KAKTOVIK, Alaska -- In early September, a whaling crew in this village of 250 atop the North American continent killed a 44-foot-long bowhead. Villagers would spend the next several days divvying up the meat in an event that plays out each spring and fall in villages across Alaska's Arctic coastline.

"That's our garden," said James Lampe, watching the angry Beaufort Sea pounding the shores. "Pretty soon there'll be caribou, and we'll get caribou. But for now, it's whale time."

The bowhead whales that migrate past Kaktovik each autumn offer a critical, multi-ton source of protein. No roads lead in or out of the village, and unemployment is high. People can't afford to buy all of their food from the store, Lampe said. Not that there's much to buy. Shelves are mostly empty. Milk, fruit and vegetables come in cans.

It's no wonder then that it's hard to find anyone in Kaktovik who supports offshore oil drilling in the Beaufort Sea, which, along with the Chukchi Sea to the northwest of Alaska, make up a swath of U.S. waters in the Arctic Ocean.

The villagers' apprehension comes as Royal Dutch Shell's hunt for crude off their shores has produced a few jobs for locals and income for the village corporation.

Yet, in a paradox worthy of fiction, a 1.5-million-acre coastal swath of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge contains what may be the nation's last great hope for a giant, conventional oil discovery on land -- one that wouldn't require drill ships and undersea pipelines.

Drilling on ANWR's coastal plain wouldn't pose the risk of oily water lapping at the Arctic coastline, or killing whales, seals and walruses that the people of Kaktovik and other villagers depend on.

MORE: SPECIAL SERIES ON ARCTIC vs. ANWR