain risk > spectrum. His willingness to turn around attests to ” >

        Like

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