Alaska still a charmer after 40 years

October 2, 2012 

Forty years ago today, Oct. 3, 1972, I first set foot in Barrow. I'd signed up for a two-year tour with Indian Health Service. After a whirlwind one-day orientation in Anchorage at ANMC, I was sent directly to Barrow to relieve some nurses who had their vacations on hold due to a shortage of staff. I didn't leave Barrow again, except for some medevacs to Fairbanks, until the following July. For someone who a week before had been enjoying dinner and a play on Broadway, the culture shock could not have been greater.

I'd spent the past two nights at the old IHS quarters off Third Avenue crying myself to sleep. I was travelling with a very unhappy parrot that was not doing anything to make my life easier. Now I'd arrived in the dark at a place where my luggage was unceremoniously dumped near a railing outside a shed that I was expected to believe was the Wien airline terminal. The fence looked like it was waiting for Little Joe to ride up and tether his horse.

I remember going into the "terminal" and asking where the restroom was. I'd been loath to run the gantlet of pipeline workers sharing the plane with me in order to access one during flight. This was the early pipeline days when one flight twice a week went to Barrow on its way to and from Prudhoe Bay. The pipeline workers, all fine people I'm sure, used the flight as their last opportunity to drink before reaching Prudhoe. Needless to say, the airplane restrooms were well occupied during the flight.

The doc and nurses who greeted me looked at each other when I made my request and then smiled grimly as one stated, "She'll have to find out sooner or later." That was my introduction to the famous bush honey bucket. I can only assume I did not jump back on that plane and demand it return me to Brooklyn because the fumes from the honey bucket had clouded my judgment.

Despite the fact that my family still asks me when I'm moving home, I must confess that home is now here and, for so long as I can function independently, will remain so. I may have had to leave Barrow for health reasons, but I don't have to leave Alaska. For that I am immensely grateful to the oil companies whose investment in this state brought us kicking and screaming into the modern world, including the world of medicine. You no longer hear people explaining how they have to go to Seattle for health care. We can get it here now. That wouldn't have happened without the pipeline, the oil and all its attendant pluses and minuses.

Over my forty years here, I've seen the changes brought about by money flowing into an economy that had been woefully short of it for a long time. Some changes are good. Some are questionable. And some are just sad -- sad because they mark the end of the Alaska I found when I first arrived and the University Mall at 36th and New Seward pretty much marked the outer boundaries of the civilized parts of the city. After that, you might have still been in Anchorage but you were considered to be in the wilderness.

I've been privileged to live here when the likes of Wally Hickel, Jay Hammond and Eben Hopson Sr. were alive and kicking. They were some of the pioneers of what is now the shape of this state, both politically and philosophically. I also had a front row seat as drugs and alcohol followed money into our villages and wreaked havoc on the fabric of indigenous societies. And I've lived long enough to watch as people in those villages have fought long and hard to hold on to their cultural values while adapting to their changing world.

It's been a fascinating, sometimes bumpy, always interesting, frequently exhilarating and never, ever boring adventure so far. I've made friends who have become family and I actually have family who now somewhat understand why I stay here.

I chose Alaska as my home a long, long time ago in a world far, far away. It was, and continues to be, one of the best decisions I've made in a life filled with some pretty crazed choices.


Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," a memoir of her 28 years in Barrow. Web site, www.elisepatkotak.com.

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