Alaska – At the top of the world

Alaska - Barrow polar bear club

Greetings from Barrow, Alaska the top of the world and the most northern city in the U.S.  It is also the home of the northern most National Park Service unit – the Inupiat Heritage Center.

We had come to Barrow on a one-day tour from Anchorage, an expensive and long trip. We are treating Alaska like a foreign country – who knows if we’ll ever come back again. Barrow, on the Arctic Ocean, 330 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is in the North Slope Borough and home to about 6,000 people. The Inupiat, the native people of Barrow, make up about 75% of the population; the word means real, genuine.

Our tour bus consists of a group of seven tourists from Turkey, a couple from Sydney, a couple from Oklahoma and us.

Alaska - Barrow with Ryan Ryan, our tour guide, is a very enthusiastic young man who doesn’t pretend to be an expert on his people. He seems to be constantly learning and is as thrilled as us to see a snow owl and as disappointed to not find a polar bear. But like I tell folks in the Smokies, “I can’t promise you that you’ll see an elk – this ain’t Disneyworld.”

In Barrow, houses are on stilts because permafrost lies on the ground from about 2.5 feet to 350 feet. If you built your house directly on the ground, you’d melt some of the permafrost and the house would shift. Permafrost determines so much of the infrastructure in Barrow – the utilities, sewer lines, telephone system, even how people are buried. Bodies are sent down to Anchorage for embalming then brought back to Barrow where they’re buried 15 feet below in the permafrost. The cemeteries just have wooden crosses, not monuments.

Alaska - Barrow heritage centerThe Inupiat culture depends on whaling. The community is allowed to catch 21 whales in the spring and another 21 in the fall. The heritage center explains every stage of the whaling ritual. A huge whale suspended from the ceiling greets the visitor. There are whaling tools, ivory sculpture, dolls dressed in traditional parkas and old photographs of the celebrations after a successful whale hunt. A temporary photography exhibit show the modern whaling process from getting ready for the hunt, women cooking for the hunters, getting boats in the water to butchering the whale and celebrating with the whole community. Ryan emphasized that the whale meat are shared with the whole community – Eskimos and non Eskimos. Yes, it is fine to use the word Eskimo.

But it seems much more casual and homelike than most national park sites. Girls hang around waiting to perform drumming and dancing only to learn that the drummers have gone to a drumming competition and will not be able to join them.

Several artists lay out their wares of carvings, jewelry and dolls. They belong to Echospace, a native artist group. Lenny bought a pendant for his mother and just gave the artist cash. Gilford, one of the artists, explained that his grandfather owned a loon headdress which he wore for the Kalukaq ceremony, a special dance performed for the messenger feast. He showed me a picture of his grandfather and the headdress, which he donated to the museum.

The tourists from Turkey were surprised and then annoyed to learn that the Inupiat people did not live in igloos but in frame houses. They obviously didn’t do any reading or preparation for this trip.

Ryan kept after us to jump in the Arctic Ocean and join the polar bear club. None of us took the bait but he finally found several census workers in Barrow for a couple of weeks who jumped in with him. See the top picture. He was happy and I took pictures.

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