Wind: East 15
Sea: 1 Meter
Sky: occluded, high ceiling, no rain/snow
Temp: Air, 6C and dropping; Sea, 3.5C and dropping
Bar: 1018 and dropping
At 141 degrees west longitude our world changes. It comes back into focus. At least that’s the case if you ask our chart plotter. Much of the route we are just completing through the Canadian High Arctic is poorly laid down. In places, coastal lines and soundings have not been updated since the original voyages of discovery, and our chart plotter has responded to this cartographic ambiguity by omitting any information whatsoever for the Northwest Passage. For weeks we’ve been looking at a gray screen with blobs of green where land might be.*
But that’s all about to change. In thirty six miles we enter American territorial waters; we cross into that part of the Beaufort Sea that is north of Alaska, and with that our plotter finds its feet again. Suddenly there’s the familiar yellow for land, white for water, bottom contours and the reassurance of soundings. And as if to put a coda on this happy event, some early humorist has given the adjacent spit the name of Demarcation Point. Demarcation indeed!
We’re number counting now. Demarcation 36 miles; Barrow 343; Nome 941. They’re all THREE digits for the first time this age. The goal of completing the Northwest Passage is no longer abstract; it feels immanent. And our conversation reflects our excitement.
We talk endlessly about Alaska. This is new territory for everyone aboard but me-for Les and Ali, this is the second attempt to get there, so the approach is sweet; curiosity is bubbling. Does it have trees (we’ve been above tree line since mid July)? Is it very wet? Does the water freeze over in winter? Will we see otters? How do I say Keyshican? What are the people like? Can we pan for gold? Is it OK to have a rifle? How do we troll for salmon? Will the Bald Eagles still be there? Do the towns have bars (Greenland villages are kind of dry and Canadian Inuit villages, decidedly so). Are Grizzlies as big as Polar Bears and do they walk the streets? Where are the hot springs?
Evening. Now the boat flies along in the dark under a heavy sky. Wind is building from the east; a small sea is running. A flash of moon reveals whitecaps. Ali cooked dinner tonight. She prepares most of our serious meals, not because she wants to but because she is the best cook aboard. Her fish pie uses the last of the Arctic Char, fresh-caught for us from a river near Cambridge Bay. A celebratory meal. Welcome to Alaska!
But there is a moment when we notice the sea temperature. From 4 degrees it has dropped to 2.5. Captain Bob Bartlett says that one can “smell” ice approaching by rapid reductions in sea temperature, Our ice is still out there some 25 miles north, out of sight but not out of mind as we race down this narrow, slowly closing corridor. We are entering Alaska, but we are not out of the woods.
*We have back-up electronic chart sources and a slew of paper charts, so we are not lacking for pilotage aid. Still it is odd the Garmin plotter draws a blank for the Northwest Passage.