There are sunflower seeds at the bottom of my sea bags. No, pouring them out is not an hourglass’s measure of how far-too-long it has been since I last used the bags. The seeds are likely a sign I need to build shelves, or tidy the store room such that the cats can patrol effectively. In the interim, some instinct-driven red-backed vole has packed a heavy lunch for some event or a voyage it didn’t dare to imagine, as they do, but when they consider carefully the unknown, they never go anywhere.
We drive out from the hotel in four truck loads and begin to mobilize the ship’s onboard labs. Crates and cases and boxes are pulled from the container fixed to the working deck. Delicate instruments are unpacked, and pairs of boots, and the foul weather gear that was loaded and shipped months ago.
Everything is tied down or made easy to reach in a lashed bag or a tray screwed into a tabletop, from microscopes to extra pens and lens wipes and laptop adapters. All the lab surfaces are perforated with threaded inserts so that expensive machines can be anchored with bungee and parachute cords. In the lab, anything left to rock and rattle within a tray is just one more noise in a place busy with the air system, the engines, the winches, the gurgle of the sampler pulling water from the science seachest. Upstairs, the staterooms are much quieter. Hardware put into drawers is padded with clothes, else the sliding and the rolling things knock the tin insides through this week and next week and the week after that and the week after that. If we’re not careful, over time, this can drive a person mad.
I exaggerate, but once everything seems secure for leaving port in the morning, we eat dinner on ship and walk back out along the muddy jetty in twos and threes, past the airport and then down Seppela Drive into town. About two miles to the center of things. Squalls come and go. The NOAA boys from the Fairweather offer us a ride. Steve checks out the back of the van to see what sort of room there is, to help with our excuses. We want to stretch our legs, even though it has begun to rain again. I tell Steve, walking to the bar is neither here nor there, but walking home again, to the ship, is something I’ve come to look forward to.
From the back deck of the Nugget Inn, we can see the Sikuliaq’s upper decks on the far side of the bouldery jetties. The ship is tied up just west of us. To her stern, the NOAAS Fairweather is flying flags for the admiral in town, and the Korean icebreaker, the R/V Araon, is waiting just off shore. We think it will take our spot when we leave tomorrow. This is Alaska. This is Nome, so there are folks in t-shirts on jet-skies racing just off-shore. There’s a fist-fight behind us on the shore road, which Mike watches silently. Those of us with our backs turned are none-the-wiser. Later, he says he really didn’t want to interrupt what we were talking about just to gawp. I suppose that’s us, quiet observers with a big boat.
Phil brings part of a second round from the bar out onto the deck where we blink in the low, northern sun. Alaska, in summer, so no one needs walk back to the boat in the dark. We discuss past expeditions and who has sailed with whom and when and where. We wonder what the weather will be. The satellites see ice over some of our stations, but there’s an equal chance it will be driven north as the winds change to the east. Will there be swells? Will the ice still be there when we need to collect our moorings? Will the glider behave on its test dive, and will be confident we can let it dive again out of sight so it makes its own months-long journey to Barrow? We talk about the ship and how it has evolved. We talk about seasickness. We talk about the vagaries of itinerary at sea.
Here’s what to know about a ship: it’s trying to kill you. Watch where you put your feet. Watch where you put your hands. Here’s what to know about seasickness: it’s your inner ear telling your body, for some reason—probably due to an evolutionary cock-up—that you are being poisoned. Food in your stomach is a good thing. Hydration is a good thing. Dry crackers are great. Coffee and other greasy foods spell trouble. Ginger works. When you do get sick, and everyone has their limits, it’s the worst thing in the world, not unlike an adult’s inexplicable and seemingly sudden revulsion for rollercoasters. Celia says she’d rather catch the flu. The best thing, of course, is lying down. Lying down makes everything better. Lying down takes the motion of the ocean and turns your nightmare into a hammock. It’s not a solution though, because we’ve only got the boat for a few weeks—and every hour counts. There’s science to be done on deck, and you have to get up anyway, to eat and keep the stomach busy. Busy is good. Busy is probably the best thing to be.
The Nugget Inn and bar was built because Alaska Airlines wanted a swell place for their customers to stay in the remoteness of the north. Now, both the Inn and Nome have been here awhile, perched on the state’s western coast. Kate says she stayed here not so long ago—she can’t remember the project off hand—says the floors have gone soft. And that balcony out back looks sketchy like a homemade moon rocket looks sketchy. The engineers among us are impressed by the turnbuckle wire reinforcement, strung out to the end of the flying 2×4, more by the attempt than anything else. Turn away. Have a drink. Look back out to sea. Carin gets a text from home. Sounds as if her cat captured a mouse and was found on the bed trying to eat it.
Later, we learn the crew can sing karaoke, and the odd few can play pool and eventually finish a rack. And when they turn up, we know the crew of the Fairweather hasn’t got a chance, even if they’ve a shiny white van in spite of the jetty mud. So, we’re good at before parties.
At Montreal, I wandered back to the ship with the cook. At San Juan, we closed the bar and fell the brief way back down the hill to the Navy docks. At Dutch Harbor, we hiked between the Grand Aleutian and the heels of Ballyhoo. At Nome, the sun is up and there is gold dust in the mud between the treads of our shoes.
Nome was once the largest city in Alaska, back at the turn of the century when the gold rush was here and not yet shifted to upstart Fairbanks. Mining barges large and small now litter the banks along Port Road. We can’t find a crane near large enough to put some of these hulks, even unfueled, back into the water. To the west, we can see a bucket dredge in the distance, silhouetted against the setting sun.
To follow the R/V Sikuliaq, find @Sikuliaq on Twitter and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Feathers on Facebook and @arctic_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.