Working In the Arctic

Today’s Location: Barrow, Alaska
Temperature: 7 degrees
Sunrise/Sunset: 10:48am/3:33pm (4:45 minutes of daylight today!)
Listening to: Mumford & Sons Pandora Radio
Success of the Day: Ran 2 miles this morning under the stars of the Arctic, and no one hit me! Yay for ice cleats and head lamps!

1454637_327971007342589_490307271_nEvery few months, I find myself on the Top of the World for my job… aka Barrow, Alaska. If you’ve never been here, its worth the venture. Personally, I’m a mountains and valley girl, so this tundra and frozen-ocean-half-the-year kind of stuff has convinced me throughout my travels here that I may not prefer to live here. However, I have loved my work here, and the culture here. The change of pace (that somehow, is slower than Fairbanks!) becomes an eye opener and once you get used to it, a break away from your everyday run around. In other words, its refreshing! Well, at least for the first couple of days…

My boyfriend continues to remind me that this isn’t a village though, which it really isn’t. Villages in Alaska are small, with 100-500 people in them. Barrow, Alaska is a hub community in Alaska of roughly 5,000 people complete with a police department, schools, a (brand new) hospital, fire department, hotels, restaurants, and a fairly new recreational center that is currently being expanded. Things and people come into Barrow and then go out to one of the outlying 7 villages (hence the term “hub”) on the North Slope. There are daily flights in and out on commercial airlines, some of which have to go through Deadhorse first (many know Deadhorse’s fame from “Ice Road Truckers.”)

Barrow is literally the Top of the World, the northern most town in the Nation, way above the Arctic Circle and with more dark in the winter and light in the summer than the rest of Alaska. Parts of the year, you can watch the sun rise and set in the same spot right along the horizon within moments of one another. It is 1,300 miles south of the North Pole (the real one, not the town outside of Fairbanks) and 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Oddly enough, residents here have said we come from the cold place (aka Fairbanks) because of our record -60 temps in the dead of the winter, however the wind here will chill you to the bone and we don’t have anything like that in Fairbanks. It reminds you that weather is a matter of perspective.

So, you must be asking yourself, “Can you drive to Barrow?” The answer is NO. Well, sort of yes, but mostly no. Some residents will get vehicles here from Fairbanks in the Spring, on the ice road during the one month gap when its safe to do so, in the years its safe to do so. But really, no, you can’t drive here. Barrow is off the Alaska road system. Which makes everything meow expensive and it makes amazon.com with free shipping even more awesome. There are a surprising amount of restaurants here, and with the cost of groceries, sometimes I think it would be cheaper to just eat out all the time if you lived here. Every restaurant serves every kind of food, which I used to find odd, but I really don’t anymore. There isn’t much I find odd anymore. When it comes to food as an occasional traveler here, I’ve learned to pack groceries and bring them here.

Pack groceries? That sounds crazy, right? Well, Alaskans get 3 free checked bags when we fly. Alaska Airlines knows how it is in rural Alaska, and when those from rural Alaska travel to Fairbanks, Anchorage or outside (aka the Lower 48), they will take empty tubs to fill up and fly back. Why? Because Sam’s Club and Costco are a blessing of cheaper goods! A gallon of milk in Barrow is $10+, fresh fruit is sparse and expensive, most things are 2-3 times the price they are in Fairbanks, and things in Fairbanks are more expensive than they are in Anchorage, and things in Anchorage are more expensive than they are in the lower 48. SO, if you live in the lower 48, I can only imagine what your jaw would look like if you went into the grocery store in Barrow! What a site! Well, when I say grocery store, I actually just mean “the store” aka AC.

The craziest thing I’ve seen someone bring back to Barrow or to a village: McDonald’s. LOTS of McDonald’s. There are no fast food or chain restaurants here, obviously. I hate the smell of McDonald’s, so I always hope that person isn’t in my row on the plane, but I understand it. One resident here told me they went to McDonald’s and asked them for a bag of frozen fries to take home. Yesterday, I discovered from a friend living here that if you call Papa Murphy’s in Anchorage early enough and order pizza, it will be delivered – via plane. WHAT?! That seems like quite an advancement to me.

The time lapse known as Barrow. I have certainly learned that when you have an appointment set with someone here, you should be on time, but really, no one will notice if you are late. Everyone is on “Barrow time” which is essentially 10-15 minutes later than “Fairbanks time.” All of these are commonly known as “Alaska time.” it is also our excellent excuse for being late anywhere, forgetting to return phone calls, changing appointments and meetings around, and that is why – this one is to my dear family and friends – birthday cards and presents are always late to arrive to the East Coast. I could blame the Post Office but lets face it, with flat rate boxes, stuff gets around pretty quickly nowadays. (On that note, USPS DOES still lose mail… quite often – insurance is your friend). But I digress! Barrow time can be a wonderful thing, if you are running a few minutes late to something or  if you feel the need to go with the flow and not set a schedule for your trip, which is what often happens. What comes along with that is you are always available, and you can and will be hunted down wherever you are in this small town when you are needed by someone. It also means when someone sets an appointment with you, they may likely forget, or show up on Barrow time. Its all part of the Barrow working flow. I have enjoyed being in a random place, like a restaurant or agency, where you think no one knows where you are, and someone will call and ask for you. You think I’m kidding, but it’s happened to my co-worker – numerous times. You cannot hide in a small place. NOPE. But it’s all part of the fun. Your days are filled with … well, you really don’t know what they’ll be filled with, but you’ll figure it out as it comes.

Transportation is another fun adventure. OH the taxi ride stories me and co-workers have. We once rented a car. That was the worst thing we could have done. For one, it was the middle of the winter, and cold enough to be plugging in cars. The plug they gave us didn’t gave a light to tell us it was plugged in and working, like most do. So we plugged it in, and asked the hotel worker about the plug. He said it was probably working if it was plugged in, but we knew if it wasn’t that the car wouldn’t start in the morning. Well, we parked the car and I got out. My co-worker was still in the driver’s seat. I plugged in the car, and SPARK! Well, I didn’t get shocked, but the spark about blinded me. We hoped it worked, which thankfully it did. That same trip, we discovered that no one actually uses the road names to get anywhere. No two houses or buildings have the same number, so if someone gives you an address, they literally tell you a number – no street name. Google maps gives you correct directions to NOWHERE here, and after getting lost several times, never sure if the car was plugged in or would shock me, and the joys of trying to drive among the other drivers in Barrow (and we thought Fairbanks was “fun” in the winter to drive around), we decided never to rent a car here again. Transport via taxi it was! It’s been much easier to get around since then, but the adventures have not stopped.

The adventures of Barrow cannot be contained in one post. I think back over all of my time spent here, and wonder why I haven’t had a blog dedicated just to my Arctic adventures! You learn so much about yourself by working in remote places of the world (or just this state, for that matter) and you certainly become humbled in many ways. Not to mention, you go home with a new appreciation of all of the amenities you have and remember that there is so much that you can live without if you have to!

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More to come on adventures working the Arctic!
Stay Tuned for: Running Adventures in the Arctic!

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