Back to Civilization

Cooper Island, Alaska, Aug. 22, 2009 — Last Monday evening near the end of a rainy stormy day, I called Lewis Brower, who would be my transportation to Barrow, to let him know that I hoped to see him on Wednesday when winds were predicted to be close to 10 mph. All day Monday wind speeds had been in the high teens and low 20s and from a direction that meant waves were breaking on both sides of the island. To my surprise Lewis told me he was getting his boat ready and would be on his way from Barrow in about half an hour. The sky, which had been dark gray most of the day, was starting to brighten to the west with blue patches contrasting sharply with the dark clouds. While winds were starting to slightly decrease there were still occasional 25 mph gusts and the weather service did not predict any change to occur until Wednesday.


I did not want to get my hopes up. After five weeks with only a single one-hour of direct contact with humans (when Ocean Watch stopped by for an hour to drop off the inverter), I was anxious to see and talk to most anyone. I was operating under the assumption that Lewis would likely not make it all the way to the island, but knowing that if he did I would have to be ready to leave. I started to dismantle and pack everything that had kept me alive and relatively happy for the previous two months. This meant taking down the wind generator, battery bank, propane stove, VHF radio and tower, computer connection to the satellite phone and antenna and storing and packing food and camping gear. I set to the side those things I would need to get me through the night if Lewis had to turn back. The latter consisting of a sleeping bag, shotgun with shells, a satellite phone, a small primus stove and a small amount of food. If I did not leave I would have to sleep in a corner of the cabin that had gone from my living quarters to a storage shed in less than two hours.

Against all odds at about 9 p.m., I saw Lewis’s boat coming through the waves and with his help the boat was loaded up and cabin boarded up within three hours. We left Cooper just as the sun was setting at 1130 p.m. and arrived in Barrow about two hours later. After almost five weeks alone it was good to see and talk with anyone, but especially good to see Lewis, who combines the skills and knowledge of someone who has lived his entire life in the Arctic with a positive attitude and sense of humor that is maintained in, apparently, most situations.

The following morning I awoke in Barrow to see that it was lucky we used the weather window we did since winds were again high. Just a few yards from my room the Chukchi Sea beach at Barrow was experiencing high surf. A storm a few weeks earlier had covered part of the beach road and this storm had waves crashing over the sand bags and piles of gravel that were reinforcing the beach.

After spending Tuesday morning dealing with the transition from the cold and solitary life I had on Cooper Island, I had lunch at Brower’s Café. The café dates from the late 19th century and is in the oldest framed building in the Arctic. It originally housed the Cape Smythe Whaling and Trading Company. It now has an arch made of two bowhead whale jawbones and two frames of umiaqs, the skin boats still used for spring whaling. While there are now a surprising number of restaurants in Barrow, only Brower’s Café with its history and view of the beach and ocean, provides its patrons with a sense of history and with a view that lets you know you are in the Arctic.

I am now back in Seattle and dealing with end of season logistics, but hope to have a post tomorrow about what happened with the guillemots, puffins and polar bears during my last days on the island. I have heard from a number of people who have asked how the guillemots did and want to pass on the good news that the first of the guillemots fledged on August 16, the offspring of Yellow-Black-Red and White-Gray-Brown. It left wearing the brown color band that will identify it as a member of the Class of 2009.

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