A Swim Across the Arctic Circle

Rich Pagen|June 22, 2010|Blog Post

Morning light revealed a low gray cloudbank blanketing the 700-foot tall peaks of steep-sided King Island—the first stop on our Wild Alaska and the Bering Sea expedition. We bundled up, and carefully made our way down to the Zodiacs for an early morning exploration of this spectacular place. Named by Captain Cook in 1778 for a member of his party, King Island was once the winter home of a group of about 200 Inupiat. They subsisted on walrus, seals, and birds for most of the year, leaving the island en masse each summer for a couple months spent on the Alaska mainland coast. The site has been abandoned since 1970, with nothing but deteriorating buildings left as reminders of the hardy people who once lived in this unlikely locale.

Huge rafts of seabirds greeted us as we approached the guano-stained cliffs. Murres were crowded together on their nesting ledges, sometimes so closely that they were touching. Each pair attempts to hatch and fledge a single young per year. Several weeks after the egg hatches, the chick makes a perilous “swan dive” from the ledge, hopefully landing safely in the sea without catching the eye of a hungry predator like a glaucous gull. The father then leads the small chick away from the colony, where he raises the chick himself out at sea.

During the evening, Expedition Leader John Yersin announced that the Clipper Odyssey was soon to cross the Arctic Circle. We gathered around the pool, which actually looked quite inviting as the sun illuminated its turquoise (ok, greenish really) water. The reality was that the deck department had just filled the pool with water straight out of the Bering Strait, with absolutely no heating involved whatsoever. With just seconds to go, the ship sounded its horn and the swimmers took to the water, effectively “swimming” across the Arctic Circle. Cameras clicked as the hearty souls shed layers and took the icy plunge.

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