Sloped

Adventure and Life in the Arctic


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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


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The Big Decision

I don’t regret moving to Barrow, on the edge of the arctic ocean, over 300 miles above the arctic circle, a town with no paved road or stops lights, I really don’t. However, it has been the most challenging thing I have ever faced in my life. More so than rotating between four different high schools back and forth across the country, more than being homeless at 17, more than hiding my marriage at 21 and then having said marriage fail two years later after my first move back to Alaska. More than becoming pregnant after having only dated my boyfriend for three months, while still waiting for my divorce to finalize. Even all of those things combined pale in comparison to the world of bush Alaska.

I applied for the open position in Barrow more or less on a whim, my boyfriend had said he wanted to commercial fish in Alaska, and I thought, why not? I’ll look for work there too. What I didn’t think would happen was that his job offer would fall through and mine wouldn’t,  but that is what happened. I got the call at my sons swim practice, I had beat out all the other applicants for a position on the North Slope, they would pay to move my family there, offer housing for free until something opened up for us to rent (on the application in big, bold, bright red letters it said housing shortage in Barrow), the best health insurance in the nation, a huge increase in salary, travel and work in very remote locations, an adventurers dream, sounds pretty great right?

Until you look at the fine print it is pretty wonderful, but Barrow is a land of isolation, desolation, lost hope, broken dreams and broken people. The culture is strongly touted as a strength to the community and the Inupiat people are eager to display their heritage. The town is ‘damp’ yet overrun with drunks, the people are racist, unwelcoming, self entitled, and just plain rude, not all are like that, but most are. The children play in the streets at all hours, stray dogs form dangerous packs, subsistence food rots by dumpsters, a glorified tradition that causes a lot of waste. People move here because they are running away from something or they don’t want to be found, nothing in the world can prepare you for that. No amount of research or studying can give you any sense of what the slope is really like. The stories you hear, you can never really believe because they just sound so outrageous, but the stories are true.

The odd light cycle and the extreme cold are easy compared to the other issues of the slope, the darkness in the winter hides the filth and garbage that cover the streets. The blackness is almost welcoming and enveloping, when the sun comes back it is like a fury, coming in fast and blinding, exposing the seedy underbelly that has been hiding all winter long.

No I don’t regret moving to the slope, as much as there is negative, I get to see a part of the world and live in a place where very few can. My son has seen an incredibly unique culture and learned much about acceptance of others, even if he isn’t accepted because of his heritage. We have learned patience, appreciation,  true hardship, true love, despair and hope. I am grateful to have this experience and to continue to have it, it only makes me appreciate the real world that much more.

Winter Sunset

I will say that the arctic has the most amazing sunsets and sunrises I have ever had the privilege to see and the moon appears bigger than anywhere else in the world, and that my friends almost in itself makes it worth it. I just hope that while we are here we can make a difference in some lives…