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Outdoors/Adventure

Visiting where the first Americans may have tread

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 31, 2015

Editor's note: Author Erin McKittrick and her family are making a 500-mile journey from Nome, exploring the Seward Peninsula this spring on foot, skis and in packrafts. For the veteran explorers, it's a new corner of Alaska to visit, "farther west than I've ever been and in colder weather than our kids have ever been," McKittrick noted in an earlier post. We'll be skiing, walking and paddling as the land thaws beneath our feet."

SHISHMAREF -- The winds died. The craggy cliffs disappeared. The world turned flat and white. Sometimes, heading down the beach in the morning, when it looked just the same as yesterday and the kids wanted to play "Pooh and Piglet and the Sabertooth Tiger" and "Pretend Easter Egg Hunt in the Mud Melt Holes" -- just the same as yesterday -- the world seemed endless.

I wondered if there would ever be anything other than white ice, white sky, white beach. It seemed that the scratches and bits of dirt that had accumulated on my ski goggles for a month and a half stood out far more than anything I could see through them.

But you could say that we adventurers are the ones who see the world backwards. This coast was easier than any we'd seen between Nome and Wales. This coast was a much more sensible place to be. We had skied around the continental divide. Beyond Wales, that narrow constriction between the Bering and Chukchi seas, the winds mellow almost immediately. The ice mellows as well, the mountainous jumbles of table-sized blocks and curled-over drifts replaced by smooth white. It's good skiing, even for a kindergartner.

This was once the famous Bering Land Bridge. The ocean is still shallow here -- shallow enough that sand scoured from the ocean floor piles up, building up a long line of barrier spits that stretches across the Alaska Arctic, between the lagoons and the sea.

From the tops of dunes by the mouths of channels, you can see all of it at once. The seals scattered across the ice. The fox tracks crisscrossing the beach. The cranes and swans winging their way overhead, returning from places far south. Like people always could, and still do.

Shelter cabins

Cabins stand guard on those dunes -- small, practical structures of gray plywood covered by orange and yellow lichen. Some are neat, new, and through the windows you can see clothes hanging on the line, and beds and stoves waiting for their occupants. In one, built in 1986, a log book stretches back across the decades, family and friends leaving notes about seal hunts and moose hunts, traveling conditions and weather, trips between Wales and Shishmaref to get muktuk, to go visiting, or to return home from carnival. Parents bringing babies on their first snowmachine expedition, and folks stopping for a quick coffee at 1:30 in the morning, all leaving thanks for the bit of shelter the cabin provides.

We carried our own shelter. But the cabins were often the only landmarks on our horizon, each one anticipated for the miles it took to resolve itself from a black speck, to a squat rectangle, to something more human.

The kids climbed through the open windows of the older, crumbling cabins, their roofs caved in, their old bedrooms drifted in with snow. Beyond them, posts stood erect, outlining the sod houses that came before. Beyond those, oddly shaped depressions marked even older sod houses. And in the sandy cliffs at the edge of the dunes, history crumbled away in frosted layers, exhumed by the erosion of wind and water.

A layer of thick woodchips eroding near the top of one dune marked the remains of an 1897 village -- Mitletukeruk -- abandoned after the 1918 influenza pandemic. On the cut-away side of another, charcoal fire pits and scattered bones marked a site from 600 BC.

First Americans

We adventurers have it backwards. This coast, which seemed so blank and barren at first glance, has always been a good place for people. Many scientists believe that this region -- Beringia -- was the first place in North America people lived.

They haven't left. The sea level stabilized around 6,000 years ago. The barrier islands were slowly built up to where they stand today. These long, thin, sand-and-marsh spits look ephemeral, but they hold around 2,000 years of history.

And how many more?

Shishmaref has nearly 600 people and plenty of history of its own, but if you Google it, you'll find photos of tilted cabins, crashing waves and article after article about its single claim to worldwide fame. Shishmaref is disappearing due to climate change. As the permafrost melts, and the sea ice fails to come soon enough to protect the island from storm surges, the shore is eroding up to 10 feet per year.

We ventured out from the hospitality of the school, skirting puddles and postholing in slushy snowmachine trails to stand on the boulder breakwater that marks the shore. All that we could see beyond -- that smooth, white ice that seems like forever -- is just a moment in time. All that we could see behind -- the school, the store, the rows of HUD houses -- is just a moment in time as well.

Erin McKittrick is a writer, adventurer and scientist based in Seldovia, and author of "A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft and Ski" and "Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home and Family on the Edge of Alaska." You can find her at GroundTruthTrekking.org.

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