How far north have you been?
I mean, you live in Alaska, so you’re already farther north than most people will ever be in their lives. Have you been to Haines? How about Anchorage? Fairbanks?
When I said I was going to Barrow, I was surprised to get so many funny looks and head scratches in response.
“Why are you going to Barrow?” most asked.
Arriving in Barrow by plane, you immediately begin to see differences. There is an airfield and a few buildings that look like overturned barrels planted in the dust that make up the airport. When checked baggage was offloaded from carts to the baggage area — no carousel here — there were Costco packages of toilet paper taped together and large plastic totes more than suitcases.
We were booked at the Top of the World Hotel, which has a view of the Arctic Ocean from one side. It’s only two stories high. The elderly man who drove the shuttle the few blocks with our bags was born and raised in Barrow, but was sent to boarding school in Oregon as a teenager. He started attending college, but said he got homesick and moved back to Barrow.
When we arrived in Barrow, it was already evening and, in many places, darkness would have been setting in.
Not in Barrow. The sun hung in the sky like a summer afternoon through the night. A walk along the beach showed the stillest ocean water I had ever seen. Maybe because, a bit farther out, the ice was still mashed together. Closer to shore ice floes sat still, wedged in the sand and rocks below, or moved as slow as clouds.
The still water reflected the sky perfectly and my friend Mirri, who has lived in Barrow for almost a year now, said if you turn your head on its side, you feel like you’re falling because you can’t tell which way’s up or which way’s down.
There was a bonfire on the beach a half-mile from the hotel. The best way to get a feel for a place is to talk to the people who live there, so we crashed the party.
Deep down, we want people who visit to love our hometown, but in Barrow, it was on the surface.
“How do you like Barrow?” everyone asked.
Walking around town, people in their cars would wave, people in their doorways and on porches would call out “welcome” and ask us about visiting Barrow.
They would tell us things, as well. An Inupiak man and woman stood on a porch and welcomed us to their home. Another came out and joined. They told us the ice had just moved back in, and that it was bad for whaling. They would have to wait until the ice retreated again.
Barrow is so isolated at the top of the world. People can come and go by plane or by boat and, in the winter, boats are out of the question. Before planes could fly to Barrow, the people who lived there lived off the land. And there are no trees. The tundra surrounding Barrow blankets the land with colors of every season, grasses and mosses and tiny flowers. For a few months in the summer, the air is thick with insects.
There are flowers called Arctic cottongrass, which I named “polar bear tails” before learning the proper name.
The town of barrow itself is dust on permafrost. Houses built on stilts, some with meltwater puddles underneath, testament to why those stilts are necessary. The houses all look old and worn and typical yard ornaments are barking dogs, sleds and rusting parts. Since it is so difficult to bring anything to Barrow or to remove anything, most parts seem to be waiting around, hoping to be useful again.
I had it in my head that Barrow would be so foreign I would feel like I was in another world; in some ways, it was like another world. But, perhaps because of the timing, the grocer store seemed filled with produce and the prices didn’t seem completely outrageous.
In the winter, Mirri said, it’s different. Sometimes even the AC will be bare.
We were lucky to be in Barrow for unusually warm weather. It snowed in Friday. On Sunday it was around 60 degrees.
When my bag arrived with my swimsuit (after being waylaid in Juneau for a TSA inspection) and the sun warmed the Arctic town such that we were running around bare-armed, any excuses I had entertained for not doing the polar bear dip were moot. I vowed to do the jump that evening, but not before we digested lunch with a driving tour of the areas on the edge of town. The rational part of me doesn’t believe the old wives’ tale about swimming after lunch, but the Arctic Ocean seems an awful place to test one’s luck.
We drove to the end of the road out Point Barrow. You can go farther with a 4-wheeler, but we didn’t have those kinds of connections yet. On one side of the strip of land is the Chukchi sea, the other is the Beaufort. One side was the ice filled, still water I described, the other was free of ice and lapped against the shore with little waves, stranding jellyfish, sometimes in piles, on the beach.
We also went to fresh water, a big meltwater lake, characterized by the swarms of mosquitoes in the air and the litter of bullet shells on the ground.
We also went to the gravel pits, where Mirri pointed out signs of erosion, a phenomenon that is threatening communities all along the coast of Alaska.
Then it was time to take the plunge. It might have been easier to jump straight in off a dock, not allowing oneself the ability to change one’s mind, but there wasn’t a dock in sight. I had to run into the Arctic Ocean to the point of immersing myself and run back out, cold, dripping and tasting salt.
It was thrilling. And it was also lucky the temperature out was around 30 degrees warmer than what the Arctic Ocean boasts. Due to the salt content, the ocean maintains a temperature below the freezing point. Mirri said it is 31 degrees. Brrr.
After drying off and relaxing for a bit, we went to dinner at the northernmost Mexican restaurant, Pepe’s North of the Border, where the elderly owner, dressed in pale pink with a large bow in her hair, had us sign the guest book and gave us certificates for crossing the 71st parallel.
Walking the beach was the best thing to do in Barrow. I think it might be impossible to tire of looking at the Arctic Ocean. And Mirri said, in the winter, when it is ice for as far as the eye can see, one feels the urge to stare and maybe to walk north as far as one can go, but that is a terrible idea. Polar bears, remember? And freezing to death wouldn’t be that great either.
So, for anyone who asked why I was excited to visit Barrow, I hope your questions have been answered. And for anyone who has 15,000 Alaska Airline miles and no certain plans for what to do with them, I recommend bypassing the malls and highways of Anchorage and visiting someplace different. Go as far as that mileage ticket can carry you, both in miles and in experience.
Barrow will be welcoming: the people, if not the weather.
• Contact Neighbors editor Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at email@example.com.