Top of the World (Barrow, September 21st)

On September 7th we set out from our home in Belmont, California to journey North across the continent. We have journeyed to raise funds for pediatric cancer research. We have journeyed to raise awareness of striking inequities in pediatric cancer funding and how these shortcomings result in such harm to children. But most of all, we have journeyed to honor the memory of our brave little girl, Juliet, who faced rhabdomyosarcoma with a strength and courage that did not heed the realities that were as stark as the Arctic world in which we now found ourselves. The Journey is a way to do something, to go, to remember her and imagine her with us, to see and share beauty of the world, as we would have seen and shared in our travels and explorations with her.

We had reached Barrow, the last stop in our seemingly interminable northbound trek, the farthest north town on the continent and the farthest north we would travel. We missed our families at home, and although we would never be farther from them than at that moment, we were almost at our destination.

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Of all things, it was here that we learned more about whaling than I ever really expected us to. Whether my prior ignorance was due to lack of interest, lack of having paid proper attention in some class at some point, or lack of simply having trekked to the ass end of the world to have someone who knows what they are talking about first-hand to tell me how it works, how essential it is, and how it fits in with Inupiat culture and their environment like a hand to glove is beside the point. Very little grows here, there are no nearby trees for wood, caribou can be a long way off…whales seem to have been the answer to support coastal Inupiat villages with food and materials for everything imaginable since presumably their beginnings.

Whaling crews form under a captain, each with their own unique flag, and they go out to sea to hunt in Spring and Fall. There are strict limits (as set by the International Whaling Commission) for catches, and as the season progresses, hunters have to weigh the odds of looking for tougher, larger whales vs. smaller whales that may be in greater abundance, but will feed fewer people. There are roughly 45 crews but only a 28 or so whales can be caught. Whales have an exceptional sense of hearing it seems, so hunters must be extremely quiet – to the point of limiting paddle strokes in their hand-hewn wood-framed boats (which one sees lying in yards around town) on stretched whaleskins to when the whales do their own splashing or breathing. It’s really a pretty old-school affair. Whales also flee at the color red (which perhaps help explain why I felt so out of place when we arrived the prior day, as I had been wearing a bright red pullover. There is next to no red to be found anywhere in town. Rest assured, St. Nick could never be a whaler…) There are a great many other interesting details, but at the end of the day, each village has a plan for how each whaling crew divides up a whale between the captain, the crew, the village, and what part is to be consumed in a celebratory feast. The community-benefitting aspect of whaling is for all intents and purposes enshrined in local law. Very little goes unused (although perhaps today modern materials and such limit the need to do things like smear whale blubber into seams of various types of hide clothing in an effort to make it waterproof, fashion bone into combs and sunglasses to protect against the sun, etc.) At one point, the whale seemed to provide truly nearly everything. Yet today, it is still clearly a deeply fundamental way of life in Barrow.

Outside the museum

We learned much of this by spending time with our guide and visiting the local cultural heritage museum. The museum might have been a 30-minute excursion, but for our guide’s enthusiasm and personal stories about how everything works…as well as which of the villagers shown in pictures he was related to. The museum closed for lunch hour on us – exposing us to lunch hour ‘traffic’…the steady stream of trucks departing ‘downtown’ for home-cooked meals. We had a sort of pan-Asian food buffet, which was pretty delicious, plus pizza. We were now learning that most of the restaurants in town had Asian ownership – local immigrant families who had become prominent business-folk in the village. After this experience started to repeat, it seems to be a pattern to expect.

A barrel of baleen

We returned to the museum and seemed to exhaust every display and picture until we found the artisan’s workshop in the back, where villagers used open space and mostly strips of baleen from hunted whales to fashion artwork for sale. It seems like one can do just about anything and everything with Baleen from whales caught by the town (which are also collected after the hunts). I could devote a page to describing the artwork, bone or ivory carved into various forms of artwork, knife handles, and all sorts of stuff, and the process of how they work with the baleen, but the descriptions herein are already probably troubling enough to some. Suffice it to say, I think it is very different when viewed through a local lens versus an urban lens, thousands of miles away. I ended up purchasing a piece of scrimshaw (a small ‘panel’ of baleen polished and inscribed with an image of a polar bear sneaking up on an Inuit icefishing) and spent some time chatting with the artist, who had made it that morning. His fingers were sore from the etching work. Without haggling, I paid him $45 in cash for the panel, which he needed that day and for which he was very thankful, which also made me feel good. It’s particularly interesting as later (in Fairbanks…yes, jumping ahead a bit) I found a very similar panel by the same artist in a souvenir shop for $250. If you are looking to collect native artwork, it’s probably worth the flight to Barrow…

Since we had a local car this day, we drove all around town, which really just meant we criss-crossed the small town for various drop-ins and then drove the two longer roads out to Point Barrow (although not beyond the road, into polar bear territory) and out to the south, where the town has set up facilities to extract from their edge of the gas fields littering the northern slope. Before we headed out in our guide’s vehicle (better capable of off-roading), he very proudly wanted to share muktuk with us. We knew this was coming, but even today I still have misgivings about trying it. Oh yeah…muktuk…that’s a local delicacy of bowhead whale blubber. Super popular…I hear Chipotle will have it as a special item over the holidays… Anyhow, we thought it was pickled, but then, after we tried it, we deciphered the cryptic comments and realized it was just raw whale blubber and a secondary skin layer from a whale caught in the Spring.

Muktuk…not just for breakfast anymore…

It did not taste like chicken.

Normally just the thought of eating 6-month old raw meat-ish would probably make me retch, but the muktuk actually didn’t smell like much (yet). As for the taste, well, it was like some sort of confused off-tasting sushi somewhere in the spectrum between cuttlefish and a ueber-fatty tuna (yet too untroubled to include any notable tuna flavor). I smiled and ultimately ate three pieces (did I mention that Muktuk has mild hallucinogenic properties that lead one to politely keep trying to figure out what it tastes like?). I am confident this satisfies my lifetime supply.

Our guide also offered us some beluga whale jerky, which was patently horrible and actually smelled worse. I say this mostly to be clear that I am not just trying to be polite about the flavor of muktuk. In contrast, Maria was suspiciously effusive in her praise for both…I will remember her expression the next time she claims to like any experimental cooking. Some caribou jerky (made by some other friend) was very salty, but otherwise brilliant. The marinade recipe was not shared, although we asked a few times.

At the end of it all, we headed back out to the point in our guide’s truck. He let a lot of air out of his tires to get ‘float’ over the soft, deep gravel path out to the farther stretches of Point Barrow. He was repeatedly worried about getting stuck, especially since it had rained a lot before we arrived and the soil beneath was very soft. Except for blowing out the shocks of our rental car in spectacular fashion as we headed up to Coldfoot, our road experiences so far had been pretty good, so for whatever reason I wasn’t too worried about it. Once we left, we started to slide around an increasingly deeper path of pebbles and small stones mixed with a bit of sand. The guide seemingly over-correcting steering probably in an effort to bring us along the edges rather than have us plow into the middle and get stuck in the gravel, because that would be bad. It was a bit like a weird move scene in which the actor driving exaggerates spinning the wheel for effect.

You see, after the whale hunts (yes, more whale stories…my apologies again, but think of this part as akin to a national geographic special, you don’t have to agree…it’s sort of anthropological), whatever is left of the carcass is dragged out to the far end of Point Barrow. On the down side, the whale remains attract polar bears (who are known to hunt humans…circle of life different here…). On the bright side, by moving the carcasses out to the end of the point, all of the polar bears end up congregating in a semi-confined area as far away from people as they can reasonably manage. So, the farther out we drove, the closer we got to wherever the polar bears liked to party.  It was almost the weekend…

When’s the last time you saw a polar bear without multiple retaining walls of a zoo between you and it?

Eventually the town fell away and the thin strip of peninsula began to broaden. Despite any assertions to the contrary in the prior paragraph, the landscape is dotted with whalebones…and heavy on the massive vertebra that could not fit in anyone’s luggage. Most of the bones were sun-bleached white, so presumably they had been there for a long time, too. We all agreed that the setting had started to resemble a strange cross between the moon and skeleton-strewn stretches of Tatooine. It was very surreal.

Once the road was long out of sight and we were well and truly uncomfortable about how far we had driven, the truck buried itself into the rocks, accompanied by a disturbing could of dust, pinging of rocks in the undercarriage and a disquieting variety of engine smells. Thankfully we had a shovel, but it was hard going to dig out the truck and the area around it so that there was a chance of sustaining forward movement (never mind however the heck we were going to turn around). Once you find yourself dottering around in a polar bear habitat like a walking human chicken nugget, you really start looking at all signs of movement and white for bears. I ended up picking up a big whalebone (I’ll guess part of a rib) to use to start digging out a tire and smooth the area in front of us. It’s really strange to dig in the rocks and sand with a bone roughly the size of your leg, but it was a really good idea.

In other news, in addition to some colorful nicknames, I also earned all of the rest of the manpoints I will ever need for arming myself against impending disaster and digging in the rocks with part of a skeleton.

We got back in the truck and drove another stretch until there was a spot to turn around. We climbed out again and followed the coast and a compass north, while repeatedly scanning to the east, where a half dozen seagulls seemed to be perched on a ridge, beyond which we could not see. We kept walking, and north kept stretching out before us. At some point, the guide called out and told us to stop, that we had just about gone too far. In any event, the ground was so soft that if we did stumble across any ursine variant, someone was seriously going to be eaten (unless they had a greater aversion to what would likely be freshly-soiled trousers). We hadn’t truly reached the northernmost point, but we were very close and the moving flashes of white to the east – we were still pretty sure they were just birds – were truly unsettling.

I walked to the shoreline, stopped, and stared out across the water. The sun was setting to the west, it was getting chillier and windy, but we were at the farthest north point we were going to reach. It didn’t really register at first, but then the weight of it was profound. All of the months of planning and the effort to get there and the entirety of the events with Juju and the pain of her absence seemed to explode simultaneously in some sort of internal supernova. It was simply overwhelming, and but for the potential of bears, I probably would have sat on the ground and buried my head in an emotional agony.

No matter how far away from the death of your child you become – in time, in space, in thought, in deed – when you go back to it and are open to feeling it, it just wrecks you all the same. Being at this point seemed to remove all of the little barriers and defenses erected since Juliet left us.

Although the sun was setting due west, and showered us with yellows, oranges and some pink, I noticed a band of pink due north, right in front of me. Out of place, it was separated from the other shades and streaks of the sunset by at least 45 degrees or so. I took that to heart, and it made me smile, albeit one still swathed in deep sadness. I felt as barren and exposed as the landscape, but I began to feel a bit of pride that something really good comes of this and that maybe Juju is also proud. A couple seals popped up in the waters nearby and stared towards us with their placid, saucer-like eyes. Richard came over, having given me some time to myself – it was time to head back.

A handful of steps back towards the truck (which we had gotten really far away from, without realizing it) I came across a pink, heart-shaped stone, which stood out distinctly in hue from the grays and tans and darks that littered the ground. It was smooth and fit nicely in the palm of my hand. It was strangely comforting. It was the last sign I needed to be at peace.