The Arctic

A long-forgotten Arctic explorer, quoted here occasionally, once complained of "those long periods in which one cannot get a tan, and thus one considers murdering his mother."

Here on the shore of the Arctic Ocean, a few hundred Americans pump Earth's petroleum riches into the trans-Alaskan pipeline to be shot across the flat snowfields toward the horizon-bound sun, as if they were pacifying the great round orange beast with a long drinking straw. It will do no good. The sun will soon be gone, not to reappear for two months.

Even 750 miles south in Anchorage, where the sun stays up until 3:30 p.m. this time of year, the Arctic winter "makes you pretty edgy," said Dana Fabe, an attorney who as state public defender must represent those who let their dark winter rages get the better of them. A statewide mood swing sets in, contributing to an upsurge in beatings and assaults, said Anchorage police Maj. Ron Otte.

Prof. James Orvik, of the University of Alaska's Center for Cross Cultural Studies in Fairbanks, said: "Alaska is a pretty violent place. People here have a certain tendency to get downright irritable. They have lots of time to contemplate themselves when they are feeling most vulnerable, and they are feeling vulnerable because the environment has them at bay. Americans are used to controlling their environment."

"It's the dark, not the cold," Fabe said. "After all, it's colder in some parts of Wisconsin or Maine than it is here. You have to forge ahead and do something, some exercise like skiing." Anchorage tries to encourage healthy outlets by providing lighted cross-country ski trails.

Far to the north, in this little community of prefabricated buildings named after a long-vanished construction company, assistant hotel manager Bob Jenkins cures his winter depression by planning regular escapes from the state. "Every winter I go somewhere nice, like Mexico or the Bahamas," he said.

Oil workers and their support staff here draw salaries three or four times the average and can afford such trips, but most Alaskans must stick around. Worse, Letter From the Arctic employment in the state is often seasonal. Work slacks off in the cold, dark winters and leaves Alaskans with even less to keep their minds occupied.

Many find the only recreation left is heavy drinking. "All Arctic cultures have high alcoholism rates," said Orvik, mentioning the Soviets and Finns along with fellow Alaskans.

Jenkins, whose 150-room, single-level Nana Camp motel is usually packed with workers, pauses in a chat about the winter as a friend approaches his table in the communal dining room. The friend has run out of beer again. Could Bob lend him two six-packs? "We always run very short here," Jenkins said.

Tall and well-muscled, Jenkins, 35, used to work in the security detail when pipeline construction drew thousands of workers here. For a while, supervisors tried to restrict alcohol consumption and asked security men to check garbage in the morning for discarded cans and bottles. "It was a joke," Jenkins said.

Today, oil companies that employ technicians and drilling teams here allow the inevitable winter drinking as long as everyone does his or her 12-hour daily shift. Many work seven consecutive days, then catch up on sleep and recreation with seven days off in Anchorage.

In the summer, the 24-hour sunlight seems intoxicating enough for many Arctic Circle veterans. "I can go and go and go and go," said Curt Griggs, 35, a material planning supervisor for Sohio. "In the summer, I only need three or four hours' sleep a night."

Joe Wills of the Homer News, the weekly paper in a little town on the Kenai Peninsula, wrote of his personal conquest of nyctophobia (fear of the night). He found people glorying in the dark, looking for the northern lights and counting the stars. "Yes, all the possibilities were told to me that night," Wills wrote, "the heavy bear-like sleep stage, the sneaking-out-of-the-office-at-3-p.m. maneuver, the mushroom-growing possibilities."

In a snow-covered cabin 10 miles from Homer, school teacher Karen Wessel-Friedman helps her husband Marty, a lawyer, prepare their daughter's Halloween witch costume. It is a holiday the night-dwelling Alaskans celebrate with unusual glee. Wessel-Friedman said she lets it and other holidays carry her through the long nights.

"I'm a real Christmas freak," she said, "so if I'm here and the fire is going, then I feel real good, full of the holiday spirit. The only time I notice the dark is between Christmas and the end of January. Then it starts getting light again."

Karen Cantillon, who works for the state's Department of Environmental Conservation in Juneau, acknowledges the effects of what she calls "cabin fever" during the long winter, but there is one more useful way to spend the time. "A lot of people get pregnant," she said.