They sat like silent sentinels on hummocks way out on the tundra – each seemingly with its own territories. As I gazed through a scope, I could see the scattered brown flecks of the feathers of the Snowy Owl. The opportunity to see these wonderful birds was one of my motivations to visit the North Slope of Alaska – and I was not disappointed.
I traveled to Barrow on an informal post tour with five other members of the Audubon Naturalist Society and our two guides. As our plane began the descent into Barrow, I slowly grasped the fact that I was traveling 340 miles inside the Arctic Circle to the northern most occupied area in North America. Tiny lakes and ponds dotted the barren landscape, many still covered with snow and ice. The chill jolted me as I descended the steps from the plane and crossed the tarmac to the tiny terminal jammed with passengers waiting for the return flight or friends and family greeting arrivals. We pulled our bags across the dirt street to the King Eider Inn in hopeful anticipation that we would have the opportunity to see the motel’s namesake on one of the tundra ponds. “Palagivil,” the sign said, “Welcome to the ancient village of Ukpiagvik (the Inupiat word for the village now called Barrow), the place where owls are hunted.”
We stopped our 4-wheel van next to the site of Barrow’s original settlement where a boardwalk wound around mounds that are the remnants of the original sod homes. A sense of awe washed over us as we reached the bluff and looked out over the frozen shore of the Arctic Ocean. Large Glaucous Gulls slowly flapped over the shoreline ice that was starting to break up and had a web of tidal cracks. On the horizon, the pressure ridge ice resembled a low mountain range.
A Snow Bunting landed on a nearby mound and sang its finch-like song. Little did I realize at the time that this black and white bird would be the most prevalent avifauna of the town and nearby tundra. We lunched at Pepe’s North of the Border, the northern-most Mexican restaurant in the world. Fran, the owner who resembled a gold rush saloon operator with her gold lame dress and dangling earrings, presented us with our certificate for the Arctic Circle Club.
After lunch, we headed out towards the fresh water lakes area. The tundra was alive and evidence of nesting birds became immediately apparent. Male Pectoral Sandpipers danced in the air, uttering their haunting display call as they glided back to a hummock. Lapland Longspurs sailed into the air, did a helicopter maneuver in place while singing their lark-like song, and then slowly glided down. Long-tailed Jaegers flew up, and then appeared to parachute down. American Golden Plovers puffed up their black chests and strutted on the tops of mounds.
On May 10, the sun set for the last time until early August. When we pulled the heavy shade over the window at bed time, it was fairly dark in the room; however, when the alarm went off at 5:15 for our early morning excursion, the sun had circled around the sky, shone at our room and seeped amply in around the edges of the shade. As we headed out of the town, we passed the landfill. Since the town’s only access is by plane and the summer barge, disposing of trash of all kinds is a major problem. A row of dumpsters guided residents in their disposal, including one for whale blubber and carcasses.
We laughed as we drove by a whaling village where each whaling captain has a supply shack. A whaler with a sense of humor constructed a palm tree, complete with baleen fronds – the only tree in the Barrow area. We stopped for photos along the Arctic Ocean.
A Ringed Seal rested on the shore ice, not too far from shore. While he initially appeared languid, he clearly was on constant alert. “He raises his head and peruses the area about every seven seconds,” Rob observed. While we did not have the opportunity to spot a Polar Bear, the Ringed Seal is its meal of choice.
After breakfast back at Pepe’s, we headed out to the tundra on Fresh Water Lake Road. Something caught our attention at the end of a small pond – a pair of Stellar’s Eiders was napping. We got out the scopes and climbed on a mound of ice to get a better view. As we watched, they raised their heads from time to time allowing us to see the male’s peachy chest and large black eye spot. Further down the road we stopped to check out a pair of loons and were thrilled to discover they were the red-throated species that only nests on Arctic ponds. Their necks were extended and as they turned, I was able to view their striking red throats.
“There is something just to the right of the pond,” Marta exclaimed. We re-directed the scopes to discover a King Eider. The large orange ‘knob’ on top of his slightly upturned bill is quite distinctive. We purchased lunch supplies at the town’s supermarket where everything was double the price of goods at home, since all food supplies arrive by plane. As we were picnicking in the van along Gas Well Road, Mark spotted a Parasitic Jaeger also enjoying lunch. Instead of a sandwich, he was munching on a Red Phalarope.
“There’s something in that pond we just passed,” I announced. “Back up so we can check it out.” It was a female Spectacled Eider. Now we had seen three eiders that nest on the arctic coastal plain near Barrow. Adjacent to the pond, a Lemming, about the size of a Guinea Pig, scurried among the brown grass. When we looked closely, we could see its perfect burrow holes that appeared as if they had been made with a bulb planting tool. Its paths through the grass looked as though they had been flattened by a bicycle tire. I could also see the early signs of greening and was glad I had preceded the mosquitoes. I heard a familiar sound and glanced up to see pair of Sandhill cranes fly by.
On our final early morning excursion, we watched as an Arctic Fox in partial molt wandered across the tundra about 100 yards from the road. We ended our stay with a visit to the Inupiat Heritage Center to learn more about the people who have lived along the Arctic Ocean for thousands of years. The People of Whaling exhibit provided explanations of ancient and modern subsistence whaling.
“My husband taught our sons to hunt whale,” an elder from Wainwight told me as we rested our legs together. “I was a bi-lingual teacher and my sons also know our language. Today the young people are not interested in the traditional ways. They are only interested in,” and she made the motions of someone playing a hand-held video game – a sad expression on her face.
After checking in our bags at the airport, we took one last drive along Fresh Water lake Road. A pair of Spectacled Eiders sat on the edge of a pond – the perfect ending to our three-day visit to the top of the world.