Barrow (official Inupiat name: Utqiaġvik) is a village located 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle on the Arctic Ocean in Arctic Alaska (notice the liberal use of the word Arctic….). This tiny village holds the distinction of being the northernmost settlement in the United States, and the northernmost settlement on the North American mainland. The residents are primarily of Inupiat (“Eskimo”) descent. Its population hovers at just above 4,000 people.
In this part of the world the sun rises in mid May and doesn’t set for 80 days. The average high temperature remains below zero from December through March. The town is extremely isolated, surrounded by wilderness tundra and not accessible by road, yes you read that right, there are no roads to Barrow.
Alaska Airlines flies into Barrow several times each day and there are quite a few hearty souls that make the trip as a tourist destination. As the seat of the North Slope Borough (aka county seat) folks also travel to Barrow for business and important things like medical care. The North Slope Borough is America’s farthest north municipal government encompassing an area of nearly 95,000 square miles across northern Alaska.
Wanting to experience as much of Alaska as possible I made my reservations to fly to Barrow and stay overnight at the Top of the World Hotel (one of very few hotels in the town).
The area has been inhabited by native Alaskans for centuries, with archaeological evidence showing the site was inhabited starting around 500 A.D. Last October, the people of this Alaskan town, on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, voted to restore its indigenous name, Utqiagvik to honor their culture and the disappearing Inupiaq language, which is currently spoken by about 3,000 people in Alaska. This traditional Inupiaq name Utqiagvik refers to a place to gather wild roots. The town voted for the name change in a referendum held on October 10, Indigenous People’s Day, with the change winning by just six votes, 381 for and 375 against.
“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” – Marcus Garvey
I made sure to book a tour of the town along with my hotel and was very glad that I did as it gave a great overview of the community as well as providing transportation to see the sights. I was on a tour with a group of travelers from Finland who had an interpreter that translated everything the guide was telling us to the group. Our tour guide had grown up in the community and was also raising her children there so had firsthand knowledge of what it was like to live at the top of the world.
One of the things that I didn’t want to miss was the memorial to Will Rogers and Wiley Post. Post, round-the-world record holder, and Rogers, the humorist, movie actor and famous air traveler, were on a leisurely trip around Alaska. In August 1935 their plane went down 15 miles south of Utqiagvik while trying to take off after landing due to engine trouble. The only witness was a native fisherman in the area who ran the 15 miles back to the village to report the crash. Rescuers used the whaleboats to reach the scene of the crash to discover that the plane was demolished and both men had apparently been killed instantly in the crash.
After starting my State Parks career as a Ranger at Will Rogers State Historic Park in Southern California and talking to park visitors about Will’s death it was sobering to see where he died so far away from his California home.
Will’s humor, so popular then seems even more applicable today.
“Politics pretty quiet over the week-end. Democrats are attacking and the Republicans are defending. All the Democrats have to do is promise “what they would do if they got in.” But the Republicans have to promise “what they would do” and then explain why they haven’t already “done it.” – Will Rogers
(Okay, I can’t resist – one more!)
“I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.” – Will Rogers
Another reason I wanted to visit Utqiagvik was to take a swim in the Arctic Ocean at the northernmost possible US location. Dubbed the “Polar Bear swim” for obvious reasons I was ready to brave the cold water. My original idea was to make my plunge at midnight but there were numerous jellyfish in the water and the midnight sun angle would not have allowed me to avoid them easily! So at the conclusion of the tour I had my opportunity and our tour guide was there to take photos while the rest of the tour was encouraging my crazy behavior. Yes the water was cold – 30 degrees to be exact, and it was only 51 degrees outside but it felt like a sauna after the freezing water.
Their culture is an important part of the Alaska native’s lives and there is nowhere better to find examples of this than in these small remote villages. The children are taught their native language along with English in the schools and all seem to participate in traditional dances. A local group displayed some of these dances for our tour group and it was interesting to see that they not only do traditional dances from generations ago but also create and pass along new dances representing today’s life.
“Tradition does not mean that the living are dead, it means that the dead are living.” – Gilbert K. Chesterton
Many people in Barrow, including the significant population of Alaska Natives, rely on the Arctic Ocean for subsistence. Alaska natives have been hunting bowhead whales for thousands of years. Their traditional subsistence hunt is protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and hunting is allowed for registered members of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC). A quota for the number of whales taken by the AEWC is determined by the International Whaling Commission and those numbers are reviewed each year by looking at the number of whales taken in previous years, the population of the community as well as the health of the whale population. The current “allowance” is 22 whales over the next 5 years. The whaling crews have to register before they can participate in the hunt and the whales that are taken are shared with the entire village.
“Tradition simply means that we need to end what began well and continue what is worth continuing.” – Jose Bergamin
Bowhead whales are named for the massive bony skulls that enable them to break through ice to breathe. They can live up to 200 years; adults weigh up to 100 tons. Their biannual migrations between the Bering Sea and the Eastern Beaufort Sea carry them past Barrow each fall and spring – there are twice a year whale hunts in the village. It is obvious that the whale is central to their culture as evidenced by the whale bones decorating numerous parts of the community.
Climate change is affecting this part of the world in drastic ways. There is a concern that the warmer ocean and currents will markedly shorten our spring whaling season as well as about possible changes in whale migration patterns and sea ice conditions as hunters must travel over ice to reach the whales.
The tundra is a vast watery wilderness filled with meandering rivers and tens of thousands of elliptically shaped lakes supporting moose, caribou and polar bears. What precipitation there is, is prevented from seeping into the soil by permafrost, the layer of frozen earth that begins about two feet beneath the surface and goes down, in this area, some 2,000 feet. The city’s small wooden homes are built on pilings to keep them from melting the permafrost, which would cause them to sink.
Globally, permafrost holds an estimated 400 gigatons of methane, one of the greenhouse gases that are hastening the earth’s warming. As the permafrost thaws—which it has begun to do—lakes can drain away and the thawed soil can release billions of tons of methane into the atmosphere. Each year the sea ice is getting thinner and arriving later. Coastal storms have become so dangerous that the village—lacking the shore ice that used to protect them—has erected tall berms to protect from the huge storm waves and may eventually have to be moved miles inland.
To really experience the “midnight sun” I trekked out of my hotel room just before midnight to walk the streets and beaches. Originally planning on a short walk (it was afterall midnight) I ended staying out over two hours enjoying the awesome experience. It was interesting to see the number of people that are also out in the midnight sun, everything from campfires on the beach to kids playing and off highway vehicles racing around town. I have noticed that I need less sleep here in Alaska likely due to the long daylight hours and imagine that during the winter many folks catch up on that missed sleep.
My short overnight stay in Utqiagvik was just a taste of life there but an experience I certainly recommend if you have the chance. A great part about traveling is being able to learn about people and places that are not familiar.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
― Mark Twain,
Later this year, the sun will set on Barrow, Alaska and remain below the horizon for 65 days covering the area in darkness. The residents of Utqiagvik are ready for the dark and look forward to the sun rising again on their homeland. Together they have discovered and cultivated a good way of life; a way of life that expresses itself in their habits, institutions, and activities; and these, in turn, help individuals flourish in their own ways and further everyone’s individual growth.
“A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.” – Mahatma Gandhi