After the season ended in late March, I flew back to Alaska to 1. Get some work hours, 2. Enjoy some world-class crust skiing, and 3. Travel up to Barrow to participate in Skiku for the second year. Last year I journeyed up to the North Slope village of Wainwright, just a hop, skip and a jump (in a Cessna plane), from rural Alaskan “hub-city” Barrow. Due to some scheduling constraints with my APU M.B.A. weekend class, at the last minute I switched from my original assignment to the Barrow team. After spending three full days in a classroom, running a fake pharmaceutical company’s marketing through an online program, I was ecstatic to spend my days outdoors and not staring at a computer. Heeding forewarnings of dreadfully cold and windy weather, I borrowed Sadie’s giant parka, packed multiple pairs of ski pants, and flew to Barrow with the warmest clothing I own.
At our quick stop in Prudhoe Bay, I awoke to a comical scene of passengers attempting to cross the runway to the airport, only to have their hats and loose items rocketing off their bodies in the wind. As the flight attendant placed an orange construction cone on the crosswalk to guide passengers, the cone jetted off, straight-lining across the frozen tundra. I imagine there is a giant collection of orange cones somewhere in the Brooks Range, just waiting to be discovered in a thousand years by some archeologist who will attempt to explain the phenomenon with an overly academic theory. Needless to say, I was a bit shocked at the conditions and only hoped Barrow could somehow be better.
Well, a bit to my dismay, Barrow’s weather mirrored the conditions in Prudhoe. After multiple people in the airport discouraged me from walking to the High School (only three blocks away), I set out to meet up with the team. Now, I have witnessed tornados, straight-line winds, even the BWCA storm of July 4th, 1999, but never in my life have I witnessed wind like in Barrow. The minute you stepped out around a wind block, you needed sure footing because the wind hit you like a semi-truck. It took about two days to just adjust to the weather conditions and manage to ski/stand upright. Barrow natives said that the long lasting windy weather was the worst they’ve seen in decades. But, of course, wind or cold, those kids were outside on skis.
Barrow is an interesting “village” because it is a regional hub for the North Slope. With a population around 5,000 people, and easy jet-plane access to Fairbanks and Anchorage, Barrow operates much more like a conventional small town/city than a rural Alaskan village. While the population is still predominantly Native Alaskan, much more diversity exists than in smaller villages. Barrow has three schools, and each school is significantly larger than the one school in many small villages. Barrow’s elementary school alone houses over 500 students. Due to the unique situation in Barrow and our large Skiku team size, we split up our days at each school. I spent one day each at the high school and elementary school, and three days at the middle school. This schedule pleased me because the middle schoolers had the most enthusiasm for skiing and with an earlier dismissal time, had the opportunity to ski after school. Similar to my Wainwright experience, you got to know the “regulars” pretty well and actually taught them some ski skills.
In my opinion the best part of this program is to watch kids struggle, but persevere, though the skiing learning process. It is humbling to remember how difficult this sport is to learn, something that nowadays I often take for granted. Due to the wind in Barrow, even just skiing 500 meters presented quite the challenge. Nonetheless these kids put their heads down and trucked forward. At the end of our ski area’s straightaway, they held their arms up and windsurfed all the way back to the start—a reward for pushing through the conditions. At the end of the week we held a small race for anyone who wanted to participate. Most of our regular middle schooler group participated, along with some elementary school students. One of my favorite little skiers raced and then joined me to cheer on the younger kids, telling them to “send it to the finish line”. Watching the interaction of the kids and the ways they help each other try out new techniques is very rewarding (and rather comical). They convince each other to try out new skills, but also support one another when they fall or struggle. Of course, we both laugh when they topple over from a standstill and somehow get so tangled they cannot get up.
Barrow’s size offered us volunteers the chance to participate in more activities than usually found in rural Alaska. Along with some new friends, I attended a yoga class, rollerskated on the indoor roller rink attached to our intirent housing, and took a water zumba class! However, the highlight of my week (both in coolness-factor and tired-ness) came when a local whaling crew took us out on the sea ice to help build the road for their seal skin boats. Whaling season was just beginning during our week and all of Barrow’s whaling crews were scrambling to get their ice roads finished and sail out to the migration. Around 8pm on our last evening, our posse snow-machined out to the edge of the sea ice with our pick axes and sleds. We paved our way by sledgehammering giant ice chunks—the size of cars—into mini chunks that we used to fill in cracks to make a level path. Since the spring whaling vessels are made of seal skin, they tear easily and it would be devastating to pull your crew’s boat all the way to the ice’s edge only to have a tear. With armed watchmen guarding against any hungry polar bears, I kept myself entertained by pretending I was one of the dwarfs in Snow White and progressively became loopy after hours of pickaxing. I decided that last summer’s glacier project of building a Piston Bully road was nothing compared to the work a whaling crew did each spring. And the futility of the project! All the ice would soon melt away, along with our creation, a thought that increasingly became funnier as the night progressed. We worked for a number of hours and finished right as the sun set over the ocean.
Watching the warm sunset colors dance across the cold sea ice and reflect over the surprising smooth Arctic Ocean was magical. This golden hour brought the end of our work and signaled it was time to return to Barrow for a small demonstration of the harpoons and guns a whaling crew uses. The hospitality of the whaling captain and his family displayed the unique community atmosphere I’ve experienced in each Alaskan village. It was the perfect way to cap off our week in Barrow.
Since returning from the Arctic, I found another summer part-time job working for a printer supply company in Anchorage. Along with Thomas O’Harra, I coached Denali Elementary’s Run Club, a fun way to hang out with some speedy youngsters. I logged quite a few crust skiing adventures and discovered some new cool spots up towards Hatcher’s Pass Road. Unfortunately, I am battling a bit of a heel/Achilles injury, but am looking forward to jumping into some Alaskan mountain running races coming up and our first glacier camp in early June. Until then I will be starting up another summer semester (two classes to go until my M.B.A. is finished), clocking some work hours, continuing to build up the training, and hopefully successfully hunting mushrooms.