A trip to the Point

On Friday afternoon we headed to Point Barrow.  I’d gotten KTUU set up with Aarigaa Tours, who picked them up in town at Top of the World Hotel, and then picked me up at my house at NARL on the way out to the point.  I’d run home from work to change into my warm gear.  A good thing, too, as will become clear later.

We’d been having a pretty strong blow from the NNW, and waves had actually been coming up onto the road.  The road to the point had actually been closed right by Piġniq (Birnirk), because the waves had been breaking over the road and had done some significant damage.  We were in a van equipped for off-road travel, so we were OK, but we had to detour through the cabin area. Once past there, the road was still in pretty good shape, but we could see water seeping in under the gravel berm.  Once we got out a bit farther we could see a number of vessels & barges that had come into Elson Lagoon to anchor up and wait out the rough weather.

Barges in Elson Lagoon, seen from the trail by the marked graves.

Once we got to Nuvuk and got a look at the site, it was a bit depressing.  However, it made a perfect example of coastal erosion in action, and made it really easy to illustrate how information about the past, which could have application to understanding what directions to take to have a sustainable future, is being lost.  At least 10 feet (3 m) of the site had been lost to the ocean since couple weeks ago.  The gravel slump that had been protecting the face was gone, and thawing permafrost was sticking out and undercut.

Exposed thawing Ipiutak level at Nuvuk.

And in that permafrost was the same strandline debris that has proven to be a marker for the Ipiutak occupation.  There was a large patch of what looked like fur or peat (which often seems to be found on the floors of Ipiutak structures) and an area where the wood seemed to be far more aligned and level than is normal for a strandline, but would be quite typical for an Ipiutak floor.  I tried to get decent pictures, but in the end decided I needed to try to get a sample.  I tried walking down on the permafrost, but it was angled, and I couldn’t get close enough without falling off. There were big waves, and the bluff was undercut.  If a really big one came at the wrong time, it could wash me off my feet.

Finally, I asked Ricky Bodfish, who was driving the tour van & giving the tour except for the archaeology part, if they had a rope.  He did, so he dangled it down the bluff by me, we waited until right after big waves when it looked like a lull and I went down to check it out and try to get close-ups and a sample.

Sampled peat in Ipiutak layer. My finger for scale.

The patch of material turned out to be peat, which I was able to sample, and will send out for dating.  My camera got some spray on it, but there was not way or time to clean the lens, so I just kept shooting.  Unfortunately a pretty big wave came and dumped gravel on the surfaces just before I got a shot off of the wood, (I managed to turn so I caught it on the side where KTUU’s microphone pack wasn’t) and I could hear the next one was even louder.  I ran, and made it into an area above the waves before the big one broke.

Edge of eroding Ipiutak layer showing some of the aligned wood. The white is the foam on the wave that is going under this layer into the bluff.

Fortunately, nothing soaked through the Carhartts so I just took them off for the rest of the trip.

We had been monitoring the tower we’d put out in June, and just a few days earlier had thought it would be fine.  However, the storm had taken out a lot of the bluff, and I wound up calling & texting the guys who work on the ARM project for UICS.  They wound up going out later that evening and hauling the whole thing about 50 feet (15m) farther back from the edge.  Just in time, since by the time they got out there, they figured it was 2-3 feet (< 1m) from the edge.

Getting close to the edge.

After that, the KTUU fellow wanted to see the farthest North point and go to the bone pile to see if there were any bears.  We set off, and almost immediately had to detour.  The trail we normally use to get to the site, which is always dry, had water all over it from the storm surge.

Trail covered by storm surge.

We made it to the farthest North point, which was a bit less far North than previously.  The storm surge had made it to the tip of one of the whale jawbones, and about 10 feet was missing here too.  However, we did get some nice light, and the KTUU guys got busy.

Crew and van near Farthest North Point
Dan Carpenter gets ready to shoot at the Farthest North Point.

KTUU crew at Farthest North Point.

Unfortunately, the trip to the bone pile did not come off.  The storm surge had caused it to nearly become an island.  Ricky was not sure how solid the ground was, and we did not want to get stuck there, so we gave it a miss.  On the way back to the road, it was really clear how much of the Chukchi side of the Point Barrow spit had been eaten.  The ocean was almost up to the berm along the road, and there used to be a fairly wide strip of gravel there.

Bone Pile surrounded by water.