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Five Thousand Miles of Wilderness

October 29, 2023

Male walrus on Round Island, Bristol Bay, Bering Sea.

It was well after dark when we passed the entrance buoy marking the channel into Petersburg harbor. Deck lights on, I slid the Endeavour into an open slip. Emmy, my crew, stepped off onto the dock and wrapped the dock lines around the bull rail: stern line first to hold us against the two-knot current pushing us from behind. Bella-the-boat-dog jumped across the gap and ran off into the darkness. She had urgent business. Once secure, I shut down the engine. Our research season was over.

As I expected, back on that morning at the end of May, anchored in Aniakchak, we did cover more than 5,000 nautical miles from Cordova to the Arctic and back, and then down to here, our port for the winter.

Consider the scale of that: it’s only 2,239 nautical miles from Los Angeles to New York City. It’s as though we motored the Endeavour at 8.3 knots across the entire continental United States and then back to Los Angeles, and then back again as far as Denver. And all of those 5,000 miles were in the last vast maritime wilderness in North America south of the Polar Sea.

In later posts I’ll get around to describing our meetups with the whales, bears, walruses, caribou, musk ox, wolves, fish, otters, sea lions, seabirds, and eagles. And I’ll describe our stumbling on prehistoric hunting camps and graveyards. And I’ll talk about what it was like to film the walruses in the Bering Sea, recover the hydrophones in the Arctic, take highschoolers into the land of volcanoes and bears, and measure the health of humpbacks in Southeast.

But now, here are my takeaways:

  • Wilderness – real wilderness that you can’t drive to or see from a cruise ship – is rare and precious. It expands you. It’s also melting away at the edges. We need it.

  • Science is how we all really understand the world we live in, increasing our sense of wonder, marveling at the delicate relationships and balances we all need to survive.

  • The Endeavour is a capable little ship, right sized and tough enough for exploration, simple enough to keep running where you can’t buy spare parts or find a mechanic.

  • People make it matter. I had some outstanding crew, swapping in and out. We had extraordinary clients. I trusted both sets. I learned from both sets. We did amazing things.

I’ve got one more trip this season. In a few days my son and a friend will fly in and we’ll take the Endeavour out and go deer hunting on Admiralty Island, probably in Gambier Bay. Then we’ll come back to Petersburg, I’ll drain the pipes on the boat, then I’ll fly south to Seattle for a few months to catch up on my posts for the year, and to get ready for next March, when we head out again.

-- Bill Urschel

View off the stern: 210 nautical miles back to Kodiak, 210 nautical miles ahead to Cape Spencer.


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