"Going all the way to Barrow?" the Alaska Air ticketing agent confirms somewhat incredulously.
"And just one of you traveling today?"
"You're fortunate the flight is leaving as scheduled. It's rather cold there today," she says smiling.
It is 5:30 a.m., and my previous night's slumber had been thwarted in turns by a violently active sleeptalker in the adjacent hostel bunk and my own ruminations about the effect of severe sub-zero chill on exposed skin. But here I am, mentally prepared (daily temperatures in Barrow the prior week had been in the -20°F to -30°F range with clear skies and little wind), adequately clothed (even donning snowboard boots), with a sense of anticipation and excitement as I have not felt in a while. Still, this enthusiasm is marred by the nagging distraction of what "rather cold" means in "Barrow" terms.
Boarding pass in hand, I contemplate the day ahead of me. Barrow, Alaska, is the northernmost town in America at three hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle and is the seat of North Slope Borough - the largest municipality in the world, roughly the size of Minnesota. Barrow's population of around 4,000 is made up primarily of Inupiat Eskimos.
Professionally, the town is a mix of civil servants governing the oil-rich borough and whaling merchants. As part of a week in Alaska snowboarding and sightseeing, I felt compelled to visit this settlement on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. To experience, if only for a day, being on Top of the World.
"What should I do in Barrow?" I ask an impeccably dressed businesswoman who's been there before (but on this flight is disembarking - along with most of the other passengers - at Fairbanks). "Get a cabbie to drive you to the local dump where, if you're lucky, you might see scavenging polar bears," she replies. If that's luck, I'm tossing my four-leaf clover into said dump! I inquire hopefully about other activities and confirm my suspicion about the lack of a thriving tourism industry in Barrow.
"Just walk around," she suggests. How Zen.
About five minutes from landing at Barrow airport, all I see is an infinite blanket of pure white snow. The occasional communications tower is the only blemish. Suddenly, the village appears. A single highway is the predominant civil engineering feature. From this 1,000-foot vantage, the village seems quite conventional - almost familiar. Not an igloo in sight! The only anomaly is the stark white expanse.
It is then that the captain matter-of-factly announces the current weather conditions. -40°F with a wind chill of -95°F!! Rather cold, indeed. Certainly not familiar.
Over the course of the day, I discover just how diabolical a wind chill of -95°F is. It seeks out a path of least resistance in my protective armor (such as a molecular opening in my jacket sleeve or collar), and worms its way into my inner sanctum like an insidious acid vapor. Breath condensation on my eyeglasses becomes more than an annoyance as it freezes instantly and thus cannot be wiped off. Perversely though, amidst this circumstantial blinding, I am not permitted to shut my eyes or even luxuriate in a blinking reflex on account of the little icicles that have formed on my eyelashes! Efforts to document this experience in real time are of course stymied by the ink in my pen freezing up and the camera batteries going into hibernation.
All this helps me realize why there are over 70 words in the Inupiaq language for describing ice.
My first guide for the day is Cruz from Venezuela, a cab driver who, like much of the non-Eskimo population, is here for the high wages. Cab drivers here can earn up to 5x what they would in Los Angeles – though on the flip side, cost of living is 3x the national average.
Other highlights of Cruz's cruise include a memorial erected for Will Rogers and Wiley Post who died when their plane crashed sixteen miles from Barrow during an exploratory 1935 flight; the new Ilisagvik College, where Eskimos receive free tertiary education; several large bowhead whale skull monuments by the roadside; and of course, the dump! Unfortunately, there are no hungry polar bears to be seen today.
Hunger, however, soon strikes closer to home and the obvious choice is.....Mexican! Pepe's North of the Border is possibly the northernmost Mexican restaurant in the world and is a cozy respite run by the affable and eccentric Fran Tate, whose adventures have landed her on The Tonight Show and Good Morning America. Pepe's remains memorable not only for its fortifying enchiladas but also for providing me with one of two functioning pay phones in the entire town.
Somewhat alien and disappointing is the experience of complementing my meal with a cup of tea rather than the customary margarita. This experiment stems not from an inspired culinary statement - it is simply a matter of obeying the law. I already knew Barrow was cold, I now painfully discover it is "dry" as well.
The effects of alcohol intoxication are exaggerated in the case of Inupiats, who tend to possess a genetic predisposition towards lower tolerance. A tragicomic example of a typical "drinking and driving" casualty in Barrow would involve someone leaving a party late at night having over-imbibed and hopping onto his snowmobile to drive the short distance home. Instead, he would become disoriented and make his way speedily out over the Arctic ice pack, eventually beyond the visual cues afforded by Barrow's meager night lights and into a chilling and utterly empty oblivion. The prolonged and inevitably fatal overnight freeze that results then makes the urban version of instantaneous death by sudden impact seem all the more merciful.
For the time, within the womb-like sanctuary of Pepe's, I have been lulled into a state of atmospheric intoxication. Relaxing comfortably beside my mound of temporarily-shed winter wear, penning postcards and gazing outdoors at the chutes of exhaled breath, I savor the lingering bliss of my virtual single-malt. Acutely aware that I could be coaxed into dreamy paralysis all day, I snap myself up and into my waiting mound of warmth. I am determined to "walk around".
The air greets me with a fresh embrace as I emerge but the seduction lasts for about a dozen paces. Evidence of the extreme cold abound. All-terrain vehicles wrapped in veils of frost, vicious five-foot long icicles sculpted off roof edges and high-wattage electrical cables dangling outside every home - to power the auxiliary heaters necessary to externally thaw all car engines before starting.
Most notable, however, is the need to tend to some form of cold-induced discomfort - a momentarily exposed earlobe, a sudden frigid gust through the wind tunnel between my sunglasses and eyes, a frozen stiff upper lip - every two minutes or so. Indeed, more memorable than any of the sights I see during the walk are the physical sensations experienced while simply walking.
Winding my way amidst the numerous boxy homes and cylindrical barrack-like structures, I come upon the Piuraagvik, a gymnasium and recreation center with a modern, geometrically imposing architecture.
Piuraagvik, "the place where we play", is where Barrow's best athletes hone their abilities in the quest for Olympic glory. No, not that commercialized media extravaganza, but the World Eskimo and Indian Olympics. Contestants distinguish themselves in events like "snowsnake," "knuckle hop" and "one-foot high kick". The latter requires the participant to leap upwards, kick a ball hanging above head level with one foot and land on the same foot. The ball height is incrementally raised till a winner is crowned.
I am quietly grateful to reach the intended termination point of my stroll - the Top of the World hotel. Once inside its temperature-controlled lobby, the liquid crystals of my digital watch begin to show some life again, as does my camera light meter. Slumping into the couch watching a Chicago Bulls game on the lounge television, I forget for a while where I am. Until I come face to face with the encased polar bear occupying a prominent corner of the lobby, taunting me with a beguiling cuddliness and seemingly reluctant ferocity. It watches me as I make use of the remaining functioning pay phone in Barrow.
Towards the end of the day, I hire one more cab for a drive out to Point Barrow, at twelve miles northeast of Barrow, the northernmost point of land in North America. Danny, the cab driver, can only drive as far as a sign warning of polar bears before the road ends, several miles from the actual point. Slightly disappointed, I reap the consolation of a picture standing on the frozen Arctic Ocean, a feat possible nine months out of the year here.
The harsh blinding light that has shone throughout the day is now gradually transforming into a soothing sunset of transcendent beauty, untarnished by clouds or landscape features. Even Danny is taken by the natural drama, which heightens daily from henceforth as the sun sets fifteen minutes later everyday. On the morning of May 10th, the sun will rise and not set again till August 2nd.
Richly warm as the sunset may be, it is counterbalanced by a rapidly encroaching night chill. The few people I see walking around are bundled up beneath thick knee-length coats and cavernous hoods. Danny amusingly remarks that at night, behind the coats and hoods, everyone looks identical. A small community where everyone recognizes one another by day becomes a group of faceless zombies by night, with best friends commonly walking past each other unknowingly.
Danny drops me off at the Teriyaki House, where I fill up on salmon and this time a more befitting cup of tea. The night walk I embark on thereafter is significant mainly as a weather endurance test. As the sole pedestrian on the streets, my attention drifts from the lifeless town towards the darkened sky. A deep black sky of alien clarity, punctuated by an incandescent Venus.
Several hours later, I am flying through this sky en route to San Francisco, California - where it is a balmy 80°F - nature's red carpet welcome. Friends and family quiz me about life at the edge of the continent.
"What did you do in Barrow?" they inquire.
More quizzical looks.