An arctic evening walk, to the store and the restaurant


We went out at fifteen below

In the sunset, and we walked through the snow

     I said, oh so bold,

     It’s not all that cold

As long as the wind doesn’t blow.

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  Avoiding burnout, I’m taking a sabbatical while my one-year non-compete clause winds down, having adventures, visiting family and friends, and working in out-of-the-way places.  Currently I’m on assignment at the hospital in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the United States.

Bethany and I went out in the evening yesterday.  We suited up; me with my Carhartt Arctic Extreme coveralls and Alaska parka, Bethany with her snow pants and long down parka.  We both wore hats and mittens.  With calm winds and temperatures in the negative teens, ice quickly formed in my beard and on the faux fur ruff of my hood.

Brower café resides in a hundred-and-twenty-year-old structure originally constructed as a haven for stranded whalers.  It looks west onto the Arctic Ocean.  As we walked the mile under azure skies in the long northern twilight, up the shallow incline to Browerville, we realized the restaurant was closed when we ran into the owner leaving.  With two-stroke snowmobile engines whining in the background, she told us about the alternate Sunday opening schedule.

We trudged through the gloom, angling north, following the road by the sea.  Bethany asked about polar bears; I told her I hadn’t seen any tracks.  We turned right, towards the grocery store, called commonly Aycee’s in English and Stuapak in Inuit.

In the parking lot we witnessed the incongruity of a man in Bermuda shorts and a down parka getting out of an SUV while snow machines made bootlegger turns so they could slide into parking places between cars and four-wheelers.

Inside, my glasses fogged and we filled our cart with our parkas.  Peaches at $3.68 a pound seem very dear by Iowa standards but a positive bargain in comparison to North Slope prices; the very fact that I could even consider the purchase amazed me.

Outside, the skies had darkened and the temperature had risen when we started back to the hospital housing.  We dodged snow machines zipping from lagoon to lagoon.  My breath didn’t condense on my facial hair.  A breeze freshened at our backs and my glasses fogged, then frosted with the moisture. 

I waited outside by the steps while Bethany put the fruit in the apartment; I pushed my hood back and took off my hat and mittens.  The mercury had soared to zero. 

Our boots still squeaked in the snow, but at a lower pitch than tortured Styrofoam.  We walked down the hill to the Japanese restaurant.

Though it sits a few yards from the water’s edge, it has no windows to look out over the frozen sea. 

Six of Barrow’s seven restaurants serve American breakfast.  Contrast being the essence of meaning, I enjoyed looking at a menu which offered side orders of (among others) grits, English muffins, and kim chi. 

Going against our third gastronomic tourist’s principle, don’t leave Iowa to order beef, I asked for the ox tail soup.  The manager expressed surprise at my choice, and we had a good conversation.  The last time I’d had ox tails had been 1959.

I enjoyed the dish, as much for the difference as for the similarity to what I’d had before.

On the way home, the temperature had risen to 11 degrees.  I left my parka open, I unzipped the legs and front of my coveralls, and pulled back my hood.

I do not know why the air cools when the sun rises, drops during the daylight hour or two, then warms after sunset.

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One Response to “An arctic evening walk, to the store and the restaurant”

  1. DAVE STERLING Says:

    Steve – You would feel as if you were in Alaska if you were back in Sioux City. A cold weather blast has hit the states, and the news is that 33 states have been affected. This cold weather is going to last another day or two if the weather forecasters have it right. Because I leave the house in the morning and go straight to my office, and then repeat the same trip in reverse when I come home, I really don’t notice the extreme cold. I have a garage at my house and drive to a garage behind our office building. It was only during this past week-end that I was exposed to the frigid air. And I now have an insulated jacket with a hood, and that really keeps me warm in the outside air.

    Speaking of oxtails, I didn’t know that they are still available for purchase for retail or restaurant use. When I was younger (from 13 until I finished college at Morningside College here in Sioux City), I worked at my dad’s small grocery store. I learned the business from top to bottom, including becoming a rather deft and experienced meat cutter. I have always said that if the accounting business gets bad, I could always go back to my meat cutting skills and make a few bucks the old fashioned way. I think that I could still break a side of beef.

    Getting back to oxtails, that was a product that we sold behind the meat counter, and I can remember cutting the oxtails between the joints for customers who wanted to make them for soup. I never experienced the result of my producing a product for what was considered to be a rather tasty dish of soup. Which means that I never tasted oxtail soup. I have never seen it offered in a local restaurant, but perhaps I will find this item on the menu some day and finally explore the intricasies of what my previous endeavors could have produced in the way of an excellent bowl of oxtail soup.

    Our heavy filing season is finally upon us, and we are working longer hours. Officially our hours are 7 AM to 7 PM. But my brain has been programmed for so long on starting at 8 in the morning that I still come in at 8. Maybe that is what you call executive privilege, but for some reason if I change my work schedule to an earlier start, I don’t seem to function on all cylinders. So I have always stayed with an 8 AM starting time. Some of my partners lived on farms in their youth and their early morning cycle is a lot different than mine. If I were in Alaska, I am not sure what I would do to adjust to the drastic change in the environment.

    Well, I am going to wrap up this letter and start looking for a cell phone. My contract expires in two weeks so I will very likely change my phone. I want to stay with the basic phone, so there is not a lot to choose from. Samsung makes a phone called the Samsung Haven that looks about right to me. I don’t have the time to get into the iphone, droids, androids, or outer space communication systems. I stick to the basics, because that is the kind of guy I am. I stay with the true, the tried and the tested. And that undoubedly explains why I have been married to my one and only sweetheart Roberta for 56 years. I guess that we are just used to each other. It has been quite a ride through life and I am looking forward to many more years of the same. My main concession to modern times has to do with my willingness to use all the technology that is offered, with the limitation that I don’t go for the far out or the sophisticated.

    Take care. And say hello to Bethany. Roberta wants me to be sure to tell Bethany that she thinks that she is a very brave person. And one more thing that I don’t want to forget – she says to tell you and Bethany that she sends her love.

    DAVE

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