Barrow, Alaska, is not what tourism officials are selling when they try to entice visitors to “America’s Last Frontier.” No towering, granite mountains here. No majestic mile-long glaciers. No rushing turquoise rivers or splendid forests of pine.
Sure. No argument. But it’s all a matter of viewpoint. If your ideal of natural beauty tends toward massive, old-world vertical relief, don’t go to Barrow; follow the other eco-tourists to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which has more wild mountain valleys than John Muir could shake his walking stick at. But there’s a reason why the majority of indigenous people in Alaska live on the coastal plain, that fertile, varied ecosystem that oil-hungry Republicans like to sell to the “Lower 48” as a vast, featureless desert. In the waters off Barrow are thousands of bowhead and beluga whales, not to mention the occasional walrus and ringed and bearded seal. On the tundra that comes alive each summer with brilliant, ornate wildflowers, you may see caribou, musk oxen, and silver foxes. In the air above: snowy owls, eiders, falcons, and arctic terns. What’s more, Barrow—which possesses an intact Eskimo society still coming to terms with Western influences—is possibly the oldest continuously inhabited town in North America, and so has a culture and anthropology that rival Mesopotamia—although in this case the town’s transformation from a subsistence, Third World economy to an oil-rich boom town has occurred in most residents’ lifetimes. In Barrow, you can see caribou skins drying on the rack beside $60,000 pickup trucks delivered by barge from nearby Prudhoe Bay. You can watch skin boats (umiaks) being readied for fall whaling by captains who own multiple winter homes in Hawaii. Drive down the beach road past archeological sites that have delivered 1,200-year-old remnants of a vanished Eskimo society, and you’ll come to “The Point,” where continental North America ends at a massive pile of bowhead-whale bones that soar like a Richard Serra sculpture (occasionally viewed by polar bears).
Since Barrow’s road system is limited, and the town has no nature preserves or hiking trails, you’ll need some help (and cash) to explore. John Tidwell, who owns Alaskan Arctic Adventures, will take you out to the Point in his van or, if you reach town before the ice melts, whisk you over the sea ice by dog team. Gary Quarles, who flies a small helicopter with a glass-bubble cockpit, can show you astonishing views of the tundra, the ocean, and the barrier islands to the east. If you need mints on your pillow at night, stay at the King Eider Inn. If you can trade comfort for views, get an ocean-facing room at Top of the World Hotel.
No matter what you do or where you stay, you won’t miss Barrow’s main attraction. In summer, the sun is up all day and all night, wheeling around the sky and delivering its double-espresso charge of energy. Walk through town to the edge of land. Behind you lie all the country’s births and deaths, its logos and stock frauds, its political campaigns and scandals. At your feet lie the surprisingly tranquil waters of the Arctic Ocean, reflecting an orange disc of sun. Out on the horizon, you may see brilliant floes of shifting pack ice, creaking with the current. You can’t buy this kind of calm. It is the pleasure of having almost, but not quite, fallen off the edge of the Earth.