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James M. Clash

James M. Clash

Posted: November 24, 2010 04:00 PM

Northern Thanksgiving Exposure From the Top of Alaska


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For Thanksgiving this year, I considered exotic travel. I really did. But the more my thoughts turned to crowds, hassles and a newly emboldened TSA, the more I gravitated toward staying in New York.

This has not always been the case. A few years back, on a whim, I flew way north for turkey day. While my friends enjoyed Thanksgiving dinners with their families, I sat shivering in a tiny Chinese restaurant in Barrow, AK, chowing down not on turkey but Mongolian beef. Nobody else was in the place, and nothing else in town was open.

The temperature outside was a few degrees below zero. "This time of year it's usually 25 below," said John, my tour guide. "We're having a warm spell." Earlier he had taken me on a 20-mile dogsled run across the tundra. While I didn't do much besides sit, shivering works up quite an appetite.

To get up here, 330 miles above the Arctic Circle, I had flown a number of legs: New York to Seattle to Anchorage to Fairbanks, and finally to Barrow. After deplaning in the daytime darkness (at 71 degrees north latitude, the sun is hidden mid-November to late January), I checked into the King Eider Inn. When I asked where I could get a drink, the proprietor laughed. The town of Barrow, which has a population of less than 5,000--over half Inupiat Eskimo--has been dry since the 1990s.

The next morning I met my guide in the hotel lobby. While the sun wouldn't rise, the southern sky did lighten from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., so we timed excursions accordingly. The plan was first to search for polar bears near the sea, later to go dogsledding. Our heated vehicle--an ATV fitted with kevlar tracks to navigate the snow--served as transportation to Point Barrow, 12 miles away and the northernmost piece of land in the U.S.

As we neared the Point we spotted a yellowish polar bear munching on a whale carcass. When she spied us, she took off. At perhaps seven feet and weighing 900 pounds, the beast was menacing but beautiful. We watched with binoculars for a few minutes until she gracefully disappeared behind some icebergs half-a-mile away.

We climbed out of the vehicle for a quick look around. As far as the eye can see from Point Barrow, flat tundra stretches to the south. To the north is the Arctic Ocean, thick with icebergs. It was incredibly quiet, except for an occasional wind gust whipping between bergs. We bent over to inspect the fresh bear tracks; I could fit three of my own hand prints into one paw print.

Next it was back to town to catch the dogsled team. The huskies barked and yelped with excitement at the prospect of a run. One pup got so impatient she chewed through her harness while we were busy piling on all the extra warm clothes we could find. Once the dogs were harnessed, we were off, I in the sled and my guide standing on the back.

It's a surprisingly smooth--and fast--ride. At a 15-mph cruising speed, any exposed skin quickly turns numb. We yelled commands to keep the dogs on a safe path, away from crevasses, weak ice and the above-ground oil pipeline. "Haw!" and the dogs turned left; "Gee!" and they veered right. There was no whip. The huskies were trained to react to the human voice, and they did so--precisely, and in unison. After the tour, I was invigorated and hungry enough to think that a Chinese beef dish was as good as any stuffed turkey.

Jet-lag woke me the next morning at 5 a.m. When I looked out the window I could see stars for the first time (it had been overcast since I had arrived). Outside, away from the orange streetlamps, I lay on my back in the snow and watched overhead the eerie green, undulating wisps of the northern lights.

A few hours later, as I headed to the airport, I took a gander at the signpost with distances from Barrow to places around the globe. The South Pole is 11,190 miles away, the North Pole 1,311 miles. The sign says New York is 3,380 miles away, but it felt much, much farther.