Alaska Part II – Utqiagvik, Alaska

24 hour sun project

Whale Bone Arch

Flying into Utqiagvik was not quite like flying into Deadhorse. Both are small airports where you land on an airstrip and exit onto the tarmac. Deadhorse had a much smaller airstrip and terminal than Utqiagvik. And, because Deadhorse isn’t really a place people live, there wasn’t anyone in the terminal and very few flights in and out. Utqiagvik, on the other hand, felt bigger. The terminal was crammed with people either coming or going on the daily flights.

I booked this tour because due to the pandemic, there was no option to visit a native village on any other tour. This seemed to me to be the only way I could get a cultural experience as well as a 2nd chance to capture the 24 hour sun (when I booked, I wasn’t sure how successful I would be in Deadhorse – arctic weather is often cloudy and wet). There were other challenges to overcome as well, such as not having a “real” camera (ie. only my iphone), no tripod, no tracking mechanism, weather concerns, and my ability to capture the moments.

But, before we get to all of that, there was a noticeable tour difference to my experience arriving in Utqiagvik from Fairbanks and Deadhorse. First, everything was booked through Northern Alaska Tour Company. Maybe it was my fault that I didn’t sync with them about the logistics in Utqiagvik, but given how the last trip went, it seemed like these things would just be handled. You know, things like how do I get to my hotel? Would there be someone picking me up? Would they have a sign? Would I have a shuttle? Was there anyone else joining me on this “tour?” What would I see?”

I had no idea.

Further, unlike Deadhorse, where I expected not to have any cell reception and I ended up having some, here in Utqiagvik, I absolutely had none. Being a seasoned traveler, not recognizing anyone meeting me at the airport and not able to check messages or make a phone call, I didn’t panic — much. Instead, I took it on as a challenge.

View from my hotel window

Through the crowd of people in this little room I looked for my name on a sign, looked for someone looking like they were looking for someone, looked outside for anyone that might hint at someone I should find, and walked up and down the front of the terminal, inside and out, looking for a shuttle, a guide, something with a logo I might recognize. I had no idea how big or small this tour company was or who they might partner with up here.

Someone gratefully asked me if I needed help and after explaining my situation they called the company on their mobiles but the company line returned a busy signal. I confided I was staying at Top of the World Hotel to which they quickly perked up and indicated that the shuttle to the hotel should be here shortly and to look for it. “It usually comes around this time.” We gave up on contacting the tour company as moments later, the shuttle to the hotel arrived and I figured I’d just take it and get to the hotel and figure things out from there.

Everything about this trip was called into question after that. With no communication from the tour company prior to arriving and without a host, I wondered what I was supposed to expect. Shouldn’t the tour company be on the hook to take care of me? Or, why did I book this with them? Their website promised certain obligations so was it unfair of me to expect something upon my arrival?

Pack ice

At least the hotel was really nice: clean and modern. The former hotel by the same name burned down a few years ago and this new one was constructed in its place. Now that I was at the hotel, I could at least breathe a bit. Without cell reception but now with internet, the next task was to figure out how to meet my guide and figure out what I was to expect on this “tour.” Turns out, I wasn’t to expect much. I was very disappointed to learn that my town guide wouldn’t show up until perhaps 6 pm (and maybe he wasn’t going to show up in the first place) and that I had nothing for the rest of this or the next day planned. I would have to find things of my own to do to entertain myself.

Ok, I know how that sounds. I hadn’t researched anything prior to arriving, figuring the tour company was handling it all. Given my emotional and mental state at that time, having no distractions was distressing. Further, my big objective to capture the 24 hour sun wouldn’t really get going until later in the evening, which left me a lot of downtime to fill. This “in the meantime” space was overwhelming me and suddenly I was left to figure out how I would learn about the area, the native people and customs of this town and the arctic on my own.

After a rough conversation with the tour company and a $13 phone bill they thankfully covered later, low and behold, a guide was waiting for me in the lobby about 15 minutes after hanging up. I’m really glad he showed up because he immediately dropped me off at the Heritage Museum, which was closed the next day and closed at 5 pm this day. It was almost 4 pm when I arrived so if I had been left to my own research, I would have missed that opportunity entirely. It turns out there aren’t a lot of “touristy” things to do in this town, but the few things there are, are worth doing and the Heritage Museum is one of them.

Whale’s head

While I couldn’t spend too much time in the museum, it was enough to learn about the history and culture of the Natives, along with Utqiagvik’s notorious bird migration. Whomever the curator was for the birds did an excellent job! I highly recommend a stop through this wing. The birds are incredibly life-like. Just beautiful!

From here, I walked next door to the local grocery store. Remember that everything that exists in Utqiagvik had to be flown in. There are no trees for lumber, no gardens for food, no minerals to extract to create metal or anything. And, there are no roads in or out! You have to fly. Therefore, the prices for milk, detergent, fruit, etc. are exorbitant compared to what you see anywhere else in North America.

Matt, my local guide, picked me up from the grocery around 5 then gave me an eye opening town tour. The town is small, with about 4,000 people living there now. Homes look run down and trash piles up (if you have car, it costs to get it up there, and fixing and maintaining that vehicle let alone disposing of it if it dies, also costs). Therefore, cars litter front lawns, trash is piled up in the recycling and waste areas, and due to permafrost, you can’t bury it. It just sits out there because it’s not economical to take it anywhere else.

This conundrum was new to me.

As we explored the town, I saw the old homes of natives, Beluga whales stripped down on the shores, pack ice, and the famous Whale Arch.

Archaeological sites in the area indicate the Iñupiat lived around Utqiagvik as far back as AD 500. Remains of 16 sod dwelling mounds, from the Birnirk culture of about AD 800, can be seen on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. Located on a slight rise above the high-water mark, they are at risk of being lost to erosion.

As night was coming on, it became time to set about the “24 hours of sun above the horizon” project. The Whale Arch seemed like the best focal point to track the sun so I scoped out the sight, plotted my path for the night and marked where I would take the photos so they would be as consistent as I could possibly make them. Fortunately, the site wasn’t far from the hotel, though it was further than I would have liked to be going in the middle of the night despite the “daylight”.

ice pack walking/surfing

One of the first things I noticed as I set about my hourly mission is that there are people up and about all night long. It’s a quiet town anyway but I imagined it would become dead and still during the night, which turned out to not be the case. This meant I had strange and unique encounters each time I set out for a shot, including the front desk person curious why I would appear and disappear throughout the night like clockwork .

By 11 pm the sun was still shining bright and high in the sky that it was hard to get ready for bed and attempt to sleep in-between my hourly timer. Waking up every 45 minutes is a bizarre thing to do and by the end of the night and into the next morning, I was completely disoriented in terms of time and sleep. I thought I would sleep a bit in the morning since the clouds and rain came in making the sun indiscernible, but it was still too bright to sleep and I didn’t want to miss my flight by accidentally over sleeping so I stayed awake instead.

Looking back at the whale bone arch from walking the pack ice

I couldn’t have gotten luckier for the photos I took that night. I wish I had a better camera than my iphone but the pics look pretty good all the same. It’s really hard to catch a clear sky and have good conditions for so long to have a successful sun capture, but I did. Sure, it could have been clearer but you can see that the sun is above the horizon throughout the entire night and you already know the sun is up during the day so capturing the critical “night” period gives you the idea for what it’s like to have the sun up for 24 hours a day, every day, for 2 months straight!

landing back in Seattle

It’s wild!

I’m really glad I was able to have this experience. The time alone was good for me, even if there were challenging moments. The sun project kept me focused and the beauty and history of the areas I visited kept me distracted. All-in-all, it was a successful excursion! I highly recommend exploring Alaska and visiting the arctic during the peak summer months to experience this for yourself.

A compilation of the 24 hour sun project with sounds from the arctic, taken, stitched, recorded, and edited by me.

Watch the sun traverse the sky during the night, never setting: minute 00:48, July 17, 2021 midnight-ish through 7 pm that day…watch the pack ice movement during that period as well.

About Audrey Sniezek

Audrey Sniezek is a rock climbing athlete and computer software/technology enthusiast.
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