Buoyed by the smooth flight in a small plane over Alaskan Mountains to Glacier Bay, I agreed to fly from Fairbanks to the isolated village of Barrow on the Arctic Ocean. The brochure described a larger plane as the transport. However, when Lee booked the excursion, the larger plane was filled. We had the option of a nine-passenger bush plane.
The dismal morning of our departure should have been a harbinger of the day ahead. While pilots conferred over the weather pattern in our flight plan, we waited. That would have been a good time to cancel our reservations. An hour late, we had clearance to fly with a rerouted stopover at Prudhoe Bay, skirting some storms, before flying on to Barrow.
Soaring above layers of thick fluffy clouds, I thought about a song, “Stepping on the Clouds,” that my church choir had recently performed. Hunched low in my seat directly behind the pilot, I hoped to subdue my uneasy tummy. By the time we landed in sunshine at Prodhoe Bay, nausea had risen to my throat. The pilot suggested we deplane and use the restroom facilities and pick up a carry-out lunch in the manufactured buildings that served as a restaurant and motel for personnel who worked in the oil industry. With my feet on solid ground, my swirling head and topsy-turvy stomach settled a bit.
Within 15 minutes, we boarded the plane again and upon take-off, I knew the tuna sandwich in my brown sack was a mistake. The pilot announced one hour until landing at Barrow. I squeezed my eyes shut, never daring a glance outside my window. Lee later mentioned a herd of caribou on the tundra. What caribou? I was barfing into a plastic bag when the pilot made a 180 degree turn to give passengers a view of the exotic animals.
In Barrow, I wobbled to the exit and climbed down over the plane’s wing, all the time thinking how I must have impressed the other eight passengers. Solid ground again. A native guide in a van waited to transport us to the town’s Iñupiat Heritage Center, a new and modern facility that houses exhibits, artifact collections, a library, a gift shop, and a traditional room where Iñupiat crafts are demonstrated and taught. The slushy streets in Barrow are unpaved, and no roads connect the economic center of the North Slope Borough to the rest of Alaska. All consumer goods arrive either by air freight or in summer months, on barges. Numerous businesses provide support service to oil field operations, and state and federal agencies also offer employment. In today’s society, the midnight sun attracts tourism and their native arts and crafts generate some cash income.
However, until money from oil drilling came into the village, the people relied on subsistent food, especially the whale. After the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1972, the North Slope Borough was established to include Barrow and other villages. Millions of dollars in new revenues created sanitation, water and electrical utilities, roads, fire departments, and health and educational programs—services that had never been available to the Iñupiats.
Our guide gave a running commentary as he drove us through the small town, explaining their rituals of hunting the whale and sharing its bounty with the entire population. I asked how his people had survived for centuries with no fresh fruits and vegetables. He answered that the whale provided all their nutrients, plus oil for heat and light and skins for clothing, coverings, and door flaps to their original homes dug into the hillsides. In their culture today, plentiful subsidies from the oil industry make nice frame houses and a modern school available to the Iñupiats. Yet, they maintain their traditional whaling.
At the Heritage Center, we observed native people singing, dancing, and displaying their crafts. An exhibition of the blanket toss highlighted our afternoon. Lee had the opportunity to hold taut one side of the blanket while young Iñupiats bounced to the ceiling of the building. Different stories explain the tradition. One says that the ritual served a practical purpose—the person tossed high in the air served as a lookout for whales or the returning vessels of the men hunting the animals that provided their sustenance. Another tale relates that young Iñupiats showed off their high-flying skills in courting games.
My stomach had barely calmed when it was time to once again board the plane for our flight back to Fairbanks. Turbulence on the return trip matched the hurly-burly sensations inside my body. A new passenger, who had over-nighted in Barrow, squeezed into the seat next to me behind the pilot. I warned him that I was not the preferable seat mate. And before long, I made my point by heaving into another plastic bag. Not daring to look outside the plane’s cabin, I counted down the minutes until I thought we would be landing in Fairbanks. I silently rejoiced when I discerned we were descending, but when the wheels scrunched on gravel, I knew that we were not at the Fairbanks Airport. Again, we deplaned and went into a remote lodge for refreshments while our light aircraft took on fuel. Despite the unending daylight of Alaska, this tiny spot of civilization deep in a forest of fog-shrouded firs felt as bleak as a winter night. Inside the lodge, I splashed cold water on my face, and prayed that we would soon safely land in Fairbanks.
Back aboard the tiny plane, the pilot announced one more hour to Fairbanks. I shut my eyelids and braced for the take-off. The little plane skimmed through gray clouds and pockets of rain. I stole glances at my watch, again, counting down the minutes to our final descent.
When I relate this story, I say “This was the worst day of my life.” I probably exaggerate. I would not have missed experiencing our nation’s northernmost point and dipping my hand into the frigid Arctic Ocean in the middle of summer. But at 11:00 p.m., I did kiss the ground of Fairbanks, Alaska.
Traveling in their motorhome several months each year, Arline and her photographer husband, Lee Smith, make their permanent home in Heber Springs, Arkansas. She currently is a presenter for Workamper Rendezvous, sponsored by Workamper News. Arline has dozens of magazine articles published, as well as five books: “Road Work: The Ultimate RVing Adventure” (now available on Kindle); “Road Work II: The RVer’s Ultimate Income Resource Guide”; “Truly Zula; When Heads & Hearts Collide”; and “The Heart of Branson”, a history of the families who started the entertainment town and those who sustain it today. Visit Arline’s personal blog at ArlineChandler.Blogspot.com