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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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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Kenai Fjords National Park Cruise, part two: The animals!!!

In our last post, I talked about a boat tour that we took across Resurrection Bay and into the Gulf of Alaska and Kenai Fjords National Park.

In today’s post, I want to share pictures of the animals that we saw from the deck of the boat.  The region is extremely rich in wildlife: ten marine mammals live in these pristine waters, and dozens of species of birds nest along the coast.  While we didn’t see all of the wildlife the area has to offer, it’s astounding how much we did spot in just an eight-hour boat trip:

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Seward, Alaska: Kenai Fjords National Park Cruise (part one)

Glacial ice floating in the Holgate Arm

People from all over the world come to Seward to explore Alaska’s waters on a tour boat.  Last week, we joined the crowd.

Yes, it’s touristy, but such attractions are often popular for a reason (because they’re awesome), and a boat excursion out of Seward is no exception.

It’s got glaciers.

It’s got pristine waters.

It’s got virgin forest and rocky islands and wildlife galore.

So even though we consider ourselves Alaskans now, we’re still wide-eyed newcomers on the inside, and we felt no shame in going for a boat ride with a bunch of tourists.

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Seward, Alaska: Humpbacks feeding in Resurrection Bay

Plus a sea otter wonders what the fuss is about

Darn them and their front-row seats (Just joking! Please take us with you. Please…)

 

While not the largest animal on earth (that distinction goes to the blue whale), humpbacks are no petite creatures; they’re 50-60 feet in length, which is longer than your average school bus.  So when these tractor-trailer-sized mammals stick their enormous heads out of the water, they’re pretty easy to spot.  These pictures were taken a few days ago, when we watched two whales (or maybe more; it’s hard to tell) feeding in Resurrection Bay.

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Random Photos: From fall and spring, the colors of the Chugach

We’d become accustomed to the simple beauty of black and white on our shopping trips to Anchorage, as the scenery along the Seward Highway was comprised of leafless trees, stark mountains, and snow.  The last time we saw color in the Chugach National Forest, it was September, autumn was in full swing, and we were still deciding whether to move here:

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