Go Back
Print this page

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.

The day after meeting Harcharek, I join her in her office at the ultramodern Inupiat Heritage Center, where she is at work translating the Inupiaq language into English legalese. She is dressed in a sleeveless blouse and white shorts; outside, the temperature hovers around freezing, and I wonder aloud if she isn’t rushing the season a bit. She just laughs—“It’s summer!”

On a large whiteboard next to the table of dictionaries is scrawled “Piyuumisaagni—sexual harassment.”

“It happens everywhere,” she smiles.

Harcharek is a handsome woman; her natural beauty and her ready smile belie a toughness born of the harsh and unforgiving environment here in the far north, where temperatures drop to 70 below in the winter and barely scratch 60 above for a few days in the summer. During the 84 days of midnight sun, children play through most of the night, and she jokes that she tells her kids to get back home before dark—sometime in August. During the winter months, the sun is merely a memory, and the only natural light is from the moon or the northern lights.

The key to survival in this part of the world is sharing the catch and the fruit of the harvest and the hunt. Eskimos have long held the belief, with religious conviction, that a· gviq, the bowhead whale, individually offers itself to each community in the spring and in the fall so that they can survive another winter. In fact, without the whale, most Eskimos would starve, for up until recently few ate white-man’s food at all; their bodies—accustomed to walrus and whale blubber—simply would not function properly if forced to rely solely on the nourishment from relatively lean red meat or chicken from “the Outside.” For the older generation in particular, eating such foods was something like a lifelong vegetarian being forced to eat a steak. “If my uncle doesn’t eat walrus or whale, then he feels like he’s starving,” Harcharek tells me.

“We’ve got to have blubber—we’ve got to have oil in this environment; without vegetables in our diet, the oil is necessary.”

There is no controversy here—Eskimos from Siberia to Greenland have subsisted on whale for thousands of years. In 1977 the International Whaling Commission set a quota (often not met because of ice conditions), and this subsistence hunt is universally accepted by environmentalists, conservationists, and governments worldwide.

Harcharek, co-captain of a whaling crew, says that when they are successful, they “share it with everyone. Nothing is wasted, not even the bones or the baleen; every part of the whale is consumed or used.” Indeed, there is no word in the Eskimo language for “waste.”

“It is not a concept we know,” she says. “We catch what we eat for the year. We don’t catch more than we can use. The best part is being able to feed everyone; you’re sharing your gift, the delicacy of delicacies.”

The act of sharing is no better represented than during the Nalukataq celebration. A com­munal, alcohol-free party held on the beach at the edge of the pack ice, it is open to everyone, and there is no cost of admission. Vats of caribou, dried white fish, whale meat from the spring catch, and even Eskimo “ice cream” are passed among the people who sit patiently in a circle around tables laden with food. The proud members of the crew sit on the edge of the tables dangling their legs, their dark, weather-beaten faces watching the party as the women dish out their catch. The leftover food is distributed equally among the families according to the number of mouths to feed; it will be stored in the many ice cellars carved out deep in the permafrost, to be consumed into the winter.

I look on as the community digs into the long-anticipated treats. A group of heavyset Eskimo women dressed in colorful parkas of rickrack and fox and wolverine ruffs stand before a microphone and lustily belt out hymns in Inupiaq. One of the women, her large, brown face gleaming with happiness (mother of one of the crew, I’m told), wears a blue jacket stenciled with the words: “AND GOD CREATED GREAT WHALES; AND GOD SAW THAT IT WAS GOOD. GENESIS 1:21."

At the shoreline, children chase each other across wobbly ice floes, and older siblings run out and shout at them to get off. Suddenly, at some unspoken command, the crowd jumps to its feet and the word passes around: “Some kids fell in!” We, too, run down to see an 11-year-old standing waist-deep in the water amid floating chunks of ice, shivering, grinning sheepishly up at the crowd; his father takes long strides down the beach and hauls him away by his ear.

There is an announcement over the loudspeaker, and children squealing in excitement stampede toward the tables. From open boxes they pull not the candy bars I would have expected, but apples and oranges flown up from the Lower 48—an even rarer treat.

After midnight—which is when it’s about as dark as it will get; with the sun well above the horizon, equivalent to mid­afternoon southern time—the tables are removed and the crew members grab the edges of a large seal hide, the skin that was used to cover the wood frame of the successful whaling boat, and hurl into the air the victorious captain, members of his family, and anybody else brave enough to give it a try. (An ambulance is usually standing by.)

As I watch these unfettered celebrations, I resist the temptation to think that I am in a foreign land. These are Americans, and Inupiat have served in every war fought by the United States in the 20th century. Yet outside of Alaska and the Department of the Interior, few have any knowledge of these most indigenous people, the progenitors of Native Americans in the Lower 48.

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.