In a place where life’s on the brink,
The cold makes cheeks rosy and pink.
The fur of a fox
Can protect from the frost
But nobody’s wearing a mink.
Synopsis: I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. Transitioning my career away from the brink of burnout, I’m on a sabbatical my one-year non-compete clause expires. I’m having adventures, visiting family and friends, and working in out-of-the-way places. Currently I’m in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point the in the United States.
Forty degrees below zero Fahrenheit equals forty degrees below zero Centigrade. At those temperatures, the cold has a hard cruel edge. Wind, given such a weapon, cuts like a saw. Exposed flesh freezes to death in moments. I catch my breath when I step outside, and if I walk too fast or if the wind comes from the wrong direction, I put my hand up to my face to protect my nose from frostbite.
This cold demands a central place in the everyday life of the North Slope. It is a fact that will kill you if you give it the chance.
Such frostbite as I’ve seen here has been confined to the face and neck, when the cold has found a soft spot in the armor of the last layer a person puts on before going outside. People here don’t venture out unprotected more than once.
This kind of dangerous cold makes wearing fur a necessity, not a luxury. Wolverine fur, the most visible, predominates as a ruff on the hood of a parka, but a lot of the shearling lamb, fox, wolf, and beaver stays hidden as the best parkas keep the fur side inside.
I haven’t seen mink, even once.
The people here, Native and non-Native, live with the cold.
Some people, whether connected with the hospital or not, just don’t go outside for longer than it takes to get in and out of a taxi.
A few of the young, dressed for the experience, go out for fun on snow machines; the distinctive whine of the engines sounds throughout the long Arctic night.
Most people riding on snow machines go out of necessity, not recreation. Hunting happens year-round; most of the calories consumed in Barrow come from creatures who breathed their last less than fifty miles from here. Firearms qualify as tools. The people hunt, not recreationally, but for subsistence. They whale, not for wages, but to eat; if they didn’t, they would starve.
The women sew to survive and manufacture most of the outerwear.
Thus living in Barrow means wresting the necessities of life from the most unforgiving environment in the world.
Yet, when I find myself in a group of people here, I count nine smiles for every frown, a ratio eight times better than any other place I’ve been. Except, perhaps, a comedy club.