July 3 - July 4
We left Seward early on July 2 and headed back up to Anchorage where we would board an Alaska Airlines jet for Barrow above the Arctic Circle the next morning. To practice for our overnight stay at the Top Of The World Hotel in Barrow, we checked-in to the Holiday Inn Express in Anchorage.
Our plane took off at 6:30 AM and we made a stop at Fairbanks in our 737 "Combi" which had a cargo section in the front and passengers in the rear. The flat, treeless tundra below signaled our approach to Barrow which is the northernmost community in the United States.
We were greeted by Joe, our bus driver and Barrow expert. Joe took all 36 of us who had signed up for the tour to the visitor center. Joe is a native Inupiat Eskimo from Barrow, a whaling crew captain, a great basketball player, and font of knowledge on this far reaching part of the world.
We were able to stop along the route and get out to see the ice pack which was only a few yards from shore in some places and nearly 50 yards from shore in others. We saw the remans of sod houses which were built and lived in hundreds of years ago. The graveyard, satellite dish farm (for the 65 channels of TV), modern high school, and downtown Barrow were on the morning trip. We lunched at Pepe's Mexican Restaurant owned and operated by Fran Tate who had "bumped" Jerry Seinfeld when she had an extended slot on the Johnny Carson Show.
After lunch, we went to the Native Heritage Center where we viewed exhibits and photographs on the "People of the Whale." We learned that the whaling culture has been a part of Barrow for centuries. Joe told us all about the practice of whaling. He explained how a young native moves through the ranks from camp builder to rower to harpooner to captain. He also explained how the whale is shared among the people and the celebrations they have throughout the year, centered around whale feasts. It was very clear that the current population still continues to respect and practice the "old ways." Part of this practice is to teach the young the songs and dances which tell stories of life in this community. We witnessed a series of very emotionally moving dances where the hand motion as well as the body movement together with the Inupiat songs and drumming welcomed us and showed us ritualistic enactments of life in their community. We also got to join in to the Fun Dance.
The best part of the program came at the end when all of us were invited to participate in a blanket toss. Anne jumped at this opportunity and grabbed on to a part of the strong rope handle that surrounded the circumference of a thick leather blanket that was over 15 feet across. Over 25 people held it as one of the dancers jumped up on the blanket and with Joe's expert coaching the blanket was lowered a bit and pulled tight in a rhythmic motion that then sent the young girl up to the ceiling. While a fun thing to do, the blanket toss played an important part of whale hunting in the past. The idea was to get the person up high enough (sometimes 50 feet) to look for the whales in the open water (there are no trees to climb on the tundra).
We got back in the bus and headed to the end of the road. While the tundra went on toward the east, the road just ended and we were able to see more closely the ice pack. This was not just a flat sheet of frozen expanse, but a virtual miniature mountain range caused by the pressure of the moving ice.
As the afternoon approached the dinner hour, the sun still shone high in the northwest. A few brave souls from the group of tourists took off their shoes and waded into the icy cold Arctic Ocean. None did the full immersion ritual that would have given them a certificate as a Polar Bear Club Member. Anne and Tom found a Japanese restaurant for dinner and then retired to their room in the hotel to see the never setting sun travel across the sky, dip slightly above the horizon and then begin to rise again for another endless day.