Alaska Life

In Utqiagvik, Joe the Waterman made an Alaska museum like no other

UTQIAĠVIK — At the edge of the frozen Arctic Ocean, next door to a Japanese sushi spot and not far from where Pepe's North of the Border Mexican restaurant stood before it burned, an assemblage of one man's curiosities, finds and treasures spills out of a near-hidden second-story apartment.

Joe the Waterman sits on the couch in Joe's Museum and explains how he came to collect so much from the Arctic: faces carved into whalebone and scrimshaw scenes on ivory tusks, ancient tools and mammoth teeth, quirky photos and a snarling polar bear. 

Some people think Joe Waterman is his name, Joe Shults says. For 28 years he drove a water truck in Utqiaġvik, the old-new name for Barrow. Most of town now has piped water, but remote sections still depend on water hauled by truck, the job Joe did for a family business in Barrow before the pipes went in.

In the farthest north city in the United States, Joe the Waterman worked his route in a T-shirt and bunny boots and, along the way, spotted Inupiaq art and artifacts. He bartered and bought and filled his home, until he had so much that his small apartment became the museum.

"If I had known I was going to end up with this much stuff, I would have got a bigger house," Shults said one recent morning.

Some pieces he found beachcombing, washed up or as the land's edge eroded away. A taxidermist in Palmer knew he was a collector and offered him the chance to buy unclaimed mounts. The polar bear, at $15,000 plus shipping, is his most expensive piece.

Hundreds of people a year who visit or live in Utqiaġvik make a stop in Joe's Museum, which is private, free and by-appointment-only. Nothing is for sale, but donations can be dropped into a bowl.

"It's a very cool museum," said Anne Jensen, an anthropologist and archaeologist based in Utqiaġvik. "It's fun for tourists. He's got a lot of stuff."

Old museums were often treasure chambers like Joe's.

"Then they started trying to be organized and scientific and educate people," Jensen said. Maybe some of the charm was lost. Museums now try to draw people in with special exhibits and rotating collections.

"I think for some people, Joe's style of museum is pretty cool," Jensen said.

Call a number on a hard-to-see sign on the building. Joe probably will answer from down the street where he now lives in his mother's old home. He moved there a few years back for the more-accessible ramp entry.

At 62, he'll make his way to the museum with a bit of struggle, then inch up steep stairs to unlock his world of Arctic art, artifacts and animals collected over 40 years. He slowed down after strokes in 2012 and, six months later, heart surgery. He's slight, just 130 pounds, and not the workhorse he once was.

The art and tools are made of ivory, bone or baleen. The oldest pieces could go back 1,800 years, Shults says, basing that on the dating of ancient settlements on the outskirts of town. Tools were specialized for whaling, hunting and fishing.

Careful where you step. Things are stacked and stuffed in every nook. Over there, a family of stuffed weasels. In that corner, bins of old handles and hooks and spear parts. Up above, a taxidermy mountain goat. On a table, other-worldly ivory faces and animals.

Things look catawampus but everything has its place.

"I used to be able to move stuff around. The polar bear used to be over that way," Shults said. "Now you can't put the polar bear there because something else is already there."

He shows a caricature of himself as water truck driver then, a moment later, an ancient stone ulu. There's a poster signed by Ted Danson during the filming of "Big Miracle" after someone explained to Shults who he was, and one signed by Sarah Palin. Mostly his pieces are old or art or both.

"This is not stuff you can buy in a gift shop or out of a magazine," he says, one of several pronouncements he is prone to repeat. He is fond of the old polar bear fur pants that a young woman traded for the price of a plane ticket home because they are handmade and old.

His mother, Fran Tate, came to Barrow as an engineer on a project, then stayed to make her home there, running the water business and also Pepe's North of the Border, the family restaurant that became a popular gathering spot for nearly 35 years. She's now 87 and living in a care home in Anchorage.

When Joe was 19, she urged him to join her in Barrow. He was working as the manager of a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in Seattle. In the museum there's an old black-and-white photo of Joe and Col. Harland David Sanders.

Shults figures he was in the right place at the right time for his 40 years of collecting. Someone starting today probably couldn't get all he did, he said.

"My speech is a little slurred. I have a hard time to walk," Shults said, referencing his strokes. "The restaurant burned down, so that's done. The water trucks got sold, so that's done."

But, he said, "I still have my museum."

His polar bear was in a Coke commercial, he said. The museum was in a documentary on the Discovery Channel. The Smithsonian Institution expressed interest in studying some of his pieces, he said, but he didn't want to part with anything, even temporarily. He didn't make a note of who came by. Arctic experts now at the Smithsonian said they don't know of any official query.

Stephen Loring, a Smithsonian museum anthropologist and Arctic archaeologist, looked over some emailed photos from Joe's Museum.

"There is no doubt that he has some amusing and provocative pieces that reference a myriad of stories but shorn of provenience and context and history they fall into the category of curiosities rather than scientific specimens," Loring wrote in his reply.

The scientific value of ancient objects is diminished when they are not found in place, when the context from nearby items is lost, said Jensen, who works as senior scientist for an arm of the village corporation, Ukpeaġvik Inupiat Corp. Tools from a modern kitchen will be hard to understand 500 years from now if they are scattered all about, she said.

Still, Shults may have helped to save objects that otherwise might have washed away or been sold to outsiders, Jensen said. His museum highlights risks of losing cultural treasures from coastal erosion, she said.

Shults hasn't yet cataloged his collection or found a home for it that will outlast him. Maybe one of his nephews or one of their kids will take the museum on, when that time comes, or a friend in Utqiaġvik might be interested, he said.

"Two-hundred years from now, I hope people would go there and say 'Boy, that Joe the Waterman put all this together, collected all this. That must have been quite a time to be here.' "