Columns 2006

You can go home again

There is little in this world that is as brilliantly white as the tundra in spring when the sun is shinning brightly.  In fact, the only thing that can possibly be called whiter is the pack ice shimmering under that same insane sun.  Like everything else in life, it doesn’t necessarily look that white when you get up close to it.  In fact, the pack ice becomes a jumble of old ice, new ice, blue ice and grey ice, boulders tumbled around like grains of sand kicked by a child on a beach. 

This year, Barrow has had some storms that have left the pack ice looking even more daunting than usual for the whalers who will soon be carving paths to the edge for their whaling camps. When you are hauling a skin boat mounted on a wooden sled pulled by a skidoo through corridors of jagged ice over trails broken and heaving, it is like trying to thread something very big through the eye of a very, very small needle.  One wrong bump and the ice will rip into the skin and ruin your season before it begins.

These thoughts occupy my mind this week because I was in Barrow recently. While we in Anchorage long for break up if only to get rid of the ice that covers our streets and sidewalks, in Barrow the whalers are grateful for solid pack ice that won’t disappear right away so that their spring whaling can proceed as safely and successfully as possible.

While we here in Anchorage worry about property taxes and sales taxes and mayoral races, the talk on the North Slope is about offshore drilling and preserving a way of life that has survived despite the onslaught of a different world and culture.  My friends flow easily between the two cultures – much more easily than I can imagine doing. They have cable modem Internet access and cell phones that are seemingly permanently implanted on their ears. They work in finance and science, administration and education.

They also hunt caribou, whales and walrus.  They navigate a seemingly trackless land with relative ease.  They are as comfortable in a skin boat as an SUV.  They flow from one century to the next in a way that has always left me a bit awed.

Not that everything is all fine and dandy up north.  I treated my friend Greta to a tank of gas for her new, fuel-efficient truck.  It cost $61.  I went for a latte and an extra shot of espresso cost $1.75.  Domestic violence is still rife and abused and neglected kids fill the roster of both the tribal and state courts. The fight over subsistence versus development seems never ending and municipal revenues continue to fall forcing local government to make some hard choices in services.

But despite all that, I still see a community that has fought and is fighting for its future.  Ilisagvik College, a fully accredited community college just outside of Barrow, continues to receive financial support from the North Slope Borough because the community is aware that education is critical to the future of its families and youth.  The college enrollment continues to expand as more and more youth work to integrate the moneyed economy with their subsistence lifestyle so that a balance is achieved that allows both to flourish.

It’s not easy.  Nine to five jobs don’t readily accommodate the whale, caribou or bird migrations.  The need to hunt when game is available makes a shambles of the western love of schedules and time frames.  But little by little, over the years, compromises have been reached that allow both cultures to exist side by side in some sort of uneasy truce.

Going back to Barrow always reminds me of just how vast and different this state really is. No one living in an urban or even suburban area of this state can really imagine how isolated village life is.  That isolation isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it certainly forces a local focus that makes the rest of the state seem quite distant.

Despite all that, it’s nice to know that Tom Wolf may have been very wrong and that here in Alaska, at least, you can go home again. Certainly consideration of that possibility helps to pass the time on the plane as you fly from Barrow back to Anchorage while munching some strange mozzarella fried stick thing that comes with your drink. The warmth I always feel in Barrow never fails to totally overcome the frigid weather.

Actually, there is no question about it. When you’ve lived in Bush Alaska, you can always go home again.