Mount Sutro: An Electronic Periodical

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The Gateway To The Arctic

The Utqiaġvik bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) jaw bone arch along with other whale bones and the wooden frame of an umiak, an Iñupiat seal skin whaling boat, along the shore of the icy Chukchi Sea, Arctic Ocean.

3220 Brower Street, Utqiaġvik, Alaska: 28 June 2017

part of the Alaska 2017: Utqiaġvik album


"Why are you going to Barrow," asked the oil field worker seated next to me.

We were on a flight from Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay (Deadhorse), the second segment of my journey from Fairbanks to Utqiaġvik, the northernmost United States city and eleventh northernmost public community in the world. Previously called Barrow, a narrow election (381 yea to 375 nay) on Tuesday, 04 October 2016 resulted in the name change to Utqiaġvik, taking effect on Thursday, 01 December 2016.

"Because I have never been there," I replied. "I came all the way to Alaska, why not go to the top of the world?"

My visit to Utqiaġvik (pronounced oot–kay-ahg–vik) would be a brief one, clocking in at about twenty-four hours. During that time, I wanted to see and learn as much as possible about this remote community of 4,212 (2010). The Iñupiat, an indigenous Inuit people, have lived in this area since around 500 AD and Alaska Natives account for 61.2 percent of Utqiaġvik's population. While some modern advances have changed the society, the native traditions continue to be observed in many ways.

One of those traditions is the whale hunt. Part of the subsistence way of living that is common in the region, the Iñupiat have hunted whales in the waters just offshore for centuries, considering it necessary for survival and a significant spiritual experience. Beyond it being a source of food, the Iñupiat believe in using every part of the whale, the bones often fashioned into tools, personal items, art and jewelry. The whale, like all animals hunted by the Iñupiat, are respected and considered a gift to the village benefiting from their sacrifice. Today, a handful of native villages are still legally permitted a limited number of strikes each season.

Bowhead whale artifacts can be found throughout town, but the most well-known is probably the whale bone arch. Located on the shore of the icy Chukchi Sea, the whale bone arch consists of two jaw bones planted vertically in the ground, forming a wishbone-style monument and gateway to the Arctic Ocean. Sitting nearby are a number of other whale bones, a bowhead skull and the wooden frame of an umiak, an Iñupiat seal skin whaling boat.

Although I could not find any historical details about the arch, an adjacent building has a documented past. The "oldest wood-framed building standing along Alaska's Arctic coast," the Point Barrow Refuge Station (1889) was built to serve as a manned sanctuary for shipwrecked whalers. Following the frequent loss of life and vessels in the Chukchi and Beaufort Sea, whalers from Massachusetts and California petitioned Congress in 1888 for a series of refuge stations. This was the only one built.

A thirty-foot by forty-eight-foot structure constructed to bunk fifty men, the Point Barrow Refuge Station was underutilized for the next seven years due to the lack of shipwrecks. It closed in 1896, due in part to the low demand as well as the station's corrupt superintendent engaging in "shady business dealings." The station was subsequently purchased by the Pacific Steam Whaling Company, which in turn rented it to naturalist Edward Avery McIlhenny. While he was in residence for the winter of 1897, McIlhenny found himself helping one-hundred men, victims of an incident involving eight ships, shelter there for eleven months.

The building was next sold in 1898 to the Cape Smythe Whaling and Trading Company. Its manager, Charles Brower, performed a number of modifications to the building including raising the roof and adding a cross gable at the front. Brower was also responsible for enlarging three windows on the northwest side and building additions to the rear and southwest front of the structure. More recently, the space was home to Brower's Cafe, operated by relatives of Charles, but that restaurant has since gone out of business. The building seemed vacant during my visit to the whale bone arch.

Even though I had already waded into the Arctic Ocean in Prudhoe Bay — an occasion that will no doubt be memorialized here at some point — the temptation to again feel those icy waters was too great. I just touched it with my hands this time, having previously had the experience of stepping barefoot into the frigid shallows, and again concluded that the water was indeed cold.

Standing on the dark, gravelly shoreline, there was a crisp breeze coming off the Chukchi Sea. It was fresh and invigorating but damn cold. Still, I took a few minutes to stand there and enjoy this unique beach before returning to the car to continue our exploration of Utqiaġvik.

The State Mammal Of Alaska

A moose (Alces alces) cow and calf stop to look across the road while foraging on the shoulder of Denali Park Road near C-Camp in Denali National Park and Preserve.

MP 3 Denali Park Road, Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska: 16 June 2017

part of the Alaska 2017: Denali National Park and Preserve album


In the second floor area of Fairbanks International Airport where you queue for security screening, Alaska Airlines has a large display inviting travelers to take a selfie with its poster, a closeup of two moose standing and looking toward the camera with curiosity. I wish that I would have taken a picture of that display, because looking back it was an excellent symbol for the incredible journey that was then coming to a close.

My Alaska voyage was filled with amazing wildlife, some of it rather close, but it was the moose that kept making appearances throughout the state. I will even admit to regularly saying "moose moose moose" in a quiet, monotone chant as a way of calling forth those and other wild and native creatures. My first moose encounter in Alaska was a cow and her calf grazing along the road in Denali National Park and Preserve, spotted just after entering the park. I was very excited for this opportunity, little did I know that I would see moose much closer the following day.

Thirty-one-and-a-half hours later, driving back to the Savage River Campground after having enjoyed dinner in the small commercial area on George Parks Highway just outside the park, we were on the lookout for animals as always. Approaching C-Camp, the National Park Service seasonal housing compound and maintenance yard, we pulled off to the side of Denali Park Road and came to a stop on the shoulder. There was not much room here, so the trees and plants of the forest were just outside my open window.

Looking into the thicket, we could tell that some animal was lurking nearby. It was likely to be a moose but I was not sure until the moose cow decided to approach, emerging from the dense woods into a small clear patch to munch on the leaves growing on plants alongside the road. She softly foraged, seemingly oblivious to the four-door pickup truck sitting a few feet away, its passengers rapidly snapping photographs at a clip modern technology makes all too easy. As she ate, you could see that she was not alone; her calf, lurking behind in the brush, came to stand next to its mother.

I assumed that after a short time, the moose would decide to withdraw into the forest with her calf, away from our truck and the humans inside. Instead, she approached onto the shoulder and walked forward away from us slowly, inspecting the brush for edibles along the way. The calf followed soon after and walked along closely with the cow, stopping as her mother did to look across the road, possibly at a passing vehicle. With multiple directions available, the moose's next move was a surprising one.

Instead of continuing forward, retreating into the woods or crossing the road to the wilderness beyond, the moose turned around and walked back toward us. As they passed by the truck, the calf first in front and then with its mother, I nearly could have touched them had I reached out the window. Clearly unafraid and not concerned about our presence, the cow even stopped to feed while still right next to us. The calf wandered back into the woods while the cow ate, but soon after reemerged and looked around.

After about three minutes, the two moose resumed their previous course forward and away from us, occasionally stopping as before to enjoy the local herbivorous delicacies. The young calf, seemingly more interested in exploring its environment than feeding, approached the surface of Denali Park Road a few times and finally did eventually run across. The cow signaled for the calf to return and it trotted back across the road. Fortunately, there were few vehicles driving past at this hour.

Our moose encounter of about thirteen minutes looked to end once the moose did return into the dense forest. Based on where they entered the woods however, it appeared as if we might get another chance to see them on the road to C-Camp itself. We moved the truck to that road and pulled over to wait. Within five minutes, the moose reappeared and walked down C-Camp Road toward us and Denali Park Road. With a pace quicker than we had seen thus far, the cow walked along and then past us. The calf was not far behind, taking a more leisurely pace and stopping for a moment on the Roadside Trail to inspect something.

Now behind us and only visible at certain angles through the truck's side mirrors, we turned around and pulled forward to the intersection to watch the moose meandering down Denali Park Road. As we sat there watching the two moose walk away, the cow stopped in the road with the calf at her side. She turned her head left and looked back at us, which her calf cutely mimicked. The cow finally crossed the road and wandered back into the woods, leaving the calf alone on the pavement for a moment before it tagged along and disappeared into the woodland.

The Moment She Walked Past

A brown bear (Ursus arctos) sow with two cubs walks past while hunting for Arctic ground squirrel (Spermophilus parryii) on the permafrost tundra near the Sagavanirktok River.

MP 412.8 James W. Dalton Highway, Prudhoe Bay, Alaska: 24 June 2017

part of the Alaska 2017: Prudhoe Bay and Deadhorse album


I did not have the best view when the first encounter took place. Most of my photos of the brown bear sow with her two cubs in the tundra across the James W. Dalton Highway (AK 11) from Deadhorse Camp were shot through the windshield, covered in dirt from the mostly gravel roadway and filled with spidering cracks stretching across the length of the glass. Regardless, I tried my best to capture clear shots of the bear while she hunted for Arctic ground squirrel and her cubs amused themselves playing nearby.

We were just about two miles away from the end of the Dalton Highway, the conclusion of a unique and beautiful two-day journey from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay at the shore of the Arctic Ocean. Even though Deadhorse Camp was our lodging for the night and everyone, including myself, was very much ready to eat and sleep, I insisted that we finish what we started by driving to the very end of the Dalton at East Lake Colleen Drive. Just as we were passing our lodging to the left, Mom and Ross signaled about bears to the right. I pulled over to the shoulder and Mom and I started taking pictures in a frantic whirr of shutter clicks.

We watched in awe as the large brown bear, a grizzly but for her coastal habitat, jumped and pounded her paws on a sandy mound in the tundra, inside which was the shallow burrow home of some Arctic ground squirrels. Seemingly without much success, the bear performed her hunting dance again and again before moving to another nearby mound. Given our hunger and exhaustion, we watched for about ten minutes and then drove the final two miles of the Dalton. With the late hour, we decided to next return to the camp to get checked into our rooms and eat.

Returning to the tundra across the street from our prefabricated dwelling, elevated above the ground as most structures in the North Slope are to keep warmth away from the permafrost, we were delighted to see that the bear and her cubs were still on the search for food. I again parked along the shoulder of the Dalton, right at the edge to keep the roadway clear for the large trucks and other industrial vehicles that inhabit the region, and gave the passenger side the better view for Mom and Ross. Sitting as far forward as possible, I managed to avoid most of the windshield cracks but many of my shots are still blurry and distorted.

After ten minutes of what was a futile attempt to capture ground squirrels, the bear decided to move on. My excitement and heartbeat quickened as the amazing beast walked through the tundra southward and on a course that was bringing her closer to us. She did not get too far away before the two cubs, as cute as can be, ran along from behind to catch up.

Before I knew it she was alongside the car, still a safe enough distance that I could have gotten us out of there if needed, but close enough for my views of her out the open passenger window to be large in the viewfinder at 250 millimeters. You could even see that her ear was tagged.

The mother bear paid us no attention as she and her cubs, playing with each other as they slowly tagged along not far behind, walked past and continued south on the tundra. This was no surprise as brown bears, as well as black bears, would generally prefer to avoid humans (polar bears, on the other hand, are ferocious and have been known to kill and eat people).

At one point as the bears walked south and further away from us, one of the cubs stopped to investigate something on the ground. It then turned around and looked in our direction, as if to check us out despite having been much closer moments before. It then turned back and trotted up to its sibling, who joined in resuming their playful outbursts while also following behind mother.

The Voyage To The Last Frontier

Dillon Mountain (4820 feet), spruce trees and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline (1977) along the Dalton Highway (AK 11) southbound.

MP 210.5 James W. Dalton Highway, Yukon-Koyukuk, Alaska: 25 June 2017

part of the Alaska 2017: Prudhoe Bay to Coldfoot album


Ever since the days of my childhood when I heard stories of family living in Alaska in the 1970s, I have been drawn to see this vast and stunningly beautiful place they call the last frontier. In June 2017, I finally realized this dream and embarked upon an adventure to see as much of Alaska as possible in eighteen days.

Meeting up with Mom and Ross — themselves in the middle of a multi-month road trip across northwestern Canada and Alaska — was a great way to see the forty-ninth state and spend time with my family. Plus, Mom is an expert travel planner so I knew that we would make the most of our visit.

Travelling over 4,000 miles mostly by land, we spent time in Fairbanks, Denali National Park and Preserve, Talkeetna, Anchorage, Portage, Seward, Whittier, Prince William Sound, Wiseman, Prudhoe Bay, Deadhorse, Coldfoot, Utqiaġvik (Barrow) and the Arctic Ocean. We saw moose, grizzly bears, caribou, lynx, musk ox, Arctic ground squirrels, fox, otters, harbor seals, bald eagles, hawks, ducks, geese, mountains, tundra, glaciers and so much more.

The sheer scope of the Alaskan landscape and wilderness is staggering; something new and astounding was around every corner. In addition, most of the locals with whom we interacted were some of the nicest people you could meet. An incredible journey from start to finish, I am left with the desire to return and see more of this spectacular place.

Between the breathtaking scenery, abundant wildlife and never-ending daylight, I managed to take over 9,000 photographs and consume about 206 gigabytes of storage. That is nearly 5,500 images or 151% more than my next largest folder, adding to an already overwhelming backlog of photos to process and develop.

It would be an understatement to say that I have been enchanted by Alaska, a truly remarkable place. While I obviously plan to continue work on albums and articles queued or in progress, the next months (let us face it, years) will also feature images and tales from Alaska. Thinking about the trip and everything the three of us experienced, I look at my pictures and wonder, when will we be going back?

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