Midnight Road to Beringia
I travel to the Seward Peninsula to help unravel the story of an Oregon stone implement.
Updated August 28, 2014
I am moving across the tundra quickly, because about a mile out a gyrfalcon is beating its wings above a cliff, and I want to see it close up before it soars beyond the bald mountains. With my eyes to the sky, I barely realize I’ve just breached an abandoned quarry. Things just start to happen so fast – the surprised giant wakes and stands in defiance. His brown, shaggy coat droops to his knees, and those giant horns face me.
My friends say I am jumpy around wild animals – this may be true, but can you blame me? He’s about thirty feet away – do I run? Moose, yes. Bear, no. But a muskox? The jeep is about a half-mile away. He’ll win the charge to the Jeep, I’ll win a bolt directly to the gravel road, which is much closer than the Jeep.
Seconds pass, he’s not charging. I give him a second look; is he more nervous than me?
I give him a wide berth, and keep moving. When I reach the open cliffs, the gyrfalcon is long gone, but below, in a broad, empty valley, a herd of muskoxen amble. The animal I saw back at the quarry was a lone male; the former leader of this herd. When his age showed in his leadership, he was cast off by the herd, as is customary among the muskoxen. He will live and die as a hermit – the price of power. The realization of my encounter shames me: All male muskox are extremely aggressive, and may charge with a force that belies their sad, grizzled faces.
I have come to the Seward Peninsula of Alaska – the threshold of the western hemisphere – to pursue the origins of a stone tool my brother and I found in the Southeastern desert of Oregon three years ago. Instead of asking the experts or reading books, I decided to learn about the tool, and thus the history of my adopted state, the hard way – by traveling, chatting and listening.
The tundra – tiny plants, mosses and lichens, is like a thousand million spilled bell jar gardens. Rarely do these plants reach over a few inches in height – the effect accentuates the endless quality of these broad valleys and mountains.
I am on my way to Nome, the largest town on the Peninsula. I say town, but in Alaska, 3,600 heads means something different: Nome is the metropolis, the center, the bottom line for hundreds of miles.
In town, I run into Norbert, a 57 year old Eskimo who I had met earlier in the week. “The seas rose everywhere,” he says, describing the violent storm that hit Nome in 1974. The city sits directly over the water – if you spit from the second story of a seaside house, it will land in the Bering Sea. “You know those barges you see over there?” Norbert says. “During the storm, one of those landed in my grandmother’s living room.”
Major sea and fire disasters have struck Nome at least six times in the past 110 years, and Nome wears the scars. Homes sit aslant, and many wear the bruises of big waves. In 1925, diphtheria broke out here, spreading by the hour. Serum vanished, and new supplies couldn’t get flown up fast enough.
To save the town, an unusual plan had to be devised: 300,000 units of serum were rushed by train up the state and to the end of the line, where a team of dog mushers awaited, nearly 700 miles from Nome. In the coldest days of winter, a team of dog mushers raced from the last train stop to Nome: the event that inspired the modern 1,100 mile Iditarod.
Some residents skip out on homes altogether. Norbert lives in a small blue tent on the beach between two gold miners. “I’m retired now, but I donate my time helping the street people at the soup line.”
“The street people, in Nome, where do they live?” I ask. During winter, days are dim, skies are gray, temperatures often reach negative twenty-five degrees.
“You know, when you have no other way, you find a way. They find places. They live under the sea rocks right out here.”
“And in the winter?”
“Old cars, abandoned homes. I used to live on the street too. I drank just like the rest of them. But I was just about out of oxygen, and I gave it up for good.”
Talking to Norbert is a joy, but I have already found that the disposition of the town is as cheery as Norbert himself. Several people stop to ask me questions, making me feel welcome. Hospitality is the great solace of solitary travel.
But I’m not hanging around long, I’m heading out along the coast, to find what I came for.
South from Nome on Council Road are hundreds of fish camps. These seasonal homes and workshops – painted in bright colors are adorned with Caribou horns and driftwood. They are mostly closed up now. Basketball hoops hang from many of the roofs.
In town, a man told me that during the Iditarod in March, “Nome swells to double the size. But half the people are here to watch the basketball games.” Tribes come from across Alaska to the largest basketball event in the world, where over sixty teams compete at a single location. When I asked a woman what people do during the winter in Nome, she said, “In Northern Alaska, there’s no football. Very little baseball. It’s all basketball. People come to Nome by bush plane, dog sled and snowmobile to play!”
I drive slowly along the coast; the Bering Sea is silvery and only tiny waves lap at the sand. I pass a great stretch of inland water over a narrow bridge, and three locomotives from another age are left to rust in the swaying coastal grasses.
It’s these grasses I’ve come for. Well, I came to see these grasses because of a poo from Oregon. Not just any poo, a very, very old poo.
This spring, scientists announced they had discovered extraordinary human feces in the Paisley caves, near Summer Lake in Southeastern Oregon. The poo was carbon-dated to 14,300 years, and DNA analysis provides a link to East Asia and Siberia. The discovery is stunning – it is the oldest confirmed human genetic evidence in the New World.
The find means a lot to my own quest, largely because my search has kept leading me back to the barrage of recent paradigm-shifting science about how Indians came to the new world, and the breadth and scope of their civilizations.
In the evening, I park the Jeep on the side of the road and take to the fields by foot.
The find in Oregon may not be linked to the later flow of people into the new world. The evidence may not tell much. The evidence may lead me nowhere. But finding things on your own means collecting scraps; finding things on your own is the slow process of travel.
I walk through a striking meadow of green, yellow and red grasses. It will soon be midnight, but the meadow’s million blossoms are far from closing. Fierce black clouds rush in over the mountains to the east, darkening the landscape. I retreat to the Jeep and the world turns dark and rain comes down and the road turns to mud.
The storm moves on, black and gray followed by rainbows over the Bering Sea. I retrace my steps in the grass, and in a few miles I come to a beach riddled with the world’s driftwood. I walk on the beach and perch myself on a dune. I open my bottle of rum and watch the storm race to Russia.
I am surprised by what I see when I sit. Above me, a slender black and white bird with a long trailing tail beats its wings in suspended animation, like a floating helicopter. This bird is a long-tailed jaeger, a predatory seabird, scoping for lemmings along the shore.
The bird will spend a few more days here in Northern Alaska. But time and climates will send him south on an amazing pelagic journey to the South Pacific, where he will summer somewhere between the coasts of Peru and Argentina and the islands of the deep ocean. On the rocks, I see a northern wheatear too, a small bird dressed with yellow. His migration is even more incredible. In a few days, he will begin flight to Africa.
Alaska is a land of migration – yesterday, I saw a flock of Aleutian terns – they are assembling for Indonesia. And a lone arctic tern, on a telephone pole. He will find his way soon to Antarctica, completing his annual 24,000 mile migration. The longest migration of any animal on Earth is an eternal quest for summer.
For as much as science can tell us about the ways of the world, it is amazing how some of these most spectacular migrations are still filled with mystery. Sometimes, the animal travelers will show up in one part of the world. Then they disappear, only to appear halfway around the world sometime later in the year. For some species, which route they took – how they got there – and how they survived, still eludes us. I like knowing that science is still so an unwritten book, in many cases, I like knowing that in my lifetime I will see some more pages written.
Birds and their migrations may be incredible, but I am interested in how the first humans crossed into the Americas. This Peninsula, which points towards Siberia, was part of a great land mass, a thousand miles from north to south. During the ice age, water receded and Beringia rose from the shallow Bering Sea.
For most of my life, and even as recently as only months ago, scientists have been suggesting that the Americas were populated by a single source of migrations, roughly 12,000 years ago. But the Paisley caves find adds further evidence that the human origins in North America may be more diverse, and happened longer ago, than we ever imagined.
The assumption, too, has been that that a group of paleoindians called the Clovis people followed great herds of beasts across grassy Beringia. But scientists are asking - how could these people have survived such treks across inhabitable terrain? The Eskimos, who came to North America much later, are a different story, because they had long adapted technology and skills to survive the Arctic.
We are watching a new theory prevail, that the first Americans came by boat, along the coast of Beringia. Migration by kayak meant continuous access to meat, as well as the land bounty of the coastal arctic – blueberries, crustaceans, nesting birds, small mammals. Even in cold winters, patches of green would have existed between the snow and ice; comfortable places for kayakers to camp.
A land migration – a funnel through Canada and Colorado, would seem to have lasted hundreds of years. Why does human evidence exist even at the very tips of South America?
It’s got to be kayaks. And by kayak, Oregon is a natural route from Beringia. There is another detail: the shores of Alaska, British Columbia are ripe with islands, an inner passage, quiet protected beaches. But Oregon is a different geography altogether: it is a bleaker ocean, with few coastal protections and comforts. Was it actually the Oregon coast which forced the first Americans up river?
I think about this as I slowly wander back through the grasses by moonlight. While I drink my Myer’s spiced rum under a full moon, I think about Kil’iii, who has taken the month of August to paddle the outside passage of Vancouver Island in a skin kayak he built by hand.
Kil'iii, who was one of the first strangers to offer me help on my Oregon Testament project three years ago, lives, teaches and practices Pacific Northwest native living. After paddling the entire outer passage of Vancouver Island, he explained his trip to me.
For one month, with 18 paddling days and 12 rain and storm days, Kil’iii traveled 315 miles from Port Hardy to Tofino. The coast of Vancouver Island, like almost anywhere along Northwestern coasts, is wet and soggy, and similar to Alaska's coast. "A skin-on-frame boat is very different from from paddling a modern kayak. It's more forgiving in rough seas, dampening the impact of waves. But it always will have water leaking. You have to periodically pump water out, about every three hours."
Kil'iii traveled without a tarp shelter. For food, he carried with him only rice, butter, and gorp with the expectation of supplementing his diet with fish. Fishing was more than successful. He would catch herring for bait, and let out a line from his kayak. He ate fish nearly every meal, and to keep from dangerous weight loss, he supplemented the fish with fat.
"Clearly one of the best things I’ve ever done," he said. "It was mentally challenging more than physically challenging." The first day was disheartening. The kayak couldn't carry his gear, so he switched to another skin boat built by a friend of his. It was a prototype better suited to the open ocean, but it wasn't lined and started filling up with water as he made his first crossing.
"I was wearing a sea sock. You sit inside it so the rest of the kayak has buoyancy…otherwise you and all your stuff goes right to the bottom. But the boat was leaking not in the sea sock, but in the rest of the boat."
Over the next few days, Kil'iii entered a world with almost no humans. "Bears were everywhere on the beaches," he said. One day, an orca breached completey from the water only two hundred yards from his boat. Another day, he witnessed what he described as the finest moment of his trip - a floating bed of kelp upon which over a hundred fifty sea otters were congregating.
I am interested in whether Kil'iii's experience offered any possibility of adding wisdom to the idea of North America being populated by ancient boaters.
Kil'iii, who considers himself an average paddler, explained that an Aleut paddler would have been a much stronger paddler than himself. He explained how he had seen native Northwest paddlers in high surf. "The surf becomes heinous, but these people were skilled, and twenty or thirty of them in a boat could land in five to six foot surf."
"Tell me about your paddling hat?" I asked.
"It's based on an aleut style, but made of raw-hide and coated with linseed oil. It lasted the whole trip. The shape decreases wind resistance, and of course shielded me from the sun, but also blocked water reflection."
I asked Kil'iii that if he was able to do this trip alone, how difficult would it have been for ancient paddlers, 14,000 years ago, to cross Beringia and paddle to Oregon.
"Honestly, they would have had a good time. I traveled alone. I cooked all my food over fires and the resources were plentiful. Even though the land resources were bitter, it wasn't berry season, the estuaries were filled with shellfish, and fish were everywhere. At one point, I camped on an Indian midden, just eleven feet off the beach. Now, these shellfish middens are much newer than fourteen-thousand years ago. But they tell about the sea's bounty."
He continued, "Remember that they would have been traveling with umiaks too...large skin boats that can carry twenty people. Most of the west coast of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest are not as surfy as Oregon waters."
I asked him more about physical fitness and the journey.
"You know, for most of the trip through and beyond Alaska, you don't need to be a strong paddler. It's all protected water."
"Would they have taken the inside or outside passage?" I asked.
"You know, they would have followed the resources, so they would have taken the route where they could find the most food. A lot of whales take the outside passage, but the inside passage has more shellfish."
I asked Kil'iii if he felt any loneliness or fright while away from civilization for so long. He said no. "Once you get used to the sounds, you don't notice how different that world is. You develop a faith in the natural world and in understanding the patterns out there, and you forget there are no people.
He would have enjoyed traveling with a large group of friends, but "this was a very different kind of trip. You learn a lot, and you have a lot of time to think. The one thing is, you feel very small. I would see thousands of tiny little jellyfish throughout this trip, pumping and pumping in one direction. But the current was going in a different direction and they were just being pulled along by it. Man, I thought, we think we are something special, but out there, you realize we are at the mercy of natural forces."
The next day, I drive the 75 mile road to Teller, an Eskimo fish camp on a sandy spit in a vast inland waterway. The way to Teller is long. Treeless mountains extend in every direction. The road to Teller is an inland, not coastal route. In winter, this tundra landscape turns to snow – an impossible march by foot?
Perhaps more answers lie in the progress of technology. The Inupiat Eskimos, “Nice day for a walk?” they say when I come, were products of the advanced technologies of Asia 5,000 years ago. But the North Americans would have been a different story altogether; we can learn much more about them, and where they could survive, when we know what technology they had to support their forays into new geography.
This means I need to get back to Oregon, and pack up my truck, and go east.