On May 12, 2021, I took a trip to Alaska with my son, Alex. Not counting a one-day, out-and-back flight to Denver at the end of April, it was my first real trip since March 2020. American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, and probably others, were running a good sale on travel to Alaska from the eastern U.S.. At nearly 10,000 total air miles, flight times and distances are comparable to medium-haul international flights.
We’d visited Utqiaġvik once before in August of 2005 I think the year was. The town was Barrow then. In 2016, the name changed as a result of a very close city-wide referendum. In the language of the indigenous Iñupiat people, Utqiaġvik refers to a place for gathering wild roots. Barrow is far easier to remember and pronounce for most Americans, but Utqiaġvik feels decidedly more appropriate when visiting the town.
Utqiaġvik is the northernmost town in the United States. It is 320 miles (515 km) above the Arctic Circle. The location explains how we spent three days and zero nights there. In Utqiaġvik, from May 10 or 11 the sun never sets until August 1 or 2.
The population of Utqiaġvik is about 5,000. The only other similarly-sized city this far north is Tiksi, Russia. Longyearbyen, latitude 78°12′ N and population 2,400, in Norway’s Svalbard Islands is the world’s northern most settlement that could be called a city.
The demographic breakdown in Utqiaġvik is about two thirds native Alaskans with white, Asian and Pacific Islander, multiracial, Hispanic, and African comprising the rest.
The town is divided into three general areas, south (Utqiaġvik), central (Browerville), and north (NARL). Point Barrow, the meeting point of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas and the farthest north land in the U.S., is about eight miles north of the airport.
Utqiaġvik – South
The primary feature in the southern part of town is the airport. This area consists of a business district with government and commercial buildings, a couple of hotels, an elementary school, high school, and some residences. The airport is the most important facility in town.
All visitors to Utqiaġvik arrive at Will Rogers-Wiley Post Memorial Airport (BRW). Other than the annual barge that arrives in July, all of the town’s supplies arrive by air. The only roads leading to town are ice roads used only by locals in winter to connect with nearby Iñupiat settlements.
We arrived on an Alaska Airlines flight from Anchorage. The service was wonderful, and that flight will be covered in a separate post. Presently, Alaska Airlines provides the only scheduled air service to Utqiaġvik. Ravn, a regional carrier that served small remote Alaskan villages, also flew to BRW before going bankrupt in the pandemic. It may soon resume operations.
A monument to Wiley Post and Will Rogers stands directly across from the terminal. They died in 1935 when Post’s modified floatplane crashed on takeoff from a lagoon 15 miles south of the airport. There is a monument at the crash site also. We asked about seeing that monument but the location is inaccessible by car.
Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of Post or Rogers. Most people haven’t. Wiley Post (November 22, 1898 – August 15, 1935) was a pioneer American aviator during the 1920s and 30s and in 1933 he became the first pilot to fly solo around the world. Will Rogers (November 4, 1879 – August 15, 1935) was an American actor, vaudeville performer, cowboy, humorist, nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, and social commentator. Rogers was born in the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma Territory. His political wit made him hugely popular in the United States and he was among the highest paid stars in Hollywood. Their passing was mourned nationwide.
Next to the memorial is a signpost indicating direction and distance to various places around the world.
As I mentioned in a previous post, the bright blue building behind the milepost has an interesting story. There is no identification on the building. We later learned that it is the alcohol distribution center.
We got funny looks when asking about buying beer. We didn’t realize it from our previous visit, but in 1995, in another close referendum, Utqiaġvik became essentially a “damp” town. Residents of legal age can apply for a permit to receive monthly rations of alcoholic beverages. Rations are dispensed at the distribution center. The center is only open for three hours three days per week.
In any month, an authorized resident may not bring in more than 11.25 gallons of malt beverages, 20 liters of wine, four and one-half liters of distilled spirits. The limits seem very generous and leave a lot of room for black marketeering, which is where a substantial portion of the supply ends up I later learned. When we asked about beer, people may have suspected we were the alcohol equivalent of Narcs.
While we are on the subject of about Narcs, Alaska allows the sale of marijuana for recreational or medicinal purposes. There are two dispensaries in Utqiaġvik that operate free of the limitations on liquor sales.
We booked a room at the King Eider Inn. It is located across the street from the airport. The location was the deciding factor. Even though Utqiaġvik is a small town, the ease of getting to and from the airport makes one less thing to be concerned about.
There is not a lot of choice in accommodations. The King eider Inn is one of three hotels and a couple of B & Bs in town. The review is upcoming. In Utqiaġvik expect to pay a pretty penny for lodging and just about everything else. The simple double room was the least expensive room type and it cost $200/night in low season.
Tours weren’t yet operating during our stay. In order to see some of the sights, we rented a taxi and the driver, Sangwan, showed us around. He was a Buddhist monk from Thailand who wound up in Utqiaġvik after serving at the temple in Anchorage. He owned the cab company. The three-hour tour cost was $150, which I thought was less than outrageous for a private tour for two.
The Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation (UIC) is headquartered here. This is the company that manages the indigenous people’s ownership of natural resources. UIC was created in 1971 by the Alaskan Native Claims Act. The act effectively converted the Iñupiat communal way of living into a corporation. Ukpeaġvik refers to the place for hunting snowy owls and is an alternative name for Utqiaġvik.
Speaking of “snowy owls?” The prehistoric village of Ukpeaġvik occupied a location on the shore of the Chukchi Sea in the southern part of town. Remnants of sod houses dating as far back as 2,000 years form a group of low mounds at this site.
It just so happened that as we drove past this site I spotted a snowy owl perched on a telephone pole. Our cab driver was surprised to see one. The Snowy Owl population is dwindling. He thought the owl was probably hunting lemmings, small arctic rodents, in the adjacent fields.
An exotic looking vehicle was parked next to the field where we saw the owl.
Utqiaġvik is the seat of government for the North Slope Borough. The borough covers 95,000 square miles of Alaska’s northern most territory. Only 11 U.S. states are larger than the North Slope Borough.
Utqiaġvik school teams have done well in sports. The Barrow High School Whalers won state championships in football in 2017 and basketball in 2015.
A small lake and a lagoon separate the southern section of town from Browerville, the primary residential area. Browerville also hosts the largest hotel in town, several restaurants and commercial establishments, a middle school, and the Iñupiat Heritage Center. Two dusty roads and a causeway connect Browerville and Utqiaġvik. We became familiar with them on walks around town.
The hotel is situated on the waterfront next to Utqiaġvik’s most famous photo op spot. At first, I thought the bones were fake because they felt like hollow concrete. In fact they are genuine jaw bones of a bowhead whale. Those are huge animals.
Great Utqiaġvik photos with the whale bone arch and ice covered Chukchi Sea in the background.
During the drive around Browerville we saw several homes that were displaying a portion of the spoils from the Spring whaling season. A big part of Iñupiat culture is sharing with the whole community. Iñupiat families are allowed to take an annual quota of whales, walruses and polar bears in accordance with international treaties. The Iñupiat consume almost everything they kill. Tourists can buy some items like ivory from walrus tusks. Iñupiat whaling traditions will be covered in a subsequent post.
The biggest disappointment of our visit was not spending time at the Iñupiat Heritage Center. We stopped by to check the hours. The attendant told us 8:30 – 5:00. When we returned the next day before the flight to Anchorage, we learned it was closed on weekends. Admission for adults is $10. Students are admitted for $5.
The Iñupiat Heritage Center promotes and preserves Iñupiat history, language and culture. The center serves as an informal community center as well as a museum. The multi-purpose room and classroom are available to rent for events from wedding receptions to department meetings.
We visited this center on the prior visit but it would have been nice to see it again.
Roads throughout the city wisely remain unpaved. The roads are gravel and need to be graded frequently. Even so, the ride around town is pretty rough.
The area locals call NARL is a mile or so north of Browerville. The buildings served as the United States Naval Arctic Research Laboratory, hence the name.
From the mid-1900s to 1981, NARL was a center for scientific study. In 2005, the area was repurposed to serve as a community college. Iḷisaġvik College was founded to serve the residents of the North Slope Borough, America’s largest and most northern municipality. It is the only tribal college in Alaska. The curriculum is based on Iñupiaq cultural heritage and values.
The US Air Force Point Barrow Long Range Radar site is located a couple of miles north of NARL. It opened in 1957. The station remains active and forms part of the North Warning System with Canada (formerly the Distant Early Warning DEW Line).
The cold didn’t dampen the Iñupiat sense of humor.
The road ends near the radar station. Point Barrow is a couple of miles farther north. Here, the land is a very narrow, low-lying strip of dirt and gravel situated between the Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea (Elson Lagoon).
Although winter conditions stopped our driver from going all the way to the point, we had been out there during the summer on our trip to Utqiaġvik in 2005. All of the snow is gone In August and locals dump the remnants of whale carcasses there. The dump attracts polar bears. We saw a few up close from the safety of a vehicle. They are large animals weighing up to 1,540 lbs (700kg). Polar bears are the largest bear species and the largest land carnivore in the world. I was very impressed by the enormous paw prints they leave in the sand and gravel.
It is possible to see polar bears at any time in Utqiaġvik, but when sea ice is present they will more likely be on the ice hunting or scavenging the spots where bowhead whales are hauled onto the ice and butchered.
Going to the point in summer was a little concerning because it appeared that if a rogue wave came along it would wash all the way across the narrow spit of land. That was scarier than the polar bears. Even in August water temperatures are only 34º F (1º C). Fortunately, there was very little wave action when we were out there.
Utqiaġvik’s location inside the Arctic Circle produces cold temperatures as well as long days and nights. The high temperature is above freezing on average of only 136 days per year, and there are 92 days with a maximum at or below 0 °F (−18 °C). Freezing temperatures and snowfall can occur during any month of the year. In terms of precipitation, Utqiaġvik’s has a desert climate, and averages less than 6 in (150 mm) “rainfall equivalent” per year.
In addition to being one of the world’s coldest cities, Utqiaġvik is also one of the cloudiest. It is completely overcast slightly more than 50% of the year and at least 70% overcast 62% of the time.
Freezing temperatures and snowfall can occur during any month of the year. July is the warmest month. The average high is 49º F (9º C), and the average low is 36º F (2º C). In February, the coldest month, the average high is -4º F (-20º C), and the average low is -18º F (-28º C).
During our three days in Utqiaġvik we “enjoyed” seasonal weather. Temperatures were generally in the 20sF (around -4ºC) and we never saw the sun.
Covid-19 restrictions on masks and social distancing were in full force in Utqiaġvik unlike other cities in Alaska. The most annoying pandemic effect was that the few restaurants that were open only delivered. That was a good business for the taxi companies. They charge $5 for all trips. Many people rely on taxis as their primary transportation. It costs thousands of dollars to have a car shipped up there.
Having visited Utqiaġvik in late summer and early spring, it is hard to say which time of year is better. We enjoyed the warmer weather and seeing polar bears in the summer. On the other hand, the colder temperatures of fall, winter and spring provide an experience that feels more natural for the locale. Winter would be good for viewing the aurora borealis, if clouds permit.
But in winter the sun slips below the horizon on November 18 or 19 and doesn’t rise for 66 days. The extended periods of darkness in winter would be hard to take for me. The endless daylight when we were there required little adjustment as our body clocks remained on U.S. Eastern Daylight Time. The four-hour difference in time zones was harder to adjust to than 24 hours of daylight.
Would you like to visit Utqiaġvik? What time of year would you go?