Flying to Barrow Alaska-farthest north in USA
Jul 6, 2009
|Day 55-Flew to Barrow, Alaska
July 6, 2009
We had an early flight to Barrow leaving at 7:30.
We flew to Prudhoe Bay first,
then over to Barrow. When we arrived in Barrow
we were met by Eli, our bus driver and tour guide for the City Tour.
He established a practice with his first stop of getting the bus all geared up and ready to go and then stopping about 100 yards down the road for one of our informative stops.
Our first stop was a little “Welcome to Barrow” shop that happened to have the t-shirt and the pin that I wanted.
I was all fixed up for souvenirs now. The stop had other reasons though—it was at the memorial for Wiley Post and Will Rogers, who died in a plane crash just a few miles from Barrow.
The story we heard from several folks was that they landed their float plane about 12 miles away from Barrow on a lagoon and asked a fellow who was out fishing where Barrow was. He pointed them the right way, and they backed up and took of. Their takeoff was fine, but as Post banked to turn toward Barrow, his engine quit, the plane stalled and then it crashed. The fellow ran all the way to Barrow (on the gravel beach sand) to tell folks about the crash and get help, but it was too late. In honor of his run, Barrow hosts a half-marathon every year from the crash site to Barrow. Anything to bring people to Barrow.
One of the first things we learned was that we weren’t going to get a drink in Barrow. Alcohol import is very strictly regulated, and there are no places in Barrow were alcohol is offered on the menu or is sold. Apparently there is a real problem with alcohol and drug abuse up here. Given the bleak conditions, I can understand that. They can bring some in for personal use, but the amounts are limited. I could have brought 2 bottles of wine in for personal use, but that was it. I didn’t, so for these two days I was, as my dad used to say, “sober as a judge.” (Of course, he didn’t know as many judges as I did.)
We stopped near the shore and we all got a chance to put our hands or feet into the Arctic Ocean. Yes, it was cold. Brian was the bravest of us because he took his shoes and socks off and waded in. He posed near the ice, which is right next to the shore.
We stopped briefly at the site of the old village.
Here we learned that the Inupiat did not build ice igloos—those were only temporary structures. Their main living area—the real igloo (which means sod house) was the sod house built into the side of the hill with whale bones used to set the roof of the house.
The Inupiat people lived in this area for thousands of years with no metal—just the stones, the wood they could salvage, and the products of the animals they could kill. Seals, walrus, whales all provided the building blocks for the Inupiat culture. It was a primitive existence, but their ability to wisely and completely use what they had at hand is impressive.
Here is what the City of Barrow website gives as background on Barrow:
“The Community of Barrow is the economic, transportation and administrative center for the North Slope Borough. Located on the Chukchi Sea coast, Barrow is the northernmost community in the United States.The community is traditionally known as Ukpeagvik, “place where snowy owls are hunted.” Barrow was incorporated as a first-class city in 1958.
Barrow takes its modern name from Point Barrow, named in 1825 by Captain Beechey of the Royal Navy for Sir John Barrow of the British Admiralty. Beechey was plotting the Arctic coastline of North America at the time.
An important historical site in the area is the Pigniq archaeological site which contains 16 dwelling mounds of a culture believed to have existed from 500-900 AD. The archaeological findings are considered a key link between the prehistoric cultures of Alaska and Canada. Another interesting site is the Cape Smythe Whaling and Trading Station in nearby Browerville. Cape Smythe was built as a whaling station in 1893 and is the oldest frame building in the Arctic.
During the 1940s and 1950s, the military played an influential role in the area. Construction of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line and exploration in the National Petroleum Reserve brought new people to the region. During the same time, the Naval Arctic Research Lab (NARL) was built near Barrow. Visitors to Barrow will arrive at the Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport. This airport was named to commemorate the famous pilot and the American humorist who died in an airplane crash just 15 miles south of Barrow in 1935. Across from the airport sits the Will Rogers and Wiley Post Monument.
The largest city in the North Slope Borough, Barrow has 4,429 residents, of which approximately 61 percent are Iñupiat Eskimo. Although Barrow is a modern community, subsistence hunting, fishing and whaling are still very important to the local economy. Many residents who work full- or part-time continue to hunt and fish for much of their food
In 2003, approximately one-third of the working population of 1,935 was employed in the private sector. Only a few work for oil companies at Prudhoe Bay. The borough employs 46 percent of the work force and the NSB School District employs another 19 percent.
Quality of Life
Most Barrow homes are heated by natural gas from nearby gas fields, and have modern water and sewer systems. Utilities are available through Barrow Utilities and Electric Cooperative, a member-owned cooperative, which offers electricity, natural gas and water/sewer services. Water is also delivered by truck to homes beyond the piped distribution system. The NSB provides trash pick-up.
As the seat of the North Slope Borough, Barrow is home to many regional health and social services. These public facilities include: a hospital, senior citizen center, women’s shelter, children & youth services center, library, and job training and assistance center. Public safety and fire protection are also provided.
The community is served by seven churches, elementary, middle and high schools and a post-secondary education center, Ilisagvik College. On evenings and weekends, the high school’s swimming pool, weight room and gym are open to the public. Residents also use Barrow’s recreation center, which boasts a gym, racquetball courts, weight room and sauna. The City operates an inflatable dome for ice skating and hockey in the winter and soccer during the summer.
Communications in Barrow include phone, mail, a public radio station, Internet capability and cable TV. The community also has four hotels, eight restaurants, a dry cleaner, fur shop and a bank. Barrow has a large grocery/merchandise store and three convenience stores. Barrow bans the sale of alcoholic beverages. Major repair services are available for marine, auto and aircraft engines. Diesel, propane, marine gas, aviation fuel and all grades of auto gas are available.
During the summer months, tour operators offer package tours of Barrow and the surrounding area. Visitors learn about the North Slope’s traditional culture at the Inupiat Heritage Center, where they can also purchase arts and crafts such as baleen boats, etched baleen, carved ivory, masks, parkas and fur mittens.
Barrow is served by passenger jet service from Anchorage and Fairbanks. Freight arrives by barge in the summer and air cargo year-round.
We toured around some more, learning about the various buildings and activities Barrow offered,
then went to lunch at Pepe’s.
Pepe’s is a Mexican food restaurant run by Frances Tate.
She was made famous when a story appeared in the Wall Street Journal about her restaurant and she later appeared on Johnny Carson. She presented Johnny with a giant bowhead whale penis, to his chagrin. This was all in 1984, but Frances is still there greeting people and awarding them their Above the Arctic Circle Certificates (which you have to eat at Pepe’s to get).
After lunch we went to the Inupiat Heritage Center, which happens to be a national park location (so we got a stamp for our National Parks Passport book).
There we looked at some exhibits about the Eskimo lifestyle and its adaptation to Western ways. Shortly after we arrived we attended a presentation by the Barrow Dancers of traditional Eskimo dances and some modern ones as well in the same style.
What was interesting is that Barrow is such a small town. We recognized the narrator as the guy who checked us into the Top of the World Hotel.
From there we went out to the football field.
They used to play on sand, but a wealthy lady from Florida who visited Barrow held a fundraiser back in the states and raised $500,000 to help them build an Astroturf field in blue and yellow—the Barrow Whalers colors. The Whalers made the semi-finals last year. The football season in Alaska is a little early—they play their last game in October. The tradition is that the winning team runs from the field and jumps into the Arctic Ocean, which is only about a hundred yards away. This is the only field where games have been suspended or postponed on the account of polar bears.
We went out to the end of the road that the bus could take us. This was about 5:00, and we saw Barrow’s version of 5:00 traffic. There are a number (30-50) of University students who are doing an architectural dig out at the end of the point. They all quit at 5:00 and drive back in on 4 wheelers, which are much more common than cars up here.
At the end of the good road is an Air Force long range sensor installation.
It is largely unmanned, but at one time it had lots of personnel there. When they were first building the facility, they had no flush toilets. A colonel who was recently transferred in gave orders that he was going to have a flush toilet and he was the only one that was going to use it. So the enterprising enlisted men given this charge decided that his toilet should be at the top of a totem pole they brought from another part of Alaska. So they erected the northernmost totem pole with a shiny white adornment on top. To Eli’s knowledge, the colonel never used his flush toilet.
During this same extended visit out a Point Barrow
we saw a number of structures built on the sand. Eli told us that these were the village’s “summer houses” where folks would come out and spend time.
There was no electricity or water or sewer—they just wanted to use these to “get away.” Not sure I understand that, but here they were.
On the way back we stopped in Browerville and had some ice cream. Browerville was built around the Cape Smythe Whaling and Trading Station in nearby Browerville. Cape Smythe was built as a whaling station in 1893 and is the oldest frame building in the Arctic. That building was acquired by the Browers and has become a restaurant where we had our ice cream. Browerville is an area built up around the station that has a lot of Barrow commerce. It had its own photo op location too.
We made our way back to the hotel and finally checked into our rooms.
The rooms were small but not bad. They had good curtains to keep out the light. Here above the Arctic Circle the sun never sets this time of year.
[By the way, anyone who has seen “30 Days of Night,” a vampire movie supposedly set in Barrow where the sun never rises for 30 days—Barrow is not like that. There are 4500 people who live in Barrow year round, and they are up and moving all the time. They have multiple lines of communication with the outside world and daily air service. It is not the isolated town depicted in the movie.]
Brian and Marilyn flew home this evening. We and the Halberstadts were staying through tomorrow, but we felt like we has seen all there was to see inside the city of Barrow. We found another tour company that would take us on a 4-hour wildlife tour outside the city of Barrow and take us to Point Barrow, the farthest most land point in the U.S. We arranged to do that tomorrow.
We went to dinner with Bill and Annette Halberstadt, with whom we had shared the bus tour all day. We walked across the street to Osaka, a sushi and American restaurant just a block or so down. Osaka was small and not real fancy, but the food was excellent. My seaweed salad and Las Vegas roll were well-made and delicious. The others had good meals too. We talked about what we had seen today and the lifestyle of the Eskimos and the Arctic in general. Bill was planning to photograph the sun at astronomical midnight, which works out to be 2:12 am. I told him we would be with him in spirit. (As it turned out, I happened to wake up around 2:00 am, looked out the window from the bed, and yep, it was still light. Unfortunately it was overcast, so no sun sighting.)