Above the Arctic Circle
Imagine a place where land and sea meet, illuminated by the most beautiful light you’ve ever seen. Encompassed only by horizons, this ephemeral place is framed in abstract lines which lead to a view seemingly grander than the last. Shifting light, melting fog, and an ocean breeze combine into a cocktail of ephemeral beauty that slowly sinks in... This is the top of the world.
My story begins high above the Arctic Circle, along a beautiful coastline which is slowly eroding into the ocean. I'm standing just outside the town of Utqiaġvik, meaning "the place where Snowy Owls are hunted” Though this traditional practice has since been lost to time, Snowy Owls still keep watch over the outskirts of this village, which has since been re-named Barrow.
I look out over the Beaufort Sea and imagine the entire expanse covered by ice. In a few short weeks, the sea ice will arrive like a late guest to a dinner party. The others have already arrived, having made their journey from the frozen floating world 300 miles to the North. Polar bears, bowhead whale, and walrus have all recently landed on this shore, some in better shape than others. The Polar Bears left the sea ice, swimming the growing expanse of open ocean to the continental beaches in search of food. These bears are hungry, having nearly exhausted their fat reserves. Bowhead Whales arrive on the beaches too, intercepted on their Fall migration by Iñupiat hunters. These hungry villagers rely on the annual whale migration to sustain their nutritional needs for the upcoming winter months, when the sun sets for a continuous 65 days and temperatures plummet well below zero. A single female walrus landed in Barrow days before my arrival, her ivory tusks chipped off from hauling herself onto the sea ice time and time again. She is sick, weakened by causes unknown, and in this state she won't last long above the water line on the beach, especially on a warmer day like today.
I landed in Barrow on an Alaska Airlines jet, which skipped off the frost-covered runway like a stone on water. It wasn't a landing for the books, but it marked the end of my nearly 4,000 mile odyssey from the southernmost city in the continental U.S. to the most northern city in the U.S. I'll bet not many people make that trek in the same week!
Walking into the one room airport terminal, I scanned the unfamiliar faces for my friend, who met my gaze with sparkling eyes and a beautiful smile that flashed like the northern lights for a moment. We waited for the bags to be brought out, and after talking for a few minutes this friend of a friend who I'd never met felt like a friend of mine. She welcomed us to her village with open arms, and excitedly led us outside with a quiet grace and poise of a dancer. It was a result of her graciousness, local knowledge, and enthusiasm that I had a fantastic trip!
Once we dropped off our bags at the hotel, we headed out on the road to see what we could find. Minutes later, I spotted what looked like a white pile of snow on the distant bay shore. Looking through my binoculars, it dawned on me what I was looking at: my first wild Polar Bear!
This excerpt from Christian's book highlights the adventures that unfolded in Barrow, Alaska. Be sure to stay tuned for the entire adventure in greater detail, including polar bear encounters, participating in a traditional whale harvest, and searching for the rare Ross's Gull!
BARROW IN BLACK AND WHITE
"I held onto the rope tightly, the bristly surface of the rope cutting into my fingers through my gloves. I was surrounded by strangers, yet the sense of community and belonging was stronger than I'd ever felt. The gratitude and joy permeated the air, tangible yet not nearly as strong as the distinct smell of ambergris that filled my nostrils. I glanced across the tundra, watching a single gull float lazily on the breeze, and waited on the instructions to pull."
"Was that it? I squinted harder through my binoculars, scanning through a quarter mile of blowing snow. I had just spotted a long-winged gull, flying stiffly into the wind far out over the Beaufort Sea. Like a ghost, it melted into the icy fog, disappearing as quickly as it had appeared. I would never know what that bird was, but that was ok with me. It's just part of the magic and mystery of Utqiaġvik."
You're probably looking at the next image thinking those aren't Ross's Gulls, Christian. Believe me, I already know. I scanned through dozens of kittiwakes, scores of shearwaters, and braved blowing snow and inbound Polar Bears to spot one- unsuccessfully. I had 3 potential Ross's Gulls, but wasn't able to get long enough looks to confirm the ID before they vanished into the curtains of fog and blowing snow like white ghosts. I've always wanted to see the Ivory and Ross's Gull, and I wouldn't underestimate my ingenuity and resourcefulness... the year isn't over yet.
"It was as if the sea had regurgitated a pile of white foam onto the tundra; the white mass remained motionless except for the ebbing and flowing of wind blown waves of Ivory-colored fur. It was the sighting I'd waited years for- a wild Polar Bear."
For me, a highlight was seeing Polar Bears in the wild. This has been an empty box on my bucket list for over a decade, since I read in a magazine about the changing climate. It was amazing to stare a Polar Bear in the eye, through my Maven binoculars at a respectable distance of well over 200 meters. In the 24 hours I was in Barrow, I saw 16 different Polar Bears, mostly concentrated out of town away from the activity of the whale harvest. Some were swimming, napping, or taking a stroll as a family. I'm only sharing some of the images I took- you'll have to read my book to see the others!