I’m walking the shores of the Chuckchi sea in Barrow, Alaska watching the sun pass below the horizon for the first time in 84 days. By the time it returns an hour and a half later, I haven’t even gone to bed yet. Since I’ve arrived, the strange novelty of 24-hour daylight has lured me into staying up way too late, even though I have an early photo shoot the next morning.
Standing closer to the top of the world than ever before, my mind ponders overwhelming concepts: the fact that only .0000003% of all humans are closer to the North Pole than I am right now; that if I sail north, all that I will encounter will be ice; and the impossible notion that there are still 6 other towns on Earth further north than Barrow. What will this place be like in a few months, when winter holds the sun captive for over 60 days?
These types of questions are the luxuries of the traveler. For those who actually live at 71° north of the equator, these trivialities are cast by the wayside in the face of an always-impending winter. But I’ve become obsessed with learning all I can about life in this remote corner of the world during the few days I have, and while she’s done a good job hiding it, I’m sure my local contact has grown weary of the endless questioning.
I’ve learned that the town’s Inupiaq whale hunters haul supplies ten miles out on the ice before hitting the open sea in the springtime, and that polar bears are thought to be left handed. If you ever find yourself in a fight with a polar bear, jump to its right side to avoid a swift paw strike. (I hope I never have to verify this.)
Even in a town as small as Barrow, I’ve found myself disappointed at the things I didn’t get to experience on this trip: the chance to eat muktuk, the preserved skin and blubber of the bowhead whale; to watch a local sew up their sealskin boat before whaling season. So, with only a few hours left, our contact drives us to the beach and watches as two silly white-skinned outsiders strip down to their underwear before diving into the Arctic Ocean. Indeed it is a shock to the system, but it’s not just the cold–I’ve forgotten just how salty the ocean can be.
Fifteen minutes later, mostly dry and sitting in the airport, we feel as most travelers do at the end of even the shortest journeys: that we were just getting to know Barrow.
Well, that’s what we told ourselves, anyway.