TELLER -- Bryan Weyauvanna stepped off his snowmachine, gulped the last of his thermos of coffee, and gestured at one of the mountains behind Cape Woolley, pastel pink in the setting sun.
"That mountain? It's 3870 on the map, but in my language, it's Singatook. And when you see a cloud up there, that means it's going to be windy."
We had been skiing on the frozen Bering Sea for a week already, and were not quite halfway between Nome and Teller. It took Dallas Seavey's team of canine athletes less than nine days to make the 1,000-mile journey of the Iditarod. It took us about three days to get beyond earshot of Nome's Iditarod siren, which blared an alert for each new musher trotting into town.
My 4- and 6-year-old children had climbed to the top of nearly every pressure ridge along the way, making monsters and castles out of the jumbled blocks of blue and white. We are not athletes.
From Nome to Kotzebue
Our family was making what we expected to be a 500-mile journey from Nome to Kotzebue in two months. We didn't bring dogs. Instead, we planned to be the dogs -- pulling gear and sometimes children at a speed that's basically a crawl.
We might travel eight miles in a day. Or we won't. We'll ski the whole way, or we'll strip the runners off the packrafts — walking and paddling as the land thaws beneath our feet. We'll visit half a dozen villages along the way: Teller, Brevig Mission, Wales, Shishmaref, Deering and Candle. We'll be farther west than I've ever been and in colder weather than our kids have ever been.
We were only about 6 miles farther along when Bryan and his friend George caught up to us the next day, clambering down the tilted steel ladder that led to our underground bunker. We were camped out in the cavernous steel belly of a shipwrecked boat near the 17-mile-long Feather River, its rusted body almost entirely drifted over with snow. Hiding from the wind.
"Supposed to be worse tomorrow," Bryan commented.
It was. We stuck our collapsible stovepipe up through the hatch, and sealed ourselves in with a 6-inch thick snow block. Waiting. Listening to the rattle of the wind on the chimney, watching the flickering shadows of sunlit snow blowing across our improvised roof. I imagined what it might be like to be a seal under the ice we'd been skiing on, peering up through that filtered blue light. It hadn't snowed in weeks, at least, but the squeaky hard drifts had been set in motion again, flowing and flowing until I couldn't imagine where all that snow was coming from, or where it might all end up. Out to sea, with one of my ski pole baskets and a fluttering scrap of fabric I wasn't quick enough to catch.
My 6-year-old drew a wavy line in his trip journal, topped by a smattering of dots. He dictated: "Watching the blowing snow was really fun. Going out in the blowing snow was fun, but not really fun."
When we emerged, the world of chiseled snow looked almost the same, as if the storm, imprinted on so many other storms, had lost its power to change the world. Snowdrifts were sculpted into concrete ribbons and arches, with funnel slides and fluted ridges reaching up to the tops of the ice castles. They were silky, squeaky and speckled with ribbons of sand. The kids stole my ski poles, chasing each other across the ice to hide them in the wind-scooped hollows beside each ice block.
Then two more snowmachines -- friends of Bryan's from Brevig Mission -- arrived.
"We came to check up on you."
"We're doing fine. Just slow. Had to hole up for a couple days because of the wind at Cape Woolley. Nice today, though."
"Yeah, it's always windy over there. You guys thought of taking the road at all?"
6 playful miles at a time
We shook hands with mittens. Talked from beneath ski goggles, balaclavas and the hoods of two coats. They gave us jars of moose meat, then snowmachined off toward Brevig Mission on the Nome-Teller road. It would take them an hour.
We'd thought about taking the road. Or a plane. Or staying home to watch the wildlife on YouTube instead. But we were following the coast for the driftwood we burned in our tiny wood stove, which could heat our tent a full 70 degrees above the outside air. And for the smooth sheets and crumpled mazes of the sea ice. For the ravens playing in the gusts that sent snow billowing off the tops of the sea cliffs. For the streams of spindrift glowing in the sun. For the tracks of the musk ox, hardened by impact and then scoured out by wind, until each print stood like a plaster cast of itself. For the hills we slid down in a face-stinging burst of powdered snow. Collecting experiences the way we collected rocks from the frozen beaches, kicking each one loose with the toe of a ski boot.
Given the winter we've had, it might just as well have been 40 degrees -- like it was in Nome in January, and like it was all winter at home in Seldovia, when we wanted to test our ski gear. But now the temperature flopped back and forth across zero, and the stiff breeze from the north brought us 16 days of sun between Nome and Teller -- more sun shining each day on a land that shines more brilliant than any I've seen, even through the ski goggles. And all our puddle-sitting raingear stayed packed away in the packraft sled that can become a boat, come springtime.
Spring will come, and we might not get all the way to Kotzebue by then, but we'll be somewhere, making our way around the coast of the Seward Peninsula, 6 playful miles at a time.
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.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing