As the plane hovers above a vast track of land and water, what I had always dreamt of is now just down below me. Snow! Yes, the vast track of land and water are covered with snow. Since I was a child, it has been my dream to play on snow, sled-ride on it or maybe throw snowballs. But what is now before me in an overwhelming proportion; I suddenly felt that my childish fantasy of snow might now be quashed after all. It’s more than what I had expected. Or as the saying goes, be careful of what you wish for.
Referred to as the top of the world, Barrow is 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle and just about 1,200 miles away from the North Pole. It snows a great deal of time in Barrow. And the weather, oh boy, could be freaking harsh—the harshest maybe in the entire Alaska where wind chill could get to 110 below zero. I can’t even imagine how I could cope with that temperature. There is also this so-called white out condition from blowing snow that makes almost everything white and visibility near to zero. Who would ever drive or even walk in this condition? And with a wide expanse of treeless tundra draped with snow, the land seems to be leading to nowhere, endless. It kind of merges with the sky; Heaven is on my mind.
I walk down the plane to an open space and hurriedly scamper to a building structure that serves Barrow as the main terminal of Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport after a 14-hour (stopover and long wait included) journey from Los Angeles. It is cold outside as when passengers embarked from an old 737-200 Boeing Combo, everyone was exposed to the cold environs. The cool wind easily smacks me right on the face like small needles puncturing my skin. Friends told me to put on layers of clothes, which exactly what I did. Yet with -10 degrees F, I’m clueless whether I had adequately protected myself or not.
The town comes into view with its pastel-colored wood-framed houses, rooftops, windows, walls, and cars all covered or laced with thick snow. Cracked windshields among vehicles are common sight to see. There are several piles of snow as thick as two feet (or maybe more) occupying the roadsides, while in some places the compacted snow are as thick as three feet or more having been dumped there by loader trucks in clearing the roads.
Sometimes the difference in the indoor and outdoor temperature is so great that one could easily freeze to death. That’s what happened to a philandering husband I was told, who was not allowed in the house one time or another one, who got so drunk that he did not see the light of day anymore. All houses or structures are built on stilts so it won’t melt the permafrost underneath. Permafrost is ground that is permanently frozen. Barrow and 85 percent of Alaska sit on permafrost. The melting of the permafrost may cause houses or any structures on top to collapse and sink. The very reason no roads are paved in Barrow and elsewhere as roads depression may occur when permafrost is disturbed, which could be too costly to repair.
Once I walked on the ice-covered sea with my feet going down deep into the snow and into the water that had a solid ice underneath; although, neither of my feet went down completely as I pulled it out fast as I could to make another step forward.
Inexperienced in a very frigid environment, I forgot to put on my beanie, had worn a pair of rubber shoes instead of a leather winter boots and the next thing I knew my ears were so numbed and hard, my face felt waxy and it hurt, my hands and feet were suffering from severe frostbite. Had I stayed longer in the open windswept Arctic Ocean taking photos of a handcrafted umiak made from strips of seal’s hide, I would have been down from hypothermia, or frozen to death.
Barrow, which is closer to Siberia than to the United States, is one of the eight villages in the North Slope Borough that has a large settlement of native Inupiat Eskimos. Paglagivsi! It is a city by itself but has the ambience of a remote village with its weather beaten houses and buildings, dead cars and trucks and discarded appliances, many almost buried in ice and snow making Barrow into almost like a big junkyard. But the blanket of snow that covers the entire city easily transforms the place into a heaven’s touch on earth.
An apt word to describe the weather is cold and dry, where the temperature is colder while the air is drier. Sometimes, waking up in the morning, I see myself having dry sore throat. And my nose is always dry too. Yet in cold temperature, I look like a child with my nose dripping uncontrollably while I do my thing. Yuck!
With alcohol contributing to suicide and domestic violence in the entirety of Alaska, a prohibition on the manufacture and sale of alcohol has been in place since the 80s. Residents could only possess a certain amount of wine, liquor and other alcoholic beverages for their consumption, never to sell them. Just like in the Great Depression and despite the Prohibition, liquor and wine flows like water whenever there’s a party or gatherings and there lies the problem.
Barrow is also a place, where the sun would be up in the sky for 82 days, a phenomenon known as the midnight sun. It is so bright that windows are pasted with aluminum foil to block sunlight from their bedrooms, enabling people to enjoy nigh time sleep. Otherwise, one would never know the day from the night anymore. As the earth rotates, this is the time the North Pole faces towards the sun. From November to January, the sun sets and remains below the horizon for about 65 days, turning the whole place dark and gloomy that residents call polar night. This event has made people tell ghost stories, normally associated with people who passed away. Barrow has also become a setting for some horror comics and movies.
Yet for all of these, Barrow is one interesting place to be, whether to enjoy the colorful curls and waves of the northern lights or the aurora at midnight during winter; to watch the Arctic ice dwellers–the whales, walruses, seals, as well as the polar bears, caribou, foxes, wolves and the sea-savvy birds–in their frigid habitat; ride on snowmobiles or dog sleds on the vast expanse of frozen, barren, and exposed tundra; or just stare at the cold-freezing Arctic ocean, so flat, so white, and so serene.