Alaska has something for everyone, according to its tourism board, and so it does.
After you've cruised the Inside Passage, or visited Denali National Park, you may be ready for a different look at Alaska. The small town of Barrow may be just the ticket.
It sits just south of Point Barrow, the northernmost tip in North America, making it the most northern town on the continent. You can only get there with Alaska Airlines, which flies there via Anchorage or Fairbanks. The one-day and overnight tour package I took was a good deal, but in hindsight, I wish I could have stayed a little longer.
From the moment I stepped off the plane, I was in another world and time.
Coming from Arizona, the Arctic was not just refreshingly cool, it was cold enough that our Tundra Tour guide handed out anoraks. I remembered the comments from my travel agent, who said, "The town isn't much to look at and there is nothing much to do," and then she added, "but since you like odd or out-of-the-way places, you might like it."
The Town of Barrow has only a few lodging options and mine was the Top of the World Hotel, not the best in town, but good. On our way to the hotel, we drove along the edge of the green ocean, where we passed a family congregating near their "beach house," as the guide called it. It was the size of a large plywood storage bin with no real beach to sit on. However, for beach-like ambiance, there was a tall pole placed in the ground with a circle of baleen (black comb of hairy fringes that whales use as filters in their mouth during feeding) attached on the top to simulate palm leaves. It was kind of clever, actually.
The hotel lobby held another surprise, as we were greeted by a large stuffed polar bear, displayed in a huge glass box. The chance of seeing polar bears in the wild was in part what lured me up there, but this wasn't what I had in mind.
Barrow has no actual downtown, no shops and only a few restaurants scattered around the area. Nonetheless, the included "tour of the town" started soon after check-in and lasted about four hours.
Barrow has the largest Eskimo settlement and, of the 4,300 residents, most are Inupiats. The opportunity to see an ancient culture and its traditions in the United States was one of my reasons for wanting to come to Barrow and so I was glad to get started.
At first glance, the modest wood houses sitting on pilings that stand on the flat tundra looked surprisingly vulnerable to the elements. But we were reassured that the people were comfortable and felt protected, even in winter. Our first stop was the Inupiat Heritage Center, where we were treated to a native dance and a nice display of native artifacts. There was a workshop and the center acts as a meeting place. Driving around, we saw many children playing along the gravel roads (no paved streets) and most parking areas were outfitted with car engine heaters, idle during the summer months, but definitely needed in the winter.
Along the coastline, we stopped at Barrows Arch. These crossed whalebones are as much a landmark to Barrow, as the Empire State Building is to New York and almost as impressive.
There is no fine dining in Barrow, only a few places to eat like Pepe's North of the Border, which must be the most northern Mexican restaurant, and where I learned later what my travel agent meant when she said, "It's not cheap up there." A bowl of soup cost $12.
Barrow is a dry town. The sale of alcohol is illegal and there is a curfew, as I discovered when I was locked out of my hotel at 10:30 p.m. The town lies on a point in the Arctic Ocean around which bowhead whales migrate and where, for more than 1,000 years, the Inupiats have been hunting whales for sustenance. Today, there is a limit set by the government and the members of the settlement usually share the catch. During the fall or spring hunt, fathers still teach their sons the secrets of harpooning and landing a whale, thus keeping the culture alive.
It was sheer luck that, during a solo walk around town, I came upon a group of Inupiat women, who were skinning, cleaning and cutting up their share of the last whale hunt.
The whale had been brought up from their perma-frost freezer (the ground under their house) and was still partially frozen "for easier cutting," one of the women explained. She was using the versatile cutting tool, the Ulu knife, which native Alaskan people have used for more than 5,000 years, and is still an important part in the survival of the Arctic people. As a special thank you for an Arizona Highways magazine I brought them, I was treated to a taste of muktuck (whale blubber), considered a local delicacy and usually not available to non-native people.
An acquired taste, I think.
The stripped carcass and other assorted hunting waste is taken "out to the point, to keep the bears from coming into town," one of the Inupiat elders told me. And that may be the reason that Barrow is the only place in the United States that has commercial polar bear viewing tours.
That evening, in the light of the low midnight sun, I had a solitary moment. As I stood on the windswept tip of the edge of the continent, when I was joined by a native young man who said, "Sure, Barrow is a remote and unforgiving hell of a place sometimes, but it's also paradise."