American Countryside: Life in Barrow, Alaska

December 5, 2015 02:37 AM

The sun didn’t come up in Barrow, Alaska, on Nov. 20—and the town’s 4,000 residents won’t see it again until Jan. 23. Winter temperatures can fall to -50°F, and snow blankets the ground nine months of the year. It can warm up to 68°F in the summer, but 30°F and 40°F is more common. 

If you visit the northernmost community in the U.S., you won’t find people living in igloos or driving dog teams. You won’t find roads to Barrow, either. Travel into the community is by air, and a few barges bring supplies in the summer. There are no trees. 

What you will find is a community steep in tradition, especially hunting whales for food, which is still legal.

“We use skin boats made from bearded seals and thread made from caribou tendons,” says Phoebe Kippi, a 20-something mother of three and a lifelong resident of Barrow.

There are about 50 whaling “crews” in Barrow; each crew is made up of extended family members. The captain of the crew picks a spot on the icy shore of the Arctic Ocean. The crew watches for whales to come to the surface to blow air. They might paddle out to the whale, or on occasion, they can harpoon the whale from the shore.

It’s a tradition the Native Americans take seriously when passing to the next generation. One member of the crew is designated to throw the harpoon. “They need to know exactly where to harpoon the whale,” Kippi says. “They also need to be strong because they might need to throw the harpoon 10' or 15'.”

Crews are on the lookout for a 25' whale. “That’s what we call a ‘butterball,’ just like a turkey that’s plump and juicy,” Kippi says. 

This spring, Barrow’s crews killed nine whales. Each crew/family cuts the cooked whale meat into serving-size portions, Kippi explains. “The elder of the family says grace over the [town’s] radio, and the captain of each crew invites his family to his house to get a serving of the whale,” she adds. 

Four thousand people show up for their portion and then take home enough whale meat for the rest of the year. After all, winter is long. 


“American Countryside” is heard each weekday on a network of 100 radio stations and frequently on “U.S. Farm Report” TV. To find the station nearest you, visit www.American

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