Experiencing rural Alaska first-hand

Lex Treinen/ Sun Star Contributor

April 29, 2014

Eight seconds after six, we heard the explosion. I looked at the sixth grader who stood next to me on cross-country skis. “Told you,” he said, unfazed. We were standing on the bank of the Colville River right outside of the school in Nuiqsut, Alaska, staring at a mushroom cloud five miles off in the distance. I recently had the chance to travel to the North Slope on a trip organized jointly by the UAF Club K’enaanee Kkaazoot and funded by a grant from the People’s Endowment to introduce skiing to the Inupiaq schoolchildren. Over five days, I came to know the people of the village of 400 and to appreciate a lifestyle characterized by contrasts: the punctuality of the 6:00 explosion against the villagers’ lackadaisical arrival to social events; the vastness of the landscape against the confinement of the natives; and the deep tradition of the Inupiat against their wholehearted embrace of modern technology.

The 6:00 explosion, I later learned, was a daily occurrence, a ritual of the oil companies who tirelessly constructed ice-roads across the frozen tundra using gravel from these explosions. These ice-roads spread for miles, but they are unceremoniously destroyed each May. The horizon spread out for miles, an unnoticeable slope northwards that gives the region its name, but access is paradoxically limited.  Even for the annual whale hunts, villagers sometimes have trouble working through oil field lands, which the oil companies tightly control for security and economic reasons.

Even in late April, the temperatures were around zero degrees with a steady wind blowing 20 miles per hour. My four jackets feel like a sheet of newspaper. The Inupiat, who have centuries of adaptation to perfect cold-weather clothing technology, mostly chose to go in cotton sweatshirts, sans hats and gloves. Despite the cold, my lips and cheeks sunburned and scabbed over because of the high reflectivity of the snow. Meanwhile, the temperatures indoors were unbearably hot–in the classroom where we slept, the thermometer’s maximum of 90 degrees was easily topped. Kuukpik Corp., the Nuiqsut tribal corporation, leased out the land to ConocoPhilips in exchange for free natural gas, so heating costs are cheaper than in Anchorage.

Unlike the punctual 6 p.m. explosion, our foray into the village Presbyterian church for the Easter Sunday service was without order at all. The service began 30 minutes behind schedule and wavered between deep emotional and absurd lack of decorum. Young children crawled up on the stage screaming, and one sixth grader fell asleep in the front row of the pews as the preacher, an elder Inupiaq named Virginia came to tears explaining Jesus’ love for his children.

A similar mix of chaos and humanity was present at a school-wide meeting we attended, which included visiting administrators from Barrow. There we watched Caucasian administrators don kuspuks and ask for more traditional knowledge in the classroom while Inupiaq mothers wore cotton sweatshirts and gore-tex jackets.

Despite the ironies and absurdities of Nuiqsut, it was sad to leave. On the flight home after teary good-byes with the children, I contemplated on the Marquez-iansurrealism that is Nuiqsut and other parts of rural Alaska. It is a place where extremes of hot and cold, old and new, and wealth and poverty all combine in strange fantastic forms. Traveling to bush Alaska might intimidate some folks who are wanting punctual meetings, moderate climes and a sure flight home, but some of us need some excitement now and then. In most places the only thing you can expect is the ordinary; in Nuiqsut all you can expect is the 6:00 explosion. I would go back any day.

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