Monday, October 20, 2014

Barrow: Part One

I got dropped off at the top of the world, and as I walked back to Barrow, I couldn't help but keep looking over my right shoulder, thinking a polar bear was following me. Then I found the icy corpse of an Arctic fox and then a seagull. Both looked like they'd frozen to death. The temperature was about 20F, but with 25mph gusts, the windchill was below zero.

Gretchen has worked in Barrow as an itinerant (part-time/traveling) occupational therapist for the infant learning program for over four years. She's brought back stories of whales being hauled from the sea and ported around town on the tongs of a forklift. She's complained about the bitter wind and the eternal winter darkness, but she's also described how unique the Arctic plain can be. Vicious polar bears. Warm, welcoming people. Mounds of stacked sea ice moving and bulging from the hidden force of an ocean beneath. I knew this was someplace I wanted to explore. 
From Fairbanks, I flew on a Ravn Airlines Dash-8. This is a 30 seat turbo-prop plane quite common in Alaska. The plane had a stewardess that brought me two cups of rich, dark coffee during the flight before landing in Deadhorse. 
Looking from the plane's window at the sheet of clouds, I imagined this as what the sea ice would look like, a frozen ocean, though still several months away.

Deadhorse is a camp populated by slope workers from Prudhoe Bay. I've drive to Deadhorse twice before, but that was in the summer (2014, 2010). The north slope of Alaska typically starts freezing up mid-September and remains locked in ice until May, or later. In Deadhorse I transferred to a much smaller plane, the Cessna Grand Caravan (a plane I  became very familiar with while living in Arctic Village). From Deadhorse I flew to Nuiqsut, dropped off a couple people, picked up a couple people, (the milk run) and then headed for Barrow.  
Barrow's population is about 4,300. About 60% of that is Inupiaq (Alaska Native). The remainder is laregely caucasian, but there is also a very diverse population of Filipinos, Thai, Korean, and Tongan Pacific Islanders. 




Barrow sits latitudinally just above 71 degrees north. The residents lose about 12 minutes of light per day. During my visit the sun rose about 10am and set about 6pm. But that doesn't justify the ominous, gray light in most of these photographs. Just because the sun is "up" doesn't mean you can see the sun. In fact, we didn't see the sun until our return flight when the plane broke about the clouds at about 10,000ft and the orange, pink, and purple glare cast upon our eyes. In Barrow, in October, the sun's union with day means the clouds to the south are whiter than the gray clouds to the north. 
 An infamous and commonly photographed whale bone arch with hunting vessels nearby.
 I missed peak tourist season.

Scattered remains of the waning whaling season

When asked, "Is Barrow what you expected?" The answer is yes, and no. It's a remote Alaskan community with a mixture of people. It's off the road system and requires hardy individuals to live here. Everything is largely influenced by subsistence activities, but is quickly reshaping to a subsidized way.

What I didn't expect was the architecture. I expected long, narrow, aluminum-sided, modular containerized-style houses. What I found was a variety of homes ranging from the common "HUD," box-shaped house to homes that seemed particularly influenced by the Yankee whaler tradition of New England--clapboard sided with gables jutting from sharply peaked roofs. In Barrow, I also found the usual Alaskan home, customized with modifications ranging from transformed steel cargo containers to homes with pallets tacked up for an arctic entry.



Many families can't afford the standalone homes. Barrow has a small population of "young professionals" coming to work in the hospital, in the clinic, in the schools, and in support of the infrastructure of the town. Young couples and small families that can't afford, or don't need a home, commonly live in apartment complexes. 
These homes are being built by Shell Oil. Apparently the larger home on the left costs over a million dollars to construct and the row of identical homes on the right cost a little under a million each.
I imagine this home has 2-3 families occupying it. The cab drivers are commonly 
Filipino and I doubt there's a couple bachelors sharing this pad. 

 Abandoned bicycles and vacant playgrounds always stir up post-apocolyptic notions in my mind.  



One of two cemeteries I found. This one is in Browerville, looking south, 
overlooking the western lagoon and the north side of Barrow.

 The new hospital, a couple years old, it probably cost $100 million, maybe more. 
 The only dog kennel I saw in town.
 Whale baleen from a bowhead whale, still attached to the jawbone.

During certain seasons locals can travel out of  town and hunt Caribou grazing on the northern Arctic plain. Other times of year the herds migrate south to the slopes of the Brooks Range and meat is scarce. Subsistence living means stockpiling when the harvest is good 
and saving for when meat becomes scarce.

There's a couple places to buy groceries in Barrow. The main shopping center is the AC store. This is chain throughout bush Alaska. There is another trading post, but it didn't look open, so I didn't go there.

Check out some of these prices:















A complaint commonly heard from Alaskan Natives is how their children are quickly losing the traditional ways. This not only includes the language but interest in subsistence activities like fishing and hunting. Kids don't want to run dogs on traplines, they want to race around the frozen tundra at 100mph on a gas guzzling snow-go. They don't want to help their elders with chores, they'd rather play Black Ops on Xbox all day (I'm generalizing to make a point).

I imagine the westernization of indigenous youth starts somewhere after infancy with immediate exposure to plastics. Not being a parent, and not being an Alaskan Native, I don't know how and why this degradation of traditional knowledge and values is nurtured and I feel any commentary I share would sound prejudiced towards all sides. So I'll shut up on the subject and leave you with what I find are two very ironic images of toys for sale in the AC store.

A children's game for sale on the shores of the Arctic Ocean: "Don't Break the Ice."

 And, what Inupiaq child doesn't want to grow up to become a polar scientist!?

Barrow: Part Two

A lot of cities have campaigns for public beautification through local art. Some cities allow murals painted on the side of blank or bleak walls. In Fairbanks, artists recently "Painted the Pipes," decorating  steam vents rising from our sidewalks with elaborate designs and depictions of interior life.  In Barrow, at some point in common era, they painted the dumpsters. 



Oh the irony...

On my last day I got a ride to the top of North America and walked 6.5 miles back to the apartment where I was staying. Barrow sits on the shores of the Arctic Ocean about 9 miles from the northern most tip of Alaska. Land's end is blunt but extends another 4 miles into the sea by way of a narrow spit of rock and soil. Deciding where oceans and seas meet is like splitting hairs, but the spit of land north of Barrow is a landmark starting an arbitrary line between the Beaufort Sea (to the east) and the Chukchi Sea (to the west). At the terminus of terra firma, the end of the spit, nearly 3 miles from where I was dropped off, the land turns 90 degrees then becomes a series of shallow bars and islands. This shallow disturbance in the ocean has created a large body of water called Elson Lagoon. Here the water was calm enough and the weather was cold enough that the sea had frozen already.
 Frozen sea.

 Surviving the winter is optional.
Driftwood, which must have been washed hundreds of miles as the north slope is entirely treeless, often appeared to me as whale bones because of its weathered, ivory appearance.  

 Frozen sea.
 Standing atop a small pushed up dune on the four mile spit 
leaving the mainland pointing north east into the Arctic Ocean. 
On the right is a frozen lagoon of the Beaufort Sea. 
On the left, waves still roll in of the Chukchi Sea. 

 I rapped upon this frozen stump for many minutes contemplating whether it was the trunk of a tree or the spinal column and vertebrate of a bowhead whale. 
I never discovered it's secret, but when I left a seagull returned and enjoyed its leeward shelter.

 Past tides and older ocean swells of the season have started to freeze higher on the shore.

Fish camps and hunting camps are quite common in most native communities. Seasonal exodus from the main village for the purpose of setting up camp closer to food sources is practiced from the Kuskokwim Delta to the slopes of the Brooks Range and as I observed, even on the arctic plain here on the ocean's shores.

This place was unlike any I've seen. It looked more like a shantytown constructed with plywood and pallets than the temporary camps I've seen before. It's hard to imagine these structures surviving one winter storm, much less seasons of assault from the nearby ocean. Yet the camp had personality. As if it was usually inhabited with happy people then vacated quickly when the fishing was done, like they just went home but would return promptly the next year. There were rudimentary playgrounds of swing sets constructed to occupy children too young to bare the weight and responsibility of chores at hand. Tables and chairs were left propped in positions imaginable for midnight car games and story telling. I yearned for some of the stories this land withheld. I wanted to put my ear to the decrepit walls of the camp and listen for the generations of yarn and legend breathed here. But there was only the persistent wind prevailing as always from the north east and the crunch of my sneakers breaking the hard glaze atop the snowy surface everywhere.

 Polished driftwood and baleen looks like palms trees. 
I love Alaskan Native's sense of humor. 









Just south of the fish camp, but still several miles north of town lies a large complex of buildings. There is a variety of activities going on out here, but the only ones I heard about are classes at the campus for Illisagvik College and several facilities for Umiaq, a scientific and professional services wing of Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation (UIC), one of the local native corporations. Rumored to be hanging out in the camp is the National Science Foundation occupying several new trailers seen in the distance, a long range radar site run by the Navy or Air Force or black ops, and an unnamed oil corporation like BP or Shell with a few dozen connex containers and trailers stacked and vacated for the winter season. I didn't want to ask too many questions or explore too hard. Alaska has a habit of collecting an assortment of activities that leave behind disused buildings in the oddest of remote places.

And there is an airfield, the tarmac plowed only by the wind and
 two large hangers looming like condemned cathedrals.

In the camp I was surprised to find the Barrow High School football field. I knew Barrow had an esteemed football team, but it didn't strike me walking around town that I hadn't spotted the field. This field is roughly 5-6 miles from the heart of downtown, you obviously have to drive out there for practice and games. The Arctic Ocean lies less than 35 yards from the north west sideline. The field is dedicated to a woman from Florida named Cathy Parker, not a native of Barrow. It was constructed in 2007 (but there's a lot more to the story: Yahoo Sports, ESPN, College Football Blog, The Florida Times).

 The complex also contained dozens of derelict buildings 
maybe once part of a military compound or abandoned scientific labs.

I imagine this is where the tourists pause for photographs.
I found the whale skulls much more photogenic than my own beach selfie.




 Nearing town, a seagull frozen to the sand. 

Should you go to Barrow? Yes. Will it cost you a lot, that depends, but probably. Will you be sorry you spent several days in a desolate land of extremes at the end of the world? No. Would I go back? Yes. Will I go back? Probably. I want to experience summer here and I want to experience the ice pack buckling from the ocean current bulging beneath. I want to learn all the names for ice in Inupiaq. I want to see a D7 dozer dragging a bowhead up the beach from the ocean and I want to eat the heart of a whale.