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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Barrow, Alaska: Perpetual daylight at the (almost) top of the world

Early in my trip to Alaska, I flew from Fairbanks to Barrow with my bird-nerd friends from Cincinnati (Dave and Jill Russel; and Karen and Scott Glum, with their two sons, Elliot and Michael). We were headed to Barrow for some serious bird-watching–Barrow is a major wintering/breeding site for migratory waterfowl, including species we’d likely never see anywhere else–and to make connections with scientists working/living at the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium (BASC). Barrow is likely the closest I’ll ever be to being on top of the world; it is the northernmost point in North America, jutting out into the Arctic Ocean, where the frozen edges of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas meet, and it was one of the most memorable, other-worldly experiences I had during my travels in Alaska. And we were there during the summer solstice, with wraparound daylight that meant I could watch birds from our dormitory room window at 2 a.m. if I happened to still be up (and, uh, sometimes I still was). My quick favorite became the phalarope (we saw two types: the red-necked and the red), a quirky shorebird that swims around in circles in shallow puddles on the open tundra to stir up food. We set up our scopes in the windows and could catch glimpses of birds at any hour of the day or night, just spinning away; and you could always hear a chorus of birds outside the dorm’s windows, too, providing a round-the-clock soundtrack that we never grew tired of. These pictures show us pre-flight in Fairbanks, flying over the frozen seas near land and getting our first aerial views of the stark community of Barrow, and arriving at the Barrow airport, which was essentially a one-room building (check out the baggage area) that would be packed when flights came in, as local folks would show up to pick up supplies (dog food, toilet paper, consumer goods) they have shipped up to Barrow. Within 20 minutes or so after a flight arrives, the airport empties (after folks drive right up to the airport door to pick up their supplies) and you can see what a small space it really is. We rented a pickup truck scarred with multiple cracks across its windshield and explored the dirt roads of Barrow, getting our bearings along the frozen Chukchi Sea, before settling into our rooms at the BASC dormitory for our four-day stay.

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On the road again

One of my favorite things to do in Alaska was just… drive! I should have kept better track of all those miles, but–ball-park estimate–I think traveled somewhere around 2,700 miles by car. Sometimes I’d have a home-base and would make day trips, returning late in the evening to whatever hostel I was staying at, making the most out of the evening daylight hours. (I was always the last person to get to bed in the shared rooms I had, and often among the last few to get out the next day by 8 or 9 a.m.). Other days entailed long drives to the next destination. I was constantly taking photos along the way, either over the steering wheel or via quick pull-offs to the side of the road. I’d photograph roadside flowers, mountains, curious signs (my favorite is the Tundra Tanning and Taxidermy sign), roadside businesses (blue poppies, mug-shot saloon, knives, knives, KNIVES!) and loved it when the train would pop up parallel to the highway, its riders waving from the windows. I encountered numerous construction delays along Highway 3, which was sometimes torn down to its dirt base, and accumulated a lot of bug guts on that yellow bug of a car. Speaking of that yellow car, I racked up so many miles on it that I had to swap it out for another vehicle when it was due for an oil change (luckily, I was passing through Anchorage where I’d rented it in the first place, but I was sad to part with it!) I probably had too much time on my hands as I consumed oodles of daylight hours on the road, but I’d find myself pondering deep questions, like, you know, why does Smokey the Bear wear pants, but no shirt?

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Return to Denali: Field seminar on animal tracking

After a few days spent refueling in Fairbanks, I hit the road again, this time heading south to Denali National Park (again! hooray!) to take part in a three-day field seminar on animal tracking. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but ended up learning a lot and meeting a swell bunch of colorful Alaskans, from off-the-grid tracking guide Tim to lynx-loving knitter Susan to semi-retired German geologist/likable curmudgeon Ted to Liz the lawyer (seen here catching a snooze during a hiking rest). We camped in hard-side canvas-topped tents, ate breakfast and packed our daily lunches in a yurt, and pitched in with camp chores to help out our stellar camp hostess, Susan from Denali’s Murie Science Center. We had a blast hiking along the Teklanika River and through mountainside willow thickets–despite the rain, which soaked us daily. Everywhere we went, Tim taught us how to read the many animal signs all around us–pawprints, hoofprints, scratchings on trees, bites off branches, hair rubbed in tree bark and, of course, scat. (I have spared you the many pictures I took of moose poop, lynx poop, wolf poop, bear poop, etc. I don’t want to brag or anything, but I now consider myself to be quite the scatmaster.) Tim carried a 25-pound bag of plaster of Paris and other supplies on our day-long hikes so we could create imprints of the wolf and grizzly prints we found along the river’s banks. The giant wolf paw print I now have is the coolest keepsake I could have possibly hoped to bring home from my travels in Alaska. It’s way cooler than anything I might have bought in a souvenir shop.

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A trip to North Pole

Well, yeah, it’s pretty cheesy, but I had to make a stop in North Pole, about 14 miles from Fairbanks, to say I’d been there… and to send mail postmarked with that all-important North Pole stamp to my nieces and nephews and to my one elf-crazy sister. Obviously it’s not the REAL North Pole, but it’s a town with a fascinating obsession with Christmas, named in the 1950s by folks who were hoping to draw toymakers to the area. They’ve had plenty of fun, it seems, Christmasfying their town, with candy-cane-striped light poles, holiday-themed businesses and yuletide street names (St. Nicholas Drive, Snowman Lane, Santa Claus Lane, Kris Kringle Drive, Holiday Road, etc.). And then there’s that gigantic fiberglass Santa Claus, standing 42 feet high and weighing 900 pounds–the world’s largest Santa. (The real Santa, whom I met inside, was a right jolly old elf.)

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Fairbanks

About halfway through my trip, I drove up to Fairbanks (a second time–the first Fairbanks stop was early on, as a launching point for the flight to Barrow) and crashed for a few days at Dave and Jill Russell’s apartment on the University of Alaska-Fairbanks campus. Jill and Dave, friends from Cincinnati, were really the whole reason I was in Alaska in the first place; they invited me to come visit and travel with them while they were teaching biology at the university this summer, and we traveled to Barrow together, along with another Cincinnati friend, sixth-grade biology teacher Karen Glum and her family. When I arrived at Dave and Jill’s apartment a second time in late June, it felt like I was arriving at my home away from home. They were such lovely hosts. (And they are just such wonderfully cool people, in general!) I relished in sleeping in a room all by myself after nights spent in packed hostels, and it was a glorious luxury to have space to sort stuff and repack my bags, do laundry (!!) and slow down long enough to write some postcards and catch up on sleep. Dave cooked and seasoned fish he’d caught the weekend before–salmon and dolly varden–and it was the best-tasting meal I had during my entire trip! Although I did a lot of chillin’ out in Fairbanks, I did get out and explore the city, visiting a few places that were on my must-see/might-write-about list, including the UAF Large Animal Research Station, where I learned all about musk oxen culture (man, they’re some hairy critters) and the fascinating science behind caribou’s miraculous antler growth (their bodies actually go into osteoporosis to enable those spectacular antlers to grow so quickly). And although I didn’t see many birds–obviously I’d missed the spring migration–I enjoyed visiting Creamer’s Field Migratory Refuge, an 1,800-acre bird sanctuary (formerly a dairy–yes, in Alaska!–if you can imagine that) that was blanketed in yellow rapeseed flowers for summer. And I loved the Alaska Bird Observatory, a little nature center that provides bundles of info about the critical role played by Alaska for so many migratory birds. Fairbanks was the perfect place to refuel for the second half of my trip, and I enjoyed every minute spent with my bird-loving, butterfly-chasing, nature-knowing friends. (P.S. And I think they might just move to Alaska someday, which means I’ll be visiting them…. AGAIN!).

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Alaskan towns: Nenana

I was charmed by many of Alaska’s little towns, and Nenana (pronounced knee-nana like “banana“) was one of them. With all my traveling up and down the Parks Highway (Alaska Highway 3), I encountered and crossed the Nenana River numerous times, as it wiggled its way along the eastern border of Denali National Park, running parallel to the highway and the Alaskan railroad, both of which link Anchorage to Fairbanks. I started taking pictures of Nenana River signs for my niece Naomi, who goes by the nickname NeNe, and then I decided I ought to just stop in the town itself, around mile 305 of the Parks Highway, almost 60 miles south of Fairbanks, 75 miles north of the entrance to Denali National Park. Nenana is an Athabascan Native village with a population of about 460, nestled on the south bank of the Tanana River, right where the Tanana converges with the Nenana River. (The name “Nenana” means “a good place to camp between two rivers.”) The town is famous around the state for its annual Nenana Ice Classic, a guessing contest in which entrants buy tickets ($2.50 apiece) to guess the date and time (to the closest minute) in April or May when the winter ice on the Tanana River breaks. The townspeople rig up a black-and-white tripod and set it in the river ice in late February and attach a cable that will trip a clock once the ice breaks. This year’s payout of $279,030 was split between three people who correctly picked April 29 at 9:06 a.m. Alaska Standard Time. I might just have to purchase a ticket next year. You never know…

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