What does it mean to be in the Arctic? Adam Karlin takes us to Utqiagvik, Alaska, where the water meets the land in the most northern latitudes of the United States.
I was standing on an Arctic Ocean beach a little north of Utqiagvik, Alaska — and it’s hard to get further north than Utqiagvik, Alaska — when Ernest rolled up. He drove a white pick-up blaring powwow music at top volume. When the truck pulled over, the drums rattled the sand. The engine idled, then stopped, and a door opened. A big Iñupiat guy stepped out: mud-stained hoodie, shaved head.
Ernest could see I was from out of town. Utqiagvik is the kind of place where everyone knows everyone. It’s also the kind of place where the cold (constant) is offset by the locals (warm).
“Where you from?” he asked, with a big grin.
Not really, I thought. “Sometimes,” I said.
“I’m about to check my salmon nets. Wanna come?”
“Sure,” I said.
We drove to a spit of beach hemmed in by the Arctic Ocean on one side, and Elson Lagoon, mirror flat and grey, on the other. A tiny white skiff was attached to a rope. About 20 meters away, yellow floaters bobbed in the lagoon.
Ernest turned the music down. “The fish are out there,” he said, gesturing to the floats. “Do you wanna get some?”
I didn’t. But how many times do you have the chance to check a salmon net in the Alaskan Arctic? If you’re Ernest, a lot. If you’re me, it’s rare. So I nodded. Ernest got out of the cab and pulled some wading boots, coveralls, and a two-by-four from a tangle of gear in the truck’s bed.
“Just put these on and paddle out to the floats,” he said. “There should be plenty of salmon in the nets.”
A two-by-four isn’t a great oar, and icy water pooled in the bottom of the skiff. I paddled, awkwardly, into absolute stillness. The boat rocked with the smallest shift of weight. When I reached the float, I almost tipped into the water as I leaned over to check the nets. They were embedded with dozens of salmon.
“Just take the dead ones!” Ernest shouted from the shore.
I dipped my hands into the water and they went numb. The salmon were slick as grease. Their skin provided no grip; their fins were surprisingly sharp and spiky. Finally, I got my palms under one and was able to lift it. A moment later, it slipped over the edge of the boat, back into the water. I cursed, not wanting to be the gringo who let a dead fish get away.
Ernest yelled, “You got this” from the beach and turned up the powwow chants. The drums made a little thunder on the slate water. I reached back in, feeling the ice creep up my fingertips, my knuckles. The cold numbed me to the fish slime. I pulled out two salmon. One was still alive, barely. Its mouth opened and shut as it sought air, and its teeth were pink against the grey sky, the grey water.
When I got back on shore, Ernest gave me a fist bump. “Welcome to the land,” he said, laughing. He probably just meant dry ground, but it felt like my welcome to the Arctic.
The end of the end of the world
If the Alaskan Arctic has a capital, Utqiagvik, formerly known (and still often referred to) as Barrow, is a good candidate. That town is the seat of the North Slope Borough, which is North America’s largest municipality by size, and a pretty small one by population. Measuring a hair under 95,000 square miles, the North Slope is larger than ten actual states. At the top of the Slope sits Utqiagvik, the northernmost town in the nation, population 4,500, although not the northernmost place. That honor goes to Point Barrow, but where that’s located, exactly, has to be constantly redefined, because every year, the citizens of Utqiagvik watch our nation shrink as its topmost terminus is shaved away by the rising Arctic Ocean.
Back in the day, vans filled with day-trippers from the Top of the World hotel drove along a ten-mile hatchet-shaped isthmus to the Point, which stabs the divide between the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, whose frigid water feeds into the Arctic Ocean. When the snow melts, the isthmus is dark brown sand, patched and pocked with lagoons.
When I raised my eyebrows, his response was simple: “They’ll eat you.” I pumped my gas, gave him the gun, and drove on with a new appreciation for self-service.
The land out here won’t support the vans anymore. Much of it has been washed away, as the ice pack recedes and the ocean subsequently rises. Melting permafrost has destabilized the road and given the ground the consistency of room temperature butter. Polar bears, stranded by the receding ice, now prowl the desolate flats around Point Barrow, and they are hungry.
At a local gas station, where a gallon of unleaded ran $6 — Utqiagvik receives all its supplies by air, including petroleum, even though it’s near some of the largest oil wells in the world — the owner handed me a pistol when I got out to work the pump. A bear had been seen prowling nearby. When I raised my eyebrows, his response was simple: “They’ll eat you.” I pumped my gas, gave him the gun, and drove on with a new appreciation for self-service.
Tours don’t run to Point Barrow anymore, but you can drive part of the way. There’s a road, although in many places it’s just the beach with harder packed sand, all in a space where land and ocean and sky already bleed together, so everything about the route takes on a hybridity of form and function: beach/road/land/ocean/wind twisting into one arrow to the inexorable true north of America.
Or not, because somewhere a few miles short of Point Barrow, the tick on the gauge between beach and road swings firmly into beach, and that was where I got lucky, because instead of plowing my rented 4WD into an Arctic sand pit, I saw two tourists who had done the same.
Their Ford Explorer was mired about 20 meters north of a patch of mud — frozen, even in August. I parked on the mud and walked on the sand, which sloughed up to my ankles, and came up on two men in their mid-twenties. One was wearing a winter jacket. One was wearing a windbreaker and shorts. They were from China, graduate students at Indiana University Bloomington. The sand had climbed halfway up their tires. It was past midnight and 38 degrees, although it wasn’t dark, because this was summer in Utqiagvik, and during that season in the far north, the sun doesn’t set but shifts into a nightly greyscale that deepens what feels like an already perpetual gloom.
For an hour, we tried to get them unstuck. We lodged pieces of driftwood under their tires, but the rubber barely gripped the wood. We dug at the sand, only to watch it fill in as fast as we could scoop it away. Several times, trucks filled with locals would roll by. Sometimes, they laughed. Mostly, they ignored us.
One truck did pull over. An Iñupiat lady stepped out wearing heels, makeup, earrings, and an alcohol flush on her cheeks. Utqiagvik is a ‘damp’ town — you can’t buy booze there, but a limited amount can be be kept for personal consumption. This woman had been personally consuming.
“What are you guys doing?” she asked.
“Enjoying a day at the beach,” I said.
One of the tourists looked at me. Their English wasn’t great, and the lady’s accent was thick. “What did she say?” he asked.
“Can I join you?” she said.
“Actually, can you help these guys get their truck out of the sand? Maybe there’s a tow company around?”
The other tourist asked, “What is happening?”
She looked at their SUV and raised her eyebrows. “Why’d they do that?” she asked, and the that seemed to indicate not just the stranded truck or our attempts to free it, but whatever choices had led us here, a few miles south of the northernmost point in the USA, Utqiagvik, Alaska, the Arctic, a place that is not just a cardinal direction but so far away from everything that it is defined by its liminality, its edge-ness, like reality had a border where the night is the day and the road is the beach and the bears. Well. They’ll eat you.
The Haul Road
And yet. For all its harshness — and maybe because of its harshness, the very fact of its edge — the Arctic, inexorably, calls humanity to it.
I passed the Arctic circle for the first time driving north on the Dalton Highway from Fairbanks to Deadhorse. The Dalton is 414 miles of occasional pavement and, more often, hard-packed gravel. In summer, the ice and snow melts, and the road is Swiss-cheesed with potholes that chew the undercarriage of a vehicle like a hungry shark.
The Dalton connects Fairbanks, third largest city in Alaska, to Deadhorse, on the shores of Prudhoe Bay, home of the largest oil field in North America. There are 32,000 people in Fairbanks. There are officially 25 people in Deadhorse, but this does not count a transient population of a few thousand oil men (and they are overwhelmingly men), who work the wells and operate the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. “The pipeline,” as it is commonly known, links the oil of Prudhoe Bay to the world via the port of Valdez, 800 miles to the south of Deadhorse. For much of its length, it parallels the Dalton Highway.
You click on your handset, say, “Northbound rig, passing on your left, all clear?” and a few seconds later a kssht breaks the silence and a friendly voice says, “Go for it, buddy.”
It takes about 12 days for oil to work its way down the pipeline from Deadhorse to Valdez. It takes about 13 hours to drive the haul road, so named because, well, it’s a haul. People drive this unforgiving route because they are truckers bringing food, construction materials, industrial goods, and people from the Alaskan interior to the Arctic Ocean, or — in my case — because they want to experience a taste of the lingering frontier.
The Dalton is vast and beautiful and largely empty, although the near constant presence of the pipeline prevents you from feeling like you’ve completely escaped humanity. The white noise crackle of a CB radio and the occasional snatch of overheard trucker banter is another manmade intrusion. Drivers on the Dalton are expected to bring CB radio units with them — mobile service is almost non-existent — and a set came built into my rental vehicle’s console. Passing a truck on the lonely Dalton involves more human interaction than a similar maneuver on a crowded Lower 48 highway; blind turns, huge potholes, wandering moose, and oncoming truck traffic force drivers to rely on the people ahead of them for visibility. You click on your handset, say, “Northbound rig, passing on your left, all clear?” and a few seconds later a kssht breaks the silence and a friendly voice says, “Go for it, buddy.”
For all that, few American roadways engender isolation like the Dalton. For hundreds of miles, you are surrounded by nothing but forest, swathes of pine, birch and larch that are the size of small states. A few people live out here, but you could fit them all into a city block. Still, a forest has a sense of busy; the trees themselves form a living mass. The true loneliness of the haul road sinks in about two-thirds of the way to Deadhorse, as you climb gravel and scree over the Atigun Pass, where the Dalton crosses the Continental Divide. A full 4,739 feet high, the Atigun is the only road pass over the Brooks Range, which marks the end of the Alaskan taiga. This is the northern tree line. Past the pass, as it were, arboreal life ceases. There may be a lonely pine defying nature here or there, but these are anomalous exceptions.
On the North Slope of the Brooks Range — the same slope the borough is named for — you are in the tundra: a wind-seared desert undergirded by a mantle of permafrost, overarched by a gray sky that rises forever. Much of the land is green and grassy, yet it may receive less than four inches of rain a year, less than the Mojave Desert. With the trees gone, the whistling wind, the short growing season, and the drastic seasonal temperature shifts that occur at this extreme kink in the Earth’s axis, it’s easy to feel like a flyblown speck.
In the tundra, the only signs of humanity — of anything, other than road and sky — is the pipeline, the occasional pumping station, a construction crew here and there (a “flipper” with a Stop/Slow sign willing to work the Dalton can make a neat mint). And mile markers. The entirety of the haul road is paced by mile markers. At Mile 1, 84 miles north of Fairbanks, the Dalton begins. At Mile 56, you cross over the Yukon River. At Mile 60, you can gas up, check your tire pressure, and grab a salmon burger at the Hot Spot Café.
At Mile Marker 115.5, you pass the Arctic Circle.
I wanted to feel something special when I crossed that line. Maybe snow would fall, or I’d stumble on a dog-eared copy of a Jack London novel rotting in the woods. What I found was a highway wayside with a small informational display, scratched up with the usual “For A Good Time Call Jenny” graffiti. That night I slept in Coldfoot, a truckstop that marks the Dalton’s rough halfway point. The “town” of Coldfoot is really Coldfoot Camp, a gas station complex with an attached restaurant and trailer units that serve as the local hotel — room rate: $200 a night. I had lasagna and chocolate cake at the Camp’s legendary all you can eat buffet, and a beer in the northernmost bar in the USA (a rec room with “Friends” on the TV).
I didn’t want to spend $200 for a springy bed and thin walls, so I camped by a nearby pond with an Argentine I met in the bar, a backpacker who rode his motorcycle up from the Southern Hemisphere. He had slapped a sticker on his bike: Tornado sin Rumbo, which roughly translates as “aimless tornado.” When I mentioned I had crossed the Arctic Circle for the first time that day, he nodded, then asked me a question.
“What does this mean?” he said. “To be in Arctic?”
I knew he was driving at something deep, at whatever feeling I had tried to tap into at the Arctic Circle wayside, but I was tired. It had been a long, bone-crunching drive from Fairbanks. So I gave the geography answer.
“It means you’re in a place where the sun doesn’t set on the winter solstice, and doesn’t rise on the summer solstice.”
Tornado sin Rumbo gave a look that was Derision sin Pity. “I mean…I don’t know the English. But is more than that,” he said, going to his tent.
It was one in the morning. The sun hadn’t gone down, and had no plans of doing so. The hours would slip from dusk to dawn with no intervening darkness. I sat on the hood of my car and watched the half light of this half-night, a pinkish-red haze, like the dying embers of a guttering fire. Then I heard something thin, reedy, and unmistakably, wild.
A pack of wolves was hunting. They howled and yipped to each other. Sometimes they sang as a unified group. Sometimes just one would sing, and then the others would raise their voices, their predatory chorus joining the alpha’s solo aria. Words can’t do the moment justice; in the howl of a wolf, you are reduced to a tree-dwelling monkey, in awe and fear of something foreign and wild and dangerous.
Tornado sin Rumbo emerged from his tent to listen to the wolves. “There,” he said. “There is arctic.”
Hunters and hunted
You don’t have to go to the Arctic to go to the Arctic. At least, the Arctic that I think Tornado was describing: a place of wolf howls and cold winds. A place where there’s a Biblical quality to struggle. Once, in Mongolia, I asked a nomad who lived in the shadow of a forested mountain what he worried about most. His felt ger, the tent-like dwelling most nomadic Mongols inhabit, was relatively well-appointed, with solar panels and a satellite dish for his small TV. I figured his concerns were schooling for his children, or maybe provincial politics.
“Wolves,” he said, “that hunt my sheep. And eagles that take my lambs.”
It was a line from the Old Testament. Or maybe something older. The threat of animal predation — “They’ll eat you” — the slight unsteadiness of our place at the top of the natural hierarchy, is a fact of life in the far north. It’s a land where the land, which we have tamed in so many places, eats what it can to pack fat for the long winter.
But in the world’s cold places, there are people who bite back.
Slana, Alaska, sits within the borders of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, the largest wilderness in the USA. The park, bordered by the Copper River to the west, encompasses all of the pine-clad Wrangell range, plus huge tracts of the St. Elias and Chugach Mountains. There are more than 13 million acres of protected land here — enough to fit Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Switzerland all at once — yet the park only receives about 80,000 visitors per year, a bare fraction of the 11 million visitors who annually descend on Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited destination in the National Park System.
Because Wrangell-St. Elias is a park and preserve, people live within its limits. These residents were existing private landowners whose land was grandfathered into the park, land that includes all of Slana. One night, I booked a room at a tourism property run by one of those Slana families — a couple who decided that, in the face of the wolf and the eagle and the bear, they would turn the tables on who would be meat.
Steve and Joy Hobbs came from Nebraska in the 1980s, some of the last beneficiaries of the Homestead Act, the law that gave land away to those willing to work it. They joined about 400 other settlers, but only about 30 of that original number remain in Alaska. When Steve and Joy arrived, their property was bear prowled wilderness. Steve cleared 87 acres of trees and brush and built a cabin where he and his wife raised their children without electricity or running water. As the years went by, Steve added to the property: a well, levels to the cabin, smaller guest cabins, a graded backyard, and his and her greenhouses for him and Joy.
Steve and Joy are both short and broad, but not fat; their bodies are as solid as the logs of their cabin. Steve’s beard is a thick curtain of auburn and ash. Joy’s hair is long and brown, fading to grey, pulled back into a long, braided ponytail. Their log cabin overflows with animal skins: fox, wolf, lynx, otter, beaver, and bear. In the winter, Steve traps animals and Joy dresses and sews them into boots and hats. In the summer, they run a successful bed-and- breakfast and a canoe tour company. Steve prides himself on having never touched a computer. He was humble about the animals he killed; he did not apologize for their deaths, but neither did he seem to derive pleasure from them. Rather, he had the quiet confidence of someone who is good at their job and knows it.
“I love hearing the wolves,” Steve told me. “And I think the lynx are beautiful. Trapping is what we do.”
I had questions about another animal. Across Alaska, I’d had near constant run-ins with curious ravens. These aren’t the blackbirds of the Lower 48. They’re enormous, like dark eagles, and their gurgling quork is a common song on Alaskan trails. I asked Steve if he had much experience with the birds, and he laughed.
“They’re clever,” he said. Joy nodded, then frowned, “Smart as anything, but they wake me up early every morning.” She did a pretty good impression of a raven chorus.
Steve went on. “You know, one time I was hunting and I clipped a moose. I knew it was going to die — wish I’d got it clean, but it happens. So I was trying to find it, and thinking, and this damn raven keeps quorking right above my head. Just keeps coming back, caw, caw, quork. And then I realized: it wants to lead me to the moose.”
“It knew I was gonna gut the thing and leave the intestines and other stuff. And it was right. That raven literally flew to a branch, then flew back, cawed at me, and did it over and over. Led me right to the moose.”
That evening, in one of Steve’s guest cabins, I watched the northern summer sun-not-set. In the maroon light, I read Norse mythology on a porch. The struggles in the north are Biblical, and they are older. I looked at a picture of Odin, seated on his throne, his shoulders a perch for two ravens who gathered the secrets of the world.
During the summer, tourists at the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Utqiagvik are treated to a daily traditional dance show. On the day I went, the teenage performers looked bored, but they were undoubtedly graceful, and I couldn’t help but feel taken with this living maintenance of a millennia-old tradition. Nonetheless, I was also struck by a simultaneous, uncharitable thought.
I don’t mean why would anyone visit Utqiagvik. The remoteness of the place, its sheer isolation at the ends of the Earth, is its own attraction. But why did the ancestors of the modern Iñupiat look at this windy, icy spit of land and think, “Right, let’s unpack.” There are dozens of tribes living further south in Alaska (not to mention thousands in the rest of the Americas). I have visited inhospitable places, but their inhospitality was usually at least an indirect outgrowth of history and politics — slums, war zones, and similar spots. Utqiagvik is full of lovely people, but its natural environment is, by any objective measure, harsh. Saharan nomads live in an unforgiving desert, but they spend much of their lives moving between, or camped nearby, oases. No such respite exists from Utqiagvik’s natural environment. The sun barely shines. No fruits or vegetables grow. The average summer Fahrenheit high is in the mid-40s. The average winter high is minus four.
Utqiagvik is old and connected to its past and traditions, but it is not timeless. It changes, like anywhere else. The beach erodes. The restaurants serve pizza.
Utqiagvik is located in the Arctic coastal tundra, which means there are no trees for firewood or shelter. There’s not even elevation for defensibility. The coastal tundra is a flat plain of boggy grass, broken by smallish hills called pingos — basically, lumps of dirt-covered ice. The other feature of the landscape, at least in summer, are thousands of ponds formed from permafrost melt. These watery pockmarks are ubiquitous and inhabited by millions of mosquitoes. The moment you walk away from the sea breezes that buffet Utqiagvik, bloodsuckers, some which looks as large as birds, will cover your exposed skin like a carpet of nightmare mini vampires.
Then you’ve got the nightless days of summer, and the endless night of winter. The seasonal oil workers in Deadhorse rotate out of their barracks after a few months on the job. A taxi driver in Fairbanks who worked the Prudhoe Bay wells told me this happens because otherwise, “You just go crazy. In winter it’s too dark, for too long. Guys lose their shit.”
It felt insulting to ask locals Why did your ancestors come here, but the more oblique, “So what do you like about living here?” yielded more answers. “We fish. We hunt. There’s caribou. Seals. Walrus. Whales,” said an Iñupiat named Paul. Indeed, Utqiagvik is located near excellent hunting reserves and fisheries, and most historians agree this is what originally drew the first settlers to the region.
Some simply liked being at the top of the world. This was the reason most transplants gave for staying: they wanted to be far from everything. Others said they were drawn — ironically, given a higher than state average unemployment rate — by work. There’s a need for skilled labor in Utqiagvik, and federal, state and tribal contracts can be a lucrative draw.
But Utqiagvik is no work camp. It is a community, of schools and libraries, businesses and friends and families. Despite its resemblance to a Mad Max town — many buildings are rotted out, people use shipping containers as storage or even living spaces, and the edges of town are piled with junked cars, because there is no place to scrap them — Utqiagvik is one of the oldest settlements in North America. Per the Bering Land Bridge theory of human migration, when folks crossed from Siberia to North America, this would have been close to one of the first spots to settle down.
And that, more than anything, explains why Utqiagvik is where it is: because it is where it is. People grow up here, fall in love, get married, have kids. For all I marveled at the natural conditions of the Arctic, people live here for the very human reason of shared values and history.
At the entrance to the Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church, an older Iñupiat lady with snowy white hair and finely wrinkled skin invited me inside on a Sunday evening. “Ooh, come on, come on. Welcome. New Orleans? We went on a church group trip to Baton Rouge in 2007!” Pastor Duke, a broad shouldered African American man, told me, “It’s cold outside, but this is the warmest congregation I’ve ever served.”
Pastor Duke conducted his sermon in English, but I had come for the Inupiaq choir. The youngest congregant that night might have been in her fifties. Everyone sang passionately, in high, thin voices, hymns like “Glory To His Name” in a tongue passed down by generations of elders: Uumatipkun anaraurami Jesus salummanagaana Piluutitka piiksimagai atka nakuuruk.
After church I went to grab some food in one of Utqiagvik’s handful of restaurants. They all seem lifted from the same Arctic cookie cutter sheet: a small TV playing the news and/or soap operas, and a catch-all menu of overpriced pizza, burgers, teriyaki, and fried rice. The food was rarely great, but I can say I’ve had a sausage pizza north of the Arctic circle, and that’s what counts.
While I ate, I watched local teenagers do what teenagers do: give each other grief, flirt, and check their smartphones. Tech has brought even the most remote corners of the world into screen-to-screen contact. Watching the choir sing in their native language gave Utqiagvik a timeless feel that felt incongruous next to the iPhones. Then I gave the moment more than a cursory thought and shook myself out of my romanticism. Utqiagvik is old and connected to its past and traditions, but it is not timeless. It changes, like anywhere else. The beach erodes. The restaurants serve pizza. The powwow music is played on truck radios. The choir sings in Inupiaq, but they sing hymns to an imported God.
In any case, I couldn’t blame folks in the Arctic for wanting to be as connected as the rest of us. It’s easy to feel isolated up here. Driving around, I saw a rotting walrus carcass. It looked like a giant wet turd, and pretty much smelled like one. In the distance, whale bones were bleached by the weak Arctic sun. I had experienced great warmth and friendliness in Utqiagvik, but vistas like this left me longing for the fertility of points south.
Before I left, though, I had to do something. I looked at the walrus corpse, and the dark waters of the northern seas. Then I stripped down to my underwear. The wind lacerated my skin. I ran as fast as I could down the pebbly beach.
Then: an explosion of brown, and gray, and steel scent, and salt. I was in the ocean. It felt like the coldest shower I have ever taken, repeated forever. The waves smacked my chest. Rocks battered my face. I dove under three times, to really feel like I had swum in the ocean and not just dipped a toe in.
I emerged and jogged back to my pile of clothes. A skinny Iñupiat guy had watched my entire dip. He was bobbing along with Beats By Dre headphones, and gave me a nod.
“You’re crazy, bro,” he said.
“I want to swim in every ocean in the world,” I said.
He nodded again, then turned away and walked past the dead walrus. I couldn’t dispute his nonchalance. I swam on the edge; he lived in it. The moment had lasted mere seconds. But the edge was there. Some people will always feel compelled to touch it, to feel the absence of the land, before they return to it.
All photos courtesy of Adam Karlin