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What Was Your Life Like In Barrow, Alaska?

Originally published in December, 2005.

This is a question that I receive on a regular basis from readers.

I lived and worked in a small town called Barrow from 1997 to 1999.

Barrow is the northernmost town in Alaska, located approximately 340 miles above the arctic circle.

Considered a "bush" community, there are no year-round roads that one can use to drive into and out of Barrow; you have to fly in and out.

Here is a close-up look at the geodesic dome building where I lived and worked:

Barrow sits on the edge of the arctic ocean. Every year from about September to May, the ocean is covered by a blanket of arctic ice, which can theoretically allow an ambitious explorer to walk right over the top of the world from Alaska to Norway.

I went up to Barrow for two reasons: I wanted to provide chiropractic treatment to a lot of people while running my own chiropractic clinic, and I wanted to pay my student loans off as quickly as possible.

I'm really grateful to have accomplished both of those goals during my time there.

But more importantly, my time in Barrow allowed me to learn a great deal about health, human nature, myself, and life beyond the "lower 48" and the suburbs of Toronto.

One of my many good memories of Barrow was the night that one of my patients, the chief pilot of the North Slope Borough's Search and Rescue Division, offered to take me up on the Borough's state-of-the-art helicopter for an emergency delivery.

A native Inuit family that was living in a cabin about 50 miles inland needed a replacement part for their generator. It was a night "mission," giving me my first and only opportunity to wear night vision goggles - you know, the kind that turn your field of vision into a fuzzy green color, just like you see on CNN when they do stories on U.S. military operations.

If you've never worn a helmet along with night vision goggles in a helicopter before, let me tell you - they're incredibly heavy. Mine must have weighed around 20 pounds.

Getting back to our trip, flying through the cold arctic air at about 50 meters above ground level was an incredible experience. I think the pilot was flying closer to the ground than he usually did to give us a bit of a show. I definitely appreciated his efforts. :)

When we reached our destination and the pilot took the chopper down to within about 20 metres of the cabin, my eyes were glued to the front door of that cabin - I was super curious about what the family looked like.

There were five of them - a mother, father, boy, girl, and a grandfather.

Once we landed, it didn't take more than a few minutes for the pilot and co-pilot to give them the part they needed for their generator. I sat there almost in a trance, watching this family and thinking about their existence.

Talk about living off the grid. As far as I could tell, they pretty much lived off the land. Caribou, fish, seal oil and meat, whale blubber - also known as muktuk - and salmon berries were probably their staples. In case you've never heard of salmon berries, they look kind of like blueberries but with a light orange, salmon-like colour.

I'm not sure if this family lived there only during the summer months and returned to Barrow during the winter, or if they lived there throughout the year. I didn't think to ask anyone. But to live out there in such a remote location for even a few months at a time was an existence that I wouldn't have been able to imagine had I not seen it.

That little excursion marked the first time in my life that I started to think carefully about the difference between things that we want and things that we need to survive. I feel embarrassed to admit that before that experience, I gave almost no thought to the reality that billions of living creatures, human beings included, struggle on a daily basis just to survive.

Seeing that family living with a few bare essentials out in the middle of nowhere made me think about how everything we surround ourselves with ultimately comes from the environment. Every appliance, every piece of furniture, every article of clothing, every piece of paper, and every morsel of food all come from our environment. I realized then that the cost of every physical item in our lives isn't just the dollar value that we pay for each of them. The total cost of every trinket that we surround ourselves with includes the toll that our environment pays with its natural resources with each new product created.

Well, that was just one of several epiphanies - if I can call them that without being too dramatic - that I experienced while living in Barrow. Someday, probably when I'm retired, I'll have to write more about some of the thoughts and experiences I had while living in the arctic of Alaska.

For now, I'll end this post with a brief list of some conclusions that I came to by the end of my stay in Barrow:

1. Never take a functional toilet for granted. You'll have a hard time knowing how much of a luxury running water is until you've used a "honey bucket."

2. Be thankful when a small watermelon doesn't cost you 20 US dollars.

3. No population can stay away from sugar and white flour products once they start on them. Individuals can, but not an entire population.

4. Whether we'd like to admit it or not, every income-producing person in this world is a business person. It doesn't matter if we're talking about being a teacher, doctor, plumber, pastor, or a politician. Every single position that produces income requires some awareness of business principles. Rather than deny this reality, I think it makes a lot more sense to embrace it and to strive to do honest business that produces positive results for our world and its inhabitants.

5. A significant chunk of any population is usually looking for something more, something better. A better body, a bigger home, more money, a more prestigious position, a better relationship - something that they don't currently have that they hope will make them happier.

Well, those are five thoughts that really stood out from the pages of the few journals that I wrote during my time in Barrow.

I'd better stop here for today. Please feel free to leave a comment or two on any of the above. I know that we have at least one subscriber who currently lives in Barrow - it would be great to hear from those of you who have spent some time in Alaska.

P.S. Here's a photo of me in front of the North Slope Borough's Lear Jet just before our helicopter trip. I was only 25 at the time - a young pup. :)


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Jackie Ford said...

Thanks for letting us know about your time in Alaska. I found it very interesting and hope sometime that you will tell us more as its one of the places that very few of us will ever have the opportunity to visit. Thanks also for your regular newsletters.
Wednesday, December 14, 2005 2:59:20 PM
massageajama said...

thanks!!! i went to ak for 1 week last summer and you do start to look at the world very differntly an i went in SUMMER and to 2 larger cities!!!
Wednesday, December 14, 2005 3:02:05 PM
Maria Santana said...

What a nice message...i.e. we should be grateful for what we have and protect our environment in the best way we can because nature is the ultimate provider of what we have.

P.S. nice picture
Wednesday, December 14, 2005 3:04:22 PM
Anonymous said...

Please tell us more. That was very interesting. Maybe if more people experienced living in those kinds of conditions, they might be more content with what they have.
Wednesday, December 14, 2005 3:07:50 PM
DianaWalker said...

Wow! -- You had lots of "epiphanies". I grew up from age 6 to 10 in rural BC, Canada, and we had no running water, no electricity, no indoor plumbing. We had an outhouse, a well, and lamps. I know that has given me a life-long appreciation for many things that others take for granted. Thanks for the reminder and for sharing with us!
Wednesday, December 14, 2005 3:15:26 PM
WiN said...

Thanks for sharing some of your experiences from Barrow. As someone who has never known anything but the conveniences of modern life that come with living in moderate to large communities, I envy you for your experience there. It took a special kind of self-assurance and fortitude to live an "adventure" like that at such a relatively young age, but it sounds like you consider yourself a better person for it, and I can certainly understand why.

I hope you can share more about what life was like there, in the clinic and also just day-to-day living, especially during the long winter months without daylight. Did you see much evidence of SAD, and how did that affect your patients and their well-being, and what you did to 'treat' it.

Anyway, thanks again!
Wednesday, December 14, 2005 3:36:23 PM
gloria whorley moser said...

Visiting Alaska on a cruise ship, as I do most years, really doesn't tell the story , does it?
We're warm and well fed, and without chores, and we look up at snow clad mountains as we sit in hot tubs, and think the pretty little towns are Alaska. It sure
is alot more than that, as your
article relates. thank you for
giving us some insight into the
true State. gloria whorley moser San Diego
Wednesday, December 14, 2005 3:36:54 PM
Anonymous said...

Would you please suggest the best way to see and know Alaska. I have never visited but would like to take my family (my kids are 18 and college bound and a 14 soon to be high school freshman). Be as specific as you can. Tours? Cruises? A 'custom' itinerary? Thank you. I enjoy your commentary.
Wednesday, December 14, 2005 5:45:38 PM
Anonymous said...

There was absolutely no mention of the Yukon, Land of the Midnight Sun.
How come?
Maybe you've never been there Ben, but it's oh so close to where you were and oh so awesomely beautiful.
Dec. 14-05
Wednesday, December 14, 2005 6:27:55 PM
Anonymous said...

Were you able to obtain fresh fruits and vegetables in Barrow or did you eat frozen or canned?
Do they eat a different diet there because of the climate?
It would be very interesting to know more about day to day life there.
Wednesday, December 14, 2005 6:33:03 PM
sal said...

I lived remotely (the bush tho not arctic) for 13 years, I now live in
suburban alaska .I learned patience
and to really learn a sense of community with a group of people living in the same place...may sound funny but I will tell you what I dont't know my nearest neighbours now...I learned what
was truely important not things but people and times.I also stopped the TV habit which Ive not rejoined ....and that is good thing..enjoying life and the moments the outdoors and real things not brain numb tele...

It also made me a damn good nurse
Wednesday, December 14, 2005 9:02:58 PM
Cheryl Barger said...

Thank you for sharing. At this time of my life I have came to know these beautiful places are never going to bless my eyes..I go many places I will never see thru the sharing of others in pictures and words of thier heart.. I thank you so much..Cheryl B. New Richmond, Ohio
Wednesday, December 14, 2005 10:16:09 PM
Steven Decker said...

I think it is really cool that Dr. Kim thought enough about his experience in Barrow Alaska to post it on his newsletter blog. I met Dr. Kim in Barrow when I went to him for chiropractic treatment. At the time, I was seeking treatment for back problems and I was really impressed me with his caring manner and focus on total health and root causes, not just treatment of the symptoms that prompted my visit. He also talked very enthusiastically about nutrition and a book or two he was reading. After several treatments, I was much improved and did not visit his clinic. Several months later I went to the clinic for a visit and was very disappointed to find that he had left. His replacement told me that he had left to pursue his interests in nutrition and fasting. I didn't care much for the "replacement", and so only saw him that one time. Dr Kim remained in the back of my mind, but I sure could have never predicted that I would run across him again. In 2001, I was living in Anchorage Alaska, and experienced some major health problems. I won't go into details, but a major change in my life was about to happen. After finding that conventional medicine could not help, I spent 6 months in California at a vegan raw food institute to deal with my health issue. My health benefited greatly from switching to a clean diet from my former terrible meat, beer, and junk food diet. However, I met a person who convinced me that what I really needed to do was go on a supervised fast. He recommended a couple of places: True North in Penngrove CA, and Dr. Scott in Cleveland Ohio. I began researching and found a Dr. Benjamin Kim's name listed on something from True North that was by then outdated. I was sure at once that this just had to be the Dr. Kim I had known from Barrow. Finally, through Internet searches, I found him at his former clinic in Nobleton Ontario. After I contacted him, I found that he had did an internship at True North and prior to that, had fasted at Dr. Scott's clinic in Cleveland, the exact two places that had been recommended to me. There was just no contemplating, I made arrangements and booked a flight to Toronto where I did a 24 or so day fast supervised by Dr. Kim (I think I was trying for 30)! It was great to see him again, and it was even greater to have the privilege of being cared for by someone who truly puts his patient's interests above all else. After my disgust with conventional medicine and its profit driven motives, I was surprised and disappointed to find that a lot of alternative (natural or whatever you want to call them) medicine is also driven by by this same corruptible force. There seems to be a guru around every corner who holds the divine truth for perfect health. What Dr. Kim advocates, is a plain, common sense approach, without the fancy guruism and associated greed that seems to go with it. He is the real thing, trust me. Anyway, that is my short story. I still live in Anchorage Alaska and visit Barrow once a year or so. My wife is Native Eskimo and was born in Barrow, so we go back to visit. My health is very good and in a lot of ways is now better than before I had my health challenge. I would also like to mention that I loved Toronto and the time I spent in Canada. There are just some things that Canadians are a lot more sensible (or sensitive) about than the US. One last note, when I am asked where I am from, I instinctively say, "Alaska". In some ways, we have much more in common with Canada than the country that lays claim to us. :)
Wednesday, December 14, 2005 10:18:36 PM
Leila Manko said...

Through Chet Day I discovered Dr. Ben Kim and immediately subscribed to his newsletter which I read from beginning to end. Though much that I read is not "news" to me (I've been around the sun many, many times), I just love the feeling I get when I read Dr. Kim,'s newsletter. His words resonate with honesty, care, simplicity and truth. If I were to choose a doctor, Dr. Kim is the one I would "run" to. The comment written by Steven Decker pretty much says it all. I feel very forunate to live in Toronto - a stone's throw from Dr. Kim's clinic.
Wednesday, December 14, 2005 11:23:00 PM
Sandy Hemmett said...

Thank you for your newsletters, and this short piece on your time in Barrow. I agree with the comment left about enjoying Dr. Kim's letters because of their simplicity. I am also always keen to know the cause of something, rather than looking at surface symptoms. I'm keen to learn more. I haven't tried a fast - maybe I just love my food too much. Also, I worry that as I'm working - I may not perform well during the day.

I've only been a tourist to Alaska this year (I'm from Australia) - and I really enjoyed it all. Yes, we did the cruise thing - wonderful, especially the glaciers. And Seward and the wildlife there, too, and the train journey to Anchorage. Just a few days in Anchorage, but we got to know it... if only we could have travelled further North. Maybe another time.
Friday, December 16, 2005 7:23:35 AM
Diane from Arizona said...

...Brought back some memories for me- a former flight attendant whose last several trips were to Anchorage- ah, the midnight sun, still visible at midnight off my hotel balcony! I'd always wanted to experience that.
Thanks for sharing your memories, & also for all your extensive health knowledge- keep it coming!
Friday, December 16, 2005 2:23:29 PM
Ben Kim, D.C. said...

Just a short note to say thanks to each of you who left a comment in response to this entry. What surprise it was to see so many posts!

I'm still running on a tight schedule, but will try to answer some of your questions about Alaska in the near future. I'll probably post these answers as a separate blog entry.

Steve - it was a great surprise to see your post. I hope that you received the e-mail that I sent to you a couple of days ago.

Thanks again, everyone. See you soon...

Ben Kim
Friday, December 16, 2005 4:39:33 PM
Will said...

Greetings to all!

Dr. Kim, thank you for sharing your Alaskan experiences! Although I live in Central New York, Alaska is my favorite place on earth!

I am very fortunate to have experienced three adventures in Alaska. My Alaskan adventure preference is to fly into Anchorage, rent a 4WD vehicle and driving the "loop" as I call it, making forays off the loop to areas that pique your interest. You can expect to drive about 2,500 around this loop.

I have driven it in a week, but highly recommend two weeks so you will have time to take it all in. I have logged over 7,500 driving miles in Alaska and would not trade it for anything!

I visited in both late spring and summer, and chose to camp along the way. There are 20+ hours of daylight this time of year, so you don’t miss out on any of the views by driving into the night.

Both seasons have their advantages…Spring is cool and not many people…Summer is warmer, and more colorful, but you will have lots of company!

I have talked to people on the train tours and cruise line tours and hear the same remorse…they can’t go anywhere once they arrive at their stop on the trip. Flying into Alaska and driving about is definitely the way to go, if you are the adventurous type!

Looking at the map, you will soon find out that you are still limited how far you can go by car. There are no roads to a lot of cities in Alaska and to get to see all of Alaska, you have to fly or hop on a boat. That is why my next planned trip to Alaska is via the ferry system with a backpack. I look forward to seeing Juneau, Sitka, Kodiak, and the Aleutian Islands…all the places I could not drive to see.

I highly recommend the experience of flying over a glacier. A one hour flight from a local pilot will be money well spent and a memory to cherish!

The mountains are enormous! Expect to feel small and insignificant in their presence. I am in “awe” my entire visit!

I’d be happy to converse about Alaska if you’d care to write:

Thanks for listening!

Tuesday, February 28, 2006 9:14:31 AM
Richard Burkhart said...

Interesting how life has changed through the years. I was born in 1930 on the eastern plains of Colorado. Yes, outside toilet, no running water but we had a windmill and cistern to store the water and a hand pump to pump from the cistern, pot bellied coal stove and cooked on a kitchen range that burned coal. Blizzards in the dead of Winter that drifted snow over the buildings, where we could walk up the north side and down the the south side. It would get down to 50 below zero many times during January and February. We had to wait for three days for the snow plow to open the drifted roads, so we could go to Sterling to buy groceries. We sold eggs from the chickens to Safeway stores to buy groceries. My father used his International Farmall tractor to pull cars and trucks out of the snow, (No Charge). Mother canned Fruit and Vegetables in the fall to carry us through the winter. We ground our own wheat grain for the family bread and cereal. Our summers were quite busy harvesting the wheat.
My Grandfather was the community meat processor (Butcher). When someone ran low on meat they hired him to butcher cows, pigs etc. They gave him meat for his time and work. We gave thanks at every meal for the bounteous life we were living.
I thank God I was a country boy. Now I live in a warm climate in California.

Richard Burkhart
Tuesday, February 28, 2006 5:12:54 PM
Anonymous said...

Dr. Kim,
I look forward to more reports while you lived in Alaska. I'll never get there so it's nice learning what it really is like. It is amazing that people live such simple lives and enjoy it.
Tuesday, February 28, 2006 10:18:52 PM

I love your story about your experoence in alaska, and your conclusions.

Thank you for sharing what you observed in Alaska. Barrow is one of the places I hope to see someday. I vacationed on the Kenai Peninsula, almost 10 years ago, but that was during the summer. I spoke to many people who lived there. Some as full time residents and others as part timers. I agree that life is not easy for the brave and rugged people who choose to live there, but the land and natives are beautiful.

I think we have to be careful about using the term "the middle of nowhere." I made the same mistake once in talking to people in a very rural area as living on "the back roads." To the people of these areas, this is just "home", not "the back roads" or "the middle of nowhere."

Great article for someone from the opposite end of the globe who has never experience Alaska or that level of cold. Humbling insights.