Sunday, November 30, 2014

Annual Black Friday Exodus: Borealis-LeFevre Cabin, White Mountains, Alaska

For the third year in a row, Gretchen and I have decided to get the hell out of town on the day after Thanksgiving. It's not that we're tempted by shopping. Nor do we frequent establishments that get "run down" with Black Friday discounts. We just like dumb excuses to get out of doors and ski, and camp, and escape into the wilderness. We also like to gawk and wave at the swollen Wal-Mart parking lot as we pass heading north out of Fairbanks onto the Steese Highway towards the White Mountains.

Jack doesn't care about Black Friday either.

Consumerism lurks on the horizon, we skied away from it.

I think all dogs love to pee on stuff, but my dog, Jack, really loves to pee on stuff, 
like really, really loves to pee stuff.  

My skis 

Sometimes I call this part of the trail Broadway. It's about 5.5 miles from the parking lot and after three ups and three downs the trail widens to many, many ski lengths. 
As the snow deepens the boulevard will be become packed by snow machines and mushers and skiers burying the willow shrubs, broadening between the black spruce.  

One of my favorite cabins in the Whites. It's the final official checkpoint for the 
White Mountain 100 ski/bike/run race at the end of March, which I've completed twice. 

Outdoor temps hovered around here all weekend. 

Jack likes to pretend like we own this cabin.

Scott Brucker: he likes to ski, he likes puffy jackets, he's not sponsored by Outdoor Research (OR), but he has owned this camouflage blaze orange fleece cap 
the past five years I've known him, and he's single--ladies. 

 Aren't these two adorable?

 More Mr. Brucker. He can't harness his boots, but he can slide his hands into these oven mitts. He also can't really cook anything other than Mountain House meals, but he likes football, teaching elementary students, and spending time exploring new places in Alaska. 
Did I mention he's 28 and single?

The banks of Beaver Creek just a few dozen feet down a hill from the door of our cabin. 

After skiing this weekend for the past three years, it's upsetting how 
thin and shallow the snowpack is this year.

Indoors it could get real ripe. 

Cabin life: reading, writing, lounging. 

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!?