Posted on August 23, 2011
Alaska is often called the land of midnight sun. But it is also a land of darkness in the winter. In the summer Alaskans enjoy long days, and practically have daylight 24 hours a day. When the sun is on Arctic Circle, it is farthest away from the equator, and Summer Solstice on June 21 is the day when sun stays above the horizon for 24 hours. Six months later the sun, however, has crossed the equator and is on Antarctic Cicle — on the other side of the globe, and far, very far away from Alaska. Winter Solstice on December 21 is the shortest day of the year in northern hemisphere and sun doesn’t rise above the horizon at all on Arctic Circle, or north of it.
One day doesn’t sound like a big deal, right?
However, think about living without daylight for 67 days. Barrow is the northernmost town in the United States, only 1,300 miles south of the North Pole. This little town on the shores of Arctic Ocean is home for Inupiat Eskimos who have lived there for over 1,000 years, making it through some rough conditions, wind and cold. Natives hunt bowhead whales for survival under strictly managed whaling program. It is their heritage, it is in their blood. They need it for survival. No matter what the environmentalists say, these people need the right to hunt approximately 50 whales out of over 10,000 on Arctic waters. Not for trophies, not for fun but for making it through the harsh winters.
Visiting Barrow is like stepping back in time. With a luck you one can find internet connection: that is slow as a snail. There is no need to dream about checking Facebook over the cell phone but one can be happy for having a cell phone connection. Gasoline is nearly $6 a gallon, milk is more than that. A case of water is $20. Finding bread or vegetables in town’s two grocery stores is all about luck — you never know if the plane made it up there this week.
And then comes the darkness. From late november until the mid January there is no daylight in Barrow. The sun doesn’t climb above the horizon. What do people do? How to they survive? They have done it for hundreds of years, generations after generations have lived through the periods of darkness. People still keep living their normal life: go to work and school, take care of their normal chores. Even when the cold wind from Arctic Ocean blows over the Alaskan tundra. Absolute temperature can be anywhere between 20 and 50 below but with the wind chill, the actual temperature can be below -100F. Schools are not closed until the mercury drops down to -50′s…. As a mountaineer, I am used to some freezing cold temperatures and cold winds, but I still have a hard time imaging the coldness of -100F.
I visited Barrow in the beginning of August this year, and the cold wind dropped the early morning temperatures below freezing already. Winter is definitely coming to some parts of the world. There will more trips to Barrow in my future, and I look forward to experiencing the adventures. On my last trip I missed a polar bear sighting just by few hours, and yet have to see the village-wide whaling activity. It is a big, wild country here in Alaska.