March 2006

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


Sastrugi is a series of wave-like ridges of HARD snow that often resemble frozen waves.

We were cycling happily across a frozen ocean following a snow machine path when Pat stopped and said we might have missed a right hand turn.

I looked around at pure white in all directions. OK, yeah right.

We sat there and had a snack as the cold wind began to creep in under our layers. A snow machine was coming our way so we waited.

A husband and wife bundled up in fur parkas stopped and looked at us for several silent moments. Then the man spoke up from under his fur lined hood and face mask "Where are you going?"

He said "This is not the way to Buckland. You are headed to Selawik. And you cannot ride a bike to Buckland. It is impossible."

He pointed to the cliffs of Baldwin Peninsula (the only obvious route to Buckland) and said "you follow those south until a right turn that cuts over to the shelter cabin"..and added again,

"you cannot ride a bike to Buckland that is crazy. No..

It cannot be done. "

After he explained a few more times we could not ride our bikes to Buckland, we waved good bye and headed across the hard wind sculpted snow (SASTRUGI ) towards the cliffs about a half mile away across the frozen inlet. It was like riding on frozen waves. Up and up and then wham down the other side. Snow was mostly hard packed by the extreme wind and cold except for the hollow places of sand-like snow where our wheels would dig in and I would be ejected onto the barren seascape in a big heap. I would lay there and think "Maybe you can't ride a bike to Buckland..."

With the sun shining and white frozen waves, it was kind of like being on a beach except it was about 20 below zero F.

When we reached the cliffs we looked for a snow machine trail-which would have been the right hand turn we had missed when we had reached Hotham Inlet. (called "the Lake" by locals)

We could see an occasional indent in the show of what had been a track. Gee and this was supposed to be a well used trail.

But we had the cliffs to guide us and the snow was hard and we stayed on top- most of time. We headed south with the cliffs of narrow Baldwin Peninsula separating us from Kotzebue Sound.

Even though we had very nice weather, the wind never stopped. Occasionally a gust from Kotzebue Sound blasted through valleys of the narrow peninsula and it made us shudder to think that this is the GOOD weather.

It didn't take long for the constant wind to begin to affect me. It stirred up a primal fear deep in side.. a dull terror in the pit of my stomach. Knowing that at any moment the caress of this frigid wind could turn into a deadly assault. The weather was BIG here and we were very very small and the wind was a constant reminder. There was NO where to hide out here. I wished we had the radio and GPS. I wished I had a hood on my fancy Sugoi jacket. A part of me was thoroughly enjoying being out there but I felt very humble and thankful for every sunny uneventful moment.

I have GREAT respect for the Inupiat people who have lived and thrived in this climate for 1000s of years. Its a kind of stamina and endurance I cannot begin to fathom.