August 12, 2008
After a long night of packing and repacking as I tried to sort out what I needed for this adventure, I finally got on a series of planes and arrived early evening in Barrow, Alaska, 330 miles north of the Arctic Circle (1,200 miles from the North Pole). Stepping out into a steel-grey sky and stiff cold wind blowing across the tundra, it dawned on me that, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, this was nothing like home, and I wished I'd packed a thicker layer in my carry-on. The roughly 30 members comprising this science expedition were all gathered together, and after loading our gear we were shuttled over rough dirt roads to the community gymnasium where we were to spend the night. Though the accommodations were spare, hot pizza and some 3-on-3 basketball to burn off a little pent up energy made for a pleasant evening. I spent the rest of the night making introductions and beginning to sort out who is involved in what of the many projects being undertaken on this expedition. I feel dwarfed by the expertise assembled in this collection of scientists, and humbled and honored to be able to be a part of their work.
Though there was very little time to explore Barrow, we did get out for a bit of a walk to get a sense of the town. Barrow (or "Ukpiagvik" in Inupiat, which means "place to hunt snowy owls") has a population of 4,700 residents, over two-thirds of which are native Inupiat. It is the center of government for the eight villages, which dot the vast Alaskan Arctic region. The landscape is quite flat and dusty due to a nearly constant wind blowing off the Arctic Ocean. There are no trees in sight. I was told to keep an eye out for polar bears, which frequently wander the outskirts of town and sometimes venture in for a closer look. Figuring I would be easy prey, I took heed of this advice! I talked to a few residents, and was immediately stuck by their hospitality and generosity. I hope to have another opportunity to see more of Barrow when we return here at the end of the expedition. Tomorrow, weather permitting, we head out to the Healy!