Adventure and Life in the Arctic

Village Trips and Piloting Bush Planes


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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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.


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.

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.


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.



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.


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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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.