Paramedics chill out in Alaska |

Paramedics chill out in Alaska

by Merrie Leininger

Three Douglas County paramedics traveled all the way to the northern-most point of the United States to witness the first sunrise of the new century, only to be disappointed by Mother Nature.

But they said the parade of human nature they witnessed was worth the trip.

Captain Robert Lekumberry and paramedics Andy Pennucci and Jeremy Jones decided just weeks before the trip to fly to Barrow, Alaska after Jones told the group about a story called “The End of the Long Winter Night,” he read in Reader’s Digest.

“It is 330 miles to the Arctic Circle from there. It is light outside only 80 days in the summer. For 324 days of the year, it stays below freezing. When we were there, there were 35 mph winds and it was 80 below,” Jones said.

Jones said the story explained how the sun would rise for the first time this year on Jan. 23, making Barrow the last place in the world to see the year 2000 in daylight.

“We got to talking about how it was dark all winter there and it was only two weeks before Jan. 23. We looked into plane tickets and said, ‘The heck with it,'” Jones said.

Lekumberry said when Jones first told him about it, he got excited thinking they might go next year.

“But then these guys found $500 round-trip tickets on the Internet and we had to make our decision in three days,” he said.

But first, he had to sell the idea to his 9-year-old daughter, Linsey.

“She started crying and I called Jeremy and said, ‘I’m not going to go,'” Lekumberry said.

However, they compromised – he promised to give up his yearly elk hunting trip and Linsey OK’d the Alaska trip.

Pennucci also wanted to go, but decided he couldn’t afford to unless the truck he had been trying to sell for a month sold. The next day, it did.

In order for three members of the six-member A shift to travel out-of-state, the other shifts had to work extra to cover for them.

There are three shifts who work 24 hours every three days. Lekumberry said the guys often like to do things together outside of work, so the other paramedics were understanding.

“We had to miss 1-1/2 shifts. All the other shifts pulled together,” Lekumberry said.

n And they’re off. So the group left for Alaska by way of Seattle, but almost didn’t make their connecting flight.

“The aircraft had a warning light for the cargo door and we were stuck in Seattle for an hour. We knew if they kept us over an hour we’d miss our flight in Anchorage. But it turned out the pilot for the Barrow flight was on our flight, so they had to hold the plane,” he said.

On the way to Barrow, Lekumberry happened to sit next to a woman who had a 9-year-old granddaughter in 4th grade class in Barrow.

He gave a special package to her – pen pal letters from his daughter’s 4th grade class in Smith Valley, and Linsey’s class was thrilled to received letters in response.

n Arrival in Barrow. The town was holding a celebration of the rising sun that included honoring three people. George Meegan, who lives in Japan, completed his walk from the southern-most point of South America to the northern-most point of Alaska on Jan. 23.

Teisha Simmons, a quadriplegic, traveled with Meegan on a dog sled. Simmons is the great-granddaughter of a native woman who traveled 1,000 miles alone on foot in the Alaskan wilderness in 1905-06. She had left her home to testify in Nome against the trapper who killed her husband and then no boats were available to take her home to her children.

John “Jumper” Bitters, who lives with his wife in Barrow, is the only man to parachute into both the southern and northern polar circles. Jumper was to parachute to meet Simmons and Meegan at Point Barrow, but because the day was completely whited out by a snowstorm, the plans were put on hold.

The snowstorm was so bad, the paramedics could barely see the sun, they said, but they did meet Meegan and Bitters.

“At the hotel we talked to Jumper and when we told him about why we were there and how Andy had to sell his truck, he was really touched by it and invited us to the awards dinner,” Lekumberry said.

They also met Norman Vaughn, a famous Barrow resident who is known for his expeditions by dog sled. He is the only living member of Admiral Byrd’s 1928 expedition to the Antarctic and the group had read about him in the Reader’s Digest article. Jones said he recognized him because he was wearing the same outfit he was wearing in a picture in the magazine.

n Walking on water. “On that day we rented a van to go see polar bears and we asked them to take us to the point,” Lekumberry said.

Because of the snowstorm, their driver lost his way for a short time and actually drove off the point and onto the frozen ocean. They never saw a polar bear, although they heard police have to patrol the streets at night to make sure polar bears don’t come into town. They photographed themselves standing in a whale bone graveyard – an area where natives leave the bones of whales they have killed.

“It was like a foreign place. A little world to itself. Everyone lives in little 8-by-8 shacks with tarpaper over them. It was so cold,” Jones said.

Lekumberry agreed that the cold was unbelievable.

“As soon as you took off your glove, well, being a paramedic, I can recognize the first signs of frostbite,” he said.

Pennucci said the map they were using snapped in the cold.

They found a home-away-from -home, however, at Arctic Pizza, the “best place in town,” Pennucci said. The manager, Susan, and the group became friends and she promised to put their picture on the wall and exchanged e-mail addresses with them.

Despite their wonderful experiences, the cold overshadowed the trip, they said.

“I can’t tell you how much of an opportunity it was,” Lekumberry said.

“It wasn’t my first trip to Alaska, but it was my first trip to Barrow. I’ll probably never be back. It was fun to visit, but it was just so cold,” Pennucci said.