When we dropped anchor off Point Hope following our passage north from Nome, our first thought (after seeing the boat secured) was that there was a ton more to the place than our chart had shown. The chart had the word “Ruins” written across the whole peninsula, and while there were ruins, there was also a small but thriving village, populated – it turned out – by Inupiat.
Although the wind was already strengthening significantly, we got together our water bottles, life jackets, and windbreakers and launched the dinghy to row ashore.
The whole beach was made up of smooth, round pebbles – mauve, coral, slate, jade, black, all kinds of beautiful colors – and on it people had staked nets which they could throw into the sea when the salmon came running past.
The slightly higher land (the whole place was pancake flat until it reached the Brooks Range, blue in the distance), was a dusty tundra, pocked with ground squirrel holes but blanketed with the most brilliantly colored wildflowers – yellow, white, and purple. You almost didn’t notice them until you stepped on them, but when looking at their level, the beauty was overwhelming.
We set off for the small town, where we found little timber frame houses set out in a grid along dusty dirt/gravel streets. There was a large school with big gym, a community center, and a small store that sold aged onions and potatoes as well as canned goods and very expensive milk. We indulged in a candy bar and got to chatting with the check-out clerk who told us quite a bit about caribou movements in the Brooks Range and subsistence hunting – her husband was off on a caribou hunt right then – no one bought much staple food at the store, hence why it was all so old.
The town seemed clean and well kept, although there did seem to be the smell of blubber hanging about – seal, or whale, or walrus. And there were many, many bones and antlers stacked by doorways. Outside of town were the enormous bones of bowhead whales, some of them with decomposing flesh still on them – we learned later that the town had caught 7 that spring. The whale hunt is still a hugely important part of the Inupiat culture, particularly on Pt Hope where they still hunt from sealskin umiaks paddled by hand. There’s a big celebration following the whale hunt, during which the meat and blubber are divided among the people, and culminating in the blanket toss when members of the community are tossed high in the air by the whole group, each of whom holds a rope ring attached to the sealskin blanket. The celebration, called Nalukataq, happens in May or June, so was over by the time we’d come, but the bones of the whales still lay outside the village, marking the place of the festival.
Leaving the village behind, we took a long walk out the windward side of the peninsula, witnessing the increasing wind and waves out in the Chukchi Sea and almost losing our new little waterproof camera trying to take videos of the waves! The flat tundra makes distances deceptive, so we were quite tired by the time we reached the end and were turning back along the leeward side, back to our dinghy. On the way we saw a big white bird which I pointed out excitedly, thinking it might be a snowy owl – a rare and beautiful creature that was near the top of my “must-see” Arctic critter list. We couldn’t be sure, though, as we hadn’t brought binoculars or our big zoom lens.
We passed a family’s fishing camp en route to the dinghy, where we saw the immensity of a whale’s vertebrae and where salmon were hanging to dry in the arid Arctic wind, surrounded by nets to ward off insects. There we met three teenage boys on an ATV who were so interested in our boat that we invited them aboard. Sitting in the cockpit in the sun, we showed them our self-steering gear, our little propane stove, the head (they couldn’t believe we had a toilet on our little sailboat), and the tiny top-loading fridge, and they told us all about the whale hunt, caribou hunting, and Nalukataq. One boy in particular obviously loved the whale hunt in the sealskin umiaks – he lit up talking about it.
We’d been on Pt Hope one day, and already we were so glad that the wind had turned against us and forced us to find shelter here – what a shame it would have been to have missed this fascinating place!