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Expedition Log: August 19, 2001

Tom Litwin, Expedition Director

The modern-day "bug hunters, mole catchers and trappers of mice, diggers of worms and experts on ice" are scheduled to arrive in Nome August 19. Nome is the terminus of the Clipper Odyssey's trip. From here the participants will fly away.

The Nome Nugget
16 August 2001

Eastward crossing of the Bering Sea, Ostrov Itygran, Russia to Nome, U.S.A.

Setting off in the zodiac from Whalebone Alley to the ship, it suddenly struck me. When exploring in unfamiliar waters, you develop the habit of unconsciously marking the location of the base ship in relation to your position. They are quick glances mixed with hundreds of others, but sort themselves as being a little more important. It's an image that became fixed in my mind's eye. It was always comforting to see this large white vessel waiting at anchor for our return. The mood of the sky and horizon might change, or the size of the seas, but the waiting ship was a constant. 

With the mysteries of Whalebone Alley just behind us, I scanned offshore for the ship to mark my location. Without warning a melancholy thought that I had been avoiding abruptly appeared: this was the last time we would be riding "home" from an exploratory landing during Harriman Retraced. Our voyage has had an intense schedule, with countless images, ideas, and emotions. To deal with this, we were constantly living in the moment. Suddenly, for the first time in 30 days, it hit home. This amazing voyage was going to end; this moment had arrived.  

The tone back onboard clearly shifted. When we left the ship at first light for the Russian shore, we were again heading out to explore and absorb all we could from the environment that surrounded us. What a special opportunity and privilege. When we set foot back on the ship, it was as if a switch had been thrown. At 1700 we weighted anchor and Captain Taylor set a course directly for Nome. With this signal the crew and expedition members turned their attention to what would greet them in the morning, the dock at Nome, hotels and plane connections. The everyday world that we chose to suspend for a month was back. All the boxes of equipment and supplies had to be packed, the computers cased, the artwork crated. In the little time that remained there was no time for lectures, discussions of 100 years of change, or presentation of project results. Our grander goals gave way to the immediate; packing up our cabins was all consuming. Clean clothes, dirty clothes, wet boots, books, cameras, paperwork all needed to find there way back into the discrete forms of the duffels in which they arrived. I sat on the edge of my bunk, Alaskan Amber in hand, surveying what seemed an impossible task. As I grew edgier by the moment, Maureen went about the task at hand and coped with my mood. She has been here before and will have a soft chair in heaven because of it.

The exchanges in the passageways shifted from, "What did you see today and where will we be tomorrow?" to goodbyes, trading of addresses, handshakes and hugs. Important things that hadn't been said made their way into the conversations.  What became clear was that a group of individuals mutually agree to join an adventure, and abruptly found themselves living together on a relatively small ship. On this last day, it was no longer just a set of individuals but a community. We were bound by adventure and exploration, the daunting scope of our mission, daily struggles with ideas and values, camaraderie and friendship, and of course, "the ship." As in any small community, there were laughs, individual and group epiphanies, gossip, and goodwill. We shared in all the good days and found our ways through the rocky ones. We got to know each other's ways and temperaments, and how to grow relationships and avoid confrontations. Our immersion into an "instant community," coupled with the intensity of our mission, was emotionally and intellectually powerful, draining. We were tired.  As much as I had avoided the thought to this point, it was time to go home and sleep in my own bed.

These scenes dominated every corner of the ship except for the Bridge. While the rest of the ship was going about their housekeeping tasks in anticipation of Nome, the Bridge was focused on the immediate task of crossing the Bering Sea. Unlike much of the coastal navigating we have done, this run is basically a straight shot for 190 miles across open water. It was a beautiful evening as the sun skimmed the Western horizon and Chukchi Peninsula began to disappear off the stern. The Bridge was quiet, as open seas and an expansive horizon extended before us. Could it be possible that we actually made it to Russia, explored its coast, and were now leaving? Just a short time ago this was a major goal, an idea. Now, it was literally behind us, and for the first time we would not be extending our route, but heading back.

There was one possible glitch. The weather reports had been tracking a tropical low that had crossed the Aleutians near Dutch Harbor. Gale winds of 40-50 miles per hour were reported and seas of 15 to 20 feet. It was headed north into the Bering Sea. To this point our voyage in the Bering Sea had been charmed; mostly clear skies, sunshine, and comfortable seas that reflected the clouds and sky. Since we rounded Scotch Cap Pinnacle in Unimak Pass and entered the Bering Sea nine days ago, the weather has been with us. Not a hint of the rough conditions typically associated with the Bering Sea. If the low caught up with us during the night, we would be experiencing a Bering Sea we had not yet seen. It would also make our arrival in Nome considerably more complicated. The open coast of Nome takes a pounding in a strong south wind. Docking becomes impossible and the Clipper would have to anchor offshore. All of us, and our gear, would have to be shuttled by zodiac into a sheltered area of the port. This was a soggy prospect at best and a tough way to end the voyage. If the seas were too rough for Plan B, we would have to head for the sheltered port of Teller to the north and bus back down to Nome. As a hedge, the Captain increased our speed, which would burn more fuel and get us to Nome earlier than necessary, but hopefully ahead of the storm. We collapsed into bed that night not knowing what the Bering Sea was about to serve up, or what shape our departure might take. Harriman Retraced was not over just yet.  

At first light, the view from our window was a dock. Since Teller, where we had been just days before, did not have a dock large enough for our ship, this must be Nome. Fumbling about the cabin, I remembered our visit to Yakutat. During our welcoming, healing ceremony at Yakutat, a Tlingit elder presented us with an Eagle feather and a prayer. It was the Tribe's prayer that we would travel under the Eagle's wing and for the remainder of our voyage we would have safe travel and fair weather. To the very last day the blessing held. The sun was rising over Nome, the storm would not arrive until later in the day, and I was deeply grateful to the Yakutat Tribe and the spirit of the Eagle feather that traveled with us. I wondered what the Clipper Odyssey would encounter when she headed back out to sea that afternoon. How would she handle the swells and wind that challenged her hull? But now, that was someone else's concern.  Soon the ship broke into organized mayhem as people, luggage, equipment, and salutations all merged toward the gangway and waiting buses.

One by one the buses left the dock for Nome and the charter flight to Anchorage. A group of us stood around the gangway talking with the Captain and crew, stalling until the last bus. Inevitably, we had to say our goodbyes and board the remaining orange school bus. Maureen and I ungracefully worked our way down the narrow aisle to the back seats, wrestling with laptops and daypacks.  Completing the mental checklist of what possessions should be sitting next to me on the seat, I settled in for the ride. The bus rolled down the pier as I drifted out of the chatter going on around me.  Unconsciously, but deliberately, my eyes swept the scene surrounding us until I was twisted, looking over my shoulder out the back window. My line-of-sight intersected with the ship, white against the dock and Alaska horizon. With years of planning, all efforts had been focused on beginnings: getting Retraced launched, making it to the ship, staying on task, making the observations that needed to be made. In the small space of this newest moment, The Harriman Expedition Retraced and Mr. Harriman's 1899 expedition were joined in the past. As the bus made its way down the long pier, the Clipper Odyssey, framed by the bus window, grew smaller, more distant.  Then it disappeared altogether. 

 

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For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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