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Arctic Postcards

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Iraq and Guantanamo pullouts aside, Secretary of State nominee Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was reminded by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski during her confirmation hearing Tuesday that the United States is an "Arctic nation," therefore Barack Obama's administration must work diligently to preserve the country's ice.

Mrs. Clinton took the Republican senator's cue and recalled being shocked to learn that passenger cruise ships actually dock at Point Barrow (pop. 3,982), the northernmost tip of the United States.

In reality, it comes close to being warm in Barrow during the summer, the balmiest month being July. The highest temperature ever recorded in the Alaskan town was 79 degrees Fahrenheit in 1993. In comparison, Barrow's winters are downright frigid, although it's much more unbearable hundreds of miles south, especially this unusually cold winter of 2009.

For instance, the lowest temperature ever recorded in Barrow was minus-56 Fahrenheit in 1924. The coldest temperature ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere was minus-90 Fahrenheit in both Verkhoyanski and Oimekon in Siberia, the latter 209 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

As the pair of senators chatted about Barrow's melting ice, the temperature in the town was minus-22 degrees Fahrenheit, with a feel-like temperature of minus-41 degrees.

As for the curious cruise liners, which bring welcome commerce and conversation to America's most isolated town, passenger ships have long visited equally remote outposts of other Arctic nations, including Kirkenes, Norway (the northernmost tip of Europe, where this columnist once filed stories about roaming reindeer), and the nearby Russian Navy seaport of Murmansk, the world's largest city north of the Arctic Circle (pop. 336,137).

Actually, these two Arctic seaports are generally ice free, given warm ocean currents originating in the Gulf of Mexico. Good luck cruising to either place, or Point Barrow for that matter, in the dead of winter. Not only are layers of clothing required for survival (Murmansk's temperature during Tuesday's congressional hearing was minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit), the sun doesn't rise for days on end.


While "change" will come to Washington with Tuesday's swearing-in of President-elect Barack Obama, his inauguration ceremony will follow tradition to a tee.

Once Mr. Obama has taken the oath of office and delivered his inaugural address, and following a brief farewell for President George W. Bush, the newly sworn president will be escorted into the U.S Capitol's Statuary Hall for the traditional inaugural luncheon.

The menu for this feast will be a far cry from Mr. Obama's recent highly publicized smoked sausage-and-cheese fries lunch at the greasy Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street, where the president-elect returned not once, not twice, but three times to the counter to retrieve shredded cheese, bottled water, and napkins.

The backdrop for Mr. Obama's inaugural luncheon, as tradition dictates, will be a prized painting borrowed especially for the occasion, titled "View of the Yosemite Valley," by Thomas Hill, reflecting the dawn of a new era. (For one of Bill Clinton's inaugurals, a portrait of Thomas Jefferson was displayed above the head table).

Instead of a half-smoke, Mr. Obama will dine on seafood stew, a brace of American birds (pheasant and duck), molasses sweet potatoes, and a slice of apple sponge cake. The main course will be served on purple-red hue replicas of the Lincoln presidency china, selected by Mary Todd Lincoln, featuring the American bald eagle.

It is tradition for the new president to be presented with gifts by Congress on behalf of all Americans. This year, we will give Mr. Obama a framed photograph of his swearing-in ceremony, a flag flown over the U.S. Capitol during his inaugural and an engraved Lenox crystal bowl depicting the White House and inscribed: "Barack H. Obama, January 20, 2009, The Presidential Inaugural."


Washington lawyer and New York Times best-selling author Christopher C. Horner was passing through airport security Tuesday prior to boarding his early morning flight "when the woman behind me - by all appearances a fully functioning adult who had managed to make it beyond the check-in step - replied that, yes, the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] officer could look in her bag, but to 'be careful, it could be exploding.'

"Silent, confused stare, then-stammer from TSA," says Mr. Horner.

Realizing she'd uttered an untimely, if not unlawful response, the woman immediately reassured the officers: "Oh, I mean things could be falling out."

Quips Mr. Horner: "At least she didn't then call out to her friend, 'Hi, Jack!' "

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