There was a polar bear heading towards us but we were too fixated on the night sky to notice.
Above shown the Aurora Borealis: multiple iridescent bands rippling like fabric, pouring from the absolute black of the arctic sky. Magda and I stood on a tall ice berm, the tripod firmly planted in the snow, camera shutter clacking rhythmically like a lethargic metronome. Behind the undulating sheets of ethereal light sparkled a million stars, undaunted by a fierce northwesterly wind that cut through our layers like flights of needles. Below us on the road a truck engine murmured softly.
Another truck pulled up and I watched as a uniformed policeman, an Iñupiat like Pete, pointed south of our position. Pete whipped his head around to look, then rolled down his window.
“Polar Bear!” He yelled.
I grabbed Magda’s arm and she grabbed the tripod. We scrambled over chunks of ice to get back into the truck. The policeman was explaining that a polar bear sow and two cubs were heading our way – a fact he knew because he’d just driven them in our direction, away from the city limits of Barrow.
We arrived at midday after sitting on the tarmac for an hour in Deadhorse. The plane was having electrical issues and while we sat, blowing snow built up on the wings, further threatening our progress. So while we were relieved to finally be in Barrow we also felt disoriented. It was midday but the sun seemed already to have set. Or perhaps not risen yet, we couldn’t tell. A permanent twilight left the city undefined and shadowless. In the arctic it was long past the point when the sun simply doesn’t rise, but twenty-four hour darkness was still a few weeks away. We checked in at the King Eider Inn and dragged our bags to the only room that had been available when we booked some days before, it seemed to be the presidential suite and was bigger than our apartment in Brooklyn. Such was the difficulty of finding hotel rooms in Barrow that it was only ours for one night before we had to move our bags around the corner to the Airport Inn.
Barrow seems like a semi-permanent settlement. Built largely with plywood and cinderblock or the repurposed shells of shipping containers, most structures seem rough and slightly unfinished. Foundations are futile in the shifting permafrost so the houses hover on studs. Despite its appearance Barrow is one of the oldest permanent communities in the Americas. The houses of the first people remain, earthen mounds like the settler’s homes we saw in Oklahoma buried deep in snow. The Iñupiat Eskimos settled Barrow a thousand years ago and called it Utqiaġvik, the place where we hunt snowy owls. The Iñupiat are still there. The snowy owls nest downtown.
White whalers settled alongside the Iñupiat in the 1800’s, mostly British. Many stayed and the prominent families in town still carry their names. The predictable results of European interference occurred, disease took much of the indigenous population, the previously unknown blight of alcoholism was introduced. But unlike other post-contact indigenous communities a hybrid society seems to have formed. The British whalers shared technologies which the Iñupiat incorporated into their hunting technique. The Iñupiat preserved their language and customs, fused with the new rituals of the Protestant church.
It wasn’t as cold as we’d expected, the temperature hovered around 20° on our first day, warm for Barrow in winter. With the wind though we needed all our layers and our loud yellow jackets from Antarctica. Since we had no transport we walked, stumbling through snow banks and slipping on packed ice. Eventually we realized everyone else was taking taxis, so to get from one side of town to the other we’d hail a cab – an incredibly familiar process in the least likely of places. The taxi drivers were almost uniformly from the Philippines and many of them remembered us, stopping later to say hello and chat – and to warn us about polar bears. Apparently a twelve foot giant had wondered into town the day before and paid a visit to the gas station. Polar bears in the streets were just about as common as winter tourists stumbling around without a ride. Most people felt the two wouldn’t mix well.
It may have been our yellow parkas but locals began to notice us walking around. A woman who introduced herself as Diane, or ‘Lady Di’, offered us a ride to find postcards after she overheard us asking fruitlessly for them at the post office. We’d gotten rides with far more suspicious personalities and didn’t hesitate to jump into her truck. On the way she gave us a quick tour of the town, including the old Iñupiat village, the house where a man builds an igloo next to a giant snowman every year and the restaurant she considered the best in town. When she dropped us off she invited us to her church, mentioning the services were in English and Iñupiat. I admit we aren’t generally the church-going types, but the idea of an Iñupiat service intrigued us.
Barrow is a rough place for tourists, especially in winter. Renting a car is expensive and an unguided drive more likely than not would end in a ditch. We saw the result of one failed rental at the bottom of a hill, half consumed by a snowdrift, looking very much like an ice flow was dragging the truck out to sea. Gas is expensive. At seven dollars a gallon we could not fathom how anyone could afford to keep their engines running at the grocery store or to drive snowmobiles around town looking for snowbanks to jump. Tours were expensive as well, $100 for a couple hours of driving a little ways out of town. After two days of walking around we became desperate to get outside the city limits and into the vast arctic expanse that was both surrounding us and locking us in. We called a recommended tour guide who told us he would like to take us, but was playing Santa Claus that day at the grocery store. The other guide simply didn’t pick up the phone. Sunday morning, cooped up in our hotel room and starting to feel claustrophobic, we decided to follow Lady Di’s advice and go to church.
The old Presbyterian church was half empty, most of the parishioners had temporarily left Barrow after receiving their dividend checks from the Utqiaġvik Iñupiat Corporation, the native cooperative that negotiates with the oil industry for drilling rights. The rest of the people in the pews were a mix of transplants and natives. One family came in dressed entirely in traditional parkas, great fur lined hoods ensconcing their faces. As the service progressed it appeared that there weren’t enough ushers to pass the collection plates, so as seems to happen during our rare appearances in church, I was called upon to help out. Along with three native people, I helped pass around containers covered in seal fur. Diane was amongst the flock and gave me a big wink and a smile as I sheepishly collected alms.
After the service she introduced us to the minister and invited us to her hospital’s holiday dinner.
“It’s only for family,” she said, “So tell them you’re my family if they ask. I’ve adopted you.”
Diane left us to go back to work at the hospital and we started shuffling though the snow towards our hotel. Before we’d left the church’s corner a friendly looking man about my age walked past and said hi. Then he paused before he got in his big truck.
“You guys seen the town yet?”
“Yeah,” we responded, “pretty much all of it. Not the college or the point though.” I admit we were fishing a little.
Pete stopped and smiled, “Well come on, I’ll take you up there.”
Before we knew it, Pete Hopson had broken us free from our pedestrian path. We roared up to the college just as the brightest light of the dusky day broke through a steadily gathering cloud cover.
Pete is from a prominent local family, descendants of both natives and a whaler from Liverpool. His grandfather was Eben Hopson, who we’d seen pictures of in the Heritage center. Hopson was a pioneering Iñupiat politician: a member of the first Alaskan senate and the first Iñupiat representative in congress. Pete and I sat and chatted in his truck while Magda braved the bitter cold to photograph the Ilisagvik college outside of town. Pete proved to be incredibly conscientious and while we talked he moved the truck so she remained in our line of sight and was slightly shielded from the wind. I told him with a laugh we were a little worried about shooting in Barrow because of all the rumors of polar bears. I wondered out loud about the chances of running into one.
“Good.” Was his answer, “but you guys also have a decent bashing stick.” He nodded towards our tripod.
I told him I did not ever want to be in the position where I’d have to bash a polar bear with a tripod. Pete laughed.
“Don’t worry, polar bears are easy to see coming. They look like yellow lumps of snow.”
I looked around at the hundreds of boulders of ice breaking the flat horizon. The surroundings were a blue monochrome in the dim winter light. I was not convinced I’d notice a polar bear until it was in a position to eat my face.
Still reassuring, Pete suggested avoiding bears was easy. “Just drop your jacket or something, they’ll stop to smell it and you can run away.”
I pictured a bear having memorized my scent, following us to the hotel and sneaking in past the snoozing concierge.
Our conversation continue along these lines until Magda returned half frozen to the truck. Undaunted she asked if we could go shoot some more. Without hesitation Pete agreed. We asked him to let us know if there was somewhere he needed to be, but he insisted there wasn’t. I admit that it must have been entertaining to watch us bumbling off through knee deep snow. Occasionally one of us would fall over while the other rushed to help, two yellow balls rolling around, flailing in a sea of white. We shot the unique hunting cabins of the Iñupiat in a little village north of Barrow, mindful that recently our friend Eirik Johnson had done an extensive project on exactly this subject. Since a few of Magda’s shots might end up on the New Yorker’s photo blog, we didn’t want to tread on his recently published work. These little cabins were right in Magda’s wheelhouse though, so she tried to shoot them from a unique angle. All the while we scanned the horizon for bears.
We offered to take Pete to lunch in return for his generosity, and asked which of the half dozen restaurants in town was his favorite. He thought for a moment and listed the options: Arctic Pizza or two different Korean-Japanese-American inspired places. We told him, whatever you’d prefer. He was silent for a minute and then asked us if we wanted Eskimo food at his house.
Ten minutes later we were sitting in the Hopson’s dining room. Pete was cutting up pieces of whale meat with a traditional walrus ivory handled ulu knife while his parents sat in the other room watching the Seahawks game. The whale meat came from their freezer, and before that from another whaling crew that was obliged by tradition to share their catch amongst the families of Barrow. We had both raw and cooked muktuk – which is the skin and the fat from the whale – and whale meat which tasted of both beef and fish. It was all from the same bowhead whale. Pete served it up on paper plates, along with a bottle of seal fat called uksruk. It was harvested locally, a tradition of subsistence hunting that has never disappeared in the extreme north. I started to realize why every item of food in the grocery store was so expensive, they were all exotic imports probably intended for the oilmen and transplants from the lower 48.
Pete wasn’t sure we’d like the food, and neither were we, but we assured him we were adventurous eaters. He recommended lots of salt. I wrestled a little with my conscience, the pseudo-environmentalist in me objecting to the consuming of whale, which we are taught must be saved. At the same time I realized that over the last year of travel I’ve become a proponent of the modern indigenous lifestyle, a preservation of indigenous culture that can coexist and even rise above the constant drive towards western homogeneity. The Iñupiat have never lost the whaling tradition, it is still a primary source of food and a basic link to a heritage stretching back to the Paleolithic era. Without getting too lost in an internal argument (it’s a cultural tradition in Japanese and Scandinavian culture too!) I sat back and enjoyed the meal.
Our verdict was that we really liked it.
Pete warned us that we may not be so happy later on, but I was confident that our stomachs have had no choice but to give up on being choosy, which it turned out to be true.
We watched the end of the Seahawks game together, the second loss of the season. This must have been the most distant community of Seahawks fans. 1981 miles from Seattle, high above the arctic circle, Iñupiat Eskimos are rooting for the home team. I felt the sort of bond with the community that only professional sports could provide. Barrow also loves the Mariners.
When the game was over we said goodbye to Pete and his family and prepared to walk back to the hotel. We promised to keep in touch and reminded him that he had a place to stay should he ever make it to Brooklyn. He lit a cigarette in the garage and waved goodbye as we set out down the icy road. We were scheduled to leave the next morning and it was possible at that point that we’d never see him again.
But that was before the blizzard hit.
Snow was falling hard when we arrived by taxi to the one hospital in town, a lovely new construction that inspired the confidence it was designed for. Total darkness had fallen hours before (it was about 5:30) and the party seemed to be in full swing. Long banquette tables full of food and celebrating members of the community filled the room. We recognized half a dozen faces that had greeted us around town. Diane popped out of her chair when she saw us and we all embraced, she said she thought we’d forgotten her, and then insisted we gather together big plates of food from the buffet. As we did she introduced us to everyone, recounting our trip and the story of how we’d met. She included our recent encounter with Pete Hopson and scolded,
“These guys will get in a car with anybody!”
We met a dozen people in a whirlwind of introductions: Diane was a social tornado, blowing through the hall and disrupting conversations to make sure we felt at home.
After we ate and made small talk with much of the hospital staff, Diane pulled us into a corner of her closest friends and asked how we were getting home. We supposed by taxi, just as we’d arrived. But Diane would not hear of it. She had already promised rides to four other people, but the truck she was driving (which belonged to her boss) would fit us all. The late-comers, Magda and I jumped in the way back like bags of groceries while Diane cruised around the city with a carload of loud, funny passengers. Her good friend sat in the front seat and asked some of the others who’d arrived the evening before if they’d brought alcohol with them. They said no.
She said, “get out of the car.” And everyone cracked up.
Barrow is a dry town, or as Pete says, a damp town, due to the rampant alcoholism that exists in this and so many other indigenous communities. Because of the suppression of the market, alcohol has become a valuable commodity. After three days we sort of craved a drink ourselves.
When Diane and her crew let us out (threatening to slow to a roll and toss us out the door) snow gathered in our hair as we waved goodbye. It was coming down heavier than it had all day. We went inside and happily recounted the events of our last day in Barrow, watched a movie and then went to bed.
In the morning it was immediately clear that we were staying in Barrow for the foreseeable future. Snow was blowing sideways past the window of the hotel and that was about all we could see. Visibility was at zero feet. The window panes rattled and howled. In the hotel dining room, three TSA agents and the one other tourist in town sat discussing the weather. I asked the agents their professional opinion, where we going anywhere anytime soon?
They sad flatly: no way.
Magda and I returned to our room and started calling the airlines.
Thus began a nerve wracking day during which we alternated between relief and despair. As predicted our first flight was cancelled. We rebooked for an evening flight which ended up being cancelled too. Tired of dealing with the phone line, we donned all the layers we had, intending on walking to the airport. It was the first time the yellow parkas were truly put to the test since a freak rainstorm in Antarctica one year ago. The blizzard cut through any opening like supercooled blades. Walking perpendicular to the wind was manageable, but as we turned into it we were stopped dead in our tracks, even pushed backwards. Ice crystalized on our eyelashes, making it impossible to see. My beard looked like it was made of milk. When we finally stumbled through the door of the airport, the one employee that was able to make it in looked at us as if two corpses had stumbled out of an icebox. She told us our options, none of which looked good. It seemed the soonest we could leave would be in several days.
Dejected, we fought our way back to the hotel, determined to keep calling until we secured a way out of town.
Luckily we’d made friends in Barrow. Diane called the hotel to ask if we were doing okay. Pete wrote on Facebook to see what we were up to since we hadn’t been able to leave. We told him, not much, and he came to drive us around some more, one of his big dogs sitting with Magda in the back seat.
The snow was relentless for hours and hours. Most of the businesses in Barrow had actually shut down, which meant this was a particularly bad sort of storm. Pete drove us around to do some shopping in case we were stuck for a while and took the opportunity to show us all the open shops in town. The last one, his favorite, was called the Arctic Grocery and was run by a Thai family that had moved to Barrow thirty years before – from Seattle. We bonded over our mutual connection to the Emerald City and while we chatted a handful of shoppers came in and out, dressed in full traditional fur parkas to protect themselves from the storm. By the time we left we were fast friends with the Kiriputt family who made us promise to come back to Barrow for a visit.
In the evening we took Pete to dinner at one of the few open restaurants. He told us more stories of living in the extreme north, of hunting and whaling and the ceremonies that would be held in the summer. He convinced us that we needed to come back when the city began to thaw a little, when the sun became the constant, rather than the dark. After dinner he drove to show us the southern part of the city we hadn’t seen yet, past the airport where four hundred miles of icy tundra begins.
It was out in the darkness that we saw the first hints of the Aurora. The wind was still blowing but the sky had cleared. Stars speckled the deep black. Seeing our interest in the developing lights, Pete suggested we drive north, past the lights of the city. We rocketed up to Point Barrow, the peninsula that represents the furthest point north in the United States. It was here that we set up our tripod while a hungry polar bear and her cubs ambled directly towards us.
After Pete yelled, “Polar Bear!” I told Magda to run.
Magda looked back up wistfully at the Northern Lights, still twisting and stretching above us.
“Are they sure?” She wondered.
I gave her an emphatic yes. Magda is never afraid of danger she can’t see, a quality that has allowed her to go places marked off-limits by my own imagination. But it turned out polar bears around Barrow aren’t imaginary. We jumped in the truck and Pete spun it around in a cloud of blowing powder. He wanted to find us the bear as much as we wanted to see it, though Magda was torn between the aurora she could see and bear she couldn’t.
We spent the next hour driving through alleyways and chasing police trucks, their lights flashing. We may have passed the bear several times on the spit; there wasn’t much land on either side of us, but beyond the road it was too dark, the polar bears too well camouflaged. We ended the search and drove further north into the darkest dark. Magda got into the bed of the truck and found that if anything the Lights had intensified, filling the entire sky. Impervious to the howling wind she stayed outside for almost an hour while Pete and I talked and scanned the horizon with powerful flashlights. He told me there were many Iñupiat legend about the lights. One was that you could tease them and make them dance. But if you teased them too much, they’d come down and chop your head off.
We managed to book a flight the next morning having refused to let the woman at Alaska Airlines hang up the phone. I kept asking, what else can we do, what else can we do. Finally two seats opened up on the first flight out. Pete came to see us off. He could tell the plane hadn’t landed yet so he took us on a last drive south of the airport. The skies were finally clear and a red orange glow on the horizon told us it would be midday soon. We stared out at the icy waste, south towards the struggling daylight.
Everything is south of here: The Alaska Highway, Winnipeg, the Red Hook in Detroit, Dear Time Ranch in Oklahoma. Further south Chilly Willy may have still been riding in a beat up Subaru, maybe in Bolivia or Chile by now. It was summer again in Rio, hot and humid, the samba schools heating up for Carnaval. Further still our friends in Cordoba were undoubtably starting coals for a parilla while in Uruguay, Ralf and Sebastián had gotten married. Much, much further, beyond the Malvinas and the Land of Fire, across the churning Drakes Passage; male penguins were clumsily stealing pebbles from each other, building small fortresses on which to roost. As here, there would be no noise there, just wind blowing across snow. No noise but the lapping of frigid waters against broken ice. As it is in the North it would be in the South.
For the last post on the New Yorker’s Photo Booth blog, click here.