THEIR boats emerging from the clammy twilight mist, Eskimo hunters return to town after searching for migrating bowhead whales. It's a ritual that has been followed each fall and spring by untold generations of hunters and whales. The Chukchi Sea laps Barrow's west-facing beach, where the hunters land their boats and are greeted in the autumn evenings by wives and friends. Off the tip of Point Barrow, a tiny peninsula jutting northeast of town, the Beaufort Sea stretches toward the North Pole. The arctic seas are rich with fish, whales, and other marine mammals, and have served for more than 5,000 years as the icy larder for Inupiat Eskimos in America's northernmost settlement.
Beneath the now-frozen seas lie other riches - billions of barrels of oil, according to industry and the federal government.
Technological and economic limitations have deterred past development here. But the crisis in the Middle East and drilling bans off the California and Florida coasts have spurred new interest in this oil frontier.
The United States Minerals Management Service (MMS) leased vast Beaufort and Chukchi areas in 1988. On some of the distant Chukchi tracts, Shell Western Exploration and Production Inc. has drilled three exploratory wells. Texaco and Chevron USA Inc. have plans in the coming summers to drill exploratory wells some 50 miles offshore in the arctic seas.
MMS plans next year to lease more acreage - 21 million acres in the Beaufort and 23 million in Chukchi - all the way to the 200-mile federal limit.
For Inupiat hunter and oil explorer alike, the territory is treacherous. Barrow has sunk into its yearly 67 days of total darkness. Wind-chill pushes temperatures well below minus-40 degrees. Solitary humans venturing onto the pack ice make easy prey for roving polar bears. Walking here is not recommended; instead, residents stay at home eating whale, walrus, seal, and caribou meat harvested months ago.
So far, oil companies have limited their Arctic offshore development to the safer and shallower shore-hugging areas of the Beaufort, where bottom-founded drill rigs pierce solid ice during the long winter and cease operations in the summer.
In deep waters farther offshore, however, companies must drill from floating vessels in the brief ice-free season. Working in the variable two-month open-water season isn't easy, industry officials admit.
``It's a pretty harsh environment. But that's where the oil reserves are,'' says Tom Cook, Chevron's Alaska exploration representative.
To the Inupiat Eskimos, the drilling plans are troubling. They have compromised with the oil industry in the past, but since the 1970s have opposed plans to drill in areas far off their beaches.
With 3,200 residents, Barrow is one of the world's largest Eskimo settlements and the metropolis of the Montana-sized North Slope Borough. The people here say they have successfully balanced modern American and ancient Inupiat cultures.
Today's hunters launch their boats in the shadow of modern buildings that make up Barrow's skyline. The beach, strewn with semi-buried whale and walrus bones left over from butchering, skirts a modern city where new trucks and heated buses ply the streets.
Administrators toil in the offices of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, an Eskimo-owned enterprise with 1989 assets of $99 million, and the borough government, which has a $310 million budget to serve 6,000 far-flung residents. When the bowheads migrate past North America's northern tip, office workers here leave their desks, don parkas, and pilot the boats that make up the local whaling convoy.
POLAR bear skins and slain ducks, the fruits of autumn hunting expeditions, hang outside Barrow's compact homes; inside, people are warmed by natural gas pumped from a local field and entertained by cable-television shows projected by satellite.
The luxuries come courtesy of oil. But residents say they'd give them up to preserve their heritage.
``Oil and gas is only going to be here for 40 or 50 years,'' says Marie Adams, spokeswoman for the North Slope Borough and the sister and daughter of whalers. ``The resource that we depend on, we want to be sure it's there when oil's gone.''
What they fear is an oil spill in broken arctic ice that would make the Exxon Valdez cleanup look like a picnic. A major well blowout could spurt oil that would be trapped for decades under moving ice, they say.
``That would produce a catastrophe unrivaled in Alaska's history that would result in the ice pack moving back and forth like a dirty windshield wiper,'' says Randall Weiner of Trustees for Alaska, an Anchorage environmental law firm that has sued to stop offshore oil drilling.
Drilling critics are leery of pipelines or tankers that would be needed to ship oil should production start. And noise, lights, and smelly discharges from oil rigs would drive whales and other animals out of normal migration zones and traditional Eskimo hunting areas, they say.
The uneasy mix of oil and whales risks the subsistence hunting and gathering tradition, which MMS admits in its environmental studies would be severely disrupted by offshore development.
The tradition means more than food, says Inupiat Kenneth Toovak Sr. ``When they catch a whale, that's a joy feeling. It's the best feeling that you can have. It's not like buying a turkey,'' says Mr. Toovak as he sips coffee in Sam & Lee's Chinese & American Restaurant, a Barrow gathering spot where whalers converse in the Inupiat language.
Skeptics find irony in the North Slope Eskimos' offshore-drilling opposition. The borough taxes oil fields. The Eskimo-owned corporations earn oil royalties, have oil-field service subsidiaries and, because of its mineral rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, is lobbying Congress to open the area to oil exploration. The Eskimos argue that in the arctic, drilling on land is far safer than drilling offshore.
Alaska state officials has found merit in Inupiat concerns. The state recently used its coastal zone management authority to attach environmental restrictions on the Texaco and Chevron drilling plans.
Angry Texaco officials are asking the United States Commerce Department to overturn the state rules, which include seasonal limits, animal monitoring programs, and detailed contingency plans for large blowouts and spills.
Considering that there has never been an oil spill from an exploratory well blowout in US outercontinental shelf waters, the state rules amount to costly regulatory overkill, says Ethel (Pete) Nelson, Texaco's Alaska land representative.
The 1989 blowout of a Gulf Canada exploratory well in the Beaufort is inapplicable to Alaska environmental concerns, says Chevron's Mr. Cook. That blowout released only natural gas, he says, and occurred under a non-US regulatory structure.
Cook says the risks are manageable, and he paints arctic offshore drilling as a value judgment to be made by an oil-thirsty nation.
``There's an element of risk in anything we do,'' he says.