September 17th, 2008 | Published in Google Earth
The flight from Fairbanks was a nice one, not too much out of the ordinary except that the front of the plane was blocked off to hold cargo, and the back half was reserved for passengers. The only way to get goods to Barrow, the most northern point of the United States, is by plane or by barge. The scenery between Fairbanks and Barrow was beautiful to say the least. First there were tall evergreens poking through fires of yellow leaves coating the many mountain ranges, then the land was flat and the landscape was dotted with round lakes and sinewy river paths. I saw no roads. Then we landed on the top of the world, Barrow, Alaska.
The outskirts of Barrow from the descent
The first thing I noticed at the airport was that everyone knew each other. Neighbors greeted neighbors and groups of marine biologists and researchers milled about, chatting with each other while waiting for our luggage (which takes a while, because there is so much cargo to unload). I instantly felt a sense of community; people rely on each other here. We were met at the tiny airport by the principal of Barrow High School. Our hotel was conveniently located across the street from the airport, with the high school right around the corner. The skyline of Barrow consists of a collection of dwellings, hotels, and odd-shaped dome structures, some of which hover above the ground on stilts, so as to not disturb the frozen arctic tundra.
No snow yet
Our first day of teaching was also a day of learning for us. Our day began with a general assembly for the approximately 100 freshman and sophomores who trickled into the auditorium after homeroom. After an introduction and demonstration, we split into groups to teach three different lesson plans. I worked with John Bailey from UAF to teach the group about GPS technologies and navigation around Google Earth. Barrow High is part of Apple's 1 to 1 program, so each student has their own laptop to work from.
I asked a few groups of students to describe their favorite part of the day's lessons. Their answer was always enthusiastically the same – the flight simulator in Google Earth. They also enjoyed learning how to discover content by zooming in and out of places in Google Earth and turning on different layers. They said the elephants in Africa (referring to Michael Fay's Africa flyover in the National Geographic layer) and that measuring the length of hippos in Smoots was also fun.
Barrow High School
I had one particularly enlightening moment with our last group of students, who were juniors and seniors. A student asked me to show her how to view the Panoramio photos in the town of Barrow using Google Earth. I popped an icon, and she exclaimed that the picture I showed was "ugly." I didn't think so. I attempted to explain to her and the class that people who have never been to Barrow would find this snapshot fascinating. We talked about how people like to explore and see what other less familiar places look like, and that what may be boring and mundane to her may be fascinating to someone who has never been north of the Arctic Circle. The class was silent and reflective, and someone else said that they should go and take more pictures of their town. I hope they are inspired to find a digital camera and capture their town through their eyes for the world to see.
The arctic blue football field of the Barrow Whalers
Cheers to Barrow, I found it to be a tight-knit community, where everyone knows everyone, you can walk into THE grocery store, chat with your neighbors, and where you can join the "polar bear club" any time of the year. Visiting the Land of the Midnight sun for two days was not long enough. I travel a lot for work but I still get excited about going to new and unique places, and I have to say that this will be one of the most memorable. The vice principal of the High School took us on a lovely tour north of the city after our day of teaching. We went to the blue BLUE High School football field and we drove as far north as you can go, almost to the very tip of northern Alaska. The air is dry and crisp, and the sun shines but the wind takes your breath away. And the whole idea of a polar bear walking down Main Street, or rather, "North Star Street," is incredible.
One of the landmarks on the edge of town, the "gateway" to Barrow
Here we are at the top of the world