Posts Tagged ‘snow machine’

And after the Iditarod, Brevig Mission

March 23, 2015

Taking off after the race
Away from the Nome City base
I flew Bering Air
To Brevig, that’s where
You use hondas the reindeer to chase.

Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, and honoring a 1 year non-compete clause, travelled and worked in out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. After three years working with a Community Health Center, I am back having adventures in temporary positions until they have an Electronic Medical Record (EMR) I can get along with. Right now I’m on temporary detail to Brevig Mission.

Yesterday I remembered my years in high school distance running; I ran dead last in 6 out of 8 meets my junior year. I wanted to be at the finish line for the last (“red-light”) finishing musher of the Iditarod, the daunting thousand mile journey from Fairbanks. Forty-three years ago, the winner came in close to the time that the “red light” racer did this year.

I didn’t know I’d napped through the siren announcing the incoming dog team till I got downtown. The festive atmosphere had deflated in the week since the first musher came in. The thinning crowd wandered the streets, carrying free posters in plastic bags.

I avoided the mushers banquet as too noisy, and, with 1/3 of the city’s population, too crowded.

One last load of laundry before bedtime, then up very early.

With one daypack for clothes and a postal box with food, I called for a taxi.

The driver’s breath spoke last night’s alcohol excess. On the ride to the airport he talked with delight about the possibility of starting to drive to Teller (80 miles from Nome) if his company gets new vehicles.

I recongized a third of Natives and non-Natives in the Bering Air terminal. The business still runs on paper, no one compained about computers. But they needed to know the weight of my baggage and my person.

In the absence of a PA, the pilot announced the destination and the crowd thinned by the dozen out the door; TSA doesn’t screen if the plane can carry fewer than 49 passengers.

I wore most of my clothing; I finished putting on my insulated bib overalls (suitable for snowmobiling) just when the pilot called “Brevig Mission.”

The village sits on the south side of the Seward Penninsula, supported by subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering. The clinic, the store and the school provide a few jobs.

The sun shone clear and bright on the snow over the hills as we winged north out of Nome; I marvelled at the bare pavement of the runway. The Caravan (also the name of a minivan) held seven humans including the pilot and a lot of freight.

Glad I heeded the friendly warnings about a marginally heated passenger cabin, I snuggled into my parka (here called a parky)

We landed in Teller, close enough to Nome that a 3 season road connects the two communities. The airstrip has no terminal; offloaded freight went onto ATVs and sleds behind snow machines.

We stayed on the ground less time than it took to fly to Brevig Mission (locally, just Brevig).

We could see Teller from the airstrip. Again, no terminal. I rode on the back of an ATV (locally, all called hondas regardless of manufacturer) into town, ten very cold minutes.

I set my gear in the bunk room at the back of the clinic, next to the door marked MORGUE. At the urging of the clinic staff, I accepted a ride to the store. Despite the small population (400, up from 276 in 2000) I could easily have lost my way. I tried to take in landmarks but in the end accepted the same ride back to the clinic.

I went to the bunk room and stripped off layers of long underwear.

I started right in at 1145, and saw 9 patients, more than I’ve seen in a single afternoon in the last six months.

The equipment in the clinic is dated but serviceable; last century’s doppler found the baby’s heartbeat just fine but I had to count the beats for 15 seconds and multiply by four.

I spoke with a reindeer herder, a plane crash survivor, an expectant mother, more than one carrying permanent injuries from snow machine collisions, and one who couldn’t tell the difference between lipoma (a benign lump of fat) and lymphoma (a cancer of the lymphatic system).

As always and as in all my past clinical settings, the ravages of tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana on physical and emotional resilience accounted for most of the pathology.

But here, for the first time, when I brought out my calculator to total up the financial cost of substance abuse, I met with looks of true dismay.

I put it into concrete terms: “Between $11 a pack for Marlboros, $15 a joint for weed, and $1.21 a can for pop, you’re wasting a new honda every two or three years.”

I didn’t say, And I’ll bet you’re underestimating the expense.


Not your standard NAPA store

March 3, 2011



The things you might find on sale

While the wind outside blows a gale

     Wrenches and wires

     And Firestone tires

And stuff for hunting a whale

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’ve just finished an assignment at the hospital in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the United States, and I’m on my way home.  I wrote this piece two days ago.

I meant to get to the NAPA store before now.

Most NAPA stores only sell stuff to fix cars.  In Barrow, the NAPA store, not surprisingly, doubles as the Polaris dealer, and sells snow machines, four-wheelers, and ATVs along with their parts.  They also sell ammunition, firearms, reloading gear, Yak Trax, clothing, and whaling supplies.

Bethany, snow machines, and an ATV at the Barrow NAPA store

The NAPA outlet sells things necessary to hunting cetaceans to subsistence whalers around the North Slope, and, recently, to Russian Inuit.

The Inuit harpoon, adopted in 1840 from Yankee whalers, stands as a marvel of functional complexity.  The head, with a steel shank and a brass toggle, attaches to a homemade wooden shaft.  When the head penetrates far enough, contact with the whale pushes in a connecting rod that runs parallel to the foreshaft.   Rearward movement of the connecting rod activates a complex trigger attached to the shaft, which sets off a #11 percussion cap, which in turn detonates a 70 grain black powder charge, firing a pipe bomb into the whale and starting a fuse that delays explosion for three to seven seconds.

Whaling supplies on display: Top right: brass shoulder gun. Top left: pipe bomb for harpoon. Bottom left: brass and steel harpoon head. Bottom right: smaller harpoon head and explosive brass dart for shoulder gun. Note car supplies on the shelf below display.

The second person in the boat, right behind the harpooner, carries a shoulder gun, a single-shot, break action, 8-gauge brass firearm that dwarfs an elephant gun, weighing about thirty pounds.  Although a breech-loader, it utilizes a black powder charge measured out (the proper term is “thrown”) each time, set off by another #11 percussion cap, and firing an explosive dart slightly smaller than the bomb from the harpoon.  It doesn’t use fixed ammunition, such as a cartridge, and thus does not qualify as a repeater. 

Each bomb and each dart cost about $150, the shoulder gun runs along the lines of $2000.   The harpoon may or may not be retrieved after the harvest, and costs well into the four figure range as.  Getting the seal skins sewn onto the umiak requires $1500 payment for the women who do it.  Clearing trail across the sea ice to open water takes weeks of hand labor and miles of running snow machines, and camping supplies on the ice take money.  All in all, whaling doesn’t come cheap, and few crews bring in a whale more often than once in three years.

Whalers will tell you that they have no success in the hunt if the whale doesn’t give itself.

I learned a lot standing in a store, between Polaris snow machines, bottles of antifreeze, and car tires.

It’s not your standard NAPA store.

Massage, Kung Pao chicken, and pressure ridges.

February 21, 2011

The hospital’s food’s good, I’ll allow,

But a break we were needing right now

     I didn’t think twice

    To go out to the ice

After my chicken Kung Pao.

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.

I had this Sunday off. 

One of the lab techs here has a side business in massage therapy, he specializes in deep fascia techniques or Rolfing.  I had a session at 8:30, Bethany at ten, and we set out for breakfast at 11:30. 

While Bethany ate her hash browns and eggs and I my Kung Pao chicken, we discreetly noted a middle-aged Inuit eating with chopsticks.

Koreans dominate the restaurant business in Barrow.

Most places serve Japanese, Chinese, and Korean foods, along with American dishes.  Two eateries serve pizza, one only does delivery.  The Bingo Hall serves a very good burger and fries, I’m told, at only ten dollars.

I take most of my meals at the hospital cafeteria.  The locum tenens staff and maintenance staff eat for free, a major perk in a town where milk goes for ten dollars a gallon.  Bethany sometimes dines with me at the cost of $10 a meal.  Our chefs cook with love and imagination, really the best hospital food I’ve had, and fare I’d be proud to serve my friends.

After lunch I checked the temperature through the Internet and found 28 below Fahrenheit with a wind chill of 35 below (for you avant-garde Celsius fans, 40 below C equals 40 below F); with such mild breezes I decided to go for a walk.

I’ve accustomed my ears to the high-pitched squeaking of snow under my boots; the colder the snow, the higher the squeak.  Here I have to contend with the unnerving hollow sound my steps make when I’m walking on thick crust, a bit like walking on poorly suspended plywood, with less bounce.  The sound makes me think I’m about to fall through. 

Overdressed for a walk in this weather, while the icicles grew on my beard I had to unzip my parka, later my bib overalls, and eventually I pushed my hood back.

The cold keeps a lot of people in.  Taxis, snow machines, and snow removal equipment comprised a majority of the vehicles.  The few pedestrians I saw looked about a third my age.

In the Top of the World Hotel parking lot, I saw something that I won’t see in Sioux City: a snow machine with its trailer, and in the trailer, unattended, a couple of rifles.  Sleds are toys at home but serious working vehicles here.  Most trailers are homemade. 

Snow machine and trailer with rifles in the Top of the World Hotel parking lot


Recent high winds pushed the sea ice into pressure ridges; most of the blocks thrust twenty feet in the air are bigger than my Toyota.

I was out for an hour and came back with beard full of ice.

The author, after a walk, with ice condensed on beard, hat, and hood.

Superbowl Sunday further north than anyplace else in the country

February 7, 2011

There were a couple of reasons I came.

But it wasn’t for glory or fame,

    The means and the ends

    To hang out with friends,

But football?  To heck with the game.

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 enjoyed a leisurely morning; Bethany knitted and listened to an audio book while I read.  After lunch we suited up for a walk, in the clear arctic daylight with temperatures barely in the negative double digits. 

We hiked around the lagoon, comfortable in our layers.  Our breath condensed on our lips, the faux fur of our hoods, and in our noses.  In our march to the sea, on the return trip, we passed the gas station (Barrow only has one), where the snow machines outnumbered the other vehicles by two to one. 

We walked on the snow-covered beach, with a fifteen foot pressure ridge separating us from the frozen-over Arctic Ocean.

On the beach by the Arctic Ocean, note pressure ridges in the background

We wanted to get back to the housing in time for the get-together.

The hospital in Barrow connects directly to staff housing.  The newer section contains two gyms and a room with a large-screen flat-panel TV, cable, and seven computer terminals.  People gather at the commons because it has the best computer connection (still, it runs slow).  Mostly we don’t socialize, we respect each other’s boundaries, but sometimes we talk.

Last night we had a good time playing

Today, we watched the Superbowl. 

I did not put money in the pool for fear I’d win and for fear I’d have an interest in the game.

Kickoff came at two hours past sunrise in Barrow, and the sun set before halftime.  Such are the peculiarities of living in a time zone four hours ahead of the east coast, where daylight might last three hours but twilight glows for four.

The real football fans clustered closer to the TV.  Those of us more interested in the food sat further away. 

We had hot wings, hot dogs, chili, hummus, pico de gallo, chili con queso, soda, hot salsa, chips, egg rolls, chocolate cake, caramel-chocolate popcorn, cheeses and crackers.  The crowd included doctors and dentists with their wives, lab techs, nurses, and pharmacists.

Some had a margarita or two.  No one drank beer.

In my first undergraduate career, I played saxophone with the Yale University Precision Marching Band and watched every football game for three years.  Since then my interest in spectator sports is directly proportional to my personal connection with the players. 

I marveled at the technical wonder of the photography.   I laughed and groaned at the commercials, which deserve a lot of superlatives.

But at halftime I took a quick nap, then went to the clinic to relieve one of my colleagues.

Being a good team player ranks higher in my priorities than watching football or earning overtime pay.

An arctic evening walk, to the store and the restaurant

January 31, 2011

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.

Snow machine excess, cold injury, and wolverines

January 19, 2011

Some people, they smoke and they drink,

Some trap the otter and mink

     But the story’s been told

     That Barrow’s so cold

You can’t open your eye if you wink.

Synopsis: I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  To avoid burnout, I’m transitioning my career, and while my one-year non-compete clause expires, I’m working in exotic locations, traveling, having adventures, and visiting family and friends.  Currently I’m in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the United States.

I’ve been back on the job for less than twenty-four hours, here in Barrow.  I’ve seen several cases related to snow-machine use.

In Barrow, one avoids the terms sled or snowmobile in favor of snow machine.   The people here use them, not for recreation, but to do necessary work.  People hunt from snow machines, so that hunting injuries are almost synonymous with snow machine injuries.

Most, not all, caribou migrated south past the Brooks Range when the days grew too short.  Herds of up to five hundred remain, grazing on the tundra.  In temperatures so cold that alcohol freezes, in the Arctic night when the sun doesn’t rise and the moon doesn’t set, subsistence hunters go after them with firearms ranging from .22 magnum handguns to 7mm Remington Magnum rifles.

A lot of parkas here sport wolverine fur on the ruff. Unique in that breath frost won’t stick to its fur, hunters eagerly seek the “skunk bear.”  The creature has such a nasty disposition that it acts like a serial killer, slaughtering everything in its path for fun and eating for necessity. 

The government issued a wolverine fur-trimmed parka to a person I know (not a patient) during the cold war, for work done in the Arctic.  To this day, the nature of the work and the circumstances of issuance remain clouded in mystery.

Hunters also go after wolves; polar bears occur as targets of opportunity.

Most of my clinic load, whether in Iowa or Alaska, has to do with damage from alcohol and tobacco.  Respiratory infections, cough, asthma, depression, fatigue and malaise, hypertension, high cholesterol follow from those two substances.  Counseling people to quit, though a good idea, rarely works.

When the patients come in with fetal alcohol syndrome and fetal alcohol effect, it’s too late.  With irreparable damage I just make the best of the situation.

I won’t say where, but I attended a set of fraternal twins, one of whom had fetal alcohol syndrome and one of whom had much milder fetal alcohol effect.  Some people are more resistant to alcohol than others, and such resistance starts before birth.

If most of what I see in any clinic has to do with drinking and smoking, the majority of the remainder has to do with the unique factors of where the clinic stands.  Barrow’s air is so dry that eczema here runs an order of magnitude worse than any I’ve ever seen.  Yet most people know the cold so well that frostbite comes rarely.

The first case of frostbite here in Barrow came my way today, very shallow damage, but not to fingers or toes.