Barrow (Utqiaġvik), Alaska: How to get there, when to go, and other travel tips

Barrow, Alaska from the plane

The first leg of our trip to Utqiaġvik was a 100-minute flight to the oil town of Deadhorse.  Barely a dot on the map, Deadhorse is one of three cities above the Arctic Circle to which Alaska Airlines flies, the other two being Kotzebue and Utqiaġvik (formerly known as Barrow).

We celebrated when we landed; we’d left Anchorage at 7:39 that Saturday morning, and now, not even 2 hours later, we were above the Arctic Circle!  The plane sat on the runway for a few minutes, allowing us time to revel in this knowledge.  A few people disembarked the plane and others got on; then the pilot made his usual pre-flight announcements, saying that we were “number one for take off.”  This made us laugh—we were the only commercial plane in the airport.  It wasn’t long before we were back in the air, and Utqiaġvik was just a short flight northwest along the coastline.

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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.

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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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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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