I got the opportunity to go to Barrow for a work-related training in early April 1997. It was the time of year when they were closing in on the period when the sun wouldn’t set for 82 days. By then it was light for 14 hours a day with dusk lasting for hours. It was a balmy zero degrees while we were there, warm enough for many of the locals to be in shorts. Everything is relative when you consider their average temperature in July doesn’t reach 50.
Barrow, often called the city at the top of the world, is the most northern town in the United States. It has a population of over 4,000 and 60% of its residents are Alaska Native, mostly Inupiaq who have been in the area for over 1,500 years. Point Barrow, nine miles northeast of Barrow, is actually the most northern point in the US but it is not inhabited though there is a road between the two.
On our first day, we went polar bear hunting. Not the kind of hunting where a bear ends up dead. It was more of the Easter egg kind of hunting. There had been recent sightings of a polar bear out at Point Hope so a local took us looking for one.
We were all excited to see a polar bear in the wild instead of Binky, the famous polar bear at the Anchorage Zoo who carried a tourist’s shoe around for 3 days following her failed attempt at a photo up close. Besides, Binky had died two years earlier so it had been a while since any one of us had seen even a caged one. The woman who drove told us that locals bring whale out for the polar bears. I figured there was some deep spiritual reason, thanking the land or something. “No,” the driver said, “They just hope it will keep the bears from coming in to town.”
Even now, almost 20 years later, the place is vivid in my memory. It was one of the most visually-unique experiences of my life. To give you an idea of what it looked and felt like, here are a couple excerpts from my journal:
- Everything is white, from snow, to sea ice, to the sky. It makes you squint, it’s so bright.
- I have this incredible sense of really being at the top of the world, as though everything curves downward from here. It’s almost as if you can feel the shape of the earth.
The training included the Alaska State Troopers and one afternoon Search and Rescue kindly arranged a helicopter ride for us. It was a first for me. In the white sky, above the white land and sea, we saw three hunters on snow machines (in Alaska they are snow machines, not snowmobiles) nearing a herd of caribou. We saw another three snow machines breaking a path in the ice for boats to hunt whale.
The pilot explained it takes the village three to four hours to butcher an entire whale. A large whale, though, can take up to 12 hours.
On our last day, we were invited to meet an Alaska Native carver and his wife. The elder opened his front door and said, “Welcome to my igloo.” He said people still think Natives live in igloos so he welcomes all his non-Native guests to his igloo.
He leads us to his work room. In a tiny overfull room is a broken faded chair, a desk that serves as his work space, a rack of guns and shelves covered in plastic baggies with his collections. He had bags of walrus and mastodon teeth, some already polished. After a storm, he walks the beach to collect teeth and bones and other things that wash ashore.
He had one clouded eye and a pair of thick glasses. He told me he can longer hunt with the village because of his eyes. But as an elder, he gets a portion of the whale.
In the living room, his wife set out muktuk for us to taste. I think the muktuk was from a bowhead whale, but I’m not 100% sure all these years later. The meat cut into thin shoe string strips about an inch long. One half of each strip was black (the skin) and the other half is opaque whitish-pink (the blubber). The slices were heavily salted and a bowl of Heinz 57® sauce sat nearby. It isn’t bad. Salt is the most prominent flavor. It was chewy, as you’d expect. And even through the tang of the dipping sauce, it tasted of the sea.
Before we left Barrow, we visited a young Native mother whose artistry was etched baleen. Purchasing baleen was on the list for several of us but we’d struck out a couple of times already on the trip. Baleen is found in the whale’s mouth and the hairs serve as a way for the whale to filter its food. The whale takes in a mouthful of water and the baleen keeps the krill and other food in while letting the water run out.
My baleen is etched with a dog musher and his team. My coworker got one with a walrus on an ice floe.
I’ve loved it, like so many of my possessions. But choices have to be made when downsizing and my Barrow baleen was one such item. This, I gave to a family member for Christmas last year. So now, at least, I can visit it.