A Winter Journey 320 Miles North Of The Arctic Circle
A Winter Journey 320 Miles North Of The Arctic Circle
Utqiagvik, formerly known as Barrow, is located 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and sits on the coast of the Arctic Ocean.
Going to the “Top of the World”, in February, may not be everyone’s idea of a winter, beach vacation, but it certainly was mine.
It wasn’t just mine.
My friends Barb and Sheri are a little crazy too, and just like me, they wanted to experience what life is like in the northernmost city in the U.S., during the coldest month of the year.
So there we were. At the airport in Anchorage.
At 5 am.
Anxiously awaiting our trip to the Arctic…in February.
Surprisingly enough, the flight was almost full, but most of them were going because they had to. (unlike us) I’m pretty sure we were the only ones who considered this trip a vacation.
We arrived in Utqiagvik at 10:30 am after a 3 hour flight from Anchorage. Normally a straight thru flight would take a little under 2 hours, but we stopped in Deadhorse (Prudhoe Bay) to drop off a few oilfield workers. I’m sure there was an exchange of cargo and mail as well.
The airport in Utqiagvik is tiny, as I’m sure you can imagine. There’s no jetbridge, so we bundled up in preparation for the walk across the airfield. We’re not strangers to cold weather, but this is on a whole different level. We weren’t really sure of what to expect. It’s definitely something that you have to be mentally ready for. If that’s even possible.
The walk wasn’t as bad as I had imagined, I’m assuming because there was no wind. The wind makes all the difference in the world, as we would come to find out later on.
Don’t get me wrong, it was still bitter cold.
Baggage claim takes a while here.
Due to remote location, the cost of shipping is extremely high. This drives the price of many everyday items through the roof, so the locals load up on supplies while they are in Anchorage. Alaska Airlines doesn’t charge for the first checked bag ,box, tote or whatever, that’s being flown within the State, and it’s only $30 for each additional checked item under 50 lbs. You will come out way ahead in the long run. You’ll see why in a bit.
Barb and I stepped outside to get some quick pictures. I mean some really quick pictures! It’s sooo cold!
We finally retrieved our bag and met up with the hotel shuttle driver. He had the shuttle nice and warm (happy about that) and he took us on a “scenic route” to the hotel, pointing out a few things along the way.
We arrived at the Top of the World Hotel, where we had reserved an “ocean view” room.
Not much goes on here in the winter but during the summer months the Top of the World Hotel offers Tundra Tours. During the tour they will teach you the history of this ancient village and take you to sacred places that are only accessible through a native guide. Certain areas are forbidden to non natives without a chaperone.
The hotel was nice and the staff were friendly and more than ready to offer tips and advice. We felt very welcomed.
The elevator art
The room was cozy, clean and big and the beds were super comfy. It was also equipped with everything that we needed for our stay.
It even came with a partially used bar of soap with a hair on it, hidden in the corner of the shower. Sheri was so grossed out by it and I thought it was a little funny, her reaction was the funniest part.
The housekeeper missed a spot, apparently.
Oh well… things happen…it’s only hair…right?
The room had a king sized bed, a sofa bed and a kitchenette, and most importantly, it was warm.
We had the perfect ocean view (minus the sand and water). It was just as beautiful as any other ocean view that I have seen. Only slightly colder.
There are 4 hotels in Utqiagvik:
Top of the World Hotel/Tundra Tours
King Elder Inn
Latitude 71 BnB
I would recommend “Top of the World”. I haven’t stayed at the other ones so I can’t compare, but I really enjoyed my experience here. It’s not cheap at any of them, our room was a little over $300 a night plus the extra $75 for a 3 pm checkout (instead of 11 am). For another $100 (on top of the $75) we could’ve extended until 5 pm.
We just killed some time in the restaurant and watched the Superbowl in the lobby (for free) while we waited on our flight time.
The hotel was a little pricey but not bad if you’re splitting it 3 ways.
An Arctic Walk
After getting to our room we put on our warm, “Arctic type” clothes.
All of them.
I was wearing fleece leggings; 2 pair of socks; jeans; a shin length, Down, “Skhoop” skirt; a sweater; a long down puffy coat under my parka; a hooded facemask; a sock hat; gloves; a scarf and insulated Bog boots. Getting dressed was a process. Going to the bathroom was an even bigger process.
Go easy on the coffee.
FYI Jeans are a terrible idea unless you layer under and over them. They hold in the cold. Just a helpful hint.
Do we look ready? Either way…here we go.
We started out by walking down to the “Whalebone Arch”, a popular tourist spot (In the summer). What a beautiful site.
The frozen whiteness behind the arch is the Arctic Ocean!
Beginning in late July, the ocean will be relatively ice free and will remain that way until October.
But not today.
The “Whalebone Arch” was built as a symbol of the town’s relationship with whaling and the sea and as a memorial to lost sailors.
After visiting the Arch and walking down to the ocean, we went back to the hotel lobby, to warm up, and defrost my eyelashes, before heading to the store.
The walk to the store
We were all warmed up and ready to head out on another polar adventure. It’s minus 32 degrees and the wind was calm. The store was only a few blocks up the road and we wanted to walk so we could check out the town and watch the sun rise.
The A C Store
It was only a few (looong) blocks away and we made it without freezing. Well… except for Sheri’s toes. She thought that she had lost a couple of them before we got there, she wasn’t sure though because she couldn’t feel them anymore. Good thing they sold hand/foot warmers for the walk back. Otherwise we would have been calling a cab for the return trip.
The A C (grocery store) is more like an “everything” store. Pretty much everything you would need, you can find here. But…..
What’s it worth to ya?
Here are the reasons that the locals buy boxes of supplies in Anchorage.
Is that crazy or what!
Since we’re not rich, we bought coffee mugs and a drink, stuffed Sheri’s boots with foot warmers, and headed back to the hotel.
Now to find somewhere for dinner, since we couldn’t afford the apples.
We had a recommendation, from a friend, to go to “Sam N Lee’s” for Chinese food. So we called a cab and off we went.
There are 4 cab companies in Utqiagvik which seems strange, but there are.
We were starving and looking forward to this. We were also looking forward to being in out of the cold.
The joke was on us because it was cold in there too.
The other restaurants in Utqiagvik
Niggivikput – hotel restaurant
East Coast Pizzeria
Northern Lights Restaurant
Subway- (home of the $15 foot long)
Lilianas – Fresh baked goodies
Cruz’s Mexican Grill
The Cute Little Coffee Shop
The cutest little coffee shop / ice cream shop / filipino cafe! It was just a short walk across the parking lot and down the hill from the hotel. I can’t remember the name, but it was in a tiny little building with a red door and even had a drive thru. The cute ladies here were so friendly, the food was delicious and the lattes would give Starbucks a run for their money.
The food menu changes daily, depending on what the ladies feel like making that day. They also have no set hours, they just open whenever they want to.
Today there was Pancit. Yummy! This was our second day here.
After dinner at Sam N Lee’s, on our first day, we took a taxi tour around town. The driver took us around the city and out towards Point Barrow, as far as he could legally go, being a non native. We were hoping to see some Polar Bears (from a distance). No such luck. Apparently a few days before they had to shoot an aggressive bear that was trying to get into the fur shop. Maybe the “fur shop” wasn’t the smartest place for him to go?
Most of our tour pictures were taken out of the taxi window. The farther we went the more frosted up the windows became. I still managed to capture the remote arctic tundra in all of it’s frozen glory.
Random interesting facts about Utqiagvik while we take a photo tour
Utqiagvik is the largest city in the North Slope and is located 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle, it is referred to as “The Top of the World”.
It is the economic center of the North Slope Borough
It is one of the northernmost public communities in the world and the northernmost city in the United States.
It is home to over 4,000 people with a little over 61% being Native Inupiat Eskimo
No roads connect the city to the rest of Alaska
Barrow is served by Alaska Airlines with 2 flights a day and provides daily mail, cargo and passenger services from Deadhorse, Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Freight arrives by air cargo year-round and by ocean-going marine barges during the annual summer sea lift.
The city has enacted the “Damp Law” which prohibits the sale of alcohol, however, it does allow for import, possession and consumption of alcoholic beverages.
Suicide, depression, substance abuse and domestic violence are a common problem here.
Utqiagvik is 21.48 square miles, 18 being land and 3 being water. The predominant land is tundra, which is formed over a permafrost layer that can be as much as 1,300 feet deep.
The ancient 5 mile sized crater, “Avak”, is located near Barrow.
Barrow’s location is roughly 1,300 miles south of the North Pole. Only 2.6% of the Earth’s surface lies as far, and farther from the equator, as Barrow.
Barrow has been home to the Inupiat, an indigenous Inuit ethnic group, for more than 1,500 years.
The town’s name was changed to Barrow, after Sir John Barrow of the British Admirality, in 1825. The non native residents found it easier to pronounce.
In October 2016 city residents voted to change the name back to it’s original name of Utqiagvik. The vote passed and the name was changed officially on December 1st 2016.
Because transporting food to the city is very expensive, many residents continue to rely on subsistence food sources.
Whale, seal, polar bear, walrus, waterfowl, caribou and fish are harvested from the coast and nearby rivers and lakes. The townspeople depend on the ocean for survival.
The NFL Network featured the Barrow High School Whalers football team in an 8 part documentary.
July is the warmest month with temps reaching 40 degrees F.
February is the coldest month. The average temp is -20 but can easily dip to much lower temperatures
The climate is cold and dry and is classified as a “polar climate”. The average rainfall equivalent is less than 5 inches a year. Winter weather can be extremely dangerous due to the cold and wind.
Barrow is surrounded by the Arctic Ocean on 3 sides. Flat tundra stretches approx. 200 miles to the south. There are no barriers from the wind.
Freezing temps and snowfall can occur during any month of the year.
Here you’ll find the oldest permanent dwellings in the United States, dating as far back as 500 A.D.
The U.S. Army established a meteorological and magnetic research station in 1881.
In 1888 a Presbyterian Church was built by U.S. missionaries and is still used today
Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital is the northernmost hospital in the U.S. and is the primary healthcare facility for the North Slope.
Because there are no roads leading in or out, the surrounding communities rely on medivac aircraft for medical assistance.
The houses are built on pilings to prevent them from sinking, due to the heaving permafrost.
The sun sets on Nov. 18th or 19th and remains below the horizon for 66 days. This creates a Polar Night that lasts until Jan. 22nd or 23rd.
When the sun comes up in January, it will rise barely above the horizon for less than one hour before setting again. It will gain a few minutes every day.
During the first half of Polar Night, there is a decreasing amount of twilight each day, and on the Winter Solstice, civil twilight will only last 3 hours.
By May 11th or 12th the sun will rise for the entire day. This phenomenon is known as the Midnight Sun. The sun will not set again for 80 days.
In 1986, Ilesagvik College was built in Barrow. It is a 2 year accredited college that educates on Inupiat culture and the needs of the North Slope Borough.
In 1972, the North Slope Borough was established with millions of dollars in oil revenues. Sanitation facilities, water, electric, roads, fire depts, and health and education services were created in Barrow and the surrounding villages of the North Slope.
The famous Will Rogers and Wiley Post died in a small plane crash around 15 miles from Barrow while in route to the city. There was a memorial established and the airport was renamed Wiley Post – Will Rogers Memorial Airport in their honor.
What a fascinating tour of the most remote city in the U.S.
I think the extreme cold zapped us of all our energy. Shortly after returning to the hotel, we crashed. I can’t remember ever feeling so tired and sleepy. We were told by the front desk that if the Northern Lights were out, we would be able to see them from our window. So I set my alarm for 11 pm. Between Barb and I (Sheri was out), we woke up to check every couple of hours, but again…no such luck.
The Last Day
The wind had been still and calm. Until today.
The temp was only a couple degrees colder than before but this day was much different. The wind was blowing, not fiercely, but enough to change the whole dynamic.
We had been out the day before, walking and taking pictures, and it really didn’t feel that bad, considering it was minus 30ish. In order to take pictures we had to take off our gloves (because apparently “touch gloves” do not work in sub zero situations). This worked out fine for a few minutes at a time.
But that was yesterday.
We walked back down to the ocean one last time before leaving this frozen land. We could feel the difference right away upon stepping out of the hotel. The walk was not as awesome as it was the day before, in fact it was the exact opposite of awesome.
We, mistakenly, decided to take a couple more lovely pictures while we were there. The gloves came off and within less than 10 seconds the excruciating pain set in.
Oh The Pain!
It didn’t feel cold, it just went straight to burning fire. I’ve never felt pain quite like that before. Needless to say, the photo shoot was cut short, along with our Arctic beach walk.
That pain doesn’t go away quickly either, it lingers… and lingers…and lingers!
My eyes were even hurting, I’m pretty sure they may have been freezing solid.
We had enough of that, so we made a beeline back up to the hotel. We weren’t as tough as we thought.
After having our last meal in the hotel restaurant and watching the Superbowl with the staff, it was time to leave. We did not go back outside until we loaded up in the warm shuttle and headed to the airport.
I learned my first phrase in Inupiat, “la pa”, it means “too cold” (it’s most likely not spelled right).
At least that’s what I was told, I hope that’s what it means. Lol
It was definitely “la pa”!
Back to the airport
We didn’t see the Northern Lights, we missed the Polar Bears (Nanuq) that had been terrorizing the town (Probably a good thing), and we almost lost some digits, but we still had an amazing time.
It was a unique experience that I will treasure forever and I’m glad I got to experience it with these 2 amazing ladies. It’s not everyday that you get to go to the top of the world!