From the Santa Cruz Sentinel, March 15, 1989
by Wally Trabing.

A Northern Trek to Clear the Mind

THIS IS ABOUT traveling for the sake of clearing the mind. Picking a place where there's no there there as Gertrude once said.

Jon Bjornstad, 40, single, software manager for Santa Cruz Operations, needed a mind airing, a break, a retreat. He wanted it to be where others would say, "You're going WHERE??"

With a name like Bjornstad, he favored the north. OK, Point Barrow, Alaska. An agent figured $1,100 airfare round trip, $75 a day hotel, $30 for food. He spotted Ken Mix's North Wind Alaskan Travel ad in the yellow pages and Ken listened and said, "Kotzebue." Much cheaper.

Jon squinted at a large map and found the tiny name, smack on the ice chunked Bering Sea, way north of the Seward Peninsula inside the Arctic Circle.

It was a go. I like his philosophy. He calls it "testing life."

*   *   *

Mix put him in touch with a boarding house called Drakes Camp, $45 a night, a heck of a good price considering the nights are darn near 20 hours long.

Jon telephoned to ask about clothing, a smart move. Also, yes, they could handle a vegetarian.

He flew Alaskan Airways. During a layover in Anchorage, a loudspeaker boomed, "Minus 25 in Kotzebue." Worried, he called Drakes Camp, and the old man learned Jon weighed 118 pounds and said, "'Aw, you can wear my son's stuff.' Made me feel welcome."

On the leg to Kotzebue he met workers, a preacher, school people aboard the 20-seater. "When I revealed I was going for pleasure, I got these long looks."

*   *   *

It was two nights before New Year's, '89. "I was the only boarder. Peaceful. My mind quieted beautifully. I began to focus within."

New Year's Eve, however, the place exploded. Their annual 220-mile dog race ended in the sunless village. The finish line was jammed with about 30 townspeople. "Some dogs had bloody feet. I assumed they enjoyed what they do."

"Kotzebue is 80 percent Eskimo. There was fireworks out on the frozen Bering Sea. I walked out quite a ways with some 200 other people," he said. Well, when have you ever walked on water??

As he walked back with his face masked and bundled to the nines, a teen-ager came up and said, "You're new in town aren't you?" He'd seen a body with different clothing. When Jon told him he came from California for a vacation, the kid nearly flipped. He'd never left the frozen land and Jon was probably the only human he'd ever seen here solely on vacation.

*   *   *

But Jon was enjoying the experience. Here he was among people talking their native tongue, surrounded by darkness and cold, yet he was welcomed with much friendship.

The sun appeared at noon and rested on the icy sea giving off a dayish kind of light. Two hours later it slunk away leaving a dawnish gray light.

At Drakes Camp he had met Sarah and Don Haile from Illinois. He was a school principal ($70,000 a year) and she an elementary teacher, ($50,000) in an Eskimo village of Shungnak, population 250. They invited him to visit.

He paid $170 to a bush pilot for the 100-mile round trip over the white barren waste. Jon suspected the pilot was lost part of the way.

He took a snowmobile taxi to his host'. Cold? How about minus 37? With the wind chill factor, minus 50. It's a mining town, but much of their subsistence is welfare.

"The sense of isolation is great. Alcoholism is high. My hosts, in their cabin, had a TV, VCR, and microwave. I stayed one night."

*   *   *

"The government has gone to great expense to build beautiful schools. In Kotzebue, there's a fine senior cultural center. This town sort of serves as a supply place for the many Eskimo villages in the area.

"I saw the colorful Northern Lights. I met an Eskimo named Napolean Black, 75, and very dignified.

"I saw Baptist, Quaker and Seventh Day Adventist churches and one night sang with the Quaker choir. I learned there are four seasons there - winter, winter, winter, and summer.

"I also experienced something totally different. When I took off my glasses to take a photo, every time I squinted, my eyelashes froze shut.

*   *   *

"Experiencing the people I met, I felt more encouraged to be open, receptive to people, to be curious and experimental in travel. It made me feel friendly."

Jon earned two degrees at UCSC - one in math, another in biology.

I think Jon has grabbed an essence of travel.