Perils Where 20 Below Is a Nice Day : Opportunity, Whisky Fuel Harsh Life in Arctic Town

Times Staff Writer

They count it a pleasant winter day in this little community when the temperature reaches a high of 20 degrees below zero and a shipment of new videotape movies, along with a fresh rock band, arrives from the United States.

The 3,000 people of Inuvik, far above the Arctic Circle in Canada's Northwest Territories, lead lives of constant contradiction. They endure conditions that are as severe and dangerous as any to be found, balanced by luxuries that approach obsessive self-indulgence.

For more than two months a year, they exist in almost total darkness; the sun is at best a brief, dull glow on the horizon, the temperature ranges to 60 below zero, and life is painted in frozen tones of white.

Because the ground never thaws, there are no building foundations; everything is built on pilings. Water is delivered and sewage is carried away by means of something called a "utilador," which is six feet above the ground.

There Is a Summer

Yet there is a summer, with two months of midnight sun, and children play street hockey at 3 a.m., the thermometer registers 80 degrees and mosquitoes and venomous black flies are so thick they can be scooped out of the air by the handful.

All this leads to a kind of charged approach to life. The weather is a compelling subject of conversation and existence is fueled by opportunity, greed--and alcohol.

To a visitor in the midst of the nine-month winter, the most immediate and strongest impression is the all-encompassing cold, a cold so extreme that it freezes exposed hair and can kill an inadequately dressed human being in a matter of minutes.

Even among the people who live here, the weather is the prime focus of attention and conversation. Everyone seems to know the temperature hour by hour.

This is understandable. Nothing happens here that is not directly affected by the weather. Just to move across the street requires serious effort. One must put on fleece-lined boots, a knee-length, down-filled parka with a fur-lined hood, plus a wool toque, as the stocking cap is called here, a thick scarf and heavy mittens often worn over silk gloves. This is not to mention long thermal underwear, two pairs of wool socks, a shirt and heavy sweater that are all part of the local uniform.

Cars and trucks are specially equipped for the harsh conditions. For short stops of an hour or so, one leaves the engine running. For longer stops, one uses electric heaters to keep the engine block warm; there are power outlets at the curb.

No one is allowed to board an airplane in the Northwest Territories unless he or she has the proper clothing and survival gear in case the plane is forced down, which happens not infrequently in a climate where the temperature at 4,000 feet can drop to 80 below zero or more.

Inuvik is situated 60 miles above the Arctic Circle, in the land of the polar bear, the Eskimo and ice floes the size of cities, more than 1,200 miles north of the closest large city, Edmonton, in Alberta province. A little more than 30 years ago, it was not here at all. It was built, starting in 1954, as a model Arctic city.

Coping With the Cold

Beyond the clothes that seem to reduce everyone to a schoolboy's notion of an Eskimo, the most stunning impression one gets of coping with the cold and isolation has to do with the extraordinary level of alcohol consumption.

Drinking seems to go on everywhere, all the time. Empty whisky bottles and beer cans litter the snow like fallen leaves. Blank-faced drunks can be seen nodding in an alley near the Eskimo Inn Hotel. The town's half-dozen large taverns are jammed until closing time at 2:30 a.m. The drinking is also reflected in the lengthy daily police reports.

Nearly anything that contains alcohol is consumed in great quantities here. Vanilla extract cannot be bought freely off the shelves of the drug store or food market. Sales people have a list of customers who are not allowed to buy it. Those who may buy it must sign a register for the one bottle allowed them each month.

Liquor is such a problem that the bars shut down for two hours every day, at 6 p.m., to encourage patrons to eat dinner or perhaps feed their children before they return to their beer and whisky.

According to town officials and social service workers, alcohol and alcohol-related crime are Inuvik's major problems by far. And this assessment is reflected by a full page of ads in the telephone book for alcohol-abuse counseling.

Drinking on Job Forbidden

"Alcohol is a constant temptation, and it has a destructive effect," said Billy Day, the president of a native group, the Committee for Original People's Entitlement. His views are echoed by Murray Horn, a Gulf Oil executive, who said his company forbids drinking by employees during their work shifts.

"It is cause for immediate firing if anyone is caught with liquor or beer on company property or while they are working," Horn explained. In addition, all employees sign an agreement that allows Gulf officials to search their property or living quarters at will.

Excessive drinking is a problem for many people here, but it seems to be most acute among the Inuit, as the Eskimos call themselves, and the Indians known as the Dene. These native people led nomadic lives of hunting and fishing until the federal government established the town here and changed the local economy from subsistence to wage-based.

Al Plium, the president of the Northwest Territories Chamber of Commerce, said that while the modernization of the area has been beneficial to most native people, some seem to have more difficulty than whites in dealing with alcohol abuse. He blames it on "slow metabolism."

Inuit and Dene leaders, as well as many other native people, say that while the money that came in with Inuvik is here to stay, its impact is not always favorable.

Natives Win Land Claim

Day said that the oil companies and other outside businesses here would have seriously damaged both the environment and the traditional way of life if natives hadn't won a land claim that gave them control over much of the land.

Yet, he added, "it was too late for the people addicted to alcohol and the young people who want all the things they see the whites have."

Town residents are overwhelmingly white and mostly young. Only about a third of them are Inuit or Dene, and more than 50% of them are under age 25. As a consequence, the music one hears in the taverns is rock, and the dancing is fast and energetic. The hit band of the moment is called Cyclone; it came from Las Vegas.

Cyclone and the other American bands that perform here come for three months at a time, with a mandate to learn four new songs a week to keep current with the top 10 tunes in the United States.

The people know the hits, according to Romeo Vellutini, Cyclone's leader, if for no other reason than Inuvik's having a large, well-stocked record shop as up to date as any in Los Angeles.

This effort to keep up with musical trends is typical of Inuvik's determination to dilute its isolation by spending huge amounts of money to bring in the trappings of modern North American life. There are video cassettes of just-released movies that allow the people who have video cassette recorders--almost everyone, it seems--to see movies at the same time they open in theaters in Los Angeles, New York and Toronto.

TV Options Are Many

Dish antennas dot the town and provide television viewers with access to several Canadian and American channels, including two movie channels and an all-news channel. There are, in fact, more TV options in Inuvik than in Toronto, a city of 3 million people.

And in an area where the ground is frozen up to 100 yards deep, the restaurants serve fresh fruit and vegetables along with the steak, all flown in from Edmonton. At the Hudson's Bay Co. outlet, Inuvik's largest grocery store, one can buy anything from apples to kiwi fruit, bananas and pineapple--all fresh, if somewhat mushy.

All this costs a lot of money. Dinner for one at the Raven's Nest, one of the town's two French restaurants, costs at least $40--more if a wine is chosen from the extensive list. The fare for the six-mile ride in from the airport, in a cab hired from one of four cab companies, is $20. A shot of Scotch is $4.50. At the grocery store, peanut butter is $5 a pound; tomatoes, $2 a pound; sirloin steak, $6 a pound. An 8-ounce can of Old El Paso taco sauce goes for $2.05.

To pay such prices, one needs a lot of money, and the people here have it. The lowest-paid worker at one of the oil companies operating in the area receives more than $30,000 a year and usually lives in company housing and eats in a company restaurant.

Bonus for Northern Living

Many Inuvik residents work for one government agency or another, and get, in addition to regular pay, up to $4,000 a year for serving in the North. They also receive free or heavily subsidized housing.

Even small, private businesses offer large salaries and provide bountiful benefits. The manager of the town's only newsstand is paid $30,000, plus free housing.

To get quality musicians to play at the taverns, the owners pay $35,000 a month for a five-piece band, provide free housing and clothing and pay $15,000 to ship in the instruments.

The high wages and plentiful jobs bring people to Inuvik and keep the town's unemployment rate at a quarter of the national unemployment level of about 11%. But though the people come, they do not stay, at least not in great numbers. Most workers sign one- or two-year contracts, and few extend. As a result, Inuvik's population grows very slowly, despite the constant flow of new people.

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