By Arthur H. Bleich—
The Wien Alaska Airlines war-surplus C-47 made a large circle in the dark, noonday sky. All I could see out the window as it began its final approach was the bright moon shining on a small cluster of lighted buildings surrounded by a vast expanse of ice. I lifted my camera to the window, set the focus to infinity and shot a picture at about 1/15th of a second at F-3.5, expecting nothing but a blurred image.
Then we were on on our final descent before touching down on a snow-packed runway. It was December 21st 1958, Winter Solstice Monday; I had arrived at Pt. Barrow, Alaska, 320 miles above the Arctic Circle—and as far north in the U.S. as you can go.
The Territory of Alaska was on the verge of becoming a state and there was intense media interest around the world about “The Great Land” that America had purchased from Russia in 1861—land more than twice the size of Texas for only about two cents an acre (what a deal!). My six month assignment from Globe Photos in New York was to travel to about 30 Alaska cities, towns and villages to document what it was like to live there in the winter—something few, if any, photographers had done before.
I’d been working as a reporter- photographer for the Ketchikan Daily News for nearly a year—my first job fresh out of journalism school, so I wasn’t a total stranger to Alaska. But my newspaper was in the more built-up Southeastern panhandle, where the weather, though rainy, was pretty mild— much like Seattle, which Alaskans called “the outside.”
Now I was about to see the rest of the Last Frontier and, even though I’d been hired for photo assignments by major magazines and newspapers during my university days, this was a biggie and I sure didn’t want to screw it up. So I packed about 150 rolls of 35mm Tri-X film (which, when processed would be “pushed” from its ASA (ISO) of 400 to ASA 1200 so I could shoot in low light conditions without using flash.
My photo gear was an early Nikon M rangefinder camera with a 35mm lens and a Kodak Retina IIa with a 50mm. Compared to today’s DSLRs they were dinosaurs—no autofocus, no viewing through the lens, no automatic frame advance, no ISO choices on the fly and no built-in auto-exposure. For that, you carried a light meter and transferred its readings manually to the camera to set your aperture and shutter speeds.
Pt. Barrow airport was several miles away from the Eskimo village of Barrow, so the airline had arranged for me to grab a lift to there. What I assumed was my driver met me as I stepped off the plane. “Hi,” he said,” My name’s Pete Merry and I’m here to pick you up. He smiled broadly as he led me to his “vehicle”…a spiffy Cessna bush plane on skis.
Up we went and about five minutes later landed outside the village. “You’ll be bunking at the hospital, but first, come and have dinner with us. My wife Renee cooks up some mean Caribou steaks and we’ll have a few drinks to celebrate the longer days that are coming.” Needless to say, our extended celebration was such that I didn’t check into the hospital until the following day.
Pete was my pilot for the next week or so and we used Barrow as a base of operations, flying out almost daily to visit small, isolated villages along the coast. He was a cool guy; you had to be if you were a bush pilot in Alaska or you didn’t last long.
I remember one flight where I watched the oil pressure gauge on the instrument panel suddenly drop to zero. I nudged him and pointed to it.
“Must be a faulty gauge cause we’re still flyin’,” he assured me.
“What if it isn’t, I asked?”
“Well, it won’t matter much,” he answered matter-of-factly, “cause if we go down on the tundra out here, they won’t be able to get to us before we freeze to death.”
“Oh,” I said, trying to sound calm, despite my stomach being anything, but.
Obviously, we made it back. The gauge was bad and it would be replaced in due course after being ordered from “the lower 48.”
Barrow, which nativized its name to Utqiagvik (pronounced uut-kee-ah-vik) in 2016, was a small village of a few thousand people, 720 miles from Anchorage where I’d departed. It’s wedged in between the Arctic Ocean and miles of frozen tundra. There are no roads connecting it to anywhere and everything has to be flown in except for a short summer period when the sea ice breaks up. Native Alaskans fished and hunted for their food which was in plentiful supply— seals, whales, polar bears and caribou.
In November, the sun sets in Barrow, not to be seen again for 65 days. Only a streak of light on the horizon marks noon during the days surrounding December 21st. It is cruelly cold—in the minus 30s, and wildly windy—in the 25mph range, and if you spit, it’ll usually freeze before it hits the ground. I had outfitted myself in Anchorage before I left: thermal boots, thermal underwear and thermal mittens. And, of course, a warm parka with a big, fur ruff on the hood that would cut the wind from hitting my face (as long as I didn’t walk straight into it). But if you had to, you’d need to turn your head sideways, which made walking on frozen ice an adventure.
Frostbite was always my constant, (and unwelcome) companion. My cameras were always under my parka, pulled out to take a shot and then returned to their warming spot. Even so, their shutters would sometimes slow down due to the intense cold, resulting in uneven exposure. Or static electricity sparks would ruin images if the film was advanced too quickly. It took almost 50 years to resurrect some of those ‘lost” images with Photoshop.
During the days I spent in Barrow, I roamed around freely and was hospitably received by everyone. I was a bit of a anomaly—a photographer in winter. I had no problems photographing people; they were all flattered to be my subjects. After a wile, I realized that despite the rough conditions, everyone—both Native and non-Native residents—managed to get along pretty well. In the harsh, far North, that was a necessity; you had to depend on each other to survive.
Today, the village infrastructure has been improved but the population is still small— about 4,500. Two hundred miles to the southeast along the coast is Prudhoe Bay, site of a huge oil discovery, but it’s had little impact on Barrow (now Utqiagvik) so life goes on much as it always has—though snowmobiles have replaced most dog teams and multiple Internet and satellite TV providers have made the long nights seem a little less so. I was sorry to leave when my visit ended and had to move on to other parts of Alaska. I looked at my stay in Barrow as an experience that was a once-in-a-lifetime gift.
All images were originally printed on DuPont Varigam silver halide paper and then scanned. They are currently being output on multiple surfaces of Red River Paper depending on where and how they will be displayed.
Subscribe to Red River Paper’s Newsletter for Great Deals!
Last updated: December 21, 2020