Fly me to the moon: Prudhoe Bay from above

Deadhorse, Alaska

Deadhorse, Alaska. Photo: Mia Bennett

Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. The place where polar bears butt heads with the petroleum industry – literally. “If a bear’s spotted, work’s usually called off for the day,” a man in Barrow, 200 miles to the west, told me. Oil workers try to scare away the bear – sometimes a polar bear, sometimes a grizzly – and condition it so that it doesn’t come back in search of food.


On my recent trip to Alaska, I didn’t have the chance to stop in bear-battled Prudhoe or nearby Deadhorse, which houses the airport, lodging, and store for the oil workers. Deadhorse is also the end of the Dalton Highway, which starts north of Fairbanks some 400-odd miles to the south. I did, however, get to fly in and out of Prudhoe Bay airport, which in winter appears to miraculously emerge out of the white tundra.

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Ascending out of Anchorage over the Talkeetna Mountains.

Flying from Anchorage, our airplane soared over the Talkeetna Mountains and the Alaska Range. I dozed off soon after the snow-capped peaks transitioned into the relatively flat white plains of the Yukon-Tanana Uplands. When I woke up an hour later, the packed Alaska Airlines flight was descending into Deadhorse, laden with cargo for the winter construction season. The seats that would normally take up the front half of the airplane are replaced with a cargo hold on the airline’s 737-400 Combi planes. Winter is the big construction season in Prudhoe Bay because it’s the only time of year when the ground is solid and snow-covered. This permits driving on the tundra without permanently damaging it.

Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay Airport, Alaska.

Sitting on the tarmac of the moon. Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay Airport. Photo: Mia Bennett

I looked at the view from my window seat and felt like we were descending onto another planet. It was a clear day and the sun bounced off the spindly network of chrome-colored pipes that criss-cross the North Slope. Straight, unwavering pipelines cut across meandering frozen rivers. All of the infrastructure out here is built on manmade gravel pads, for nothing can sit directly on top of the shifting permafrost, which thaws and refreezes every year. In this part of the world, gravel is almost more valuable than oil. The tiny rocks we take for granted down south are in short supply up north. No construction or excavation can happen without gravel.

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Straight pipelines intersect with meandering rivers in Prudhoe Bay in winter. Photo: Mia Bennett

The gray gravel pads are all but invisible in winter, however, and instead, the hundreds of miles of pipelines seem to stretch magically across the landscape. It is beautiful in its own way. Human ingenuity (or idiocy, depending on your point of view) has transformed an area that was once primarily used for local subsistence by the Inupiat people into a export-oriented resource frontier by dredging up the ancient seabed underlying the North Slope.

Prudhoe Bay is North America’s largest oil field. The extent of this industrial moonscape blew me away. It measures some 213,543 acres, or approximately 15 by 40 miles. That’s more than double the size of New York City and still significantly larger than Los Angeles. We flew over the oil field for a good long while before the platforms and pipelines faded into the west. Out here in mid-winter, it was impossible to tell where the tundra turned into the ocean, for both were frozen solid.

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Taking off again from Prudhoe Bay airport, headed east towards Barrow.

“In space we read time,” reflects German historian Karl Schlögel. Above Prudhoe Bay, I felt as if I was witnessing modernity in all its silver-plated excesses. The sight was all the more jarring having come from Anchorage, where I had wandered down the old main street and read about the bustling heydey of a past boom centered around the construction of the Alaska Railway. Faded murals and maps of the “Last Frontier” were the chief reminders of this wealthy era in the city’s history. Up in Prudhoe, what will this extreme edge of the rush for Alaska’s resources look like when the oil runs dry? Abandoned pipelines and platforms might then no longer epitomize a future-forward modernity, but rather a rusty past.

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The main drag in Anchorage, where curio shops have replaced saloons and even a Japanese restaurant that bustled during the construction of the Alaska Railway.

Trump’s budget could cause infrastructure crisis for rural and Native Alaskans

Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay Airport, Alaska.

Under Trump’s budget, air service to many rural communities in Alaska may be eliminated. Photo: Deadhorse Airport (which will certainly remain economically viable, as it is next to Prudhoe Bay), Mia Bennett, 2017.

U.S. President Donald Trump released his proposed budget today, and the reaction has been swift and scathing. Rural communities, healthcare, the environment, science, and climate change research all face enormous cuts. Trump may have run a campaign on behalf of the common man. But given that the president spends half of his time running the government from the palatial Mar-a-Lago, it’s painfully obvious that he cares little about the fates of some of the nation’s most vulnerable people and places.

Rural America, much of which ironically voted for Trump, will have to contend with deep funding cuts if his budget is approved. As a state with one of the highest proportions of rural residents, Alaska would be particularly negatively impacted. Some 34% of Alaskans live outside the state’s cities. Alaska’s rural populations, too, are different than those in the Lower 48. While much of rural America voted for Trump, counties with large Alaska Native populations tended to vote for Clinton. (The same is true of rural, largely Native American counties in the Lower 48). Between 2008 and 2012, rural Alaska actually had some of the largest shifts in voting: many counties that had opted in 2008 for the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, voted in 2012 for Barack Obama. This may reflect the fact that an Alaskan, Sarah Palin, was no longer on the ticket.

Yet it may also suggest that rural Alaska Natives believe that a Democratic president may do more for them than a Republican. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Trump taking a tour of Alaska to witness climate change first-hand and visit Alaska Native settlements. Obama’s visit to Kotzebue made him the first sitting president to visit the American Arctic. In contrast, Trump proposes to eliminate the very agency that Obama tapped to lead the process of of climate change mitigation in coastal communities in Alaska, including determining which ones should be relocated. Unsurprisingly, then, in 2016, rural Alaska again tended to vote Democratic.

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Rural Alaska to Trump: “Not my president?” 2016 Presidential election results for Alaska at the state house district level. Source: Ali Zifan/Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

If Trump’s budget is approved, Alaska Native villages could face an infrastructure crisis. During the campaign, Trump talked big about planning to ask Congress for a trillion dollar infrastructure bill. But maybe he had in mind a few big-ticket projects like pipelines and ports, for his budget proposes to make deep cuts in federal funding to vitally important small-scale infrastructure that supports rural livelihoods in Alaska.Trump wants to pay for a “big, beautiful, wall” to ostensibly keep out illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America. He doesn’t want to pay for shore walls in Alaska that would keep out a rising sea.

Here’s a rundown of how Trump’s budget would jeopardize infrastructure and well-being in rural Alaska.

  • Scraps programs like the Essential Air Service, which provides $21 million a year to guarantee air service to 61 communities in Alaska that otherwise would be viable in a market situation, and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which reduces the cost of heating for people with extremely high bills in places like frigid Alaska. People living in communities in the Lower 48 that lose air service due to the elimination of EAS may just have to drive longer distances, but that isn’t an option in Alaska. As the state’s sole representative to Congress, Don King (R), remarked last year, “That’s what serves my community…I don’t have highways. I don’t have streets. I’ve got air.”
  • Eliminates the Economic Development Administration, which the budget considers a “duplicative administration” even though it is the only federal agency exclusively focused on economic development. The EDA assists with regional development in places like Alaska, Appalachia, the Deep South, and New England.In 2013, EDA invested $838,155 in 12 projects in the State of Alaska. According to its website, its “investments help Alaska communities achieve bottom-up, locally-defined economic development goals and strategies.” Of the funds in 2013, nearly half ($370,000) went to six American Indian/Alaska Native economic development planning organizations in the state.

    The EDA has invested in Alaska Native communities since its establishment in 1965. The village of Gambell, on St. Lawrence Island halfway between Alaska and Russia, received $11,500 in the 1960s for its restoration. In the below photo from the EDA, the native Yupik people prepare an umiak (walrus-skin boat) in Gambell.

    Gambell, Prince, Alaska.

    Villagers making an umiak in 1967 Gambell, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Photo: Economic Development Administration.

    One example of a more recent program that the EDA has funded in Alaska is a $700,000 investment in workforce development in rural Alaska, granted in May 2014. The grant went to the  Association of Village County Presidents in Bethel to purchase equipment used to train workers in mechanical disciplines, including aviation maintenance. This is a crucial skill in a region where many rely on small planes for transportation between remote villages. This program and many other similar ones once funded by the EDA may now no longer be possible.

  • Eliminates infrastructure assistance to Alaska Native Villages provided through the Environmental Protection Agency. This is one of the over 50 EPA programs the budget would cut due to being categorized as “lower priority and poorly performing programs.” Through its Alaska Native Villages and Rural Communities Water Grant Program, the EPA has provided over half a billion dollars in grants since 1995 to assist with clean water provisioning. At least 3,300 homes in rural Alaska, mostly in the western portion of the state, lack running water or flush toilets.
  • Cuts the budget for the Hazardous Substance Superfund Account by $330 million. There are eight active Superfund and Superfund-equivalent sites in Alaska including severely contaminated mine and military sites. Local and state governments would be expected to fill in the funding gap – but given Alaska’s nearly $3 billion budget deficit, this seems unlikely.
  • Overall, appears to cut research to climate change by 20%. Alaska is warming twice as fast as the Lower 48, making climate change research even more urgent. Even as climate change opens new opportunities for Arctic development, it threatens many coastal communities. Some of them, like Kivalina and Shishmaref, may even have to relocate inland to avoid rising sea levels, eroding shorelines, and more severe storm surges, as this report by the Army Corps of Engineers explains. The budget would cut funding to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the Department of Commerce, by $250 million. Specific programs targeted include coastal and marine management, which could unduly affect Alaska since its 6,640 miles of coastline are longer than the coastlines of all other states combined.

    Trump’s budget argues that coastal and marine management takes “lower priority than core functions maintained in the Budget such as surveys, charting, and fisheries management.” But successful fisheries are dependent on well-managed coasts. A study involving NOAA found, for instance, that ocean acidification puts Alaska fisheries and communities at high risk, particularly in the southeast and southwest where many depend on the sea for their livelihoods. According to a NOAA report, in Alaska in 2012, the seafood industry provided 55,890 jobs and accounted for over a billion dollars in landings revenue – a third of the nation’s total and nearly triple the next highest state, Massachusetts. If Trump thinks that this lucrative industry can be maintained without research into coastal management and climate change, he is wrong.

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    Studies involving NOAA that produce maps such as these, of the economic impacts of ocean acidification on Alaska’s fisheries, may no longer be possible if funding is cut.

  • Eliminates the Denali Commission, which was formed in 1998 by legendary Alaska Senator Ted Stevens (R) to help rural Alaska Native communities obtain infrastructure, health care, and job training. The commission has had its ups and downs, including an internal fiasco in which its own leader suggested it should be axed. Yet Obama’s decision to allocate $2 million to the commission to lead a project determining which coastal villages should be relocated gave it a new and important role. The Trump budget may now yank this away.

    Coastal communities in Alaska are counting on the government to step in to help them combat climate change. In 2015, Diane Ramoth, vice chair of the Selawik tribal government council and treasurer of the NANA Regional Corporation, expressed, “This is a very, very dire situation that we’re in if our United States government is going to allow our communities to no longer exist.”

    There is something even more dire than the current administration’s wish to eliminate a commission assisting the 31 coastal communities that may potentially slide into the sea. It is that the president seeks to undercut many of the basic services, programs, and subsidies that make modern life possible in the hundreds of communities across rural Alaska, climate change or no climate change. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the U.S. government effectively forced Alaska Natives to settle in place. But now, it does not even want to pay to support the infrastructure that people have become locked into. Under Trump, Alaska is no longer the Last Frontier, but rather the Forgotten Frontier.

What’s one big area with regard to Alaska that isn’t being defunded? Support for the oil industry. The President’s 2018 budget plans to “strengthen the Nation’s energy security by increasing funding for Department of Interior programs that support environmentally responsible development of energy on public lands and offshore waters.” This could possibly pave the way for more drilling in places like the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, America’s largest tract of undisturbed public land.

More drilling may be good news for the Alaskan state budget and all of its residents who receive Permanent Fund Dividends every year. But you can’t do much with money if you have no air service, no clean water, no job training, and no climate resilient infrastructure – except maybe pay for your skyrocketing heating bill, no longer subsidized under Trump.

2016 NPR-A Lease Sale Tract Results Map (12/14/2016). Source: Dept. of Interior/BLM.

2016 NPR-A Lease Sale Tract Results Map (12/14/2016). Source: Dept. of Interior/BLM.

Is this the world’s northernmost Chinese restaurant?

Sam-And-Lees-Barrow-Alaska

Sam & Lee’s, a Chinese restaurant in Utqiagvik, Alaska.

The town of Utqiaġvik, Alaska – formerly known as Barrow – sits at 71 degrees north. Located 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the settlement of six or seven thousand residents (though only 4,373 according to Google) is a vibrant and diverse place despite being frozen solid in winter. So frozen, in fact, that you can walk straight from town right out onto the Arctic Ocean. At this time of year, you could try walking all the way to Russia – or Greenland, Norway, or anywhere else with a coastline on the Arctic Ocean – across the ice if you were so inclined. It might come with some risk, however, given that Arctic sea ice this year is “incredibly thin” and covering a smaller extent than usual. If you lucked out with the sea ice and made it to Russia, you could probably continue walking to China for a hot bowl of noodles or a plate of dumplings.

Or you could just stay in Utqiaġvik and visit what might just be the world’s northernmost Chinese restaurant. With whites, blacks, Koreans, Mexicans, and Samoans, among many other ethnicities, living among the native Inupiat population, there are also several restaurants serving up everything from Mexican to Chinese cuisine. Utqiaġvik is not the northernmost settlement in the world: Longyearbyen, on the Norwegian island of Svalbard, owns that title. But Longyearbyen does not have a Chinese restaurant. It happens to have a Thai restaurant, which is unsurprising given its sizeable population of Thai ex-pats, along with several Norwegian eateries. But from a glance at TripAdvisor’s list of Longyearbyen’s restaurants, I don’t think you could order a bowl of egg drop soup in a pinch.

Several towns in Russia also lie north of Utqiaġvik, but it’s unclear whether they have Chinese restaurants. TripAdvisor and Yelp reviews are not exactly a dime a dozen for settlements like Tiksi and Khatanga. Qaanaaq, in Greenland, lies at 77 degrees north, but only has one restaurant, located in the town’s sole hotel.

That leaves Sam and Lee’s Restaurant in Utqiaġvik, Alaska as the best contender for the world’s northernmost Chinese restaurant. The restaurant, which serves Chinese and American cuisine, has become something of a local institution. Mr. and Mrs. Kim, a Korean couple, opened the restaurant some 34 years ago. Sam and Lee’s is one of 40,000 Chinese restaurants across the U.S. – a total that surpasses the nation’s number of McDonald’s, Burger Kings, KFCs, and Wendy’s combined, according to Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. Case in point, Utqiaġvik has a Chinese restaurant but none of those four fast food chains.

I’d heard a lot about Sam and Lee’s during my first couple of days in Barrow, so as someone who seeks out Asian food whenever possible, whether it’s a steaming bowl of spicy Uzbek noodles (lagman) in northeast Siberia, muskox Thai curry in Greenland, or North Korean food in Vladivostok, I had to make it to what just might be the world’s northernmost Chinese restaurant.

I was in Utqiaġvik for an Arctic business development tour that had us on a tight schedule from 8am-9pm every day. The only time I could really miss any event was at breakfast – and fortunately, Sam and Lee’s opens at 6am every day. (They also don’t shut their doors until 2am). So last Thursday, as fierce winds blasted down the city streets off the surface of the frozen Arctic Ocean, I trudged over to the restaurant around 6:45 am. The sun wouldn’t rise for another two hours, but the yellow sodium lamps lining the town’s streets guided the way.

After about fifteen minutes, I arrived at the little red restaurant. Sam and Lee’s sits on the ground floor of a small red house at 1052 Kogiak Street. A welcoming Chinese gate frames the entrance. In a very un-Chinese fashion, the walkway leads through two sets of doors, which are typical of all Arctic abodes in order to keep out the cold.

I entered into the warm and toasty restaurant and took a seat at one of the comfy red booths. Dining here was more like eating in someone’s living room than being in a sit-down restaurant. The walls were decorated with photos of children, presumably the Kims’, doing things like wearing traditional Korean dress and performing at a musical recital. Every table had a bottle of soy sauce on it, along with two jars of white powder – one marked “S” for sugar and the other with “C” for creamer. Palettes of soda cans sat stacked at the back of the restaurant, ready to be popped open to satiate the town’s healthy appetite for Coke, Sprite, root beer, and the like. When dining out in Utqiaġvik, soda appears to fill the gap of alcohol. Utqiaġvik is a “damp” town, meaning you can consume alcohol there, but you can’t purchase it. It’s incredible to think that every single menu item has been brought in by plane or barge since no roads lead to Utqiaġvik. The limited and expensive transportation explains why everything seemed to be in bulk at Sam and Lee’s, from the endless array of take-out boxes to the soy sauce packets and soda cans.

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Decorations on the wall at Sam & Lee’s.

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Soy sauce, creamer, sugar, salt, pepper, and jam.

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Dining at Sam & Lee’s.

As I read through the vast menu, a big television hanging at the front of the restaurant played the morning news from Anchorage. The news anchors were talking about International Women’s Day and the ongoing Iditarod. It all seemed so very far away from Utqiaġvik. A waiter dressed in a black hat and camo came up to take my order.

While I was waiting for my short stack of pancakes ($7) and a cup of coffee, a fellow diner came in from the cold and ordered a Denver omelet directly from the chef, at the window where the food comes out from the kitchen. He sat down at the booth in front of me and said hi.

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Some people ordered at the window here.

Ten minutes later, out came my “short stack” of two pancakes. Each was larger than a dinner plate, and an enormous square of margarine was melting lazily on top. As I dug into my breakfast of carbs, sugar, and fat, an Alaska Native couple, the woman dressed in a floral parka (a common traditional design), grabbed a booth and ordered more omelets – served with generous helpings of hash browns and toast.

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A short stack of pancakes with the Anchorage morning news on in the background. Still more than enough food for one.

My pancakes were the doughy, stick-to-the-ribs-type, making them perfect for a cold Alaskan morning. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to try the Chinese food at the world’s northernmost Chinese restaurant since the cook, I learned, doesn’t arrive until after 10 am. Locals told me their Chinese food is the best in the state. And it’s not only Chinese food that the serve. Alongside Egg Foo Young and Egg Drop Soup, you can order a “Happy Meal” (shrimp, scallops, and meat sauteed with fresh vegetables), “Steak and King Crab,” “KungPao Chicken Pizza” (every restaurant in Utqiaġvik, I learned, serves pizza), “Jalapeno Poppers,” “Fish &Chips (served with French Fries – DOES NOT include potato, vegetables, and garlic bread)” and a “Reindeer Sausage and Cheese Omelet,” just to name a few of the finest examples of fusion cuisine in the Last Frontier.

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Half (!) of the menu.

Though I didn’t get to try the Chinese food, I did enjoy the rare opportunity of eating pancakes cooked by a chef who said he had worked at the IHOP in West Hollywood for twenty years before coming up to Utqiaġvik. I asked him why he moved all the way to this little corner of the world. “Everyone has a purpose,” he said to me. “I wanted to breathe fresh air – and the planet’s air, it starts at the North Pole and comes down from there. The air here is the freshest in the world.”

After I paid my bill and walked back out into the cold, the air did feel pretty fresh. At 15 degrees above zero, it felt downright balmy compared to the previous day’s temperatures, which had sunk to 20 degrees below zero. Walking across Kogiak Street, I looked back on the bright red restaurant. The sky had brightened significantly since I’d arrived an hour before.

One day, I’ll have to go back to try the Korean-Chinese-Alaskan food served up by Sam and Lee’s. It might also be a good idea for Mr. and Mrs. Kim to consider opening a Korean restaurant. One woman from Utqiaġvik told me, “My friends and I love eating muktuk (frozen whale skin and blubber) with rice and kimchi.” She laughed, “All us young people, we like fusion, you know, like Asian-Eskimo fusion.” Her husband himself was starting to cook Cajun whale steak, inspired by his mixed African-American and Inupiaq heritage. With Nordic cuisine starting to gain more global recognition, it may be only a matter of time before other Arctic cuisines begin making their way onto southern palettes. Rather than a Chinese restaurant opening in the Arctic, perhaps an Arctic restaurant will open in China some day soon.

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Walking back through the streets of Utqiagvik after breakfast.