Updated: Jun 2, 2022
"I haven't been everywhere, but it's on my list."
- Susan Sontag
In 1998, I had a friend who was living in Los Angeles and who, coincidentally, shared my bizarre appetite for travel solely for the purpose of collecting as many new counties as possible with an eye toward visiting them all, sometime before death. His name was Jim. We were somewhat competitive about it. After he would travel somewhere, he would proudly declare his new, elevated county total to me, which would eclipse my own number, that is, until my next road trip where I would pick up more counties and return with a slightly higher count. Our game of one-upmanship continued for a few years, but it was all good-natured and in the spirit of friendly competition. We eventually realized there was a strategic advantage in planning our trips together: with the power of two minds, we could conduct faster and more efficient research on travel to places that might ordinarily be difficult to get to. We planned our first big trip with great care and deliberation. The destination? Alaska! But not just a tourist's notion of Alaska. Not Anchorage, or Fairbanks or even Southeast Alaska. We both wanted a truly unique experience. We wanted to visit remote Alaska -- outposts that could only be reached by air or sea -- settlements above the Arctic Circle, north of the tree line, deep in the land of permafrost, where the northwestern continental mass meets the frigid Arctic waters. Essentially, we were seeking a trip to the edge of the world. We had three specific destinations in mind: Kotzebue, Nome and Barrow.
Traveling in tandem was in our best interest. We would not only be splitting the high costs of car rentals and lodgings, we would also have each other as companions to share this extraordinary experience with.
Image courtesy of Free Vector Maps
June 11, 1998 - Anchorage
Jim flew up to Seattle from Los Angeles the day before so that we could fly together from Seattle to Anchorage. We had planned to use Anchorage as our pivot point between legs of our journey. It made the most sense with Anchorage being the regional hub for almost all Alaskan communities in the Arctic. This was my third visit to Alaska and my second to Anchorage. It would be a long day of travel. We boarded a comfortable Boeing 737 on Alaska Airlines in Seattle with a direct flight to Anchorage where we had a brief stopover of a few hours before boarding a smaller plane bound for Kotzebue.
Downtown Anchorage - June 11, 1998:
The flight to Kotzebue was short -- just one and a half hours. We chose travel in June to take advantage of potentially better weather, but mostly to experience the maximum benefit of perpetual daylight in the northern latitudes. Kotzebue sits just 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle and, at that time of year, the sun never sets. It was our first experience of a true midnight sun. The sun rises every year on June 3 and doesn't set for 36 days. As we were on our final approach to Kotzebue, the pilot intentionally created a single mid-air “bounce” and then playfully announced that the bump we just felt was us crossing the Arctic Circle. A few minutes later, we had landed.
Kotzebue was my first experience of a truly remote Alaskan community. It sits at the end of a long, treeless gravel spit known as the Baldwin Peninsula and faces west into Kotzebue Sound which opens up into the Chukchi Sea, which -- by extension -- is part of the Arctic Ocean. The question of whether or not Jim and I were actually looking at the Arctic Ocean became a hot topic of debate that day, and for a few days after. I insisted we were Arctic Ocean initiates, and he was of the opinion that we were looking at a different body of water altogether, despite all evidence to the contrary. A quick glance at a map would settle the score.
The town of Kotzebue is small -- just over 3,000 inhabitants. There are no paved roads and the buildings look a bit worn down, as one would expect of a community subject to extreme weather. You cannot drive to Kotzebue -- tourists can only get there by air. There didn't appear to be much of a tourist economy when we arrived. There were just a few places to stay and a restaurant or two; the thrill of the visit was a byproduct of the novelty in itself. Here's a shot of me on the main drag through town:
Jim and I checked into the Nullagvik, the only hotel in town, immediately upon our arrival. It had been a long day of travel and we were eager to unburden ourselves of our bags and begin exploration. The original hotel (which has been replaced in recent years by a much more modern and comfortable one) was nothing more than a two-story motel-style arrangement with rooms you entered from the outside. It is located along the waterfront on Shore Avenue with rooms facing the water. Like most accommodations in the Arctic, it was very expensive, despite lacking most of the typical amenities and charms. It really didn't matter to either of us. We were just excited to be there and have a warm place to sleep.
We arrived during what the locals (and indeed, most people in the far north) refer to as "the break-up" -- when the ice begins to melt and the water surface turns slushy. The air temperature, as I recall, was surprisingly warm. We were able to walk around town without a jacket. We eventually found the Bayside Restaurant where we sat down to a dinner of seafood and fries.
Jim and I had planned to stay just one night. It was more than enough time for us to wander the town's streets and get a flavor of what it's like to be in Kotzebue. Here's the post office and a sign declaring our location above the Arctic Circle.
And this is Jim with Kotzebue Sound behind him.
The next morning, having crossed the Northwest Arctic borough off our list of unvisited counties, we boarded a small plane for a short hour-and-15-minute flight from Kotzebue to Nome.
Nome, Alaska -- June 12, 1998
Our flight left early in the morning which gave us plenty of time in Nome to explore. The first thing we did when we arrived was to rent a red Ford F-150 truck. We didn't just want to see the town, we wanted to drive out of town on two of three roads leading into the wild, extreme western portion of Alaska for a truly unique highway experience. Despite the presence of these roads, Nome is still cut off from the rest of Alaska by overland route, if you don't count the Iditarod trail. All roads do not lead to Nome.
Unlike Kotzebue, Nome is a widely recognized place name outside of Alaska. Most people, though they have never been there, have at least heard of it. But very much like Kotzebue, it is small and extremely remote. Its population is just over 3,600. It is 539 miles from Anchorage as the crow flies. It sprang into existence as a boomtown in 1899 like a lot of western, frontier towns did -- as the result of a gold rush. By the year 1900, more than 20,000 prospectors were crowded along the shoreline, making up about a third of all Alaskans of European descent and placing Nome at the top of the list as the most populated city in Alaska in 1901. In 1925, a diphtheria outbreak required emergency delivery of serum from Nenana 650 miles overland by dogsled — the forerunner of the famous Iditarod Race from Anchorage to Nome every March.
The city of Nome hugs the coastline of Norton Sound on the southern edge of the Seward Peninsula. During the two days we were there, the sun was obscured by thick gray clouds which seemed to bring out the gray in nearly everything -- the water, the beach, the surrounding hills. One thing Nome has that Kotzebue doesn't are paved streets. This is Front Street which is closest to the water and runs parallel to the beach.
Jim and I decided to take our F-150 and drive north out of town to see what hidden gems we might discover along the road. We set out on the Nome-Taylor Highway in the gray and drizzle, bumping along the wet, gravelly and frequently potholed road. The highway leads 85 miles north across the Seward Peninsula through mountains, until it dead-ends at the Kougarok Bridge which crosses a river bearing the same name. Once upon a time, there was a village named Taylor at the end of the road -- peopled by prospectors hoping to strike it rich -- but it is now long gone. The road, though in rough shape, wound its way upward into the mountains, following the Nome River, through a valley that was both bleak in its lack of trees and color, and beautiful as a place of raw nature, the land naked and open and largely untouched by humans. Snow still covered the hillsides and mountain peaks around us. I could count the number of cars we encountered along the way on one hand.
Jim and I got about halfway along the highway's 85-mile course before deciding we had seen enough. We turned around and made our way back toward Nome. This was our furthest point of travel north along the highway -- 40 miles from Nome:
Here are a few snapshots we got of the landscape along the way:
And this was the highway where it intersected with Front Street (at this point, the Nome-Council Highway), with the brooding, cold Bering Sea directly in front of us:
Back in town, we decided to try our luck out on the Nome-Teller Highway. If we could endure the entire 72-mile muddy track all the way to Teller (a small, Inupiat village 55 miles from Russia), we could claim victory at having driven just about as far west as possible within the United States (though Wales, Alaska is further west, you cannot drive there). We left Nome with high hopes. These were the series of warnings we encountered as we started our westward journey:
The highway was wide and well maintained with a well-graded gravel surface. As the miles passed by, however, the road conditions began to deteriorate. By the time we had gone about 20 miles west of town, it became clear that, even with our F-150, getting around the mammoth potholes, pools of standing water and muddy ruts would be a battle not worth fighting. So we settled on staking our claim to having traveled 20 west of Nome as the westernmost point of land we visited in the United States. I documented this feat in my blog post, "Going to Extremes."
With so much round-the-clock, unchanging daylight, it was difficult to gauge time or even really know how long we had been away exploring the highways without constantly glancing at a watch. It was still early enough in the day by the time we returned to town that we could do a little shopping. There was a unique gift shop at the western edge of town that sold hand-crafted Russian souvenirs. We went in for a quick perusal, but walked out with some amazing items -- one of which was a hand-carved wooden box that I still have to this day.
Of course, we did the little touristy things like see the only house in town with trees:
And get a photo of the colossal gold pan:
And visit the local newspaper office:
And stand under a directional sign tree that seemed to be de rigueur for all remote Alaskan outposts:
For overnight lodgings, we stayed at the Oceanview Manor B&B on Front Street at the eastern edge of town. It was one of the few houses south of Front Street, right on the beach facing Norton Sound. The price was reasonable, comparatively. The proprietors were friendly and eager to share their wealth of knowledge about their town's best eateries and things to do. At midnight, there was a fireworks display along Front Street that we attended. Midnight at this time of year in Nome is a term denoting only a fixed point on the clock, and not a condition of daylight. Our visit to Nome was brief, but memorable. We caught a flight back to Anchorage the next day and crossed the Nome Census Area off our list of unvisited counties.
Barrow, Alaska - June 14, 1998
Jim and I spent a full day in Anchorage where we rented a car, drove down to the Kenai Peninsula and visited the quaint little town of Seward. On June 14th, we boarded a plane bound for Barrow, Alaska -- our northernmost destination on this Alaskan excursion. We had to change planes in Fairbanks. The stopover was long enough for us to leave the airport, walk around a little and count the Fairbanks North Star borough as a county we had officially visited:
The plane we boarded for Barrow was unlike any other I had been on. We passengers, few in number, boarded the plane from the rear. The front half of the fuselage was walled off for transporting cargo. It made sense to me -- Barrow is not a place you can get to easily. The port is ice-free for just a little more than a month in the summer and there is no rail into town, so for much of the year, the only way to get goods into Barrow is by air.
After about an hour and fifteen minutes in the air, we landed at the Wiley Post/Will Rogers Memorial Airport in Barrow. It should be noted that in 2016, the city's name officially changed from Barrow to Utqiagvik (pron. OOT kee AH vik). Since the city's name was Barrow at the time of our visit, I will use this name for the purpose of this blog, but do be sure to make note of the new name if you are going to research a visit to the city.
Barrow is the northernmost community in the United States sitting well above the 71st parallel north, directly against the southern edge of the Arctic Ocean. It is 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle and boasts the longest "day" of any American city. On or around May 11, the sun rises and does not set for 80 days until on or around August 1. The North Pole is 1,300 miles away. The city's population is just over 4,200.
Even though it was June and the sun was high in the sky, the air temperature was a chilly 33°F all day long, even at 2 a.m. We took a cab from the airport to the very run-down Arctic Hotel where the rooms were spartan and went for just a little over $100/night. That was a bargain compared with other accommodations in town. I have a suspicion that the hotel no longer exists as it doesn't come up in my internet searches anymore. At any rate, our room at the Arctic Hotel was nothing more than a bed, a lamp, a toilet, a shower, a sink and a single bright orange plastic chair with aluminum legs. I don't even recall if the room had a dresser, but it did have blackout shades to cover the grime-streaked windows. The room had heat, and to us, that was the most precious of amenities in this polar community. Here's what Barrow looked like from our hotel room:
The cab driver told us that we had arrived just one week after the annual collection of rubbish from the streets. He explained to us that during the winter, there is no place to bury or dispose of household trash due to the permafrost, so residents just pile it up in heaps along the streets. Then in June, the city dispatches the sanitation trucks to collect the garbage that accumulated all winter long.
Jim and I walked from the hotel into the center of town to do a little foot exploration. The city is a collection of mostly brightly colored, if not ramshackle houses and buildings squared up along dirt streets. We passed a playground with swings and monkey bars and I reflected for a moment on the seeming absurdity of an outdoor playset in a town where the air temperature is almost always below or at freezing. A child who plays outside in this park would have to be one who is well bundled and completely inured to the cold.
In no time flat, we had made our way to the center of commerce and activity in town. We stopped at Pepe's North of the Border Mexican restaurant for dinner. It is reputed to be the northernmost Mexican restaurant in the world.
Reading the menu prices will give you a bit of sticker shock. Everything in town is astronomically expensive as it all has to be imported by sea or by air. Jim and I found that, despite the expense, having a meal there was definitely worth the financial hit. The food was actually pretty good and not at all what I had expected. The restaurant is just feet away from the edge of the Arctic Ocean, so when the waiter brought me a glass of ice water, I silently chuckled at the irony.
Jim and I had heard about a guy who was taking tourists out to Point Barrow, some 30 miles further north and east from town, to see polar bear. He was charging just $60/person for the outing. We got his number, contacted him and, with a fortuitous click of the karmic wheel, he told us that he had availability that very afternoon. And so an hour later, he picked us up in his Humvee and drove us all the way out to Point Barrow. (You can also read about it in my blog post, "Going to Extremes.") Before arriving, our guide told us that 8 out of 10 times, his customers see polar bear when they get out onto the sandy spit of land jutting into the Arctic Ocean. Those were good odds for me and Jim. But when we got there, all we found was sand, water, ice and chunks of whale blubber rotting on the beach. Our guide told us that the whale blubber was what the polar bear were feeding on, and pointed out tracks in the sand allegedly left by the scavengers. This last part he may have embellished to apply ointment to our obvious, stinging disappointment. On the plus side, our guide took us to the northernmost point of land in the United States, the spot along the 30-mile sandspit where one could clutch the last of America's soil as you stand facing the North Pole. It is also the point where the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas converge:
Back in town we found yet another directional sign tree to stand under for a quintessentially tourist photo op:
Both of us were able for cross the North Slope Borough off our list as a county we had finally visited. Though we had traveled thousands of miles over the course of the week, we added only four new counties to our tallies. The next day, on June 15, 1998, our time in Alaska had run out. Reluctantly, we headed south, traveling the better part of the day before arriving back in Seattle. Alaska had been so good to us. Though the time spent there was brief, the experiences that came out of being there were extraordinarily meaningful to me. I had been to the edge of the world and soaked in the essence of places many people who travel the United States never get an opportunity to see. I was well aware of my great fortune and the precious souvenirs of remembrances I carried home with me.
I'm not done with Alaska. There are still 16 boroughs and census areas in the state I have never been to. A great new adventure awaits me in the far north. The only question is, how soon can I get there?
. . . Until next time, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!