Concern for community runs deep among electric cooperatives.
But for northern Alaska’s Barrow Utilities and Electric Cooperative Inc. (BUECI), the depth of that concern takes on a more literal meaning.
Beneath the miles of Arctic tundra that make up Barrow’s territory sits permafrost, a seam of frozen ground that persists year-round and makes digging nearly impossible.
“Think of using a shovel through a block of ice,” says Layne Jordan, BUECI’s natural gas superintendent.
So, for the last 20-plus years, BUECI, the country’s northernmost electric cooperative, has found a way to help its members with one of their most sacred tasks: laying their loved ones to rest.
Through an arrangement with the city of Barrow, the co-op will, free of charge, prepare a gravesite for burial. The city owns the equipment. The co-op maintains the digger derrick and other tools and provides the fuel and the operator. The only paperwork is a city permit.
“It’s a shame someone has to pass away, but it brings the community together, and we are happy to help,” says Paul Johnson, foreman of the Barrow line crew.
BUECI provides the service about 30 times a year. It’s never an easy task, Jordan says.
An auger mounted on a heavy track similar to a military tank drills about eight holes through the rock-hard permafrost. Once the holes are cut, jackhammers are employed to break through the frozen clay and ice, connecting each 12-inch-wide cylinder.
As the digging goes deeper, frozen earth newly exposed to warmer air gets sticky and mucky. Crews haul the soil out, pound away, shave the edges of the grave with shovels.
So it goes, inch by inch, until the grave reaches the proper depth.
It can take up to six hours to finish.
“We’ve dug graves in minus-30 temps under a light tower in the middle of a blowing snowstorm,” Jordan says.
This June, while preparing a gravesite, the temperature was in the mid-30s. A light wind off the Chukchi Sea brought a chill to the town, which is also known as Utqiagvik, and to its cemetery, which sits near the co-op’s headquarters.
Summer work is done in endless light in the Arctic. The sun stops setting in Utqiagvik in May and doesn’t start again until August. In November, when more than 60 days of darkness set in, mobile lighting is brought to the cemetery.
Jordan says the grave work is always assisted by city workers and occasionally the families and friends of those who have passed. It’s not uncommon for mourners to bring food and hot beverages to show their gratitude.
“Our guys appreciate the community helping,” Jordan says.
A food donation here is no small gesture. There are no roads to Utqiagvik, so air freight is the only option. That means everything is expensive, particularly food. A bag of potato chips can run $9; a gallon of milk, $12; ground beef, $6 per pound.
Jordan says grave services have always been free for residents, and he doesn’t see that changing.
“This is a community service,” he says. “Our board is very much behind it.”
He says that for his team, the work of digging a grave is often personal. For more than 1,000 years, the region has been the homeland of the Iñupiat, a branch of Inuit natives. The relationships and connections among the town’s residents are layered and intertwined. Surviving has always been about community.
“People help each other,” Jordan says. “It’s what we do to get by up here.”