Heralded as a ‘rebuilder,” the long-time Refugio girls volleyball and basketball coach went to a school at Point Hope, which lies 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
No trees grace the frozen tundra and the area has 67 days without sunlight.
During Christmas vacation, the former coach, commonly known as Prof at RHS, returned to Refugio for a visit.
“It has already been minus 45 and the coldest months have not yet come,” Lamar says.
Why would a former South Texan make such a radical change?
“I have sought adventure most of my life; however, this adventure, though fun, is far beyond anything I could have imagined,” he said.
Though fit and healthy, Lamar has taken off 20 pounds since he left last summer. The greatest differences have been the weather, athletics and the food. The weather on the North Slope in the dead of winter commonly reaches 50 below zero with a wind chill of minus 80 degrees. Point Hope is on a peninsula on the Chukchi Sea which is part of the Arctic Ocean.
“The greatest problem with the ocean freezing over is that the polar bears come down over the frozen ice into the village,” Lamar said.
So Prof joined the Polar Bear Patrol in his community of 800. The patrolmen alert the citizens when a polar bear is in town.
“It scared me the first time but for these folks, it’s just another day,” he said.
Only a few vehicles are owned by the villagers in Point Hope since there is no road system to anywhere. The most common transportation is four-wheelers and snowmobiles. No license is required to drive either form of transportation.
“To go anywhere, you have to fly a nine or 18-seater airplane,” he said. “There are no restaurants and there’s one grocery store.”
The cost of food is extremely expensive, driven up by the difficulty of transportation and shipping during the region’s harsh winters.
Prof says he pays $10 for a gallon of milk, $14 for a gallon of orange juice, and $2.55 for a 16-ounce Dr. Pepper. He also paid $4 for a tomato. An eight-pound roast on sale runs $83.
“Of course, most of the indigenous people in this region are substantive hunters,” he said.
In addition to high grocery bills, Prof says other things take some “getting-used to.”
“It can be weeks where no groceries, supplies or mail can be delivered,” Lamar said. “The winters include complete blackouts from snow and 24-hour darkness as well as 40-mile-per-hour winds off the Arctic Ocean.”
Things that are taken for granted in South Texas are non-existent during the harsh winters, like daily mail delivery. Mail is often delayed for two weeks at a time.
“There are many weeks in school when I might have 40 percent of my students in each class because the other 60 percent are young men and have gone hunting when the caribou migration is underway,” he said. “Of course, if a student is hunting or fishing, the absences are excused in the Slope. Their main staples are whale, caribou, walrus, seal and fish.”
While some of the meat is cooked, Prof says most is eaten raw.
“I think the most interesting thing I have eaten so far is the ‘fermented’ whale tail,” he said. “When they kill the whale in the spring, they store the whale tail, which is about 3,000 pounds, in the ground until October. When I saw it at a feast I attended, the meat was yellow, brown and green with slime all over it. Bubbles were coming through it and you could smell it six blocks away.”
The Eskimo natives cut steaks out of the fermenting whale tale and ate the meat raw.
“This is a cuisine delicacy on the North Slope,” Prof said. “I did try one bite, and one bite only.”
Aside from the change in the environment and culture, Prof went to Alaska to develop an eight-man football team in its first year of existence and to rebuild the volleyball program. Known widely as a rebuilding coach, Lamar has experienced amazing success. The football and volleyball team won the state championship and he is on the last leg of what promises to be a triple-crown of state championships at his new school.
“One of the great benefits of coaching on the Slope is that it gets you out of the village to visit other places,” he said. “The team flies to all their games by chartered airlines.”
All the football games are away matches and all but one tournament was away in volleyball. The team, The Harpooners, spend anywhere from two to six days on road trips and normally play several teams on each trip before returning home.
“Of course, if they get snowed in, which often happens, then the kids have to stay longer,” Lamar said. “I like to go south as it gives me a rare opportunity to eat at a restaurant.”
Prof has flown all over the state with his team. On the Slope, football is played in the fall and volleyball in the winter. The average travel distance is 1,200 miles round trip. The Harpooners made one trip to Sitka that is equivalent to a trip from Refugio to San Diego, Calif. and back.
“When the Harpooners play in the villages, they stay in a school room and eat their meals in the school cafeteria,” Lamar said.
The coach said the Harpooners are very motivated to go to the playoffs since it allows them to travel to big cities to play.
“Play they did,” he said. “The football team, in their first year traveled to Eagle River and won the state championship against Voznesenka, a Russian Orthodox School on the Kenia Peninsula. The score was 30 to 20 and the Harpooners took home the hardware.”
Just three weeks ago, the Harpooners won their second state championship under Coach Lamar in volleyball. They won the regional championship at Noatac by defeating all three teams without losing a game.
The team then went to Anchorage and won all three matches for the quarterfinal and state championship, all without losing a single game.
When Prof left Refugio after his Christmas vacation, the weather thermometer read 80 degrees, When he arrived back in Alaska, the temperature was minus 35 in Point Hope, a 115-degree change.