Cindy Godbey poses in her Dawson Dolly outfit with a bowhead whale brought in by a crew from Barrow.

Dawson Dolly heads way north among the polar bears and whale hunters

Story and Photos by Patti Moss

There was a time when a story like this would have begun “Dispatch Barrow: Dawson Dolly Strikes it Rich in Pt. Barrow with Whales and Polar Bears!”
Even in the 21st century, a modern tale of Dawson Dolly, aka Cindy Godbey, heading to Barrow for the autumn whale hunt and polar bear watching is somewhat unique considering most Alaskans themselves have not traveled to the most northern city in the United States.
Now we all know from the many tourist that come through Skagway that no person has ever been as close to the glacier as the current tourist you may be talking to (and, of course, also the last 400). And no tourist has ever seen such sunny days as the next one over, who just happened to have caught the only sunny day ever recorded. We all know the story of the excitement of touring and what people declare. But if I had not witnessed this experience with Dawson Dolly, I would dismiss it as just another tourist story.
Dolly and I flew into Barrow and threw down our luggage and headed out with our guide Sam Leavitt. Sam is about 55 years old, an Inupiaq, and pretty new to guiding. That’s a good thing – he was still excited to show the area and loved being our guide. I was immediately impressed by Sam’s concise delivery of real information about Barrow, the climate change, traditional ways, and the expectations of seeing polar bears, whales and real local people. And I was delighted when he served it up with many, many side dishes of quirky, humorous takes that showed a solid connection to mainstream NYC hip combined with Alaskan savvy. So was Cindy, and she got out her recorder.
“Anybody want coffee?”, asked Sam as we pulled up to the kiosk.
“Welcome to the most northern coffee kiosk on planet earth”, said the beautiful girl at the coffee window, “What can I get you?”
This was going to be an exceptional day, I thought to myself. “I’ll have a grande mocha.”
We loaded up with drinks and headed out to ‘the Point’, which is actually a spit extending directly north out of town out into the Arctic Ocean. This is one of the most interesting places on earth, certainly one of the most unique. This spit IS Pt. Barrow, and it divides the southern waters of the Arctic Ocean into Chukchi Sea on the west and the Beaufort Sea on the east. On the morning we tooled across the black sand dunes working our way out to the tip – and hoping to find polar bears eating the new whale kill remains. The narrow spit allowed us to view two seas, one on our left and one on our right. You could darn near throw a rock from one to the other. What made it more amazing was that as the Chukchi raged on our port side, and threw up crested waves of brown seabed gravel and wind whipped froth, the Beaufort lagoon along starboard was smooth as glass and the color of turquoise.
The weather changes drastically in Barrow, of course, and by the next afternoon, when we raced back to watch a crew of three boats towing in a 35 foot bowhead, the Beaufort-side lagoon was almost completely iced over, and the small boats had a bit of trouble getting close in to shore and throw the tow line so the whale could be dragged onto the ice.
That first morning with Sam Leavitt made all the difference in our trip. His base of information was invaluable, and his connections with the other people of Barrow gave us an insight we would never have gained otherwise. In fact, Sam is a direct descendent of Adam Leavitt, one of the New Bedford, Mass. whalers who arrived in Barrow in the 1890s, stayed, and made the place home. I have read much further about the whalers of Alaska, and I must conclude that Sam’s ancestor probably would agree with what Sam told me when I asked him if people grow gardens in Barrow.
“There is our garden!” he said as he pointed to the seas. “The ocean is our garden! That’s all we need.”
So, while 1898 Skagway and Dyea hosted gold prospectors, and all manner of frontiersmen seeking riches, the native people of this desolate place began a relationship with outsiders who also hunted the whale for profit. The New Bedford whalers brought to Barrow far more advanced methods of killing the great sea creatures. Block and tackle, guns that shot small bombs, and other techiques. Previously whalers would literally jump onto a whale with a long blade and attempt to sever the spinal cord of the great animal before both went to the icy depth forever. These were the stories told to us by Sam as we moved the big truck down the shoals that morning, laughing and learning with Sam and Dolly.
We stopped to have our photos taken at the northernmost point of the United States. We hammed it up.
“Shall we hold up a candidate’s sign. We could hold up a McCain, then an Obama and sell them to each campaign”, I teased.
“No!”, said Sam and Cindy in unison, and we laughed. That was the kind of day we had.
By late afternoon we had been all over Barrow, the spit, the shoal, and were fatigued from being bounced around the big truck.
Then suddenly Cindy yelled, “Bear! There’s a polar bear!”
And there he was, in the middle of the spit. Sam gunned it down the beach and got us close enough to stop and shoot photos. It was interesting to watch the bear’s reaction because he worked the land around our movements and as Sam adjusted the truck or followed him, he adjusted his position on the narrow strip of land. He was hungry and wanted to feed but was also worried about us. At one point we drove across his tracks, and stopped to shoot them with the cameras. My foot easily fit inside his track. Yet Sam said he appeared to be only about 4 or 5 and not fully grown.
“No, oh no, he’s not that big.”
He looked huge to me!

The mayor and members of the city staff pose with Dolly under the famous whalebone arch in Barrow.

This was how Dawson Dolly began her visit to Barrow, and what a fine beginning it was, because once the mayor of Barrow met Dolly, the entire town opened its arms to the Belle of Skagway. Historically Barrow has its share of visiting journalists, environmentalists, wannebe explorers and actual, true explorers. But in remote Alaska the best passport any person can have is the ability to say you too are an Alaskan, so when our Dolly from Skagway brought greetings from the Southeast, people were delighted.
Skagway is an exotic outpost to some of the people there – the same way I thought of Barrow – so far away! The next morning Dolly was on the local radio station at 7:30 a.m. greeting the new day with the local disc jockey. At nine she had a photo shoot with the mayor and his official photographer and staff under the famous arch of whale bones.
The next morning we watched five polar bears, all very close. A sow and her two cubs ate blubber nearby. A big male swam across the lagoon and waited for us to move away so he could come closer and feed. And another loner could barely hoist his belly full of blubber onto a sand bar where he enjoyed the sort of snooze only a post-Thanksgiving dinner crowd could appreciate. And we ate them all up with cameras, binoculars and excited chat.
Later, word spread across town that another whaling crew was heading in with a big one. Eventually many vehicles collected at the boat ramp at the end of the spit. In this day and age, cell phones and radios allow families to leave home within minutes of the boat crews coming in. They wait in their trucks with the heaters blowing, CDs playing and “Inupiaq Pride” decalled on the back window. In the very old days, someone would have kept a fire burning on shore, possibly for many days, as a help and guide for the crews to get back safely. It would have been a small fire of whale oil. But even small fires may be seen at great distances across water. And the one or two men tending that fire would have spotted the returning boats and run to wake up the village to help pull the big whale out of the frigid water and onto the shore. On our afternoon, this whale, the 13th whale of Barrow’s 22 whales for the year 2008, was dragged onto the land after it was tied to a backhoe. I took film, CNN took film, and the locals took turns stepping in front of the big whale to have shots taken for their family album.
Dolly was in full regalia and greeted the crew with big hugs and mutual regard. They were a Christian crew she had met the previous afternoon at the cultural center.
“Congratulations Vernon! God has blessed us, thank you,” he responded to Dolly.
Long blades on handles the length of a garden rake or shovel were used to cut the whale into pieces and a sort of distribution of meat was issued to the town. An oil cloth tent is erected in the captain’s front yard and stoves set up and a potluck worth of food prepared. At five o’clock, people lined up for a plate of the traditional supper. This is to show respect for the captain’s successful hunt and to thank him. Dolly and I were invited to two of these feeds, but we felt we should hold back, wondering if showing up for a whale feed is like showing up for a Thanksgiving dinner. Of course we would be welcomed graciously but would we be resented? We did not know. But later, a knock on the door and a plate of supper delivered showed us we were not forgotten.
Dolly concluded the trip with pledges to the mayor to come and perform in the new convention center. She also donated art supplies to a children’s program. She was roundly thanked and pressured to promise to return, and also to thank Skagway for sending her!
It was a great trip and made even better because I went with the representative of Skagway. She did a great job!

Patti Moss, a writer living in Sitka, accompanied Cindy Godbey on her journey to Barrow.