Barrow, Alaska Part 1 of 2

71° 17′ 44″ N, 156° 45′ 59″ W, Northernmost City in the United States

Barrow In Its Frozen Glory

Barrow In Its Frozen Glory

The sun’s passage across the sky seems to be one of the more reliable occurrences of our day. So I got to thinking recently what would things be like in a place simmering in 24 hour darkness. From these random musings spawned an admittedly half-baked scheme to venture north of the Arctic Circle to see for myself. Spending New Years at the top of the world shrouded in darkness and cold seemed like such a good idea when planned within the comfortable confines of my highrise condo rising into the relatively warm (and sunny) Georgia skies.

Based on the horrified reactions of friends, I should have known that Barrow, Alaska is not exactly some all-inclusive Caribbean resort for the sane and rational amongst us. Hell, the warning I received from Alaska Airlines should have clued me in for what’s in store. Their website so kindly reminded me at the time of booking that “this flight uses a Boeing 737-400 Combi aircraft. When boarding this type of aircraft, customers will use two sets of stairs, board from the rear of the aircraft, and be exposed to the weather.” Big deal, how cold could it really be?

The Latest in Arctic Fashion

The Latest in Arctic Fashion

And not that 99% of people out there give a rat’s patootie, but a combi aircraft is half passenger/half cargo. Yes, combi is short for combination. The passengers sit in the back half of the plane and the forward half holds giant containers laden with just about anything to sustain a population far removed from our version of civilization. I know. You’re rolling your eyes…I thought it was neat.

Well, I followed the weather religiously for about a week and was horrified to see temperatures hovering right around -40F even without the windchill factored in. Yeah, this was going to be a doozie of a trip all right being stuck in some hotel room doing nothing but counting the dust bunnies.

Asking Jack at the King Eider Inn by email what in the world was happening New Year’s Eve in his frozen hamlet gave me some faint glimmers of hope. He wrote back promising excitement since, “There will be a big fireworks show downtown on New Year’s Eve, and the whole town will be there. People here are very excited about the fireworks since it only happens once a year (July 4th is 24 hour daylight so too bright!)” Jackpot! Put me on that plane that craps the newbies right out into elements so bad a warning is required.

This piece of ancient aluminum tubing with a bundled up Eskimo emblazoned across its tail hurtled us northward in the pitch black morning sky. Can I even say Eskimo? I’d sure hate to run afoul of the ever present political correctness police. OK, the plane has an Inuit man gracing the logo. How’s that? I give up; call him whatever the hell makes you happy! After stops in Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay, this four and a half hour odyssey finally wound down with our descent into snowy darkness and wicked winds accosting both the plane and that poor Eskimo man freezing his cojones off out there on the tail.

The Arctic Ocean

The Arctic Ocean

A pilot and an entertainer who proved first hand that the Earth’s gravitational pull is a mighty magnet stronger than their plane could bear are the namesakes for Barrow’s tiny Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport. Folks, with their untimely demise in mind, I questioned my sanity flying into an icy, wind whipped landing strip named after two guys who didn’t quite make it. Who names an airport after people in a plane crash anyhow?

Maybe it’s just me, but I liken it to sitting your sorry ass inside a rusted out ’74 Ford Pinto at the loading zone of Hindenburg International Airport. Sooner or later that behemoth Chevy Suburban is going to rear end your keister and launch that auto flambé five counties over. Call me superstitious or whatever. I just prefer not to tempt fate. But I digress…

The King Eider Inn just across the road from the terminal was a mere two minute walk that nearly did me in. Breathing through my mouth stung my metal fillings. Breathing through my nose froze my snot. And to think only moments before I had scoffed at the airline’s warning after I made the quick passage into the well heated terminal wholly unscathed.

In my defense, the locals were parading around that airplane like it was some summer day flight to Tijuana, Mexico. Even the captain told us that the temperature was a pleasant -10F. -10? Hmm. It sure does beat -40 so big freaking deal, right? That’s Minneapolis kid’s play right there with this tropical air mass. An older woman wearing only a tee shirt and jacket lulled me into complacency. If granny can handle it, there’s no way she’s going to show me up.

A -14F Manger

A -14F Manger

Within minutes of arrival, Barrow’s hospitality overwhelmed me and warmed me up in its version of community so foreign in my world. Am I really in the same country up here in Barrow? By the time I had checked into the hotel I had already been invited to a New Year’s Eve party and fireworks by my new friend, Angie, who had returned to Barrow to visit friends. She told me the fireworks “are the best in the bush.” All righty then, this is going to be one hell of a New Year’s suaret. Count me in.

With my evening plans now in the bag, more pressing issues such as filling my belly and actually checking out what delights this Arctic town of 4,000 held confronted me. The ever helpful Jack gave me a few lunch suggestions within a ten minute walk. So I figured I’d play it safe by covering myself from head to toe to schlep across town on foot like some burqa wearing jackass. I am sure people passing by in their heated cocoons on wheels were looking at me like who the hell is this overdressed mess soiling our snow filled streets. Yes, Darwin is always at work suckering idiots like me towards that bright light of natural selection.

In theory ten minutes is nothing. In reality though that walk was something else. Why you ask? Quite simply because I didn’t bother donning something as simple as long johns underneath my jeans. I was too lazy to put them on and figured hey, it’s just ten minutes, and that old woman from the plane was wearing a tee shirt. And besides, you know how we always say, “Oh. It will be ok. No worries.”

Screw that. I now have a healthy new respect for windchill, especially when wearing jeans. I swear there must be a million tiny holes in my denim allowing Jack Frost to nip at my balls. A 25 mile per hour win tore through me faster than Taco Bell. Sir Charles Darwin sure was onto something. I guess in the end I really am no smarter than all those morons whose famous last words were, “Hey, watch this.”

Pepe's North of the Border

Pepe’s North of the Border

The piercing wind stabbed me like a million pin pricks from the waist down, and that Seinfeld episode about shrinkage ran through my mind as numbness coursed through my legs. For the record I was properly clothed from the waist up. I am not a complete fool! I even wondered if our private nether regions could succumb to frostbite. Oh my God, I am going to end up collapsing and getting buried in a snow drift I thought as my legs began to feel like frozen lead pipes. Some polar bear will probably find me in July when things thaw out. I looked up at the sky and cursed God before asking him to please, please, please deliver me across town with all my fingers, toes and privates intact. I can report that I remained unscathed.

Hell, that warning on Alaska Airlines’ website should have told me all I needed to know as I wandered around in the darkness. As I approached Pepe’s North of the Border Restaurant and entered a room where 1979 was desperately calling for its furniture back, I thanked Jesus profusely for showing mercy. And I’ve got to ask. Why the hell is a place selling food from south of border boasting it’s north of the border? North of what border? Canada? Maybe Im just missing something because what brain cells I have left froze.

After asking where’s the beef on my Mexican cheeseburger, nervously eating grease soaked fries, and atoning for my calorical sins with a diet soda, I began lamenting the reality of the sticker shock inducing prices. After paying the $17 bill, reality of another kind hit me as hard as that wind outside. I would have to walk back to the hotel or get a $6 cab. Cheapskate won out, and as I stepped back outside I began wondering what the hell is this now? Why is a shimmer of light now revealing this frozen expanse of modular buildings on stilts?

A Neat Two Stop Flight

A Neat Two Stop Flight

[Now I will admit to falsely believing Barrow would remain shrouded in 24 hour pitch black darkness this time of year. Isn’t that what we all learned in school about being near the North Pole? Mrs. Hudson, your 4th Grade geography crap is now proven wrong, wrong, wrong! Barrow does indeed receive a short glimmer of light midday as the sun does whatever it does each day this time of year skirting along just below the horizon well out of sight. Though never rising, it sure does tease.

After a very quick photo opportunity at the frozen Arctic Ocean’s edge, I hurried back to the hotel. Of course I made a wrong turn in a town that has only a handful of streets. I learned quickly that in this sort of cold every second counts and I cursed myself for getting sidetracked down a side street to look at an illuminated nativity scene of Jesus, Mary and Joseph basking in a warm looking manger.

By the time I reached the hotel, I was thinking Jesus, Mary and Joseph, this is some cold ass crap. With five hours left before the party at seven o’clock, I began plotting the remainder of the afternoon.

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Categories: travel

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