Friday, October 14, 2011
When Dr. Grannas first asked if I wanted to venture into Alaska to continue my summer research, I thought, "Awesome! The arctic! I’ve never been there!" I was so excited to have a new experience and possibly even get to see some new culture. I had the stereotypical presumptions about what Alaska would be like: snow, glaciers, polar bears, and Eskimos. Boy, was I wrong.
Soon after I agreed to go on this trip, I learned that I wouldn’t be traveling to a common tourist city (Anchorage, Fairbanks...) but that I’d be spending a week in Barrow, Alaska. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Barrow, it’s about as far North as you can get, without actually being in the Arctic Ocean. Needless to say, I became a little less enthused at this thought, but still agreed to go.
When we arrived at the Barrow, Alaska airport I was immediately in shock. One – it was about 30° colder than Philadelphia at this time of year, and two- the airport was a single room consisting of a baggage claim belt, a metal detector/security station, and a few rows of chairs. Where had I landed that didn’t even have a proper airport!? At first glance, the town of Barrow seemed just as small and sparse, with wooden houses, metal "huts", a single grocery store, and a handful of restaurants. Little did I know that by the end of the week Barrow would grow on me.
Many people who visit Barrow might have the same thoughts and judgments that I first had on my arrival. A small, dreary town that was covered in snow and ice would not seem appealing to some. However, Barrow has its own kind of charm. The people living in this community rely on each other and help one another out in a way that most “down south” have forgotten how to do. This small town of about 4,000 people collectively contributes to each family’s food supply and general well being, ensuring that all will make it through the tough Alaskan winters with enough to eat and neighbors who truly care. When a crew catches a whale in Barrow, the meat is divided up evenly and distributed to each family. Never before had I experienced such a sense of community.
With respect to the town itself, Barrow has many hidden treasures that I was not anticipating to find. Restaurants like Pepe’s North of the Border serves awesome Mexican food… as well as Italian, American, and probably whatever else you are craving! The restaurant itself is a little Mexican oasis – yellow, red, and green decorations cover the walls and sombreros hang from the ceiling, and after eating there for the first time you receive your official "Arctic Circle Club: North of the Border" certificate. Osaka, a Japanese restaurant, serves some of the best sushi I have ever tasted, and a trip to the AC grocery store put in perspective for me how outrageous a simple gallon of milk is in Alaska - $10. Wow.
My trip to Barrow is an experience that I will never forget. The welcoming community and the Eskimo culture definitely broadened my horizons and made me step outside the small world of Villanova’s campus. I can honestly say that I was pleasantly surprised by this small Alaskan town and hope in the future that my research will bring me back again! :)
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
We (myself and an undergraduate student, Rachel) arrived on Saturday evening. As I turned my phone on after we got off the plane (yes, we get cell phone reception up here) I received a text from a friend saying that two whales were caught that day ... one by our good friend (and logistics support manager from 2008 and 2009) Lewis Brower's whaling crew. Needless to say, I was quite happy to hear this. We quickly headed for the beach...Not to sunbathe, but to watch them bring in the whale. It took quite the effort to bring the 41 ft behemoth up onto land. It took a bulldozer and a loader to get the job done. But it finally made it, and the crew and community got to work cutting and dividing the shares.
The whale caught by Lewis Brower's crew was harpooned around 1 pm and was then towed back to the beach from 24 miles out. This took several hours. By 9 pm it was up on solid ground and completely divided up by 4 am. Shares go to each member of the crew, as well as to those who help cut it up. The rest goes back to the whaling captain's home, where many hours are spent the following day cutting up the various pieces into what will be distributed to the community. Rachel and I went to Lewis' house on Sunday to help with this. We worked on cutting muktuk (the blubber with skin attached) and also some of the internal organs (heart, kidneys, etc). Below is Rachel working on this ...
Whaling is an integral part of life in Barrow, as most community members rely on subsistence living practices to survive. Steaks from the grocery store are not part of day to day living around here ... but whale steaks are quite tasty! There are two whaling seasons each year, and the International Whaling Commission sets quotas for each community that cannot be exceeded. This fall season, Barrow is allowed 13 "strikes". So they can bring in a maximum of 13 whales. However, a whale that is harpooned but lost also counts as a "strike". Because of the careful hunting practices and consideration of population dynamics, the arctic whale population is thriving and this subsistence hunting practice is in no way curtailing the whale population.
We are here in Barrow for several reasons this time around. 1.) I will be giving a talk to the local community updating them on our research and "reporting back" our results to the local community. 2.) Philadelphia area high school teacher, Dr. Bill Smith, is also here (he arrived on Monday) to do "remote" classes to his students back at Bristol Borough High School. He started the first of these today and will continue these on Thursday and Friday. 3.) We are sampling snow to isolate natural organic matter which we will take back to our Villanova lab to characterize, which means filtering lots of snow. As I type this blog, Rachel and I are babysitting our filters. Ah, the joys of science!
Rachel plans to post something tomorrow on her first "Arctic experience", so stay tuned for that!