Archive for February 19th, 2007

One of the more memorable trips the Arctic Chamber Orchestra made was to Kaktovik.  As I recall, this trip was made sometime in late January.   The plan was to fly up to Kaktovik on a Saturday afternoon, give an evening concert there, stay the night, and then proceed on to Anaktuvuk Pass the next day for a matinee and then return to Fairbanks.

I wish I was better at remembering what music it was we were playing on all these tours.  My alibi is that it was 30 years ago, and I am lucky I remember we went on the trip, much less what it was we played.  For a long time I saved the concert programs from all those many years ago, but somewhere around the third or fourth time the Navy moved us those miscellaneous pieces of paper seemed to become extraneous.  Now I wish I had saved them, if only so as to remind me of what it was we were presenting to all these tiny communities.

In addition to the Inuit community of Kaktovik, Barter Island also had a DEW line radar station.   I can’t imagine what sort of calamity in your Air Force career earns you a posting to Kaktovik; probably something similar that gets you to Thule, Greenland or Attu Island in the Aleutians.  Anyway, we got on our chartered Alaska Airlines DC3 and flew up over the frozen Brooks Range and landed at the equally frozen airstrip at Kaktovik.  We were met by a couple of vans that transported us in batches through the -45 degree howling gale to the school where we were scheduled to perform.  No one deplaned until there was a van ready to receive them, I can tell you, and no one was sad that they didn’t transport us by dog sled, either, although there were plenty of those available.

It was a truly amazing trip into town.  Off in the distance were the lights and domes of the Air Force’s radar installation.  Every once in a while, there was a roof visible, a few chimneys poked up through the snow.  I kept waiting for the school to appear,and when the driver stopped and informed us cheerily “Here we are!” I still didn’t see anything that looked like a school.   We disembarked from our transportation, and I looked around the featureless expanse of snow and thought “Where are we?”  About that time a bundled up person  rose from the drift.   We walked over to where we were being signalled from, and suddenly I realized why I couldn’t see the school.  It was completely buried in deep drifts of snow.   As we approached our welcomer, a set of steps carved into the drift she was perched on appeared in front of us.  We walked down this transitory stair case and entered the school.

We ate the dinner provided for us in the school cafeteria, it was spaghetti of some sort if my memory serves.   The performance was in the school gymnasium, which was well soundproofed and not that echo-y.   It was quite well attended.  Not only did pretty much every person in the town come to hear us, but so did most of the people from the Air Force station, except for those unlucky few who were required to man the radar, just in case the USSR found out about our concert that night and decided it would be an opportune time to launch the nuclear war we were all so paranoid about.

After the concert, as was quite frequent in our forays into the Bush, the town dancers put on a performance for us.   The dance troupe from Kaktovik frequently performed and competed at things like the Arctic Winter Games, so they were truly wonderful to watch and listen to.  Of course, the Musicology Professor was in heaven as he taped the drumming and chanting.

Then we all scattered about the school and bedded down for the night.  I found a cozy little nook in the business class room.  I lost my favorite pair of earrings that night.   They were 24K gold, beautiful little bells, about a half an inch long, complete with clappers.   When I walked in a light breeze or shook my head, I could hear their faint sweet ringing.  I wore them a lot, but they were not comfortable to sleep in, so I took them off and placed them on the typewriter table that I was sleeping next to, sort of slid them under the frame of the IBM selectric that was occupying the table.   The next morning I forgot them.  I am sure that on Monday, there was a young lady who was happy to appropriate them.  I hope she enjoyed them.

After a breakfast of pancakes, juice, and bacon, we all gathered in the gym awaiting transport to the plane.   No van appeared, and we began to get curious as to what the difficulty was.   Eventually, after a time, our pilot finally arrived and held an intense conversation with our conductor, Gordon Wright, and the orchestra manager.  Aside from the fact that things obviously were not going according to plan, Gordon appeared to be fairly amused by the information he was given.

The pilot left, and Gordon called us together to tell us all about it.  The night before, there had been a certain amount of concern about whether our airplane would start in the morning due to the intense cold Barter Island was experiencing.  The pilot had opined that perhaps he should fly back to Fairbanks and then return in the morning to pick us up, but the Air Force had generously offered the use of one of their hangars overnight.  So our little DC3 had been rolled inside the shelter, the big metal doors slid shut.   Just to make sure the plane would start in the morning, they lit off two big propane space heaters to keep the area warm.  

When you burn propane, you get three things:  heat, carbon dioxide, and water vapor.  The all night heating of the hangar produced plenty of all three.  Unfortunately, much of the water vapor condensed on the big metal hangar doors, and they were solidly frozen shut.   It was Sunday morning after a late Saturday night, and it seems that there were not a whole lot of people who wanted to hunt out, transport, and erect scaffolding, and then climb the same, and spend a few golden hours pounding on sheets of ice so that our plane could emerge from its shelter and take us off home.  (By the way, the plane engines DID start.)

While the recalcitrant military personnel were being rounded up and started on the nasty job, the weather was deteriorating.   It appeared that if we didn’t get off the ground in the next few hours, we might be stuck there for a fairly long stretch of time since the wind conditions could make a take-off virtually impossible.  Faced with the possibility of an extended stay by a group of people that nearly doubled its population, the town of Kaktovik started counting their supplies.  At any rate, it was pretty clear that they were going to have to come up with a lunch for what was starting to look like a horde of locusts in formal black. 

In the betwixt whiles, they opened up all the supplies of the gymnasium for our amusement.   There were roller skates, and a bunch of us availed ourselves of them and spent a while falling around the floor.   Eventually, someone broke out a couple of volleyball nets, and we organized a volleyball tournament.   This was a lot of fun, in spite of the fact that there were many people who were averse to actually hitting the ball unless they were absolutely certain that they had exactly the right angle on it.   No one whose livelihood depends on playing a musical instrument really wants jammed fingers. 

As I recall, the brass beat the winds, the low strings beat the high strings, and ultimately the brass prevailed over the low strings.   A good time was had by all, and no one was permanently disabled.   However, we all discovered the next day that we needed a lot more upper body workout: everybody’s shoulders were very sore.

Our hosts scrounged up a lunch of baloney sandwiches and apple sauce, and started thinking about dinner.  Fortunately, it was not necessary for them to provide it.  The hangar doors finally opened, we loaded up and skedaddled back to Fairbanks.  It was too late to make it to Anaktuvuk Pass, and the weather there was too bad for the airplane to land anyway.  We went and performed there later that spring.

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