This could be the last year the umiaks of this fog-bound Arctic outpost go after the giant bowhead.

The winter ice pack is receding into the sea here, and the Eskimo paddlers in the small, sealskin-covered umiaks have returned with 21 of the whales - a good catch.

But this community, which has personified one of the last self-sufficient communal lifestyles left in the world, is nonetheless uneasy.

Toothless Eskimo grandmothers now careen up and down Barrow's unpaved streets on three-wheeled Honda motorcycles while, thousands of miles away in Australia, an international whaling commission prepares to deliberate whether the bowhead is a "depleted species" that should no longer be hunted by anyone.

And the concern among both Eskimos and non-Eskimos is how far such encroachments from the outside can go before they irrevocably alter a unique way of life.

The Eskimo equivalent of a giant beach party met the whalers' here this week. Most of Barrow's 2,800 residents showed up to sit on the beach beneath a chilly midnight sun, gnaw chunks of rubbery whale skin called muktuk, and occasionally toss each other into the air with blankets in an enthusiastic ritual that has been going on for as long as anyone here can remember.

It is unthinkable to the Eskimos that the feast might be ended forever. They complain bitterly that the International Whaling Commission is acting on insufficient data and, even worse, that the decision on bowhead hunting will be made by non-Eskimos.

"An essential part of our lives is being determined by people who never saw an umiak and who know nothing of the importance of whaling to the Eskimo people," said Dale Stotts, an official of the North Slope Burough, the only local government in the Arctic totally controlled by Eskimos.

In an effort to retain at least some measure of control over their own destiny, several hundred Eskimo delegates from four countries met here this week to form an international Eskimo body.

No final version of an Eskimo charter will be completed for at least a year, but here in Barrow it is possible to get some idea of the scale of change already under way and the effect on Eskimo life.

The local borough government and the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. - one of 12 native regional corporations set up across the state under the 1971 National Claims Settlement Act - have supplanted subsistence hunting and fishing as the major employer of Barrow's predominantly Eskimo population.

The two own the local supermarket, an Eskimo construction company, the local tourist agency, the Top of the World - which is the local hotel - and virtually every other major building in town. When construction on these projects dropped off last year, 400 Eskimos immediately lined up for unemployment benefits.

Barrow's Eskimos, whose ancestors arrived here centuries ago during a migration from Asia and stayed because they liked the abundance of game, still hunt. Last month one even shot a polar bear when it poked its nose into a house. Hundreds of Eskimos take part in the whale hunt, and most of the local men periodically go after the caribou herds when they migrate this way.

But with wages starting at over $13 an hour for a borough laborer and more than $5 an hour for a checkout persons in the local market, a number of Eskimos have turner away from hunting for a living.

New money in town, in one form or another closely tied to North Slope oil and gas development, has allowed Eskimos to charter planes to reach distant hunting grounds and has put Eskimos bureaucrats behind desk in the new million-dollar borough hall.

But the growth of the cash economy has also had its drawbacks, especially in a place like this where nearly all supplis must come in by air or barge, no running water, and prices at the supermarket approach unbelieved levels. A tuna fish sandwich at one of the three local cafes cost $3.50.

"You can make $20,000 a year here and not be able to feed your family at the store," said Robert Worl, director of Barrow's health and social services department. Ironically, he said, the high prices have in part been responsible for keeping some of the old-fashioned subsistence economy alive.

But Worl and other local officials complained that, while changes and new regulations creep up on all sides as development proceeds, almost nothing has been done to improve local living conditions.

Barrow residents pay to 17 cents a gallon for fresh water hauled in from a nearby lake. Raw sewage is often tossed out the back door to freeze in the 40-below-zero winter weather, or is picked up by "honey bucket" trucks and dumped into an open pool next to the local hospital.

Some local administrators here fear that a growing dependence among this and other Arctic Eskimo communities on an energy-related economy could someday leave the Eskimos with a depleted culture and little to show for it in the way of progress.

"We are going to have diversification of the economy or the Eskimos are going to lose every bit of control over their lives," said Herbert Bartel, Barrow's non-Eskimo planning director.

If that happens, he said, when oil and gas supplies run out, Barrow may be left with no money to operate construction projects and a disastrous drop in fish and game because of industrialized over-harvesting by Hunters and fishermen.

"There is a danger in the long run that the Eskimos could end up converted to a permanent welfare status, with no meaningful activity, and the Arctic would be reduced to no more than an energy colony," Bartel said.