All of our flights today were pretty routine except for the turbulence over the Alaska Range which we had to cross 4 times. The Alaska Range is a long line of formidable mountains that separate the Southeastern part of Alaska from the Interior.
I found the side trip to Prudhoe Bay/Deadhorse very interesting after hearing about it so much when the Alaska pipeline was being built in the 1970s. It is adjacent to the largest oil field in North America and was developed to house personnel and provide support for drilling operations and the transport of oil to the pipeline. The pipeline runs from Prudhoe Bay to the terminal at Valdez, AK.
The sight coming in from the air is really unique. As far as one can see, the land is perfectly flat and pockmarked with hundreds of small round ponds and lakes. The ground is permafrost which means that from about 2 feet down the soil is gravel and sand permanently bound together by ice. When the top layer thaws in the spring melts, the water has no place to go and forms these ponds. Rigs and processing facilities are located on gravel pads scattered around the tundra. Only when the ground is frozen in the winter is the surface hard enough to support heavy equipment.
Barrow is the largest native village in Alaska with a population of 4,000, 65% Inupiat, commonly known as Eskimos. The official name is Utqiagvik (oot-kay-ahg-vik) though even the locals still call it Barrow. It is 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The northernmost point of the United States...Point Barrow is a roadless spit where the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas (Arctic Ocean) meet. Barrow is the cultural, economic, social, transportation and governmental center of the Northern Slope Borough which includes the oil industry.
Because it is not connected by road to the rest of Alaska, the airport is the lifeline of the community and area. Alaska Airlines has special 737s built just for transporting goods in and out, with half of the plane for passengers and the other half devoted to cargo. Locals regularly do their major shopping in Anchorage and come home with coolers filled with food, understandable when seeing the prices of food in the only grocery store. Large items, like automobiles, are ordered and come in by barge during the short summer season when the ocean is free of ice.
Although Barrow is a modern community with the usual modern facilities, subsistence living is still a way of life and a central part of the Inupiat culture, with hunting and fishing supplying much of their food, the whale hunt being central to this.
In the past when I've thought of whale hunting what came to mind was the "Save the Whale" movement and Greenpeace and the wasteful slaughter of these magnificent creatures by commercial whalers. Looking through the eyes of the Inupiats, I've learned to see whale hunting in a whole new light.
To them, the spring and fall whale hunts are cultural and spiritual events, a way of following their ancestors in the centuries old traditions and providing food for the entire community. The whale is considered sacred and is respected for its sacrifice of giving its life as a gift to them. Although commercial whale hunting is banned, the Inupiats are allowed a certain number of Bowhead whales each year, depending on the current whale population. The meat is shared according to a traditional formula, certain parts go to the captain and crew and those helping in the butchering, and the rest to the public, even some left for the polar bears! Every part of the animal is used.
This traditional subsistence way of life is being threatened today by global warming which is disrupting the migration patterns of the animals. The ice is melting earlier in the spring and forming later in the fall. The thinning ice makes it more difficult to harvest whales, seals and walruses. It makes travel more dangerous and less predictable. The later forming sea ice contributes to increased flooding and erosion along the coast. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet and is considered "ground zero" for climate change.
Leaving Barrow we had a very different kind of airport experience. We were finishing our dinner a little late and were getting concerned about getting to the airport because it was actually getting close to boarding time. After our already long day we did not want to have to spend the night in the Barrow airport. We were told not to worry, there was plenty of time. When we got to the airport, there were cars & trucks parked at all angles, 2 & 3 deep right in front of the doors. We walked in the door directly into the security line. There were people getting off the plane trying to get by us, there were people at the desk trying to check their baggage and refrigeration coolers. Total chaos! Somehow they got us all through the line which led us right out the door onto the tarmac and up the stairs into the plane just as it was ready to take off!
The flight back to Anchorage was uneventful, then a long tiring layover before leaving for Fairbanks. Flying above the clouds after midnight was spectacular. See photos.