North to Barrow
Aug 17, 2005
|One of the most fascinating side trips on this caravan was the Barrow excursion. We took this trip, along with another couple (the Daltons) and Joan Benson from our caravan. Oh, and a planeful of other people we didn't know.
Barrow is the northernmost community on the North American continent, and I suspect the Western Hemisphere as well. A mile and a half away is Point Barrow, the northernmost point on the continent. We could have gone there by Hummer, but we didn't want to pay the extra $120 to go another mile an a half. We understand the Hummers had no seats in the back, and you'd have to sit on the floor. OK for kids, but not for us!
Barrow is a subsistence community of the Inupiat people. They still live much the way they have for the last few centuries, with a few modernizations (electricity, TV, etc.). They continue to hunt whales from sealskin whaleboats; men and boys as young as seven years go out on the boats. When they kill a whale, they need help to bring it in. The whale is distributed by a fixed method: the boat that killed it gets 50%; the people in the boats that help bring it in get a share; and the rest of the community gets a share as well. No one is left out. The limit these people can take is 22 whales a year; last year they took 16.
Look around Barrow. No TV antennas, but some community satellite dishes aimed nearly parallel to the earth, since they are so far north. Nothing green growing. They don't raise anything. No crops, very little grass, no trees. They live on top of permafrost, which goes down thousands of feet into the earth. Buildings are built on raised foundations, because to put them on the ground would melt the permafrost, and they'd end up leaning and sinking. The supply pipes from the city's water system to the homes are insulated and heated. The sewer lines as well.
Our tour bus driver and guide took us to her Grandma's house to show us Inupiat food storage. She uncovered a hole in the ground leading to a chamber about 12 feet deep, 10 X 18 feet across, carved out of the permafrost. A steep ladder, chopped from a single driftwood log, led down to the base where plastic bags held their provisions, safely frozen until needed. In Grandma's front yard lay a dead seal, frozen solid, waiting for whatever would befall it. Also in Grandma's front yard was a sealskin whaleboat, upturned on sawhorses, and a whale's skullbone. Grandma herself shows up later in this story.
The Inupiat name for Barrow is Ukpiagvik, which translates as "The Place Where We Hunt Snowy Owls." They don't anymore, because Snowy Owls are on the endangered list, but they still hunt whales.
Barrow is modernized as well. They have a modern sports center to keep their young people active and motivated. Their schools have large indoor play areas so kids can still play regardless of brutal outdoor weather. Their City Hall is clearly modern, even with a whale skull sitting on a pallet out front! The Top of the World Hotel is ... well, adequate. The Daltons stayed the night while Joan Benson and we returned to Fairbanks. Barrow also has a very good Mexican Restaurant, where we had lunch. (The Inupiats cannot sell their food, they share it; if you want to eat out, you eat something else.)
One of our friends, actually daughter Kathie's close friend from high school, lived in Barrow for several years. She moved a few years ago to Kenai, and then back to Butte, MT. We mentioned her first name in the Mexican restaurant and immediately the server added her last name, excited that someone from outside knew her. He roused the manager who came to our table and exclaimed about Natalie. It was all very homey and positive.
At the Inupiat Heritage Center, we watched young people, and some not so young, performing ancestral dances that tell stories or express joy, accompanied by chanting and the throbbing rhythms of drums. The dancers, including those aged 5 to 6, were precise in their movements. Later we were invited to dance with them and to participate in the age-old blanket toss game. The blanket toss comes down from a need for early hunters to see game across the barren landscape. The higher they could be tossed, the farther they could see. Today it's a game; yesterday it was survival.
What about Grandma? She was the announcer and director for the dancers. Grandma chose the sequence of dances and announced them; the dancers and musicians had to be prepared for anything.
In the lobby of the Heritage Center, individuals were offering for sale their native crafts, objects made from whale baleen, paintings, carvings, etc. Their work was beautiful and, necessarily, expensive.
What else did we see in Barrow? The "Top of the World Bridge," the northernmost bridge in North America (our driver said it was safe for cars but she wouldn't take our busload across it); a DEWLine installation (NORAD's advanced radar Distant Early Warning system, operated today by computer, with a two-person maintenance and upkeep team); the famous whalebone arch, seen in all the ads for Barrow; and ... POLAR BEARS! No, not the white quadrupeds that eat seals, but human beings who dare to run into and submerge themselves in the Arctic Ocean's surf. It is an official ceremony and must be witnessed by the proper authority (who happens also to be the manager of the Mexican restaurant!). Two hardy individuals made the list that day, both of them European visitors. Not Suzy or me! We were waiting for a hot tub. After all, the temperature that July 17 never exceeded the high 30's, plus wind chill near the ocean.
Alaska Airlines flew us back to Fairbanks; River's Edge Campground provided shuttle service back to our motorhome and ... Our Life on Wheels.