The Other Alaska, by Ted Cookson

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THE OTHER ALASKA
by Ted Cookson
Published in May 2012
View from Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 while taxiing at Barrow Airport, 81-second video clip

Gold sluice box at El Dorado Gold Mine near Fairbanks, 16-second video clip
Gold panning demonstration at El Dorado Gold Mine near Fairbanks, 41-second video clip
Tourists panning for gold at El Dorado Gold Mine near Fairbanks #1, 26-second video clip
Tourists panning for gold at El Dorado Gold Mine near Fairbanks #2, 41-second video clip
Reindeer in an enclosure near Fairbanks #1, 29-second video clip
Reindeer in an enclosure near Fairbanks #2, 33-second video clip

View of Denali National Park from near milepost 15, the end of the paved road in the park, 55-second video clip
Sled dog in Denali National Park #1, 31-second video clip
Sled dog in Denali National Park #2, 25-second video clip
Dog team pulling a sled during a demonstration at Denali National Park, 56-second video clip
Alaska Railroad dome cars pulling into the station at Denali National Park, 31-second video clip
View from dome car on Alaska Railroad at Hurricane Creek, between Denali National Park and Anchorage, Alaska, 61-second video clip

View of Dutch Harbor (Unalaska) in the Aleutian Islands #1, 36-second video clip
View of Dutch Harbor (Unalaska) in the Aleutian Islands #2, 51-second video clip
 

At 9:10 AM on September 11, 2010 I awoke from a nap, wiped the sleep from my eyes, and glanced out the window from seat 25A.  The sun was still low in the sky as I stared westward over a wasteland of pale brown treeless tundra spotted with thousands of small, dark blue lakes stretching to the horizon. 

A few minutes later the Alaska Airlines 737 began its descent into Deadhorse Airport.  Odd-sounding Deadhorse, thought to be named after a 1940s trucking company, is the services center for the industrial complex at Prudhoe Bay on the shore of the Beaufort Sea.  This is the terminus of the 1,300 km (800 mile)-long Trans-Alaska Pipeline through which crude is transported all the way down to Valdez on Prince William Sound in the Gulf of Alaska.  Prudhoe Bay is also the terminus of the Dalton Highway, one of the most isolated roads in the United States, extending 711 km (441 miles) northward from Fairbanks in central Alaska.  After a number of jeans-wearing workers boarded and disembarked from our aircraft, we took off again, passing directly above Prudhoe Bay’s extensive oil field facilities.  I could see the Trans-Alaska Pipeline snaking southward as we made our way out over the vast Arctic Ocean en route to Barrow, the northernmost settlement in North America.

 

As we ascended, a thick cloud cover soon obscured the jagged Arctic Ocean coastline; and I recalled how it was that I came to be on this flight to the top of the world.  Eleven months earlier, when booking my frequent flier air ticket in connection with a cruise from the port of Seward, near Anchorage, to Bangkok, I discovered that for a redemption of only 12,500 Alaska Airlines frequent flier miles I could obtain a free air ticket for a one-way flight from Miami to Anchorage or to any other city in Alaska.  Since I couldn’t resist an opportunity to travel north of the Arctic Circle for free, I had chosen to reserve my air ticket all the way from Miami to Barrow via Seattle, Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Prudhoe Bay.  Although I had cruised previously to the Alaska panhandle and had flown into Fairbanks and Anchorage, this would be my first visit to what I call “the Other Alaska,” the many parts of the huge state which most tourists never see.

After a half-hour hop, our final approach into Barrow was dramatic.  Descending out of the dense clouds, the jet flew low over the choppy Chukchi Sea and then skidded down a recently-resurfaced blacktop strip set at an angle to the coastline.  As the plane taxied over to the Quonset hut terminal building, I noticed that the town was built right up to the airport’s Cyclone perimeter fence.  Lying above the 71st parallel and with a population of 4,500, the commercial, transportation and administrative center of Barrow is the seat of Alaska’s North Slope Borough, a county larger than the state of Nebraska.  

Situated 516 km (320 miles) north of the Arctic Circle and with no road connection to the rest of Alaska, the residents of Barrow must cope not only with their extreme isolation but also with polar bears which wander by and are hunted in the spring.  The region experiences Alaska’s lowest average temperatures, and there are continuous freezing conditions from October through May.  In February, the coldest month, Barrow’s average low is -11 C./-24 F.  Blowing snow also causes white outs fairly often throughout the winter. 

Traditionally known as Utqiagvik, “the place where snowy owl are hunted,” Barrow’s houses and other buildings are constructed on pilings set down into the permafrost.  The community faces a wind-whipped Arctic Ocean on three sides while flat, lake-dotted tundra extends for 322 km (200 miles) to the south.  The ancestors of the present Inupiat inhabitants settled on this site because of the bowhead whale migration which passes by nearby Point Barrow, the northernmost point in the United States.  Many generations later, during the 1940s and 1950s, construction of Distant Early Warning radar sites and the Naval Arctic Research Lab as well as oil exploration in the National Petroleum Reserve brought new people into the area, changing the face of Barrow and its economy. 
 

The harvesting of whales has long been important to the Inupiat tribe, both economically and culturally.  Although the practice continues, today it is undertaken on a very limited scale, with only a single, token whale taken each year.  With whaling now done from motorboats, hunters are able to return home to Barrow each night to sleep.  Once caught, the whale is towed back to Barrow, butchered and shared out on the beach at the edge of town. 

Due to its location at the confluence of the Chukchi Sea to the west and the Beaufort Sea to the east, Barrow’s whaling is different from whaling at any other North Slope community.  Bowheads, which range from 75 to 100 tons and are second in weight only to the blue whale, swim close to shore at Barrow twice each year rather than just once, thus allowing hunting both in spring and in autumn.  

Barrow boasts several highlights for its few visitors.  Perhaps the most interesting attraction is the modern Inupiat Heritage Center in the town’s Browerville district.  There I enjoyed viewing the museum exhibits of local dress, utensils and tools.  The parka on display looked very warm and cozy; and I noted ivory, wood and bone intestine scrapers that were used for cleaning culled bearded seals.  Other exhibits included a harpoon gun and stone cutters used for whale hunting and rendering.  On my walk back to the airport I paused for a photo under the makeshift whale rib arch monument constructed on Browerville’s sandy beach.

The bronze and red granite Will Rogers and Wiley Post monument situated near the airport terminal memorializes the 1935 plane crash 24 km (15 miles) south of town which took the lives of the well-known American humorist and his pilot.  Not far away from the monument is a touristy directional signpost advising that the North Pole is only 2,016 km (1,250 miles) away whereas Seattle and London are 3,161 km (1,960 miles) and 6,635 km (4,114 miles) distant, respectively.  On the other hand, the South Pole represented a major trek at 18,368 km (11,388 miles). 


My day in Barrow was long and chilly but also fascinating.  As I closed my eyes to nap again after boarding my 8:12 PM Alaska Airlines flight down to Fairbanks, I thought to myself how fortunate I was to have been able to gain some insight into the history and culture of North America’s northernmost settlement.      


 

ABOUT TED COOKSON:  Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world!  He has also visited 316 of the 321 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club).  A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi.  Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open Saturday through Thursday 9 AM-5 PM) at:  Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301.  Fax 2359-1199.  E-mail:  ept@link.net.  Web site:  www.eptours.com
 

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