DEW Line Passage

Kaktovik on Barter Island, the site of the Barter Island DEW Line Site (BAR-Main).

This picture, illustrating a bit of the fog common around Barter, shows the large airplane hangar in the middle of the airstrip.

The City of Kaktovik website

Kaktovik Arctic Adventures: guided raft trips through the Arctic Refuge and polar bear viewing

The Air Force had originally come to Barter Island to build an airstrip in 1947. Anthropologist Norman Chance, who spent several years in Kaktovik during the 1950s and 60s, recounted the story in "The Inupiat and Arctic Alaska:"

Four years later, the U.S. Department of the Interior authorized the Air Force to assume control over the 4,500 acres of Barter Island, including the site and cemetery of Kaktovik Village (Chapman 1951). Shortly thereafter, a secret Defense Department plan to construct an experimental radar line from Barrow to Kaktovik was implemented. By the summer of 1953, large amounts of equipment were stored on the island. Unfortunately for the local residents, the Air Force also decided to expand the airstrip along the sand spit sheltering Kaktovik Lagoon and build its hangar on the very site of the village. Informed by the military that they had to relocate immediately, the local Inupiat were stunned. Moving equipment and skilled operators were provided by the Air Force, but the labor came mainly from the people. Soon, bulldozers had pushed up the remnants of a dozen sod and driftwood houses 1,650 yards up the sand spit to the relocated village site. Loss of their homes and personal possessions, along with the destruction of valuable ice cellars used for food storage, brought an angry response. But given the people's lack of English speaking skills, confusion over what was happening, and minimum contact with the outside world, little effective protest was mounted.


The White Alice Communication System (WACS) facility (the 'White Man's Ears' or 'Radar Ears') at the Barter Island DEW Line Site.

Residents described to me what it was like one day when all of a sudden there was a huge 'BOOM' and the entire village shook. No one had had any idea that the Air Force was going to demolish the White Alice towers and many were upset because they had become so habituated to using them as landmarks - residents could see the towers from the Brooks Range and follow them home.

The Barter Island DEW Line site (BAR-Main) was the prototype station with a WACS. It was also the headquarters for the entire BAR sector, which originally included four Auxiliary Sites (Komakuk and Shingle in the Yukon and Tuktoyaktuk and Nicholsan Peninsula in the Northwest Territories) and five Intermediate (I) Sites (Nuvagapak AK, Stokes Point YK, Tununuk Camp YK, Atkinson Point NWT, and Horton River NWT).

(Larry Wilson's definitive DEW Line website)

The Barter Island North Warning System Long Range Radar was activated in 1990.

Public info on Barter Island radar station

Environmental Reports on Barter Island and other sites

Photo courtesy of Gary Kofinas.

After sailing into Kaktovik Lagoon, we pulled the boat up next to this whalebone when a local told us that the water never came up that high. That night (Tuesday, July 29) an unusual storm blew in from the West and, over the next two days, the water level rose so high that our boat was floating, half of the airport runway was under water, and the bluff just west of the spit experienced phenomenal erosion.
This is the coast just west of the airport runway/spit and directly in front of the DEW Line on Wednesday. Cleanup of the site has been going on for several years, and this year contractors are attempting to clean up the large dump that was in front of the site, extending to the bluff. Erosion has been a problem for several years.
This is a picture of the same stretch of coast that I took in 2005. Air Force engineers had attempted to prevent erosion by laying sandbags on the dump's bluff side and sinking these groins out in the water in front of it.
The erosion was literally happening in front of our eyes. Because there is only a small layer of tundra on top of the permafrost, the ice melts rapidly when exposed to the waves. Large chunks break off and are rapidly disentegrated and melted by the water.

Another picture of the coast in front of the dump from 2005, included some of the ubiquitous 55-gallon drums.


Pollution runoff is eroding Alaska coast
Ongoing cleanup is hampered by weather, red tape

[email protected]
Published: January 19th, 2008 04:00 AM
Last Modified: January 19th, 2008 02:03 PM

In some of Alaska's most isolated spots, toxic waste and old community dumps are eroding into the ocean or rivers.

The military is spending millions to stop the junk from entering the water -- for example, moving entire Cold War-era landfills that teeter on the edge of the crumbling Beaufort Sea coast.

But at other eroding dumps -- in particular, those in tiny villages with limited funds or on old military sites that don't qualify for federal cleanup dollars -- a cleanup is elusive.

The dumps are in more danger than they were a few years ago because of the increased rate of erosion in many areas along Alaska's coast, state officials say.

Complete story:

The BAR-Main dump site erosion control efforts in 2005...
...which cost the Air Force tens of millions of dollars.
The same stretch of coast in late July, 2008.
Good view of the permafrost layer as chunks of land are undercut and eroded.
Contractors are currently digging up the dump and moving it to a site slightly further back from the coast. Some locals seem skeptical that the new site will be safe from erosion for long, given the exponential increase in storms that occur while there is no shore ice.
Dump dirt.
The coast some 15 minutes after the previous picture.

Physically, Kaktovik has been dramatically affected by the presence of the DEW Line.

Quanset huts from BAR-Main dot the streets, many still in use as residences.

The right side of this building is Kaktovik's original schoolhouse, built out of DEW Line packing crates by Kaktovik's original schoolteacher, Harold Kaveolook . Harold housed his family in the section of the building on the left and the sections were attached when they were moved to the present village site.


Bush pilot Walt Audi came to Kaktovik to work as a pilot for the DEW Line one summer in the late 1960s and never left. His was the first white family to live in the community. He later started the Waldo Arms hotel and uses an old DEW Line building as an overflow bunkhouse (grey building on right).

Walt's old house (rumored to be haunted) was cobbled together from DEW Line material. Walt figured that up until the early 1970s most buildings in Kaktovik were at least partly constructed from DEW Line materials. He imagined that if the DEW Line had not been built there, the residents would have largely been living in traditional sod houses up until the oil boom.

A Kaktovik resident stands on the second village site - the bluff where the residents were moved when the Air Force built the airstrip and before they were moved again due to DEW Line construction.

Despite the physical impacts of the DEW Line, I'm finding that very little of this militarization reached the core of what people think it is to be Inupiat and live in these communities on the Arctic coast. This resident, when asked what Kaktovik would be like if the DEW Line had never come there, answered very emphatically:

"Kaktovik would have been exactly the same."

Next: Barter Island bluff and DEW Line dump after the storm

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