Point Barrow: out on the edge of ice

The highlight of our trip to Barrow–for me, anyway–was visiting Point Barrow, the northernmost tip of land that extends into the frozen sea. The point is only 12 miles north of the village, but access is tricky. If you don’t have a permit and a hardy ATV, you’ll have to pay a guide to take you out to the point, and we luckily found a good one in Nathaniel, who runs Aarigaa Tours. Nathaniel took us to the remnants of a primitive Inupiat village site and helped us spot seals far out on the frozen ice en route to the point. We bounced around in the back of his big-wheeled 4×4 van–for real, we were seriously knocked around, sometimes hitting our heads on the van’s ceiling, usually while laughing hysterically–and marveled at the blinding Arctic Ocean at numerous pitstops along the way. Native hunters leave whale carcasses on the narrow strip of land that leads to the point, which are scavenged by polar bears that come in from the ice to feast on the leftovers. The carcasses looked unreal, like ludicrously giant piles of oversized chicken bones. We scanned the frozen horizons for the formidable white bears, but didn’t spot any. But… evidence of them was everywhere! We saw their mammoth pawprints all around us when we walked along the silty beach, found grisly leftovers from a polar bear meal (just the flipper of what appeared to have been a walrus or seal), and I even discovered a clump of their hollow, tube-like hairs in one of the deeper pawprints. (Bingo. There’s a cheap keepsake! Although it was kinda smelly…) So even though we didn’t encounter a polar bear–which is, honestly, a pretty scary prospect anyway–we felt their presence all around us. (We later found out that a tour group that went out to the point after us, around 11 p.m., did spot a polar bear out on the ice, so …. we just missed.) But let me tell you, it’s terrifying enough to stand out on the brittle edge of a frozen arctic sea and contemplate the possibility of seeing an approaching wild bear that can weigh more than 1,500 pounds and that would not, even for a nanosecond, hesitate to eat you. We heard stories back in town about memorable occasions when polar bears wandered into the village, wreaking havoc, and were poignantly aware of the battle boiling between pro- and anti-polar bear contingents in Barrow. (In fact, while we visiting, the village held a public hearing about a proposed ruling to designate critical habitat for polar bears under the endangered species act. Most folks in Barrow have a very different perspective from that held by tree-hugging, animal-fanatics like me; America’s Disneyfied version of the endangered bears, which are undoubtedly struggling to survive in a climate deeply affected by global warming, is starkly different from the view held by people who might actually encounter them in the wild near their own communities.) I was certainly hoping to see polar bears on our trip to the point–yeah, despite all that feeling-terrified stuff, I wistfully speculated that this might be the only chance in my lifetime to see them in the wild–but I was so in awe of just being there, out on the edge of the continent, that I wasn’t disappointed in the least. We took the requisite pictures on the brilliantly lit edge of the icy world (including striking images of the 9:30 p.m. sun burning like a hologram in the sky over an arch of whale jaw-bones) and I gathered up a small bag rocks to bring home as souvenirs from my trip to the almost top of the world.

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One Response to Point Barrow: out on the edge of ice

  1. Wanda Irish says:

    Wow…those polar bear paw prints are massive! I can only imagine how scary to run into one! Jenny…I just love reading your posts. You are such a great way with words and I feel like I am right there!

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