We had every reason to believe we wouldn’t see a shred of sea ice for the duration of this cruise. Last year, the project’s cruise was run in September, and there was no ice then. Sea ice hasn’t been observed in August in this part of Beaufort since 2006. Not that there’s more ice this year than in the previous decade, only that the winds move it around, and the pattern and strength of the winds this year seems to have shifted into an older regime.
Today, we make an attempt to reach a pair of moorings to the east of us where the sea ice has covered their positions thus far this expedition. At the moment, the ice there is patchy, so the ship pulls up the acoustic centerboard and begins to drive through. Someone clarifies that the Sikuliaq is not an ice breaker. It’s an “ice pusher.” Technically yes, it is not an ice breaker, but it does break ice. The Sikuliaq is ice capable—capable of easy driving through young, year-old ice—‘sikuliaq.’
As we crack through the longer ice floes, we scare up the arctic cod we’ve had trouble hunting en masse with the Tucker Trawl and our sounding pings. When the cod swim over the edges of the blue ice, they are clearly visible. Marty sees one trapped in a blue pool and be quickly scooped up by a gull. They are small fish and especially vulnerable from above when backlit, sandwiched between an overcast sky and the bright blue ice. It’s cold. It’s raining, but Jennifer and Kristina put on Mustang suits so they are impervious to anything the sea has to throw at us. I deposit my camera bag in a puddle on an upper deck. It doesn’t matter. It’ll dry out later and in meantime I can feel a little less encumbered and enjoy the sounds of ice cracking under the hull.
The ship makes headway, but the going is slow. Considering the limited work days left to our calendar, we soon decide to turn around. Too much time would be spent getting to the moorings with few chances to recover them once we’re on station. The batteries on the moorings are good for another year. A different ship will be asked to recover them.
In the evening, we pull down the work boat. The fish team want to go after a few of the cod hiding under the ice floes. I’m happy for that and the chance to photograph the ship again before the fog finds us.
So, again I’m in a small boat on the sea, and amongst ice floes for the first time in 14 years—then one of my first photographic expeditions on any terrain. In 2004, I was in the Chukchi Sea on the other side of Point Barrow, photographing Inupiat hunters take seals from 14-foot open boats with a rifle and a harpoon, stalking about the floes and then racing through the gaps to get to the seals before they sank. We spent whole days on the water, eating packed sandwiches and drinking coffee from a thermos. I made the mistake of loaning my lens wipe to the man with the rifle, only to see it flutter away in the wind. This time I’ve brought three. This time, our fishing trip sees us much farther out to sea and always within foggy eyesight of the mother ship.
Before we go, with rod and reel and cameras, so many cameras, Steve makes a joke about how if I don’t come back, can he have my stuff? I tell him I’m carrying it all with me. So, no running off and leaving us out in the middle of the ocean. I’ve done this before—loaded with a backpack and a duffle bag and cameras. We’ve gunned the motor so as not to be captured by ice floes, and we’ve been stranded on an ice floe as the pilot fixed the outboard—and we’ve raced for Barrow as the pack-ice pushed us to shore and we walked the last few miles to the end of the road where we were met by trucks. So, sure, if we don’t see you again, I’m confident we’ll make it somewhere. I’m content to see where that story goes. Trucks and a wet road. I know how this works. Adventure. You just keep going until there’s a bed and some food in a cupboard.
On the Beaufort, the boat motor gurgles and the world is pretty silent except for all our moving about in boots on the aluminum. I remember that sound, I think. I’ve watched the video. I wonder if I could I catch the Sikuliaq’s Wi-Fi on my phone and fire off a selfie from the shadow of an ice floe. But the fish team casts their lines, and I take photographs of them instead. Time is short and I was never here. And the fog closes in.
We never lose sight of the ship, though it is sometimes reduced to the weight of a ghost drifted across a little used road. And we are not so far away as we were on Kasatochi a couple years ago. We drove that skiff out from the volcano in dense fog to find the Tiglâx (Tec-la) waiting in one of the many straits where the Pacific meets the Bering Sea. For a long while, we saw only that boat’s red light atop the mast. Then, when we were right upon her, she appeared and we were home. Another away-party. Another all-returned.
Now too, the Sikuliaq appears as a great wall in the sea, to bump up against as the davit’s hook comes down and picks us up and pulls us away from the surprise of the August sea ice. If it takes another 14 years, this will be the last time. Steve does not get my stuff. Not yet.
You can also follow the R/V Sikuliaq @rmtopp& @Sikuliaqon Twitter and @toppworldon Instagram and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To further chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Featherson Facebook.
—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.