Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Long ago and far away....

Not much happening in our RVing life right now, so we'll share with you an adventure we experienced in 2005. We were in Alaska with a caravan, and took advantage of a day trip to Barrow. Here's what we wrote back then:

Subject: North to Barrow
Date: August 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 and 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.

Gotta be honest -- we didn't take this picture, but wish we had!
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.

This whaleboat sits in Grandma's yard.
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!

Bob and Joan Dalton at the Top of the World Hotel
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.

(For ever so many more pictures of our day in Barrow, take a peek at our web album, Barrow Alaska 2005.

Alaska Airlines flew us back to Fairbanks; River's Edge Campground provided shuttle service back to our motorhome and ... Our Life on Wheels.


  1. Nice tour, we are thinking about a cruise/land tour combo in the spring to Alaska.

  2. Thanks for the great tour. I am pretty sure we will never get there. How interesting had to be for you two to experience all of this. The dancers look awesome! Those people are crazy in the water! Thanks for sharing.

  3. A really great time. I'm with the Full-Timers. We probably won't ever get there so I'm glad you shared your story and pictures with us.

  4. That was a nice post. I've seen some things on National Geographic about Barrow and found it very interesting. How nice that you and Suzy got to see it in person.

  5. Would like to take the side trip up to Barrow someday; have been to Deadhorse (Prudhoe Bay), but there's not much (make that no) cultural interaction there unless one has a chance to talk to the oil field workers ... a breed unto themselves :-))))

  6. We've been to Prudhue Bay (Dead Horse) but only saw a few persons who work there.It's a town without a church or school. We also saw swans, a bear and carabou on the trip there. Thanks for your blog to show what life is like for the natives.Maybe we will go someday.

  7. What an interesting place! We may have to add Barrow to our bucket list.

  8. We drove all the way to Prudhoe Bay from Sandwich, IL...before we had a camper. The Caribou Inn we stayed at was clean, but nothing more than a workcamp for the oil workers..However, that drive from Fairbanks up the "Haul Road" was the most fun we have EVER, EVER had..Musk Ox, Caribou, Grizzlies, snow geese..and going over the Brooks Range..breathtaking. I wouldn't want to take a rig, though...We really would like to get back to Alaska, but you can only do Deadhorse can NEVER be duplicated!! I would love to see Barrow!!

  9. What an adventurous pair you two are.. I can't believe you actually went for a swim and got in that small over-crowed boat.
    smiles and hugs,

  10. Thanks for an interesting tour and pictures. That's probably about as close to Alaska as I'll ever get unless we take a cruise ship there someday!

  11. Love your post. My daughter lives a few miles south (by plane), in the village Atqasuk. She teaches grades 2-4. She absolutely loves it but you are right. It is a hard life. All of her clothes and personal items as well as her teaching material had to be shipped by the USPS. She has to order all of her food from Anchorage and it is mailed to her. Requires a lot of advance planning. We live in Oklahoma. It costs over $1,500 for her to fly home for Christmas. She then flies home for several weeks in the summer. She has so many stories, you would not believe. Thank you for your post.


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