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The Gazette
Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Alaska: Facial Hair Harbor

Added warmth useful in Arctic

by Colleen Mastony
Chicago Tribune

BARROW, Alaska -- To live in the Arctic is to be at constant war with the cold.  And men in this town take every advantage, including growing the biggest, bushiest beards this side of the Arctic Circle.  Handlebar mustaches curled jauntily at the edges.  Walrus whiskers that dip to the chin.  Frizzy full beards that would make Grizzly Adams bristle with envy.  Sideburns the size and shape of pork chops.

The Beards of Barrow are sights to behold: wild, woolly attractions that inspire outsiders to point and snap photos.

"Beards are a real Alaska thing.  You'll find more beards here than anywhere," said Bruce Rittgers, 55, who grew a long white beard about a year ago and is frequently mistaken for Santa Claus.  Because Barrow is among the coldest places in the country, Rittgers advises newcomers: "Get a big wad of wool on your face, see what it can do for you."

The whiskers might make you warmer, but they are also apt to freeze.  And for that reason, an Arctic debate has raged for more than a century about whether it is wise to grow a beard in the extreme cold.  Early Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson reportedly advised men to stay cleanshaven when traversing the far North because of the danger of ice building in the whiskers.

Native Inupiat Eskimos don't usually grow beards, though some say that's because the Inupiat people, descendants of Asians who came over the land bridge at the Bering Strait, are not very hairy people.

"We are direct descendants of the Mongols.  We don't have facial hair," said Bunna Edwardson, 31, a native Inupiat who stands out because he wears a thin goatee.  "Sometimes you see little mustaches.  Mine keeps my face warm, and plus, I look funny without one."

Whether Inupiats can grow beards is beside the point, according to Harry Brower, 48, a cleanshaven Inupiat whaling captain.  He dismissed the bear as "not good for you." 


"For one thing, ice forms on the beard," he said.  "Then removing icicles gets difficult.  You have to thaw it out."

Thawing a frozen beard can take a half-hour and often creates a large puddle.  Men with beards have become frozen inside their snowmobile helmets or trapped inside knitted ski masks.  Still, the call of the beard can be irresistible.

"The beard embodies the rugged outdoorsmen, the pioneer spirit, the struggle of man against nature." said Bob Bulger, 36, who grew a fuzzy red beard shortly after he moved to Barrow.  "Maybe it's my memory of the Yukon Cornelius character from 'Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer' (the 1064 animated TV special).  But I think the ideal Alaskan male wears a beard.  I think growing a beard is a rite of manhood for a lot of young men in Alaska."

Even for men in the lower 48 states, growing a beard has lately become a hot trend.  Hipsters, perhaps inspired by George Clooney's full beard in "Syriana" have been reportedly buying flannel shirts, growing out their whiskers and aiming to look like Paul Bunyan.

For Alaskans, however, the beard is no passing fancy.  The "taniks" (nonnative people in Inupiaq) in Barrow have nearly always embraced the beard.  This hairy adaptation came, in part, out of necessity.  Barrow didn't have citywide running water until the 1980s, which sometimes made shaving difficult and painful.

Many men said they grew long beards when they came to Barrow to work on the oil drills in the 1970s.  By the time running water arrived, men in town had become accustomed to looking at their hairy mugs.  Most decided to keep the beards.

Today, the majority of folks in Barrow work indoors, and problems with ice chunks in the whiskers have melted away with the advent of central heating.  Charles Keizer, 57, who sports a handlebar mustache, says the hardest thing about the mustache is resisting the urge to play with it.

Also, he has encountered problems eating corn on the cob.  "You have to wash the butter out of your mustache," he said.

Considering the amount of a facial fur in town, one might be surprised that haircuts and beard trims are free in Barrow.  One local man cuts hair out of his home.  He doesn't charge, but instead keeps a jar for donations.  Still, the hair stylist sometimes disappears for months at a time.

On a day in December, Glenn Sheehan, a scientist at the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium, complained:  "The barber hasn't been answering his phone since August." Sheehan's beard had grown outward in a frizzy white-and-blond mass.  "It's long enough that when I zip my coat up my beard gets caught."{

Most don't mind waiting a few extra months for a beard trim.

In Alaska, especially in the winter, beard-growing is a statewide pastime.  Every February, Anchorage holds a Mr. Fur Face competition, which draws up to 150 competitors.

The contest gives people something to do in the winter and helps folks deal with the darkness, according to David Traver, 41, president of the Anchorage-based Southcentral Alaska Beard & Moustache Club.  Men watch their hair grow for fun.

In 2009, Anchorage will host the World Bear and Moustache Championships.  Beard Team USA officials hope to recruit team members from Alaska, which they consider a good place to find hairy men.

"What you see in Alaska is the megabeard r the extreme beard.  That's a beard that is grown with commitment and is a permanent feature.  It isn't constantly trimmed but instead it is allowed to flourish," said Phil Olsen, 57, of Tahoe City, Calif., captain of Beard Team USA, which competes in the world championships.

Facial hair proponents still complain about discrimination, or "beardism."  A recent survey sponsored by Gillette Co. found that almost half of the 500 women polled said they preferred the cleanshaven look.  And U.S. voters have not elected a president with a mustache or a beard since William Howard Taft, who sported a blond handlebar mustache.

But Alaskans -- famous for their independent streak -- enjoy bucking the social norms.  "There is an idea of the frontier beard.  The wild man, the man of nature, or Thoreau character ignoring society's rules," said Allan Peterkin, 47, author of "One Thousand Beards, A Cultural History of Facial Hair."

"There is that element among men who move up North.  They often want to leave urban restraints, and growing that big bushy bead is a symbol of freedom, a symbol that they are not a cultural slave."

But some have noticed a startling trend: When men first arrive in Alaska, they grow a beard.  But the longer they stay, the greater the urge to shave.

Craig George, 54, suggested this ultimate return to the razor results from the long-term influence of cleanshaven Inupiat people.  George grew a shaggy beard when he arrived in Barrow in 1977, and the local Inupiat people nicknamed him "Umingmak," which translates to "bearded one" or "musk ox" -- an animal with an unruly beard.

But he shaved the beard about 10 years ago, a step he attributed to problems with his beard icing and an urge to fit in with the native culture.

Still, the nickname stuck.  Now, in a strange twist, "the bearded one" of Barrow is cleanshaven.




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