Two previous posts have described how my son and I came to be in Kaktovik, a small village on Barter Island, in the Beaufort Sea immediately north of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in August 2001. Our initial plan had been to fly to Sunset Pass, in the Sadlerochit Mountains of the Refuge, that same day. However, our pilot, the famous and inimitable Walt Audi, was well past his regulation flying hours by the time we finally arrived in Kaktovik and met up with him. Fortunately, the adventure took a new direction when Walt said he had rooms available at his hotel, the Waldo Arms. As it turned out, Tom and I wouldn’t have missed that for the world.
The Waldo Arms appeared to be constructed principally out of several ATCO trailers that had somehow been joined together, supplemented by what might have been another trailer or perhaps a Quonset hut out back. One of the main trailers had been divided up into several sleeping rooms and the other housed a reasonably spacious and comfortable common area and a little kitchen where Walt and his partner, Merlyn, defrosted and served up the most expensive hamburgers and pizza slices I have ever seen. But they sure tasted good.
What intrigued me most about the Waldo Arms is that it is the ultimate crossroads of humanity. It is something like a boreal blend of Rick’s Café in Casablanca and the alien cantina in the bar scene from Star Wars. In Kaktovik, you might say, everybody comes to Walt’s.
The Arms hosted a veritable revolving door of people coming and going all evening. For many village residents, especially teenagers, it seemed like Walt’s was a regular stop for a slice of pizza heaven. Others who wandered in were government employees of some sort, or oil and gas engineers, or sonar technicians working in the Beaufort. Many, but by no means all, had overnight rooms at the Arms. There were also a couple of other backpackers, on their way into or out of the Refuge.
Folks tend to be friendly, if not always loquacious, in the north, and we were soon getting a frontline education about energy extraction, transoceanic cables and various other industries that would curl the hair of the conservation community. This was not the place for an environmental debate, however, so we took it all in stride as an educational opportunity.
The action continued the next morning, when it seemed that just about everyone in town stopped by the Arms for a cup of coffee and a defrosted sausage and biscuit sandwich. Walt was going to fit us in after flying some other scheduled clients, so we had ample time to poke around the Kaktovik Lagoon, where an old Distant Early Warning station stands as a relic of the Cold War.
Merlyn also drove us out to the bone yards, a place where the village population butchers its annual bowhead whale harvest. The defleshed carcasses are magnets for scavengers, notably large numbers of polar bears that frequent the area when whale leftovers are available. But that was for another day.