By Tim Akimoff
The C-130’s shadow moved over the sea ice like a thundering storm cloud, as two Coast Guardsmen opened the rear of the plane to reveal the vast expanses of white nothingness below us.
The two passengers (us) and the crew were strapped to the plane as the pair leaned out the opening to survey the ice for stranded humans or polar bears.
Polar bears were more likely, but the Guardsmen practiced for humans, who may increasingly travel to the Arctic as polar ice melts, and they are drawn to the oncoming reality of a Northwest Passage.
The icy wind stung my face, but my body was warm inside a gray Patagonia goose-down sweater coat, something I never thought I’d own until I moved to Alaska the previous fall.
Michelle wore a black, full-length Patagonia coat and she smiled at me across the body of the big plane as we made eye contact briefly before continuing to strain our eyes to try and see a polar bear
For a moment, my mind couldn’t really comprehend this reality. Eight months before this, I was helping to build a new website for the Missoulian newspaper in Montana.
When I was laid off from the newspaper in August, it was Michelle who called to tell me to apply for a job at the television station she worked at in Anchorage.
“You’ll never believe what I get to do every day,” said the woman I had started my career with at a newspaper in Salem, Oregon, five years previously.
She wasn’t wrong.
The C-130 is an engineering marvel, as tough and unlikely a flying machine as the bumble bee and perfect for Arctic search and rescue missions, which we were witnessing as reporters for NBC’s KTUU Channel 2 in Anchorage.
I have never felt safer than on that plane hurtling low across the sea ice only 1,300 miles from the North Pole.
Finding no humans or polar bears, the pilots wheeled the plane around and beelined for Will Rogers Memorial Airport, an ice landing strip just outside of Utqiaġvik, known more commonly to the outside world as Barrow.
If Utqiaġvik were easier to say for anyone whose family had not lived there since people last crossed the Beringian land bridge 15,000 years ago, we’d not be calling it Barrow today.
Barrow is not the strangest place I’ve ever been; that would be Whittier, Alaska, a city where the entire population lives in the same building, but that is a story for another day.
When you leave the airport in Barrow and walk into town, massive whale skulls sit like sentinels in front of the public buildings.
Its most famous landmark is, in fact, a whalebone arch, where Michelle and I posed for pictures before heading up to the most northerly point of land in the United States.
(Click on images to view captions.)
Aside from the bones of the big Balaenidae, which are far more a testimony to the ancient subsistence lifestyle and its commitment to utilizing every part of the life-giving animals than you first realize, Barrow looks like an outpost on the edge of a vast wilderness that extends in every direction.
Most people, including New York Times reporters, parachute in and make judgment calls about Barrow and its citizens and their whale-hunting ways.
To understand the Inupiat lifestyle is to know something that has persisted on the edge of impossible for thousands of years.
The whales are the pumping heart of the village and the region. To not have or to not be able to hunt whale would be to cease to exist.
The gravel roads were free of snow this late in spring, but dirty snow covered everything else, giving the town a well-worn, winter-weary look to a place that never really experiences a summer.
We walked for a long time before realizing we should just hail a cab to do everything we wanted to accomplish in the three hours the Coast Guard was allowing us to explore.
He had been a taxi driver in Los Angeles for 20 years and before that, he’d lived in some remote Islands off North Korea.
Nothing seemed strange to him. No request to stop by the Wells Fargo to get some cash or to swing by the grocery store so we could take pictures of the exceptionally high-priced items like milk, $8.99, eggs, $10.00, and bread, $7.50.
Not even when we asked him how we could get some muktuk.
“I can get you muktuk,” he said. “You want to eat it fresh? Or do you want to take it home with you?”
Muktuk is the frozen skin and blubber from the bowhead whales harvested annually in spring and fall in Arctic Alaska.
Whale hunting is among the more maligned practices on earth, even when it has sustained communities like those along Alaska’s Arctic coastline for thousands of years.
Muktuk, eaten raw to take advantage of the copious amounts of vitamin C, is the life-blood of the region, something Inupiats would use to trade with the interior Athabaskans for caribou and firewood.
Muktuk is almost entirely fat and when you eat it, it runs down your chin in oily rivulets having completely rendered in the heat of your mouth.
Our driver, a relative newcomer, is still part of the village and gets muktuk like the other villagers when there is a whale. The rest of his food he has shipped in once a year on the barges that haul things north when the ice melts. He orders everything he needs from an online Korean grocery store and cooks the traditional dishes his mother taught him a lifetime ago.
We met Mayor Harcharek at the library an hour later, and he looked at my name tag, supplied by the Coast Guard for the mission, and asked me if I was from St. Paul.
The Pribiloffs are two islands off the Alaskan coast that used to be part of the Beringian land bridge. There are two formerly Russian settlements with two groups of people, one of which spells their names with two FFs and one that spells their last names with one F.
“You’re Alaska Native with a name like Akimoff,” he said, smiling big and shaking my hand. “Gotta be from St. Paul.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’m not Russian or Alaska native, especially as he walked us around the city building with his arm around my shoulder like I belonged there.
Michelle had been assigned to write a 48-hours in Barrow story for the station, while I was gathering social media content, so we said goodbye to our North Korean driver and walked back through the parts of Barrow we had passed too quickly in the car.
By early afternoon, we had eaten at Pepe’s North of the Border and visited Brower’s Cafe, among a handful of other small shops and businesses.
Coast Guard missions are very precise, so we gave ourselves plenty of time to walk back to the airport before getting underway for the return trip.
The C-130 sat quietly at the end of the runway where we would board in another hour.
We made small talk with the crew and the mayor, who continued to insist I was from St. Paul Island, even though Michelle assured him I was just another American from the Lower-48.
We were exhausted when we finally boarded the big plane. Buckled in with a four-point harness, I fell asleep shortly after takeoff and slept the typically fitful airplane sleep for what felt like an hour, when a crew member came to shake me awake.
“Captain wants to show you something,” he said. “Bring your camera.”
I made my way up to the flight deck, which is a floor above the main deck.
Four crew members flew or navigated the big plane over an expansive, white Alaska landscape out the boxed glass windows below us.
The captain looked back at me and said, “I’m going to give you a view of Denali very few get to see,” he said.
The other crew member took me back down to the main deck but under the flight deck where a bubble window stuck out into the blue.
I looked down and saw the big mountain in front of me, encased in ice and brilliant in the bright, June sunshine. I snapped one picture, lowered my camera and just watched as we flew by it.
I walked back up to the flight deck and thanked the captain, who had a satisfied, big-brother-kind-of smile on his face.
Michelle slept with her notebook tucked under her arms, so I didn’t wake her when I returned to my seat for landing in Anchorage.
Thinking back to being unemployed six months earlier, I smiled in the darkness of the cavernous plane, thanking my lucky stars and my dear friend silently as the wheels touched down.
Sometimes you engineer your life one day at a time. And other times you wake up expecting the unexpected every day.
Photographs: Tim Akimoff
Tim Akimoff worked as a reporter for newspapers, television and radio in Oregon, Montana, Alaska and Chicago for a decade, before going to work for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife as a writer and social media coordinator. His life’s motto is a famous quote by G.K. Chesterton: “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.” He has been incredibly fortunate to be dad to three amazing kids, and two of them are much better writers than he is. And the great privilege of his life is that he’s been fortunate to do all of this with an amazing woman he’s known since third grade.
Editor’s note: I met Tim roughly a decade ago, when he was a University of Oregon student and I was The Oregonian’s recruiter. He joined the newsroom as an intern and I have marveled as his career has taken him to various states for various jobs in various mediums. I guess you’d call him versatile. Not to mention a great writer.
Tomorrow: Molly Holsapple, Life is not a science experiment