Photo by Andrew McDonnell. R/V  Sikuliaq  approaching Nome Harbor.

Photo by Andrew McDonnell. R/V Sikuliaq approaching Nome Harbor.

For a brief moment, I was thinking what most travelers think before a plane departs. Am I really going to have the seats next to me empty? The plane appeared to have all its passengers, so I resumed my conversation with a gentleman across the aisle from Gambell, a small coastal community on the the northwest tip of St. Lawrence Island. He showed me a beautiful bearded seal claw pendant that he fused with baleen and ivory. We were speaking of his children when suddenly a little girl appeared in the aisle in front of us. 

I broke from conversation to assist a beleaguered dad with not one, but two little girls under the age of 3, a handful of luggage, and breakfast in hand. He handed me his soft drink, ushered his oldest into the window seat, and plopped down next to me with his 1 year old. My empty seats were now a distant memory. However, what unfolded next would set the tone for my entire Arctic Program journey that lay ahead for the next twenty days.

As a father of a little girl of my own not quite two years old, I can lament upon the predicament this gentleman was experiencing. Two girls, and one dad, on an airplane for a couple hours to remote Alaska...a potential disaster. I started making silly faces to the two girls to let them know I was safe and okay, and meanwhile, tried to start conversation with the father. Perhaps it was fear of being on a boat away from my family, anxiety, or nervous excitement (I would tend to think all three) that prompted conversations between the seats. So I asked the father what the girls' names were when he was fidgeting with a stuffed animal. No answer. Interesting, I thought. How old? No answer. 

He turned to face me, and saw my confusion. He stuck out his hand, introduced himself as Aaron, and informed me he was deaf. I then understood all the radio silence, but my heart sunk initially. I wanted to see if I could help, so I opened my phone to a notes app, and began typing. I asked him if it was okay that we could text to one another during the flight.

At first, we discussed our children, a conversation that could have been easily fueled by anecdotal quips of toddlers unrolling the toilet paper, using spatulas as drum sticks on pots and pans, learning how to jump. I mentioned the only thing I knew how to sign was "All done," something my wife and I taught our child when learning how to eat. Aaron's youngest proceeded to make the same sign, and Aaron and I both smiled.

Our conversation progressively evolved, all via text, into our occupations. I told him that I was going on a research vessel that will be studying the Arctic Ocean and what impacts the changing climate is having on the marine ecosystem. I continued by mentioning that a group of scientists will be looking at many different parts of the ecosystem (e.g., collecting water samples, sediment, plankton, and deploying acoustic gear for hearing marine mammals) and will be putting all this information together to tell a more complete story of what's happening. This was the very same conversation I had with the gentlemen from Gambell. However, when he asked me what my role was on the ship, I showed him a gear list of the camera equipment that I will be using while on the boat. Aaron's eyes lit up for there was some common ground.

 Photo by Brendan Smith. Gear shot for upcoming cruise.

Photo by Brendan Smith. Gear shot for upcoming cruise.

Aaron is an independent film maker. Young in his profession, but ambitious, Aaron recently finished an assignment in California for several weeks. A brief stint back in Nome for rest, and then he will be off again to film the Deaf Olympics in Turkey. It was then my eyes lit up. How could he balance all of this being a new dad? Hearing his story, seeing his children, understanding but only a fraction of the adversity he faces daily eased whatever trepidation I was feeling with the research cruise awaiting. We didn't talk about his disability. I knew the kids could hear me as I sang Paddycake, the oldest was mouthing the words along with me. We found common ground in technology and photography, and sparked a conversation that has since led to a lasting memory. Aaron and his family are like my albatross for this research voyage. A chance encounter with inspiration.

The flight attendant announced our decent into Nome. Almost two hours of texting with Aaron back and forth getting to know one another. I still continued the conversation with the other gentelman from Gambell talking of basketball glory, and how far the hunters had to go this year for walrus and bearded seal because of the lack of ice. Flying over Nome, it was apparent that one thing differed from my last time being here in 2008...there was no ice. An open ocean. The last time I was here, the R/V Norseman II needed an airplane to spot the lees in the ice for the ship because it was so thick.

 Photo by Brendan Smith. Portrait of Aaron holding his youngest daughter finally asleep, with only a half hour of the flight to go.

Photo by Brendan Smith. Portrait of Aaron holding his youngest daughter finally asleep, with only a half hour of the flight to go.

Other members of the research crew on the plane could see the R/V Sikuliaq approaching Nome's large boat harbor about 200 yards from the entrance. The ship was to arrive on the 8th, but fair winds and fair seas brought the ship a day early, another sign of good fortune to come. I met up with Sarah Hardy's group gathering luggage, exchanged introductions, and bounced along with them on a dusty cab ride to our destinations for the evening.

A day in port loading gear, getting a lay of the land on the ship, and assembling lab spaces. This evening, some scientists will participate in a "Strait Science" presentation series sponsored by UAF. The ship will depart tomorrow (June 9th).

And so it begins.