By on October 5, 2015

Barrow is located on the Arctic Ocean

Last year, I crossed the United States from Coast to Coast — New York to LA — in a Ram 1500 Tradesman. You can follow last year’s coverage here. This year we embark on another crossing, this time from North to South, albeit starting a little further North than you might expect.

I’ll hop in a Ram 2500 Tradesman 4×4 in Seattle eventually, but for now, as the area I’ll travel through before Seattle has only an intermittent road network, it will be a mix of planes, rental cars and ferries.

So we start north. But how far north? The furthest North we can: Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost settlement in the United States.

Toyota Tundra Barrow

As my expertise lies in car sales statistics, for each State we’ll go through I’ll detail the best-sellers locally, let you know if this is verified on location and speak to a few dealers to explain the variations I witness. For Barrow though, the best-sellers — although fascinating — are not representative of Alaska as a whole, so we’ll cover Alaskan figures when we reach Anchorage. You can check out the best-sellers in all 50 States over the Full Year 2014 here.

Welcome to Barrow

Barrow, or Utqiaġvik in Inupiaq language, lies on the Arctic Ocean, 320 miles (515 km) north of the Arctic Circle and just 800 miles (1,290 km) south of the North Pole. It is the northernmost city in the United States, with a population of 4,373 as of 2013. Nearby Point Barrow is the U.S.’ northernmost point. And no, we can’t see Russia from our backyard here. Due to its location in north-central Alaska, Barrow is actually 480 miles (770 km) from Russia.

Barrow signpost

Barrow centre town

Due to its extreme geographic location, Barrow experiences the longest day and night in the country. When the sun rises on May 10, it doesn’t set again for nearly three months! That’s 85 consecutive midnight suns to be enjoyed. Inversely, when the sun sets around November 18, Barrow residents won’t see it again until around January 22. Yep, you read that right, over two months without seeing the sun! And on the winter solstice — December 21 — we’re talking about 21 hours of pitch-black darkness and a civil twilight of only three hours. Your (and my) first thought when reading this might be “Where is the alcohol?” Bad call, as alcohol beverages aren’t available in Barrow – a “damp” community. More on this later…

Barrow scene

It won’t come as a surprise to learn that the Barrow climate is classified as polar. Temperatures continuously remain below freezing from early October through to late May and snowfall can occur during any month of the year. The annual mean temperature in Barrow is 9° F (-13° C), with the average temperature in February, the coldest month, dropping to -19° F (-28° C). The highest temperature ever recorded in Barrow is 79° F (26° C) on July 13, 1993, while the lowest is −56° F (−49° C) on February 3, 1924. The Barrow landscape is tundra and we are walking on a permafrost layer that is as much as 1,300 feet (400 m) deep. All houses in Barrow are built on stilts to avoid melting the permafrost on which they rest.


The Arctic Ocean is threatening the main road in Barrow

The Arctic Ocean is threatening the main road in Barrow

I stayed in Barrow on September 28 and 29 while the average temperature during the day was 26° F (-3° C). The days were still long with the sun setting around 8 p.m. but it (logically) remained extremely low in the sky throughout the day and cast very long shadows at midday. Speaking with the locals, I learned that this type of weather at this time of year is dangerously mild, with global warming making its full effects felt in town: There was no ice at all on the Arctic Ocean, and the rough sea was threatening to break the levees, made of earth and sand, that protect the main road in town. Residents in Caterpillar trucks were working overtime to rebuild them. Bob Brouillette from the Top of the World hotel told us that the main road in town was washed out a month ago and had to be completely rebuilt. Later-forming sea ice means flooding risks increase and the Ocean eroding the shore is a totally new occurrence that is understandably worrying the local residents.


7. Whale cutting Barrow

Whale cutting in Barrow

The population of Barrow is 60-percent Iñupiat Eskimo, an Inuit Alaska Native group that migrated from islands in the Bering Sea to what is now Alaska around 1000 B.C. For comparison, Alaska Natives as a whole represent 16 percent of today’s state population. Before 1940, Natives were still in the majority. The vast majority of the Iñupiat population, estimated at 19,000 across the United States, lives in Alaska. Alcohol destroyed many Native communities in this part of the world — the main reason why alcohol is not for sale in Barrow (thought it can still be personally imported). A fascinating fact about the Iñupiat (along with most Arctic peoples) is the fact they still rely heavily on subsistence hunting and fishing — harvesting walrus, seal, beluga and bowhead whales, polar and grizzly bears, caribou, moose and fish depending on their location.

Ford Whale Barrow

No need to be alarmed here. Some of these species are endangered but their harvesting for subsistence purposes is allowed and regulated for Native populations. Case in point, I was in Barrow in the middle of whale migration season and, although there weren’t any whales being butchered on the day I stayed over, the cuts from the previous week’s harvest were visible on houses’ porches and in truck beds. Barrow Native residents are allowed to catch three whales a day during whaling season. A total of 67 whales a year are quotaed to Native communities along the Arctic Ocean, along with residents of Greenland.

Ford F150 Barrow 1

Bob Brouillette from the Top of the World Hotel in Barrow proudly showed us the platform north of town where whales are butchered immediately after being tugged onto shore. “A 40-foot whale can be butchered in hours,” Brouillette said. Barrow residents are careful to then dispose the waste whale bones far away from town at Point Barrow as they attract polar bears, a nuisance for locals even if it’s the town’s main touristic attraction. I would have gladly left the bones there myself if it meant I could see a polar bear!

Barrow airport

No roads lead to Barrow. The town is surrounded on nearly three sides by the Arctic Ocean, iced a large part of the year except summer, although the icing period is getting shorter and shorter. This means that cargo planes are the only – and expensive – way to ship things to this remote location for a good part of the year. While I was in Barrow, the barge season (July to mid-September) had just ended. During this time, a lot of items, such as cars, are shipped by barge either from Prudhoe Bay or further south in Alaska through the Bering Sea.


Barrow Airport

Barrow Airport

In March, only when the permafrost is at its deepest, locals create ice roads through the bush to reach the Alaskan road network in Prudhoe Bay to the east. However, with warmer winters come thinning ice. This, in addition to the hundreds of holes from abandoned oil drills in the surrounding National Petroleum Area, makes ground travel relatively dangerous and more unpredictable than it used to be. No local would venture on such trips alone and convoys of six or seven cars are organised in order to stay safe.

Flex Fuel Barrow

Despite the nearby oil being drilled (there was chatter of Shell withdrawing from its Barrow offshore drilling operations while I was there), the gallon of gasoline stands at an eye-popping $7.00/gallon, a staggering contrast compared to the $2.29 national average and $2.73 in Anchorage. The solution: natural gas, available very easily and cheaply in Barrow with open air gas pipes visible in each street. Many pickup trucks here have “Flexfuel” logos on their back, in this case a misnomer as the trucks are not fuelled with a mix of gas and ethanol, instead fitted with Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) and Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) fuel tanks and fuel-delivery systems. At the equivalent of $1 for each gallon of natural gas, you’re looking at $10 at most for a full tank if you fill up from your home gas supply. It would cost over $100 with gasoline. Even if the CNG conversion sets you back $7,500 to $9,500, it’s a no-brainer for Barrow residents. Bob from the Top of the World Hotel wonders why everyone isn’t driving a natural gas-enabled vehicle.

Barrow parking lot 1

Barrow parking lot 2

Ford Escape Barrow

So what cars are so good that Barrow locals go to great lengths to ship them here and fuel them at extortionate prices or go to the trouble of installing a CNG conversion kit? It seems Ford has had a stranglehold on the market for many years now, with a continuous flow of private F-150s and Escapes streaming Barrow’s frozen streets. There is a long heritage of the two nameplates up to the current ones, although I did not spot any all-new 2015 aluminum F-150s. All F-Series generations are very well represented here, all the way back to the 1987 model that’s still present here in large numbers.

Jeep Comanche Barrow

There is also a relatively strong heritage of Jeeps. I spotted here the very first Jeep Comanche of my entire life. This is a Jeep Cherokee pickup that was on sale from 1984 to 1992. I also spotted a handful of new Cherokees and a few Wranglers. Also popular in Barrow: Hummers. I spotted four of them in just an hour of walking through town.

Hummer Barrow

As far as fleet cars are concerned, the F-150 is the most popular, followed by a solid count of F-250 and F-350 Super Dutys as well as the Ford Escape and Expedition. The most common taxis are Honda CR-Vs, including one current generation. A few other particularities in Arctic Barrow: People keep their cars running when they go to the supermarket in order to keep the engine warm, even in (almost) summer conditions like now. All outdoor parking lots have an electric outlet for each car. Block heaters keep fluids and the battery from freezing. Finally, I spotted a good number of Fords with a license plate from Sound Found, a car dealership in Seattle, 2,000 miles (3,200 km) away! I will try and crack this enigma when in Seattle…

This concludes our coverage of Barrow, Alaska. Next we are headed east to Prudhoe Bay.

Matt Gasnier is based in Sydney, Australia and runs a website dedicated to car sales statistics, trends and analysis: BestSellingCarsBlog.


Barrow service station

The northernmost service station in the U.S. (The Arctic Ocean is in the background)

Barrow street scene 2

Ford F150 Barrow 2

Barrow street scene

Ford F150 Barrow 3

Chevrolet Barrow

Ford F150 Barrow 4

Dodge Dakota Barrow

Ford F250 Barrow

Dodge Durango Barrow

Ford F350 Barrow

30. Toyota Tacoma Barrow

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32 Comments on “U.S. North to South 2015: Barrow, Alaska...”

  • avatar

    That’s one sad Effie in the 1st pic, shivering, trying to stay warm, California dreaming…

  • avatar

    Incredible, I very much enjoyed reading this piece!

    I’ve driven two identical Macks, one is diesel the other is CNG. The CNG lacks power & torque across the entire RPM range. I know this statement means nothing, just throwing it out there.

    Do you know exactly what is involved in an NG conversion kit?

    • 0 avatar

      I drove an LPG 2009 Samsung SM5 (essentially an Altima/Teana underneath, with cheaper interior). Like your experience, it had little power or torque at any point on the speedo. Very disappointing to drive through any hilly terrain especially (which I was). As a result, I just floored it all day long.

      Still did 29mpg.

      I forgot how much it looks like my M :(.

    • 0 avatar

      The drivability characteristics of diesel engines that are converted to CNG tend to be very poor. Unfortunately CNG fleet volume is low enough that I don’t think anyone has ever built a truck engine designed around CNG from the ground up. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the fuel and I’m sure an engine designed around it would be fine.

      • 0 avatar

        when i lived in sweden i had a volvo v70 bifuel (MY2005) which could be run on gasoline or CNG; the CNG was cheaper and more environmentally friendly so my car came with the type of tax benefits that are given to hybrids and electrical vehicles. additionally the city of Goteborg gave these cars free parking downtown, which normally cost about $3 to $4 per hour… since there were / are not a lot of filling stations for CNG, the cars were equipped to handle gasoline as well but the fuel tank was much reduced. total range for full tank of gasoline and CNG combined was similar to a normal v70’s range with full tank of gasoline. you could switch between gasoline and CNG with a button and you had to be careful not to empty totally the gasoline tank, since the car needed a bit of gasoline to start also in CNG mode. in CNG mode the car was clearly slower with less power and torque, but that feature enabled me to use the gasoline/CNG switch as a turbo-boost button and use gasoline for passing on the highway…
        the dual fuel tanks decreased the cargo space somewhat and these cars have gone out of fashion nowadays, but in Goteborg they were very popular since both Volvo Cars, Volvo Group (independently listed company that makes trucks, buses and construction equipment) as well as the city used them extensively for their fleets and company cars.

  • avatar

    I’d have a King Ranch Expedition, so my life would have at least two other colors in it besides white.

    Cold all the time, everything is expensive, dark for three months, and can’t drink unless you have a personal dealer. I’ll pass, thanks!

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    I find this type of write up fascinating. I look forward to rest of your trip.

  • avatar

    I could handle that town with plenty of weed and a reliable network connection to feed my Kindle.

  • avatar

    Fascinating read….although you couldn’t pay me enough to live there. Place reminds me of that vampire movie “30 Days of Night”.

  • avatar

    Maybe you should review sales of snowmobiles and airplanes instead of cars, for a few days.

  • avatar

    highest temperature ever recorded in Barrow is 79° F (26° C) on July 13, 1993,

    That must have been one hell of a day.

  • avatar

    Wow ~

    That’s serious Country Living .


  • avatar
    Roberto Esponja

    Brother, you couldn’t pay me enough to live there. No offense intended towards those who do.

  • avatar

    If one’s goal is to drive then it would of made sense to start at Purdue Bay. The Dalton is open in the summer but I’ve been told that it is hard on tires. The stock Ram Tradesman tires, most likely Wrangler Sr-A’s have poor durability on pavement let alone gravel roads. A swap over to 10 ply Toyo M55’s would mean one could do the trip with minimal hassles. (They have the best reputation in my part of the world.)One would most likely have to follow a transport truck to be paired with a VHF radio equiped vehicle. (Based on the fact that most industrial roads are “radio controlled”.)
    The other option is a winter trip but “are you willing to travel that part of the world in the winter?” The roads would be in better shape but there would be much more truck traffic.

    I’ve been as far north as Fairbanks. The Top of the World Highway from Tok to Chicken and to Dawson City is a fun drive but then again I’m used to remote roads.

  • avatar

    I did an engagement in Alaska in early Sept many years ago. And got stuck there for an extra few days due to a storm… This was in the Aleutian Islands, so not THAT far north, but still… The thought of three months of darkness horrifies me – Maine is dark and depressing enough in the wintertime!

  • avatar

    What a life you live!

  • avatar

    Thanks for the pics! I’ve been waiting for Google Street view to get up to Barrow, but the farthest north that has street view is Inuvik in Canada.

  • avatar
    Japanese Buick

    Thank you for this fascinating post. I want to comment on what may seem like a relatively minor editorial practice that really sticks out to me: blurring license plates.

    I know it’s all the rage on reality TV and in photos but I don’t get the point. They are meant to be displayed and everyone else on the road can read them. It disappoints me because at least to me license plates are an integral part of car scenery.

    That said I think the way you’ve done it, blurring only the letter section of the serial number, is the best compromise I’ve seen yet if one must bow to this silly convention. So kudos for that.

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