March 2006

written by Kathy Sarns Irwin ~ photos by Kathy and Pat Irwin


Friday morning we left Kotzebue. The town was quickly swallowed up by white vast wilderness . Our destination was Buckland, a small village only accessible by snow machine or boat in summer, and now for the first time BICYCLES!

Billy had said he would call Buckland and let the search and rescue know we were coming and if we were not there by Monday morning he would come looking. He was very worried and we felt guilty for putting this burden on him. His concern also made us even more aware that we needed to be REALLY careful.

We do not know how far it is to Buckland. Some said 50 miles, some 75, others said 45, later we figured it was about 95-100 the way we went.

Most folks would say, oh about a half day on snow machine, if weather is good.

The trail was hard and well used by snow machines. The wind was at our backs and the sun was in our eyes - we actually felt hot. The first 10 miles made us wonder why there are not more people out here doing this! A snow machine passed us and slowed down to look and gave a thumbs up to be sure we were OK. We gave thumbs up, he nodded and continued on.

NO ONE passed us without checking on our condition. And the word spread fast about the two crazy whites folks on bicycles.

As we started down towards Hotham inlet off the Chukchi sea that everyone called "The Lake" the wind switched directions and I struggled for control in a small ground blizzard on the steep icy descent as 3 snow machines passed us. At the bottom they stopped to see if they were seeing things. They were headed to a basketball tournament in Selawik. One of them was a trooper. They thought we were nuts. But then I thought who's really nuts here? These folks regularly risked their lives traveled 50-100 miles on snow machine through the toughest country in the world to just see a basket ball game!

But then again they KNEW what they were getting into.
As the wind picked up I was instantly frozen.
As they talked to Pat I tried to be nonchalant as I quickly put my wool shirt back on under my coat as it flapped in the 20-30 below zero wind. Suddenly I realized my fingers were frozen too. They were asking if we had a radio and if any one knew where we were going. We said no radio, but yes Billy knows about our route. No need for last names out here. As I swung my arms like a helicopter forcing the blood back to my fingers, I am sure they thought we were good as dead.They told us again to be careful before they drove away. It was a nice sunny day and the freezing wind off the frozen ocean sent a chill through my soul.

I never took layers off again. The Conditions changed too quickly out here. This wasn't Kansas anymore.