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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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…