The reddish orange hue of the sun spread behind a thin veil of overcast clouds, but was still high up on the horizon, accented by the subtle rise and fall of snow covered hilltops with a dip where the valley and frozen river lay. It was 11:30pm on Sunday, May 12th and I had to make a decision whether we would ride by snow machine overnight to Kotzebue. It was a very late spring, so the ocean, river, and tundra lay completely frozen. I was supposed to fly out from Kotzebue the following morning to the village of Shungnak, but had been weathered into Buckland since the day before. The wind was blowing, taking the temperature to about 2 degrees, but the sky was beginning to open up. I felt the land calling me.
I had been in Buckland since Thursday capturing interviews and filming the high school graduation ceremony, as the last shoot for our documentary film. They had thirteen graduates and each of them offered an emotion filled speech, acknowledging the challenges they overcame and their appreciative love of family and supporters. It was beautiful to witness and held special significance to me as well, as I had traveled to Buckland several times over the previous two years, building relationships with the people.
I was tired, but knew it was time for me to adventure out onto the land. I didn’t have the best gear, but felt it would be good enough to get me to Kotzebue. We had to gas up the snow machines, so had to pay an extra twenty dollars to get someone out to the gas pump that late. It happened to be a new friend Floyd and his wife Cheryl. Two days earlier they had shared some incredible home cooked blueberry and pumpkin pies with me after the graduation at their place. Cheryl looked at me and asked, “is that what you're wearing?” Floyd says, “you may have to learn how to eskimo dance to keep you warm.” We all had a good laugh. They had us follow them to their house and proceeded to hand me a good hat, mittens, and goggles, then said, “just have someone hand carry it back over on a flight from Kotz tomorrow.” Kind people.
That bright reddish orange sun had broken through the clouds, presenting its majestic spread of color and huge marble of a body. It was just setting as we tied down two sleds full of gear. There were three of us, Arthur who is from Buckland and knew the trail well, Thomas from Kotzebue, and myself. They doubled up on the Polaris and I drove the ski-doo, following behind them.
We traveled first by river, then ascended up onto the tundra, before reaching the ocean. While the sun had set, it still provided a dim light across the landscape throughout the night. We stopped at elephant point, shut down the snow machine engines and stood, listening to the wind howl and watching a dusting of snow traverse the land. The few minutes felt like they could have lasted a lifetime. I felt fully alive, every breath filling me with life.
We crossed the frozen ocean to cut time and stopped once again at Callahan, where there was a small cabin we could stand in for a break from the wind while sharing some coffee and dried caribou meat. We joked about winter not wanting to let go and questioned whether spring would come in time for youth camps at the end of June. We were about two hours into the trip by that time.
We spent another two hours crossing land and ice that evening. As we began our descent towards Kotzebue, coming out at Sadie Creek, the sun rose in the distance, offering full lighting across the land and ocean for our final few miles.
The guys went on to their house and I pulled away to my friend Aucha’ house. She had been the one who sent down the snow machines to let me drive back to Kotzebue. She had known I needed some time on the land. I was grateful for her insight. That night was a long much needed moment of meditation and rejuvenation.