Tuesday, December 28, 2010

As many folks do, we headed south for the holidays this winter. When I say this, you may be thinking south as in Margaritaville. Remember where we live; south is just about anywhere away from the Arctic Ocean. We find ourselves in Palmer, AK as the guests of one sister-in-law and brother-in-law. Ironically, we did not journey to warmer weather. In fact, for the first several days in Palmer, the temps were decidedly colder than Barrow (however, the wind was quite calm). We've had an eventful visit with dogs in tow. Even my sister from California joined us. And even though we are miles from our current home in Barrow and our former home in Juneau, Husband still ran into people he knew! First there were the folks at Christmas Eve service who originally hail from this area but lived in Juneau for about 20 years. On Christmas Day we joined several folks at the Community Dinner in Wasilla (mostly to see Husband play in Tuba Christmas). 'Lo and behold, he's sitting next to the father of a fellow musician from Juneau! This is why we always say Alaska is a small town.
Also at the event we spied Bunny boots. Haven't seen these in awhile. Actually, we noted several pair. Thought you'd be interested in them. They are mostly worn these days by oil workers on the North Slope as they are really, really warm when you're standing around. Once you start walking, there is some issue with breathability, so your feet become a bit soggy. Also, there is the fashion conundrum...can you really wear white after Labor Day?
Me and Sister

We've really been out and about the past few days. Yesterday, Husband and Sister and I drove north toward Glennallen, where I lived for a few years in the '90s. We went as far as Eureka summit where we stopped to have lunch. The Eureka Roadhouse was the first roadhouse on the Glenn Highway (according to their sign).  The most memorable point of that venture was the Christmas tree they had in which they had hung antlers...caribou and moose antlers. Don't think I would have thought of that even if I did have a few spares hanging around the house. On our way back to Palmer, we stopped at Long Rifle Lodge for coffee and pie.

At Long Rifle Lodge
Roadhouses, in my experience have the most fabulous pie and/or cinnamon rolls. Since it was the afternoon, there were no rolls, but the pie was all that I expected. Who needs a famous bakery when one can pop into a roadhouse on the highway (provided you are near the highway)?

You know, we don't drive much in Barrow. Really, every place we need to go is no more than about 7 minutes away. So, it's been fun taking long drives. Today we headed toward Mt. McKinley (or Denali as it is known by Alaskans). We had heard the Mountain was "out." We stopped at the Talkeetna Lodge for lunch (another Roadhouse). Husband had the special, "Clog Your Arteries" biscuits and gravy, while I had quiche and sister had a salmon pasty, which was tasty! 
Tip of the Mountain to the left.
If you've spent much time in the area, you know that the Mountain is often covered in clouds. You rarely get a full view of it. Today was an exceptional viewing day. We stopped a few times before noon and got some great pictures. But by 2:00 p.m., the clouds were closing in and the top of the Mountain slowly disappeared. 

 Lastly, I threw this picture in because I took it into the sun at midday. I've been told that is the exact wrong direction to shoot, but I seem to get some amazing results when I go "against the grain." It is just this mindset that epitomizes the spirit of those of us who have adopted Alaska as our home.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Visions of Igloos Danced in My Head

A couple of things I learned today. 1) It appears that standard equipment in everyone's truck is a tow strap or a tow chain. 2) Don't EVER leave your cell phone on the counter when you leave the house. 3) Not ONE person in Barrow will drive by you when you're stuck in a snow drift.

How, you may ask, do I know this? Oh, just guess.

In my defense, I was distracted. You see, I saw this igloo in someone's yard. How cool is that?! It's not as though it's a common sight. And look at the construction! It's really fabulous. Then there are the colored lights that rotate onto it. So, I was thinking, "gee I'll have to get a picture and write about it on the blog' and WHAM! into a huge drift drove I. The drift was right in the middle of the plowed road and it was a biggie. The snow was plowed up to the hood of the car, though there was escape in the rear of vehicle. However, it was clear I couldn't get the car out myself. And...I had left my phone on the kitchen counter. Along came one truck. He got out and looked to see if he could attach his tow chain. Determining that wasn't a good idea, he and his wife offered to drive me home. Beauty of a small town, I just told him who I lived by and he drove me right to my house. Off Husband and I trek to the car to see what we can do. We got to the car to see about pushing it out and along come two other trucks.

Both guys have tow straps. One of the guys just went for it. He figured if we were gentle we'd be okay with hooking the strap to whatever doohickey he found under the car. Just like that, I'm out of the drift and back on my way. Thank-you to all of my fellow Barrow citizens for your help. It is true if we don't help each other we will die. It was -31 (with windchill) during this adventure, by the way. Shortly after my adventure, the plow came by to clear the road.

While I was out doing errands today I was also thinking about all of the things that appeared during this season that I wasn't really expecting. For one thing, folks here take the whole house lighting exercise VERY seriously. In fact, the day after Thanksgiving, the festivities began. It was as though a light went off (heh, heh). This is one of the best examples. Now, think about it. No matter what day they put up these lights it was mighty cold. It hasn't been above 0 in weeks. I get to drive by this house every day and since it's dark most of the time, it is always a cheerful sight.
No one turns their lights off during the day...I mean, why would you? The other big surprise to me was the city lights. This, I really wasn't expecting. You do expect it in big cities, but we are just a small village. How fun when these appeared! Sadly, the biggest disappointment is that the Post Office is still closed on Saturday. You can't even get in the lobby. It's sad because it's holding one of my packages hostage! I ordered in plenty of time, but the vendor delayed shipment and now I can't get to the package even though I know it's in there! So, we'll leave for Anchorage/Palmer tomorrow without it, but the most important things will be with me...Husband, Raven, and McKinley! And we'll get to spend time with Raven and McKinley's aunties and uncle. What more could we ask for?

A Tree Grows in Barrow

For us, decorating for Christmas is a big deal. When we moved here, I had to make a few decisions about what to bring. So, instead of the 8 boxes of Christmas decorations and schwag that we had to work with in Juneau, we have ONE box. It's mostly lights. I'd been told white Christmas lights all winter would provide a cheery aspect to the house during the long days of night. And they do. In fact, Husband came up with a brilliant idea for hanging the lights in the window, making the living room look like a winter wonderland.
Speaking of light.. In light of our lack of light, our friends who live on Bainbridge Island in Washington sent us a little care package that arrived last week. Funniest of all were the directions about growing mushrooms...a whole catalog. Humorous, yet useful as well! Also, two book lights for our reading pleasure. Quite practical as we read in bed frequently and when we fall asleep with bedside lights on, the dogs wake up in the middle of the night and think it's time to get up! So, many thanks for those special and useful items! Also got a couple of books, which are always appreciated as we don't have a bookstore here, though we are frequent flyers at the library.

The best was yet to come, however. One day last week, I mentioned our lack of decorations to one of my co-workers. Turns out a tree had been donated to our office by an organization in town. It was to go to someone "who could use it." Hello! Here's what's funny, though. We have ALWAYS had a freshly cut Christmas tree. We've ALWAYS put candles on our tree and we've had a candle tree lighting party each year. This was an artificial tree and I wasn't quite sure how Husband would react. Turns out, just like any Christmas-loving person would react. We just love having a tree in the house. It's beautiful! It's in great shape and even came with directions for assembly (which were in the bottom of the box, so we didn't find them until after assembly). Just some twinkly lights and our tree (because I didn't think we'd have a tree, so I didn't bring ornaments). It's perfect! The spirit of giving is alive and well in Barrow!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Weather Outside is NOT so Frightful

Today it was almost too warm to wear my very fabulous parka...seriously. This is a scary thought. It was 2℉. You can see why I think this is scary. The unseasonably warm temperature (shocking to say, isn't it?) coupled with little wind made for a very pleasant day...what we see of it, that is. I know you're wondering what it really looks like on these days when the sun doesn't rise. We have a little "daylight," from about 1:00 p.m. -1:10 p.m. Just kidding! We still have about 2 hours before "it's all NIGHT" (in the immortal words of my song).
"Tell me again why I'm wearing clothes, now?"
This picture is taken at the height of the day. The dogs are wearing their arctic clothing, complete with Muttluks. They don't like the Muttluks any better now than they did when we tried them on in Washington, but it can be too cold for their paws without them. The coats have reflective strips which is essential once the daylight leaves us.

I am reveling in the warm weather, because it was a bit chilly this past weekend. It was the first time I've every had my eyelashes coated with frost. It's not the first time I've been in weather like that, it's the first time I had to totally remove my protective eyewear because I couldn't see through the foggy lenses, though!

A not-long-enough visit to Arizona cured the lack of sun blues over Thanksgiving holiday. It takes a good 17 hour day to get to Tucson from here. Our trip started in Barrow at 10:00 a.m. A quick stop in Anchorage to change planes, another stop in Seattle with enough time to get coffee, then on to Phoenix, where we rented a car to drive to Tucson. We got in at about 3:00 a.m. Worth it! The sun was shining brightly in the sky! Who noticed that there was a frost warning the next morning?! Go figure...we go to Arizona and they have a cold snap! It wasn't cold all the time, though and we did get some sun! Enough sun, anyway to make my glasses go dark!
Got to share some blog with Abbie. What fun we had! And check out this house with a million lights! We go by every year. Wonder what his electric bill is? Wonder if he ever lived in Barrow and never got over the 65 days of night?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

There Goes the Sun

The sun set for the last time this year on Nov. 18, 2010. Now most of you probably think that means it's totally dark at this point. Actually, it's not...yet. This morning there was a patch of blue sky with a reflection of what looked quite like sunshine, we just don't see the sun over the horizon. In any case, I came up with a little entertainment for you in honor of this momentous occasion. The sun will rise again on or about Jan. 23, 2011. If you get this via email, the YouTube link is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XsIAseMECBk


Sunday, November 14, 2010

A very, very, very, fine house

Husband and I are two of the nearly 4,000 people who live in Barrow. It's the largest village on the North Slope. Of the 7 other villages, I've spent some time in three of them. Recently, I went to Pt. Hope where the population is about 760. It's the second largest village on the Slope (just to give you some perspective). Though the purpose of the trip was to provide training for two days, we had some time to explore the village, particularly the old village. 
It never ceases to boggle my mind...that folks lived in this climate long before central heating and electricity was the norm. Some folks continued to live the traditional way even when these amenities were available. In the old village in Pt. Hope, you can see examples of some of the sod houses pretty much intact, which is unusual in Barrow. The wood-like frame pieces you see in these pictures are actually whalebones. I'm told a person occupied this house as recently as the 1970s. 
At the Winter Entrance

(From Alaskool.org) These houses had two entrances—one for the summer months and one for the winter months —and a window cover of whale or walrus stomach membrane, generally at the center of the roof. The summer entrance led directly into the house and was covered with sod during the winter. The winter entrance was an underground tunnel that acted as a cold trap—people coming into the house first went down three or four steps into the tunnel (or passageway) and then back up into the house. Sod houses were quite adequate to withstand the cold, harsh climate of western Alaska, but they had no heating system—so people kept warm inside by wearing adequate clothing.  
During the warmer months, water sometimes seeped up from the ground and collected inside the house. The people would say, "The water has blown up," and would dig a hole at the corner of the house so the water could collect there. As long as the houses were occupied, the water would dry up. But if no one was living in the house for a while, a lot of moisture and mildew would develop.
A lot of frost would develop on the ceiling of the house in the winter, as a result of people’s breathing. When the frost build-up became very thick, it was scraped off. In the coldest months of the year, ice bulbs formed on the floor and frost on the ceiling. 

Now let your imagination run wild as you think about living in these structures at -40 F for much of the winter!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Movies Part Deux

Since Husband isn't employed full time, he got to be an extra for the four days the crew was here. It's really a lot of sit around and wait in the movie biz. We did all have a rather eventful day on Saturday, though, when the whole family, Raven, McKinley, me and Husband got to be in the shots together.
Another windy day and cold. Our shot (along with 40+ others) was to walk the street. We were citizens with tools, on our way to save the whale (the movie is about saving a whale). We did this shot numerous times.
We did it with the camera this way several times, then that way several times. Toward the ice, away from the ice. Turn the corner, go straight. Stop, don't stop. Try it with sled dogs, now. You get the picture.
We did get a few breaks here and there, but we didn't get lunch until 3:30 p.m. that day. The only dog team in Barrow was there. While they were out, our dogs had to be inside or in the car. It seems the dog team as a pack is likely to kill a single dog by herself, so we elected to put the girls in the car. Seriously, how did those bad boys get cast, anyway? They also turned out of camera sight twice during the filming. Certainly not the stellar performance exhibited by one Border Collie the other day.

Next day, Husband was out again with the crew.
This time they were shooting right across the street from our house. That's our house on the left, and they shot
Husband walking down the hill to the beach from this house on the right. So both McKinley and Husband are likely to be in the movie with solo shot scenes. And to think all this stardom possible because we moved to Barrow! Go figure!

A Star is Born

Yes, I locked the keys in the car today while the engine was running. Locked my purse, cell phone, and gloves in there too. Started the car, then went to unplug it from the building. Bad move. Should never start the car and walk away, lest the mischievous wind close the door on you! Good news...I was at home. You would think we'd all have remote start so this wouldn't happen. Oh wait, we do. It must be a great feature when it works! We have this great online system with the company that you just report what isn't working and they (in theory) get the message and respond. Notice, I wrote "in theory".  I believe the key to this system is for the department to actually respond to it.

Just this time last week, big events were brewing. The movies came to Barrow! I know what you're thinking, whyever would they come to Barrow in late October when the wind is gusting 35 MPH and the temp is 7 degrees F.
But, come they did. I was particularly excited because
we had an opportunity to get the dogs in the movie. In fact, one of the dogs got a solo shot! First we thought it would be Raven because of the two, we thought she'd do best at the task, which was to sit on the hood of a car. Who thinks up this stuff? Really, think about it...when was the last time you saw a dog sitting on the hood of a car? Especially in a climate where it's below zero 5 months out of the year. Nonetheless, that was the task. Basically, it went like this, "Central casting called, they need a Border Collie." Enter McKinley, because she is the quintessential Border Collie.

It was a particularly blustery day, so when you look at these pictures and you think it looks cold, you are right! What a natural she was. The director gave her the direction, "look forlorn." Okay, that wasn't so hard to accomplish. How do you think the dog's going to look when she's sitting on a pile of snow on the hood of a pickup truck?
We got her shot in 6 takes. The first two takes, the truck went by too fast. The third take, McKinley "improvised" and raised her paw as she sat there. Cute, but not what the director wanted. I did think it was kinda funny when the director asked me if she could do the shot without raising her paw. Heck, she could do it standing on three legs, probably, if that's what she wanted to do. In the end, she did the shot like a pro. I gotta tell you, I was unbelievably proud of her. She never, not once, even thought about jumping off of that truck or breaking "character." I seriously did not have a thing to do with it. So, she'll get her 10 seconds of fame if she doesn't wind up on the cutting room floor.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


I think we should start this post with memories of the sunny days we had this summer in Barrow. Because they are a memory, that's for sure. It's been a bit nippy here lately. Not anywhere near as cold as it will get, mind you. However, when it's 25∘and the wind is blowing 20 mph, (that makes it about 8∘) you start thinking of the warm days of the past.
I think the "girls" are thinking about the sunnier days, too. It wasn't so cold on the day we took this picture as it was windy. They didn't seem to mind until we'd been out for about 45 minutes. It was like a timer went off and we had two dogs that seemed to be asking when the torture would be over!

Colder weather also brings thoughts of outer wear. What am I going to wear to keep me warm? Do I have the clothes I'm going to need?, etc.
I'm quite lucky in that I work with one of the best known sewers here in Barrow. [She makes many of the outerwear pieces you see folks wearing...mostly those of us who are visitors as sewing is a tradition passed on from the women to the women...most of them do their own sewing. Younger girls learn from their mothers or grandmothers (Aakas).] You see beautiful parkas all over town. It's not a fashion statement, it's a statement of what to wear to keep warm, especially in the windy climate. Yes, down jackets will do, but they seriously do not hold a candle to the traditional parka.
My colleague and sewer extraordinaire agreed to make a parka for me. She has made parkas for two of my other officemates and they are beautiful! All I had to do was pick out my outer material, the fur for the ruff (siña) and get the lining (8 oz. weight). Remember I told you about the cleaners where all of the fabric and fur is located? So off we went on a Saturday to pick it out. 

The outer material of the parkas (known as Quppiqs) is typically veleveteen. I also had to be sure I didn't "match" the parkas my officemates already had. What a
Yes, I am in there!
fashion faux pas (or faux paw!) that would have been. And you have to think about the fur trim, the ruff. I had to decide which fur went best with the teal fabric I picked out. When you don't have your own skins to use, you get them at the cleaners, and it's mostly fox. I picked the silver fox that had lots of black as well. It's really a project to "begin with the end in mind".

Magically, and it was just like magic, she arrived with my Quppiq really not long after I gave her the material and she took my measurements.

The most amazing part is the hand embroidered trim. All of the triangle designs are done by hand. Being the artist that she is, she picked the colors and incorporated the silver to match the fox ruff.

 I get why fur is used for the ruff on the hood and the hem. It really keeps you warm. As I stood in the wind today to have Husband take this picture, I was toasty warm and it was blowing about 15 at the time. You can see it's not exactly a warm day outside. Thanks to my friend, I am clothed to meet the Arctic chill, so I say, bring on the weather, I am READY!

Fish ON!

It's been awhile since I wrote. That doesn't mean there hasn't been a lot going on...mostly long days at work...really marathons. There don't seem to be any boundaries surrounding work hours. Basically, if you're awake, you work. I get email from colleagues on any of the 7 days and at any of the 24 hours in those days. So it isn't any wonder that I've fallen prey to a monster cold. In fact, being sick is the only reason I have some free time! I guess that's how you get a day off!

Again, we must revisit the whale is not a fish observation in order to explain the title of this entry. I thought about that when I wrote the title. However, Whale ON does not have quite the same panache, so there you have it.

Fall whaling season is here. It causes great excitement. When the first whale was caught, the mukluk telegraph was in full swing. We went to the beaching area at lunch to see if we could see it being brought to shore. The crew who took the whale are in the boat in the first picture. The flag tells us what crew it is. All of the boats around are helping to escort in the whale. They will all get a share of the meat once it's cut up. You can see a fin to the left of the orange buoy in the next picture. The whale is tied to the buoy. That's a helper boat escorting it in.

The fluke is separated from the whale to decrease drag as the whale is brought to shore.

The head of the whale is separated from the body right after the whale gives itself to the crew. This is to allow the spirit to be released from the body and go on to its next life. Separating the head is common on hunts of all animals as the Iñupiaq are always reverent of the spirit of the animals who have given themselves to them.

On this day, a total of 3 whales were taken. Also, the first whale ever taken in Wainwright was brought in. We went back after work (well phase one of the workday, anyway) to check out the progress on the butchering. It was windy (blowing about 25 MPH) and those workers looked pretty cold. You can see what a big job this was. They had all three whales on the old runway by the military hangars from the 50s and they finished the job just as the sun was setting. Now, normally I'd think this was pretty gross. You probably are thinking so, too (and these are the least graphic of the pictures we took). But you've got to remember it's the way of life here. It's how they survive today and how they survived 100 years ago. 

When you stop to think about it, that's pretty cool...to continue a tradition that's been going on for that long. 
Oh and just for grins, here's Husband sporting his sealskin hat...nice and toasty for the cold days!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Bonfires, Beaches, and Border Collies

First, I have a confession. After some research, meaning I started closely listening to my friends who are Iñupiaq speakers, I figured out that quaq is not what I was told it was. (Which causes me to wonder if I was being punked, except Ashton Kutcher is nowhere nearby). It was during a conversation that someone switched from English to Iñupiaq. She was talking about her ice cellar (the gist of the conversation was joking about the person she was talking to going into her ice cellar to steal some maktak and some quaq). I don't even know how I understood this exchange in Iñupiaq (I do know it happens alot during new language acquisition), but the bottom line is that quaq is frozen whale meat. Obviously, you won't see a leg on frozen whale meat as we clearly see in this picture, which you'll recognize from the previous entry when I wrote about quaq. Well, now you have another Iñupiaq word to add to your growing vocabulary...tuttu. Tuttu = caribou. Now, it's making some sense!

I'm beginning to realize that Barrow is a well-kept secret. Before I moved here,  I thought Barrow = barren. Okay, there is that aspect, but there is also this beauty that is breathtaking.

We've been having unusually warm weather. Now, don't laugh when I say warm and 45°F in the same sentence. For Barrow, that's shirtsleeve weather. The day starts out a bit cloudy, or foggy and then we get the evening.

About 9:00 p.m. last night, we looked out the window and couldn't help but throw on our shoes and run across the street. We were not alone on the beach. You see, the Barrow equation is:  good weather + sunset + pallettes = Bonfire. Keep in mind, folks are still unpacking barge orders and pallettes abound. They wind up on the beach and locals take advantage of them to enjoy these "Indian Summer" evenings.

Oh yeah, folks just drive right onto the beach. In fact, I don't even notice tracks on the beach anymore; it's just part of the scenery, but you can see in all of our pictures, the beach is just another roadway. It's one of the things I really love about Barrow. There are far fewer bureaucratic restrictions on life. For instance, there truly are no signs that say, "No dogs", or "No Motorized Vehicles Allowed". So we run the dogs and dodge the 4-wheelers and the occasional pickup truck. It's all about sharing the space.

We're enjoying this bonus weather. The cold is not far off. Not just any cold, bitter cold with wind mixed in. So we are basking on our beach thinking we're the luckiest people in the world because the ocean is outside our front door.

And when the wind kicks up to 40 mph, and it's snowing sideways, and I'm wearing my facemask, scarf, gloves, 4 layers of shirts and 3 layers of pants, I'll look back on this day and be able to smile (until my teeth start to chatter).