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”

A tour of Utqiaġvik

We took a tour of the town with Mike Schults of Windows to the World Photo Adventures.  A retired teacher who fell into the tour guiding business accidentally, Mike is Windows to the World Tours. He was at the grocery store one day a few years ago when he overheard people complaining that their tour had been cancelled. He thought to himself, “Hey, I can do that” and then offered to take the group around town in exchange for gas money. A side business was born.  Mike, who dressed in camo and described himself as a “Duck Dynasty reject,” now charges $75 per person for his tours, which last about two hours.  Outgoing and funny, he’s a natural at tour guiding, and having lived in the Arctic since 1972, he knows a thing or two about the town he still calls Barrow.³

Utqiaġvik: The basics

The true northernmost point of the United States is Point Barrow, a narrow strip of privately-owned land that juts into the Arctic Ocean, dividing it into the Chukchi Sea to the west and the Beaufort Sea to the east.

Point Barrow is owned by the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation and can only be accessed by paying a large fee, and it’s also nearly impassable by vehicle because of deep, loose rock and sand, so Mike took us as far north as we could go without trespassing.

Point Barrow, as seen from the farthest north point we could legally go

Utqiaġvik sits on the southwest side of Point Barrow, on the Chukchi Sea. It’s small (the population is around 4300), and yet it’s the administrative center for the largest municipality in the world, the North Slope Borough, which is about the size of Minnesota.  Utqiaġvik is also the transportation hub and business center for all of the regional villages, and it’s also home to the northernmost medical center in America, Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital.

 

North Slope Borough, in red (Source: Wikipedia)

60% of Utqiaġvik’s residents are Iñupiat Alaska Natives, and the remainder of the population is a mix of whites and various immigrant groups that include Asians, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, Eastern Europeans, Carribeans, and Indians.

The city has three sections:
The Wells Fargo building (Source: Pinterest)
  • Barrow (also called “Barrow side”) is the southernmost and oldest part of town.  It’s considered the downtown area and contains the airport, police station, and city hall as well as Barrow High School and elementary school and an inordinately large Wells Fargo office building.
The Wells Fargo office building, which towers over the other structures in Barrow side (Source: Pinterest)
  • Browerville is the central, “newer, nicer” part of town (Mike’s words).  It contains the middle school, hospital and grocery stores as well as the Iñupiat Heritage Center (which we’ll talk about in an upcoming post).
  • To the north is NARL, which stands for Naval Arctic Research Lab.  This large campus, with its nondescript military-style buildings and Quonset huts, was built by the Navy in the 1940s, but the federal government later transferred ownership to the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation.  The grounds have been turned into Iḷisaġvik College, a community college for Alaska Natives.
A Quonset hut that was once part of NARL; now it’s a part of Iḷisaġvik College

Our next stop on the tour was an area that Mike called the “duck camp.”  It consisted of a number of small beachfront shacks that are used by locals in the summer as hunting and fishing camps:

The duck camp is inhabited by some colorful characters.  Observe, for example, the furniture in the picture below.  According to Mike, the home’s owner calls this ensemble his “Martha Stewart living room set.”  He definitely lives the good life—he can hunt ducks from his couch!  Mike stops by with tour groups whenever the owner is home, and he’ll show off whatever he happens to be prepping, whether it’s a seal or caribou or Martha Stewart’s latest duck confit recipe!

The Martha Stewart living room set.  Mike also showed us a house that was lacking walls on one side, which enabled the occupants to hunt from the kitchen!

We also saw the only American football field above the Arctic Circle.  Barrow High School has the northernmost football team in the nation, the Whalers.  The team was established in 2006 and shortly thereafter featured in an ESPN story that highlighted their rough playing conditions (the field was nothing but a patch of dirt).  Florida resident Cathy Parker saw the segment and was inspired to raise over $500,000 for Barrow to build a proper football field.  The outcome: a colorful strip of astroturf that any high school would be proud to have.

Cathy Parker Field, named in honor of the Floridian who raised money to create a football field in the Arctic.

Not everyone approved of the new field.  The total costs amounted to well over the half million that Parker raised (Mike called it the “million dollar stadium”), and some locals felt that spending so much money on a football field was wasteful.  I thought of our home state of Texas, where football is king and stadiums are so large that they could hold the entire population of the North Slope Borough (around 10,000 people).  A million dollar football field would be considered quaint in the Lone Star State.4

   Of course, Texas teams play numerous home games, whereas Barrow High School only hosts four games a season.  Plus, Texas schools don’t have to contend with Arctic storms in October!

Mike scoffed at the idea of football in the Arctic.  The field sits near the waterfront, with only a two-lane road and a strip of beach separating the Whaler’s home turf from the Arctic Ocean.  It’s exposed to the full force of whatever the ocean might bring: epic winds, freezing temperatures, snow.  A few small bleachers sit on the west side of the field and accommodate only a handful of spectators.  “Picture the cheerleaders, standing on the sidelines in their parkas,” Mike said.  It does seem a bit surreal.

The Whalers, however, have had some successful seasons, and proponents contend that the sport offers local boys a motivating outlet for their energy.  The team has also achieved celebrity status: their story has been chronicled on the national level in pieces by NFL.comESPN, and Sports Illustrated.  And a movie called Touchdown on the Tundra tells the story of Cathy Parker and the creation of the Whaler’s stadium (Tagline: “A Dream the Size of a Football Field Comes to Barrow, Alaska.”)

The Arctic environment

Engine block heater power cords, used during the winter to prevent vehicle fluids from freezing.  Note the warning to watch for “falling ice and snow”
Weather and temperature

Utqiaġvik is one of the coldest cities not just in Alaska but in the country.  Winter weather can be extreme, with fierce winds, low windchill, and white-out conditions.  Temperatures may fall below freezing in October and stay there until May.  February is the coldest month of the year, averaging -14° F!  Even in the summer, temperatures barely get above freezing.  July, the warmest month, has an average high of 47° F.

Here’s what the weather looked like on the day of our visit (August 6, 2017):

Screenshot of my iPhone Weather Channel app, taken while we were in Utqiaġvik (August 2017).  Snow was forecast for that week!
The Arctic Ocean
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

At 5.4 million square miles in size, the Arctic is the smallest of the world’s oceans (the largest, the Pacific, is almost 64 million square miles).  It’s also relatively landlocked, surrounded as it is by various countries (Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and the US).

The ocean is mostly ice-free by the end of July, but it will start to freeze again in October.  Even though the water was free of ice while we were there, its temperature was 43 °F, and being on the beach was like standing next to an open freezer.  Brr.

In an attempt to keep the surf from reaching the homes near the waterfront, sand berms have been placed along the shore, but according to Mike the effectiveness has been limited; Utqiaġvik gets wicked winter weather, and the storm surge sometimes overpowers the berms.  The area has experienced significant beach erosion over the years.

Berms along the Arctic shore
Daylight

Utqiaġvik truly is the Land of the Midnight Sun—each year the sun rises on May 10 or 11 and doesn’t set again for 80 days.  It’s also the land of NO sun: it will set on November 18 or 19 and stay below the horizon for about 65 days.  That’s over two months without sunshine.  Intense.

The realities of living in the Arctic

Plumbing and sewage

Mike pointed out several homes that were reliant on honey buckets to manage their sewage.  Honey bucket is a misleadingly sweet name for what it really is—a bucket toilet.  Historically, many communities in cold climates have utilized bucket toilets due to the difficulty and expense of installing pipes and maintaining running water.  While most Alaskan cities now have indoor plumbing, bucket toilets are still used in small, remote villages where installation is challenging and costs prohibitive.  According to Mike, about 4-5% of homes in Utqiaġvik still use honey buckets, which, as we saw, were literally 5-gallon plastic buckets.  The refuse is removed regularly by city services.  On pick-up day, residents put their full buckets outside; after they’ve been emptied, the buckets are returned and placed face down in front of the homes.

Coping with the permafrost
Above-ground pipes

In the Arctic, the tundra is comprised of a deep layer of permafrost covered by a mere 10-12 inches of top soil.  Because it’s difficult to build anything on such terrain, pilings are postholed into the ground and buildings are then placed atop them.

Building sitting on pilings

The streets in Utqiaġvik are unpaved, a reality of harsh weather and the tundra terrain.  And the number of stoplights in town?  One.  Mike said that it’s been there for decades and that he’s never seen so much as a blink from it.  As long as he’s lived there, it’s never worked.

Utqiaġvik’s lone, non-functioning traffic light
Getting supplies
Container ships bringing supplies into town

Because there are no roads into Utqiaġvik, most everything has to be shipped in.  Cars, construction equipment, and groceries are brought by barge.  The ships only travel to Utqiaġvik between July 15 and August 30; any later and they risk getting caught in the returning ice.

Newly arrived supplies, including, among other things, a truck and a boat
Cost of living

Not surprisingly, the cost of living in Utqiaġvik is high.

Buying a house, for example, will cost you a pretty penny according to Mike.  He showed us one small structure for sale, a shack that had been “completely gutted” by fire.  It was selling for $62,000.  “The owner will even throw in the truck,” Mike joked, referring to the rusted vehicle that was parked in the front yard.  The toll of the extreme weather was obvious, and given the fact that both the house and truck were lacking windows, I envisioned what they must look like inside.  Yet the property could be ours for as little as 60 grand!

Gas is also expensive ($5.90 a gallon at the time we were there).  Utqiaġvik gets its fuel shipment during the summer, and the price per gallon is based on the rate at the time it’s delivered.  It will remain at that rate all year, only to be raised or lowered when delivery of fuel resumes the next year.

The one gas station in Utqiaġvik

Groceries were also expensive.  These prices speak for themselves:

 

 

 

To be fair, Utqiaġvik has a higher average income than that of the rest of Alaska, and while around 11% of the population lives below the poverty line, high paying jobs in the oil industry and with the Native corporations offset the high cost of living for many people.

Burying the deceased
The jawbone of a bowhead whale adorns a grave

We spotted several cemeteries around town. Burial requires a little extra effort in Utqiaġvik: the locals use an augur to dig holes about 6 feet deep, and the family of the deceased then removes the loosened material.  When the coffin is placed in the ground, the body is interred in the permafrost and will remain perpetually frozen.

Technology

Even though residents of Utqiaġvik live above the Arctic Circle, Mike said that they still have access to the internet and premium TV stations.  Much of their contact with the outside world is via satellite dishes.  There are dishes for everything—National Weather Service, television, radio, ice conditions, and so on.  Unlike most satellite dishes around the world, which point up towards the sky, the ones in Utqiaġvik are aimed just one degree above the horizon.

Animals of Utqiaġvik

Polar bear, Iñupiat Heritage Center

When people think of animals found in the Arctic, polar bears are probably the main creature that comes to mind.  And it’s true; polar bears inhabit Alaska’s Arctic territory, and they’re often seen in and around Utqiaġvik, especially during the spring and fall when the Iñupiat people hunt bowhead whales and haul their massive carcasses onto shore for processing.  We didn’t see any bears, but Mike showed us evidence of their recent activity.  Polar bears had cleaned the carcass of a small whale that had washed ashore and had also been spotted feasting on a walrus that, sadly, was poached for its tusks and then discarded on the beach:

The polar bears’ latest meal

A visit to Utqiaġvik offers the opportunity to see wildlife beyond just bears.  One might see land mammals such as muskox, arctic foxes, caribou and wolves, as well as marine mammals such as walrus, ringed and bearded seals, and bowhead, gray, or beluga whales.

The Arctic also has a surprising variety of birds, including swans and other waterfowl,  puffins and seabirds, shorebirdsowls, and raptors, and it’s possible during spring migration to see all four species of eider (beautiful sea ducks).  Birds that we added to our life list during our day trip included long-tailed ducks, snow buntings, and hoary redpolls.

~~~~~

There’s way too much to say about Utqiaġvik to fit it all into a single post, so in upcoming articles we’ll talk about the Iñupiat people, who have long inhabited the Arctic, and their relationship with the bowhead whale, and then we’ll end with tips for how to get to Utqiaġvik and what to do when you get there!


Featured photo (top): bowhead whale bone arch, a memorial erected in 1941 to lost sailors

Notes:

¹ Arctic explorer Frederick Beechey named the settlement in honor of Sir John Barrow, a geographer for the British Admiralty and an avid promoter of Arctic exploration.

Sir Barrow never actually set foot in the Arctic, and many locals feel that Utqiaġvik, an Iñupiat word long used to describe the area, is a more appropriate name for the town.  In 2016, residents narrowly approved a measure that would change the town’s name from Barrow to Utqiaġvik, and on December 1, 2016, the name change became official.

 

iPhone screenshot showing our location (the blue dot)

² Utqiaġvik lies about 1300 miles south of the North Pole.  Worldwide, it ranks about 18th in its northernmost-ness, depending on whether you count seasonal or scientific communities in the rankings.  The northernmost city in the world with a permanent population is Ny-Ålesund, Norway, at 78°55′30N 011°55′20″E.

³ The town’s name change is controversial and has not been embraced by everyone in the community.  Like some locals, Mike refuses to call the city by its new name.  I tried to keep things simple and chose to use Utqiaġvik instead of Barrow because it’s now the town’s official name, but it’s certainly confusing, as many references still use Barrow, and the name change is being contested in court.

According to this stat sheet, Texas has 74 high school football stadiums that seat 10,000 people or more, and the state is home to the most expensive high school football stadiums in the nation, including several that run into eight figures.  The one with the highest price tag?  That distinction goes to the town of Katy; their new facility cost $70+ million.