20 July, 2003
The sunny skies and the warm temperature of nearly 50 degrees that we are experiencing have me half-expecting to see palm trees along the shore. In fact, in my mind's eye, I do see some palm trees on the beach at Barrow.
What I remember from a previous trip to Barrow are the three or four palm trees made of whale baleen near the end of the road going north from town. The baleen trees fancifully decorate someone's hunting cabin located on the narrow spit of land that separates the Chukchi Sea from the Elson Lagoon of the Beaufort Sea. This exotic, if incongruous, picture is completed by thoughtfully-placed chairs that sit under the "shade" of the palm fronds of this rare forest on the North Slope.
I can actually see, however, many notable landmarks of this unique Inupiat community since we are only few miles off shore. Numerous oil and water tanks, building complexes, and the houses and stores of town all stand-out in stark contrast from the flat horizon. Parcticularly scenic is the narrow strip of land that juts out another three miles from the end of the road into the sea. This is the "point" of Point Barrow, which is the northern most point of the continental mainland of North America.
The Inupiat name for Barrow is Ukpiagvik which means (the place for hunting snowy owls.) I enjoyed watching many Snowy Owls on the tundra during my work in Barrow two summers ago. On some of my time off, I was able to help out my friend Denver Holt of the Owl Research Institute with some of his research on Snowy Owls. That summer, there were hardly any lemmings to be found scurrying about on the tundra, so as a result, none of the snowies nested that year because there wouldn't have been enough lemmings for young, hungry owls to eat. Denver's work was featured in National Geographic this past year and you can learn more about his research on the Owl Research Institute's web site.
Today, of course, there is much more to Barrow than Snowy Owls. There are over 6000 residents, three quarters of which are Inupiat, as well as a significant Filipino population and other ethnic groups that help make Barrow the region's cultural, commercial, and transportation hub. Even though Barrow enjoys all the modern conveniences, the Inupiat still look to the land for their cultural and economic well-being.
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