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Saturday, January 2, 2021

Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska | A trip to the Arctic Winter Wonderland

Supratim Sanyal's Blog: Whale Bone Arch, Bowhead Whale Bone, Boat and Moon at Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

This is the story of us East-coast suburbanites from greater Washington, DC spending a week near the North Pole inside the Arctic Circle - at 71.3875° N, 156.4811° W.

A five-and-half hour flight from Washington, DC's Dulles Intl. (IAD) to Seattle-Tacoma International (SEA) and another three-hour flight to Ted Stevens Anchorage International (ANC), and then a one-and-half hour flight got us to Wiley Post - Will Rogers Memorial Airport (BRW) at Utqiaġvik, previously known as Barrow. With layovers, it had taken us two days to get from 38°N to 71°N - the same time we took to get home from Beijing via Moscow! 

Image (C) The Weather Channel
Located 330 miles deep into the Arctic Circle, this northernmost Iñupiat settlement in Polar climate zone has no road to it. Like Iceland, everything associated with regular life in the lower 48 states has to be flown in year round or shipped in during just the two warm months of July and August when Utqiaġvik is not ice-locked. The local Iñupiat folks, however, have no problem living in this harshest of environments as subsistence whale hunting and fishing provide them with food and raw materials for thousands of years. The great festival of Nalukataq is held over multiple days in late June celebrating end of the spring whaling season. This is when people are tossed in the air from sealskin trampolines held by others.

Slightly above latitude 71 degrees north, the sun set for the last time this winter on Wednesday November 18, 2020. It will pop up briefly over the horizon again for the first sunrise on January 22, 2021 at 1:16 PM. The Iñupiaq will celebrate the end of the Polar Night after 66 days with huge bonfires and fireworks lighting up the sky, singing and dancing to traditional drummers. Till then, there is what the locals call "civil twilight" - a twilight lasting about three hours from around 11:00 AM to 2 PM while the sun hovers about 6 degrees below the horizon unable to rise. While all the pictures in this post that have a somewhat lit sky were taken in this window, 20 out of 24 hours in a day in Utqiaġvik look like this (the object in the sky is the moon):

Utqiaġvik polar night in Barrow in late December (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

The following time-lapse video of 24 hours on Jan 3, 2021 was downloaded from Utqiaġvik (Barrow) Sea Ice Webcam. It illustrates the total polar night darkness except the brief "civil twilight".

The Iñupiaq have been living in Utqiaġvik and surrounding even more remote villages for over 4,000 years. Like central Asian nomads, survival is based on utilization of almost non-existent local resources and  animals: whales, seals, walruses and caribous. They hunt whales, especially enormous bowhead whales (the longest living mammals with lifespans of over 200 years), from large walrus-skin canoes called umiaq. Sealskin is often used for smaller qayaq boats. They are always on the watch for and retreat from polar bears, the biggest threat around these parts. 

The Iñupiaq used to build and live in igloos and shelters built from ribs of bowhead whales, covered with sealskin or caribou skin. Their villages included large community shelters, called qargi, for social gatherings, ceremonies, repairing boats, teaching skills to youngsters and so on. They traveled and transported stuff (bowhead whales typically weigh in the 60 ton range) on dog sleds called qamutiik pulled by Inuit dogs. Their partnership with canines originates from an ancient time when humans and wolves had the same problems to solve in a place where social cooperation is mandatory for survival.

Change (whether it may be called "progress" is debatable) has come to the ancient people who now live in American-style houses, drive snowmobiles and cars instead of dog-sleds, listen to 91.9Mhz KBRW-FM, and shop at groceries that would give our local Wegman's fair competition in the range of Americana on the shelves. Climate change continues to inexorably dilute the ancient way of life. Traditions are fortunately still valued. We had the opportunity to crawl into a real igloo built by a Iñupiaq family in the front yard of their modern single-family house, and taste some bowhead and beluga whale meat.

COVID-19 Testing Center, Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal
COVID-19 Testing Center, Utqiaġvik

We lived under a sky devoid of the Sun for a full week. We interacted with a total of about six local people during the entire time, only because we did not see many people out and about in the frigid winter, and the Heritage Center and Gift Shop etc. were all closed due to the pandemic. Our photography equipment consisted of three old cell phones designed to operate in normal ambient light and within 32F to 95F. They faced dual challenges of extremely low light resulting in grainy pictures, and protective circuitry shutting them down within minutes of exposure to double-digit negative temperatures.

Grainy Low-Light Cell Phone Picture at Utqiaġvik, Alaska (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

The folks I chatted with include three cabbies, a gentleman at the front desk of the inn we stayed at, a couple of people in the grocery store and a wonderful lady with a pickup truck who helped us find the igloo. All the pieces of information in this post are from them, which I later looked up to learn a bit more (references at the bottom). We did see the aurora borealis, but they were faint and my attempts at taking pictures with a cell phone prone to low-temperature shutdowns were disastrous. Here is a picture similar to what we did see, twitted by a different photographer:

In the Google Earth view below, the yellow line traces Washington, DC to Seattle to Anchorage to Utqiaġvik. The red line (which, obviously, we did not travel on) traces Utqiaġvik to 90° N, 135° W - geographic North Pole. Image (C) Google.

Google Earth view of Washington DC to Seattle to Anchorage to Barrow (c) google


Here is our Alaska Airlines 737-700 being de-iced at ANC before taking off for the 723 miles to Utqiaġvik.

Anchorage Airport Alaska Plane De-Icing (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

For us debutant travellers to the Arctic, the scenario that unfolded in the sunless twilight soon started to challenge our minds to process that our eyes were picking up. 

Arctic flight (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

We saw the moon ahead and the red hue from a sun that stayed below the horizon behind us from the air. This was around noon Yukon time.

Arctic flight (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

The moon sometimes seemed to float below the twilight too.

Arctic flight (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

We were soon flying over some mountains. I wonder if we were crossing over the Anaktuvuk Pass in Brooks Range, the northernmost part of the Rockies, perhaps over some part of the vast Gates Of The Arctic National Park.

Anaktuvuk Pass - Brooks Range - Gates Of The Arctic National Park - Alaska (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

We flew over frozen water bodies bordering an endless ice field. The unfamiliar ice-scape continued to be increasingly breathtaking (and impossible to capture with a camera). If we are told we were flying over Jupiter's moon Europa we would probably believe it.

Arctic flight (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Eventually in the vast frigid ice-desert, the few lights of a rather helpless looking settlement of Utqiaġvik came into view and the pilot commenced descent. We had almost reached the northernmost settlement in Alaska and all of North America, one of the coldest and harshest environments in the world where humans live. We were at the top of the world!

Utqiagvik (Barrow) Alaska from approaching plane (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Feeling mixed emotions of excitement and trepidation, we took comfort in remembering (a) humans have been living around that small cluster of lights for at least four thousand years, and (b) it is a village in the United States after all.

We were a bit frightened when our airplane initially went out to the Arctic Ocean, seemingly bypassing the settlement: why are we leaving the last human outpost and still moving north? But thankfully, the pilot arced into the only paved runway 25 from over the ocean. The white circle above the horizon is the moon.

As the 737's wheel wells opened, it occurred to me that pilots flying this route land on and take off from icy runways on permafrost every day as a matter of course. Here is a video of the final approach to Wiley Post - Will Rogers Memorial Airport, Utqiagvik which at 71.285556N, 156.766111W is the the furthest airport up north of any US territory.

A video of the landing on the only asphalt-paved runway at BRW:

The state of Alaska has two time zones: Yukon time which is an hour earlier than Pacific time, and Alaska time which used to be called the Bering Sea time and is one hour earlier than Yukon time. Utqiaġvik is in the Yukon time zone.

Dec 26, 2020, 12:05 PM Yukon time

Despite the frigid -19F (-28C) when we landed, it appears we brought beginner's luck with us: the feared gale-force winds were quiet down to a gentle breeze, limiting wind-chills "feels like" to negative mid thirties instead of the -48F that was reported the day we left home. The airport is a charming minimalist affair of the scale of Bocas del Toro Isla Colón or Carlsbad McClellan-Palomar. The plane stopped in front of the lighted entrance door on the right.

Wiley Post–Will Rogers Memorial Airport, Utqiagvik (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

We climbed down detachable ramp stairs from the airplane and, for the first time in our lives, walked a few steps on the Arctic ice into the terminal.

There are two shutters that soon opened and a couple of Alaska Airlines gentlemen handed our checked-in baggage through these doors from the outside, well within the 20 minutes that Alaska Airlines promise for baggage delivery.

Wiley Post - Will Rogers Memorial Airport (BRW) Utqiaġvik (Barrow) Alaska (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

We stepped out of a long series of airports to Ahkovak St. through a lighted hobbit hole.

Wiley Post–Will Rogers Memorial Airport, Utqiagvik (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Our first impression of Utqiagvik was of a place straight out of the Ice Road Truckers television series. We exited the terminal and walked the couple of minutes to the right to get to the King Eider Inn across the street. The inn is not named after any king, but a bird - a sea duck (Somateria spectabilis) found in polar climes.

Here is the first picture of Utqiagvik we took looking right along Ahkovak St. towards the airport terminal (where the headlights shine bright) from the front of the inn:

King Eider Inn to Airport - Barrow - Alaska (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

And the second picture in the opposite direction. The dumpster in front of the Inn claims Alaska natives to be the healthiest people in the world. Why that claim would be on a dumpster eludes me.

King Eider Inn Barrow Alaska street view (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

By this time, we had already walked a whole three minutes in the coldest temperature we have ever experienced in our lives, as well as taken two jittery pictures with gloves off. We paid the price with pain when blood rushed back into our fingers. With no further delay, we let ourselves into the warm embrace of the inn, promising to start using our hand warmers.

King Eider Inn (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

King Eider Inn, Barrow, AK (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

It was the holiday season after all, and we were really close to Mr. and Mrs. Claus' abode. Stepping into the inn, we found ourselves immersed in holiday warmth.

King Eider Inn, Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal | Supratim Sanyal's Blog

King Eider Inn, Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal | Supratim Sanyal's Blog

King Eider Inn, Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal | Supratim Sanyal's Blog

Apparently crews from American nuclear submarines prowling the Arctic stay in this inn.


It was made very clear to us walking up to cute polar bears to cuddle them would very likely result in the bears wishing us quyanaq for us becoming easy and delicious dinner.

Barrow Alaska Polar Bear Watching

Dec 26, 2020, 3:30 PM Yukon time

A couple of hours after checking into our room with a little kitchen, we were craving for as much a home-cooked meal as I could manage. The closest grocery was 0.6 miles away. We mustered courage to walk the 1.2 miles round trip, putting to test our multiple layers of clothing. "Barrow is dangerous ... if you plan to visit Barrow in the winter, just wear all the clothes you have", one website had recommended.

To get to the grocery from the inn, we started by walking right on Ahkovak St., crossing the airport terminal and Momeganna St.

Momeganna St from Ahkovak St, Barrow, Alaska (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal
Momeganna St from as seen from Ahkovak St

At the first stop sign (across the Ace Hardware store), we made a left on Kogiak St.  The street curves right into Pisokak St.

Kogiak St. - Pisokak St., Barrow, Alaska (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal
Kogiak St curves right into Pisokak St

The "Alaska Commercial Co." grocery store is at 229 Pisokak St, after intersections with Kongosak and Egasak streets.

Alaska Commercial Co. - Grocery in Barrow, Alaska (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Alaska Commercial Co. - Grocery in Barrow, Alaska (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

In general, stuff is indeed a few times more expensive than Wegman's back home, because, as mentioned earlier, everything we expect in a grocers' has to be imported into the settlement. In any case, we did pick up some essentials and cooked up a simple warm meal. As an anecdote, when we were leaving we still had three of the four sticks of butter in the $7.29+tax pack, which I wrapped in two plastic bags and stuck into our luggage along with the remaining of the boiled $9.29 eggs and half of the rice. TSA took the butter out at some point because it was not there when we reached home. I appreciate this action by the TSA since I realized the butter would have melted inside the luggage on the way back to DC. For a moment, I had forgotten it is not -18F or lower everywhere.








Dec 27, 2020, 11:25 AM Yukon time

Having validated our clothing and figuring out corrections needed the first day itself, on day two, after preparing and consuming an excellent warm breakfast, we found two excuses to walk to "Ace Hardware - Top of the World" store at 1611 B Okpik Street.  My son wanted a HDMI cable to hook up his gaming laptop to the television in the room. The room was also getting a bit too dry with all the electric heating going on, making a humidifier desirable.

Ace Hardware - Top of the World, 1611 B Okpik St, Utqiagvik, AK 99723 (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

We had an excellent conversation with the ACE Hardware store manager about things to do (which was pretty much go around and take pictures in the middle of the exponentially worsening pandemic) and came back happy with both items. The HDMI cable put a smile on my son's face. We also learned there were no operators offering dog sled rides, snowmobile rides, ATV rides etc. at the time.


The humidifier was interesting. Small and portable, it came with an adapter to insert into a regular plastic drinking water bottle as the water source for generating the usual fog of ultrasonic cool mist. The bottle adapter is designed so that the top of the adapter comes off for refilling, making the bottle reusable. I wasn't aware of such a thing, and could not remember this kind of humidifier being sold at usual big-box retail stores back home.

Dehumidifier from Ace Hardware - Top of the World 1611 B Okpik St, Utqiagvik, AK 99723


Dec 27, 2020, 1 PM Yukon time


Driving on Permafrost around the outskirts of Utqiaġvik

Day three. With still-increasing confidence in our ability to survive and even enjoy the harsh winter outdoors, we called Polar Cab taxi and essentially requested the cabbie to show us all that should be seen by visitors in and around the village for however long it takes. It turned out to be just a two-hour affair.

There are no paved roads in and around Utqiaġvik as the melting and freezing surface ice moves around every year. For a drivable surface, snow on the permafrost is cleared and piled up on the sides by bulldozers. People basically drive on the surface of the 1,300 foot deep permafrost. This surface manifests itself as the grey and black dirty gravelly stuff on which the wheels roll.

Our first stop was the sign post across the airport (though we had walked by it four times by now) with directions and distances to numerous places. Unfortunately it was too tall to climb up and clear, but we took the first mandatory Utqiaġvik visitor picture regardless. The signs look like this picture by David G. Simpson in the summer. 3450 miles to Honolulu, 1311 miles to the North Pole and so on, but there is no sign for Washington, DC (which is 3,474 linear miles to the east-by-southeast).

Barrow Alaska Sign Post (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

The second stop was the "Welcome to Utqiaġvik" sign on the Arctic Ocean shore. The "Paglagivsi" (Welcome) sign was ice-covered, but we easily brushed it off with our gloves.

Welcome to Utqiaġvik (Barrow) Sign on Arctic Ocean shore in Barrow, Alaska | Supratim Sanyal's Blog (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Welcome to Utqiaġvik (Barrow) Sign on Arctic Ocean shore in Barrow, Alaska | Supratim Sanyal's Blog (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Welcome to Utqiaġvik (Barrow) Sign on Arctic Ocean shore in Barrow, Alaska | Supratim Sanyal's Blog (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

We then performed our first Arctic ice-walk! This took a little bit of courage, given falling through the ice into the water below would be fatal. However, further behind there is a "Winter Trail" which we assumed to be frozen water that is drivable in the winter.

Walk on the sea ice of Arctic Ocean in Utqiagvik / Barrow Alaska | Supratim Sanyal's Blog (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Walk on the sea ice of Arctic Ocean in Utqiagvik / Barrow Alaska | Supratim Sanyal's Blog (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

A drive around the main settlement was next. Generally going around northwest of Isatkoak Lagoon, we saw schools, the cemetery, a court house, a police station, banks, and churches.

Subsequently driving to the northeast, we stopped at the iconic Barrow Whale Bone Arch made of actual jaw bones of a bowhead whale dedicated towards the end of 19th century as a magnificent gateway to the Arctic Ocean which, along with whales, is crucial for survival of the people here ("Gateway to the Arctic": more information here). Additional items of tribute, including "shells of traditional whaling boats and other whale bones", are placed around the jaw bones as well.

We walked some more on the ice.

Whale Bone Arch at Utqiagvik / Barrow Alaska | Supratim Sanyal's Blog (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Whale Bone Arch at Utqiagvik / Barrow Alaska | Supratim Sanyal's Blog (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Whale Bone Arch at Utqiagvik / Barrow Alaska | Supratim Sanyal's Blog (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Whale Bone Arch at Utqiagvik / Barrow Alaska | Supratim Sanyal's Blog (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Walking on frozen Arctic Ocean at Utqiagvik / Barrow Alaska | Supratim Sanyal's Blog (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Walking on frozen Arctic Ocean at Utqiagvik / Barrow Alaska | Supratim Sanyal's Blog (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Walking on frozen Arctic Ocean at Utqiagvik / Barrow Alaska | Supratim Sanyal's Blog (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal


From here we went around the northwest part of the village, covering the Arctic Coast Trading Post and Stuaqpak grocery stores, the only gas station ($6/gallon regular), and more churches and such, reaching the hallowed Iñupiat Heritage Center and museum maintained by the United States National Park Service. The Center attempts to highlight thousands of years of history, culture, accomplishments, and lifestyle of the extraordinary Iñupiat people of this region living in the harsh polar climate.

Unfortunately, the center was closed to visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with no planned date for reopening yet.

Continuing north-east on Stevenson street, we next stopped at the Iḷisaġvik College - Alaska's only college for indigenous people established to "provide an education based on the Iñupiaq cultural heritage."

The college was completely closed and everything locked up due to the pandemic. The main office of the college:

Iḷisaġvik College, Utqiaġvik, Alaska: Main Office (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Bowhead Whale Bone opposite the main office:
Iḷisaġvik College, Utqiaġvik, Alaska: Bowhead Whale Bone (head of Bowhead Whale) (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Buildings to the left and right of the main office, likely classrooms:

Iḷisaġvik College, Utqiaġvik, Alaska (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Iḷisaġvik College, Utqiaġvik, Alaska (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

A panorama view. The white buildings that look like train carriages behind the bowhead whale head bone, to the left of the classrooms, are the residential dorms.

Iḷisaġvik College, Utqiaġvik, Alaska (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

We continued to head up Stevenson Street towards Point Barrow, crossing the Barrow Water Supply reservoir (Barrow UIC Water Plant) and Barrow High School Football Field / Cathy Parker Field, stopping at the bridge off the side of the road with a posted sign marks the "Northernmost Point of the United States". The sign was covered with ice and attempting to walk to it to clear it appeared to be too dangerous, but the bridge itself was accessible. This was an especially exciting milestone for us, having visited the opposite end of the country at the Southernmost Point of the United States - Key West, Florida - a few times.

Northernmost Point of the United States - Top of the World - Barrow / Utqiaġvik, Alaska | Supratim Sanyal's Blog (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal



Northernmost Point of the United States - Top of the World - Barrow / Utqiaġvik, Alaska | Supratim Sanyal's Blog (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Northernmost Point of the United States - Top of the World - Barrow / Utqiaġvik, Alaska | Supratim Sanyal's Blog (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Northernmost Point of the United States - Top of the World - Barrow / Utqiaġvik, Alaska | Supratim Sanyal's Blog (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal


We turned east and drove a bit further across the abandoned old Point Barrow Airfield (original Barrow Naval Arctic Research Laboratory Airfield). We saw the shacks that can be rented for camping and old quonset huts. More sanctified whale bones are positioned around the area.

Northernmost Point of the United States - Top of the World - Barrow / Utqiaġvik, Alaska | Supratim Sanyal's Blog (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Northernmost Point of the United States - Top of the World - Barrow / Utqiaġvik, Alaska | Supratim Sanyal's Blog (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Northernmost Point of the United States - Top of the World - Barrow / Utqiaġvik, Alaska | Supratim Sanyal's Blog (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal


Northernmost Point of the United States - Top of the World - Barrow / Utqiaġvik, Alaska | Supratim Sanyal's Blog (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Northernmost Point of the United States - Top of the World - Barrow / Utqiaġvik, Alaska | Supratim Sanyal's Blog (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal


The road was closed just after this. Walking down and around, we found a boat frozen in ice:

Point Barrow, Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska: Frozen Boat in Frozen Arctic Ocean Ice (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Point Barrow, Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska: Frozen Boat in Frozen Arctic Ocean Ice (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

 We turned around here.

Northernmost Point of the United States - Top of the World - Barrow / Utqiaġvik, Alaska | Supratim Sanyal's Blog (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Northernmost Point of the United States - Top of the World - Barrow / Utqiaġvik, Alaska | Supratim Sanyal's Blog (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Northernmost Point of the United States - Top of the World - Barrow / Utqiaġvik, Alaska | Supratim Sanyal's Blog (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Northernmost Point of the United States - Top of the World - Barrow / Utqiaġvik, Alaska | Supratim Sanyal's Blog (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Our next stop was at United States Air Force's Point Barrow Long Range Radar Site. Among other curiosities, the world's northernmost totem pole stands erect in restricted space inside this military site. It is also gaining importance due to increasing tension with Russia in the Bering Strait along with the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap.

USAF Point Barrow Long Range Radar Site

USAF Point Barrow Long Range Radar Site



USAF Point Barrow Long Range Radar Site

USAF Point Barrow Long Range Radar Site

USAF Point Barrow Long Range Radar Site

Our last stop for the day before turning around back towards the settlement was along Gas Well Road, the longest road past the last housing at the end of Browerville. We saw a gas rig on a gas field which pumps natural gas to power Barrow. This is part of the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field, the largest oil field in North America which is "an anticline structure located on the Barrow Arch, with faulting on the north side of the arch and a Lower Cretaceous unconformity on the east." (Wikipedia)

Barrow Alaska Gas Field Rig and Pipeline (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal


Barrow Alaska Gas Field Rig and Pipeline (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Barrow Alaska Gas Field Rig and Pipeline (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Barrow Alaska Gas Field Rig and Pipeline (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Barrow Alaska Gas Field Rig and Pipeline (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

We then turned back towards Utqiaġvik, crossing the last houses at the end of Browerville. The area is 15 feet above sea level. Arctic construction techniques are unique: houses are lifted up on stilts and the legs of the stilts are secured into permafrost. This prevents the houses from floating away in the warm couple of months with melting ice.

Barrow Alaska Houses on Stilts | Houses on Legs | Arctic House Construction  (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Barrow Alaska Houses on Stilts | Houses on Legs | Arctic House Construction  (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Barrow Alaska Houses on Stilts | Houses on Legs | Arctic House Construction  (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Back at the settlement, we drove by some neighborhoods and the impressive Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital (the larger and more modern of Barrow's two hospitals). We found this interesting igloo-like house.

Barrow Alaska Neighborhood (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Barrow Alaska Neighborhood (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal


Barrow Alaska Neighborhood (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Barrow Alaska Neighborhood (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Barrow Alaska Neighborhood (C) 2020 Supratim Sanyal


Dec 29, 2020, 4:30 PM Yukon time

WHALE MEAT!

A kind native Alaskan gentleman presented us with whale meat. Clockwise: Bowhead whale meat - raw, Beluga Whale meat - raw, and Bowhead Whale meat - cooked.

The black and white strips of Bowhead meat are the skin and fat under the skin from the fins and tail of the Bowhead whale. These pieces are the most valued and reserved for the captain of the whaling boat. On a traditional Iñupiat whaling boat, crew members are entitled to different parts of the hunted whale depending on their role on the boat.

Whale Meat - Raw and Cooked - Barrow, Alaska (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Whale Meat - Raw and Cooked - Barrow, Alaska (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Whale Meat - Raw and Cooked - Barrow, Alaska (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal


Dec 30, 2020, 8:30 PM Yukon time

IGLOO!

Igloo in Utqiaġvik (Barrow) Alaska built by Native Alaskan Inuit family (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal


We learned a family had built an igloo near the gas station. The cabbie was not aware of it. We asked at the gas station and found this authentic igloo.

We were told that sometimes igloos are three times or more this size and also may have a hole on the roof so that a chimney can stick out from a fireplace inside. This immediately reminded us of "ger" yurts popularly used by Mongolian and central-Asian nomadic tribes who have lived since ancient times in the harsh climate of the vast Steppe, solving similar set of problems but relying on land animals instead of whales.

Igloo in Utqiaġvik (Barrow) Alaska built by Native Alaskan Inuit family (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Igloos are not made of ice but of blocks of old compressed snow which has the best insulation properties. Igloo construction is a scientific and architectural subject by itself; the Britannica article is a good starting point.

The wall of the igloo from inside:

Inside of Igloo wall in Utqiaġvik (Barrow) Alaska built by Native Alaskan Inuit family (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

Inside of Igloo wall in Utqiaġvik (Barrow) Alaska built by Native Alaskan Inuit family (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal

The back of the igloo:
Back of an Igloo at Barrow Alaska (c) 2020 Supratim Sanyal





I watched "The Matrix Revolutions" yet again in the airplane on our way back from Utqiaġvik, hopping from Barrow to Anchorage to Fairbanks to Seattle to Washington, DC. About midway to Anchorage, as sunlight streamed into the airplane, we saw the Sun in the sky and liquid water below after a whole week. A lesson in valuing simple things we take for granted.

In the movie, the Oracle famously says "Everything that has a beginning has an end". I will end this post with a reference to a 1949 documentary on the remarkable native Alaskans living in Utqiaġvik and villages around it, and hope to return some day to spend more time in one of the remote Iñupiat villages, perhaps Nuiqsut (AQT), Atqasuk (ATK), Umiat (UMT), or maybe even Anaktuvuk Pass (AKP).



Missed Opportunities:

I had sent a e-mail asking about things to see and do in Utqiaġvik to the general manager of the popular Top of the World Hotel (which was closed due to the pandemic). A friendly informative reply arrived within a few hours - Alaskans are renowned for helpfulness and friendliness! - recommending the following (mostly quoting from the email). We left Utqiaġvik the day after the email and missed out on these:
  • Spot caribou during the couple of hours of civil twilight time at Nunavak Road past the weather station and gravel pits past the runway
  • Try to arrange a ride with one of the last dog sled teams at the Carol residents on Yugit Street towards Qaiyaan St. (red house on left). They feed their dogs daily and may take them for a run during the precious little civil twilight time. 
  • Qitiq (Christmas Games at Barrow) - are usually held every year during the last week of the year. Though we were in exactly the right time for this, everything was cancelled this year due to the pandemic.
  • The North Slope for Sale Market group on Facebook is the place to ask about activities, which, in our case, might have resulted in someone taking us out for a snowmobile ride or such things.

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  1. What a great read. Our family is going in to Utqiaġvik in June. I loved your pictures and videos too. I wish there was more in the way of tourism there. A boat ride on the Arctic Ocean would be amazing. I wanted to see The Midnight Sun. I guess you saw the complete opposite! We are going to take a Tundra Tour from Top of the World Hotel, and visit the Inupiat Heritage Center. If you have any recommendations, I would love to hear them. It was nice to see you had a wonderful experience.

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    1. Hi Scarlet - a lot of tourists in the summer apparently come over in short trips via tour operators in Fairbanks. You will definitely see the midnight sun. For us, we specifically wanted the winter experience, having been to northern latitudes in the summer enough times. Wishing you a very memorable trip!

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