3 April, 1999
3 April 1999
Follow-up to the Summer 1998 Deering Archeological Excavation
Warm Day in Barrow (-10)--New Meaning of 'Cold Weather Gear'--Snow Machine Trip to Arctic Ocean Ice Pack with Jill Exe--Polar Bear Watch
It is a warm morning (-10 degrees F) and it was light out early. There is a lot more daylight here than the amount that we had in Fairbanks. We were told by Dave Ramey of BASC (Barrow Arctic Science Consortium) that it will be only about a month before there will be 24 hours of daylight. After breakfast in the ARF (Arctic Research Facility) Aaron and I go into the equipment room to check out our Arctic gear. There are many neat rows of survival suits, parkas, bunny boots, etc. Just about anything that you would need to survive out here. It takes a while but we finally piece together our gear and boy is it warm. These clothes are not something that you would want to wear indoors for more than a few minutes. Just after noon Dave Ramey stops by to take us over to the BASC equipment shop to check us out snow machines. We sign out two matching Skidoos and Dave goes over the basics with us. Dave has secured us permits allowing us to travel on UIC (Ukpeagvic Inupiat Corporation) lands. UIC is the Native Corporation responsible for a great deal of the territory around here.
At just after 2 PM we meet our guide as she roars up to the ARF on her Polaris. Jill Exe is a Barrow Schoolteacher originally from Montana. Jill is an avid snowmobiler and a great guide. In our nearly 4 hour tour she will take us out to Point Barrow, whale harvest dumps and an abandoned barge. It's tough to figure out how to stay warm and safe. Jill is able to lend Aaron a helmet and I try to make do with wrapping my head in a neck gaiter and reducing the head hole in my parka to the size of my sunglasses. Unfortunately every time that I breathe my sunglasses ice up. I eventually give up on the sunglasses and let that part of my face freeze. Luckily the handlebars and even the throttle are heated on our snow machines, because even with thick gloves on our hands tend to get cold.
Our trip out onto the Arctic Ocean is great. There have been windstorms so that the ice has shifted and made two-foot high ridges everywhere. It's rough going for the snow machines but the sights are worth it. The land and ocean are nearly indistinguishable. We are surrounded by an uninterrupted white wind sculpted plain. The wind has whipped the snow and buckled the ice creating fantastic shapes. At Point Barrow, the northern most point in North America, we stop and drink some of Jill's hot chocolate and eat some of the elk jerky that her father made. Jill explains that this is the best weather that the North Slope has seen in some time. It is very sunny but at 0 degrees F in the afternoon it is tough to travel at 30 miles per hour on a snow machine.
I have dressed up for some cold skiing and winter camping before at home, but never anything like this. When Tim and I finally emerged from the extreme weather gear room at the ARF, we were a sight to see. Heavily insulated snow pants, a very thick down parka over our winter jacket, hats under our hoods, enormous mittens, and inflated "bunny boots" that looked like something Neal Armstrong wore on the moon. By the time we were outfitted, we had to get outside before we passed out due to the heat. All of this was in preparation for a snow machine trip across the Arctic ice. As Tim said, having Jill Eve as a guide made the trip a pleasure. After riding the snow machines across the ice for a few minutes we were able to appreciate the extent to which we were insulated. A forty mile-an-hour Arctic breeze blowing by certainly necessitated the kind of clothing we were wearing. The trip was a blast, and we really got a good feel of what the frozen ocean is like. Parcticularly interesting was the polar bear factor. Dave Ramey strongly advised a shotgun, and all the time we were on polar bear alert. For the first time I learned the true meaning of riding shotgun.
We were also treated to some solar phenomena. I have heard of occurrences of the sun playing tricks on explorers in regions were the landscape stretches out for miles in all directions, but now I was exposed to some. When the sun had reached its zenith today, there appeared directly below it an image that looked like a sunrise itself. The image was no at all obscure or difficult to locate, but actually quite vivid. Another instance occurred after using binoculars (to look for polar bears). After viewing the horizon for a few minutes and then putting the binoculars down, the whole landscape seemed to have moved up as an eye-level hill only arm's length away surrounding me on all sides. It took a few moments before I regained my perspective. It was quite interesting to experience these phenomena after hearing stories of mirages and the like for so long.
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