Barrow, Alaska

Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow), Alaska
Visited July 14, 2017

You have to get up early if you’re going to the top of the world, beyond the Arctic Circle, even if your starting point is Anchorage!  You can’t drive to Barrow and there’s only one commercial flight out, so we were at the airport at 6 am.  We saw two young moose on the side of the road as we drove in—it’s Alaska, after all!

Our flight was full, half were oil field workers and/or their families heading to their base of operations in Prudhoe Bay about 200 miles from Barrow.  They got off and another group came on for the flight back to Anchorage via our stop in Barrow, the northernmost community in the United States.  The citizens recently voted by a very narrow margin to change the name of their city back to its native name, Utqiaġvik, an effort to reclaim their disappearing native Inupiaq language and to honor their history.  There are different spellings, and don’t ask me to pronounce either, but depending on the spelling it means “place to hunt snowy owls” or “place to gather wild roots”.

Utqiaġvik is like a visual oxymoron.  It is utterly remote, yet fully civilized with powerlines crisscrossing the town, internet and cell service, modern plumbing and construction, and even an accredited college and state-of-the-art medical facility.  There is not a tree or mountain in sight, yet tourism is one of the main economic drivers (along with support services for the oil fields and native crafting).  It is barren, yet beautiful.  Almost 200 species of birds migrate each spring/summer to nest on the wide-open, spongy tundra.  Remember, NO trees or shrubs!  The vast Arctic Ocean is frozen most of the year.  In the summer, the sun never sets.  Never.  It hovers at the horizon late in the day but then begins to rise again.  Conversely, in winter, the sun never rises.  Never.  For a couple months it’s mostly dark and cold, all. the. time.  These are hardy people to adapt to such conditions!  Over 4,000 people live here and two-thirds are native Inupiat.

A shuttle van brought us from the airport to the aptly named Top of the World Hotel where we ate lunch before meeting our tour group.  Had we realized that it was only a mile, we would have walked because it was a beautiful, sunny and breezy day, cool but not cold.  The hotel restaurant food was good, standard American fare and not too pricey; a sandwich platter with a soft drink was under $20.  No alcohol is served or sold here!  You can import it for your own use, but you can’t buy it locally.

We had time to explore nearby and snap some pictures before loading into a tour van with our guide, Louise, and a few other travelers.  Louise is a native Inupiat Eskimo and local resident.  She said she’s related to at least half of the population, which we believe, because everywhere we went she was greeted by cousins, nieces, nephews and more!  She gave a great, informative tour to all the designated tourist stops around town including the Inupiat Heritage Center Museum where we spent the most time.  It’s an impressive facility with wonderful exhibits and information, a library, research and meeting space, and a craft demonstration area.  We watched local artisans etching on baleen (whalebone) and performing native dances to drums.  We joined in on one dance which is really just rhythmic moving to the drumbeat, from the waist up with your feet planted on the floor!  So different, but beautiful in its own way.

Another highlight of the tour was a stop at Cathy Parker Field at Barrow High School; it’s a great story.  Over ten years ago, a football mom and coach’s wife in Florida was moved by a documentary focusing on the bleak existence and future for the youth in Utqiaġvik.  She was convinced that growing and outfitting the local football program would be a beacon of hope and renewal to the community, and it was!  She spearheaded a formidable fundraising effort that raised over half a million dollars in just months to install a state-of-the-art blue and yellow artificial turf over the previous gravel and permafrost field, just in time for the Whalers fall season in 2007.  She also helped bring the team to Florida to learn more of the game and practice with the local high school team and the Jacksonville Jaguars!  Local families housed them and the community rallied to feed them and show them a great time!  A major motion picture is in the works to tell this whole inspirational and faith-based story.  Hope it includes the fact we learned that just after our visit to Utqiaġvik last year, the Whalers won their first state title!  Go Whalers!  I now add them to my loyalties along with the Seminoles and Jaguars! 🙂

The Utqiaġvik community has cars and ATVs of all sorts but only dirt roads, and none that lead out of town!  EVERYTHING from groceries and household goods to building supplies and vehicles must be either flown in or shipped in when the ocean thaws enough to allow passage, which is only for about two months in the summer.  This makes everything SO expensive!  We met a young law clerk on the plane who said that salaries are about one and a half times that of comparable jobs in the lower 48.  But consider our tour stop at the local grocery store, which is pretty big, like a small Walmart, with clothes, furniture, household supplies and groceries.  A gallon of milk is $10, a case of bottled water, $40, a loaf of bread, $8, and bananas, $3lb, so the pay still doesn’t seem enough!!  The native people do receive an annual governmental stipend and also rely on subsistence hunting and whaling in the spring and fall.  It’s their history, their culture, and means of survival. Louise said that a good harvest would yield about 25 bowhead whales, but the spring harvest was just eight.  She was more hopeful for the fall harvest.

Our tour ended at the ocean’s edge for the optional “polar bear plunge”.  Using binoculars, we could see the ice shelf on the horizon, but no polar bears.  And no plunge for us, but I did brave the freeeezing water in my bare feet long enough for Tom to snap a picture, barely!  I thought my feet would just go numb, but no, they hurt like they were on fire!  I am admittedly a wimp but in comparing notes with the other travelers, they said the same thing!

We hope we never forget our day at the top of the world!

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