The town of Barrow has 4,373 residents and is 21 sq miles, of which 18 sq miles are land (the rest is lakes and lagoons). The predominant land type in Barrow is tundra, which lies on top of permafrost that is as much as 1,300 ft in depth at some points.
Therefore, the small wooden buildings and quonset huts that make up the neighborhoods are built on top of risers in order to not melt this permafrost layer that is supporting the whole town. The houses are all nestled pretty close together and street lamps densely line the streets, one per every three buildings. The roads are not paved and remain completely frozen throughout the winter. Meanwhile, the houses are constantly caked in snow, so much so that most people have written their house number in the snow on the fronts of their homes.
There are no roads to Barrow, AK so to get here you must fly or take a ship (only possible briefly in the summer). Everyone in town drives and to prevent the cold from draining your battery, you must either leave your car running outside for hours at a time or plug it in to one of the many extension cords extending from the buildings.
Barrow has all of the regular amenities such as a large grocery store, restaurants, a hospital, a high school and elementary school, a heritage center, a library and a post office. The only difference is that each place may be more comprehensive in nature that what you are used to, being the only building of its kind for miles. When living in this essentially land locked island, you can really tell that you are truly in the middle of nowhere.
One of the town’s main attractions is the Whale Bone Arch that is out on the coast. The archway is made from the jaw of a bowhead whale, the whale that is commonly hunted up here by the subsistence hunters. The boats surrounding the archway are also made from whale bones. The arch serves as a monument to the bowhead, a creature that sustains the Barrow population. It also reminds you of where you are, a monument to the strong culture that exists here. It is amazing to recall that I am still in America.
Today it is -23˚F in Barrow, AK and balmy if I do say so myself. On a couple of days this week the wind chill brought us down to about -55˚F which is not unusual, but the absolute temperature here rarely drops below -40˚F degrees or rises above 50˚F.
Due to its location 320 miles above the Arctic Circle, Barrow is extremely dry and is classified as a polar desert, receiving very little precipitation every year, averaging less than five inches. We have seen no new snow since arriving here one week ago.
The sun rose this morning at 10:54 AM and will set a mere five and a half hours later at 4:29 PM. The sun is in perpetual sunrise or sunset at this time of year, never more than 30 above the horizon, often causing the snow to appear blue or pink.
We are lucky to have missed the period of complete darkness here when the sun set on November 18th and did not rise again until January 22nd. Every day we gain an additional 14 minutes of daylight, with the sun rising seven minutes earlier and setting seven minutes later. By the time we leave in March we will be experiencing 11 hours of light per day. Barrow will have 24 hour daylight in the summer from around May 12th to August 1st.
I explored the grocery store with Ross today. As students we both have some pretty cheap habits, so when we picked up a pack of $8.93 Oreos, we cringed as we placed it back on the shelf, sad that we would not be getting our chocolate cookie sandwich fix on later. This gave me an idea though, to assemble a virtual grocery cart and compare the prices against those of Walmart. I chose Walmart not because we are suggesting that a Walmart should make its way up to Barrow, AK, but because Walmart is well-known in the Continental U.S. and their prices are easy to find on the internet. Here is what I discovered:
|18 Large Eggs||$5.99||$2.16|
|Half Gallon 2% Milk||$7.89||$2.99|
|Tropicana 89 oz Orange Juice||$19.53||$5.98|
|10 oz bag of Lays Original Potato Chips||$9.83||$4.29|
|Family size Double Stuff Oreos 1lb 4 oz||$8.93||$3.50|
|Triscuit Original 9 oz||$6.49||$3.88|
|Gold Medal All-Purpose Flour 5 lb||$10.99||$2.46|
|Pure Granulated Sugar 4 lb||$8.79||$2.79|
|Crisco Canola Oil 48 fl oz||$9.99||$2.49|
|Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup 24 oz||$5.99||$2.28|
|Smucker’s Strawberry Jam 32 oz||$7.99||$2.50|
|Jif Creamy Peanut Butter 16 oz||$6.27||$2.78|
|Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bars 6 1.5 oz packs||$6.99||$2.98|
|Honey Bunches of Oats with Strawberries 13 oz||$8.49||$2.88|
|Total Grocery Bill||$130.61||$46.46|
This raises many interesting questions. Why are things so expensive? How does their cost compare to people’s incomes? The oil industry touches many lives up here and salaries with oil companies are relatively high. Additionally, Alaska pays all of its residents an annual sum of money to continue their residence here, from the Alaska Permanent Fund.
The fund was established in 1976 by article 9, section 15 of the Alaskan State Constitution. The Alaskan Permanent Fund sets aside a share of oil revenue to benefit the current and future residents of AK, who may no longer have oil as a resource. To put this amount into context, the annual individual payout of 2014 was $1,884. This varies every year and has been higher in the past. However, this sum of money in the context of these grocery prices is not going to be drastically boosting the economy of Barrow, AK.
The families up here are not wealthy. The median per capita income of Barrow according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is $22,902. In Boston, MA this number is significantly higher, at $33,964. However, the median family income of Barrow is $68,223 while Boston’s is $62,014. If we assume that median incomes in the two places are somewhat similar, it puts the high price of groceries for Barrow residents in context.
My own conclusion is that the grocery prices here are driven by shipping costs. But the relationship is not straightforward. Some things, like Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup or Jif Creamy Peanut Butter are only double in price, while others, such as the 5 lb bag of flour or Crisco Canola Oil are quadruple. What affects the shipping cost, weight or volume? Why are some things twice their normal price, while others are more? Without interviewing the merchants, we cannot say.
In talking to a few of the locals here it seems as though the grocery store in town, while it does not have a complete monopoly (there are one or two other smaller grocery type stores) does hold 80% of the market. The shelf life of the item probably also plays a part, for things like milk, eggs, and produce especially. One person we met reported buying a pineapple on sale for $10.
(At one point a political candidate in Barrow flew down to Anchorage and bought a whole bunch of Big Macs, flew them back up here and sold them for five or six dollars apiece as a fundraiser. It was very successful, scouts take note! )
The high food prices are reflected in each of the five restaurants as well. Perhaps more interesting though is the hilarity of their expansive menus.Though a restaurant will designate itself as the town Japanese restaurant or pizza place or Chinese restaurant, what each restaurant really means to say is, for example, “I am an everything restaurant that dabbles in pizza.” Each restaurant has a similar menu which goes on for about eights pages offering every popular type of food.
At Northern Lights, the local Chinese place, one could get Mongolian beef, monkey brains, egg rolls, a hamburger, curly fries, or simply a pizza. My favorite place by far has been Cruz’s/Lilliana’s Bakery– both a Mexican restaurant run by Cruz who is originally from Mexico and a bakery run by his Cuban wife Lilliana.
They are possibly the nicest people I have met so far (thank you both for accommodating Rachel’s and my vegetarianism up here), and they both have extremely interesting stories about how they ended up in Barrow, where they met. We have become such regulars there, they even know us when we order over the phone.