Barrow: Life around town

I’ve never been anyplace like Barrow, Alaska. This Inupiat village sits 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 1,300 miles south of the North Pole; to its east is the Beaufort Sea, and to the west is the Chukchi Sea.  The village is inhabited by about 4,000 people, making it the largest community on Alaska’s North Slope. About two-thirds of its residents are Inupiaq (Eskimos); the rest are transplants from other parts of Alaska or the Lower 48 … and many are scientists. Many of the folks who live here are subsistence hunters; through federal legislation passed in the 1970s and 1980s, they retain their cultural rights to their native lands and can hunt whales, seals, polar bears, etc. Like other Alaskans, they also receive annual dividends from the state’s oil revenues. In general, folks in Barrow seem to live a stark existence; although the community experiences 84 days of midnight sun (from mid-May until August, the sun never sets), the dark winters must be brutally cold and long. Consumer goods that most Americans take for granted are very expensive in Barrow, since all those products have to be shipped up to the North Slope. The roads around town are peppered with trash receptacles painted with upbeat anti-alcohol messages, reflecting the region’s cultural war on alcohol abuse. Despite the village’s remote locale and bare-bones aesthetics, Barrow does attract tourists, and its residents do have such modern conveniences as natural-gas heated homes, cable TV and Internet access. (Our wifi access in the BASC dorm was creep-along slow, but we were happy to have it.) These pictures show typical structures around town, including plywood hunting/fishing sheds on the outskirts of town (notice the polar bear pelt hanging by one) and elevated homes and businesses (raised on stilts to avoid ground shifts caused by melting permafrost deep underground). Whale bones–bleached white by the arctic sun–are lying everywhere, sometimes in artful arrangements that the village’s tourists (um, like us) flock around for photo opps. We also spotted numerous umiaq boats (made from animal skins) that natives use when hunting whales–primarily bowheads–in the Arctic Ocean, and even makeshift “palm trees” made with whale baleen.

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One Response to Barrow: Life around town

  1. Wanda Irish says:

    Very interesting read…and pictures. Very different culture. What an experience!

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