How to spend a day (or more) in Barrow (Utqiaġvik), Alaska

In August, we took a short trip to Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow) and in the process learned a lot about this fascinating place.  Here’s a look at what there is to do in America’s northernmost city.

Take a tour

A house in the “duck camp,” which we saw on our tour with Mike

Utqiaġvik is small and fairly walkable (see below), but in taking a guided tour, you’ll get an overview of the town with a dash of local flavor.

When it comes to day tours, the options seem to be limited to two: Tundra Tours and Windows to the World Photo Adventures.  Tundra Tours is a major local business, a touring company associated with Top of the World Hotel (both are owned by the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, a Native Corporation).  Windows to the World, on the other hand, is basically a one-man operation, run by accidental tour guide Mike Schults (see our first Utqiaġvik post for more about Mike).  Tundra Tours has a nice website, tour busses, various tours and a set tour schedule.  Windows to the World, on the other hand, has a barely breathing Facebook page, and Mike gives tours out of his Ford Explorer.

Why, then, did we go with Mike instead of an established tour company?  First off, Tundra Tours charges double what Mike cost (the rate was $159.65 in 2017, versus $75 with Mike).  But more importantly, reviews on Trip Advisor revealed that the quality of Tundra Tours is inconsistent and varies based on who the guide is.  Dale actually found Mike’s contact information on Tundra Tours’ Trip Advisor page, where several people recommended him over the established tour company.

Important points:
  • If you opt to travel with Mike, you’ll see Barrow (as he still calls the town) through his very unique lens.  Mike not only showed us the highlights but offered his opinions on them—the new football field is ridiculous, for example, and the town’s recent name change is a sham.  But he was humorous, good natured, and willing to answer our many questions.  The tour lasts around two hours, and he’ll pick you up at the airport and shape the trip around what you want to see.  You can probably negotiate a lengthier and more specialized tour ahead of time as well.  Note that if you want him to stop the vehicle for pictures, you have to tell him.
  • Tundra Tours did have both positive and negative reviews on Trip Advisor, and here’s a post from someone who took both tours.  She offers a pretty unbiased opinion of both.
  • We took a basic tour, but various companies offer specialized, more in-depth or longer trips to the Arctic.  See the notes at the end of this post for more information.

Go for a walk

You can walk much of the town on your own, so that’s exactly what we did.  After our tour, Mike dropped us off at the Iñupiat Heritage Center, and from there we were on our own.  Even though we’d seen most of the town on the tour, it was definitely worth a second look.  Utqiaġvik has the feel of a frontier town, and seeing it on foot lets you take it all in.

 

 

 

Jingyi remarked that the town looked rough, and it’s true; between the muddy roads and the worn buildings, many which lacked paint or siding, Utqiaġvik looked like a place created hastily and half-forgotten.  “Barrow, like most communities in Alaska, looks temporary, like a pioneer settlement,” wrote Dr. Bill Streever, in his bestselling book, Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places.  But it’s not. “Barrow is among the oldest permanent settlements in the United States,” he says.  (See our previous post for more on this.)

It’s just that the extreme Arctic weather takes its toll, and, as anyone who’s lived near the ocean can attest, salt water corrodes everything from metal to paint.  Adding to the ramshackle feel was the fact that most front yards were filled with stuff—car parts, old appliances, animal pelts, whale baleen—you name it, you’d probably find it on someone’s lawn.  Mike said that nothing in Utqiaġvik ever gets thrown away; not only is it expensive to purchase new items and ship out old ones, but “you never know when you’re going to need something.”  People hang onto everything that may be useful, and objects spill from houses and into front yards.

Caribou pelts drying on top of a house
Important points:

  • All of Utqiaġvik’s roads are unpaved and lack sidewalks, and we were there on a rainy day, so the roads were very muddy.  Poor Jingyi’s white tennies turned brown!  Other than the mud, the town was walkable.
  • The main x-factor for walking is the weather.  We were comfortable with the cool temperature (it was in the 40’s F, with wind and intermittent rain), but I can see where it would be downright miserable in the winter when an Arctic storm is raging and it’s flipping cold out, so keep that in mind.
  • The city has a useful brochure, the Barrow Visitors Guide, that includes a walking tour as well as many tips for visiting.

Go to the end of the road

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the true northernmost spot in the United States is Point Barrow, but it’s privately-owned land, and visitors must make special arrangements to enter.

The end of the road (or, at least, as far as Mike could take us)

Mike took us as far north as we could legally go, and that was still pretty darned cool.  At precisely 12:47 PM on August 6, 2017, we were the  northernmost humans on U.S. soil!

That little blue dot was us at 12:47 PM
Important point:

Don’t try to drive all the way to Point Barrow because:

a) it’s on private land, and marked by that No Trespassing sign

b) It’s covered by loose soil and rock, and unless you have an ATV or other appropriate vehicle, you will likely get stuck and have to be towed.

Tundra Tours offers trips to Point Barrow.  Go to their website for more information.

Visit the northernmost __ (fill in the blank)

Utqiaġvik is the northernmost city in America, so visiting comes with certain bragging rights.  Revel in its northernmost-ness.  Visit the northernmost…

  • grocery store,
  • church,
  • hospital,
  • museum,
  • college,
  • elementary school,
  • football field,
  • etcetera…

All of these places can be found in Utqiaġvik.

The northernmost palm tree grove–except the “fronds” are made from strips of baleen

Our friend Jingyi, who is Chinese, of course wanted to eat at the northernmost Chinese restaurant in the country, and we went to Sam & Lee’s based on Mike’s recommendation.  The menu was huge and served not only Chinese food but plenty of American options as well, and the proprietor is Korean.  So to be precise, we ate at the most northern Chinese-slash-Korean-slash-American restaurant in the nation.  That’s a mouthful (as were the enormous portions)!

Put one (or more) body parts in the Arctic Ocean

Of course any visitor to Utqiaġvik must touch the Arctic Ocean.  It’s not, like, a municipal law or anything, but it should be.

How many body parts you insert into the ocean is up to you.  Mike told the story of two elderly Europeans (I think they were German).  As he did with all of his guests, Mike let them out at an appropriate spot so they could cross the beach to the water.  He turned away for a few seconds, and by the time he looked back they were sans clothing and wading naked into the water, a bucket-list item checked off.

We had no plans to strip down and partake of a polar bear jump, but I did intend to take my shoes off and wade in up to my ankles.  I chickened out: the temperature of both the air and the water was in the 40’s, so I opted to touch the water with my fingers.  Next time we go back, though, we’re going in, dammit.  Surely we’re tougher than an elderly German couple.  (Then again, maybe not!)

Visit the Iñupiat Heritage Center

I talked about the Iñupiat people and the tradition of whaling in our last post, and some of the photos in that post came from the Iñupiat Heritage Center, a combination of museum and cultural gathering place.  The main exhibit showcases Iñupiat history and culture, including the traditions and tools of the whale hunt.  On display you’ll find weapons and other hunting paraphernalia (see our last post) as well a 35-foot-long replica of a bowhead whale, suspended from the ceiling.

Bowhead whale replica and other items, Iñupiat Heritage Center
Seal oil lamp, bottom right
Women’s boots, made from seal skin
Iñupiat hunter; one of many photos on display

The Heritage Center also provides a space for Native artists to produce their artwork.  Visitors can sometimes observe and interact with the artists as they work.  Much of the artwork is available for purchase in the gift shop.

Here is some of the art that was on display in the museum:

Walrus ivory carving (Note that it is legal for Alaska Natives to sell ivory products made from walrus tusks)
Baskets weaved with whale baleen and topped with walrus ivory

 

 

 

Important information:

Cultural events also take place here, including storytelling, drumming, traditional games, and dance performances.  Call the center (907-852-0422) or check their website to find out what’s on the schedule.

The center is located in the Browerville section of town, so it’s easy to get to, and it offers free parking.  There’s a gift store onsite but no cafe or snack bar.

The North Slope Borough owns and operates the Center, but it is one of several sites around the country that has partnered with the National Park System and the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park to tell the story of whaling in the United States.

Visit Iḷisaġvik College

Visit Iḷisaġvik College, the only tribally run college in Alaska.  The bookstore and cafeteria are open to the public, and the science wing has posters and historic photos on display.

Go for a hike—if you’re prepared

The Barrow Visitors Guide describes two strenuous but compelling hikes:

First, it is possible to hike to Point Barrow, the true northernmost point of the U.S.

Two memorials at the site where Will Rogers and Wiley Post died (National Park Service)

You can also trek 13 miles (one way) to the place where Will Rogers died.  Rogers—beloved actor, writer, and humorist—died in a plane crash near Utqiaġvik on August 15, 1935.  The pilot, Wiley Post, was highly experienced and had earned two round-the-world flight records.  The plane crashed in a lagoon, and two monuments, which are now a part of the National Parks Service, mark the location.

REALLY important points:

Both of these hikes are challenging, all-day treks.  The terrain is difficult and the weather, mercurial, and you run the risk of seeing polar bears.

  • The Barrow Visitors Guide describes the Rogers-Post hike as follows: “Walking on the mushy tundra or on the pebbly beach requires the right kind of footgear. Hikers should carry water, food, extra clothing—and are encouraged to submit excursion plans to Barrow Volunteer Search & Rescue by calling 907-852-2808.  The weather up here can change very quickly. Ask about checking out a personal locator beacon.”
  • As for hiking to Point Barrow, you have to contact the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation (907-852-4450) or Iñupiat Heritage Center (907-852-0422) before embarking on the journey because, again, it’s private property.  Also, polar bears are frequently sighted here, and they are extremely dangerous.  Here’s a safety guidelines tip sheet from U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
  • You can reach both of the places by ATV, but again, caution must be used.

 

If you don’t want to hike to the Rogers-Post crash site, you can instead visit the memorial that has been installed in town, near the airport:

Other random stuff to see (and get photos with)

A view of Utqiaġvik from the second floor of the Iñupiat Heritage Center. The AC grocery store is on the right

~The whalebone arch

~The enormous bowhead whale skull at Iḷisaġvik College

~The Alaska Commercial Company (AC for short), the town’s main grocery store.  Grab a snack or just gawk at the prices.

~The Cathy Parker Football Field

~The remnants of the ancient village of Ukpiaġvik

~The Funakoshi Memorial (near the remains of Ukpiaġvik), erected to honor pilot Yoshiko Funakoshi, who was on a routine mail run in August 2003 when her plane disappeared into the Arctic Ocean near Utqiaġvik.  Her mother was with her.

Funakoshi Memorial
Bowhead whale skull, Iḷisaġvik College
A silly photo at the whalebone arch

Arctic cotton

And keep an eye out for a plant called Arctic cotton, which is ubiquitous throughout the Arctic.  Its fruit looks like cotton, hence the nickname.  Dale found this fascinating, as he grew up in South Texas, which is cotton country.  Even though Arctic Cotton is a different type of plant, it’s almost as useful as the cotton grown in the Lower 48: the Iñupiat used the seeds as wicks in their oil lamps, and they placed clusters of the cottony fruit in the pants of their infants, creating a diaper.  Both clever and environmentally friendly!

~~~~~

We only spent a day in Utqiaġvik, obviously not enough time to do all of the things I listed here, but there’s lots to do and see in this small Arctic town, and it’s well worth the trip.  In the next post, our last about Utqiaġvik, I’ll talk about how to get there, when to go, and what to take with you on your trip above the Arctic Circle.

Jingyi contemplates our trip to the Arctic

Notes:

  • Click here to access the PDF of the Barrow Visitors Guide.

  • It’s surreal to write, “Beware of polar bears.”  I mean, I know they exist in Alaska, but to actually visit a place where they are frequently seen is mind-boggling.  I have to stress again that, while they are adorable, they are also very dangerous, and here’s the link to the polar fact and safety sheet that I mentioned above.  Whomever wrote the Wikitravel post for Utqiaġvik doesn’t mince words: “Walking in Barrow is great fun, as is checking out the beach directly in front of town. However, do not walk past the edge of town on the beach going south and do not walk either the road or the beach going north towards NARL/Ilisagvik/Point Barrow! And if you do see a Polar Bear stay at least 100 yards away, and preferably in a vehicle. Polar Bears absolutely will eat you.”

Specialized tours

Here’s a list of some of the lengthier, more specialized (and more expensive) tours that we found during our research:

Land and Air tours

We came across several businesses that offer land and air tours:

Birding tours

Many birds pass through or reside in the Arctic, including some rare species.  Our guide, Mike, offers birding tours during the spring and summer and has helped at least one visitor find all four species of eider in one day.  He quoted us $800 for the day, which includes as many people as can fit into his vehicle.

Polar bear tours

Obviously you don’t necessarily have to take a tour to see polar bears; right before we got there, locals had spotted several munching on the carcasses of a whale and a walrus, and it’s just bad timing that we didn’t see them.  They’re especially active in the spring and fall, when the Iñupiat harvest bowhead whales.  It’s tradition for the hunters to leave a portion of whale carcasses for the bears and therefore an excellent time to visit.

But if you don’t want to leave your polar bear sighting to chance, several companies offer established tours:

The visitors center may also be able to tell you about local guides who are offering polar bear tours.