Life at the ARF

In an effort to continue research and development on the film, UAMN Production Modeler and Animator Hannah Foss traveled to Barrow to observe firsthand the striking weather, environs and atmosphere. In addition to sharing our film clips with scientists and artists and whalers for critique and feedback, Hannah collected accounts of encounters with bowheads, gaining a better understanding for the deeply engrained culture surrounding the beautifully mysterious Aġviq.


Barrow, AK:

A few miles out of town, down a bumpy road hugging the ice-bound shore lies the ARF. Nestled amongst weather-beaten stations and pallets of snowy equipment, the ARF station sits squat and steadfast.

The ARF, or Arctic Research Facility brims with character and tangible history. Animal Research started in the building in the 1940’s – 50’s, but the term ‘ARF’ was not properly in use until the 60’s. The living-quarters extensions (kitchen, bunks, etc) were built in the mid 70’s.

Evidence of its dedicated years of service are found everywhere. Sun-bleached newspaper clippings cling next to printed pictures of researchers busy in the field. Ice-trail maps of years past are tacked next to a panorama of an open arctic shore, with a palm tree comically pasted on. Well-worn novels rest on shelves with boxes of puzzles and odd parts, whilst in the hallway hangs a cabinet of carefully preserved curiosities. Down the end of a long hallway flanked with rooms of steel-frame bunkbeds, curves a prep-area filled with supply-coolers for the research runs and jars of ponderous specimens and metal instruments.


For days the ARF has been reminding me of something, but only today did I figure out what. In the movie AVATAR, after the sergeant shuts down the main science facility the rebellious scientists hijack a helicoptor and fly out to a remote research facility- an old sturdy connex high on a mountainside. The place is a little dusty and weather worn, but even with periods of little activity, everything runs reliably.

That is the feeling I get from the ARF- a time-tested, wonderfully useful feeling. You can sense and see evidence of the years of researchers who have lived in and passed through this place- their photos, business cards, sketches and articles are taped all over the place.  Their experiences and efforts and research have built the character of this place, from the ramble-stocked pantries to eclectic mementos left on various shelves.


The day starts at 7-8 am, with muffled footsteps on the linoleum hallway floor and the percolating gurgle of the industrious little coffee pot. Because the ARF is accessible by the public, pyjama-wearing is essentially restricted to your bedroom, which is separated from the main hall by sliding wooden doors. It is usually a good idea to get changed into warm adventure-ready clothes first thing- thermal top, shirt and thick jumper, jeans and warm woolen socks. Bunny boots, freezer pants, and an off-white parka are hung in the hallway along with your personal gloves, hat, and balaclava. Expeditions can materialize in a matter of minutes, so being ready for departure is a must. For this reason showers are usually taken in the evening, when things settle down for the night. Between the expeditions, there is time to reflect.

Travel and observation is crucial to be faithful to the portayal of the bowhead, its people, and their home. This is the closest I can come to walking in a bowhead’s metaphorical shoes — to feel and breathe and see the power that nature so freely wields. There is an enduring sense of awe and impressiveness in the elements that is truly humbling. A strength, calm, and resilience in the Inupiat people’s approach to living in the powerful unpredictability of their climate and home. I would never have learnt or felt any of this by sitting in an office chair in interior Alaska. This is why study and observation is as crucial to animation as it is to any other medium or profession.


The food situation at the ARF is a mixture of personal and communal- personal favorite food items range from peanuts, muesli, seaweed, dried apricots, halibut and pop tarts. Most special food items are brought in personal luggage because they are prohibitively expensive to buy at the AC in Barrow, due to being transported in by air freight. I found a 2L bottle of orange juice on half-price sale for only $6! The communal food is a culinary culmination of many years of foraging and storing. From boxes of jello and ramen, to crates of creamer and leaf spinach, to odd specialty items like powdered wasabi, mate´ hot chocolate and pico limon (Mexican spicy seasoning for fruit).

The caretakers of the ARF are Dave and Bobby- jovial folk that are ready to help you at the drop of a hat. You can usually find Dave hunkered over an ATV, snow machine or truck; he is the quintessential handyman, keeping the ARF and its equipment running smoothly.  Bobby is always up for an expedition or errand run, whether by snow machine or truck.


There are a couple of major rules at the ARF: clean up after yourself, take short showers (water is very expensive) and don’t wander off base alone. When you are not out in the field or at the wildlife wing of NARL, you usually spend your time in the communal kitchen working on your laptop, which means in respects to myself; animating Bowhead shots for the film and writing outlines for this blog. Another work-roost is in the office on the work-computer (it has working Ethernet!!) Wifi at the ARF is evasive at best, and mythical at worst.


Craig, Kate and Dave preparing for an expedition on the sea ice.

There is a phenomena here known as ‘Barrow-time’- (a feature shared by smaller towns and villages around the world), where time is not often counted by numbers, but more by the markers: ‘this morning’ ‘lunchtime’ ‘after lunchtime’ and ‘this evening’.  Completely in contrast with this, exciting things will often happen at right now, a time punctuated with a flurry of glove-grabbing and coat-zipping. The waiting time contrasted with the sudden rush to action adds excitement to the place- you might be out scoping the coastal ice situation, or sitting working on your laptop, when suddenly someone shows up proposing an expedition to the open lead.


You can keep your fancy hotels with pointed toilet paper and fresh-fluffed sheets- I much prefer the friendly, gritty, character-filled halls of the ARF- weather-beaten but tough and sturdy- inviting to all those invested in the Arctic and its wildlife.

Post script: I violated my own rule and tried to have a shower in the morning. There was a brisk knock on the door: “Get dressed and grab your coat, there’s a polar bear! We’re leaving to go see!”

IMG_1964copysmall IMG_1980copysmallAnd that’s why you shower at night.


One thought on “Life at the ARF

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s