Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Barrow Alaska - Almost The Top of The World

Growing up in northern Wisconsin made me no stranger to cold and snow.  I'll never forget January 1, 1974, when at dawn the air temperature (there was no wind) was -62 degrees F.  Walking from our barn to the house I spit and just like in Jack London's story To Build a Fire it was a little ball of ice before it hit the snow. Three years later, on January 11, 1977, the air temperature in Rice Lake, Wisconsin dipped to a chilly -60 degrees F.  This time some local resident decided to cash in on the weather and produced a bumper sticker for all of us to proudly proclaim that we had survived that wicked weather.

The words say it all

My fascination with cold and cold climates wasn't restricted just to the wilds of northern Wisconsin. As a child, every Saturday morning I watched Sergeant Preston of the Yukon as religiously as some pseudo-Christians attend church.  Preston's adventures in the Yukon (despite the show being filmed in Colorado) fueled a sense of wanderlust and helped me create fantasies about moving to Canada, running a trap line, and living off the land.  All I needed was a dog sled and a trusty lead dog like Preston's "King" and I was set.

About the same time I became fascinated with living off the land in northern Canada, my father began subscribing to Alaska Magazine.  Back in the early 1960s, and continuing to the present day, Alaska Magazine had a section titled "From Ketchikan to Barrow" that was filled with information about interesting things to see and do from the southernmost to the northernmost corners of the massive state.  The first issue of Alaska Magazine that I read contained a story about whale harvesting in Barrow and after digging out a map and discovering just how north Barrow lays, my thoughts of being Sergeant Preston faded.  Now I wanted to travel to Barrow if for no other reason than its the most northerly place in the United States.  Situated at 71 degrees 18 minutes north latitude its only 1,294 miles from the North Pole; its actually closer to London England than it is to Sarasota, Florida.

Barrow Alaska is a long way from almost everywhere else

In my first 16 trips to Alaska I had traveled as far north as Anaktuvuk Pass in the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve,  I'd been as far west as Gambell on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea just 40 miles from Russia, as far southwest as Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands as far south as Ketchikan on the Panhandle, and as far east as the border with the Yukon Territory near Tok. However despite all that time and travel in Alaska I had never made it to my most sought after place - Barrow. Something clearly had to change.

My oldest daughter lives an hour north of Anchorage and while making plans to travel to Alaska to see her in June 2017, I was struck with the idea that since I'm in the neighborhood, why not finally travel to Barrow.  In this case, "in the neighborhood" means 725 air miles from Anchorage but that is much more of a neighborhood than the 4,089 air miles from Barrow to Sarasota, Florida.  I couldn't pass up traveling there again.

My plan was a simple one. After visiting my daughter I would fly to Barrow, spend a day there, and then fly to Fairbanks to watch the Alaska Goldpanners play a baseball game at the northernmost baseball field in the world.  Alaska Airlines charged me only 15,000 frequent flier miles for the trip and soon it was apparent that I would be a fool not to go.

On June 13, 2017, my quest since childhood became reality when Alaska Airlines flight 51 trundled to the end of runway 27 at Anchorage International Airport and became airborne with Barrow in its cross hairs.

Flight path of AS 51 on June 13, 2017

Our route took us north by northwest (not the movie) to within a few miles of Mount Denali allowing for spectacular views of "The Mountain" for those of us on the port side of the plane.

Mount Denali from 13,000 feet over its summit

An Inupiat woman seated next to me flung herself across my chest and pointed her camera out the window trying in vain to obtain a picture of Denali.  When I asked her if she would like me to take a picture for her she replied saying "You would do that for me?"  

We passed over the massive Yukon River and then over the Brooks Range, home of the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, and also the northernmost mountain range in the world.  I was saddened to see from my view point that despite it being mid-June there was virtually no snow remaining even on the peaks of the Brooks Range mountains.  With no snow at a maximum elevation of 8,976 feet above sea level it certainly makes me happy knowing that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to ruin our economy 

North of the Brooks Range we passed over the vast North Slope whose surface was dotted with almost endless wetlands.  From my vantage point it appeared that someone sprayed shotgun pellets over the landscape.  Were it not for the hordes of mosquitoes, it would be a treat to spend a few days counting waterbirds on just a few of those wetlands.

The surface of the North Slope is smothered with wetlands of all shapes and sizes

The shoreline of the Arctic Ocean appeared on the northern horizon as we began our approach into Barrow.  The ice was still landlocked but not far offshore you could see large areas of open water that later, it turned out, were smothered with waterbirds.

Large open areas of water in the Arctic Ocean were clearly visible as we made our final approach into Barrow

Alaska Airlines deposited us a few minutes early at Wiley Post/Will Rogers Airport in Barrow where, as I stepped from the plane wearing shorts, the air temperature was 36 degrees.

The northernmost commercial airport in the United States

I spent the night at the very homey and comfortable Airport Inn, just a couple minutes walk from the airport.  Later I enjoyed dinner at Sam and Lee's Restaurant reputed to have "the best Chinese in the Arctic".

You can't go wrong staying at the Airport Inn, just a few minutes walk from the Barrow airport

I met a pair of Inupiat women in Sam and Lee's who were more than eager to fill me in on their town. One of them had gone to high school in Somerset, Wisconsin, about 40 miles from my home town. They told me about whale hunting, and Inupiat culture, and about the seemingly endless winter night.  "The time to come to Barrow," one of them said, "is in July and August when it warms up to 40 degrees every day."

Located so far north of the Arctic Circle, at this time of year Barrow is under constant sunlight 24 hours a day.  When I asked about the sunlight on December 21, the shortest day of the year, one of the pair said "We see a glow in the southern sky where the sun is supposed to be.  It takes forever to see the sunrise again."

As I walked around Barrow, I was pleasantly surprised to find Snow Buntings so very common in town. They were singing from the roof of houses and undoubtedly the most conspicuous songbird in town.  I have seen thousands of Snow Buntings, having grown up in Wisconsin and having lived 6 years in North Dakota but those birds were always in winter and always in huge, silent, flocks.  It was a real treat to see and hear them on their nesting habitat for the first time.

Snow Bunting is by far the most conspicuous songbird in Barrow

After dinner I strolled down to the shore of the Arctic Ocean where I searched for and found a Polar Bear that had been seen in town the last two days.  There is nothing more Arctic than a Polar Bear and seeing this bruin gave me a complete sweep of having seen all three species of bear that occur in Alaska. 

I slept with the window of my room open and listened to sled dogs barking all night long.  With the "black out" shades in place it was difficult to tell the time but at 3:00 a.m. I opened the shades and saw brilliant sunlight.

The Midnight Sun at 3:00 a.m. in Barrow, Alaska

Excited by where I was and unfamiliar with my surroundings I was out of bed by 6:00 a.m. and searching for birds and whatever else I could find.

One of the main streets in Barrow.  Traffic congestion is not a large issue here - unless a couple of dog teams collide at an intersection

One of my objectives for the morning was to visit the Inupiat Heritage Center operated by the North Slope Borough and in cooperation with the National Park Service.  If you visit Barrow and have time for nothing else, be certain to stop here to learn what you can from the fascinating displays of Inupiat life.

I spent most of the morning at the Inupiat Heritage Center and enjoyed every second of it.  If you tell them that you are an "elder" (someone over 55 years old) admission is free

As I walked the 25 minute walk from the Airport Inn to the Heritage Center in 33 degree temperatures with a 20 brisk wind whipping across the landscape from the nearby Arctic Ocean, I met and talked with several local residents who, like the women the night before, went out of their way to be helpful and courteous and more than willing to share their heritage with me.  This was a most unexpected and pleasant surprise because in some other native villages in Alaska, most notably in Bethel, being Caucasian can be a dangerous situation.  Not so among the Inupiat of Barrow who went out of their way to not only welcome me to their town but to encourage me to "return in August when the temperature reaches 40".

After leaving the Heritage Center I returned slowly to the airport and along my route I flushed a pair of Federally-Threatened Steller's Eiders from a wetland.  This was an exciting discovery because I had only seen this species once before in my life, on May 26, 1989, from The Point at Gambell on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea.  For any number of reasons the population trend for this unique duck is declining which was the impetus for listing the species as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act.  My former agency, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, maintains an office in Barrow in summer where biologists are working on the biology of the bird and also helping to educate the local population about the species status.  With luck, the education effort will help to keep Steller's Eider from becoming Endangered or worse yet, becoming extinct.

The Federally-Threatened Steller's Eider is one of the most beautiful species of waterfowl in the world (Image by the US Fish and Wildlife Service).  Barrow Alaska is one of the most important nesting sites for this species in its limited range.

All sorts of shorebird species were present on the recently-thawed wetlands that I passed as I returned to the airport. Living in temperate or tropical climates I regularly think of shorebirds as being fragile or frail but nothing could be farther from the truth.  As I walked across the tundra at Barrow I found Baird's Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper and Buff-breasted Sandpipers.  Each species spends the winter in the southernmost reaches of South America (and I've seen each species there in winter) but in the spring, just like Arctic Terns, they wing their way more than 10,000 miles north to set up territories, lay eggs, and hopefully hatch a brood of chicks on the nearly frozen tundra at the end of the world.

Although seemingly sterile to the untrained eye, tundra at Barrow was teeming with bird life

Other than a vending machine with wildly expensive candy bars, restrooms for both genders, a few chairs to sit on, and a check in counter, there aren't many amenities in the Barrow airport.  At least the goons at TSA weren't complete asses like they are in most other airports

With a considerable amount of sadness I boarded my mid-afternoon flight and headed south to Fairbanks.  When we lifted off from Barrow the air temperature was 33 degrees with a brisk 15 mile per hour wind from off the Arctic Ocean. One hour and 10 minutes later we landed in Fairbanks where the air temperature was 72 and where I felt like I was in the subtropics of Florida in comparison to where I had just been.

As with too many other unique places I have visited in my life my time in Barrow was too short. There were just too many places that I needed to explore but couldn't and there was way too much more to learn about the Inupiat and how they survive at the edge of the continent.  I could easily see myself spending a summer in Barrow looking for birds and learning how to hunt whales and maybe learning how to skin a seal. However at the first hint of autumn, which is some time in mid-August, you'd find me on the first Alaska Airlines jet headed south.  Wisconsin or North Dakota in winter are enough to convince me that winter in Barrow would be way more than I could bear. 

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