2000s Archive

At The Top of the World

continued (page 3 of 3)

I’m a little timid about barging in on the Nalukataq feast, so Harcharek invites my wife, Jackie, and me to her house for a smorgasbord of Eskimo food. Like many of the houses on the North Slope, that vast area of land that is Alaska’s Arctic coastline, her iglu—meaning “house” in Inupiaq—is a modern frame construction built on stilts to keep it from shifting and collapsing when the ground thaws in the spring. And, like most houses here, it was transported in modules on the annual tow, a long string of barges that arrives from Seattle in the late summer, when the ice cap finally recedes. It is the only way that Barrow and other northern settlements can get most of their supplies—if the ice were to remain locked to the shore, then isolation would be more than just a state of mind.

I watch Harcharek prepare our feast—she stands at her counter humming to herself, her long, dark ponytail midway to her waist, and carves salmon-colored steaks out of a fat lake trout. She wields an ulu, the traditional crescent-shaped carving blade used to chop onions, gut fish, flense whales, and dress game, working on what she jokingly calls “our Eskimo cutting board”—a strip of cardboard.

Possessed of an uncontrollable sweet tooth, I rush straight for the Eskimo ice cream. Häagen-Dazs needn’t worry. The ice cream is neither ice nor cream, but a cakelike “dessert” cut into bite-size squares; it tastes faintly suety and has a coarse, stringy texture. Made from the fat of caribou rump and ground caribou meat and stirred by hand for hours, it is loved by Eskimo children.

My wife gamely fills her plate with samplings of everything—dried seal meat to dip in seal oil, caribou on the bone, “ice cream,” and some black, leathery cubes dripping with juice.

“And what is this?” she asks, her fork halfway to her mouth.

“Pickled maktak, whale skin and blubber.”

“Oh!” she says, and I can see she’d rather be anyplace but looking into the warm eyes of her hostess. She plops the piece into her mouth, eager to swallow it whole and get it over with.

She grins. “Delicious!”

Aarigaa!” smiles Harcharek.

Aarigaa!” responds Jackie.

Ii, ii! [Yes, yes!]” says Harcharek.

Later, during the “night,” the ice moves, not away from the village but toward it. It does so with irresistible and unimaginable force—up and over the beach and even across the paved road. Two hunting cabins on the shore are squashed by giant slabs of ice whose cross sections resemble the striated meat of coconut.

As we fly out of Barrow the following day, I see that the ice cap is maintaining its grip on the coast and still extends from high on the beach northward toward the Pole, as far as the eye can see—no breaks, no water, no sign of movement. And just below it, little figures on the beach are looking out over the frozen sea, and waiting.

Subscribe to Gourmet