2000s Archive

At The Top of the World

Originally Published February 2001
Waiting for the ice to melt in the land of the midnight sun.

The ocean of ice extends from the shore and merges into a blanket of low cloud. Fine snow rides a bitter wind across the ice cap. On the edge of the beach, children dance nimbly from one bobbing ice floe to the next, laughing and daring one another. It’s a couple of days before Nalukataq, a thanksgiving celebration and feast held every June here in Barrow, Alaska.

But not everyone is in the holiday mood yet. A figure in a blue summer parka stands on the ridge above, looking disconsolately out at the frozen sea. Hands jammed into pockets, shoulders a bit slumped, one foot ahead of the other as if ready to move on: The body language indicates that all is not well.

“If the ice doesn’t go, it’s going to be devastating,” says Jana Harcharek, turning to me. Her pretty face, surrounded by the parka tunnel of reddish and brown wolverine fur, is lined with concern. “Our lives depend on it.”

Watching the children, she shakes her head: “That’s so damned dangerous. Crazy kids.”

The weather this summer has been unkind to the Eskimos on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Day after day, relentless west and southwest winds have kept the ice cap pressed hard against the shore—few breaks, few water holes, nothing but a near-solid surface of broken, uneven ice, a frigid wasteland stretching from here to the North Pole and beyond. Except for a solitary polar bear, the surface appears lifeless; only the occasional collapse of a pressure ridge or the sudden belly-up splash of a giant ice floe disturbs the frozen silence.

And Harcharek, an accomplished seal hunter who, like others in the village, feeds her family year-round on the bounty of the sea, knows that if the ice remains fast to the shore, there will be no seal hunting, crucial for meat, oil, clothes, and the skin for the umiat—small whaleboats. There will be no walrus and no fall whale hunt, both of which are vital to Eskimo survival. And because walking on the spongy surface of the tundra is nearly impossible (and there is only one road), there will be no way to get to the rivers up the coast for summer fishing.

Today Harcharek, a youthful-looking grandmother with soft, dark eyes, is not alone in her vigil over the ice. Farther down the gravel beach, other Eskimos stand singly or in pairs and stare out across the brilliant landscape, silently willing the wind to change, to push the pack ice north, away from the shore. Some scan the jagged surface with binoculars, hoping to spot the season’s first ringed seals, which reveal themselves at about this time every year, poking their curious heads out of the water holes or sunning themselves on the drifting ice floes. A flock of snow geese flies in formation overhead along the shore—they are heading southward, and it’s only June.

“You’re waiting for the ice to melt?” I ask.

“Waiting for it to go away!” Harcharek says, the frustration evident in her voice. The sun has come out, and she throws her parka hood back with a toss of her head. “When the ice goes, it goes—don’t know where—but it just goes. This year I think it’s going to be a big problem.”

When the ice finally does begin to recede and the leads of water open, Harcharek and her family will pile into their little motorboat and tear off to where seals were last sighted. “My boat is ready and waiting,” she says, nodding toward the sea.

As Harcharek speaks, I stare out at the ice cap as if hypnotized. Knowing I can go farther north on land, I feel an irresistible urge to keep walking—over the edge, to go still higher, northward, across the chaotic rictus of uplifted shards of white and cold ice-blue that claw skyward. Here at the top of the world, there is a sensation that you are perched high above all the billions on the planet below—something like the feeling you get after having successfully scaled a mountain peak.

There has been an Eskimo settlement in this area for thousands of years, but Barrow today is a modern albeit somewhat ramshackle town—no ice-block igloos here. Many of the houses are prefab, and squat on pilings atop small squares of soggy land. There are no gardens, no flower beds, and—save for the dull, green-brown tundra—nothing growing and vibrant. Instead, you see snowmobiles covered by tarps, caribou hides draped over racks of wood to cure in the 24-hour sunlight, antlers scattered nearby, lazy sled dogs sitting on their little plywood houses, paws crossed, bored, waiting for winter.

Despite this air of some permanence, the Inupiat culture is traditionally nomadic—these are hunter-gatherers. “We follow the animals,” Harcharek tells me. “In the spring, the whales and waterfowl, in the summer, fishing inland on the rivers while others stay on the coast hunting walrus and seals; in late summer and fall, we hunt caribou for the hide and meat.”

The Inupiat are able to grow nothing, and little grows naturally in the mere 18 inches of peat that over the millennia has slowly built up on the permafrost. Children grow up in villages along the Arctic Slope never having seen a real tree. So barren is this tundra desert that surrounds the community, there is not a tree for about 400 miles. But there are a few edible roots and tundra plants that offer a meager vegetable supplement, as well as some medicinal herbs. Quñulliq, a spinachlike ground-­hugging plant, is collected before it gets bitter and stored in seal oil to keep it fresh through the winter. And various species of tundra berries add spunk to many of the meat dishes.

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