Kaktovik, Alaska is not an easy place to get to. Located along the fiftieth state’s north slope, this village of roughly 260 people sits on Barter Island, a eight-square mile spit of land that juts into the iceberg-ridden Beaufort Sea.
As part of my artist’s residency with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, I was to meet a crew of bird biologists there in order to accompany them on a data collecting mission in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). While Kaktovik is not part of the refuge itself – the town’s land is owned and run by the Kaktovic Inupiat Corporation – it is surrounded by it, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service maintains a bunkhouse in the village.
There are no roads to Kaktovik, so nearly everyone flies in. Ravn Airlines operates commercial flights that leave from the Fairbanks Airport, albeit from a portion of it that bypasses the standard security measures the rest of the airport adheres to. I had been told by several people not to expect a successful departure; the previous day’s flight had left Fairbanks but was turned around halfway by weather. The day before that, the plane hadn’t taken off at all. So, I went to the airport with enough food to last the day and an assumption that I’d be taking a cab back to town later in the afternoon.
We did take off, however, and we made it all the way to the Deadhorse Airport – a metal hangar that operates as the transportation hub for the enormous and controversial complex of oil fields in Prudhoe Bay. From Deadhorse, I boarded a plane that carried me, eight other people, and about a hundred boxes of sugar, ramen noodles, and pancake mix to Barter Island. The contents of the cargo hold became obvious to me when they were unloaded into a school bus immediately upon landing in Kaktovic. Since I had to hitch a ride into town on that very same school bus, I got a clear view of each and every item that came off of my plane. This plane is the only way anything or anyone gets in and out of town, aside from the once per year pilgrimage made by container ship. September is the month when residents take deliveries of trucks, lumber, and washing machines.
When I saw Kaktovik from above, it occurred to me that I was landing at the end of the world. We had flown over miles of flat, marshy tundra rimmed by dark gray water and intricately patterned ice floes. The sky was overcast, but, in between the clouds, the vast expanse of emptiness that is the nearly 20 million acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge revealed itself. And, then, like an afterthought, a small grid of structures appeared along the coastline, as though they were hanging onto this little spit of land for dear life.
And that is the feeling I got later, walking around town. Existence in Kaktovik, where July’s mean temperature is 47 and January’s is -17, strikes me as precarious. This quality is exemplified in the town’s buildings – metal structures which are not rooted to the ground. They can’t be fixed in place because the soft and wet tundra doesn’t hold concrete footers the way other soils can.
When the permafrost melts in the spring, the very ground beneath these houses turns into a giant sponge. As a result, most buildings are seasonally raised between a foot and several feet off the ground using metal supports that can be lifted and lowered with the changing snow, ice, and water levels. These supports in turn sit on little pontoons of spray foam, islands of orange and yellow that float the structures above the potentially soupy mess below. Septic tanks are above ground, as are utility access points.
Situated as it is in the middle of the arctic tundra, Kaktovic has no trees. The highest features around are the copious electrical poles and the giant white orb that sits at the edge of town, part of the military’s Distant Early Warning Line (DEWline) defense system erected during the 1950’s to detect incoming Soviet missiles.
In addition to houses, the town’s grid contains a school, a police and fire station, a community center, two hotels, and a grocery store.
These last two sites are hard to find; I had to ask around for them. The more well-known of the two hotels is built from shipping containers and lacks any kind of signage. The market’s tiny “open” card in the window was the only indication that it might be safe to walk in and have a look around. Inside, there were no signs, no fancy displays, and no prices. I was hoping to purchase a couple of eggs, but they didn’t have any.
Perhaps the most unique feature of Kaktovic is the one that has affectionately come to be called “the bone pile.” As subsistence hunters, native residents of Kaktovic are permitted to take one whale per year – typically a bowhead – to feed the community. In doing so, they carry on the tradition of their ancestors. After the whale has been slaughtered and the meat removed, the locals haul the bones out to a sand spit at the edge of town near the old airstrip, creating a pile that can be seen from a ways away.
This pile has become famous for attracting polar bears – particularly in September, shortly after the harvest. In turn, the presence of polar bears at the bone pile has attracted tourists, and, during the last five years, polar bear tourism has gone from an almost unheard of phenomenon in 2010 to an activity that 1500 people per year currently pursue today. The community is divided about polar bear tourism; some see it as a way to bring income to boat operators and the two town hotels. Others are reluctant to bring more outsiders into the village – especially outsiders who tend to oppose oil and gas exploration in the arctic.
In many ways, this bone pile is symbolic of this community. It is rests firmly on tradition, and yet is causing change and controversy in the village.
I stared at it constantly while I was there; mostly, to be honest, because I was hoping to see a polar bear, despite being outside of the common season for spotting them. However, in the process, I was reminded that even towns at the end of the world are not immune to modern problems.