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Freezing in summer: Barrow, Alaska

While I have traveled further in terms of miles, I can’t remember feeling so far away from home.

And, to top it all off, it’s snowing. It’s August 17 and it’s snowing.

I can’t blame the altitude, as we’re only a few feet above sea level. But the sea in question is the Arctic Ocean, and it’s right there at the end of the street behind me and the wind is whipping by me as I step outside.  And while I struggle to put on a happy “let’s have an adventure” face for my family, I know it’s not working. It’s just too cold.

I’m standing outside the airport in Barrow, Alaska. The rest of my family — my wife, son, 13 and daughter, 11 — has stayed inside, huddling amidst a swirl of people rushing to get on the plane we had just gotten off as it continues its run to someplace called Deadhorse and then returns to Fairbanks where we had boarded 90 minutes before.

There are a few other people standing outside with me and we’re all looking around in vain for the bus which is supposed to take us around this place, the northernmost town in the United States, 330 miles above the Arctic Circle, 1100 miles from the North Pole.

But there is no bus in sight. And I’m getting a bit desperate.

And, did I mention? It’s cold … especially for August.

Our family is on the last day of a fantastic trip to Alaska. And as I stood outside waiting for the bus that was supposed to be there, I asked myself why I possibly felt the need to try to improve on this once-in-a lifetime itinerary by flying to Barrow for the one day “tundra tour.”

I know what I had in mind when I made the decision to come here. I like planning my own trips and setting my own itinerary. But that seemed impractical when Alaska was involved, so I reluctantly agreed to the packaged cruise/tour. Still, I wanted to add my own stamp on it so I found the Barrow tour on the Internet. Yes, it was also a tour; but it seemed so unusual that I couldn’t resist. After all, I thought, maybe we’d actually meet some real Alaskans and, even if we don’t, what other kids would be able to say that they waded in the Arctic Ocean over their summer vacation?

But as I stand here waiting for the bus, I wonder whether I made a horrendous and, frankly, a rather expensive mistake.

Suddenly, a screech of tires heralds the arrival of the bus and out pops our guide, Joe, with a smile and an apology — something about running into a traffic jam (later we realized how funny that really is in a town with only one traffic light). And, immediately, I start to feel that faint glow of a paternal success story lurking someplace in the blowing snow.

I run to get the family and we make it outside just as Joe is ready to load. We’re the second group in line. That’s critical. The tour company promised that there would be parkas on the bus, but we had heard there might not be enough for everyone so we wanted to get on quickly to snap them up. In fact, there were only a dozen so we grab only the ones we absolutely need and settle in for an 8-hour tour of the town of 4,500 people in this most remote corner of America.

And what a tour it is.

After stopping at the Will Rogers/Wiley Post Memorial (it’s scary to think that the most famous visitors to Barrow were killed in a plane crash), we walk across the permafrost to a spot at which a “mud home” hundreds of years old had recently appeared when erosion from a bad storm uncovered a previously hidden stretch of land. Joe tells us about the Inuit Eskimos’ tradition of honoring the dead. A skeleton of a little girl found in the home had recently been buried in keeping with the community’s custom. This is the first hint of a theme we would continually encounter through the day:  commitment to tradition, to family, to community.

From there it is on to the unusual sights of this whaling town, including the row of satellite and cell phone receivers all pointed in the same direction (South, of course) and, as evidence of how “high” we are on the globe, all pointing down almost to the ground so as to account for the curvature of the earth.

As we drive, Joe describes life in the town and we stop to visit the local sports center and high school and drive out a road along the ocean with a promise that we would be back later.

For lunch, we are hosted by local celebrity Fran Tate at her Mexican Restaurant: Pepe’s North of the Border. Inside, we find a typical kitsch-filled American-Mexican Restaurant from the 60’s or 70’s. Outside, there are people going about their business as snowy owls perch on oil tanks on the tundra.

After lunch, we encounter the first of two highlights of the tour: a fascinating afternoon at the Inupiat Cultural Center to watch folk dancing, listen to chanting and, most importantly, to talk with some of the local residents and learn their stories.

The stories they tell are of the legendary past and the present day, and it is sometimes hard to tell the difference. This is a hard working people, braving the elements to harvest the ocean’s precious supply of whales to meet their every need. Their chants echo of community and faith as they struggle, as we all do, to have their children learn, appreciate and be in a position to pass on their customs.

And then, on to the part of the tour that Joe had promised from the beginning but had playfully mocked: the chance to put a foot (or more) into the Arctic Ocean.

It is the experience I had waited for and the picture I wanted most to bring home for my office wall; but suddenly it seems less important after having met the people and seen this humble, harsh way of life. Still, we don’t pass up the opportunity. I stand in bare feet and wade into the water, which isn’t that much colder than the water that had sprayed my face during the whitewater rafting a few days before. Yes, it was cold. Yes, the rocks were slippery. But I had done it. I had put my foot in the Arctic Ocean.

After a few more stops and a chance to watch the High School football team practice a few plays on their gravel field, Joe brings us back to the airport and we head back for warmer climate and life as we know it.

In the end, our trip to Alaska was memorable for many reasons. Unmatched scenery, incredible wildlife, delicious salmon, friendly and knowledgeable tour guides, everything we could have wanted.

But one thing was often missing, the chance to actually “be there.”

Unlike other trips we’ve taken, I felt that something was always preventing me from being part of Alaska. We saw the beautiful scenery from a boat or a train, and I felt a bit distant. And while we did manage a beautiful hike in Denali for an hour or so, I still felt that I hadn’t touched Alaska.

Then there was Barrow. Yes, we were tourists and can’t claim to know the place. But after a 20-minute chat with a local woman selling home made crafts in the Cultural Center, five minutes standing on the permafrost looking at Snowy Owls, walking through the local supermarket where milk sells for $9-a-gallon, and seeing the kids run home from school ready for 9 hours of play in the daylight, I felt that at least I had seen part of the real Alaska.

It wasn’t as scenic. It wasn’t as comfortable. But it was real. And I can’t imagine having as good a feeling about the rest of the trip without having spent the day in Barrow.

While I know I saw the rest of this incredibly beautiful land, I know that I actually was in Barrow. And I’m so glad that I was.

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