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A Day at the Top of the World

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A Day At the Top of the World (‘Paglagivsigin Utqiagmun’)

Susan Batho & Bill Hupe

 

Alaska is the largest of the states, comprising a full twenty percent of the US land mass.  There 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.

The flight 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.

Our 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.

We 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.

At 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.

The 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.

After 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.

Many 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 Australia. 

We 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.

The 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.  The 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.

There 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!

It 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.

After 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.

A once in a life-time experience, yet we want to go back and do it again.


Tips:  In summer, still bring something warm as the evening is cold and so is the water.

Wear sensible shoes.  This is tundra country and it is wet and muddy.

Book at least one month in advance – these trips book up quickly.

If from a foreign country, always check with your local quarantine authority about what kind of souvenirs you are allowed.

Think about packing shorts or swimmers and taking the plunge to be a Barrow Polar Bear

Bring a friend – someone has to stand with you in the water otherwise you’ll chicken out.

You 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.

 

Fees:

$374-$404 per person from Fairbanks ($544-$574 from Anchorage; overnight option available)

Tundra Tours: (http://www.alaskaone.com/topworld/) 907-852-3900

Lunch at Pepe’s: $80 for 2 (average)

Polar Bear Club Swim: $20 per person

Each person receives a ‘Certificate of Crossing the Arctic Circle’; those doing the optional Polar Bear Swim receive a certificate and patch.

polarbearclub.jpg
Susan & Bill Join the Polar Bear Club

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