The plan was to spend the last three days of my Big Year in Gambell, a tiny Yupik community on the very northwest tip of St. Lawrence Island. It’s the bit of North American land that is closest to Siberia, only 46 miles away. On a clear day, you really can see Russia from your house. Even when visibility is less than perfect, you can see tomorrow. The International Date Line is only 23 miles distant. I wanted to go to Gambell. I wanted to see tomorrow. I wanted to see the millions of sea birds that are said to fly by the sea watch there. I wanted to know what Siberia strays would get blown across the strait. I wanted to see how people live in that tiny corner of our world.
But in order to get to Gambell, you need to take a tiny plane from a company like Bering Air. But Bering Air doesn’t fly when the weather is bad, and lately it hasn’t been too pretty in Nome. As warmer air blows in from the south, it hits the pack ice and cools, creating thick fog. Thick fog means no flights to Gambell.
I went to the airport on Sunday morning. The weather was marginal in Nome, but Gambell was completely socked in. The flight was delayed. And then delayed some more. I updated my blog, and waited. More reports came in. The weather was still bad. This was frustrating. There wasn’t much to do in the small one room waiting area.
Then, miraculously, the weather in Gambell improved enough to maybe land a plane. But in the meantime, the fog in Nome got worse, and now the plane couldn’t take off. We waited some more. Eventually, the flight was canceled. I was stuck in Nome. I scrambled to find a hotel room for my unexpected stay – there was one room at the Aurora Inn. I was told that maybe we could go tomorrow.
It was still only 5pm, so I wandered the streets of town.
I stopped by the combination Subway/movie theater. I’m betting it’s the only Subway in the world that has a movie theater inside of it.
The new Star Trek movie was playing – I could tell by the Nome-style movie poster.
I bought a ticket. The theater itself was small, but really nice. I enjoyed the movie quite a bit.
Early the next morning, it was still foggy – but… was it my imagination? Was it a tiny bit less foggy? I went to the airport. It was my imagination. The flight was delayed, and then delayed again. Then, Nome got less foggy. A flight to Savoonga actually left. Gambell was marginal. We might go. Then the fog rolled in again, and the flight was canceled. Maybe we would go at 4pm this afternoon.
I caught a ride into town, and toured Nome. I went to the Nome museum, and learned about the native people who have lived in western Alaska for thousands of years.
I learned that Wyatt Earp actually travelled from Arizona to Nome during the gold rush of 1900. He opened a saloon here, and sold supplies to the prospectors for two years before heading back to the Southwest with a load of cash.
I also learned about dog sledding. Alaskans take their dog sledding very seriously. Nome is the official ending point for the Iditarod Dog Sled Race.
I ate lunch at the Bering Sea BAR (and restaurant).
I admired the fact that at 65 degrees north latitude you can mount solar panels on the SIDE of a building.
I even went inside a store that sells real things.
I did not go inside this bar.
After a while, I took a cab back to the airport. At this point, I have taken both cabs in Nome at least three times each. Bering Air is still on weather hold. I wait in the tiny room for news. Then the news comes. The flight is canceled. Maybe it will go tomorrow, but the weather forecast is the same as today (and yesterday). I call my wife to discuss options, and listen to her calm and thoughtful words over the loud and crackling static. She is very supportive of anything I want to do. I have now wasted two of my original three days scheduled for Gambell. I don’t know when I will be able to get there. And more importantly, I don’t know when I could fly back. Bering Air has canceled the last five flights to Gambell, and no one has gotten on or off the island in almost three days. I don’t want to be stuck there, especially since there are no restaurants and almost no places to buy food or supplies. I am frustrated and discouraged. I call Alaska Airlines and get reservations for the next flight back to Seattle, which is tomorrow. I call Bering Air and tell them to take my name off my list for the morning Gambell flight attempt, and they start processing my refund.
I walk home through the fog, a bit sad. I don’t know when I’ll get the chance to try to go to Gambell again. This was supposed to be the grand finale of my Big Year, and instead it was a grand letdown. After several attempts, I finally find a place to stay the night – at the Nugget Inn, and I begin to walk to the hotel through the dense fog and the surreal eternal daylight of summer Nome. The evening is calm, the air is cold, and the gulls stare back at me from their perch on a small iceberg just offshore.
As I walk, I begin to think of the fog as a metaphor, both for my Big Year and for my life. Fog can be frustrating – you think you can see a bit of the future up ahead, but it is hazy and uncertain. Many times you just want to look across the strait and see tomorrow clearly – it seems so close – only 23 miles! Sometimes you think you have things figured out, you think you know what’s coming – but then out of the mist comes an unexpected surprise, an unplanned wrinkle, an unforeseen detour. Often these surprises that appear out of the fog are unwelcome, annoying, or even painful. But occasionally out of the fog comes something wonderful: a kind new friend, a delightful new experience, a marvelous new view of the world that you weren’t expecting. The fog helps to keep life mysterious and exciting, full of wonder and anticipation and novelty.
When I started my Big Year last June, I had some idea of what was in store, but so much was unknown. I stared into the fog and tried to make out the landscape ahead. But hidden behind a veil were a great deal of things I just couldn’t predict. Many of them were wonderful surprises: bonding with my wife over two White-tailed Ptarmigan chases up Mt. Rainier, meeting amazing teachers at Bronx Science and Groton in the same week and becoming inspired by their shared passion and their different paths to educational excellence, seeing the amazing seascape of the Dry Tortugas and hearing Wes Biggs tell unforgettable (and hysterical) stories, watching master teacher Bill Palmer do extraordinary things with very ordinary resources, showing up in Massachusetts just in time to see mega-rare Northern Lapwing and Little Egret and enjoy a spectacular burst of late fall radiance on Cape Cod, and experiencing an extraordinary four days exploring the sea and tundra around Nome with my instant new friends Neil, Abe, and Joe. I was graced with all of these surprise gifts appearing out of the fog, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to spend a whole year stumbling my way through this undiscovered country and uncovering unexpected wonders. If it weren’t for the uncertainty of the fog, there are many experiences I probably would have skipped, and my year would have been immeasurably poorer (and I’d have fewer embarrassing and funny stories to tell).
When I got back to the Nugget, I was still a bit disappointed to be missing out on Gambell, but I had a new appreciation for the fog. My friend and mentor, Than Healy, believes that metaphors can help us make sense of our lives and our experiences. I will try to embrace both the literal and metaphorical fog in my life, and appreciate the mystery and majesty that it brings. Even though I often tell myself that I hate surprises, the wonderful little surprises of my Big Year are what made it special. There will be another time to visit Gambell, but for now the last surprise of the year is for my kids: Daddy is coming home a little early.