KETCHIKAN, ALASKA — Maxwell Walker, a Traverse City Central High School graduate, recently ventured into the Arctic Circle on the smallest ship the U.S. Coast Guard has ever sent into the frigid waters.
The journey’s purpose?
“To see if it could be done,” said Walker, 21, in a phone interview from his base in Ketchikan, Alaska. “It was the first of a kind for the Coast Guard and that small of boat. It was a test boat for the future.”
The idea for the small boat venture grew from the prospect of the Arctic Circle becoming a commercial shipping channel as the sea ice recedes, Walker said.
Indeed, a University of California study published in March said that by mid-century, even ordinary shipping vessels likely will be able to enter now inaccessible parts of the Arctic Ocean during the warmer parts of the year.
That’s meaningful for commercial shippers that could knock off time and miles trying to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean through the Bering Strait, Walker said.
The UCLA findings, based on seven independent climate forecasts for 2040 to 2059, were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Plus, a scholarly journal.
Walker said that the U.S. Coast Guard routinely sent large vessels of up to 400 feet to the Arctic Circle each summer. This year, they decided to send a 110-foot patrol boat through the Bering Strait and beyond.
Walker missed the first week of the 40-day patrol that left on its 4,000 mile journey on June 21, but met up with the boat in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. From there he went north to Nome and the Kotzebue Sound, the northernmost salmon fishery in Alaska. The trip was uneventful from a weather standpoint, with no close calls or big waves, said Walker, adding he was too far south to see icebergs.
“We motored right by the Diomede Islands; one of the islands is Russian land,” he said.
Besides testing out the smaller boat, the crew sought to educate native Alaskans from remote villages about safety regulations and equipment, he said.
“We saw a lot of people fishing salmon and habitat, while we were out there,” he said. “We pulled over their boats and educated them on the proper safety a lot don’t even know. Life jackets, flares, fire extinguishers, a high water bilge alarm – if the boat starts to flood.”
His team wasn’t giving fines or writing tickets.
“We were just educating them,” he said.
He also met folks involved in the Discovery show, Bering Sea Gold, a reality TV show that tells the story of the gold rush to the bottom of the Bering Sea where treasure hunters are vacuuming up the precious metal.
“Nome is where they filmed it and we interacted with a lot of those guys out here,” he said.