We’ve just returned from Adak, Alaska, a place that is equal parts rotting civilization and pristine wilderness. You wouldn’t think the two could co-exist, but they do, in Adak, as evidenced by the the 300 or so bald eagles that call the island home. Not only did we see them soaring high in the air and gliding near the water’s surface, but they also perched on the eaves of decaying buildings and rusted street signs. It was both beautiful and jarring.
Seldovia isn’t on an island, but it might as well be—it’s practically surrounded by water, it can only be reached by plane or boat, and its single main street is lined with small businesses owned by locals, with nary a fast food joint to be found. The minute we stepped off the boat, I felt myself relaxing into the place. We were in the hands of the locals, and the stresses of daily life were behind us. There was no place to be and nothing urgent to attend to. The only thing missing was my flip flops (it was too chilly); otherwise, the trip was perfect.
In January, Dale and I experienced our first real earthquake, so now is as good a time as any to talk about a much more famous quake and one of the most significant events in Alaskan history—the Great Earthquake of 1964.
The shower doors clattered obnoxiously, waking us up. Wondering what our neighbors could be doing to at this ungodly hour, Dale climbed out of bed and wandered into the living room. Even in the dark, he could tell that the blinds were shaking. This was no noisy neighbor; we were having an earthquake.
Hey, Otis, it wasn’t always about you.
Katmai National Park is known for its brown bears, but the origins of the park are centered around something entirely different—the volcano Novarupta, which erupted in 1912. It was the most powerful volcanic eruption of the 2oth century, and as part of our visit to Brooks Camp we took a tour to the site of the devastation, a place now known as the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
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.
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.
In August, Dale and I and our friend Jingyi took a day trip to Barrow, or Utqiaġvik, as it is now known.¹
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.
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:
“In the past it was a big mistake to stop the dancing – a lot of things died in this process. Restarting dances is only one thing… By learning the dances, you young people will have weight, so that nobody can brush you off the top of this earth. You will be the exciting ones.” ~Marie Arnaq Meade
We’d heard wonderful things about Cama-i, a Yup’ik festival, but at first I had my doubts.