When we began planning our road trip to Alaska, we had a list of things we wanted to see and do. One of those was to stand in the Arctic Ocean. We explored the possibility of driving the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay and then taking a tour through the oil fields to the ocean. This would take a minimum of 4 days to accomplish. The other option was to fly to Barrow, Alaska and take a tour. This could be accomplished in 1 day. Alaska Airlines flies to Barrow from Anchorage and we had reward points. So we booked the flights and scheduled the tour. After we arrived at Barrow, we were glad we paid for the tour. It was 159.00 per person, but was well worth the money. We learned a lot about the people of Barrow or Utqiagvik as the indigenous citizens call it.
We arrived at the Anchorage airport. They have some pretty unusual displays, but very fitting for Alaska…fish, the northern lights, moose, and geese.
We learned that Alaska Airlines is the largest air cargo carrier serving the small communities of the state. About half of their airplanes have had the first class section modified as a cargo hold. All commodities are flown to the communities by this method. Even Amazon Prime is free to the outlining areas of Alaska, however, it takes 2-3 weeks for the shipment to arrive. This cargo arrangement has made the Anchorage airport the largest air cargo airport in the world, for volume.
Once in the air we had a great view of the landscape.
We also were able to see Mount Denali from the top…still shrouded to clouds, but at least we had a view.
We also saw the Yukon River Bridge on the Dalton Highway. That we had drove a few days before.
Our first stop was the Prudhoe Bay airport which is actually located in Deadhorse. From the air you could see how much water surround the airport.
Once we landed, we were only on the ground for about 15 minutes.
Back in the air, we were able to see the oil operations and the beginning of the Alaska pipeline, when we took off.
The landscape surrounding Barrow was similar to Prudhoe Bay. Barrow was named by a Yankee ship captain who sent his men to explore. He never came here himself, but it was named Pt. Barrow in his honor. It is still known as Barrow to the outside world, but Utqiagvik to the area residents. The community was incorporated in 1943 as Barrow, however, they would like to get rid of the Barrow references.
Top of the World Tours met us at the airport and took us to the hotel/restaurant where our tour would begin. We ate lunch which was very good and reasonable for being at the “top of the world”. The entrance to the restrooms had real walrus tusks hanging from the picture.
After lunch we met our tour guide, Louise and tour driver Phoebe. Both ladies grew up in Barrow.
We learned that Barrow/Utqiagvik had about 4500 citizens, with 1500 of those citizens being under the age of 18. There is a severe housing storage, so expensive to live there. All buildings must be built on stilts as the ground is permafrost. If the building were to sit on the ground it would melt the permafrost and sink. All utilities are ran underground in a large insulated tube. This is to keep the pipes from freezing, but also to keep the permafrost from melting. The power plant runs on natural gas. Before the discovery of natural gas, it was fueled by seal oil.
The “palm trees” in the yard are made from the whale’s baleen. This is located in a whale’s mouth and filters the water and catches the food.
We stopped at the Birnirk archaeological site. The Birnirk culture existed from 500-900 AD. There are 16 dwelling mounds which is where the people lived in sod homes. 12 years ago there was a large storm, that eroded part of the shoreline. A family was found in an unearthed ice cellar. It is estimated that the family lived there 1500 years ago.
Funakoshi Memorial is a memorial to a mother and daughter who died when their plane crashed. The plane was never recovered so the family built the memorial in their honor.
Hunting is what brought people to this area. Snowy owls were very popular to hunt. They are no longer hunted but are now the symbol of the town.
Barges come in July and August and bring a year supply of gas. They also bring large building materials, vehicles, or equipment. Otherwise, goods are brought during the year, through Alaska Airlines.
We stopped at the Barrow sign post…
And visited the Will Rogers memorial. Will Rogers was an American newspaper columnist and humorist. In 1935, he and pilot Wiley Post were flying from Fairbanks to Barrow. They encountered fog and they landed the plane about 11 mile southwest of Barrow/Utqiagvik. After the weather cleared and they received directions from a small party of Alaska natives, they took off. The plane immediately experienced engine trouble and it plummeted into a lagoon and overturned. It was the first fatal air accident Barrow/Utqiagvik had ever known. Due to this tragedy and Will Rogers popularity at the time of his death, there is a large memorial for him and Wiley Post.
Barrow/Utqiagvik has an elementary school, middle school, and high school. There are approximately 1300 students currently attending the 3 schools. The local indigenous language has been taught in the schools since 1972, in hopes of keeping the language alive. 50% of the graduating seniors will decide to stay and live in Barrow/Utqiagvik. Some might go to the universities in Alaska or the lower 48, and many of those will eventually come back, as they love the way of life.
There is a technical trade school, that teaches welding, construction, and mechanics. Most of the teachers and doctors must be recruited to come to work in the town.
We stopped to take pictures as the large Bowhead whale skull. The head is 1/3 of its body size. Barrow/Utqiagvik is allowed to harvest 25 whales each year and they are the only community to have a whale hunt in the spring and fall. The whales are harvested by traditional methods of harpooning. The Bowhead whale celebration takes place in June and includes a blanket toss, races for all ages, and a flag raising for the whale boats. The blanket toss or Nalukataq uses a 6×6 blanket that is made from seal skins. The seal skins are also used for the covers over the boats. The celebration ends with a traditional dance. Only men and older boys are allowed to hunt the whales. They know when the whale is dead as it will roll over on its back. The flukes or whale tail is tied and it is then brought back to shore. There are 50 whaling crews that participate in the harvest, but only those crews that bring back a whale are allowed to raise their flag. Anyone who wants whale meat, must help butcher the whale. If you don’t’ help, then you don’t get any whale. There is a legend, that when a bone is moved from it’s resting place, that the weather becomes foggy. Flights are delayed or re-routed about 50% of the time due to foggy weather. Obviously, there are a lot of bones moved.
The elderly citizens of the area are very respected. Children are usually named after someone in the family. Everyone is given a native name,, but usually have an English nickname. No matter your age, when you are in trouble, your full native name is used to scold you.
We continued through Barrow/Utqiagvik and stopped at the high school football field. ESPN did a special on the Barrow Whalers. At the time they played their games on sand and gravel. Cathy Parker, a mother in Florida, read the story and started a 500,000 fundraising campaign to provide the football team with a real field and stadium. Today, they have a blue turf and is named Cathy Parker Field. The field sits next to the ocean, so during practice or games, the road has to be patrolled by the animal control officer and the police, to protect the team and fans from polar bears.
Our tour then drove down a long dirt road next to the ocean. We passed the “summer home” of Barrow/Utqiagvik. Residents come out here to relax in the “warm” summer months. This past summer they had a heat wave, with temperatures reaching 68 degrees Fahrenheit. We laughed, but they said that is too hot for them. However, it does not get warm enough to grow any of their own produce. The area does get approximately 10 feet of snow each winter, and temperatures of -50 are not uncommon.
Our tour drove as far as we could drive towards the northern most point of the United States.
The Inupiat Heritage Center had wonderful displays about the whaling cultural. They had various whale boat flags on display.
We had a tour guide, but also had numerous information signs.
Whaling is a big part of the local culture.
We learned about the native clothing and Jim was able to try on a parka.
There were displays of animals, flags, masks, and about the high school athletics. They had an interesting display on the sod homes that we saw earlier in the day.
Our guides told us that everyone is always curious about the price of food, since it has to be flown in, so one of our stops was the grocery store. Surprisingly, fresh flowers were not very expensive, about the same as we pay in our town.
Our final stop was the whale bone arch and the Arctic Ocean.
Phoebe and Louise asked us if we wanted to do the true Polar Bear plunge or just wade in the water. The day we were there the water temperature was about 30 degrees and the air temperature was 37. However, when they told us that if we wanted the Polar Bear plunge, they would have to go up on the sand dunes and give us the all clear that there weren’t any polar bears swimming nearby, we settled on the wading experience.
We had a great time wading in the Arctic Ocean….
When we were all done, they had blankets spread out so we could dry our feet.
We got back to the hotel and there were certificates waiting for us. One for our Polar Bear “wading” experience and the other for being above the Arctic Circle. That made up for us missing the certificate at the Yukon River visitor’s center on the Dalton Highway.
We were dropped back off at the airport. It was empty to begin with but as it got closer to the incoming plane landing, more and more people arrived. Whenever someone goes to Anchorage they always bring back bags and bags of McDonald’s. So the people were waiting for their dinner….what we take for granted. We even saw a pair of Mormon missionaries that are assigned to Barrow/Utqiagvik. We kind of felt sorry for them as one was from Arizona and the other Hawaii…two very warm areas.
It had been a great day in Barrow/Utqiagvik. We were so glad we opted for the tour. The town is quite spread out and the roads were very muddy the day we were there. We learned so many interesting facts, and we can now say that we have been to the “Top of the World”.