Our sojourn at the top of America could be summed up as sailing back and forth around Point Barrow to anchor on one side or the other each time the wind shifted. The low, gravely spit of Point Barrow itself shelters Elson Lagoon from the west and a series of low, constantly shifting islands shelters it from the north. But the lagoon is so big and shallow that when the wind blows from the south or east there’s really no protection in the anchorage at the northwest corner. So we’d sail around to anchor in the open sea, protected from the wind by Point Barrow again. We never encountered any problems with this strategy, but it was different than much of the cruising we’ve done before where the goal is to find an anchorage sheltered from all weathers for each place we visit. Here’s a Google earth screenshot Point Barrow (red dot) and Elson lagoon (teal green water to the southeast):
The first time we did this was upon returning from the polar ice edge. We first anchored in the lagoon but as soon as the wind started to shift, headed off to anchor right off town. This was actually fortuitous, as it’s 10 miles from the Point to town, too far to hike there and back for groceries, visiting Craig and Cyd, etc. So this way we could visit town! We beached the dinghy with no problems despite all we’d heard of the usual high surf conditions there (the SE wind had calmed it down on that side) and set off.
Barrow’s actually a pretty big town – the largest on Alaska’s North Slope – with about 4,000 residents, most of whom are Inupiat. The houses are all built up on pilings so that they don’t sink into the tundra’s permafrost when the top layer melts in July and August. What we really couldn’t get over, though, was the grocery store. It had literally everything you could want, from Oreos to mangoes. Yes, mangoes! We were overwhelmed after having spent so long on the remote outpost of Point Hope and so many days at sea! We didn’t buy the mangoes – they were hugely expensive (this is the Arctic, after all!) – but we did stock up on vegetables that were more in our budget and even got makings for a salad in anticipation of having Craig and Cyd to dinner on the boat.
For that dinner a day or so later, we were back in Elson Lagoon enjoying gorgeous weather – calm, sunny, even balmy at 42 degrees F! The sun and calm were particularly exciting: Barrow is one of the cloudiest places in the world, with complete overcast more than 50% of the time; and it’s very often windy with low pressure systems sweeping across from Wrangell Island north of Siberia. So we were all excited to sit out in the cockpit for drinks!
Hors d’oeuvres consisted of our pistachio nuts from the Dutch Harbor grocery store and an amazing contribution from Craig and Cyd – muktuk! Their Inupiat friends had given them some at the most recent whale hunt and they’d brought it for us to try! So there we were eating the blubber, skin, and meat of a whale! You eat it practically frozen, and raw like sashimi, and it was actually quite tasty. I think I’d go for tuna or yellowtail given the choice, but it was quite the experience!
Other excitements while anchored one side or the other of Point Barrow involved checking out the Barrow museum (mostly covering Inupiat culture and history), watching our new friend Geoff’s amazing dog team, walking the beaches to spot birds and immense whale bones, and borrowing Craig and Cyd’s four-wheelers to explore more of the tundra. Stay tuned for more posts and pictures of all this!!