Sloped

Adventure and Life in the Arctic

Village Trips and Piloting Bush Planes

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Just got back into Fairbanks today after a four day trip to Anaktuvuk Pass for a Veterinary trip. None of the smaller villages on the Slope have Veterinary Clinics, so twice yearly we travel to all the villages to provide services, most of the services are free, including spays, neuters and rabies vaccines, basically anything public health related. We work from sun rise to sunset, which this time of year, means about 20 hrs a day. We do our surgeries in the health clinic garages, right next to the vehicles on makeshift tables and whatever supplies we could fit in our luggage.

This trip was really special to me (and not just because I got to go to Fairbanks and feel like a real civilian again, go shopping and pay somewhat normal prices for things, and got to see a movie to boot…the little things) The people, for the most part were incredibly welcoming, some of the dogs pretty vicious, the kids though, the kids were so great, and so was co-piloting the plane!

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Grab Your Sports Bras, Spring Has Arrived!

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It warmed to above freezing over these past few days here in Barrow, I’m amazed at how truly gross everything is. A swampy, cesspool, full of everything that the snow, ice, and darkness kindly kept from view through the winter. All the garbage is uncovered, the empty liquor bottles, cigarette butts, wine boxes, dirty diapers, candy wrappers, soda cans, animal body parts, it looks as if someone took all the dumpsters in town and spread their contents throughout the streets.

Driving is now pure hell, absolute and total hell. I watched a 3 yr old walking down the side of the road going faster than me in my company vehicle, a nice, burly, 4WD Expedition, equipped with the necessary kennels for dog catching.  All of the ice and snow filling the pot holes is gone, replaced by mucky water and slush. People drive on whichever part of the road is passable, even if it means the shoulder, the center, or heck, why not the other lane? My max speed is now 15 mph and that’s if I want to chance my truck rattle apart around me. I discovered after the first trip around town that I needed to be better equipped in the chest support department, I would not attempt a drive through Barrow at this moment without a sports bra. Thank goodness I’m somewhat small chested, or I may have been the victim of a unintended self-inflicted black eye. (Yes, that’s truly how bad the roads are)

They call it the breakup, it’s fitting because, its a big hot mess here in Barrow, all of my worries about the nastiness of town have come true. I think I want the cold back….

On  the bright side, the birds have returned even though they chirp, tweet, and chatter at all hours, I missed them and love hearing them again.

The ice has started to break-up, just like that, I went to work a bad wind storm whipped through, and then it was gone, literally a whole ice sheet in hours.

Ice Burgs floating by in the distance

Ice Burgs floating by in the distance

I’m told it dries out quick here in Barrow, when does that happen I ask? It happens when it happens.

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I Want My Son to Fail

My son graduated today. He’s the ripe old age of four. There was a ceremony, complete with all the pomp and circumstance of a high school or college graduation.  Including but not limited to individually handed out diplomas, gifts to the graduates, dressed up attire, the whole nine yards, for a K4 (preschool) class. On the diploma, it states: “Child X Has Completed the K4 Course of Study at Y Elementary School and is therefore entitled to this K4 Diploma.”

Umm, excuse me here, but since when is preschool a course of study? I didn’t even get a pat on the back when I finally finished a 3 year Chemistry Program, and I can tell you right now, THAT was a course of study.

Of course, as every parent would do, I indulged in the event, making sure my son went in his best dress, fresh hair-cut, scrubbed fingernails. We rehearsed his part of the graduation program the night before, he even expressed his nervousness, because “This is a big deal Mommy, I’m graduating.”

Graduating?! It takes twelve long years to graduate high school (which I passed on and opted for the GED instead) but I completed eleven years. Then it took another four long years to earn the  next degree and my four year old gets a diploma?!

I am in no way downplaying my son’s excitement about his school program, his eagerness to show myself and his father what he has learned, I love that my son enjoys school. I love even more that the school system on the North Slope starts kids in school at 3 years old, the preschool program being K3 and K4. It’s wonderful that kids this young get exposed to the school environment at such an early age, my son’s social skills have grown ten-fold because of it.

However, I am now also one of the many parents that has begun to wonder, is it too much? Is praising and celebrating every small accomplishment for our children doing more harm than good? My son earned a participation trophy for completing his swimming class as well, not because he competed in any races, but just because he showed up. Everyone gets an award for anything now. praise-good-effort-not-intelligence

These well-intended practices I think have begun to backfire on loving parents that just meant to foster their children’s growth and development. What it IS doing is teaching our child that there is no such thing as a poorly done job, that if you show up that’s enough. Forget about going the extra mile, you were here, and that’s good enough. It’s not.  This idea teaches our children that they are owed this praise, no matter little effort or achievement they put in, an award is in order.

My son can fail many, many times and that is just fine with me. Failure is a good thing, telling our children they can do better is a good thing. It teaches our children humility, motivation, drive.  It’s okay to tell our children they did something poorly, that they lost, trust me. How will our children learn what success is if they don’t experience failure?

If our children are constantly awarded and praised for everything that they do, they will never understand how much work and how many times one must hit rock bottom to truly succeed. I believe true appreciation of success comes from many failures and having the nerve to get back up and try again. Challenging our children and allowing them to fail is a wonderful way to learn. I know from my own childhood the things that I learned the most from are the times that I failed. My child needs to feel that too, not because it builds character, but it will teach him that success is not just handed to you in the real would.

He needs to know that life will kick you even further down when you are at your lowest, and shove you when you begin to stand up and probably right into a mud puddle in front of twenty people that will point and laugh instead of helping you. That the moment you are laying in the cold mud, miserable and embarrassed is the moment you really begin your path to success. failure

I am very proud of my son, he is bright, he shows so much potential, but he’s four, he is still forming who he is as a person and that is what preschool is part of, growing up, no more, no less.  By giving him an award for just showing up to the party does not teach him any more than that just showing up is enough to succeed. In order for our children to truly succeed, they need to learn to graciously fail and except defeat, dust their knees off and keep trying, to learn to fail, is, in its own way learning what it is to succeed.

And so, I will teach my son what it is to fail, he will know when he has failed, so he in turn knows the true meaning of success, perseverance, and  accomplishment.


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Of Mushing, Ice, and Polar Bears

We went for a walk on the Arctic Ocean the other day, something that is both exciting and incredibly scary at the same time.  I also got the chance to bring the dog sled team out onto the sea ice.

One thing I have learned since moving here: ALWAYS bring a gun. You never know what you could encounter and a little human would make quite a tasty snack for the largest predator of the arctic, the polar bear. My boyfriend decided to go out on the ice alone, without a gun, and a dying cell phone. I wasn’t happy, they don’t just stay on the ice, and its kinda asking for it to do that. He, in turn, has earned himself the nickname “BearWalker” and unfortunately it is not a term of endearment. Most people here in Barrow he has told think he has a screw or two loose.

When he told his father he thought he could out run a bear if it was coming, his father quickly responded with: A Polar Bear can run from 20-30 mph for a sustained 1-2 hours, Usain Bolt, the fastest human in the world can run 22 mph for 100 yards. Dad: 1, Son: big fat 0.

Hmmm……..Still think you can outrun that Polar Bear, babe? I have to admit, he got some pretty stunning pictures, so maybe it was worth it? Only worth it because he came back alive though. Lesson learned in any case, I hope.

This guy barely out ran this bear, he had to jump into another car to get away. He couldn't unlock his car fast enough (why you would even bother to lock your car in Barrow is beyond me. Where are they gonna take the car? You can't drive away)

This guy barely out ran this bear, he had to jump into another car to get away. He couldn’t unlock his car fast enough (Why you would even bother to lock your car in Barrow is beyond me. Where are they gonna take the car? You can’t drive away, maybe a new lawn ornament?)

One thing that I didn’t think would be uncommon when moving here, was snow and icicles, but they are, because it is so damn dry all the time. It doesn’t snow, there are no icicles, its just cold and it sucks. Right now though, right now, it is both warm enough to snow and for icicles to form and it is stunningly beautiful.

Right outside the front door. I cracked my forehead on one on my way out. They got to about 3-4 ft long before we decided to knock them down on the off chance someone could get impaled.

Right outside the front door. I cracked my forehead on one on my way out. They got to about 3-4 ft long before we decided to knock them down on the off chance someone could get impaled.

. These ones connected with the 'ground' or in this case the sea ice. It was warm this day, about 25 F or so and no wind.

. These ones connected with the ‘ground’ or in this case the sea ice. It was warm this day, about 25 F or so and no wind.

Icicles on the Arctic Ocean

Icicles on the Arctic Ocean

There is this really cool phenomenon that happens when it starts warming up here, the sea ice moves away and towards the shore all the time and the landscape is always changing. You can tell how far away the edge of the ice is by something called a ‘water sky.’ The clouds over open water are much grayer than those over ice, you can tell open water (and warmer weather) is coming when you begin to see the water sky. In this picture its the thin gray strip across the horizon, that is where the open water starts, its also a good way to keep your bearings in the ‘sea of white.’

 

Water sky, in the very far distance you could see open water too. The pictures just don't do it justice!

Water sky, in the very far distance you could see open water too. The pictures just don’t do it justice!

Blocks of ice pushed up by currents, see the water sky too?

Blocks of ice pushed up by currents, see the water sky too?

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More blocks of ice

How about an ice cave on the sea ice, in the middle of ice, topped with ice?

How about an ice cave on the sea ice, in the middle of ice, topped with ice?

I love mushing, everything about it, the excitement and the joy from the dogs, the quiet concentration when they get in stride. The absolute peace when you are out with the team and worried about nothing else. I don’t care what people say, its not cruel, the dogs get so much joy from it, they are given a job and they love it. To not run a mushing dog is cruel. PETA can shove it because I’m betting they have never actually seen the love and dedication that a musher devotes to his team, let alone taken a ride on a sled  or spent a day caring for a team.  I myself participated in the steroid testing team for the Iditarod this year (a post will be up soon) I can speak from experience that these dogs are loved, the amount of time, effort, money and love that goes into mushing is astounding.

Mushing is a very expensive hobby, and therefore there is only one team in town, I am lucky enough to know the owner of the team and to have worked with all of his lovely dogs.

The only dog sled team in town, he built his own sled, not your typical Iditarod sled, this one is built for the ice

The only dog sled team in town, he built his own sled, not your typical Iditarod sled, this one is built for the ice

I love this sled, no nails, no metal, except for the brake and the hook, all lashed together, built to go over the hills and crevasses of the sea ice and bumpy tundra, the sled almost molds to the  terrain as it moves.

Coming through town to take a tour past  the college and BARC to the sea ice

Coming through town to take a tour past the college and BARC to the sea ice

Mushing in between the houses and down the roads, notice how the houses are all on stilts? Its to keep the permafrost on the tundra from melting due to the heat of the home.

The whole team, 16 dogs in all.

The whole team, 16 dogs in all.

This rowdy little shit (and one of my favorites) still doesn't know her Jii from her Ha and gets the whole team tangled all the time

This rowdy little shit (and one of my favorites) still doesn’t know her Jii from her Ha and gets the whole team tangled all the time

I love that sled dogs are not your typical huskies that come to mind for most people, they are mutts, bred for speed, endurance, agility. I would love to build a team of Barrow dogs for sledding someday, none sturdier than these dogs. You can bet they are fast too, I know, its part of my job to catch them when they’re running loose!

Sleds eye view on the sea ice

Sleds eye view on the sea ice


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In all its beauty and it wonder, sounds like some sort of documentary starter here, seriously though, Alaska is a beautiful place.

Buuut, it has its problems too, and they aren’t small ones, Alaska has the highest suicide rate among teenagers than any other state in the country, high depression, incarceration, alcoholism, behavioral health problems, insane cost of living. Hard to think of all that in a place where just saying the name brings up images of pristine wilderness. Truth is, its a lovely front, as with any relationship, you never know what goes on behind closed doors until you’re the one that’s in the relationship. That is what I have discovered about my relationship with Alaska, its a completely different person behind closed doors. Oh, and it’s a pretty big place too, the culture varies from area to area, just like whole separate states. In fact Alaska is so big you could fit Texas, California, and Montana in it.alaskasize One of the things that gets you is the light cycle, believe it or not, the highest depression and suicide rates on the North Slope occur at the onset of the never ending daylight. The first three weeks, they say. Really though, it’s pretty much light out all the time now, even when the sun is below the horizon, it doesn’t get dark. So sunset at 11:07 pm means nothing to me accuweather, thank you very much. I didn’t mind the dark so much, or the cold, but the light, its a killer, literally.

foodprices

The good ol’ AC (Alaska Commerical Company), the heavier something is the more it costs, we don’t buy juice like this anymore, too expensive.

The food, the prices here in Barrow are the worst, milk cashing in at $10.00/gallon. I bought strawberries the other day, $7.99/lb, I could have bought a cantaloupe for the screaming deal of $9.98. Gone are the days of running into the grocery store every night. We order dry goods in bulk and have them cargo shipped here. Thank goodness we are living in itinerant quarters, we spend so much just to eat healthy here.

The processed foods are the cheapest in town and most convenient, especially if things like running water, even power are an issue. Obesity, dental disease, and diabetes are the hallmark medical conditions of the Slope. This town runs off of Coke, Cheetos and Marb Reds. I don’t want to be here on the day they run out of Coke, Cheetos and Marb Reds.

In 2012, Anchorage was rated the 2nd most dangerous city for women in the country. The crime rates here can be obscene, in all parts of the state. The state has a 15% Native population, Barrow is actually about 65% and the North Slope as a whole a bit larger than that. Unfortunately, violent crime, substance abuse and suicide are about 3 times higher in the Native community than that of any other racial group. This is not to say that the other racial groups within those communities do not also contribute. I think like minds will flock together regardless of race, and in these tiny, rural communities, it takes a special couple of kinds of people to get by and all figure out a way to survive, whether its positive or negative. I watched a play called WinterBear last week written about the struggles facing the Native community, it was pretty moving. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=khQ5s7sFFdA

The isolation in itself can have pretty detrimental effects on people, in turn causing people to do things they wouldn’t normally do. There are many social services that are unavailable to support the people in the tiny isolated villages throughout the state and in turn the people of those communities may not have access to care they need. Even my health insurance helps foot the bill for off-slope medical care, that’s how limited the services are here.   Many homes still have water delivery, some don’t even have running water, which means HoneyBuckets, and in arctic terms, that means a 5 gallon bucket with a plastic bag in it.

Strong enough to hold 250lbs!

Strong enough to hold 250lbs!

Some villages don’t even have grocery stores, relying on Bush Mailer orders delivered by bush planes. No paved roads in many places, much of the state is accessible by air only, some places can be connected by a dangerous ice road in the winter. I want to drive that road before I leave this state.  Certainly no fast food, internet that invokes memories of 9th grade, having to wait until my parents were off the phone to dial up, no stoplights, the road is shared by snow machines and atv’s of all varieties. There is even a delay in the phones when I talk on the phone, emphasizing even more how far off the beaten path I am.

alaskaVillageDump

Sampling from an Alaska Village Dump for possible toxins leaching into ground water.

There’s not even recycling in Barrow!  In fact, waste in general is a huge problem in many of the villages, check out The Alaska Water and Sewer Challenge. It drives me nuts to throw away everything, there are dumpsters about every 20 feet along the roads and its free! Somehow, I still have to look at a pile of garbage that is accumulating between my building and my neighbors. (I don’t think it’s the drunk one that I have to occasionally assist in calling a cab) I’m pretty sure who it is, the dirty diapers are a pretty good clue.

This place is rough, all of it, and in a way that’s what makes it so beautiful. The people are rough, the weather is rough, the terrain is rough. For some reason though, once Alaska has you, it has you for life, and you’ll always come  back.


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Isolated

Some of the more beautiful moments in Barrow:

Chronic loose dog offender and general tyrant of Barrow. Classified as a nuisance, this monster is one of my favorites in town, I have never seen such a happy, stinky, obnoxious, pain in the ass animal, and I love everything about him. Especially when he breaks loose and takes off, tongue lolling, like he planned the whole thing, down the street after the school bus while the kids cheer him on.

Loose dogs are a chronic and sometimes dangerous problem in town, but there is this one group of dogs, a failed sled dog team, that brings joy to my heart every time I see them. These dogs are giant and full of life, but I’ll be damned if they don’t look like wolves running through town. They aren’t the ones to worry about though, it’s the ‘Barrow’ breed that is the real danger. These dogs are the typical street dogs you think of that run in packs and there is no discernible dominant breed, except some type of husky/lab/shepherd/pitbull/border collie/thing, and they are tough as nails.

Sea Ice

I don’t like walking on the sea ice, it creeks and cracks, its quiet and eerie, but when the wind whips across it unabated it howls so loudly that you can’t think.  Polar bears come to shore this time of year and the white of the ice and snow and the sun make it so hard to see, its truly a dangerous thing to walk the ice. Yet, I can’t resist the unnatural blues and teals that the ocean produces, makes it look like candy.

The kids don’t float sign. The sign is so morbid in front of such a beautiful scene. I didn’t even notice the sign said ‘kids don’t float’ until we lived here for about 4 months.

Maybe I didn’t notice, because for 8 months out of the year, the sign is posted up in front a giant shelf of ice that would support a stadium of trucks that stretches for 10 miles, the other 4 months it serves as a tiny boat launch for the whalers.

Sunset over the Arctic Ocean. This picture was taken just a week before the sundog over the gas station, which you can see to the right in this one. I can’t believe how quickly the sun dances change across the sky here.

The Graveyard at Sunrise. All the crosses are wooden and not built to last, but this one of the most beautiful and heartfelt graveyards I have ever been in.

Sundoggin' over the gas station, just after sunset.

Sundoggin’ over the gas station, just after sunset.

11:00 pm Sunset

11:00 pm Sunset

The Satellite Dishes. This field of wonders is just across the trail from the graveyard. This place is one of my favorites in the town.

The Satellite Dishes. This field of wonders is just across the trail from the graveyard. This place is one of my favorites in the town.

Beauty in the strangest of places, but I am worried I am going to blowout something in my camera or blind myself. I can’t believe how much more furious the sun seems here, you almost need a welders mask just to be outside, and try to go out without something over your eyes? Be prepared to see stars for about 3 hours if you’re lucky, usually it ends with a blinding migraine and bumping into countless walls, muttering, I can’t believe I did that again, I miss the dark!

Polar Bear Paw At Point Barrow on the edge of the Chukchi

Polar Bear Paw
At Point Barrow on the edge of the Chukchi

Polar Bear outside football field

Polar Bear outside football field

The football field is a a little ways outside the main part of town near the college, the polar bears rarely make it too far into town except along the edge of the ocean, lucky for me, my window in my office looks right out across the sea ice.

Aurora Borealis at deserted village outside of Barrow

Aurora Borealis at deserted village outside of Barrow

Over the winter, I saw many auroras, this one was the only picture. The legends for children say that these are the elders and when you see them the are reaching down to grab naughty children and carry them into the sky. I can see why it would look like hands in the sky, I didn’t realize how fast they move and shimmer, but I think its sad that a lot of kids are now afraid of these beautiful things now.


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About the author and the adventure

Blogging 101: Why am I here?

Well, honestly I just graduated and took my board exams and now I have a lot more free time. I’ve never publicly written, but after I decided to move to Barrow, Alaska, many people told me I should write a blog about my adventures, I never started that up, until now. I’ve lived in Barrow AK for seven months now and I feel I have acquired enough adventures and experience to be able to share what it is like living 350 miles above the Arctic Circle, however I write not just about Barrow but all of Alaska, because whether I like it or not, this state is my home and has been from the time I was born.

I wasn’t born in Alaska, I was born in Virginia, my father in the Coast Guard, we moved to Kodiak just 3 days after I was born, we lived there for 2 years until my parents split up and my father re-stationed in Mobile, Alabama.  My mother ran off with another Coastie to Vermont and took me with. I lived in Vermont for about 13 years before I was shipped off to my father who now resided in Washington state, he had bought a home in a little town called Hansville. It was there at 15 years old that I met my (ex) husband, he was my neighbor, I remember clear as a bell the day he chased me down to the beach on his bike while I was walking my dog, I remember what he was wearing, the color of his bike, what I was wearing. Little did I know, that 8 years later I would be married to this awkward freckle faced red head and making a very fast move to Wasilla, Alaska.

I didn’t last in Wasilla, I hated it, I wasn’t ready to come back to Alaska, we had moved here with no plan, no money, and were living with his parents. I didn’t leave him when I left, I left the state, I guess he didn’t see it the same way and asked for a divorce, but I was the one that ended up filing the papers and going through with it.

By this time I had established myself as a Vet Tech by trade and went back to work in Washington, I shortly after became pregnant with my son (while still married-what a mess) my sons father and I are still together. We moved from rural Kitsap County to Seattle where I began work at a holistic clinic and began going back to school. I loved that clinic, I learned so very much from them, but as I continued on with my education I felt I needed more, I began a soap business, an amateur chemist mentored by a wonderful professor. Just as I was about to really get the business going and profiting, fate stepped in and told me that it wasn’t time for me to settle in to a venture in Washington.

I came across a position on the North Slope for a Vet Tech, looking by pure chance because my boyfriend, had on a whim decided he wanted to try his hand at commercial fishing, so I decided to look for work in Alaska too. Funny thing is, my job panned out, his didn’t, and here we are in Barrow, where the closest tree is about 400 miles away, did I mention my boyfriend is an arborist? I am lucky to have found someone that is willing to follow me to the edge of the earth, whether we make it through the journey is another matter, but you only live once and I wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity for the adventure of a lifetime, and nothing was going to stop that, even if it meant the end of a relationship.

I hope to share a piece of Alaska that not many people get to see, I want people to gain a greater understanding of the strong cultural, socioeconomic, and general lifestyle of the North Slope, it is unlike any other and although pictures and stories don’t do it justice, its a start. While these stories will mostly be about life on The Slope, I will also talk of my lifetime of experiences that brought me here, along with my journey through the world of Veterinary medicine, I might even throw in an occasional soaping tutorial and recipe, and who knows, I may even get the opportunity to make some awesome soap out of the unique fats and oils you can only find in the arctic, whale blubber soap anyone?


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Adaptation

Spring is coming into full swing here in Barrow, it consistently hovers around zero degrees or higher, the sun is back and if I hold still and face it, I think I might actually feel some warmth. In just a few more weeks whaling season begins. Puiraagiaqta, the Spring Festival is happening right now, a celebration of the turn of the seasons, which means hunting season is here. There is an unusual list of events that composes Puiraagiaqta, at least unusual by lower 48 standards. This list includes: snow machine races, whaling crew pinochle, harpoon throwing, a maklak race, nigliq (goose) calling contest, akutuq (eskimo ice cream)contest, umiaq (seal skin boat) race and of course a parade. All pretty foreign to me, but we are getting used to it, the parade was interesting, not really a parade but a train of the utility vehicles, and firetrucks decorated and throwing candy (I think mostly everyone goes for the candy)Barrow Utilities Truck

Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation, really the only float of the whole parade,the company owns most of the town, so makes sense.

Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation, really the only float of the whole parade,the company owns most of the town, so makes sense.

Barrow Fire Department

Since when do people bring bags to parades for candy? I think my son got more candy here than on Halloween!

Since when do people bring bags to parades for candy? I think my son got more candy here than on Halloween!

Kids and adults battled over the free candy, I think that's why everyone goes to anything here, free stuff.

Kids and adults battled over the free candy, I think that’s why everyone goes to anything here, free stuff.

I have amazed myself in how drastically I have changed in my opinions in certain areas since moving here, whaling and hunting happen to be one of those areas. Whaling is a substantial part of the Inupiat culture and I knew about that before excepting my job on the North Slope, I did my research before coming here.

 

I still maintain that it was quite a bit of fate that got me back into Alaska in the first place,  I had never considered coming back here after I left a few years back. Although, I must admit I have often thought of what would have happened if I had stayed, I might still be married. My ex didn’t get very far outside of where I left him in Wasilla, in fact, he’s only about 10 minutes away from the house that I lived in with him, I’ve moved a lot further in the time since we have split, and maybe even grown a bit more, yet now I am even closer to him, I’ve seen him twice already in 2 months and talked more sincerly to him than I think we probably did that last year we had together. Although, I have to say, if I had stayed I probably would not have experienced Alaska quite like this, but I will always wonder what if. I’m not quite sure why I’m back here yet, but everything happens for a reason right? Granted for some, those reasons are often the result of bad decision making skills and poor choices, I would like to think myself above that though.

 

Whaling, something that one hears about as a kid, but no one ever thinks they will see, stories of times past, back when whale blubber was still used to power lamps and make perfume. Turns out in certain places whaling is still alive and well, part of a cultural and subsistence lifestyle, the North Slope is one of those places, the whale of choice is bowhead, but belugas are hunted as well, along with the other notorious arctic sea mammals, walrus, ringed seal, spotted seal, I suppose even the polar bear is considered an arctic sea mammal in way and it is not spared from hunting either. Its something I had to come to terms with before moving here, the hunting, the furs, the way of life. I needed to be sure that was something I wanted to experience and that I was okay with my son experiencing as well. So where else does someone go when the want to learn? Why, YouTube and Google, of course!

I googled for hours and what I found was gory, somewhat brutal and amazing. I was amazed with how much the children are present and allowed to participate in the rendering of the whale. It is quite a sight to watch a 35 ton animal be dismantled, I say dismantled, because butchering just doesn’t cut it when taking apart an animal that is larger than a school bus. Its quite a blood bath, this business, the blood pours from wounds like rivers, melting away the snow and ice underneath, creating giant blood puddles.

Blood puddles are starting to form

Blood puddles are starting to form

Even the heavy machinery gets involved, I'm pretty sure they didn't use forklifts back in theday

Even the heavy machinery gets involved, I’m pretty sure they didn’t use forklifts back in the day

The children are allowed to play on the whale like a giant community playground, I wonder if they realize they are playing on carcass? I had wondered as I watched the videos. It is a giant celebration, the take down of these beautiful marine mammals, the animal is rendered fast as lightening, I’m definitely impressed with how quickly the animals are rationed out to the members of the community, intended as subsistence food until the next season permits more hunting. (Food at the store is so expensive in Barrow, many people still rely on subsistence food for their main source of nutrients.) I watched these videos with mixed horror and fascination, trying to picture myself there, I wonder if I have to eat any if its offered? Would it be disrespectful if I refused? What does it taste like? Does it smell? My mother had told me that everyone that lives in these communities smells a bit of whale, what does that smell like? I wondered if what my mother said was true, does everything smell of whale? My mom has a way of embellishing her strong, often slightly skewed views on other cultures, so it must be taken with a grain of salt. Do I want my son to be a part of this, is this what I want him seeing in his most formative years? I wasn’t really sure that it would be appropriate, so much death, maybe not so much, but such a large animal makes it seem like more death.

Turns out whaling is quite a different experience than I thought it would be, its exciting, the whole community is alive with activity. There is a lot more to this process than meets the eye, the preparation, if anything, is amazing in itself. The women stretch and prepare the umiaq’s for hunting, special explosive harpoons are prepped months ahead of time, much work goes into the process. I was privileged enough to attend this past falls whale hunt, and I brought my son. I think it was good for him, I let him play on the whale with the other kids, sliding down the body like a regular slip-and-slide, the blood and guts didn’t even phase him, and to my surprise, it didn’t phase me either.

Kids playing on bowhead whale, the baleen sticking out of the mouth like a fan

Kids playing on bowhead whale, the baleen sticking out of the mouth like a fan

It seemed like the whole town was there It was a natural thing, to be there, I tasted maktak (boiled whale blubber and skin) it wasn’t terrible although I picked gray bits of skin from between my teeth for days after, it smelled and tasted of fish. The smell is interesting, a mix of metallic blood, fish and fat all in one. Much of the whale is partitioned out to the elders and some sent to the smaller villages to help people get through the season, many of the villages don’t have grocery stores and the only access to them is by bush plane.

Giant gaff like hooks are used to drag the huge strips of blubber

Giant gaff like hooks are used to drag the huge strips of blubber

I now see why there is still a need for hunting like this here, but maybe not to the extent that it is practiced. One thing I have seen, which I wish was different, is the amount of whale that has gone to waste, I often see it sitting next to dumpsters, smelling and rotting, or just discarded in a box on the side of the dirt roads, I think that is unfortunate, much of the animal goes to waste in that sense. I very much worry about how this place will look and smell when it finally thaws out, its enough to see the meat sitting outside the dumpsters, along with blood and scraps of bone and skin, but at least its cold and it doesn’t smell too awful, yet.

I am looking forward to the celebration of the spring whaling season, it is exciting if anything else, I don’t relish the thought of the death of whales, but the way it brings the community together here is amazing and a sight to see in itself. It is yet again, like most things in the arctic, one of those things that seems unbelievable and something that you wouldn’t agree with in normal circumstances, but things change, your view points change, you adapt, and that is exactly what I’ve started to do because this place is a whole different world.


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100% fatal, everytime

I decapitated an animal today. Before this gets too much stranger, I will explain why a dogs head had to be taken off and  packaged for shipment in a cardboard box:Rabies Virus Rabies virus is a 100% fatal, 100% preventable disease, it is a zoonotic disease; meaning it is infectious across various species, in the case of rabies, all mammals. It is transmitted through a vector animal (main source of disease in area) via saliva; ie. a bite.  The virus attacks the central nervous system, symptoms of rabies include: hydrophobia, muscle fasiculations, hyper salivation, aggression, self-mutilation, anorexia, paralysis, coma, and death. There is only one way to confirm a rabies infection, and the patient being tested will not ever know the test results. In order to test for the virus, the brain matter must be tested, thus the reason for having to decapitate a dog today. The one good thing about this virus-its preventable.

Rabies is not uncommon on the North Slope, the main vector is the arctic fox, one of the most beautiful, sturdy little animals you could ever have the chance to see. As of lately though, the red fox has been making its way north and has been found to also be a source of exposure to the virus.Global warming at its finest. Dogs are most often tied up outside year round, the fox will come into town when food is short on the tundra, they will fight with the dogs. If there is a litter of puppies exposed, they may go after them. Due to the increased chance of exposure to the bug, the borough requires that rabies vaccines be given annually to pets rather than the traditional three year requirement of most states. As a service to the community, these vaccines are offered at no charge, provided by the state. In some of the villages, Veterinarians, Animal Control Officers, the Army, Coast Guard, will go door to door twice yearly offering vaccines to try to prevent the spread of the disease to pets and possibly humans. There is little, if no reason at all to not routinely vaccinate your pet here on the slope, the consequences of not doing so could truly be fatal for a loved member of your family, even to you. (It should be noted that there have only been 3 confirmed human cases of rabies caused death in Alaska, the last one in 1943, this could be due to the fact that most people when bitten by a wild animal will seek medical treatment and will get post-exposure prophylactic treatment.)

My point is, we as a society have forgotten what it is like to face a disease epidemic. We have become complacent in giving our children too many vaccines for fear of them potentially causing autism, relying on ‘herd immunity’ to protect them. Herd immunity only works if the herd has immunity, this means either exposure to the virus and survival of the disease process, something called natural acquired immunity, or vaccination, artificial acquired immunity. Either way the body is protected against contracting and spreading these viruses through vaccination. True there are individuals, animals as well, that have specific allergies to vaccines, and maybe not to the vaccine, but the preservative, or additives in it, those individuals do have to rely on herd immunity, and the herd should be able to protect.

Vaccination isn’t there just to protect yourself or your own child, your pet, but also a community. Is it fair to expose a child to an infectious disease like Rabies? I think everyone agrees that’s a big fat no, why shouldn’t it be the same with other infectious diseases easily prevented by vaccination. Measles, mumps, polio, rubella, all have vaccines for them and all are very dangerous viruses, yet parents are willing to forgo the vaccine and risk the chance of their child being exposed to one of these bugs all for the big MAYBE, that might be autism induced by vaccination. Not only are parents taking that risk for their children, but potentially other children and members of the community. It’s easy to think that a vaccine isn’t needed until your child is exposed to a virus that could be fatal. Vaccination Statistics I have looked at a fatal virus as it has consumed another life, I have had to tell people they cannot have their dog back because of a disease that is preventable by vaccination, everyone exposed will have to go through a very expensive, grueling medical protocol on the chance that they may have contracted the virus. I have seen the light go back on in some of these people, the realization that their actions, or lack of; by not following vaccine protocol instilled to protect, have consequences, potentially lethal consequences. I certainly hope that this is not the way that people realize that it the benefits far outweigh the possible side effects of vaccination. I believe in vaccinating my child, I believe in vaccinating my animals. I believe that I am better protecting my son, my pets and my community by inoculating them against deadly diseases. Cut off a few heads, and you just might too.


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Back to Civilization

Edge of the Arctic Ocean When you leave civilization for an extended period of time and then return, albeit even to a small civilization like Anchorage,  it can be overwhelmingly stressful. The noises, the lights, the crowds, paved roads, reall grocery stores, malls, I didn’t realize returning, just for a short trip would be so hard. I worry about when my family moves permanently out of Barrow, I worry that we have already become “Sloped” as they (we) call it.

Coming to Anchorage after almost seven months on the North Slope, aside from a brief stint for the Iditarod, was not as refreshing and exciting as I thought it would be. I was excited to eat at a real restaurant, even excited to eat at a McDonalds, be able to drive a car on a paved road, shop at a regular store and not pay $12.00 for a gallon of milk. What I forgot about in cities are the bums, the homeless, the potholes, the crowds, the unnecessary excess, the whole idea of keeping up with the Joneses. I suppose added to the stress of that was meeting with the University,  having multiple interviews, taking my board exams, and seeing my ex husband after six long years.

It was hard, seeing him, that sticks out more in my mind than anything from this trip, a bigger point than successfully passing my board exams and nailing my interviews.  I drove to Wasilla, he showed me his new home, gave me a tour even, showed me the bedrooms, his man cave, his cars, inviting me into his life. All of the things he and his new wife had acquired, a stay-at-home mom, she’s younger than me, he’s ironically, an oil boy and has also worked on the slope. He made very good money, yet another drawn by the lure of the high pay of the slope, until he blew out his knee, since then he has been collecting a very generous workman’s comp, home with his kids every day. I envy the time he gets to spend with his little ones, I feel like I have sacrificed so much time with my son for my career, I regret that. 

All I needed from him was an affidavit from our divorce, the divorce he had wanted, but that I had filed for. He looked like he had it all together, at the same time, he seemed so discontented, unsettled, a very unhappy marriage,  he confides in me his woes with his life. It as if no time has passed at all as words flow between us as they always have, with an ease that is pure and simple. He tells me things I am quite sure no one else knows, nor does he want people to know. I realized how much I miss talking to him, we have been friends since we were 14 yrs old, we are both almost 30 now, I tell him I am worried about him, he says he’s fine. We linger with each other for a bit, stretching out the time, not quite ready to say goodbye again, we both realize we never got closure with each other after I left Alaska the first time.

 

He pulls out his wallet, rifles through it for a bit, brings out a very worn photo, he hands it to me,

saying “I’ve kept this for this entire time we’ve been apart, I want you to have it.” I look down at the photo, it is a picture of our dog (the dog he got for me from a friend of ours, the dog I still have and adore second only to my son) as a puppy, I am shocked he saved it, said dog is 8 yrs old now, I guess we meant more to him than he let on.

 

The Dog

The Dog

 I

feel for him, he is still lost, I hate seeing him so broken, a shell of the person I married, I tell him he can always call me if he needs anything. I know he won’t, too proud to admit he might need help from me. For that I am grateful though, I have my own troubles and life.

 

 He tells me before I go to call him the next time I am in town, even going so far as to ask when that might be. I don’t really know when that might be honestly, maybe in a few months…I want to go to Kodiak with my father to find my first childhood home.

 

I am ready to go back to Barrow, it is my home, its too hot here, too crowded, I feel lost here, unimportant. I miss my tiny apartment, my son, my boyfriend, my dog, I have my place in Barrow, as tiny, isolated, simple and lonely as it is, I like going to the only grocery store in town and having it take 2 hours, not because of traffic but because you know everyone you see there.
 

I miss the Inupiaq faces, I miss hearing snow machines roaring by at 3 am, I feel safe wandering the streets at any time there, even if I am accosted by my drunk neighbor on a regular basis and have to walk him across the street for my boyfriend (who works at the grocery store where I bring said drunk neighbor) to call a cab because he can’t even stand up. Its okay though because I know him, his father, brother, sister, aaka, and aapa. I don’t feel safe in the city, afraid to go out alone past dark. The drunks out that late there are not my neighbors and I’m betting they don’t maintain close family contacts that I would have a chance of running into, coming to the city has made me realize that the bush is my home.
 

My grandmother had laughed when I announced where we were moving,  you know those Eskimos use cardboard boxes for luggage right? I didn’t think she was serious, turns out its not just cardboard boxes, its coolers, totes and action packers too. I welcome the sight of all of it at the airport when I arrive, I welcome seeing my sons teachers on the flight with me, I love seeing a flight full of everyone from my town, I know the names of 80% of the people in the terminal with me. I even enjoy watching the unregulated native children running up and down between gates, parents lost somewhere at the airport bar making sure they get their last drink (or six) in before going back to the slope where alcohol is not sold. 

You know you are home when you land at the airport with a dead phone, no cash for a cab and no plan for a ride and somehow still manage to get home within 15 minutes of arriving, because three different people waiting to pick up others know you and offer a ride to you, it’s still -13 F after all. I am home and I am content with my isolated, lonely, simple life.

Home Sweet Home

Home Sweet Home