This is Not About That, Not Yet

August 1, 2018

The ship’s not here, yet, so this is not yet about the ship. And the rain, in Nome, at times lands sideways. This is not about the rain. Sometimes it rains when you are waiting for a ship. For the moment, the swells onshore are clearly large enough to keep the ship at sea, and the puddle in the road intersection below the hotel is bidding to become another significant body of water. Trucks bury their tires to the rims. Waves lap at the ragged sidewalk.

I live in the North most of the year, when I haven’t contrived to get away and remind myself the world is large and connected and changing faster than we can begin to describe what it is to be a system—now. Deep breath. This is not about the science, not yet. I live in the North—so I can expect the quiet, grey days, the pause, and I know where to find the green in them. Here, in Nome, the green stretches away from the coast in a seemingly endless roil broken by the odd lava flow and scattered granite tors. At the Parks Service office, a ranger reads the nearest villages off a map, in case we have a truck. We do have a truck, but everything is hours in any direction. And we think the ship will dock soon, once the swells lie down. Then, even after the ship arrives, we have days before we reach our primary study area, north in the Beaufort Sea. This is not about that.

This afternoon, we haunt the hotel and the cafes and the gift shops, the bakery and the restaurants. All the old signs are weathered, the paint a peeled skin, but we don’t need to know what they say anymore. When a port town achieves maturity, the sidewalks become worn in. Subtleties in the grade guide us to the places that are important and usually steer us clear of places we have no business opening the door. But this is not yet about the places we didn’t go.

This is the day the cast assembles, and to a large extent airport currents bring people together naturally, because everyone is flying in from the four corners. Like magic, we cluster outside the gate. We see friends and colleagues we haven’t seen in a year, doing something commonplace as waiting for a plane. The airport is a natural corridor of comings and goings, and more often than not, a place of gathering. Later, of course, the pub becomes a green room, that most gregarious of places.

This is my fifth time waiting for the Sikuliaq, the fourth time I’ll board. I was lucky to be there at one beginning, waiting for the shell of the giant machine to be dropped into the Menomonee River. That day in October, it rained like mad, and the guests of honor had trouble breaking the champagne against the underside of the ship’s hard nose. The bottle slipped from their fingers and fell from the gantry. Our shipyard hosts ran back to the trailer and pulled another from the case. In the end, all the good photographs were taken, and everyone shook hands and water as the ship pushed its first and largest displacement across the river.

The expanse of the sea is deceptive in its seeming uniformity, but we’re guided to our places on the stage. Infancy is rough like early rehearsals. We don’t need, nor necessarily want them to go too well. But ships and towns mature. Weathered wood and rust stains are evidence of the best of repeated performances, poor copies only if you think of them as copies, as something similar to what has gone before—which is to say, nothing is ever routine, but only, gradually worn in. Nothing can be trusted when new. A cruise is an imperfect performance and an expedition is something else, a traveling show, a motley crew, and we haven’t got to the karaoke yet. This is not about that.

The second time I found the ship, Montreal became an extended run of settling into cafés and watching all the people, the summer groundlings, file past. At some point each day I’d walk back to the hotel to say I’ll have the room another night, if it’s available, if that’s okay? “The ship’s not in. She’s held up in the Lakes.” She was a new thing then.

I expect I will dream tonight, because I do, every time, at the start of a cruise. Although, you can’t rush these things. The dream might play coy and wait for the ship to arrive, or for the sea out of sight of land. But I think I’ve been too long now not at sea. I’m convinced the imagining already pushes at my subconscious. The dream, a dream, at the beginning of events, has become inevitable. Now I’m impatient for it, because waiting, because I like sleeping at sea, because the beginning of an expedition is a defining thing. The vision will be important to remember, insight born of a rocking vessel, a rumble of engines, and the scream of a winch at all hours. The dream will be a mix of what has come before—and where we are going. Dare I say, this too is an important part of the adventure, where even a nightmare is instructive.

The Sikuliaq was framed-out in Wisconsin, but she’s been built of years working at sea. In the early days, while she edged her way across lakes and through locks, Montreal was a week of Sundays. I wrote about the buskers and played piano on the street in front of an old church. I checked the maps for the ship’s progress. I emailed the office and was told she’d made it through the St. Lawrence. “No,” I said. The ship’s position was not a secret. The office was reading a schedule already a week late in the making.

Mere months later, the ship’s arrival in San Juan was an exacting scene professionally directed. Kelsey and I saw the ship appear on the horizon and watched her drive past Fort Morro. We filmed the right to left pass in a single take and then returned to the hotel, our other cameras and the resident cats. We collected our bags.

Arriving in Dutch Harbor the following Spring, the Sikuliaq was equally well on schedule, though that would change, once we began grinding ice in the Bering Sea. Before the ship arrived, while she was still bumping down the energetic chain, I spent a night at the Grand Aleutian. I wandered down roads to see the old bunkers and the gun emplacements—the new dream for that expedition already scribbled into what passed for a journal. And the next morning, the agent shuttled us to the ship. Nome is a little like that, now. Between the squalls, I shamble past store fronts and weather-beaten signs and cue cards—again surprised my notebook fits in my rain jacket pocket and that I haven’t done even this bit of stage business properly in far too long. The ship is on the horizon by dinner. As we eat, stretched out at our table for twenty, we can watch it out the windows, broadside, biding its time. Tomorrow, we will drive to the dock and there she’ll be, a gift brought in on the tide, nose pointed back the way we’ll go.

*To follow the R/V Sikuliaq, find @Sikuliaq on Twitter and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To chart the course and interact with this August 2018 expedition to the Beaufort Sea, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Feathers on Facebook and @Artic_WFFF on Twitter.


—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.

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