The Bones of a Village

New enough to reveal steel and aluminum nails, old enough to be well-weathered by the Arctic climate, the bones of this seal-skin whaling boat were left behind when Point Hope (Tikigaq) relocated two-and-a-half miles inland in the 1970s. Point Hope is one of the longest continuously inhabited places in North America.

The Inupiaq name for Point Hope Village, Tikigaq (tick-ee-yahk) means index finger and described the way the gravel point once hooked into the Chukchi Sea. Time and tide long ago washed away the crook of the finger, leaving behind a triangular point near enough to deep water that the whales that first drew the Inupiat people here thousands of years ago still swim close to shore. The 2.3 mile hike from the current town out to the point gets a little tough once the road ends and the pea-to-chunk-size gravel begins, but it is well worth the effort. In addition to bowhead and other whales, which are frequently sighted, the collision of currents at the point holds large schools of finger-sized baitfish, which in turn draw flocks of Arctic terns, gulls, murres, puffins, jaegers, guillemots and ducks while various sandpipers patrol the shore. At times, the sea and sky are filled with hundreds–if not thousands–of birds. The small fish also attract roving schools of pink, silver and Chinook salmon and sea-run Dolly Varden which in turn are followed by spotted, common and bearded seals. Walruses show up from time to time as well.

The walk to the point passes through the Old Village, a ghost town of semi-subetranean homes made from sod, whale bone and driftwood as well as more modern, wood and metal houses. It’s fascinating to walk through the Old Village and contemplate what life would have been like up here before electricity, running water, guns and gasoline engines–when the only “grocery stores” were the great herds of caribou 25 or more miles to the east, bowhead whales swimming in the freezing Arctic Ocean, and the various fish, seals, berries and plants gathered in their seasons.