Sunday, August 15, 2004 –
This morning, Dad dropped Jeff and me off at the Fairbanks airport. Jeff and I took an Alaska Airlines 737 cargo/passenger flight on a one-day tour to the northernmost city in the world – Barrow, Alaska. It was expensive, but we thought this would be our only chance to ever visit the North Slope and Arctic Ocean. We flew over strange looking tundra and small pools of water. It was unlike anything I have ever seen.
Upon arrival at the airport, our small group had a guide who drove us around in a van for a tour of the Inupiat Eskimo community and town He took us to see their multi-million dollar high school which is the pride of the town. Also, he later introduced us to the mayor, who just happened to be his aunt!
Then he took us by his house and into a small shack behind it that looked like an outhouse. We walked inside, he turned on a lamp and told me to hold it. Then he lifted a piece of Astroturf with a wood door hidden under it. He lifted the door and descended down below it into the permafrost – the frozen ground. Then he came back up with a big piece of whale blubber. With a straight face, he asked us if we wanted to try it. Well, we all passed, but watched as he enjoyed a piece!
Bowhead whales play an important part of Inupiat culture. They have a quota of 23 that they can kill every year, and the whale hunting forms an important part of their culture. No parts are wasted, though the harvesting is not as traditional as it used to be. Our guide told us that they don’t use solely boats and harpoons, but now snowmobiles out on the frozen Arctic ice during the spring killing season. During a spring festival called the Piuraagiaqta, they celebrate breaking a path in the ice for boats to hunt their bowhead whales.
The roads in Barrow are unpaved due to the permafrost, and no roads connect the city to the rest of Alaska. In fact, the houses are built on platforms slightly off the ground because interior heat from housing structures could melt permafrost and threaten the stability of buildings.
On the Arctic coast, our guide showed the polar bear warning signs. This is the only city in the U.S. that has to live with polar bears. He said they bribe the bears to stay out of town in the winter by dumping food waste at the end of the spit away from the city center. He said during the Arctic sunset from November 18 to January 22, the polar bears sometimes come into town when the pack ice is frozen on the Ocean. Adults with shotguns have to accompany kids to school to protect them from polar bears! The pack ice was about 90 miles out today, which means the polar bears were way north. However, the continuing disappearance of summer sea ice is beginning to threaten the bears’ survival.
Our guide told us Barrow has more than 160 sub-zero days per year. We happened to be visiting during the warmest day of the year. The temperature reached a scorching 63 degrees! He said we had just missed the Midnight sun when the sun finally set on August 1 after being up for 80 days since May 11.
We had an opportunity to go for a polar swim. Since this was probably my only chance to ever go in the Arctic Ocean, I bought a pair of Barrow Swim Club shorts and went in. The water was a warm 39 degress and it took my breath away. I didn’t stay in long, but Jeff took a few shots of me “enjoying” my dip. As recognition, the other guys and me that did it receive Polar Bear club certificates.
After visiting the beach, we went to the community center where we witnessed a traditional blanket toss. Then we toured the grocery story and saw meats from whales and polar bears. Actually, we saw things you would never find anywhere else.
We had a little free time that evening after the tour. Jeff and I ate dinner at Pepe’s North of the Border Mexican restaurant – way north of the border! Then we went back to Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport. Humorist Will Rogers and pilot Wiley Post died near Barrow in 1935 when their plane stalled and plunged into a river.
I found it humorous that TSA had metal detectors and checked for weapons and bombs here. It seemed doubtful any threat could originate from Barrow! After boarding the plane we viewed the Arctic Ocean disappear behind us as we flew over seemingly endless tundra as the sun set.