6 July, 2001
This morning was an errand day. I enjoy these days because I get to drive into town (3 miles from NARL) and see and talk with the town's people. Barrow has everything you could want; it's just in one store, the Stuaqpak (means "big store"). This is the towns, one of two, grocery stores, which sell everything from fresh veggies to living room couches to ATVs. It is a modern food store much like a Safeway. From there we went to Napa Auto Parts. When you think of all the trucks, ATV, powerboats and 4-wheel drive vehicles up here this is an important place. The stock is extensive and once again carries the regular merchandise plus the more specialized equipment the community uses like the whaling cannon pictured below.
Everything up here is flown up by plane or is shipped up by barge in the summer. There are two other ways to get things here in wintertime also; the roll-a-gone, a large tire vehicle that manages to literally roll over the snow covered tundra and the ice road, which is passable with a 4-wheel drive and chains from here to Prudhoe Bay in winter. Once there you can drive to Fairbanks on the Haul Road that is open all year.
In the local paper there are order forms from stores like Costco, which will fill your order and then send your supplies up by plane through out the year. Shopping that way saves some money because everything is expensive up here due to extra charges.
Once things are up here they never leave. Think of that in ecological terms. The dump, a mile down the road, is filled with junk metal from old buildings built here by the Navy and Army in the 40's and 50's along with old cars and parts, metal drums used to ship who knows what and on and on. Even people's daily garbage is a problem because the permafrost is impenetrable to digging and burying things and the cold weather preserves rather than disintegrates. Throwing things "away" is not possible here. What ever is brought here stays here, for a very long time. The EPA is always watching what goes on. Shipping things out just does not happen because of the expense.
Construction supplies all have to be shipped up so every piece of lumber is important. Fires were historically kept going with whale oil and the driftwood that is constantly washing up on shore. In the past, many a shelter was constructed from the wood planks taken from the whaling ships that washed up on shore or the ships crushed in the ice flaws. Before arrival of the white whalers traditional shelters were constructed by digging out a shallow depression, for the floor, and then a sod roof piled on top of whale rib bones lashed together at the top and used for support. The old style homes were said to be warmer and much less drafty than the modern type modular homes of today.
There is a video rental store that I hear does a good business since almost everyone in town has TV with satellite hookup (100+ channels) and there is no movie theatre. Wells Fargo has a large bank here and then there are various restaurants, which in my opinion serve great tasting food from sushi to pizza.
Three hotels house most of the tourists who visit and over the past ten years the tourist industry has increased many fold. >From Anchorage or Fairbanks you can book a one-night stay in Barrow that includes hotel, meals, airfare and the ́tundra tourî for a little under $500.00. It's expensive but that is due mainly to the airfare. Barrow is just not on the way to anywhere else, except maybe Prudhoe Bay (also expensive to get to!). All this expense to say you saw, or for the braver, submerged some body part into the Arctic Ocean and were the farthest north you could get in the United States.
We pass the schools, elementary, middle and high schools, when we go through town. All are new, state of the art buildings. The Elementary has an indoor playground and the high school has an indoor swimming pool. Remember the school year is cold, dark and snowy most of the time so accommodations have to be made. Supplies and equipment are up to date and in plentiful amounts. Where else but here would your school be nicknamed "The Whalers" and a bowhead whale scull be outside the entrance?
The town's bus service is interesting and deserves a word. One of the local TV channels is called "the Bus Channel". Each of the town's buses is equipped with a GPS unit which is broadcast over the "Bus Channel" so if you are wanting to catch a bus you tune into the channel to see where your bus is and estimate when to leave your home. Waiting at a bus stop in ~30 degree weather is not safe so this is how that situation is dealt with. A good use of technology!
Barrow is not as isolated as one would assume on first glance. People are always flying all over the North Slope and down to Anchorage for business and vacations. Many locals go to Hawaii during the winter now to see the sun and get out of the cold.
All communication to and from Barrow goes through satellites. On the outskirts of town there are satellite fields with every size disc pointing in every direction, including straight up! When you are on the phone you have to get used to a 1 second delay between what you say and the person on the other end answering, awaked at first. All email and Internet connections are also through satellite hookups.
The teenagers do not have a lot to do up here and that is a common thread that is ever present. Hunting is what people's lives revolve around. In spring and fall it's whaling and in summer there are seals, walrus and fish to catch. Inland there are caribou and ducks and families will camp for weeks while stocking up on food for the winter. The stores do provide food but the culture is very dependent on hunting activities.
In arctic you see a combination of traditional and modern ways of doing things. I personally hope that the traditions stay strong. The elders of the villages put much energy and time into keeping their beliefs and customs alive but with the advent of TV, satellites and other cultures coming into the area, old ways are slowly changing. Hunting, especially the whale is the common thread, which holds the Inupiat culture together. The village does it's best to preserve this with the pride and status they bestow upon the whaling crews and the many Nalukatuks (festivals) celebrated in June.
Science is strong in the Arctic and in Barrow especially. The Barrow Arctic Science Consortium, (BASC) is a very visible part of the community. They bring in many researchers and projects to the town and also try and get the results what they are doing out into to the community.
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