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The famous Whale Bone Arch, listed among the North Slope Borough’s most common photographic opportunities.

Destination Utqiagvik

‘Gateway to the Arctic’ offers unprecedented ambiance, scenery By P.M. Fadden The plan, I was told, seemed “just wild enough to work.” A waitress at family owned Sam & Lee’s Restaurant delivers steaming plates to the table and politely asks what has brought us to her hometown. The hope, we reply, is to scout the North Slope Borough, enjoy its Arctic ambiance, and (naturally) pay this visit to the region’s principle city Utqiagvik, known equally by its latter moniker, Barrow. From there, we know, the planet’s most northerly coastline may be reached. And we intend to do so by foot. The girl smiles knowingly, states the aforementioned encouragement and leaves us to our lunch. We’re a run-ofthe-mill family, on unlikely adventure, at Alaska’s city on top of the world. To be fair, journeys this far north are by no means news. Testament to that can be found a few city blocks away, where more than a dozen sod-formed Dwelling Mounds roost upon the Arctic Ocean shoreline. Built by a prehistoric Inuit culture known as Birnirk, the pseudo-subterranean residences have been archaeologically dated to 500 A.D., making Utqiagvik one of the longest-standing permanent settlements in the United States and predating European Arctic exploration by several centuries. My wife and daughter stroll around but not atop the mounds, while I contemplate the at-times harsh and hard-working life of an Arctic village. It’s a scene not difficult to imagine. Work-a-day homes of a modern city literally neighbor the anthropologically significant site. And like the

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structures of the ancient village before, Utqiagvik’s stout, colorful domiciles seem built to trap heat and resist wind; handy tips, passed generationally, among those living on tundra, and today reachable only by air. “Look!” My 3-year-old has spied something on the ice-flat horizon. Small dark dots are moving in steady convoy farther and farther out to sea. It’s a whaling crew riding snowmachines, twisting its way to bowhead hunting grounds used by Inuit ancestors for more than 1,500 years. We turn, and walk the coastline toward town proper. Local transit, we see, is dominated by econo-sized, SUV taxis. They expertly zip between civic sites so near to one another that there’s no need for a meter, here a standard rates sheet of rates cuts the red tape and saves everyone time. The U.S. Post Office, for one, is a bustling civic destination. Its government-issue façade follows the tried and true blueprint of far earlier construction: trap heat, block wind. And through its doors seem to pour the whole of the town’s population, plus each and every tourist. Mail here, we learn, is not only a bridge between past and present, but a focal point of resident and visitor alike. After all, it was early passage of U.S. post which would result in the city’s dual-naming, and its modern dwellings, despite following centuries-old traditions, no less desire amenities not easily found in the Arctic. As for the visitor, postcards sent from world’s end make popular mementos. Having excitedly mailed our own cards, we exit to be greeted by the stone-crackling mechanical roar of another local

specialty, employing the snow machine as means of urban transit. With groceries, parcels, or caribou hides draped across their machines, the men progress with practiced ease along the thoroughfares of their quasi-timeless hometown. And they go this way, snowy, or not. I remark that a sled might be useful to arrive at our next destination, for we’re headed to an upper end of the Earth. Here I should add this note: as delightfully dramatic as the goal may read, it in fact requires a great deal of navigation, by someone not likely to get lost in polar bear country. To this end, the locals are more than happy to help. Our family is directed to one of the city’s prominent accommodation options, Top of The World Hotel. In that spacious lobby, we are met warmly and quickly assisted in booking van and driver to see our merry task done. Louise, a born and bred native of Utqiagvik, will act as driver, guide and priceless information source. She meets us outside. The outing, we are told, will preamble the northerly point with a citywide tour, and it begins at a wide, flat community grounds located a stone’s throw from the sea. According to Louise, it’s here that the people celebrate the gift of the whale. The crew we’d spotted earlier is, in fact, in pursuit of a bowhead whale speared only yesterday. Should the captain prove successful in leading his crew to harvest the whale, its 80- to-100 ton blubber and skin sustenance, known as maktak—or uunaalik when boiled—will be transported to the city via over-ice convoy, to the spot we now stand. Once here, its yield will

January / February 2019

12/13/18 10:17 AM

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RVN - Alaskan Spirit | Issue 5 | Digital Edition  

Alaskan Spirit is the magazine of Ravn’s communities, passengers, and employees. Our mission is connecting Alaska communities and people as...

RVN - Alaskan Spirit | Issue 5 | Digital Edition  

Alaskan Spirit is the magazine of Ravn’s communities, passengers, and employees. Our mission is connecting Alaska communities and people as...