Located 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 500 miles north of Fairbanks, Ukpiagvik, formerly known as Barrow, Alaska, is the northernmost settlement on the North American mainland! A handful of package tours from Fairbanks and Anchorage will get you there, with seats on regular Alaska Airline flights and a tour of Barrow upon arrival. If packages are full, you can try and book your own flight from Fairbanks and arrange for a land tour which is what we did.
A Barrow visitor is immediately struck by the nearly-permanently-gray sky, muddy roads, and adequate-but-functional buildings. Government offices, North Slope oilfield operations, and tourism provide the “modern” side of the community.
Technically a desert…
Technically a desert, snowfall in Barrow ranges around 15 inches per year. “Warm” means 30 to 40 degrees F., with winter temps dropping to 50 below zero F.
And where 65 per cent of the town’s population of 6500 is Native, subsistence living plays a large part in many families.
Barrow Native Dance Club Cultural Presentation
As agreed, I called Will Saganna of Alaska Arctic Adventures as soon as we arrived. Will rushed us to the Native Center to watch the Barrow Native Dance Club in progress, presenting cultural dances, songs and games. To the beat of sealskin drums, girls in native dresses and mukluks (and wearing fur gloves to keep away the spirits), demonstrated scraping the sealskin, paddling a boat, and chopping wood. A Salute to the American Flag was followed by the Inupiat Blessing song.
The performers showed us toys and games made from animal parts — yoyos, catch-the-caribou-vertebra-on-the-sealbone-stick, and spun a piece of baleen on a rope to make a whirring sound.
Whalebone markers and carvings made from baleen
I bought a carved baleen pendant from Inupiat artists Gilford and Flossie Mongoyak, featuring a snowy owl, northern lights, an igloo, and a meat drying rack.
Then Will drove us to Point Barrow – three miles past the spot where typical tour buses can go. In our van, with specially-inflated tires, Will drove over the soft Arctic “sand”, until we were “there.”
We each received a certificate:
“Let it be known to all that (your name goes here) has attained the furthest point north in America — 342 miles (550 km) North of the ARCTIC CIRCLE…”
The more Will talked that day, the more I “got” Barrow — particularly the native subsistence living that still includes whaling, fishing and hunting as everyday culture.
Ukpiagvik: The place where we hunt Snow Owls
Will told us about another integral part of Inupiat Native heritage: Snowy Owls. Remember, Barrow was originally called UKPIAGVIK, which means “The place where we hunt snow owls”. A large sign explains that, “The Inupiat settled here primarily to hunt the great bowhead whales. But their diet was supplemented by the harvest of Nature’s other gifts, including the snowy owl…
“Even with the conveniences of the 21st century, it is the gathering and sharing of our native foods that binds our families, friendships and spirits together…” said Will.
Will then showed us the outdoor display of a huge skull of a Bowhead Whale harvested in 1983, and pointed out other whale bones left along the beach.
Will told us he will go whaling in October (the old-fashioned way) — 4 to 5 guys in a 20 to 24 foot boat, 60 to 70 miles out into the Arctic Ocean, in up to fourteen foot swells!
As part of a team, Will told us he will go whaling in October — four to five guys in a 20 to 24 foot boat, 60 to 70 miles out into the Arctic Ocean, in up to fourteen foot swells. He told us that 22 whale strikes (controlled by the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission) are allowed each season. Will told me that the previous Spring the Natives landed nine, but lost five, so you can see whom the odds favor.
Only catch what you need; Give in abundance to those who need.
Ever looking to preserve nature and help each other, the watchword of Will’s people is: “Only catch what you need; give in abundance to those who need.” Sound familiar? It is the trope of most aboriginal people you encounter, anywhere across the world.
Top place for birders!
Birders may know that Barrow is one of the top destinations in the world for the rare Ross’s gull, the Yellow-billed Loon, and the unusual King and Steller Eider Ducks. Other “critters” of the land include White and Blue Foxes, wolves, and wolverines. Ocean creatures include polar bears, seals, and walrus; and fish include Arctic char, King Salmon, and Silver Salmon.
We ate in one of the local restaurants, where food was good, portions were large, and prices were high. Barrow, understandably, is expensive, as everything must be brought in by plane — or barge, when the ice is out.
The Inupiat people are quiet, warm, and very proud of their heritage. We saw how families work together, and felt their love for their community as well as for The United States.
“Not like home,” says Will, about trips he’s made outside Barrow…
When I asked Will how Barrow compared to “the outside world,” he told me: “It wasn’t like home — when I said ‘hi’ to people, they seemed cold and suspicious. Not like home,” he said.Tags: Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission Arctic char Arctic Circle Arctic ocean Baleen Barrow Alaska Birders birding Blue fox Bowhead whale igloo Inupiat Northern lights Point Barrow polar bears rare Ross’s gull seals Silver salmon snowy owls unusual King Eider ducks unusual Steller Eider Ducks Upkiagvik walrus White fox wolverines wolves Yellow-billed Loon