Newspaper Article I Wrote About Barrow, Alaska

Here’s a newspaper article I submitted to the North Slope’s newpspaper, The Arctic Sounder. It appeared in the January 4, 2013 edition. Enjoy!

“Sir, Are you not getting off here in Prudhoe?” the flight attendant inquired after dozens of passengers had disembarked to begin another weeks long stint working on the Slope. “No, I am heading to Barrow” I proudly proclaimed, and I could just see the wheels spinning in her head as to why I was traveling to America’s northernmost city in the dead of winter. She stared me down a few seconds before reminding me, “Well, dress warm since it’s cold there.”

Indeed, you are probably wondering to yourself by now why a guy more accustomed to temperate climes would venture above the Arctic Circle outside the more proper and benign tourist season. I will even admit to second guessing my travel plans as our Boeing 737 began its descent into the inky late morning darkness.

As I reunited with my checked luggage at the Wiley Post-Will Roger Airport’s cramped baggage claim, I struck up a conversation with a fellow traveler. “Usually it’s minus 40,” he said with great satisfaction as if survival amidst these sorts of temperatures is a badge of honor. Perhaps for some this feat truly is, but for this traveler hailing from the Lower 48, that sort of mercury reading clocks in about 120 degrees short of my comfort zone.

Evidently the eight below zero greeting us is rather balmy for these parts since he added, “We’ve been lucky this winter.” Oh yes, I thought to myself. How lucky I am to be bathed in relative tropical splendor rather than having the Arctic’s true wrath pummeling me into submission.

Before setting out on foot across the road to the King Eider Inn, I bundled up from head to toe and truly looked like amateur hour in comparison with the locals. The warm airport terminal was abuzz with people whose limbs sported little more than a jacket or jeans, and I looked on with utmost respect and fascination for people seemingly impervious to the wintertime elements and daily darkness.

The lack of proper daylight even at lunchtime surprised me since the sun’s passage across the sky is probably the oldest method of timekeeping known to mankind. So I got to thinking about this fiery orb’s reliable and daily appearance in my own life. Could I survive in a world where night and day blend into one after the sun disappears for months on end? Does time just stand still until the sun’s eventual springtime debut?

My musings paled in comparison, though, to the one monosyllabic utterance crossing my path quite often lately in the run-up to this great Arctic adventure. “Why?” This simple word is the million dollar question flying off my friends’ tongues as they attempted to digest my news of ringing in 2013 at the top of world in Barrow far removed from my home base of Atlanta, Georgia. Even though my inner circle could not quite place Barrow on the map, attaching “Alaska” like some exotic suffix conjured up mumbling, disbelief, and further rounds of “why?” peppered with a plethora of expletives.

Within hours of my arrival I was realizing quite quickly that Barrow is a city that knows no strangers. Warm hospitality immediately melted away any and all chill that may have followed me indoors. Already, I had been taken under the wings of my new friend, Angie, who invited me to an evening party and viewing of the fireworks deemed by her to be the best in the bush.

I even crossed paths with a California couple who had ventured north to ring in the new year in an extraordinary place off the beaten path. The old adage of safety in numbers now rang so true. Suddenly I felt less self conscious about my choice of New Year’s venue. Other wayward people far from home had obviously answered the question of “why?” with a resounding “why not?”

With evening plans now in hand and several hours prior still to fill, I figured what better way to spend an afternoon than braving the elements for a 10-minute walk to Pepe’s North of the Border restaurant. I am quite certain the people whizzing past me in their heated cocoons on wheels had to ask themselves, “Why? Why is this guy on foot?” By this point I felt the need to prove to myself that I actually possess the wherewithal to survive such cold.

As my legs began their gradual thaw over a lunchtime meal of a cheeseburger and fries, the local radio station switched from 1980s classics to a most in depth weather forecast. “High temperatures of 0 to minus 10. Windchills minus 40. Winds 20 miles per hour.” The woman droned on for a good five minutes, and each locale had much the same in store.

As my ears listened in amused horror, my eyes glazed over much like the Arctic Ocean only a block distant. Then a smug satisfaction washed over me when I realized I had trudged 10 minutes in this 40 below feeling cold. This delight was short lived though after I remembered I still faced a return trip to the hotel in the same grueling conditions.

I mentioned to a fellow diner that anything under 40 degrees on the positive side is just plain cold. He laughed before telling me, “We call that kind of temperature summer!” We will just have to agree to disagree. Warm truly is a subjective matter.

Jack at my hotel mentioned that the AC Market was the homegrown version of Walmart and that I should check out the prices. A quick $6 taxi ride brought me across town, and I will admit to mistakenly expecting something along the lines of a basic convenience store. Much to my surprise and delight, this full-size supermarket’s products were like a familiar bridge, albeit an expensive one, linking me to all I knew back home. Coca-Cola, Ruffles, and even frozen PF Chang’s Chinese food were available, though at a dear premium.

I wandered around gawking at the $10 bags of chips and $25 sacks of oranges. Surely everyone in there could not help but notice I was not from these parts as I dispatched images of these astronomical prices back home via my phone. The piece de resistance was the 25 pound $138.79 bone in ham. Never again shall I complain about “high” prices in the Lower 48 after a handful of items shook free a mountain of cash from my wallet.

After a lively evening together, my new friends and I joined the rest of Barrow down at the lagoon for the much anticipated spectacle at the stroke of midnight. While most of the good citizens of Barrow enjoyed the fireworks display from the warmth of their vehicles, Angie and I braved the elements for a chilly, wind battered look at the various colors bursting against the night sky. These northern lights of a different kind brightening the crisp air provided me a most memorable transition from 2012 to ’13.

Jack had mentioned in an email, “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!)” If winter is the time of year turning Barrow inward, then the midnight light show is definitely the high point of the season bringing everyone outdoors.

I thanked Angie for her hospitality and for making Barrow such a welcoming place. Her reply sums up my impressions of this great town.

“The people have to be warm,” she said. “Look outside. Nobody’d survive.”

What I take away from my all-too-brief time in Barrow is a deep sense of community sprawling across these frozen shores.

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Categories: travel

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