Day At the Top of the World (‘Paglagivsigin Utqiagmun’)Susan
Batho & Bill Hupe
is the largest of the states, comprising a full twenty
percent of the US land mass.
are many things to see and do in “The Last Frontier”, one of the most unique
journeys available is a Day Trip to Barrow, the northernmost community in North
America, at 12 degrees latitude.
departed Fairbanks at 8 AM, which required an airport
transfer nice and early from our motel.
There wasn’t much to see on the flight
– it being a hazy day - and the
early start, we caught some shut eye.
Thankfully, the view cleared as we flew closer
to Barrow. Instead of the expected frozen tundra,
we could see lakes and green grass all the way to the horizon.
tour bus was waiting – Tundra Tours -
and after everyone was rounded up, our Inuit
guide/driver, Mona, started
the bus trundling off to the Barrow Information Center, as well as the Wiley
Post and Will Rogers Monument, honouring the two American folk heroes who were
killed in a plane crash near Barrow about 70 years ago. This took five minutes
of driving and we were off the bus again taking photos. Mona, by the
way, is the local school
teacher with a dry humour and deadpan delivery that caught us all out until we
got her number over the course of the day.
The second stop was a recently-discovered buried home over 600
years old, including remains in the main house of an adult and young girl, as
well as a third in the sub-house.
Apparently, it was usual at that time to bury
your dead underneath your
house. From there, it was to the
“Welcome to Barrow” sign or “Paglagivsigin Utqiagmun’ in the native language,
and of course, it was all out for photos again.
continued to drive around noting how green the area is – and
how warm it is. It was mid-summer
and actually t-shirt weather – and it shouldn’t have been given that 10 years
ago, the same place was registering 32 degrees as a heat wave. The day we
visited, it was 61! Grass
and tundra cotton abound, and lots of ground water. We made a stop at the Barrow Beach, where everyone was
invited to dip an appendage into the Arctic Ocean.
lunch you have our choice of several eating establishments
(Chinese, Japanese, pizza); our choice was obvious: Pepe’s North of the Border,
Barrow’s Mexican restaurant. There’s something a little unreal to be sitting so
close to the North Pole and eating Mexican food.
gracious owner of the restaurant, Fran Tate, made the rounds
to greet each visitor, and pass out postcards which for a quarter, she would
post back to your friends back home – which she did.
lunch, we were treated to a fabulous display of native
dancing and singing from the very young to the aged at the Cultural
Centre. All were dressed in
brightly coloured native costumes, and all were extremely talented, performing
several native dances and songs.
One young boy who couldn’t have been more
than 6 or 7 was simply amazing
– he had obviously worked very long and hard to familiarize himself with the
dances. There was audience
participation in the dancing and games which got everyone in and enthusiastic.
of the local artisans gathered in the lobby with their wares
on display and for sale; mostly carvings or scrimshaw, on bones, as well as
some clothing, mittens, gloves, etc.
All very nice items, and we would have loved
to take some home, but all
of the items, having been made from animal products are illegal to take into
reboarded the bus and headed north out of town, towards Point
Barrow, the northernmost point on mainland North America, where the Chuckchi
and Beaufort Seas meet.
It is very
windy and grey; the water is very choppy, and the whole area looked very
desolate. It also looked very
cold. Didn’t stop one of the
locals though – we could see a powerboat on the water heading towards us,
apparently coming back from a day of fishing. And out on the beach a couple sitting together on a blanket
on the black stone beach.
Thousands, millions of tiny rounded rocks almost
the size of large grains
of sand, mixed with the humus of thousands of years of tundra vegetation. Here and there,
there are enormous
whale bones bleaching in the air.
As we stared out at the horizon and where we
knew the North Pole to be,
it got colder. And it wasn’t
our imaginations. We were very
glad of the sweatshirts we had packed after all.
trip gave us a lot of “the northernmost” things – a bridge
over nowhere, a birdhouse with no birds we could see, a supermarket like at
home in Ketchikan only with a snowmobile on sale, a Mexican restaurant “north
of the border” and a Japanese Steakhouse, and the only trees on the tundra –
that were complete man-made.
school and town hall were of weathered grey timber and barged in, and the
houses were made of materials scavenged and reused. An amazing place.
was enough time before our return flight for one last
optional activity: and it was something we didn’t think about (otherwise, good
sense might have ruined the moment) The next thing we knew we were standing on
a beach in Barrow in short black shorts, taking off our shoes and socks,
planning to swim in the Arctic Ocean, along with two other people. The water temperature
was 47 degrees.
There was a dozen or so people standing around are looking at us and one them
offered to take our camera and record this moment for posterity. You surrender
to it without thinking and step into the water. Not as cold as we expect, but damn, it’s cold!
took three attempts to achieve full body immersion, but we did
it – we joined the Polar Bear Club.
As we stumbled back to the beach, drenched, shivering,
freezing, we were
greeted ashore by everyone, who is congratulating us.
a quick dry-off, we are driven back to the airport to meet
our flight and return to Fairbanks. Thankful we packed those sweatshirts again.
once in a life-time experience, yet we want to go back and do it
Tips: In summer,
still bring something warm as the evening is cold and so is the water.
This is tundra country and it is wet and muddy.
at least one month in advance – these trips book up quickly.
from a foreign country, always check with your local
quarantine authority about what kind
of souvenirs you are allowed.
about packing shorts or swimmers and taking the plunge to be
a Barrow Polar Bear
a friend – someone has to stand with you in the water
otherwise you’ll chicken out.
need a camera – digital or lots of film. This could be a once in a life-time
trip. And if you do the plunge,
you want proof for all the doubting thomases at home.
per person from Fairbanks ($544-$574 from Anchorage;
overnight option available)
Lunch at Pepe’s: $80
for 2 (average)
Bear Club Swim: $20 per person
person receives a ‘Certificate of Crossing the Arctic
Circle’; those doing the optional Polar Bear Swim receive a certificate and