Fairbanks AK - Barrow AK

          It was up at 6:15 am. We packed and then went to Fairbanks International Airport to meet Matt, our Northern Alaska Tour Company guide at 7:15 am. He dealt with the ticket agent and mentioned there was some sort of problem getting our ticket (he said it was a computer problem, but of course we couldn't really tell whether the airline or tour company was at fault). After about 15 minutes he suggested that we make ourselves comfortable, and I said we'd go to the gate. After a little while the flight began boarding, and I was beginning to seriously doubt whether this trip was going to happen. I talked to the gate agent, who checked and said we weren't in the computer yet. We waited some more. Just before the flight was closed out, Matt came through and scurried up, saying we were good to go. Shannon and I squeaked through the gate just before the flight closed out and boarded Alaska Airlines Flight 143, a Boeing 737-200C, a part-cargo part-pax aircraft that was about 50% full.
          The flight took about an hour, bringing us north across the Brooks Range and over endless snow-covered tundra. The flight attendents and flight deck crew were very pleasant, not taking themselves too seriously, and legroom on the flight was great. The only drawback was no hot breakfast, but since I was trying to avoid high-calorie meals that didn't bother me. All in all this experience with Alaska Airlines was definitely positive.
          We arrived at Barrow around 9:30 am with bright sunshine, a cloud-filled sky, and temperatures around 30 deg F. We breezed through the small teminal, found our tour bus, and waited as about 20 other people joined us. The tour, run by Tundra Tours, gradually got underway and we got a good look at the muddy, run-down town thanks to Ronnie, an excellent tour guide who was also a Texas native. Ronnie took us as far as the western road would go, past some satellite dishes and a graveyard to a frozen, snow-covered lake.
          Ronnie gave us a great tour of the town, even showing us the herculean efforts required to construct stable buildings in Barrow. Because of the permafrost (frozen ground), pilings had to be driven as much as 75 feet deep, and the buildings had to be raised or refrigerated underneath to prevent the permafrost from melting and the building collapsing. Modern buildings were expensive. Barrow High School was completed at the cost of $84 million; probably the most expensive high school building in the United States.
          We then went to see an Inupiat (Eskimo) dance and arts demonstration. We had mixed feelings about this activity since it was held in a sterile exhibition room rather than in any kind of traditional setting, and in spite of enthusiasm among the older and younger dance participants, a few of the youngsters seemed like they wanted to be elsewhere. I also wanted to hear translations of the tales woven by these songs, as I wasn't sure what we were seeing and to the untrained ear the whole performance was a bit ambiguous.
          Afterwards there was a small sale of the Inupiat crafts, which as expected were very pricy (ranging from $10 for small trinkets to $150 for fur masks). I did find a couple of 5-inch furry seals made entirely from seals, which I picked up for a moderately steep $30. I was a bit surprised these could be legally bought, but I did so anyway. [Note: A week later I was firmly convinced that this was a real seal product when Shannon's dog sniffed it, got excited, and begged to have it!]
          From there we checked into our hotel at the Top of the World Hotel. Our room was on the second floor and was vastly better than I was expecting, overlooking the shore of the Arctic Ocean just 100 yards away, and had good beds, cable TV, a refrigerator, a tub, a phone, and more. The one drawback was the poor curtains which were dark but let a lot of light in through the sides; we were amazed how the hotel owners could overlook something like this in a land where the sun is up for 80 continuous days. Shannon did also note a large clod of hair in the bathtub drain.
          We looked around our "neighborhood" (a hauntingly fascinating mix of mud, run down buildings, dogs, and junk) then had lunch at Pepe's Mexican Restaurant next to the motel. The interior was excellent -- it looked no different from an El Chico, and service (once the waitstaff discovered we were there waiting to be served) turned out to be excellent. The food was quite good and the popcorn chicken was superior. We also got to meet Fran, the restaurant owner, a southern U.S. native who opened the place over 20 years ago, and she talked with us and gave us a few souvenirs.
          At 3:15 pm we joined the afternoon segment of the tour, which took us to a more open section of the beach, near the DEW line station, and to the northernmost point of the road (which was infested with polar bears due to dumping of whale remains, though we saw none).
          Ronnie then took us to see the supermarket, the AC Value Center (Alaska Commercial), which was comparable to some of the best supermarkets back home. Prices were moderate to sky-high, though: $6.95 for a gallon of milk, $5.50 for a bag of Doritos, and $11 for a gallon of orange juice, though candy and lunchmeat prices seemed to be fairly reasonable. The tour then took us back to the hotel at 6 pm and ended. Shannon and I took a rest after this long day, watching TV and looking at the pack ice from our window. After midnight it was cloudy but still very bright outside and I took a few pictures from our room window. We were sleepy though, and after rigging the window with towels and coats to keep the light out, we fell asleep.
          Overall Barrow is better described as a flavorful, cognitive experience rather than another tourist destination. It is not a place for typical vacationers who expect to be spoon-fed luxury, excitement, and activities. Barrow is a place for travellers who have a strong appreciation for geography, society, and culture. Nowhere else can you see the multitude of problems brought about by a bittersweet mix of old Native American tradition, American consumerism, and the challenges of living in a remote and harsh environment. And of course you can't forget the experience of being so far north (admittedly the whole reason most people come to Barrow). The Lonely Planet guide gave this place only a few paragraphs and it's not in the Milepost, but this is a shame and I'm very happy that we got to visit this other important part of Alaska. Although we only got a brief glimpse at this northern settlement, it gave us plenty of food for discussion during the days ahead.

Miles driven today: 0 (no travel miles)
Business ratings (0-4 stars):
Northern Alaska Tour Company, Fairbanks AK * * * 1/2
Top of the World Hotel, Barrow AK * * * 1/2 (poor blackout curtains)
Tundra Tours, Barrow AK * * * 1/2 (needs better buses)
Pepe's Mexican Restaurant, Barrow AK * * * 1/2 (unexpected good quality)
Alaska Airlines, FAI-BRW AK * * * 1/2 (friendly, great service, legroom)

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Arctic Circle, AK -- crossing the Arctic Circle enroute to the far northern town of Barrow.

Barrow, AK -- typical street in Barrow. No roads were paved because it would lead to melting of the permafrost and buckling of the road.

Barrow, AK -- a dance and arts presentation by native Barrow residents.

Barrow, AK -- yet another milestone. The Arctic Ocean! Pack ice extended as far as the eye could see.

Barrow, AK -- Barrow was once famous for the DEW (Distant Early Warning) line, a "fence" of radars in the Arctic that would guard against Soviet bomber attacks. It continues to this day as the North Warning System, signified by the newer radome on the left.

Barrow, AK -- the AC Value Center supermarket in Barrow always has items on sale, such as the "new low price" of $6.79 for a gallon of milk!

Barrow, AK -- venturing onto ice floes on the Arctic Ocean, we gather some ocean water to take home as a souvenir. Because of extensive litter all over the town, we had no problem finding containers.

Barrow, AK -- taken just after midnight, this photo shows the intensity of the midnight sun. Photographed out of our hotel window, looking along the oceanfront street.