I bought my first telescope, a Unitron 2.4 inch refractor for about $120 back in the early 1960s. As a struggling college student at Marquette University in Milwaukee Wisconsin, I had to pay it off in twelve installments. It survived the long trip to Barrow in 1985 and has been my basic scope for arctic stargazing ever since.
At first, I thought astronomy would be a lonely hobby in Barrow, due to dark, chilly nights and quickly frozen telescope controls. But it’s been just the opposite. I’ve learned how supportive a smaller town can be when one follows a dream, especially if the dream includes something recreational and educational for the community.
I often joined Craig George, a Barrow wildlife biologist and amateur astronomer, in speaking to elementary classes. It was difficult to explain the vast distances in the universe. We shared this concern with Dr. Frank Willingham of Ilisagvik College. He helped us develop a scale model of the solar system in town. Richard Glenn, a local geologist and subsistence whaler, also assisted in the project.
In the Barrow scale model, the sun -or siqiniq in the Inupiaq language- is a three foot bright yellow circle on the side of Ipalook Elementary School. At first, we thought we might have to auger poles in the permafrost to hold the planet signs, but the school staff pitched in and mounted the signs for the sun through Mars on the outside of the building. Then the Barrow Utilities crew put Jupiter through Pluto on existing utility poles.
Now we give school groups and the general public escorted tours of the Barrow scale model. Jim Vorderstarsse, former City of Barrow mayor, even helps with some tours while riding his recumbent bicycle. There are also fun runs and walks from the sun to Pluto- providing both exercise and an astronomy lesson.
In 1999, Dr. Willingham encouraged me to teach an astronomy section of an earth science course at Ilisagvik College. Another Barrow amateur astronomer, Gregory Emanuel, helped out. We taught traditional Inupiat and Inuit astronomy and included the book The Arctic Sky by astronomer and oral historian John MacDonald of Igloolik, Nunavut in northern Canada. Thanks to lots of local support, we were able to bring MacDonald to Barrow for public presentations and meetings where he emphasized the long rich history of sky lore among indigenous peoples of the arctic.
He noted that the return of the sun after an extended absence from the winter sky was greeted by Native peoples with great joy, starting anew, and re-lighting the seal oil lamps as well as a feeling that hunters will have an easier time.
While we too rejoice in the sun’s return to Barrow, my wife Chris and I also look forward to the long winter night. The sun disappears from November 18 to January 23. That’s when we find a dark spot, away from the lights of town, assemble the scope, keep the car running and then leap out with the Unitron to focus on the moon, Jupiter, Saturn, the Orion nebula and all the wonders of the far northern sky. “I just love living in Barrow” Chris says, as we head home for some hot chocolate. I smile in agreement as my fingers slowly regain feeling.