Posts Tagged ‘wolverine’

When fur is a necessity

January 25, 2011

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.

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A walk to the grocery store at thirty-five below

January 20, 2011

We walked in the snow and the ice,

The moonlight was ever so nice,

     Ignore all the clocks,

     Watch out for the fox

Who goes out eating lemmings and mice.

The intense arctic cold doesn’t stop Bethany and me from going outside.  Under a full moon, with clear skies, we walked out to the airport last night; the wind chill dropped the effective temperature to -35 degrees Fahrenheit.   My breath condensed on the faux fur ruff of my parka as well as my beard, which led to our evening discussion of hoods trimmed in fur.

Hunters eagerly seek the wolverine here, but I also see wolf, beaver, lynx, otter, arctic fox, grey fox, and red fox on outer wear.  Tanning skins taken locally falls to the women and the women get the best of the furs; men, for the most part, get the trimmings. 

Most arctic fox in this area carry rabies.

Snow crunches at high frequency in this weather.  Barrow receives little precipitation, less than five inches per year on average, so when snow falls the wind blows the ground bare between snow drifts.  Nonetheless moonlight here on a clear night comes in with a “very bright” rating.

The afternoon clinic ran busy and ran late; I worked through the dinner hour and finished fatigued.  Both yesterday and today I took care of four people in one family in one room.

The outpatient area of Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital has six exam rooms and an ER with two bays.  The first patient of the afternoon was quite ill and needed a good deal of medical care, staying in the department for three hours.  Patients who signed in at 4:30 didn’t get seen till after seven.

Most patients today had cough with or without fever; the circulating syndrome apparently started on Friday, and the virus has gone ripping through town.  As usual, those sickest before the epidemic  suffer more during the epidemic.

I find great pleasure in the side conversations I have with the hunters here.  I can pick out whalers most of the time by the glow on their faces.

Two days ago Bethany and I walked to the store.  It wouldn’t rate as an adventure if it hadn’t happened with -45 degree wind chills, and a full moon that didn’t set.  Our glasses grew layers of ice, as the wind whipped wisps of snow along the ground.  We found good traction on the hard dirt roads that have been snow-packed by vehicles but textured by machine.

The grocery store ranks as a medium-sized supermarket.  The ammunition section comes well stocked with common calibers like .223, .45 ACP and 7.62×39.  The presence of a good selection of .22 Hornet surprised me.

The fact of nectarines from Chile in the produce section at $4.50 a pound astounded me.  I can remember saying my mother saying that a hundred years ago kings couldn’t get what can be commonly found in a grocery store; stone fruit in the middle of winter ranks as a triumph of modern man.  I said, “Bethany, I’m buying some.  Contrast is the essence of meaning.”

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.