Barrow (Utqiaġvik), Alaska: The Iñupiat people, bowhead whales, and an ancient hunt

Bowhead whale skull, drying on the beach

Utqiaġvik felt unembellished, bordered as it was by the Arctic Ocean on one side and the treeless tundra on the other, and even in the height of summer the temperature was cold and the skies gray.  There was one impressive, if haunting, ornamentation, however, that added contrast to the landscape—bowhead whale bones, bleached and enormous.  Skeletons were displayed in front of public buildings, and their tusk-like jaw bones, some over 20 feet long, stood erect outside of homes.

A house in the “duck camp” displaying bones from a bowhead whale skeleton, including the lower jaw bones, which are propped standing up

Most breathtaking were the massive skulls lying on the beach, seemingly abandoned; in reality, they were left there to dry, the oils gradually evaporating over months and years.  Eventually they will be moved to a final resting place, which might be anywhere around town, from a front yard to an office building.

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Random photo: The bears of Katmai

Recently, we went to Katmai National Park.  Katmai is best known for its bears—brown bears, some of the biggest in the world, made gloriously fat by the endless supply of spawning salmon that enter the Brooks River every year.

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Barrow (Utqiaġvik), Alaska: A day trip to the Arctic

 

iPhone screenshot showing our location–in America’s northernmost town

In August, Dale and I and our friend Jingyi took a day trip to Barrow, or Utqiaġvik, as it is now known

The town of Utqiaġvik (an Iñupiat word that’s pronounced oot- kay-ahg-vik) is the northernmost point in the United States, and this was our reason for going.  We wanted to dip our fingers in the Arctic Ocean, maybe see polar bears or whales, and visit the northern-most point of America before catching the 7:00 PM flight back to Anchorage.

Utqiaġvik sits at 71°18′N 156°44′W and is 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle, so you might think its slogan, “top of the world,” is accurate.  In reality, there are towns in Norway, Denmark, Canada, and Russia that are further north,² but Utqiaġvik is at the top of Alaska (and therefore the U.S.), and it made for a great trip.

A bridge in Utqiaġvik; the sign says “Top of the World Bridge”

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Random Photos: Alaska from the air

We never take flying for granted.

Maybe it’s a result of growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, when going on an airplane was still a big deal for most people, but we’re always thrilled to see familiar territory in a new way, and even the most mundane of terrain becomes fascinating at 30,000 feet.  And when the landscape is particularly spectacular, as is the case with Alaska, the flight becomes a gift laid out before our eyes.

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Solitude, scenery, and seafood: The benefits and downsides of Camino del Norte

Isolated stretch of Camino del Norte trail with a view of the North Atlantic

 

There are numerous Camino routes throughout Europe, including Camino Francés, the most popular walk and the one featured in a favorite movie of ours, The Way.  So why, then, did we choose to walk one of the lesser known routes, Camino del Norte?

We had a particular vision for what we wanted in our Camino experience, and Dale did some serious homework to find the trail that most matched that vision:

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Seward, Alaska: My near-miss bear encounter

Brown bear, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska (Source: National Park Service)
“Cheri!  Get inside!”

I was at work, walking from one building to the next, when I heard Dave, Facilities Manager, clapping his hands and yelling at me from across the parking lot.  How weird, I thought.

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Seward, Alaska: Looking for baby bears

We’re on the prowl for bears.

It’s an obsession, really.  I talk to coworkers and monitor Facebook pages, looking for the best places to see bears.  We drive unpaved roads and rural neighborhoods at a crawl, perhaps slower than we should, considering that Alaska is a place where people value their privacy.  We scrutinize creeks where the salmon are starting to run and peer into the forest that lines the roads, hoping to glimpse the round, dark shape of a bear.

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Camino del Norte guides, maps, and other resources

 

I experienced a great deal of anxiety while walking the Camino, and much of it was centered around getting lost.  A part of me feared that we would disappear into the wilderness of northern Spain, licking the peanut dust off our empty snack bags to survive.

Never mind that Camino del Norte is not that wild; I was neurotic about having the right resources during our journey.

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