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What Was Your Life Like In Barrow, Alaska?
Posted by Dr. Ben Kim
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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