Sean wants to eat chicken and waffles above the Arctic Circle, so we set out walking toward Osaka in the dark. This is Barrow. February 10. The sun won’t rise until around 11, and we have a wealth of hours in which to wander before anyone is scheduled to look for us.
The previous day, we’d taken the morning Alaska Air flight that shuttles from Anchorage to Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay (northern terminus of the 800-mile Trans Alaska Pipeline System) and then into Barrow. The plane would return to Fairbanks and fly on to Anchorage, then turn around to make the run again, dropping and collecting oil- and coal-field workers, university professors, scientists, tourists, and members of the community.
Passengers on our flight knew each other—if not by name, then by type. “Those guys from Prudhoe Bay are coming off three-week shifts,” said the Iñupiaq woman sitting next to me. “They’ll be drunk and rowdy by the time they get to Anchorage.” There were families on the plane, but this didn’t matter to those oil guys, she said. “How’s your mother?” she asked the young man in the row to our left, starting a conversation that didn’t include me. I turned to the window and tried to make sense of the tundra well enough to identify the pipeline.
With Sean, a friend and fellow poet who teaches at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, I was scheduled to conduct a writing workshop and deliver a reading at Barrow’s Tuzzy Consortium Library later that afternoon. When we got off the plane, temperatures outside were well below zero. The two of us were greeted warmly by Rita, the library’s administrative assistant. She left the SUV running while we checked into the Airport Inn. When she took us to lunch at Osaka, she plugged in the car’s block heater.
Sean and I ordered two plates of yaki soba, plus a spider roll and some ikura to share. I love the way salmon roe explode in my mouth, tasting like the ocean would taste if the ocean were jelly. I try to be mindful about my consumption of seafood, aware that the global appetite for sushi is threatening aquatic life—all of our lives, really. But I won’t deny that I love the crunch of soft-shell crab wrapped in sushi rice and chewy seaweed. Rita had told us this was one of the best restaurants in Barrow. Who was I to refuse the town’s offerings? After we’d already ordered, Sean noticed Osaka’s American menu. “I’ve got to try the chicken and waffles,” he said. “They’ll probably just be some Eggos and a couple of frozen chicken nuggets, but I’ve got to try them.”
I didn’t want Rita to think we were gluttons. She’d told us the library was picking up the tab for lunch, but only after we’d ordered. Food prices in Barrow are exorbitant. Each of our plates of yaki soba was $24, and we had the sushi, too. “We’ll come back for breakfast tomorrow,” I’d said, which is why we are out walking two hours before sunrise.
Despite a banner on the front of the building that declares, OPEN 8:00 A.M. TO MIDNIGHT, Osaka is closed when we arrive, so we triangulate back to Sam & Lee’s, the red, two-story restaurant we’d passed on our way.
Sean and I take off our hats and gloves in the entryway and peer through our steamed-up glasses into a bright, crowded dining room. People talk across tables like they’ve known each other a long time. The hostess stands in the rear of the room with her back to us, talking on the phone. We wonder if we ought to seat ourselves in one of the open booths, but an old man sitting next to the hostess looks at us and points to the ceiling.
There is a stairway to our left, but it is dimly lit, unpromising. We look toward the dining room’s open tables. The old man points to the ceiling more emphatically.
We have our pick of tables upstairs. The lights aren’t on, and dawn is just beginning to brighten the windows.
“Are we being segregated?” Sean asks as we seat ourselves in the brightest corner we can find. This is the fancier eating space, like a room reserved for company. “I think we are being segregated,” I say, though we both know we are being set apart because we are outsiders, not (just) because we are black.
For a long time, we are alone. I send Sean downstairs, asking him to tell the hostess we’d be happy to move so she doesn’t have to turn on the lights up here. I’ve always been troubled by the resource consumption segregation demands. In the last decade of the twentieth century, I lived for three years in Greensboro, North Carolina, a town of about 275,000 with more than five colleges. One of the colleges had been founded as the state college for white women, a counterpart to the state university for white men fifty miles up the road. Another was founded as a private college for white women. A third remains a private college for black women, and a fourth was founded as the public college for black students. A fifth college, founded by the Religious Society of Friends, was the first to admit everyone. All that brick and all those radiators. The pipes for plumbing and the water drawn for all those playing fields. The multiple libraries, the redundant classrooms. Imagine the resources that might have been conserved if people weren’t so set on separating students based on race and class and gender.
Sean returns quickly, without having delivered his message. The hostess is still on the phone. “She turned around long enough to point to the ceiling.”
When she finally comes to our table I say, “We didn’t want to waste your electricity by making you turn on the lights just for us.”
She sets down our water and menus with a grunt, then flicks the lights on as she heads down the stairs. When she comes back, we order eggs, and toast, and reindeer sausage.
In North America, we use the terms reindeer and caribou interchangeably, or if we do differentiate it is because we call the domesticated creatures reindeer and the wild ones caribou. It is the reins that convert a caribou to a reindeer here in North America, but in Old Norse, from which the term reindeer is derived, hreinn means horned animal. Unlike other deer species, both female and male caribou sport antlers. Males lose theirs in late fall and slowly regrow them. Rudolph and Dasher and the others pulling Santa’s sleigh were probably female reindeer—male reindeer would be without antlers at Christmas.
I’ve read about people refusing to eat reindeer sausage while visiting Alaska because of their associations with Rudolph and the rest of Santa’s crew. But harnessing caribou is not part of indigenous North American culture—rather, harvesting them is. Here in Alaska, great herds of wild caribou move in herds over the tundra, rein-free. They are not considered “labor power” by the Iñupiat, according to reindeer scholar Shiro Sasaki, but are “food material.” Caribou are hunted for their meat (which is lean and nutritious), hides (which are used in protective clothing), and sinew (which is used in bows and spears and skin boats). Somewhere in Alaska, reindeer must be farmed for sausage, because reindeer sausage is on every menu. But commercial reindeer sausage is mixed with pork or beef or both, to cut down the toughness and gamey tang of caribou flesh. Sean and I like the idea of eating a local staple, but the animal on our plate, alongside the eggs that had to have been flown into Barrow from Anchorage or the Lower 48, has been converted from a wild creature into something tame as a feedlot cow.
As Sean and I zip up our parkas and prepare to walk into more cold, I overhear a local girl, who appears to be half black, beg her mother to sit at the big tables upstairs. “No,” says her mother, pushing past us into the crowded lower dining room. “Everyone’s down here.”
The sun is nearly over the horizon, and the ice in the distance glows. We explore the shoreline. Where we would find sand in the Lower 48, there is snow and ice. Where we would find water, snow and ice.
Though it looks substantial to us, we know the ice is shrinking and thinning exponentially each year. Polar bears come into town more frequently, looking for places to rest because they’ve had to swim so far without the ice pack they rely on. Police chase the bears beyond the city limits, trying to prevent the stressed animals from threatening human residents. Sometimes, persistent animals are shot.
The ice has taken on the pinkish-yellow cast of the rising sun. I am squinting. “Do you think you would be able to spot a polar bear if one was nearby?”
“No,” says Sean. “I don’t think I could.”
Sean is soft-spoken, and I almost lose his words to the roar of a snow machine pulling up behind us. The driver pauses between two ornamental palm trees, fronds fabricated out of bowhead whale baleen. The wooden house they are planted in front of is gray-blue with well-insulated windows. A dream catcher is hung near the doorway, and next to that is a ceramic cutout of a white whale. I am not sure whether or not I am supposed to experience all of this as authentically Alaskan, but I take a picture to share with my family back home.
“There’s a polar bear out there,” says the driver. He is standing on the footrests of his snow machine as if about to bring his hand to his forehead and scan the horizon for evidence of life. He says the bear hauled up near the college, which we understand is fairly far from where we are now. I ask how he identifies bears against all that snow and white ice. He says their fur is sort of yellow, then he smiles as he revs the throttle and takes off. Looking for bears.
Sean and I want to go with him. We’d love to see a wild polar bear. But neither of us is bold enough to ask for a ride. Instead, we head into the Fur Shop so I can buy a postcard for my daughter.
I choose a postcard with an artic fox leaping in the air over its prey. “I’ll leap this high when I see you again, and I might just eat you up,” I write on the back of the card.
Sean and I buy hats that say BARROW, AK to give to our parents. I buy a compact mirror with the Alaskan flag because the dipper part of the Great Bear is the one constellation I can always recognize, and I think the blue field and yellow stars on the state’s flag are pretty.
The flag was designed in 1927 by a thirteen-year-old orphan named Benny Benson, but it makes me think of Karen Nyberg’s family. Nyberg is an astronaut who spent six months on the Space Station last year, when her son and my daughter were both around three years old. Nyberg’s husband is an astronaut too, and on clear nights he’d take their kid outside to wave at the light coming from the Space Station. Imagine being able to look at the stars and locate your mother.
Benson, whose mother died of pneumonia when he was three and whose family home burnt down soon after, said the blue field on the flag “is for the Alaska sky and the forget-me-not.” Sometimes, my daughter says she wants to see where I’ve gone when I travel. We have a world map at our house. Before my trips, my husband, Ray, and I mark the places I’m going with pins. It’s not the same as walking outside and pointing to a beacon in the sky, but it’s the best we can do.
When I get home, I’ll let my daughter play with the mirror.
The day the director of the 49 Writers reading series contacted me about extending a scheduled trip to the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, so that I could read in Anchorage and Barrow, I asked my husband if it would be okay. The hardest thing about accepting the offer was the idea of leaving my daughter for nine days. Ray said it wasn’t his decision to make, but he thought I would be crazy not to go. I asked him the next day, and he said the same thing. When I asked him the third time—sometimes it’s hard for me to recognize his support—he grew exasperated and reminded me that for three of our first six months together I was on the road promoting or researching the books I’d worked so hard to write. He had no illusions that my travels were going to stop just because I’d married him and had a child. He said I should go, and he assured me he would take good care of our daughter. She was his daughter, too.
I buy a compact mirror with the Alaskan flag because the dipper part of the Great Bear is the one constellation I can always recognize.
In an interview with Parenting Magazine, in which she talked about leaving her son with his father for the six months she would be on the Space Station, Karen Nyberg said that “after going through it in my head for a long time,” she realized “this is a dream I had since I was a young child, myself. I don’t think I would be setting a very good example for my son if I were to give up on my dream.” Even a NASA-trained astronaut had reservations about prioritizing her career. For some reason, this is heartening for me to know.
“Those Good & Plenty were three dollars,” Sean says as we leave the Fur Shop. “They better be good. There better be plenty.”
“Did you buy them?” When he was at the counter, I’d been occupied fitting my souvenirs into my purse, putting on my hat.
“No,” he says. “I took a picture.”
We’ve heard that transit costs to Barrow and frequent spoilage due to freezing drive up prices on staple items— a carton of milk can cost thirteen dollars. We want to see this for ourselves. Our next stop is the AC, the grocery and supply store. I suggest that if we walk toward the church we’ll eventually arrive at the store.
I remember the church from our tours the day before. The Presbyterians were the first missionaries in Barrow, arriving in 1890, and their church stands in what I understand to be the center of town. The town’s distance signposts are yards from the chapel. (Los Angeles: 2,845; Fairbanks: 555; Paris: 4,086; North Pole: 1,250; South Pole: 11,388).
“If my parents were here, they would have gone to services,” I tell Sean. But I’d been afraid the people wouldn’t be friendly. “Sometimes these small communities don’t want outsiders,” I say.
Several parishioners walk out of the church as if summoned to greet us. One woman stands, arms outstretched and head tilted toward the sky. The white wooden Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church behind her, she cries, “The sun! The sun!”
In the northernmost town in North America, the sun set on November 19 at 1:36 pm, and it didn’t rise again until January 22, when it stayed up for twenty minutes and four seconds. Each day since the twenty-second, the sun has stayed up longer. Barring overcast weather, which is common up here, we will get six hours and six minutes of daylight today, nineteen days after the year’s first sunrise. “Look at that glorious sun!” the woman exclaims. Then she puts a foot on the running board of a black, extended-cab truck and pulls her short body inside.
Sean says, “I don’t think we’re going the right way.”
“The store is just over yonder,” I insist, though we both realize I don’t know what I’m talking about. We don’t even know how to find the Airport Inn.
The sun singer is driving toward us. We flag her down and ask the way.
“Who invited you?” the woman asks. We are in the cab of her truck now.
Her name is Ida, and though she can remember Sean’s name, she calls me Amelia. I correct her twice, and then answer to what she calls me.
“Is there a word in Iñupiaq for when you are speaking to an elder?” I ask. “Where we come from, Sean and I might use aunt or uncle.” Sean and I aren’t from the same place, but we are from the same type of people. It would be strange—rude, even—for us to call a church-going woman of roughly our mothers’ age by her first name, using no mediating honorific.
Our driver tells us the word we should use, but she says it so fast I can’t get the hang of it.
“Are you nurses from the hospital?”
“No, Ms. Ida. We’re writers,” I say from my seat in the back of the cab. “We spoke at the library yesterday.”
“Hmph,” she says. “Who invited you to Barrow and left you standing on a corner?”
“We wanted to go for a walk this morning,” I explain.
“We’re doing a bit of exploring,” says Sean.
“Whoever invited you didn’t give you a tour?”
“We were driven around yesterday,” I assure her. “That’s how we knew about your church.”
She is not satisfied. “You’re not going to tell me who it was who invited you, are you? I can’t believe they just left you on your own.”
“We really didn’t mind wandering by ourselves, ma’am. We know there was a death in the community recently and many of the people who would have hosted us this weekend are home with family.”
Ms. Ida nods solemnly. She tells us the boy was related. Perhaps he was her husband’s cousin’s nephew’s stepson—I don’t remember the whole chain. “I’ve been at the family’s house all week, but this morning I had to get away, to go to church,” she says. “When I went into church it was dark outside. Now, look at all this beautiful sun.”
For a while after she speaks, we are all quiet, admiring the open sky.
“That’s our hotel,” says Sean, pointing to the Airport Inn.
“Hmph. They have you staying there?” says Ms. Ida. She keeps driving, pointing out buildings. “This is our new hospital. It’s a really nice hospital. When I first saw you I thought you were new nurses from the hospital.”
“No, ma’am,” says Sean. “We’re writers.”
Ms. Ida keeps driving in what I understand to be the opposite direction of the grocery store. “My people learn from seeing things,” she tells us. “That’s why I used to have so much trouble in school. They had us reading all these books, but I never got good at reading. If I couldn’t see it, I didn’t understand. It wasn’t until I started reading the Bible that I learned to really see what I was reading about. Isn’t that interesting?”
“Do you think it’s because the parables and stories help paint a picture for you?” I ask.
“When I started reading the Bible, the things I read just made perfect sense,” she says, continuing to drive. She hasn’t answered my question, but she has answered my question.
“Out there is our satellite farm.” Ms. Ida indicates the row of satellite dishes at the southeast edge of town.
I recognize the place. Erin, our host librarian, brought us out to the sat farm late last night, after our reading, so I could see the aurora borealis without the interference of streetlights. Erin had been underwhelmed by the night’s show. She’d seen much grander displays. She kept the car running and stayed in the driver’s seat. But I was awed by the green light waving through the night sky. I’d heard about the dancing lights, but I understood the aurora borealis to be a cloud, and clouds in my experience move as if they are solid masses. They do not jump and spin and dive as if each particle is in visibly independent motion, like dancers doing isolations. What I saw, when I saw the northern lights, was an observable enactment of the volatility of matter. In my solid world of cars and books and glasses of wine, I know each atomic particle, each cell and each nucleus, is an independent body engaged in independent, often erratic, motion. Still, the riggings appear so inflexible that I can’t apprehend motion. The aurora is the result of particles colliding with other particles and, though each explosion happens in something akin to a unified field, I could observe discrete activity.
I tried to take a video of the lights to send to my daughter, but the flowing tangibility of sparks of differentiated matter didn’t convey in the replay.
“That’s how we communicate with the rest of the world,” says Ms. Ida, driving her Toyota Tundra past the sat farm at the same steady speed she’s been driving since we climbed into the truck.
When we first arrived at the library, Erin said, “Welcome to Barrow. Have you already been on four tours?” We told her Rita had shown us around. Barrow only has about 4,500 people. It didn’t seem like there was much we needed to see. “You haven’t really been to Barrow until you’ve been taken on four tours,” Erin argued. “After your workshop, if you want, I’ll take you around so you can take photos.”
How to describe Erin? She was of indistinguishable age, somewhere between twenty-eight and forty-six. In the manner of a woman who has grown used to not being seen, she wore practical flannel-lined Carhartts and a thick sweater that disguised her physical form, but her energy was a bubble machine of exuberance that seemed less middle-aged, more twenty-something. She had a sort of plains-state can-do attitude, the kind I’d come to recognize in people from the Lower 48 who move to Alaska and stay.
Her tour of the library started in the children’s room: a cozy space with small chairs. Though she made sure to have plenty of Samoan romance novels in the adult collection to satisfy the library’s substantial client pool of women from the South Pacific, and she’d organized our event to target Barrow’s surprisingly robust poetry-loving population, Erin was devoted to the children’s program. This room boasted lots of children’s books and also plenty of YA classics to keep the kids engaged well into high school. She nearly leapt for joy—I am not exaggerating—when I pointed to a prominently displayed copy of Mama, Do You Love Me? Set in Alaska, the book follows the adventures of a girl who tests the extent of her mother’s love. “I’ll love you until the umiak flies into the darkness, till the stars turn to fish in the sky,” I said to Erin, quoting some of the mother’s lines.
“I’m so glad you know that book!” said Erin.
I told her that reading the book to my daughter, the illustrations had seemed fanciful, but here in Barrow, I’ve seen women and children dressed in parkas like the girl’s and her mother’s, I’ve seen doll’s like the child’s, and I’ve seen real umiaks, the skin boats used to ply these Arctic waters.
“It’s the best book. I just love it!” she said. Then her attention jumped. “We should show you where you’ll be giving your workshop,” and she bustled us into a quiet conference room with five waist-to-ceiling windows overlooking the frozen Isatkoak Lagoon.
A group of six children on four snow machines gathered just before the lagoon, waiting for something. Sean took their picture. A kid of about five, seated behind his brother, noticed us first. A few of the children turned and waved, looking at us like we were exotic lizards in a terrarium. Sean took pictures until the children bored of us, turned their attention back to the snowfield, popped down over the berm, and drove their machines into vastness.
“This week a boy in our community was shot,” Erin told us.
“Yes, I read about it in the paper down in Fairbanks,” I said. The papers said the accident had involved a hunting rifle.
“The kids have been skipping school and riding around together,” she said, though this was a Saturday. “It’s like therapy for them.” Erin sat still for a long moment, one of the longest I’d see in two days. “He was a really good kid. Everybody loved him. He used to come to the library a lot. Only thirteen. It’s really devastated the community, but so many of the teachers here are from outside. They come to teach, and then they leave when the term is over. They just don’t seem to care.”
What could we say to that?
“Do you need water? The bathroom? Something to write with?” Erin was up and moving again. “I am so excited you’re here. Oh, golly, this is going to be great.”
On our second tour of Barrow, Erin took us to stand between two jawbones that arched far over our heads, framing the Arctic Ocean from one vantage, the town of Barrow from the other. “This is the iconic Barrow photo spot. You have to have a picture of yourself by the whale bones.” She took us to the Presbyterian church and the nearby signpost with arrows pointing toward the rest of the world. And she took us to IlisaÄ¡vik, the northernmost accredited community college in the United States—the only tribally controlled college in Alaska.
Erin was proud of the college and how it served the community. Signs around the halls were written in English and Iñupiaq, supporting the college’s mission to “perpetuate and strengthen Iñupiat (Eskimo) culture, language, values and traditions.” We learned that the word for February is Siqiññaasugruk, which means “the month of longer sunshine,” and that this is a time “to celebrate a successful hunting season.” Erin gave us a poster that praised community self-sufficiency. She made sure Sean took a picture of a sign that described what to do if confronted by a polar bear.
Erin drove us out to the satellite farm, past the new hospital, past the ruins of the burnt-out Top of the World Hotel. There used to be a restaurant in that hotel, called Pepe’s North of the Border, where you could get a certificate that said you’d been to Barrow, the northernmost city in North America. (My grandparents visited Barrow once. Somewhere in their unsorted boxes I could probably find their North of the Border certificate.) Since the 2013 Top of the World fire, nothing quite so intentionally constructed for tourists has taken its place. Most of the outsiders in Barrow are there to work in the hospital or the schools, or they’re passing through to work on one resource-extraction project or another, mostly jobs having to do with carbon-based fuels.
Erin drove us from photo op to photo op, trying to make sure we saw the best parts of her adopted town. Barrow has its share of interesting human-made structures, including the oldest frame building in the Arctic, built in 1893 as a whaling station and trading post. Not far from Osaka, we saw the remains of 1,000- to 1,500-year old Iñupiat dwelling mounds. But, for the most part, human construction is not what makes Barrow remarkable. Most of what we saw was human-built and imposed—buildings made from shipping containers or frame structures stilted above the permafrost, which, in this part of Alaska, can be as much as a half-mile deep. Or, like the baleen palms or the jawbone arches, dead things imposed on the landscape. Most of what we saw was desolate, lifeless, and frozen. In spite of this, standing by the bone arch with our feet near the icy Arctic Ocean, we marveled aloud at how beautiful everything was.
“I just love you guys,” said Erin. “You are so cool.”
We were grateful that she liked us but weren’t sure what made us stand out from other guests.
“You’d be surprised,” she said. “People come here and hate it. They say it all looks bleak. They say everything looks the same.”
“Why wouldn’t we like it here?” I asked. Sean and I looked out toward the Northwest Passage which, somewhere beyond where we stood, was growing more navigable each year.
“The last person I brought up here wrote a blog post about the trip. She said Barrow looked like a bombed-out town after armageddon,” said Erin.
Sean and I enumerated the different colors of white we had perceived that afternoon, the varying shades of blue and gray, the saturation of brightness where the ice sheet met the darkening sky at the farthest point of the horizon.
Later, I’d ask Ms. Ida how she could tell when the frozen field changes from sea ice to land ice. “You can just tell,” she said, looking out over the crystalized water.
I wanted to see the difference as easily as she could.
Sean walked toward, or maybe onto, the frozen ocean. At the height of the freeze, the sea ice should be thick enough to support a three-ton whale, but all I know is unpredictable pond ice. I stood at the edge, where I believed the land met the water, too skittish to wander out far.
“There’s the grocery store,” says Ms. Ida, pointing to the AC. “Did you still want to stop?” It’s a rhetorical question. She hardly slows the truck.
I understand, now that we’re in the middle of this fourth tour of the town, that we could have walked to the AC the way we’d been headed, but there were no roads leading in that direction. We would have had to walk straight across the frozen lagoon.
Ms. Ida stops the car at the Iñupiat Heritage Center, next door to the library. I finally know where we are. Erin had taken us to the Heritage Center the night before to see Barrow’s collection of taxidermied tundra beasts. Inside, we saw a polar bear and a scale model of a bowhead whale. But Ms. Ida takes us to the back where women sew parkas and fur hats. Outside, near the trash pile, is the beheaded carcass of a seal.
“Are they throwing that away?” I ask.
“It’s storage,” she tells me. Today’s high temperature will be –6. Why bother with a deep freezer? I keep being surprised by what comes to seem obvious once I realign my perspective.
I won’t admit it is just mine on loan. I like the idea of someone thinking such a fine, warm hat belongs to me.
In Anchorage, the director of 49 Writers lent me a hat she’d gotten in Nome. It would keep me warm as I traveled farther north. Sealskin on the outside plus a beaver-pelt lining meant hardly any cold got in. Ropes of stiff yarn ending in fur pompoms brought the earflaps nearly to my chin. When we finally do get to the AC, an Iñupiaq woman selling colorful handmade parkas (at six hundred dollars, I won’t buy one, though I will be sorely tempted) will ask to look at the hat. Upon inspecting its craftsmanship, she will compliment the maker. I won’t admit it is just mine on loan. I like the idea of someone thinking such a fine, warm hat belongs to me. Wearing the right hat for Barrow helps me feel less out of place.
Ms. Ida, too, makes me feel like less of an outsider. Our quickly constructed friendship builds for us a bridge. She tells me she met her husband at a bar in San Francisco’s Mission District. I gasp and ask which one. Turns out, the restaurant where I first met Ray is just four blocks from the bar where Ms. Ida met her husband. She was attending secretarial school across the bridge in Oakland at the time, she tells us. Sean and I have both lived in Oakland too. We each know the area where Ms. Ida shared an apartment with two other women, though Sean and, later, Ray and I walked those streets years after Ms. Ida and her husband moved back to Barrow.
“I don’t live in California anymore,” I tell her. “My family moved to Colorado this summer.”
“Colorado? Near Denver?” she asks. “My husband was sent to the BIA school in Denver when he was a boy.” I have to work that out in my head and am ashamed when I realize I was too dense to immediately recognize the abbrevation for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “He says they treated him well there.” She is quiet for a moment, and I imagine she is considering the alternative treatment her husband might have suffered. I’ve heard reports. “He has good memories of the place,” she says.
In one version of a story told in Sean’s partner’s family, they say her grandfather’s mother ran an Indian school in Denver. Perhaps it was the very school where Ms. Ida’s husband was sent as a boy. The Earth is small.
We get back in the truck and Ms. Ida drives slowly past particular houses, looking in the yards. The polar bear hunter doesn’t have anything. The body at the Heritage Center is the only seal we see. “I’m going to take you to my house,” she says.
Sean says nothing, just slightly nods and looks toward Ms. Ida and also out the window. Later, he will tell me he had been afraid to climb into the truck when we’d met Ms. Ida at the church. Where he’s from in Georgia, black men would be wise not to jump into strange women’s cars.
Outside the truck window, I can see the lagoon stretch on either side of the causeway we are crossing. I am beginning to understand where we are in relationship to where we have been. Soon we’ll pass the jawbone arches again.
When we pull into Ms. Ida’s driveway, there are three caribou-gut piles in the yard from where her sons dressed the animals. At the top of the stairs that lead to the house, her husband smiles quietly, holding open the door to welcome us. Inside, Ms. Ida walks directly to her kitchen. Sean and I linger in the living room looking at family pictures. Ms. Ida with her children. Ms. Ida as a child. I carry my phone to the kitchen and show off the photo Ray sent of my girl at the breakfast table that morning, her cereal bowl just inside the frame.
“I’m so happy I married a Native man,” Ms. Ida says of her husband. As she speaks, she chops hunks of caribou with an ulu, a wood handled knife with a curved metal blade. “We never have to argue about what’s for dinner. This is what’s for dinner.” She walks out to the back porch, returning the caribou, which she’s wrapped in butcher paper, to a bench and retrieving some similarly wrapped salmon filets. She also brings in a big hunk of meat that turns out to be bowhead whale. The salmon goes into a skillet, and the whale lands on a piece of cardboard at the head of the table. Her husband puts more cardboard at each of our places. This, I learn later, is a typical way to serve muktuk, one of the local foods Ms. Ida will offer us this afternoon. “Give them plates!” Ms. Ida chides and, without a word, he takes the cardboard away and replaces it with Corelle dishes.
Her husband leaves the kitchen and comes back with two lapel pins that announce we’ve been to Barrow. “I was mayor for about 30 years,” he tells us. “Now, I’m emeritus.”
Sean and I can’t quite believe our luck. We’ve stumbled into a first-class adventure when all we’d planned was to kill some morning hours. We hadn’t asked for any of it, but we’re enjoying everything.
Soon Ms. Ida has finished cooking the caribou and salmon, and we gather at the table. She uses her ulu to slice small pieces off the frozen hunk of whale. This is muktuk. It looks like the miniature slices of watermelon I find in my daughter’s toy kitchen, a wedge of greenish-black skin on a triangle of pinkish blubber. The pink is flecked with bits of black that broke off the skin as the ulu sliced through.
Because Ms. Ida’s husband was the whaling captain until he grew too old and one of his sons inherited the position, he and Ms. Ida get the best cuts, including flipper, which is thin and not as difficult to chew as other muktuk. We eat it all raw, like whale sashimi. The skin is the texure of tough calamari, and the blubber melts on my tongue as I chew. Ms. Ida gives us more slices of meat—this time with no skin or blubber. She cuts these from a frozen block of whale steak. Small bites, thin and red like carpaccio, rich with the taste of protein and iron.
I understand this is an experience I shouldn’t be having. Or, to borrow an overused word, I understand how unsustainable it would be if a bunch of outsiders, like me, had ready access to the meal I am enjoying.
You can’t just walk into a restaurant in America and find whale on the menu. People are trying to make sure you can’t walk into a restaurant anywhere in the world and find whale on the menu. For good reason. Whales need our protection, not our appetites. They are threatened. The ways of life of people whose traditions rely on the animals are threatened as well. I accept the food Ms. Ida offers because I am curious, and because I don’t want to be rude, but also because it tastes good, and because I appreciate that my window of permission is small.
For centuries, the people who live here have used hand-thrown harpoons and block and tackle to harvest a whale that will feed the community for a season. Nothing is wasted. Whalebone is used to rig the harpoonists’ boats, caribou tendons are used to sew watertight sealskin around that rigging. But, sitting at the head of his table, Ms. Ida’s husband tells us the whale hunt might not go well this year. The ice is too thin. Even if the hunters catch a whale, the weakened shelf might not support its weight. If they can’t pull the whale onto the ice, it will rot before it can be butchered. “A waste,” he says.
Ms. Ida brings out a bucket of seal oil. Suspended in the oil, which is the consistency of what you might find in a stove-side jar of bacon grease, are three-inch-long pieces of dried seal meat. I think it is bearded seal. Left to render in the salty oil, these slabs of flesh are tender, with just enough meaty taste to balance the salt. Seal confit. We dump a spoonful of the seal oil on our plates and rub it on the caribou before we eat it.
While Sean uses one of Ms. Ida’s homemade rolls to wipe every trace of seal oil from his plate, she asks me how I prepare meat for my family at home.
I don’t cook red meat very often, I admit. I think meat is too messy, practically as well as ethically, though I don’t tell her this. My squeamishness would ring hollow as I gobble rare, community-sustaining meat off her table.
Ms. Ida is eating a fish she calls cisco. “This is my favorite fish.”
“Some people call it butterfish, or whitefish,” her husband tells us.
I want to cut myself another slice of muktuk, but when I try rocking the ulu over the bowhead, I find I can’t use the knife Ms. Ida wields so effortlessly. “You have to be strong,” she says, cutting a few slices of muktuk and handing them to me. She slices her cisco and gives one piece to me, another to Sean. “You don’t have to like it,” she says.
Raw and still frozen from its time on her back porch, the buttery white fish melts on our tongues. “That is delicious!” I exclaim.
I’ll look up the Arctic cisco while waiting for the flight out of Barrow the next morning. Like other salmonid fish, it is anadromous, returning to freshwater to spawn. But unlike salmon, Arctic cisco can make the journey from saltwater to freshwater multiple times. The fish are abundant in the Beaufort Sea near Point Barrow, where they are a key component in the diets of the Iñupiat of Alaska’s North Slope, but climate change and oil and gas development are beginning to threaten their numbers.
Seated across from me at her kitchen table, Ms. Ida cuts us each another piece from the fish on her plate, then offers us no more. She eats the rest herself, popping the eyes out with her ulu and savoring them like I savored my ikura the day before, like Sean will savor the fluffy waffles and perfectly fried chicken quarter he will order at Osaka around 9 that evening.
Sean and I can’t stay with Ms. Ida forever, though sitting in her warm kitchen, we wish we could. We are due to go cross-country skiing with one of the librarians and his friend, a woman who moved to Barrow from Colorado. Thinking we were only walking to Osaka for breakfast and then going to the grocery store we believed to be just down the road, we’d left the Airport Inn without their numbers, but Barrow is small and, without much trouble, our ski partners will find us. Sean and I will stand in Ms. Ida’s foyer and hug her good-bye. I will promise to stay in touch, inviting them to stay with my family in Colorado should her husband ever revisit his old boarding school. I will thank her, again, for inviting us into her home. She will tell us, one more time, that it was a relief to have a break from the community’s grieving. She will tell me to travel home safely. I will tell her how excited I am to see my daughter. We will hug again, and I will thank her husband for my pin, which is embossed with a walrus, a whale, and a compass rose like the pole star in the Alaskan flag, indicating each of the cardinal directions.
At 3 pm, Sean and I, full and warm from our meal at Ms. Ida’s, will venture onto the tundra on borrowed Nordic skis. The high fat and protein content of the whale and seal and seal-oil-soaked caribou will regulate our blood flow and body temperature. Surviving, even thriving, in cold climates is the reason people eat such food. Our insulin will release at a steady pace, keeping us from growing sluggish in the frosty wind. As the sun dips close to an orange-tinted horizon, before the first stars appear in the long night sky, we will ski past the mile-long snow fence. When I look to my right and beyond me, I will see ice and compacted icy snow and tussocks of Arctic grasses mounded in snow. My unaccustomed eyes will see nothing distinguishable enough to identify as a landmark. If I let it, the vastness would terrify me.
Out there alone, I would be lost.