My wife Julie, my oldest son Davyd, my daughter-in-law Kim, and I were on plane pointed seriously north.
The trees had given up an hour and hundreds of miles ago. What remained was a waterlogged carpet of olive green and ochre brown called the tundra.
So, is the tundra wetlands or prairie?
The answer is yes.
The tundra is the great leveler. It is land at equal terms with sea. It is the sea at peace with the boldest extent of land. It is the land at odds with human encroachment. It is at once the roof of the world and the floor of the world.
Upon landing, we pressed through the crowded terminal to the baggage claim, 12 yards away.
Two huge Tongan men dumped the luggage out of a cart into a free-for-all: grab your bag before it was buried beneath the growing pile.
It was raining and maybe 40 degrees outside the terminal, on the last weekend of June, and it looked like a scene out of “Bladerunner.” People of every color breathing cold steam hustled to load bags and cartons of snacks, soda, and vegetables into muddy vehicles.
We were in Utqiagvik — formerly known as Barrow, Alaska — the northernmost city in the U.S. People live there, deep inside the Arctic Circle. By choice.
The next morning, the rain has paused long enough to allow us to slip outside to explore. Our tour guide was Mike Shults, a local who’d volunteered to show us around for an hour or two. It was plain from the first minute that he was an inveterate — and irreverent — storyteller.
“Behind every tree is a beautiful woman,” he deadpanned. Mike has got three trees in his yard. They may be the only trees in town. They look like palm trees, but they’re constructed of driftwood logs topped with Bowhead Whale baleen “fronds.” They lend his yard an alien tropical feel.
The houses in town were propped up on stilts, the better to thwart permafrost — and polar bears.
Every yard seemed to be decorated with snow machine parts, deserted children’s toys, and animal hides.
One house had two polar bear pelts draped over the railings. One polar bear pelt can fetch $30,000, and can be turned into clothing, trim, or traditional native novelties.
In many yards were trampolines, so children could practice for the traditional mapkuq — when residents take turns getting tossed in a blanket made of bearded sealskin — a nod to a time when hunters needed extra elevation to better spot game.
We passed through the downtown where several of the buildings rose to an imposing four stories. One squat structure housed the fur shop, Western Union, a laundromat, and a photo shop. We learned that the gorgeous new hospital was the best place in town to get coffee.
Passing the elementary school, Mike explained why he just ran the non-functional stop-and-go signal.
“That stoplight has been there for 35 years and I’ve never seen it working,” he said. “City policy says they have to have a stoplight, but it doesn’t say it has to work.”
Mike took us past the football field at the extreme north end of town, built for around a $1 million. It hosts four home games a year. Mike isn’t much of a patron. “The bleachers are cold metal,” he said. “When it’s zero degrees you can get a really bad case of polaroids.”
After Mike dropped us off, we headed to the town’s largest grocery store, The Alaska Commercial Company. We couldn’t afford many of the items, so we window shopped the $10 milk, $17 half gallon of orange juice, and $16 bag of apples and oranges.
For lunch, the consensus was Sam & Lees, run by a South Korean-American couple, neither of whom was named Sam or Lee. We ordered something truly singular — Mongolian beef pizza.
After chatting with us, the proprietor delivered a plate of sliced watermelon for dessert — a rare delicacy that can cost as much as $37 for half a melon.
At the impressive Inupiat Heritage Cultural Center, we toured the attractive displays, including the whaling exhibit. The Bowhead is central to Inupiaq tradition.
The spring whale hunt is enduring practice, and the harvested whales still supply people here with food and materials.
The annual hunting limit is 25 whales, which are hunted by small boats off the coastal ice. Inupiaq men still follow many of the “old” ways. They wait silently at seaside, watching for the telltale bubbles of passing whales. They still use harpoons. No red is allowed. It scares the willing whales away.
The butchering of harpooned whales is a community event. Whale blubber, called maktaq, is chewy and fishy and life-sustaining. Once carved, it’s divvied up between all residents. Sharing is a fundamental element of Inupiaq culture. No one goes without.
Historically, whale meat is stored for the year in ice cellars — deep subterranean rooms carved out of the ice-hard permafrost — but climate change is melting the permafrost, and many ice cellars have been flooded out.
Inupiaq people rule the roost in Utqiagvik: local government, businesses, the community college. The North Slope Borough (county) is culturally and physically dominated by these enduring people.
We’d missed Nalukataq, the annual whale hunt celebration, by just two days, but the town was celebrating the July 4 holiday with games and food. In a swampy field in front of the food stands, foot races for cash prizes were held for every age group — right down to the one-year-olds.
At the food booths the selections were as diverse as the faces of the participants — Tongan, Filipina, Korean, and Native. We opted for Pineapple chicken, Filipino pork sinigang, and caribou-on-a-stick.
The race host had to interrupt the games to remind the children via microphone not to spray Silly String into each other’s faces.
Our objective in Utqiagvik was to get to know the place, a place like nowhere else in the very distant lower 48.
We ventured north of town again and again in a rented car, threading two seas split by a spit of black sand wide enough to drive a pickup down.
On the west the Chukchi Sea, to the east, the Beaufort, still clogged with ice chunks, and across the cold expanse, Europe.
Every time we got out of the vehicle to take photos or admire eider ducks, or nesting shorebirds, or Yellow-billed Loons, we were careful to scan for polar bears.
In Utqiagvik, it’s impossible to forget you’re living on the edge.
A human stands out severely against the weeping sky, and the unflagging wind, and the soaked turf.
Best duck to survive.