If you look at a map of Alaska and find the part that pops up way at the top left, that’s the legendary town of Barrow (population ~4200). It is America’s Northernmost city and soon to be renamed with traditional nomenclature: Utqiagvik. The villages around there are small and have both indigenous and adopted names: Atqasuk, Wainwright, Alpine, Nuiqsut, Umiat, Sagwon, Point Lay.
This post discusses some of the perils of life on the slope. Chief among them: getting to and from the villages themselves. Combine the remoteness with nigh limitless natural hazards and you start to fathom why the Slope is one of the most difficult places in the world to survive.
First, conditions are extreme to say the least. The sun never goes away during brief summers and stops shining entirely for almost three months through long, frigid winters. As frost and snow descend in late August, the cold becomes a constant threat. The very air is your enemy – it stings exposed flesh with sensations like tiny needles of subzero agony. You bundle, layer, and savor any opportunity to move. It all comes back to basic physics: motion is warmth.
Moreover, during daylight hours you can actually go blind from overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. The condition is called snow blindness and it’s terrifying to consider. Loss of vision due to sunburnt corneas?! Sounds implausible, but snow can actually reflect up to 80% of the sun’s UV rays – which are even stronger at high elevation and increasing steadily in the Arctic lately due to holes in the ozone layer.
Arctic peoples surmounted this challenge thousands of years ago with simple eyewear called Snow Goggles. Pretty nifty, eh?
The flat topography, while a little boring, allows you to appreciate the scale of Alaska’s expanses. With circular lakes littering the landscape and a profoundly empty feeling from lacking tall vegetation, the Slope feels like an alien planet at times.
The villages themselves are bastions against the vastness, with structures jutting stubbornly outward against the encroaching wild. It’s as if the tiny tenements and metal leviathans stand defiantly in the face of all that untamed space.
As with other Alaskan villages, there are no roads leading in or out of Barrow. One could possibly find tundra trails carved from ATV tracks, but nothing that cars nor heavy-duty trucks could handle. Even the most stout four-wheelers experience havoc at stream crossings or uber-hummocky tundra. (Thank goodness for winches and patience).
Thus, airplanes are the primary method of transporting supplies, mail, and humans. Small airplanes, mostly. The aviation industry in Alaska is massive as a result. There are more pilots per capita in Alaska than any other state in the Union, over three times the next closest state. Unfortunately, this means the 49th State also has more crashes.
Before my most recent journey to the Slope, I had a chance to visit one of the “airplane graveyards” at the Anchorage Ted Stevens International Airport. It was a bad decision, I spend too much time in the sky to be so harshly reminded of air travel’s many vulnerabilities. Especially when 2016 has seen an uptick in air crashes all across Alaska. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Alaska’s experienced over 90 (yes, NINETY) crashes from January 1, 2016 to December 31, 2016.
Of those 92 crashes, 13 were fatal, resulting in 32 deaths.
Imagine that, 32 lives stolen from American skies in a single year. Harrowing.
I didn’t know these facts as I wandered around the derelict aircraft that once flew so proudly. Though throughout airports across the state, I’d heard talk all year of “how bad 2016 has gotten,” I had no clue that the numbers had not been this bad in decades. Apparently the situation is now worsening after a substantial improvement in the early 2000s.
The 1990s were years of an Alaskan crash epidemic, highlighting inherent aviation dangers in such remote places. Old planes are common. And all that really separates anyone in the air from death-by-gravity is a momentary lapse by an aircraft mechanic, manufacturer, or pilot. And let’s not forget about birds, those feathered shrapnel shards.
Additionally, it is tough to get parts or tools shipped to Alaska’s villages – thus, many carriers or pilots have traditionally learned to “just make it work” with whatever is on hand. Which can be a catastrophic way of thinking in a place with so much space and such tumultuously fast-changing weather patterns and treacherous terrain.
And since most of these communities rest along the sea, the saltwater corrosion factor is at work too – on top of oceanic storms that make the Great Lakes’ gales of my youth seem cuddly by comparison.
The North Slope’s seas are not just any run-of-the-mill bodies of water. The brutal Beaufort and Chukchi Seas (say that 10 times fast, I dare you) are home to massive tempests and majestic giants of the deep: bowhead and beluga whales, among others – all vital to people’s survival in the daunting Arctic.
On one trip, a colleague and I arrived in a small village outside Barrow/Utqiaġvik just after a successful Beluga hunt in July. The air smelled strongly of the ocean and I remember breathing deeply. Despite being on the coast, my own town of Anchorage rarely gets that salty scent. There was something else on the air too. Something funky.
Two beluga corpses were spread across a field of grass and dirt not far from the airstrip, with blood pooled around the ground intermittently. Children and adults alike were helping in the process. Everyone got at least a little meat. It was a beautiful ceremony, if brutal.
Such is the altruistically communal mentality behind subsistence hunting. “The land provides for us so that we can provide for our people,” one man told me a few nights later. He then offered me fried muktuk – basically beluga blubber. Fair warning to those unaccustomed to the chewy meat: it can make you sick. The native peoples possess special stomach enzymes that allow them to break down the dense fatty meat and provide Vitamin D, a critical dietary supplement when there is no sunshine for months on end.
Unfortunately, this way of life is becoming more and more difficult as climate change accelerates across the Arctic. Whale migration patterns are shifting and studies are tracking heightened subsistence access issues. Added risks include environmental disasters, despite growing Inupiat interest in allowing more offshore drilling. This topic in particular sparks deep divides among native communities.
This indicates dire affairs to come. Getting food shipped to Alaska, specifically to the furthest flung villages of the Slope, is prohibitively expensive.
Consider that these problems are stacked upon the already formidable task of relocating villages due to climate change and one thing becomes clear: hard times are coming.
© Chasen Cunitz and AKv2v.com, 2016
Use or duplication of this material without express and written permission is prohibited.
Alaska: Village to Village