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A Walk On The Arctic Ocean by David Waters

We decided not to follow the crowds onto those massive flotels on the Alaska Cruise and instead chose to do a fly drive. Picking up a hire car in Anchorage we spent the first week driving through to Fairbanks via Valdez.

We spent mid-summer day in Fairbanks enjoying the local festival, the afternoon temperature in excess of 90oF and of course enjoying several Alaskan Brewery beers in the B&B garden in the mid night sun. Next day we had booked an early morning flight to Barrow, the northern most point of the mainland American continent, so off to the Arctic we go.

We sat in Fairbanks Airport waiting and were fascinated by the B737-200 Combi which was our flight. Imagine looking at the side of the plane and from the centre line of the top of the plane the whole of the side from cockpit to the wing hinges up for the cargo to be loaded. The passengers, about 70 sit behind the cargo hold.

The flight to Barrow was uneventful, flying across the empty Tundra and the Arctic Circle for which you receive a certificate!! On the descent to the airport, the plane was within touching distance of the ground when all hell broke loose with the engines suddenly going to full throttle and the whole craft shaking as it tried to rise again. We slowly gained height and levelled out and the pilot announces “sorry folks just about to touch down and a fog bank appeared so we could not see”!!! Talking to the cabin crew it is a common occurrence in these parts but today the weather people had given no indication of this. So it was a circle around and landed at second attempt.

Outside the terminal we found it raining and the temperature at 40oF, fortunately we had dressed for the occasion but on the awaiting bus there were old parkas available for all. Oh, the bus!! It was ancient yellow school bus just like you see on American TV.

Barrow has a population of about 5,000 Inupiat reliant on the sea for its subsistence. 30 years ago it was also the centre of the oil exploration industry around the North Alaskan coast. We saw the pipeline in several places during our first week that goes from north coast to Valdez where oil is loaded on to tankers. It is an awesome construction.

We were shown around the town on our bus, first place of interest was a house where we were shown the freezer! Remember the earth is frozen for 12 months a year so a cellar is dug with some difficulty and that is it, a freezer for storing all the whale and seal meat that will last the year.

Ok, I can hear the comments and we feel the same, in fact we have always been active anti whaling protesters. However, out here in the wilderness the native people’s still hunt on a subsistence basis and are excluded from international whaling bans.

The rain was now stopped as we went out of town for a walk on the Tundra. Remember this is mid summer and you could barely make an indent in the earth. Then as you looked around you saw a carpet of tiny flowers. This really is stuff from your school books or an Attenborough documentary.

By now it was lunch time and I think it was burgers of various flavours, none of the above meat of course. This was in a Mexican restaurant which had opened in the boom time for the oil workers. Then time for a walk around on our own. Despite the apparent primitive conditions there was the inevitable satellite dish on every house and all other modern amenities to keep you amused through the dark of winter with no outside contact.

Back on the school bus and for one of those awesome moments, walking on the Arctic Ocean. Even now it was still possible to walk straight off the beach and out to sea. Again this is something that you really cannot imagine doing, certainly in my school days when geography was my pet subject. Some days there is the offer of joining the Polar Bear Club, getting the clothes off and jumping in the sea. I know Christine wanted to do it, having done the North Sea Dip on a New Years Day, and it was snowing!

Next stop was the local cultural centre where we were entertained by the local children and native folk group. Because of the harsh climate every activity must have a purpose and one that really proved this was the blanket toss. We thought it was just a ceremony of sorts where people stood on a blanket and were tossed around for fun. No way, when out hunting on the flat snow covered land it is almost impossible to see the prey. The answer is to have one man stand on the blanket, the others a corner each and the spotter is thrown in the air. You got it, the spotter on each toss looks to the distance and gradually goes around the compass points.

We had the chance to have a look around the local supermarket where you could buy skidoos, rifles, etc plus some food. As you would expect the prices were astronomical although the US government does offer subsidies.

A short distance on is the American Military listening post. This is one of the few left after the end of the Cold War but still manned. Up here there are no trees of course so no totem poles which seem to be derigeur on all television programmes, so at some point a group of military in their spare time brought up a log and carved their own. A very interesting feature is placed on the top, the significance of which we do not know. It is a toilet!

At this point we get to chat with the two young men who had been our guides for the day, both hunters when not tour guides! They showed us the boats they go out in, I would not go on a boating lake in one! About 12 feet long made of seal skin. They catch Bow Head whales up to 40 feet and weighing 40 tons. One guide was the youngest member of the village that had killed a whale. I did ask about our Western perceptions of cruelty, well you have to when the chance arises. They use explosive charges on the harpoons, so what happens if the first shot does not kill the whale? He replied the intention is to kill with the first shot otherwise it would entail a tremendous chase and a waste to get in the second. The men will go away from home for several days sleeping on the ice but remember the hunting season is in summer and 24 hours daylight so there is little time wasted sleeping.

Have you ever visited Whitby in North Yorkshire, about 20 miles from where we used to live? If not, on the West Cliff is a whalebone arch which is the jaw bone of a bow head whale originally erected in about 1850. This was to commemorate Whitby’s tradition of whaling which go back to about 1750 when the sailors of the town headed off in the direction of Greenland. Whitby is twinned with Anchorage through the links of whaling and Captain James Cook who sailed from Whitby and mapped part of the Alaskan coast. The original arch started to corrode so in 2003 another jaw bone was presented and erected. You will have guessed my point, it came from Barrow. We did ask the young guide and he told us it was not his kill but he was involved in the dressing of the bones.

Although we hate the whole aspect of whale hunting and murdering what is a beautiful intelligent creature, these people are hunting in the same way they have for many years and they only kill what they need to eat. When you see the boats they use and the conditions they go out in you can only have a massive respect for these brave men.

What did we learn from our visit to Barrow, Alaska? It is cold, even in June. People in the 21st century are still surviving in an environment that most of us can only imagine as alien. If you get the opportunity to visit – DO IT there may not be many opportunities left of seeing traditional life here and hearing first hand about subsistence living!!!!!!!!

PS – When we were at Barrow Airport for our return to Fairbanks we were chatting to a Barrow couple who had won a nationwide MTV competition to go to the Premiere of Spiderman 3 in Los Angeles. We were not quite so lucky but we did see the first showing on premiere day when in Juneau later. A coincidence we saw Spiderman 1 when in Disney World, Orlando on its release. It is Christine that is the Action Comics buff I just have to follow.

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