Notes on a starless summer in Barrow, Alaska
August 3, 1:57 A.M.
I’m walking the shores of the Chuckchi sea in Barrow, Alaska watching the sun pass below the horizon for the first time in 84 days. By the time it returns an hour and a half later, I haven’t even gone to bed yet. Since I’ve arrived, the strange novelty of 24-hour daylight has lured me into staying up way too late, even though I have an early photo shoot the next morning.
Standing closer to the top of the world than ever before, my mind ponders overwhelming concepts: the fact that only .0000003% of all humans are closer to the North Pole than I am right now; that if I sail north, all that I will encounter will be ice; and the impossible notion that there are still 6 other towns on Earth further north than Barrow. What will this place be like in a few months, when winter holds the sun captive for over 60 days?
These types of questions are the luxuries of the traveler. For those who actually live at 71° north of the equator, these trivialities are cast by the wayside in the face of an always-impending winter. But I’ve become obsessed with learning all I can about life in this remote corner of the world during the few days I have, and while she’s done a good job hiding it, I’m sure my local contact has grown weary of the endless questioning.
I’ve learned that the town’s Inupiaq whale hunters haul supplies ten miles out on the ice before hitting the open sea in the springtime, and that polar bears are thought to be left handed. If you ever find yourself in a fight with a polar bear, jump to its right side to avoid a swift paw strike. (I hope I never have to verify this.)
Even in a town as small as Barrow, I’ve found myself disappointed at the things I didn’t get to experience on this trip: the chance to eat muktuk, the preserved skin and blubber of the bowhead whale; to watch a local sew up their sealskin boat before whaling season. So, with only a few hours left, our contact drives us to the beach and watches as two silly white-skinned outsiders strip down to their underwear before diving into the Arctic Ocean. Indeed it is a shock to the system, but it’s not just the cold–I’ve forgotten just how salty the ocean can be.
Fifteen minutes later, mostly dry and sitting in the airport, we feel as most travelers do at the end of even the shortest journeys: that we were just getting to know Barrow.
Well, that’s what we told ourselves, anyway.
Welcome to Barrow
Jaw bones of a bowhead whale. Two thousand years ago the local Inupiaq eskimos essentially lived inside bowhead whale skulls. They built semi-underground sod homes reinforced by triple jaw bones. Thick, earthen walls kept out biting arctic winds while whale oil lamps provided the hearth. Back then, this place was called Utqiagvik, which means, "Place where we hunt snowy owls."
Just about everyone in Barrow drives four-wheelers and snowmobiles. These function-forward vehicles get you and your gear more places than a car would around Barrow's few muddy roads and singular traffic light. This guy's strapped with a shotgun for protection against the stray polar bear that occasionally wanders into town, but hopefully he isn't speeding--Barrow PD is cracking down on reckless driving this year.
A pile of caribou, or tuktu hides collected after a favorable hunt. They use the supple, insulating hides to make traditional clothing, parkas, boots, and face masks to protect against the cold.
Seal skins are still used to make the traditional driftwood boats that the Inupiaq people use to hunt the bowhead whales. Whaling still plays an important part in Inupiaq life and every woman learns the time-honored method for curing and preparing a seal skin. Even though motorized boats haul supplies on and off the ice, they still hunt in seal skin boats because they're lighter, quieter--and their father's father would have wanted it that way.
Since the ground is frozen most of the year and spongy-wet in the summertime, every single structure is built upon wooden or steel posts driven down into the permafrost. Recent climate change studies show that the necessary depth at which these pilings must be driven has increased by a few feet over the last twenty years.
One Man's Trash...
For many Americans, this is a picture of a pile of junk. But for those whose lives revolve around grinning and bearing it through the winter or preparing for the next one, this is a jackpot of resources for spare parts to repair everything that's either frozen or just too incredibly exposed to the hellish sub-zero temperatures, blowing whiteouts, and tremendous arctic winds.
Barrow's architecture is as straightforward as it gets. The featureless land lies flat except for the hundreds of small ponds and lakes dotting the tundra. It's not always a place that lends itself well to grand photographic scenes....
...but at the magic hour of sunset, light burns through the atmosphere, igniting the land with a golden light and sending my heart racing with a trigger-happy finger on the camera.
Everything that's not caught or hunted in Barrow arrives by crate or shipping container. Consequently, added freight costs to the Arctic Circle mean $8 for a bag of chips, $9 for a gallon of milk and $20 for a pound of meat. Local tips: for $20, buy a box of rifle shells and bring home five or six hundred pounds of caribou meat, and you're good for the year.
Local kids celebrating the last day of 24-hour summer sunlight with a sunset bonfire on a beach facing the Arctic Ocean. Despite the high depression and suicide rates in remote Alaskan villages, youth sports mean a lot around here. The town has a high school football team, the Whalers, who play on a blue and yellow artificial turf field at the edge of the Chuckhi Sea, and basketball games fill the city gym every single game.
Postcard Barrow: bowhead whale bones and driftwood whaling boats under the midnight sun.
Another whaling boat, sans seal skin. After a hunt, the skins are removed and sewn into a circle for a traditional "blanket toss" to celebrate the bounty.
Missionaries under Sheldon Jackson's guidance brought Christianity to northern Alaska in the 1890s. At the time, commercial whaling had severely impacted the local whale population, and historians speculate that a food shortage combined with new diseases left the Inupiaq feeling open to new alternatives. While Barrow definitely still embraces a lot of Inupiaq ways, Christianity is very much alive with both native and non-native residents.
Where's north from here?
The South Pole is over ten times further away from Barrow than the North Pole. In fact, Barrow is closer to the North Pole than it is to any other major US city outside of Alaska.
During the summer, these boardwalks are perfect pathways across the swampy, spongelike grass. In the winter, everything is frozen solid, so boardwalks don't really matter.