Our trip had already begun in the flight to Barrow when my husband sat next to a friendly lady - an Inupiaq Eskimo who shared with him, many stories and interesting traditions of the Inupiaq Eskimos. Inupiaq means a real person and utqiagvik means a place for gathering potatoes or wild roots, which is the Barrow's new official name since December 2016.
The flight and the airport were the smallest that I had seen. Barrow, which is the northern-most city of USA, has a population of mere 4000+. One would expect to see snow and igloos in the land of Eskimos. It was snowing but not a hint of snow on the ground, even in September or any Igloos whatsoever. Igloos were mostly made in olden days to provide temporary shelter from the elements, during hunting. Nevertheless, it was windy, chilly and very cloudy, Barrow being the cloudiest of places on Earth. I was cold in the heaviest of my jackets.
Barrow looks like a temporary settlement, even though it has been home to Inupiat since 4000 years! The roads and highways are muddy in summers and snowy in winters. Most residents own ATV instead of cars! Bones and carcasses of whales and other animals are a common sight.
We found out from locals, the various things we could do in Barrow - visit Inupiat Heritage Center, check out handmade whale products, see Point Barrow, the Bering Sea, and the Arctic Ocean. Taking a tour of the town with a local in 4x4 was the best way to check out all these places and hear about their stories.
Inupiaq Eskimos are very friendly and have a relaxed demeanor. They have a great sense of humor. Our guide joked, these wooden poles (read trees) make the only national park of Barrow! They are also progressive - not too long ago in 2006, they started playing the American football and formed a high school football team called 'The Barrow Whalers' to increase the students' involvement in school. This is the only team based in the north of the Arctic Circle! Their field is right next to the Arctic Ocean!
Heritage Center was a great place to start our tour. It introduced us to the culture of the Inupiaq Eskimos who have been thriving for thousands of years in the harshest of places on Earth. I was dumbfounded to learn about their ways of living, their creativity, and resourcefulness. The great thing about Eskimos is they still live by their traditions and have a deep reverence for nature.
Nowadays, Eskimos rely on fresh produce brought from the rest of the US, as nothing grows in Barrow, and on meat from their hunts, especially during the winters when Barrow is not accessible by boats and flights are not reliable. Whaling is central to their lives. They also hunt other sea animals like seals, walrus, etc. Hunting is a community activity and is done using the boats made of wood and seal skin for waterproofing. A hunt is a cause for celebration - several tons of meat from the hunt is cut for the entire community - it is shared within the community after the hunt and on various occasions like Spring Whaling festival called Nalukataq, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The excess meat is stored in ice cellars dug in the permanently frozen underground to provide food year long, especially winters. No part of the hunt is wasted. The parts that are not used for food are used to create various articles, for example, whale liver membrane is used to make drums, and whale baleen is used to create baskets.
Many of the whale species are endangered, so commercial whaling is banned. Eskimos of Barrow are allowed to hunt 22 bowhead whales this year. Whale meat is not allowed to be sold in restaurants for conservation reasons. If you are looking to try out whale meat, befriend an Eskimo! As for me, I am a vegetarian.
After hunting, Eskimos leave carcasses at Point Barrow for polar bears. We were told that a polar bear had been roaming in the area the night before. The whole day that I was in Barrow, I was very much hoping to catch a glimpse of the furry beast. Point Barrow is the northernmost point of the USA, only 1291 miles away from the North Pole. It also marks the meeting of the two marginal seas of the Arctic - the Chukchi Sea on its west and the Beaufort Sea on its east. The Arctic Ocean is the smallest and shallowest of all the oceans in the world. Its water is ice cold. The Bering Sea is a marginal sea of the Pacific Ocean.
And that summed up my day in Barrow! On that very day, I had been able to check off two things from my Barrow bucket list - meeting an Eskimo and touching the waters of the Arctic Ocean! Two things remain - seeing a free Polar Bear and an Igloo. Barrow had been a unique experience! Meeting and learning about the people who live in the harshest of climates and yet have a great sense of humor, and whose lives are beyond imagination, has been an unparalleled experience. It's time to wrap up my experiences! See you again!