Turning Points: A Dispatch From The End Of The Country
In the days preceding winter solstice, the sky enshrouding Barrow, Alaska, is a hue somewhere between mineral pitch and squid ink. And the skyline stays that way for all of a handful of minutes when it winnows a degree or two lighter, the barest luminescence along the horizon, like the last gasps of cathode ray behind a dead television screen. At high noon, your skin tone is cobalt, and the flat soil and the frozen Arctic Sea surrounding you resembles the surface of the moon.
When you arrive at the U.S.’s northernmost airport — one named ironically after two men, Wiley Post and Will Rogers, whose lives were extinguished some nine miles from the airport’s tarmac when their plane barreled into the sea — you experience the region’s bracing winter conditions fairly immediately. The wheels bounce hard across the single asphalt runway, the rear door opens, and you descend the stairs into a wind with the bite of hail. It’s the only air travel I’ve experienced where part of the flight attendants’ pre-landing protocol involves the donning of down parkas, complete with Alaska Airlines insignia.
From there, you can wander to one of the half-dozen eternally idling taxi cabs or brave the sub-zero walk across town to your lodging.
In contrast to the -20 degrees Fahrenheit air temperature outside, the Airport Inn, the most humble of the three hotel options in the northernmost city of the North American continent, is insanely warm. Unbearably warm. Warm enough to trigger the hotel fire alarm twice during the night. The room windows are permanently glazed in frost and separate two distinctly contrasting climatic worlds. But in 24-hour darkness, it hardly matters. Without the hoarfrost-cloaked streetlight mid-window, my hotel view of Barrow would be little more than a blurry stare into an arctic rabbit warren.
It’s early morning of my 40th birthday, and I’m peering out that very window for any sign of approaching headlights, hoping they might signal Bunna Edwardson’s tundra-borne arrival, the Inupiat wilderness guide Barrow native with whom I made arrangements to meet up with for the sole purpose of getting as close as I can to polar bears in their natural habitat. If Bunna doesn’t show, it’s going to be a meandering and likely life-abbreviating self-initiated tour across the arctic ice shield in search of them.
But Bunna barrels into the hotel parking lot right on time. He’s a goateed young man with waist-length hair, disarming smile and hulking figure. He says hello and immediately ducks into the can with a “gotta pee” request for pardon. Soon after, we pack into his idling SUV and begin mucking our way through the deserted, eternally blue-hued streets. It’s then Bunna informs me crossing paths with the polar bears is going to be challenging, if not impossible. The ice pack arrived earlier than normal and already pushed the majority of bears seaward. My arrival may be two weeks too late.
The news dampens my heart, but I knew I was pushing my calendar luck when I made the travel arrangements.
If spending your 40th birthday in 24-hour darkness and 40-degree subzero windchill as you clomp over sea ice in search of polar bears seems a bewildering choice, you may not have yet crossed that milestone yourself. Because when it finally careens its thundering path your way, the proverbial midpoint of your life, shredding the sod of your youth behind you to clumps and detritus, you might also do what you can to limit your company to those whom you can immediately commiserate: other vulnerable species. With half their populations in serious decline, Ursus maritimus, unfortunately, certainly sit within that classification.
In the many months leading to my pilgrimage to Barrow, my imagination had been consumed with bears. They figured prominently into the novel I had been writing, and I had spent the past several years steeped in field biology books about the animals. Each page I turned, I became more and more engrossed in their magnificence — their physical ability, nomadic sensitivity, their oddly human fears and survival tactics. Bear physiology also provided a gamut of literary metaphor possibilities, especially the species of bears — black bears and grizzlies — that survive food-starved winter landscapes buried in the soil. My novel was about a young man who loses a brother and then tangentially becomes unglued at the feet of an unraveling love. It’s a novel about how loss can transform us — the human hibernation some of us fall into during acute periods of grief. The main character in my novel follows grizzly bears into the woods because he can think of no better teachers at his point of need. Bears are cheaper than psychologists and less intimidating, to some of us, than priests.
So there I was, mid-life, supported by a thick sheet of sea ice, and like the character in my novel, looking to bears for salvation. Polar instead of grizzly. (Grizzly are endangered, too, but when your birthday falls in December, your ursine party guests are limited to the non-hibernating variety.)
As we drive through Barrow, the landscape through the windshield seems hauntingly separated, its darkness and cold, from the warmth of our heated cab. As if the world between vehicles and houses lacks oxygen and gravity in addition to sunlight. At least that’s how it seems. You step outside, and every movement you make becomes strangely audible. Across the lunar-like surface, your footsteps crackle and your breath hisses. No matter where you drive, you leave your vehicle running. If you possessed a safety harness or long rope, you might feel compelled to tie a bowline knotted end to the axle for reassurance you’ll find your way back if stepping even mere yards away. It’s that dark, that cold — a seemingly other world.
Bunna gestures at the different cube-shaped abodes we pass where family and friends lay sleeping, small houses built on stilts to keep them from permafrost adhesion and with foot-thick walls to bay the cold. The soft incandescence of solo-lit windows is the only sign of life within these dwellings, the only reassurance we’re not driving through a frozen ghost town. Aside from swirls of snow and clouds streaming from roof vents, the entire village seems motionless.
After we stop at the sole 24-hour convenience store to top Bunna’s to-go mug with dark roast, the sparsely lit oasis of Barrow disappears in our rear view, swallowed in the darkness. Within minutes, our SUV crawls to a stop, and we stare into a blue field swaying with caribou. Their eyes uniformly reflect flashes of our headlights, as many caribou eyes staring back at us as stars in the sky. There must be thousands. In front of us, surrounding us, a spiral galaxy of caribou eyes.
We remain transfixed, two humans and a thousand caribou, staring at one another.
“Wow,” I say, and Bunna just smiles.
Sighting animals, or anything, really, at a distance in Barrow is made easy, thanks to its treeless landscape. The soil of the arctic coastal tundra is locked in a thick and continuous permafrost, yielding very little seasonal vegetation. In the open daylight of summer, you can probably see forever.
We resume moving forward, past the hypnotic stare of caribou, and veer and skid across the rutted roadway. When we approach the only other vehicle we pass, its headlights looming toward us, Bunna palms a CB radio microphone. He knows the vehicle’s driver, and they discuss road conditions and potential polar bear presence. It’s the arctic equivalent to stopping your car and chatting through parted windows. We never see the other vehicle’s driver, just hear his radio wafted voice through clicks of static, and then we are alone again, sharing this long arm of the Arctic Ocean with no one else.
Nine miles north of Barrow, we come to a desolate point where the road, if you can call it a road, comes to a whimpered end. It’s Point Barrow, the northernmost drivable point of all U.S. territory, a spit of land that juts into two conjoined seas: the Chukchi and the Beaufort. But standing at that point, I can’t even tell either direction is sea, at all. It’s all ice and heaved freeze and dark sky.
As we trundle out, Bunna informs me we’re standing on the same spot bowhead whales swim during their spring migration, and I momentarily imagine one breaching through the ice beneath me, its massive skull ripping through the surface, its paired blowholes screeching tree-sized plumes of frosted air. And apparently (this time at least) my imagination isn’t a continent away from reality. I learn the whales are known to do just that, through ice as thick as 24 inches. That, I assume, must be a sight.
But no whales breech the frozen arctic sea ice we hike across. None, at least, we notice. We trudge over the scarred and snowy surface in silence, just the sounds of our feet moving across the shelf of sea ice, the sonorous wind in the distance. And then we arrive at one of the most striking places I’ve probably ever approached, the unmistakable perimeter of the Point Barrow whale bone dumping grounds.
I had heard about this place, read about its popularity with the polar bears, and wondered what it looked like. It’s a sculpture garden that could best the finest museums — story-high rib bones, cupping the sky, claw-shaped skulls the size of semi trucks planted horizontally in the ice, vestigial limb bones, spines the length of mobile homes, all covered in hoarfrost and tinted the color of 3 a.m. I stare at a single vertebrae disk the girth of a coffee table.
“We hunt bowhead,” Bunna informs me.
“I see that,” I say.
“We get to claim 22 a year. Our quota. This is where we clean them, leave what’s left. Far enough away from town, we don’t have to worry about polar bears dumpster diving and then loping through our backyards after.”
Imagine a small automobile junk yard and replace car parts with whale bones — next to a frozen sea. That’s the Point Barrow whale bone dumping grounds. It would be the perfect place for a bowhead on the prowl for a spare baleen.
I stand fairly still, mesmerized by the sea of giant bones before me, beneath me, around me. And then I start imagining the length of time ahead of us, how many years, before the same is all we’ll have left of the bear I’ve come these 3,000 miles to meet. How long until we make their gradual disappearance permanent? How many days until the polar bear bone dumping grounds is complete?
In North America and Canada, the polar bear has already earned its way into the ranks of the endangered, and their complete demise seems within arm’s length when you consider the primary factor threatening its survival: melting ice. Of all planetary trends, its gradual and not so gradual warming has become the one seemingly impossible to slow, much less reverse.
And the clock is ticking. The USGS predicts two thirds of the world polar bear population will disappear over the next four decades, and that’s based on moderate projections of sea ice melt. 40 years and the entire populations of polar bears in Alaska, Europe and Asia may be gone. Small, dispersed populations may survive another two decades in Greenland and northern Canada, before they, too, will disappear from everywhere but our memories and imaginations. It’s entirely possible within our lifetime we will know a world without polar bears, not a single one, roaming the moonlit horizon.
I stand amidst the frozen whale bones and wonder how many people care. If a tree falls in the forest (or marmot, a finch, a bear) does anybody hear? If we lose an animal hardly anyone encounters except in zoos and cola commercials, does it matter? Who does it matter to?
But it does matter. Significantly. And the reasons are numerous. There’s the animal itself, the world’s largest bear, an amazingly evolved mammal with unique adaptive physical abilities allowing it unrivalled dexterity across land, ice and open water. And if that doesn’t resonate, there’s the arctic canary in the coalmine analogy — the polar bear’s survival depending on a shelf of ice that, if permanently melted, signals a whole downstream shitstorm of peril for our own survival, a new climactic norm meets rogue carnival ride none of us are going to like a whole lot or find livable.
Think eustatic sea level rise in yards not inches — the washing away of New York, New York and London, the sudden creation of one million homeless people in Nigeria alone. And that’s just coastal displacement, land erosion. Add to that rampant storm surge flooding, habitat loss, water quality and groundwater characteristic changes, agriculture/aquaculture impacts and the global economic repercussions of this Dino De Laurentiis-like production grow direr yet. There’s a reason we should do everything we can to protect the unique habitat that sustains the polar bear, and it has more to do with our own survival than the downy, thousand-pound animal that would also obviously benefit.
But beyond those two valid and compelling reasons, shouldn’t we work to sustain the existence of the polar bear, and all vulnerable and endangered species, for the simple reason their plight is a shared burden? Do we really have an ethical choice? The mantra of leaving no one behind shouldn’t be reserved exclusively to the moral code of the armed services. If we fail at sustaining the species of beings we share our planet with, it makes a compelling statement about who we are, and perhaps an omen of where we’re headed.
I spent the majority of my 40th birthday alone with a former stranger — a congenial Inupiat and enthusiastic fan of his native city — a city that sits more than 500 miles from the next closest comparable one. No bears joined our two-person nomadic party across Barrow’s frozen arctic sea coast that day. None in view. But before we left the whale bone dumping grounds, Bunna spotted something and stopped dead in his tracks.
He grabbed my shoulder, pushed me gently toward the ice beneath our feet. And then I saw them in the murky darkness, the unmistakable footprints and claw marks of a recently passing bear. I placed my gloved hand into the center of the nearest mark, an oval dent in the ice my open hand barely obscured, a single footprint at least 12 inches in diameter and elongated an additional several inches by the spire of claws.
Your hand swallowed against theirs, it’s impossible not to be moved by the magnitude of the animal that left so determined a mark before your own. We moved slowly forward, the serrated pattern of footprints welted into the ice beneath us. We followed them, a step at a time, blindly into the dark.
By Kipp Wessel
[In lieu of payment for this article, Kipp has requested that a donation on his behalf be made to Polar Bears International, the world’s leading polar bear conservation group dedicated to saving polar bears by saving their sea ice habitat. To find out more about the organization, please visit PolarBearsInternational.org]
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kipp Wessel’s stories have appeared in a dozen commercial and literary magazines, including Southern Humanities Review, CutBank and Big Sky Journal. He lives in Minnesota and earned his MFA and a Fiction Fellowship from the University of Montana. His debut novel, First, You Swallow the Moon – a modern love story of a man who attempts to avert heartbreak by transforming himself into a bear, is slated for an early 2014 release. To learn more, visit: KippWessel.com.