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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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.

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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.