Published on September 17, 2010 by Aquarius
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Barrow, Alaska, sits atop the continent, the northernmost community in the United States. It’s 725 air miles from Anchorage, but plenty of tourists find the way.
And if they’re looking for birding, whaling or anthropology, Northern Alaska is the right place.
And in the summer, they get plenty of time to look. The sun doesn’t set for 84 days – between May 10 and Aug. 2. The U.S. Weather Service says the sun rises at 2:49 a.m. May 10 and sets at 1:54 a.m. Aug. 2.
With all the North Slope wetlands, Barrow is positioned neatly to send birders out to check species after species off their lifetime lists. The Barrow Birding Center provides a checklist of 185 species, and the King Eider Inn offers encouragement to the dedicated friends of the feathered.
A few years ago, Birding magazine rated Barrow as one of its top 200 spots nationwide, describing the bird life as “spectacular.”
Barrow, now the home of 4,581 people, has been a habitation site for 1,100 to 1,500 years. It was known among the Inupiat Eskimos as Ukpeagvik, or “place where owls are hunted.”
Whale hunting has also been a feature of Barrow life, as Inupiat whalers pursued bowhead, gray, killer and beluga whales to feed the community. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, whaling vessels from New England arrived, and Barrow helped in those hunts as well.
The Inupiat Heritage Center, in a program affiliated with the New Bedford, Mass., Whaling National Historical Park, helps make sure today’s citizens remember the contribution of North Slope Eskimos to the American whaling industry.
People who want to gain an understanding of life on the Slope might find their guide in a book about whaling published in 1999 by writer-photographer Bill Hess. “Gift of the Whale: The Inupiat Bowhead Hunt, a Sacred Tradition” is a respectful and graphic depiction of whaling in Barrow.
Some of Barrow’s traditional ways may echo life of the distant past. Scientists have uncovered five dozen mounds at the Utqiagvik site on the southwestern edge of Barrow. Winter dwellings made of sod now appear as mounds elevated about six feet above the tundra. The 20,000 artifacts found at the site suggest a continuous occupation of the area for the past thousand years.
Protecting a heritage
An exhibit of the work is available at the Inupiat Heritage Center. Further work is being done through the North Slope Borough’s Inupiat History, Language and Culture Center, which is developing a common writing system for the Inupiat language, compiling a historical account of the area’s land and people, and translating into Inupiat the borough’s documents.
For all its history, Barrow carries the name of Sir John Barrow, second secretary of the British Admiralty, who advocated northern exploration and for whom the northernmost point was named. The Alaska Dictionary of Place Names says white arrivals took “Barrow” for the settlement’s name because it was easier to pronounce than any of the Inupiat names for the area. When the post office was established, its use of “Barrow” made the choice permanent.
Browerville, a neighborhood on the north side of Barrow, was named after Charles Brower, who arrived in 1886 to direct a whaling station and who later opened trading post and was eventually known as “the king of the Arctic.”
Life in the borough
Oil is king of the Arctic now. The North Slope Borough, headquartered in Barrow, is home to the Prudhoe Bay and other oil fields, and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, is south of town. Tax revenue from the Slope’s oil fields pay for services boroughwide, and natural gas is used to heat homes and generate electricity in Barrow.
Even though the borough does well financially, many residents maintain traditional lifestyles. Subsistence foods include whale, seal, polar bear, walrus, duck, caribou, grayling and whitefish. Barrow is “damp,” meaning that the sale of alcohol is banned, although visitors and residents may bring it into town with them.
Travel to Barrow
Alaska Airlines, landing at Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport, provides Barrow’s only year-round access. Several air taxi services, such as Cape Smythe Air, ferry visitors and residents to villages in the area and to larger towns such as Nome, and Kotzebue and Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay.
The ocean is usually ice-free from mid-June through October, allowing cargo barges to pass through to Barrow.
Climate and weather
The high temperature in July averages 45 degrees, sometimes reaching the 70s. In January, the average low is minus 20 and the average high is minus 8. The daily minimum is below freezing 324 days of the year.