Mission

MISSION:
To spend quality time in at least one area of every state. Quality time means exploring the area; rest stops, gas stations, airports or train stations do not count. The goal is to explore the natural and cultural environments of these regions. Each location visited has a story, pictures for my amateur hobby addiction, and maybe a piece of jewelry/art.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Barrow - Where Milk is $10/Gallon

Barrow Streets
Honestly, Barrow is not much to look at when you land.  It lacks that jaw dropping scenery that you get when you fly into Anchorage... Barrow is past the Brooks Range.  The land get flat after that, and with the snow, the arctic tundra is just a frozen space.  The town buildings actually raised off the ground, like you would see at the beach.  The heat from the structures would damage the tundra and sink the structure.  Buildings are quite weather worn - but if you sustained constant winds from the confluence of 2 seas and the extreme cold that reaches beyond -50 F, then you would look a bit haggard as well.

Barrow is the government seat, aka the "capital", of the Northern Slope.  The North Slope Borough is the largest municipality in the world - covering almost 89,000 square miles of arctic territory.  Most of it is open tundra; eight villages are scattered throughout the area.  The entire population of the area is about 7500, and 4700 live in Barrow (by comparison, the condo community I live at has about 4400.)

$10 milk
Barrow is a town on the extremes... the native Alaskan, Inupiats, subsistence hunt to feed their families.  After visiting the market, it makes not just cultural sense, but economical as well.  Milk is about $10/gallon; grape juice was $8 for 2 quarts; eggs 2 dozen for $10; a half gallon on OJ is $12. That $2-3 Rice-a-Roni pack that we all get on sale is about $7.  Tide was $25 for the small bottle; soft soap was $5.  Canola oil was $8 for a quart; flour $10 for 5 pound bag.  Most stuff was at least 5x what we pay for it in the lower 48... or even what I see it in for in Anchorage.  The only thing that was not incredibly marked up were the tampons (but being that they are cotton and non perishable, that makes the most sense).

Whale hunting season is pre and post full ice coverage.  That puts the season in September and April.  Bowhead whales that are hunted feed the community for months.  Meat is divided and stored.  In addition to whale meat, birds, seals, caribou, fish are all hunted and kept during the long winter months.

Now, when I headed up there, I was warned about many things... yes, I was told that it was cold.  And it was very cold.  I was told that it was dark... and arriving less than a week from the winter solstice, I got to experience some of the longest nights you can.  However, I feel like I was mislead.  The dark was there - and yes, the moon was fully in the sky for most of the day, but for a few hours, dusk lighting set in - you never saw the sun fully, but the sky lightened for a bit.  And yes, that was the coldest temperatures I have ever experience.  I was told to prepare for the possibility of negative 50 with wind, when I was there there was no wind at all and the temperatures never went past negative 20.  Guess I brought the heat with me.

I had a few hours while in Barrow to explore between meetings.  A coworker took us out onto the ice just so we could say that we walked on the ocean.  I took a taxi to the whalebone arch and had him take a picture of me while he sat in the heated car.  I visited the Inupiat Native Heritage Center while they celebrated the holiday with a party.  Of course a part of the center was closed, but I was able to see some amazing local carvings and masks.  I made it through a pictorial documentary of the whale hunt and learned about the traditions of this northern community.  The hunt and its pageantry, as well as necessity, is such a part of the local culture.  It goes beyond subsistence.  It is about the community - how they care of each other and who are leaders in the group.  The whale brings everyone together.  And because the Bowhead is so important to the community, I felt like almost all major buildings had bowhead bones outside their entrances.

I stayed at the Top of the World Hotel (and yes they had a bone too)...  and no, it was nothing like a Sheraton.  But the staff was amazing, the rooms were clean, the water ran and the air was toasty.  The manager was definitely welcoming.  I was directed to the correct cab company to you (hello, city cab 5050), told about the local art and stores, and most importantly, helped me with a major airport situation. I could not have asked for better service and support.  And when you are in the middle of now where and know no one (after your colleagues leave), it was great to have a friendly hotel to help you out - thanks to my new friend Monica.

You really don't feel the cold when you are not in it too long.  Jumping from building to cab, where everything this superhot, you just don't notice the cold... that is until you stand in it for a bit.  When I first arrived, while I was waiting for check-in, I was directed to the local art store... it was like a JoAnn's Fabrics, without the name.  It sold some trinkets, but really, you could tell that was here that locals got their materials for their hand crafted parkas.  And just a few blocks from the hotel, it should have been a manageable walk (and it was), but WOW did you feel the cold after a few minutes.  Dressed in more layers than I have ever worn, I was okay, but I know that I would never want to do that on a permanent basis.  After all my meetings and eating at the northern most mexican restaurant, Pepes, I was ready to head out and visit my friend in Fairbanks.  But the trick was I needed to leave...

Just what airport mishap did I have, you ask?  Well, it was completely my fault.  I took some bad advice. The airport in Barrow is small and I was told not to worry about lines... well, that was a huge lie.  As I found out, there is only one TSA worker in Barrow and once they stop taking bags and start taking tickets, there is no going back.  I was given a choice of staying in Barrow or leaving with out my luggage.  After some major apologizing for my mistake, I got in touch with the hotel and Monica - who agreed to ship my bag to me in Fairbanks.  Thanks to the Alaska Airlines workers that got me on the plane, the taxi driver that took my luggage back to the hotel and to Top of the World for helping me out of a major mistake.

After hours of flying back to Anchorage, a delay, and then to Fairbanks, I was happy to be with someone I knew, somewhere with a kitchen where I could cook some fresh veggies and eat something not from Pepes.  Even if I did not have fresh clothes (they arrived much later and were not accessible for another day), I was good in Fairbanks.  And seriously, after a week in Fairbanks this summer, I did not think I could see Fairbanks as big... but after Barrow, its all relative!

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