National Geographic : 1952 Jul
The National Geographic Magazine "Bering Sea is too shallow to work up a swell," Walter Hammond, the chief mate, explained. "The Pacific south of the Aleutians is four miles deep: now there's only a hundred feet of water under our keel. The whole eastern side of this 1,000-mile-wide sea is very shoal." When we passed Cape Mohican on Nunivak Island, I imagined that even the flounders lying on the bottom had to duck our keel. Some 470 miles north of Akutan we an chored off Hooper Bay. An Alaska Housing Authority barge came alongside. Hooper Bay's 300 Eskimos, among Alaska's most primitive, live in dome-roofed, sunken sod houses (barabaras) which until recently had dirt floors. "We are raising the Eskimo out of a hole in the ground, where he is dirty and snug, to the surface, where he will be cleaner and probably cold," said a construction foreman. Northeast of the Yukon Delta, whose marsh grass flats barely peep above high water, we nosed into anchorage off St. Michael, Bering Sea doorway to the vast Yukon Basin. It has little left to show for the swashbuckling role it played in the gold-rush days around 1898, when it was the relay point for transfer of men and supplies from seagoing vessels to the Yu kon River boats. Herb Johnston, genial port captain for the long-established Northern Commercial Com pany, still going strong, piloted a group of us shoreward in his towboat for a conducted tour of shrunken St. Michael. From the har bor, sidewalks wandered off aimlessly across the houseless tundra. "Most of the buildings were burned for fire wood," Herb explained, "including the old U. S. Army barracks." Boneyard of Gold-rush River Boats I inquired about St. Michael's boneyard of steamboats that once held the battered his toric hulls of the Susie, Sarah,Hannah,Louise, Will H. Isom, and other river palaces that a half century before had transported thousands of frenzied gold seekers up the Yukon into the Klondike. "They were burned, too," Herb said, point ing to a heap of ashes and twisted iron. But today, after all, most Alaskans are too busy creating a present and a future to think about the past.* From St. Michael we headed north across Norton Sound for Golovin to discharge and pick up passengers. Because of the shallow water, we had to anchor eight miles from town in a choppy sea. Our new passengers, arriving stuffed in the cabin of a pitching, spray smothered tug, were half seasick and dizzy from engine fumes. The North Star's Arctic-wise officers hoisted the newcomers aboard in slingloads, then de posited shore-bound passengers on the tug with a skill born of long experience (page 74). They were justly proud that in 45 anchorages they had never dropped a slingload of freight or passengers. Sailing on, we passed through Bering Strait, its shores obscured by fog. As we crossed the Arctic Circle, His Majesty Boreas Rex, Sovereign of the Frozen Wastes and Ruler of the Midnight Sun, alias the captain, held court with his gracious queen, alias the bosun, whose lovely hairdo was achieved with one of his newest deck mops. Lacking certification of membership in the Top of the World order, I joined the initiates in kissing the queen's foot (prompted by vigorous whacks from the court policeman's paddle) and waded in a tub of ice cubes repre senting the frozen Arctic. Finally I endured some forced feeding of that Eskimo delicacy muktuk, consisting of whaleskin and blubber, and of quak (frozen raw herring), and the Nectar of the Gods, ingredients unknown. Sounding an Ocean with an Oar At Kotzebue, our first Arctic village, I rose early to go ashore-and found that we seemed to be anchored in the middle of the Arctic Ocean (page 63). The low shore was a faint blue line 15 miles away. Sixteen passengers were lowered to a barge already stacked with 35 tons of freight, and an Eskimo tug towed us off into the emptiness of Kotzebue Sound. One man bailed; another steered with one hand, using the other to tinker with a sputtering gasoline engine. Three hours passed. While the other pas sengers drowsed, I noted apprehensively that the tug's motor had stopped for the sixth time, that both ship and shore were lost to view, and that the wind was rising. I began to entertain visions of being washed overboard in an Arctic storm; or perhaps we would drift across to Siberia and end our days in forced labor. Just then the Eskimo bailer jabbed an oar over the side. Silly, I thought, sounding with an oar in the middle of an ocean. The oar blade struck bottom at two-and-a -half feet depth. Both tug and barge were stuck on a bar. We were traversing shallow flats built up by silt carried into Kotzebue Sound during summer by the Kobuk and Noatak Rivers. Probing for the channel like two confused bird dogs, our Eskimo pilots finally located the old wreck and bobbing black barrel that mark the channel to Kotzebue. After six wearisome hours the features of * See "Strategic Alaska Looks Ahead," by Ernest H. Gruening, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, Sep tember, 1942.