Challenges loom large in Arctic – So do the rewards

Point Lay, Alaska resident Brenton Rexford, 20, rides with crew members from the Coast Guard Cutter Sherman in a village fishing skiff. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer John Masson.

Story and photos by Chief Petty Officer John Masson, Ninth District Public Affairs, attached to Operation Arctic Shield

Things are a little different in the Arctic. Logistics are a strain.

Distances are vast. The weather is always a wildcard. Difficult terrain and lack of infrastructure are hard on equipment and personnel alike.

So when Coast Guard Cutter Sherman crossed the Arctic Circle July 10 in support of the Coast Guard’s annual Operation Arctic Shield, its crew were fully expecting to use creativity to solve those difficulties to accomplish two of the many missions of the patrol: fostering relationships and even more cooperation with search and rescue partners in the region, and bringing the State of Alaska’s Kids Don’t Float boating safety training to remote, mostly tribal communities whose livelihoods depend upon the unpredictable and dangerous waters of the Arctic Ocean.

A July 11 stop in Point Hope, Alaska, provides a case in point. There is no pier in the village of about 600 people, perched on tundra and muskeg on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. But there is a gently sloping beach of rounded stones leading up to the ancient whaling village, now a collection of weather-beaten, wood-sided homes on neatly platted streets.

Getting a shore party to the village from the 378-foot cutter, anchored in deep water a couple of miles offshore, required innovation. Crew members headed for the village in the ship’s over-the-horizon boat, normally used to pursue drug runners. Beaching the OTH on the rocky shore wasn’t an option, however, so the small boat towed an even smaller inflatable skiff. A hundred yards or so from shore, crewmembers, who were dressed in dry suits and Mustang survival suits, transferred into the skiff and got to shore the old-fashioned way: using canoe paddles.

Waiting patiently on the beach to meet them was Frederick Brower, Risk Manager for the North Slope Borough, an Alaskan county about the size of Pennsylvania that covers the northern reaches of America’s largest state.

“Welcome to Point Hope!” Brower said as crewmembers splashed ashore.

The crew used similar methods to come ashore in other Arctic Ocean communities without pier facilities, including Wainwright on July 13 and Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow) on July 14.

That’s Alaska. But no worries: local hunters and fishermen volunteered to launch their small aluminum fishing skiffs to take crewmembers across the town’s large lagoon to a barrier island. Because the skiffs are too small to safely navigate the open ocean, they stood by on the island until the Sherman small boat (which draws too much water to safely navigate all the way to the village’s boat ramp) arrived. Then the villagers shuttled the crew out to the waiting OTH boat to go back to their ship.

Village children wave goodbye to crew members from the Coast Guard Cutter Sherman as they paddle away from the beach in Wainwright, Alaska, July 14, 2017. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer John Masson.

And that’s also Alaska, where the elements spare no one and people can count on their neighbors for help.

“We take care of each other,” said 20-year-old Brenton Rexford, who walked crewmembers around the barrier island and told stories about whaling, hunting, and fishing – and sharing the resulting bounty of the sea with the people of his village.

The four days of intense activity may have tested the crew’s stamina and flexibility and the capabilities of their equipment, but it also confirmed what they learned when they first stepped ashore at the aptly named Point Hope: Alaska is tough. But its people are both tough and kind.

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