The airplane view of northern Alaska was white from the low cloud layer formed by summer evaporation or the snow- and ice-covered peaks of the Brooks Range, which is one of the few east-west mountain ranges in the Americas. Triumphant whale boat
Point Barrow is the northernmost point in North America. About half of Barrow's 4000 residents are native hunters, shooting whale, caribou, seal, walrus, fox, ptarmigan, eiders and other critters for "subsistence." A polar bear skin can get up to $15,000. Dumpsters filled to overflowing with frozen whale parts from the May kills await transport to the final dump near the sea far from town (to avoid attracting bears). None of Barrow's non-natives plan to retire here; they generally stay four to six years on contract. They earn high pay ($25 per hour for a teacher's aide) and have high expenses ($1200 a month for a studio apartment, $200 a week for imported groceries, bought at a supermarket that looked just like the one in Anchorage.) Other than the wildlife and the oil and natural gas, the north slope is devoid of resources, all of which are flown in. About 400 Filipinos live in Barrow, drawn by the high wages.
We arrived at the beginning of Summer, which is a single day lasting from May to August. We flew up from Fairbanks on an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737, and pulled up to the back of a nondescript blue steel building, which was crowded with passengers getting off and getting back on. Outside the terminal we walked across a dirt road to our $200-a-night modern motel room. The temperature varied from 10 to 20 degrees, the wind from 5 to 15 knots, and there were a few light snow flurries.
The land was covered with a thin layer of snow and ice, and the Arctic Ocean was covered with thick pack ice, which heaved up under the enormous Barrow seen from the Arctic pressures of the sea, forcing giant slabs five to ten feet in the air. This resulted in a fantastic natural ice sculpture crafted by the wind and water, with some of the uplifted formations appearing a bright blue, and some coated with the grey-black sand from the ocean bottom, as they turned upside down.
We stayed about 48 hours, bought sandwich makings at the supermarket, and made three excursions: one for a short walk about the town, a second to the Heritage Center, and a third out to Point Barrow to look for signs of wildlife.
The town is decidedly unlovely, with older ramshackle homes interspersed with newer buildings which appeared to be on their way to becoming ramshackle. Debris is freely strewn. The streets are muddy for large parts of the year, even though the temperature is sub-freezing. We saw a monument to Will Rogers and Wiley Post, who died in a plane crash not far from Barrow. We saw the court, the police station, and the jail buildings; two handcuffed criminals were being escorted across the street. We walked out on the frozen Arctic Ocean, where we broke through into a crevasse up to our knees and laughed about it. We saw lots of snow machines zipping across the frozen surfaces -- they can achieve speeds of 100 mph -- as well as dog sleds; in fact, the mayor's two dogs were chained up in back of his ramshackle home outside our hotel window. We saw old graves and archaeological digs, and hours-old polar bear tracks and bear pee, but the only wildlife we spotted were sea gulls around the dump and a flock of The authors at Point Barrow eiders out near the wet part of the Arctic Ocean. Polar bears hide from the hunters on the snow machines.
We know there is a wet part of the ocean, perhaps a mile from shore, because the plane flew over it when landing. The natives haul their whale boats, which are formed by stretching a stitched seal-hide covering over a wooden frame, out to the wet part in spring and fall, and paddle silently towards the bowhead whales, which they shoot with an explosive shell from a large bore gun. We saw several of these fragile-looking boats hauled up on shore, some flying family banners; they are the ones who killed a whale.
We learned about Barrow from the historical displays at the heritage center, the hotel manager, and our wildlife tour guide, who took us on a two-hour trip to Point Barrow in his high van with huge snow tires.
The first Americans appeared in this area, crossing the land bridge from Asia about 12,000 years ago, hunting animals as big as the mastodon. The area around Barrow has been inhabited by native hunters for at least 2,000 years, as evidenced by human burial sites. The development of the eyed needle was essential to survival here.
Barrow is the administrative center of the North Slope Borough, which encompasses tens of thousands of square miles from Kotzebue to Prudhoe Bay. Most of this land is owned by the native land corporation, not by individuals. Aside from Barrow, there are perhaps a dozen more year-round settlements, plus numerous hunting camps. Considerable successful oil and gas drilling has been done on the North Slope, with capped wells waiting for future exploitation. Barrow is heated and powered by natural gas. The educational system goes through college, with paraprofessional training. Arctic Ocean ice formations
There's some defense stuff up here; listening posts dating back to WW II, and various cold-war installations. The Naval Arctic Research Laboratory (NARL) was closed in 1994, but some early warning facilities are still in use.
Incidentally, we had to book our Alaskan Airlines flight to Barrow on the internet, in order to get a $169 round-trip fare. If we booked with the airlines (or a travel agent) we would have paid the full listed fare of $520. We also were required to use the self-service ticketing machines; all the gate agent did was eyeball our photo ID. By training passengers to ticket totally electronically, the airline expects ultimately to do away with a lot of gate agents and travel agency commissions.
Some Americans believe that hunting should be barred altogether; most support licensed hunting of non-endangered species. But politics in the United States and Canada allow those of native descent to hunt and fish freely for subsistence. Leaving aside the question of abuses of subsistence hunting, the core inconsistency is that a small number of natives in the United States and Canada are encouraged to continue a life-style that is so contrary to the values of the majority of their fellow citizens. We agree with our tour guide that eventually more profit could be made by showing the wildlife to ecotourists than by hunting. We're glad we visited Barrow, because it put these issues in a clear perspective.