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Sep 8, 2016
by Dr. Lane Pederson
Training professionals in DBT has brought me to amazing places with opportunities to meet truly wonderful people. In the past year I trained a grateful audience in Mexico and experienced Mex-ican culture and urban life not seen within resort destinations, passing my free time in community spaces teaming with people young and old playing sports, laughing, and visiting. I also visited Australia for the third time, this time having familiar and favorite restaurants, botanical gardens, landmarks, and jazz clubs to venture back to during the nearly month-long stay. In between these international destinations I dropped into places both rural and metropolitan across the con-tinental United States, always looking to get out and about to meet people and see the sites. However, perhaps the most unique destination I visited this year was Barrow, Alaska, where I provided a DBT training for Arctic Women in Crisis.
Barrow is unlike any other place I have visited. Located at the top of Alaska within the Arctic Circle on the Arctic Ocean, Barrow is accessible only by plane. The landscape is tundra, with not a tree or hill in sight, and none of the roads within this town of 4500 are paved because of the permafrost. The population is 65% Inupiat Eskimo, whose ancestors have occupied semi-permanent settlements in this region for thousands of years including a 1500 year time period that overlapped with woolly mammoths! Mammoth tusks and artifacts are on display in various places around town along with whale bones, walrus tusks, bison skulls, and the various pelts that come from native animals including wolves and polar bears. Surprisingly (to me), Barrow is also home to 185 species of birds that can be viewed in the tundra during the summer months, which makes this area a destination for bird watchers.
The weather in Barrow is cold and windy, which is an understatement. During my stay in mid-April, the high temperatures were in the single digits but the wind chills were around negative 25. Being a Minnesotan, I braved the cold and walked around Barrow, usually staying out for only 30 to 35 minutes at a time before the cold winds blew me back inside. I have not been cold like that for a long time, bringing back distant memories of being a kid outside in the middle of winter, having wandered too far from home, and trudging slowly back only after realizing the sting of frostbite setting into numb extremities. The cold and wind in Barrow did the same, chilling my bones, numbing my face, hands, and legs, and making my eyes water. And this was April weather! During the coldest times the air temperature can be negative 50 (or below!) without the wind chill, and “summer” really does not get much warmer than the 40s. Aside from a few heavily bundled children playing and an occasional person passing on a snow machine, four-wheeler, or in a pickup, I was the only person out wandering what seemed in many ways like a ghost town. The solitude made me long for the warmer months here, when the community is out and about after a long winter that has over 60 days of darkness (one therapist characterized the darkness as a beautiful indigo, and of course the northern lights are beyond incredible during the darkest time of year). Contrasting the winter months, the height of the whaling seasons in spring and fall bring excitement and celebration, and during the summer months the community holds vibrant outdoor gatherings, tossing one another into the air from blankets, and soaking in the Midnight Sun from May through August.
The houses in Barrow are modest, usually no more than hundreds of square feet in space sitting on blocks, often occupied by full families. Most houses are in some state of disrepair, with peel-ing paint, boarded windows, and makeshift repairs. Old cars and trucks, snow machines, and other broken down things, like appliances, grills, and other household items are frequent sights around town. Barrow is much closer to the North Pole than to a Home Depot, so basic supplies are hard to come by and are extraordinarily expensive. Fixing up your home, should the weather be nice enough, is a luxury, as is tending to your yard. Nonetheless, there is a certain attraction in seeing the natural cycle of things, and I was reminded of the Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi, a philosophy in which one finds beauty in decline, knowing that rebirth in everything happens in time. I found the surroundings fascinating with a simple beauty that held my interest much more than fancier but more pedestrian places. It is a place where community is much more valuable than possessions.
Eventually I gathered enough courage to walk to the edge of Barrow, over the snow drifts, across the beach, and out onto the ice covering the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Why courage? For one, fear of polar bears. Although polar bears rarely come into town, they can certainly be out on the ice, and when they are roaming toward the beach they are likely hungry. One of the therapists at my training is married to a whaling captain who had just killed a polar bear the night before. The bear had been following him and the confrontation was inevitable. This bear was processed and every part of it used. However, I had no use for a bear, no gun, and no Arctic experience passed down through the generations to me, so I felt a bit like dinner. I also sus-pected that having to spot a polar bear on a totally white landscape could put the bear at an ad-vantage, as would its ability to move quickly on the ice. Somehow knowing that these bears usually swipe with the left paw, which is why hunters approach them from the right, seemed more like trivia then any useful survival ploy to me.
The other dangers on the ice are that there may be a fissure that you could fall through or that the chunk you are standing on could break free and move out into the ocean. The ocean ice is constantly moving and changing creating unseen dangers to people without experience. Inupiats know over a dozen “types” of ice and what dangers to look for when traveling on it. This knowledge is essential since in the event of a fissure or drift you would for die from the elements or be food. Although these calamities were low probability events, I still stayed relatively close to shore even though I was tempted to walk further out. In a brief amount of time, the cold and wind motivated me to turn back toward the safety of town, feeling awe that whaling captains and their crews had recently set up camps on the ice sheets with the beginning of whaling season.
Whaling is an ancient and primary form of subsistence for many families here, and it is central to the cultural identity of Barrow. The Inupiat treat whales with great reverence, and because whal-ing is for subsistence only, you cannot buy whale meat or get it in a restaurant. A therapist whose family is native to Barrow, Daisy, brought me a snack of raw whale skin and blubber along with raw whale meat. To have an opportunity to try food that is so meaningful to their community was an honor, and it was both delicious and a highlight of my visit.
Like Daisy, the people of Barrow are kind and friendly, with gentle demeanors that sharply con-trast the harsh elements in which they live. However, the time of year decreased opportunities to talk with many people other than the therapists and advocates at the training, a group who are extraordinary dedicated to the work they do on the North Slope. The therapists and advocates are a diverse team with some who grew up in Barrow or other parts of Alaska and others moved here from the lower 48 and from other countries. Those who immigrated came from warmer climates and communities that had access to music, entertainment, sports, fine dining, and relia-ble cell phone and internet service…the trappings that many of us take for granted. When I asked many of the therapists who moved here, “Why Barrow?,” that simple question resulted in a variety of polite answers that all seemed to boil down a calling to be here.
I guess that is why I came too, if only for a short visit. Barrow is a place unlike any other in the world, with an exceptional climate and location that is inhabited by people with an amazing herit-age that goes back thousands of years. I started to miss Barrow as I boarded the plane on my long journey back to warm Minnesota, and I hope to be back again someday. In summer.