Catching up – Trip to Barrow

20150911 1165 fairbanks airport rBefore we were interrupted by the holidays, I was determined to get the Blog caught up on our September (yes – that really was nearly 4 months ago!) road trip to the Alaskan Interior.  Just to remind you that it was autumn back when we were up in Fairbanks, here’s a photo of the Fairbanks airport as we took off for our flight up to Barrow, 320 miles above the Arctic Circle.alaska map road trip overview 2North of the Brooks Range, the land is mostly flat tundra with roaming caribou and musk ox.20150911 1171 far north snowfield rAnd you can see that there isn’t much to protect the land from storms coming off the Chukchi Sea.20150911 1180 far north tundra rBarrow is the northernmost city in the US with a population of about 4200 people, most of whom are Inupiat native who must rely on subsistence hunting for a large percentage of their food.  Barrow is accessible ONLY by air (year round) or by water during a short period in the summer months.  The town has a fuel storage facility since they receive all their fuel for the entire year in one barge delivery each summer.  Can you imagine accurately estimating all the fuel needs for a town – for cars, ATVs, snowmachines, trucks, heavy equipment, generators and heating for a year?  The supply has to be carefully monitored and budgeted to make sure they don’t run out, and the cost at the pump is about $7/gallon.  Aside from subsistence hunting, all food must be brought in on the summer barge or by air, so you can imagine that it’s very expensive.  In addition to being practical, hunting is an integral part of the Inupiat culture – helping each other and sharing meat among the elders in the community.

The most important food source for the Inupiat is the bowhead whale.  They differ greatly from the Japanese whaling ships which take as many whales as they can.  The Inupiat’s two annual hunts (spring and fall) are regulated to limit the number of whales taken (the quota was 12 strikes for the late September fall hunt) to protect the Arctic Ocean population, and the hunt is conducted using many of the same traditional methods that the Inupiat have been using for thousands of years.  The spring hunt is done from the edge of the shore-bound ice, and the whaling teams camp out on the ice waiting for a bowhead to come close enough for the hand-thrown harpoon, or sometimes they may venture a short distance in a traditional skin boat (made from the hide of bearded seals).  The harpoon has a small incendiary device designed to detonate inside the whale’s head in order to dispatch the animal instantly and humanely.  Another native with a rifle stands by to fire an additional killing shot immediately afterwards, if necessary.  The Inupiat take great care to respect and honor the whale’s sacrifice, and scientists use the whale harvest to further study the bowhead.  Did you know that the whale’s eye can reveal its age?20150912 1231 barrow bowhead skulls rThe community helps with all the work getting the whale ashore and harvesting the meat.  Cooperation and teamwork are deeply rooted in their culture, and the many skills and lessons are taught to children at an early age.  After distribution among the community members and elders, the meat is stored in ice cellars – deep holes dug into the permafrost.

Top of the World Hotel

Top of the World Hotel

The Inupiat Cultural Center in Barrow is an excellent place to learn more about this group of polar native people, and we were lucky to have an Inupiat woman guide us through the museum and weave examples from her childhood and adult life into her interpretation.  We arranged for the tour through the Top of the World Hotel, one of the very few hotels in Barrow.  Notice that the hotel is built up on stilts to protect the permafrost.  Everything in Barrow is very very expensive, but it’s no surprise since it’s not easy to get things up here.

You can see by the photos that we had pretty gloomy weather for our weekend visit.  Barrow is overcast for more than 50% of the year, and sitting right on the shore of the Chukchi Sea and well above the Arctic Circle you can imagine that the weather there isn’t often very nice.  In fact, the town sits right up against the ocean beach which can be problematic.  When we were there in mid-September crews were still clearing sand washed over the road from a storm.20150912 1215 barrow beach and town rWe dressed in our warmest hats and tall insulated boots and had a ball beach combing in the surf, finding funky fat marine worms and many beautiful rocks in unusual colors.20150912 1203 barrow arctic ocean beachcombing jim r

Eider duck

Eider duck

Another reason to visit Barrow is to see snowy owls, which feed on the little lemmings that live on the tundra.  Barrow’s Inupiat name is “Ukpeagvik” which translates to “The Place Where We Hunt Snowy Owls”.  The weather and time of year weren’t the best for finding owls, but we did see some, as well as snow buntings, parasitic jaegers and eider ducks.

Snowy owl

Climate change and sea level rise are very real for these Arctic people.  The road is washed out more often by storms, and sea ice forms later in the year (and is thinner), making it more difficult for hunting as well as for the marine mammals that rely on the ice for habitat.  Two small cruise ships are making a stop in Barrow once a year now that the Northwest Passage is open on a more consistent basis.  Polar bears are a real danger on the outskirts of Barrow, and their behavior is changing as their habitat is impacted by the loss of sea ice.

The guidebook for Barrow cautions people about exploring along the beach outside of town, warning that polar bears are apex predators and that they will absolutely hunt humans.  We stuck with our local guide for this visit.

Barrow is a fascinating place, and we’d like to explore it further in the warmer months when there are more birds around.  The culture and living challenges for the native people are amazing, especially when you consider that they have thrived in this harsh environment for thousands of years.20150912 1187 barrow whale arch wide r

Winter Beauty

20151228 2354 n nordic lighted trees rWe’ve passed the Winter Solstice, so although the daylight is still quite short, it gets a little longer every day and that makes the chilly dark winter days easier to take.  There are still plenty of lights up around town to keep things cheery and bright, and many people set their lights to turn on in the dark mornings as well as evenings.  The Sons of Norway hall always looks good, reflected in the slough at high tide.20151228 2351 sons of norway holiday reflection 1 rWe’ve had a few stunning sunrises this past week (today was the best!), and it’s nice not to have to get up too early to see it.  We even had some pretty moonsets right around sunrise last week – so beautiful with the dawn light kissing the top of Bearclaw Mountain.20151228 2262 bearclaw mtn moonset r20151228 2290 winter wonderland jim rWe had a few good dumps of snow starting the day after Christmas, turning the National Forest into a true winter wonderland.  We headed Out The Road to explore the tidal rapids at Blind Slough and to see if we could spot any swans or other birds.  We saw lots of deer and mink tracks in the snow and some ducks flying in the distance, but no trumpeter swans that day.  We had snowshoes with us, but didn’t need them since the shoreline of the slough was covered by a frozen crust that made walking pretty easy, and much of the trail was sheltered by tall spruce and hemlock so the snow wasn’t very deep.

20151228 2304 blind slough winter r20151228 2298 winter sagging ice rIt was so quiet out there, with the sun quickly sinking below the edge of the mountains.  We often stopped to listen and savor the quiet, but as we were heading back to the trail we heard lots of snapping and popping – very strange!  We looked around and finally realized that it was the tide coming in, lifting the ice which had slumped and draped over rocks and grasses in the shallows.  We were glad we ventured out to explore, though we’ve ordered a set of studded snow tires for the car to make future exploration a little safer.  Everyone in town is hoping for more snow and a chance to make good use of cross country skis and snow shoes, and to enjoy the wintry landscape.20151228 2310 blind slough winter jim rThe winter birds are active in the harbor, with scoters, loons, goldeneye, teals, and the elegant long-tailed ducks.20151230 2446 long tailed ducks in flight 2 r20151230 2489 winter murrelet rWe’ve had a few blooms of krill in the water lately, bringing in even bigger populations of ducks and sea birds to the harbor.  Sometimes I sit on the dock under a camouflage poncho with my camera to watch and photograph the birds, and it’s worthwhile to see them up close.  There is so much beauty here – everywhere you look, and we’re grateful for the chance to enjoy it.

The New Year wouldn’t be complete without the annual Polar Plunge in the harbor.  The intrepid swimmers gathered on a chilly, overcast New Year’s morning with the ambulance and a safety swimmer standing by.  As the crowd counted down, the brave and the crazy took the leap!20160101 2502 polar plunge leaping r20160101 2508 polar plunge we did it rYou might notice that a few people chickened out at the last minute, but we had a great range of ages represented among those who took the plunge.20160101 2517 polar plunge brave people r…and a couple of people lingered in the 48 degree water to relish the moment.  Happy New Year!20160101 2534 polar plunge enjoying the water r

Christmas in Alaska’s Little Norway

I think Petersburg (aka “Little Norway”), known to be more Norwegian than Norway, is just about the perfect place to spend Christmas.  This community really knows how to do it right, from the high school and middle school holiday band concerts, to the dance recital (with 130 children ranging in age from 4 to 17), to the Community Concert, to Julebukking – it’s a festive and happy time.

The Community Concert is a lovely event, where anyone can volunteer to perform something holiday-ish.  The number of talented people around town is impressive enough, but then consider the generosity of those people willing to share their talents with the rest of us.  Jim volunteered to sing with the Oxford Carolers group, so he’s been busy with rehearsals all month, and they sang well at the Concert as well as a few other venues around town.20151221 2212 community concert oxford carolers 1 rJulebukking is probably the most fun part of the holidays, where local businesses and organizations revive their own version of the old Norwegian tradition and host open houses with generous spreads of food.  It started last Saturday with a couple of places, then picked up the pace with six or more businesses hosting each day on Wednesday and Thursday.  It’s a great way to visit with friends and to make new ones while standing around enjoying the treats.20151223 2228 julebukking airport rThe airport even gets into the act, with a nice table full of smoked fish, meats and cheeses, and cookies as well as discount coupons from Alaska Airlines.  In the old days, the passengers on the planes would come inside to enjoy some Julebukking, but with stricter security the gate staff just brings some plates of treats out to the pilots and crew.  Our radio station (KFSK – Fish Head Radio) had baked potatoes, a fabulous cranberry tart, and cookies decorated by children.  Each business puts its own spin on the festivities, but I would say that the Rexall Drug Store’s pastrami sandwiches (well worth waiting in a long line for) and the spread at the hardware store are the best.20151224 2234 julebukking hardware store rThe highlight is the hardware store’s “Moose Milk” – a delicious concoction that is as much fun to watch them make as it is to drink.  Start with a 5 gallon paint bucket and a smiling man pouring White Christmas liqueur into it.20151224 2235 julebukking moose milk process rAdd 6 half-gallons of vanilla ice cream, softened…20151224 2236 julebukking moose milk ice cream rPut the top on the bucket tightly, and stick it into the paint shaker for a little while….20151224 2239 julebukking paint shaker r…and voila – you have Moose Milk!20151224 2238 julebukking moose milk rNorwegian sweaters are often the garment of choice for Julebukking, though some people celebrate the holidays with their own distinctive style.  I don’t know if these two guys are related, but they sure looked great!20151224 2241 julebukking suit 1 r20151223 2231 julebukking suit 2 rIf you want to know more about Julebukking, you might find the description on Wikipedia informative, and it even mentions Petersburg as one of the places that celebrates the tradition.

After trying not to stuff our faces TOO much for days on end, we got into the proper Christmas spirit with a walk up to the Lutheran Church for the 10pm service on Christmas Eve.  The moon was full, the skies were clear and full of stars, and the big dipper and Polaris were easy to see – a reminder of Alaska’s state flag.  The temperature was in the low 20s, but the warmth of the congregation more than made up for it.  There’s enough snow remaining on the ground to count as a “white Christmas”, though we’re likely to get some fresh snow later on tonight and into tomorrow.

This morning we woke up to a pretty day, and as the sun crested the mountains to the east, it cast a golden glow on the crest of Petersburg and Bearclaw Mountains.  We leave you with the view from the back of the boat shortly after sunrise at 8:30 this Christmas morning.  May all your days be Merry and Bright!20151225 2247 petersburg christmas morning r

One More Minute

…of daylight today.  The Winter Solstice was two days ago, so the days are getting longer once again!  Today we’ll have one more minute of daylight than we had yesterday – which doesn’t seem like much, but the pace will pick up, adding 5-6 minutes a day of daylight by springtime.  That’s enough to be very noticeable over a week’s time.

Today the sun rose around 8:29, and it will set at 3:14 this afternoon.  20141217 3956 petersburg christmas tree rPeople tend to keep their Christmas lights up well into January – it helps to keep the “dark months” a little brighter.

Jim and I want to wish you and your families a Joyous Holiday Season, and we send warm wishes from Petersburg, Alaska!

While we’ve been busy traveling, then catching up from being away, and now dealing with the hustle and bustle of Christmas in “Little Norway” (more Julebukking today – where everyone eats their way around town), I haven’t forgotten about this Blog.  I’m still digging out from under all the photos I shot on our fall trip to the Alaskan Interior, as well as the later fall trip back east.  I promise to get the Blog caught up in the next week or two – so don’t be too confused by reading about September things in December (and January).

Down the Dalton Highway

The Dalton Highway is a haul road – built to provide a way for big trucks to carry supplies and material from Fairbanks north to Prudhoe Bay on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.  It typically takes two days to drive the 414 mile road, only 1/4 of which is paved.  The only medical facilities are at the endpoints – in Fairbanks or Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay.  There is only one other place to buy fuel, at Coldfoot Camp about midway between.  Traveling on this road is not for the faint of heart, and you need to be very well equipped and prepared.20150909 1049 dalton hwy and cracked windshield rNotice the condition of the windshield – I took this photo out the front window of our tour van, and there were about 20 cracks or chips in it.  Unlike many states, it’s not illegal to drive around with a cracked windshield in Alaska, otherwise people driving on these rough roads would spend more on tickets than on replacement glass.

We started our journey in Deadhorse, where Alaska DOT was raising and repairing the road after an unusual spring flood washed out a section, rendering it impassible for 18 days.  Prudhoe Bay nearly ran out of food and fuel – an extremely serious problem, so that section of the road will be rebuilt 7′ higher than before.

tundra swansWildlife along the Dalton is varied – cackling geese, tundra swans, musk ox, brown (grizzly) bears, caribou, snowshoe hares and fox are common, along with other kinds of birds as we transited various ecosystems.  It was hunting season so the musk ox and caribou were hiding, but we did see some owls, peregrine falcons, and harriers.  We were surprised twice, seeing moose in tundra areas where they’re not normally found. tundra moose

The scenery along the Dalton was so varied as we moved southwards – flat tundra, with a beautiful ridge of low mountains called the Franklin bluffs, along with pingoes – uplifted humps on the land.20150909 1057 prudhoe franklin bluffs r

The northernmost mountain range in Alaska is the Brooks Range, and the Dalton (which shadows the Trans-Alaska Pipeline) crosses the Brooks Range at Atigun Pass – 4700 feet, and the only mountain pass that’s maintained all year round.  On the 9th of September, we encountered a blizzard coming over the pass, though the snow stopped when we got to the south side.20150909 1080 dalton hwy atigun pass blizzard r

The pipeline follows the path of the Dalton Highway, visible about half of the time, when it’s above ground.  20150910 1142 dalton hwy and pipeline wide r20150910 1149 dalton hwy pipeline in wild rThe road and pipeline crosses permafrost, and it’s important that the permafrost stays frozen, lest the structures built on it become unstable.  Different kinds of heat sinks are employed to protect the permafrost, as you can see by the fins on top of the pipeline supports here.

There aren’t many places to stop along the Dalton, despite the 150-250 trucks per day that travel on the road.  The primary overnight stopping point is at Coldfoot Camp, one of the few places north of the Arctic Circle that is accessible by road.  Coldfoot got its name from the gold rush period, where hopeful prospectors often lost their resolve and got “cold feet”.  Like Deadhorse, it’s a pretty spartan place, with an old, scruffy modular building that serves as a hotel, and a separate building that serves plentiful hot food.20150909 1097 coldfoot camp r20150909 1101 coldfoot trucks rYou can see the mud – every vehicle is quickly enveloped in mud driving on the Dalton, and our tour guide stopped several times a day to wash the windows on the van so we could see.20150909 1079 dalton hwy muddy tour van r250 miles south of Deadhorse we crossed the Arctic Circle, pausing at a little roadside signpost to commemorate the event (even though we flew across it to get up to Deadhorse).20150910 1130 arctic circle us rOur guide read a passage from Robert Service, and a little gray jay looked on.  It’s hard to describe the adventure of a trip down the Dalton Highway, but it was a magnificent journey – so much to see and learn about, and we were glad to have an expert guide to explain so much.  We crossed tundra, and taiga – Russian for “little forest” that describes the stunted black spruce that transitions from the Brooks Range to the boreal forest farther south.  It felt odd to return to civilization in Fairbanks after the desolation and industrial feel of Prudhoe Bay, the wide open tundra, the pipeline, forests, blizzards, mud and sunshine along the way.

 

The Pipeline and Prudhoe Bay

The 1973 oil crisis and resulting high prices made exploration of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields in Alaska’s far north feasible.  Finding plentiful oil, the Alyeska corporation constructed an 800 mile pipeline 48 inches in diameter to carry the crude oil from the shores of the Arctic Ocean’s Beaufort Sea south to the town of Valdez on Prince William Sound.  The pipeline was completed in 1977, and has been pumping oil ever since.alaska road trip pipeline path closerAbout half of the pipeline runs underground and half is on supports above ground, adjacent to the Dalton Highway between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay (and adjacent to the Richardson Highway south of Fairbanks).20150906 0888 fairbanks pipeline rThe silver cylinders on some of the pipeline’s supports are there to protect the permafrost underground – to keep it from thawing and rendering the soil unstable.  All manner of special techniques are used to protect the permafrost, particularly where the pipeline is buried.  It runs across rivers and streams (about 500)…20150903 0521 pipeline bridge r…and it crosses three major mountain ranges (Brooks, Alaska, and Chugach).  Constructing a pipeline through very rugged and remote country that can withstand earthquakes and temperature extremes is an amazing feat of engineering.

Since oil is such a critical part of the Alaskan economy we wanted to learn more about Prudhoe Bay, and we also wanted to see the Far North region and some of the animals that inhabit the tundra above the Arctic Circle.  Friends strongly advised us not to try to drive up the Dalton Highway ourselves – it’s a rough haul-road that is almost exclusively used by large tractor trailers.  We signed up for a tour – the last one of the season, departing on September 8th, where we would fly up to Prudhoe Bay, stay overnight and get to stick our toes in the Arctic Ocean, then ride in a tour van for the two day trip down the Dalton Highway back to Fairbanks.  An adventure!20150908 0941 deadhorse by air 2 rThe photo above shows the tundra and typical overcast, gloomy weather over the town of Deadhorse, just outside of the secure fence around Prudhoe Bay.20150908 0943 deadhorse by air rAs far as I know, no horses were harmed in the construction of the Dalton Highway – the name came from one of the early subcontractors working on the road who abandoned one of their trucks with the company name “Deadhorse” on its side at the northern end of the road – and the name stuck.  The only reason to come to Deadhorse and Prudhoe is to work at the oilfields, and it’s a pretty grim place with absolutely NOTHING within hundreds of miles.  Oil workers usually work two weeks on and two weeks off, but the support staff often works 6 month contracts.  No alcohol is permitted, and that rule is strictly enforced.

Musk-oxen footprint

Musk-oxen footprint

In contrast to the bleak landscape, birds and animals are varied and interesting.  Herds of musk-oxen wander nearby, as well as caribou.  We didn’t get to see any since it was hunting season and many of the animals were hiding, though a large herd wandered right by our hotel a week earlier.  The tundra was in transition from fall to winter, with a few small plants still showing some color, providing camouflage for a little snow bunting.

We spotted a short-eared owl hunting, as well as this red fox.  Both arctic and red fox live on the tundra, though the larger red fox are becoming more dominant in the landscape.

red foxPlovers, gulls, ducks, and tundra swans were fishing in the tundra ponds and in the Arctic Ocean, where we went to stick our toes.  We were very glad to have a security guard escorting us to keep an eye out for polar bears.  Polar bears aren’t common this early in the fall (it was early September), but they are apex predators and they will hunt humans.  The guard had some interesting bear stories from his years working up there.20150908 0977 prudhoe bay 2 rThis is a bleak place, utterly industrial with nothing but flat tundra and gravel pads with modular buildings (note in this photo the buildings are up on stilts to protect the permafrost).  20150908 0990 prudhoe permafrost stilts rMost of the oil exploration is done in the winter, when the tundra is frozen hard and covered in snow to protect the plants.  Long strings of modular offices and living spaces are connected together to make “trains” that are towed across the frozen land to various locations for exploration, and the crews live and work there for extended periods.20150908 0946 deadhorse oil exploration trailers rYou can imagine that you need very large tractors to tow these trains around…20150908 0965 deadhorse big tractors r20150908 0948 deadhorse big cats rAside from oil workers and support staff, only a handful of tourists (like us) and hunters come up to Deadhorse, and we get to pay about $200 a night for extremely spartan accommodations in Deadhorse Camp.  20150908 0950 deadhorse camp 3 r20150908 0972 deadhorse camp boot rack rIt’s a muddy, messy place, so you have to either remove your boots in the lobby or wear heavy shoe covers to keep the floors clean.  This is a very basic bunkhouse with shared bathrooms at the end of the hall.  There are no amenities in your room, and you have to be courteous since some people staying there were working night shifts.  Food was expensive and basic, but very good.  I could not imagine living and working here, but I have the utmost respect for people who do.

Prudhoe Bay supports about 4000 workers, of which 15% are women.  In the busier winter season the population swells to about 7000.  Potable water costs 35 cents a gallon, and gasoline is about $6/gallon.  There is one main general store – hardware downstairs and snacks and a few necessities upstairs.20150908 0988 prudhoe general store rAre we glad that we spent the time and money to travel up to Prudhoe Bay, to see it and to see the Arctic Ocean?  You bet!  We learned a ton of things – our tour guide was very experienced and full of knowledge, and our fellow tour members were all educated, interesting and interested people.  Seeing amazing wildlife was well worth the trip, though we were disappointed about not seeing musk-oxen or caribou.

Next up – the drive down the Dalton Highway from Prudhoe Bay back to Fairbanks.