Stories

Summer in Barrow, Alaska

by Paul Clites - 11 months ago

I arrived at Barrow, Alaska late afternoon on August 21, 2016, at the end of a long day of flying from Juneau to Yakutat, to Cordova, to Anchorage, to Prudhoe Bay/Deadhorse, and last to Barrow’s Wiley Post - Will Rogers Memorial Airport.   The flight from Anchorage to Barrow, with an intermediate stop at Prudhoe Bay/Deadhorse, is an Alaskan Airlines twice daily loop flight that goes back south to Fairbanks and then Anchorage.  The aircraft is a combi 737 with freight in front and around 40 passengers in back, separated by a bulkhead.  It is the main source of supply for the city other than a few small supply ships during the brief open-water summer.

On my flight, probably half the passengers were the Barrow High School Whalers football team and supporters, who were returning from a lopsided victory over Haynes’ team and were in a happy mood.  I found out that the team was first organized in 2006 and has an overall winning record since then.  Also, at first the team could only play on a gravel pad laid on the tundra (ouch!), but later a generous benefactor, Cathy Parker, from New England donated money for an artificial turf field in shocking blue, and modest bleachers and announcer booth.

Barrow is the northernmost city in the US (11th globally).  The population is between 4000-4,500 of which 61% are Native American (Iñupiat).  During the time I was there it was continuously cloudy, with the temperature never out of the 30-39º F range (-1º to +4º C).  For a brief time one day, light fluffy snow fell, but melted on contact with the ground.  And this was during the summer.  Forget sunning on the beach, and keep in mind that the ocean water is barely above freezing as evidenced by ice chunks washed on shore.

Barrow is not a tourist destination, so hotels are scarce.  I stayed two nights at the Top of the World Hotel, which is owned and operated by the Iñupiat Native Corporation.  I have seen listings for a couple other hotels, but they were not obvious to me as I was there.  As for restaurants, I heard good things about Arctic Pizza, but after walking a mile or more I discovered they must be closed on Monday.  So a diversion ensued to Sam and Lee’s Chinese Restaurant operated by an authentic-appearing Chinese family, who served up some quite tasty Chinese food.  Everyone I spoke to was highly saddened that Pepe’s North of the Border Restaurant had burned down three years earlier.

What to do in town, you ask … Well, there is a Top of the World Tundra Tour, again operated by the Iñupiat Native Corporation.  This is basically a narrated, story-telling, drive around town in a van, with an excursion a few miles toward Barrow Point (farthest north land in the United States) but unfortunately the road was only graded about half way, so we turned around.  On return to Barrow, the Tundra Tour stopped at the Iñupiat Heritage Center, which is a rather nice museum/research/training center focused on the Iñupiat culture.  There is an adjacent workshop where several Iñupiat men hand-make various regional items, some cheezy souvenirs, and others real works of art.  I bought a roughly 6 inch piece of whale baleen that was nicely hand engraved by local gentleman Delbert Evikana with a polar bear on one side.

Finally, a few observations:

  • All roads/streets are gravel (can’t pave because of permafrost).  In the summer when the surface is thawed the gravel dust from passing cars goes everywhere and coats everything.   They do a good job with a water truck to keep the road surface moist and minimize dust, but it is just a fact of life there.  As a result the road surface is mostly thin dust mud that makes walking inconvenient.  And you can’t walk off the road many places either.
  • In the two days I was there I saw six tourists other than myself (we were all on the Tundra Tour).  Two couples were day-tripping and had flown from Anchorage on the morning flight with a return in the evening.
  • Cost of living is high, as virtually everything needs to be shipped in.  There is a good size all-purpose store (Stuaqpak AC Value Center) that sells most everything from groceries (tomatoes $4.69/lb., avocados $4.99 ea, bagged ice (??) $2.19), furniture, clothing, you name it.  And it has a food court too.
  • Barrow is a dry town.  Smuggled booze is said to cost $100-200 for a 750 ml bottle (I just asked, didn't buy)
  • Although Barrow exists in a fairly unfriendly environment with all the resulting challenges, I found the people to be warm and friendly, and very happy to talk with a stranger.
  • No, I didn't see a polar bear.  They said most were out to sea on the ice that receded from shore in the summer.  They had a picture of one that wandered on the beach the day before I arrived.  Everyone stays away from them, and call the police who watch the bear.  If it wanders away like most do, good.  But if it gets aggressive, and this one did, it is shot.  Sad, but necessary.


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