At One with the Natural World

Barry Lopez's adventures with the word & the wild

They never saw it coming. Barry Lopez and three scientists were making bottom trawls in a twenty-foot boat several miles out from Pingok Island on the North Slope of Alaska, one of the most desolate and remote regions of the planet. Skirting the edges of the pack ice in the Beaufort Sea, they concentrated on their work and ignored a storm moving in from the southwest. Before they realized what was happening, the wind pushed a large ice floe toward them, sealing them off from open water and pinning the craft on four sides.

Lopez and the others had prepared for such an emergency. In addition to scientific equipment, they carried flares, extra food, extra clothing, a tent, sleeping bags, and other survival equipment, including a radio. But they realized that, even if someone heard their distress signal, they had no way of describing their present location, and, with the storm moving in, they had no idea of how far the pack ice might drift to the east. Lest they become yet another footnote in the long record of Arctic disasters, they had to find a way to get free.

Taking advantage of a momentary shift in the ice, they managed to force the boat through a narrow passage. They widened the passage with ice chisels and gunned the boat’s twin ninety-horsepower engines, trying desperately to reach open water. When thirty feet of ice stood in their way, they used ice anchors, lines, and a block and tackle to pull...

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About the Author

Nicholas O’Connell, a freelance writer in Seattle, is the author of At the Field’s End: Interviews with Twenty-two Pacific Northwest Writers (University of Washington Press, 1998).