ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- Just after midnight on Sept. 1, a wall of fog moved in, the wind howled, and the waters of the Beaufort Sea whipped into a violent break dance that threw the 19-foot motorboat ''Olga'' airborne.
''Several times we were thrown out of the water, and we could hear the engines go 'Weeee,' but we couldn't see a thing,'' said captain Anders Bilgram. ''We were only going 10 to 12 mph. It was dark. There were whitecaps all over.''
Bilgram and a two-man crew were crossing a notoriously rough stretch of the frigid Beaufort -- the 160 miles between Tuktovaktuk and Herschel Island about 30 miles east of the Alaska-Canada border in the Canadian Arctic. The crossing has no protection and predictably high-pitched swells.
The Olga was 50 miles shy of its destination that night.
It was also 5,800 miles into what is planned as a 15,000-mile trip around the Arctic ice cap.
The skipper's research indicates the expedition, if successful, will be the first circumnavigation of the northern ice in an open, motorized boat. The Olga is a Danish-built POCA 600, a lightweight converted seine skiff with a Kevlar-reinforced hull. It is powered by two, 115-horsepower Suzuki four-stroke outboard engines.
Fred Dyson, a local student of Arctic maritime history, said this is the first time he has heard of anyone trying to circle the Arctic in a small, outboard powered boat.
''I'm impressed,'' said Dyson. ''I don't know of any explorers who have done that.''
Roald Amundsen traversed the Northwest Passage in a converted, motorized shrimper in 1934, Dyson said, but that is far different than making the long trip around the region.
''He was the first to cross the top,'' Dyson said, ''but he didn't circumnavigate the Arctic.''
The crew of the Olga knows a big challenge remains ahead.
As the Beaufort Sea tossed them about in September, they put on their Mustang survival suits fearing the worst. The Olga took on water, but the bilge pumps and drainage system kept up.
The dark, Arctic water was fortunately free of icebergs, they said, but other hazards remained. Floating partially submerged, trees delivered from the heart of Canada into the Arctic Ocean by the Mackenzie River could easily have damaged or capsized their boat.
''When we finally got to Herschel Island we were happy to be alive,'' Bilgram said. ''None of us thought we would survive that one. It took four hours.''
With winter fast approaching, the crew spent the next two weeks inching along Alaska's arctic coast toward Point Hope. They arrived Sept. 16 and put the Olga in dry-dock for the winter.
They spent last week in Anchorage before returning home. Next summer, they plan to return to Point Hope to resume their journey, which they call the Polar Passage 2000 expedition.
They bill the expedition as travel ''the same way indigenous people in the Arctic travel most often, in an open boat.''
Though northern residents might still be associated with the umiaks and kayaks, the usual form of transportation long ago shifted to the faster and more efficient outboard-powered skiff.
Begun in the summer of 1999, the voyage of the Olga is being completed in legs.
The first took Bilgram, 38, a Danish engineer, and his two crew members from Copenhagen along the southern coast of Norway, to the Shetland Islands, then to the Faroe Islands and across the open Atlantic Ocean to Iceland. That covered about 2,000 miles.
Last summer, the expedition ticked off another 1,800 miles between Iceland and Greenland. They finished the year 2000 on the north end of Baffin Island.
This year, the expedition left Baffin Island Aug. 8 and traveled the Northwest Passage along the northern coasts of Canada and Alaska to Point Hope at the far northwest tip of North America. That leg covered another 2,000 miles.
Bilgram has had a different crew aboard for each leg of this journey. On this year's stretch, he was joined by two Natives from Greenland -- Frederik Solberg Lynge, 44, a policeman from Nuuk, and Ole Jorgen Hammeken, 45, who with his wife runs a children's home in Uummannaq.
Bilgram hopes to complete his journey next summer. The coasts of Russia and Scandinavia await. The crossing of Russia's Siberian shore could prove his biggest challenge.
This winter he hopes to get permission from the Siberian government, then figure out how he is going to refuel along the way. He was able to buy fuel for the Olga in Canada and Alaska, but that might not be possible in Siberia, where people often live in primitive conditions.
Bilgram also has to nail down his next crew.
Meanwhile, he is busy cataloging his trip and writing, preparing for future lectures and slide shows. But this is no re-enactment of any historic arctic travel. It's a thoroughly modern journey.
Aboard the boat, crewmen rely on a satellite phone to get access to the Internet, where they find up-to-the-minute weather information and maps. They use a Global Positioning Satellite receiver to navigate. They have sophisticated radios and emergency distress signaling equipment.
''When you're traveling this fast, compass doesn't work very well,'' Bilgram said.
The Olga carries up to 200 gallons of fuel to feed its outboard engines. Bilgram expects to burn 8,000 gallons before this trip is over.
Because of all the fuel onboard, Bilgram said, ''smoking is completely prohibited.''
Generally, the boat travels about 100 miles a day. They stop in almost all Arctic villages to talk to the local people and to buy fuel.
''We knew it would be no problem getting fuel,'' Bilgram said. ''All the villages have it.''
The only real problem to date came in Tuktovaktuk, near the mouth of the Mackenzie River, where Bilgram and crew learned the local gas station did not accept credit cards. Bilgram had to board a small plane for the nearby town of Inuvik to visit a bank.
There have been other problems, too.
A mishap on the leg between Iceland and Greenland caused about half of their fuel to spill, which in turn tainted their food supply. They have since switched to mostly dry food carried in a sealed plastic tub. Mostly, they live on dried seal and caribou, bowhead and beluga whale meat and dried fish shared by villages they pass through.
Many villages expect them. Word of their travels has spread, Bilgram said, and villages along their route track their progress on the Internet at www.polar.ing.dk.
The adventure has proven interesting.
Off the coast of Greenland, Bilgram said, they had to improvise a steering system when theirs failed. Using ropes tied to the engine, they were able to maneuver the boat around icebergs dotted with seals.
On a stretch of the northwest Greenland Coast, they came across ruins dated to the time of the Vikings, including remains of an ancient Inuit outpost and graves with skulls in them.
Along the eastern coast of Baffin Island, they saw 12 polar bears in two hours.
So far, the roughest part of their journey came in the summer of 2000. They accidentally grounded the boat on a sand bar while trying to find a place to escape ferocious winds. Currents turned the boat, and high waves then tipped it and filled it with water.
Eventually the boat flipped on its side. The two crewmen aboard at the time got into their survival suits and were rescued. The boat was eventually pulled from the sand by a bulldozer from Pond Inlet. It was covered with sand. Most electronic equipment was crumpled and the windshield destroyed. The engines were full of saltwater and sand.
Bilgram took the engines apart, flushed them, dried them and then rebuilt, but they still didn't run well. So the crew switched to the 115-horsepower four-cycle engines, which turned out to be almost twice as fuel efficient as the 140-horsepower two-cycle engines they had been relying on.
In Point Hope, they've left their boat with Iditarod musher Russell Lane for the winter. Bilgram is hoping Lane can join the journey next summer.
''I'm really interested in continuing the expedition with them,'' Lane said. ''Me, my wife and possibly another Native guy from Point Hope hope to go.''
Lane said the whole community of Point Hope welcomed the crew when the Olga arrived.
''Everyone was helpful and interested in their journey,'' he said. ''They always are when fellow Natives come into town. We had a big get-together and Eskimo dance for them.''
Ahead waits the Siberian coast, and what Bilgram expects to be the toughest leg of the entire journey.
(Distributed by The Associated Press)
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