Taking to the Skies (Fairbanks to Barrow, Sept. 20)

Some of our postings may seem a little out of order, as we are blogging about Fairbanks to Barrow while we just posted our third oncologist interview. The reality of the matter is that it just takes more time to produce pretty much everything than we had initially hoped. I’m not sure that we’re really in all that much of a rush though…for purposes of the web/FB-site and the campaign, let’s just say that the Journey will officially conclude when we’ve run out of materials to share.

For now, the totality and progression of the oncologist interviews are pretty important and hopefully they won’t be overlooked. We intentionally started a bit more general with Dr. Sabnis and progressively got more specific and focused on the future in the Dr. Keller and now Dr. Hawkins interviews. I personally felt these discussions were enormously insightful and hopeful – I hope you feel the same. I’d like to boil them down into a few central ideas:

  • The wheels of progress are spinning faster, but the sustained efforts of researchers working assiduously to make discoveries and pharma developers to realize patient-ready therapies will be required to see this work through to therapies that will become cures and improve long-term outcomes.
  • Funding is a real need, but an attainable one, such that mere mortals – like us! – can and should try to make a difference. The types of funding we are trying to generate – now – funds real projects, puts real researchers in labs, supports databases, and creates incentives for aspiring researchers to focus their skills, ingenuity, and scientific acumen on helping children with cancer.
  • There are lots of ways in which people – motivated folks who want to make a difference – can be difference makers. Sharing the information is a start, and there is advocacy (of the direct talk-to-your-congressional representative sort or the indirect influence-people-who-can-make-a-difference sort). But there are also opportunities to get involved in research projects (such as Dr. Keller mentioned), and lots of room to discover your own path. Emerging research approaches draw upon an increasingly wide array of skill and people power…MDs in labcoats don’t seem to be able to do it all alone. We welcome your curiosity and ingenuity…feel free to reach out to us at contact@jujusjourney.org

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“Go that way, very, very fast. If something gets in your way, turn.”

So was the advice repeatedly offered to Lane Meyer, John Cusack’s character in a (for this Journey) relatively inappropriately-titled 80’s movie. Awkward nomenclature notwithstanding, it is one of my all-time favorites, and the quote has long fit certain aspects of the journey. We have gone through many, many different permutations of what the Journey would look like, where we would go, when it would be held, how we would get there, and most of all, who would be present for each leg of the journey. (I promise that nobody ever suggested, “Hey, maybe we should consider going to a warm beach?”) Some details have been settled for months. Some of these details continue to evolve each day as weather, circumstance, and the gravity of daily randomness intermittently arises to acute prominence.  We just keep going and going, and occasionally turn.

And so it was that after midnight, Maria finally re-joined the crew at our Springhill Suites home-away-from-home, nursing a slipped disk (which prevented her from being on the most unfavorable roads) and toting a backpack filled to bursting with California farm-picked berries for barter with her Inupiat contact. A few hours later, we piled into taxis and made our way to the airport, where if TSA was not on a work slow-down strike at half-staff, it’s not clear to me what they were doing. Amidst multiple calls for final boarding, a dozen or so increasingly panicked passengers started to freak out. Either because God laughs when man plans or because we tempted fate by not being willing to show up over 90-minutes early for a 5:45am flight, when I was almost free of the screening line, a trainee inquired if he could practice his pat-down technique on me. The question seemed a bit shy….do TSA agents ever use this as a pick-up line?  He wasn’t particular concerned that I was running late for my flight (what happens to a passenger if you refuse a pat down, anyway?)

Long, angst-ridden story short, Maria and I – after a very thorough pat-down experience under the watchful gaze of a hawk-eyed supervisor – missed the flight, while Richard and Russ were onboard. Crap. Alaska Airlines is apparently the most on-time airline in the history of airlines and they are not bothered by taking off from gate well before the departure time despite missing about a dozen booked passengers, yet with their luggage safely aboard. We were stunned when we realized what was going to not happen. Maria’s eyes were watery as she stared out the glass at our plane and I wondered if it was even possible and then how long it would take for us to catch back up (there just aren’t that many flights up north each day…)

Cue furious IMs as we realized what had happened. Cue queue of querulous passengers clamoring for re-booking. We did get re-booked, but Maria and I would arrive about 6 hours later, and we would miss our opportunity to meet and have a meal with village elders. This was a deeply sad thing, as this would have been a special moment that we were all really looking forward to. The elders – as with many in Barrow, who are a heavily subsistence-hunting based people – were preparing to depart on a caribou hunt, so this was our only shot at this.

As an unsatisfying silver lining, the Fairbanks International Airport seems to cluster its flights all together and the seats are designed to be slept on, so Maria was able to catch up on missing Zzzs while we waited to fly. For fun, I walked back and forth through the completely vacant security line any time I had the impression that the TSA folks were getting too comfortable.

Our flight route first took us back down to Anchorage, with a connecting flight that seems to fly in circles around Alaska – Anchorage, Prudhoe Bay (which is another 250-300 miles north of Coldfoot, and pretty much just serves the oilfields there), Barrow, and then back to Anchorage. The plane itself is a normal jet, but the cabin is only about half-normal sized as the plane appears to be relied upon primarily for shipments of all goods brought into (and out of?) Barrow – recall that there is no road all the way up there, no railway, and I don’t think there is any regular ship service (although in the last decade or so, the ice pack has completely receded from view of the coast and is 100+ miles distant during what passes for summer, so shipping seems a distinct possibility at some near future time).

View of Point Barrow from our arrival

The northern slope presumably get its name because it’s pretty darn flat once you get north of the Brooks range. (No Wikipedia here, so there’s a fairly reasonable chance that Tank will post a geologically-accurate correction.) Oh yeah, it’s pretty darn far north, too. There are a completely insane number of little lakes and ponds scattered in every boggy direction. Only Carl Sagan could properly estimate how many mosquitos this corner of the world harbors during months with no Rs. Getting closer to Barrow, you start to see a long and very slender line of barrier islands that extend out from Point Barrow, aka the farthest north point in the United States. We understand that we aren’t allowed to go out there…but we’ve come this far!

We arrived to a town bereft of snow-cover, which honestly is probably not Barrow’s best side. Snow covers the ground for 8+ months of the year, and most images you will see feature an endless expanse of white stretching out in pretty much every direction. Today, the ground is dark brown dirt, as next to nothing grows once you’ve passed the endless tracks of boggy tundra. It was a rather balmy 45F or so (what counts as cold has radically changed in the last couple weeks) with limited wind. Homes are generally small (heating is expensive and my suspicion is that getting building materials up here is even more costly!) and exteriors have a priority on surviving the exceptionally harsh elements rather than for decorative effect. Everything is flat, save for a miles long earthen berm separating the encroaching ocean from the town – an attempt to shelter Barrow and strip of inhabited land from increasingly ferocious and erosive winter storms. Today, the beach is very slim, having given up a 100 feet or so in the last decade.

We checked into the aptly-named Top of the World hotel and got our bearings. We headed out to the whalebone arch, just across the street from the hotel, which seems to serve as a portal of sorts to the beach. I’m not sure I was prepared for the arch to actually be made of whalebone. Indicative of its importance to Inupiat culture, the huge whalebones were intact, not askew, and bore no graffiti or sophomoric engravings. They were the real thing and seemed to have been there for a long time.

Sunset was magnificent, and it is highly surreal to finally be at the edge of the continent, to touch the Arctic Ocean (technically probably the Beaufort sea, which mostly nobody has ever heard of before and I am going to disregard henceforth in an act of casual cartographic heresy). Point Barrow lies achingly close, several miles to the east, and guarded by hungry and sneaky polar bears. We satisfied ourselves with a walk along the beach while taking in the sunset.

I’m not sure if day’s end really looks and feels different up here, or if it is the knowledge of our latitude pervading the senses. For me, it was different, and for sure, it was a relief to have finally gotten this far. I made a point of wandering off a bit by myself so I would have time to speak to my little girl.

The stony beach was soft. The waves were modest, yet persistent, and only close to the shore. We understand the placid ocean to be deceptive, as there are wicked currents, making navigating by small watercraft (i.e., kayak) a bit dangerous. Local folks, when on their own, prefer to stay in on the bay side.

The water is a bit chilly, too…in case that needed some confirmation.