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Know the West

Barrow, Alaska: an unlikely boomtown


Richard Pak pilots an old green Land Rover along the gravel roads of Barrow, Alaska, as he does most every day. It's June, but the air is raw and the sky is the color of impending snow, like ash poured into milk. He indicates a spot where a polar bear recently wandered up from the sea ice to loiter in front of a restaurant, a not-unusual occurrence here, 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle. He points out another perilous spot: The town bank's two ATM machines. They recently ran out of cash, which must be resupplied by plane.

An avuncular man with a broad, friendly face and a fading ball cap, Pak, a taxi driver,  chuckles and shakes his head.

"What do you do then?" he says. "It just ran out."

Barrow is a very cold town. The sun sets in November and does not reappear until January. Temperatures can plunge to  minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit -- and the wind chill down to minus 90 F. The school bus goes door to door to pick up kids. Exposed skin can freeze instantly, and taking a breath can shock the lungs. Unsurprisingly, the town's 4,500 or so residents tend to take taxis a lot.

The cold isn't the only thing that sets Barrow apart. No permanent roads connect it to other towns or villages. Getting here usually requires an expensive airline ticket. In the grocery store, a bag of carrots costs $14.50. At the lone gas station, a gallon of unleaded can run upwards of $4.50. There are no trees, mountains or hills, only open tundra, hummocky and blond in early summer. The Chukchi Sea is covered in a fractured blanket of ice.

Life here is different. So is Pak: Unlike the majority of locals, he is not an Inupiaq Eskimo. He's from Korea.

Barrow, it turns out, is an emerging magnet for immigrants. Asians are one of the largest minority groups, now constituting nearly 10 percent of the population. When opportunities in the Lower 48 don't pan out, they come North, Pak says, because this place is a boomtown in disguise. Government salaries are high. Native corporation dividends to the Inupiaq population amount to thousands of dollars per person per year. The median annual family income tops $60,000. Vast oil and natural gas reserves lie to the east. People, says Pak, have cash in their pockets.

And with climate change driving a decline in sea ice, businesses and corporations see new opportunities for ecotourism, pleasure cruising, shipping and offshore drilling. There's more traffic, and a greater Coast Guard presence.

Signs of change are everywhere. Koreans own all the restaurants in town, except for Pepe's North of the Border, which claims to be the world's northernmost Mexican restaurant and belongs to an ebullient 83-year-old peroxide blonde named Fran Tate. At the Browers Café, built by a Yankee whaler over a century ago, spicy bulgogi is on the menu alongside reindeer sausage. In the grocery store parking lot, a Thai cabdriver complains that he misses his hometown's spicy green papaya dishes. Inside, a Samoan airline worker points out taro root on the shelves.

Pak was living in San Diego when an Alaskan friend told him that he could triple or quadruple his taxi earnings in Barrow. He suffered through the first winters but adjusted with the help of an extremely warm coat and boots; he even took up hockey. He politely accepts gifts of muktuk (whale blubber) from his Inupiaq neighbors while stocking the freezer in his garage with Korean specialties ordered in bulk from Anchorage. He doesn't plan to live here forever. So far,  though it's been home for seven years.

In the summertime, Pak chauffeurs visiting scientists, bird-watching tourists and camera crews (everyone from PBS to National Geographic has been up to film this year) but most of his customers are locals. The bingo and pull-tab hall and the hospital are popular destinations.

The dust-coated Land Rover threads its way among homes hovering over the tundra on stilts, their yards filled with stretched seal hides, whaling boats and freshly caught eider ducks strung up by the neck. There are scattered gas canisters and ATVs, snowmachines and trucks in varying states of decay. As Pak drives past a jumble of whale bones outside the elementary school, a John Denver song comes on the stereo.

Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong

For now, this appears to be it.