He smiled at me manically as he held the open container of brimed whale meat in front of me and asked, “Did you want to try some?”. I winced and began to turn away while slowly moving myself in the direction of my room before the urge to try new things made me turn around, grab the mason jar, and quickly digest some of it’s contents before fully thinking about what I was doing.
His smile turned to amazement as he torted, “Most tourists would say no”.So, your thinking either ugh, I would not have tried whale meat or how could I put myself in a situation where the item in question was offered? Well, before I tell you, please note some of the images in this post will be a bit graphic.I had spendt the good part of a month exploring Alaska, starting from Anchorage and moving north until I reached the very top, which is Barrow, the furtherest point north in North America. No roads exist due to permafrost making it both impossible and foolhardy to even try to drive here. Most flights carry oil company employees,who are dropped off on an icy field. The plane is de-iced and continues North, and a few Natives who want to reach their family or return to their community come here on a regular basis. The others are a mix of temporary labor looking for odd jobs that promised big pay for brief stints and a single tourist.
What brought me here was a movie, 30 Days of Night, a vampire flick about an infestation that took over a fictional version of Barrow during a period of sunlessness. Please note the only thing that held true from the movie is the long period of no sun. Having experienced that before, I did not want to do it again on this trip. I wanted to see Barrow in the sun, even though there was only a few hours of it. Can you imagine being in perpetual winter?
With only small tin homes with snow on their roofs, the town is nothing but a few cobbled together metal shacks forming more of a community than a town. It’s fair to mention that it snows every evening, sometimes a few flurries and sometimes more. It is always cold, but the wind that comes at night feels like quick bites across your skin. The area is mostly inhabited by the Iñupiaq, the native people who settled the land about 4,000 years ago and who keep ancient traditions alive such as hunting whale in the tribal areas where I could not enter.
The tradition is highly controversially and is done keeping with tradition and considered a benefit to the community. A side note, all tourists and expats are considered part of the community and offered anything caught and killed.Every hunting party waits patiently in a small canoe carrying about four or five individuals. After a successful kill, the harpooner gets dibs, and the crew divvies up the rest with the remainder going to the community.While warming up in my hotel, the alert went over the C-B radio that their was another catch. It had been two days since the last one. Whenever a whale is caught it is announced over the radio so the whole town can get ready and meet at the designated place to claim their piece of the catch.
I found a taxi as I fool heartedly tried to walk to the sharing grounds. There was no need to tell the driver where I was going as many people where already going in the same direction. We chatted a bit while we went out there. The gray, black, and slightly purple sky was both hypnotic and memorizing. The barrier between the road and the Arctic where I could hear the water splash against the earth was the only sign a life I could detect until I saw what appeared to be multiple headlights forming a circle in the distance.Blood soaked the snow underneath me. Families were working together to push huge chunks of whale onto their trucks. Curved hooks were used by people too small or not strong enough to carry a bigger piece. I watched vehicles being filled with whatever they could haul away. Penguins, birds, and other creatures were coming in to grab whatever they could. It was quick, methodically. Everyone was happy, excited, rejoice fully, and I was standing in the middle of it all taking pictures and running around and the red snow. I stood next to the biggest piece of the body of the whale and just stared at it. I could have walked inside of it, but instead I stood there morbidly fascinated. By the time I was snapped back to reality, each piece on the ground was gone. The rest is left to nature and eventually consumed. No waste. Even bones get used for art, weapons, or anything else the community can think of.Most days, I could not tell if the sun had risen. It was lighter outside but not by much. I took this time to explore, albeit quickly, because the impending snow that which came with sunset as well as the temperature drop that was both rapid and a shock to those not used to it.Finding fresh food is a task. Due to the environment, nothing grows there. Everything is imported, thus adding to the exorbitant cost for everything. Pizza is imported by air delivery, which is exactly how I’ve described it. A plane flies by and drops pizzas to be picked up at a location. Supermarkets have a layer of dust on everything. Hot foods do not stay that way for very long and everything has the taste of being re-heated or was fresh long ago which robbed the eater of the lusciousness and the nutrients of the meal.Ponds freeze over instantly, often leaving me walking on water and not noticing until I heard the crack of the ice. During one such occasion, the sheriff walked out of his home and saw me hesitate as I tried to navigate across a pond. He yelled for me to continue, but in my panic, I navigated my way into the vicinity of a growling dog.It felt like the world had ended and I was one of the few survivors. Luckily that was not really the case, so I was able to enjoy myself in the snowy wonderland.
I wanted to dip my toes in the Arctic!Yet, I opted not to. My fear was that I would get frost bite, so instead I watched the wildlife of seals and various birds carrying out their routines.
Nature is the main attraction here: the ruggedness of the terrain, the climate, adaptation. For me, I felt like I was on the frontier, braving a land that very few would ever get to know. When possible I got to know people in the expanded community: Philippians, Thais, Russians, and North Americans. They all missed their homes. Each of them expressed that the money that brought them there did not compare to what they lost. They missed the sun, it’s warmth, and most importantly fresh food.This is the imaginative adventurous playground. A social study in living in a cut off community. You quickly get to know everyone even if it’s a cursory introduction.
The only landmark is an arch formed originally from the rib cage of a whale and was dutifully re-created to stay up indefinitely once it deteriorated.Slowly, I walked past a rec center, the only option for entertainment as it is a dry community. Back in my room, I had a view of the airport, which looks like one of the other homes, except it has a huge field cut off from the main road by a gate.In the end, I was also lamenting over the warmth of the sun and anxiously crossed the street, on my last morning, to board my flight when it was time to leave. As I waited in the cramped room, I smiled to myself thinking...
"I made it to Barrow - the top of the world!"