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The mantra for the ad blitz that preceded the Molson Ice Beach Party--a corporate-sponsored rock festival held in the tiny Eskimo village of Tuktoyuktuk--was "Get Up There."
Easier said than done.
Tucked away on the coast of the Arctic Ocean in Canada's Northwest Territories, Tuktoyuktuk is quite literally at the end of the Earth. The Inupiat Eskimos who live there kill whales for food.
There were four ways to attend the September 3 concert, which featured Hole, Metallica, and Veruca Salt: You could live in Tuktoyuktuk; you could be a Molson Ice Beach Party contest winner (the Canadian beer company flew in several dozen lucky U.S. contestants); you could be a Molson beer executive; or, finally, you could "get up there" by any means necessary.
I took the latter approach. My girlfriend Rachel and I drove more than 1,000 miles from our hometown of Anchorage, Alaska, to Inuvik, a community of 2,000 deep in the Canadian Arctic that has small-plane service to Tuktoyuktuk.
Most of the 25-hour drive was on unpaved, single-lane roads. There are three major river crossings on the "highway" from Anchorage to Inuvik, and none of them has a bridge. Our Ford Ranger pickup had to be ferried across.
But, in the end, we made it. We crashed the party, and it was fantastic--if more than a little surreal. Picture Courtney Love hanging out with Eskimo elders.
Molson executives in Tuktoyuktuk seemed edgy, even terrified. With good reason. No one--not the villagers, not the musicians, not the contest winners and certainly not the uninvited guests--knew what to expect.
Maybe Hole's volatile lead singer would show up for her meet-and-greet with the elders in an ugly mood and commit some horrible breach of etiquette. Maybe one of the contest winners would get lost in a whiteout and freeze to death. Maybe one of the locals would discharge a harpoon into a stack of Marshall amps. There was no way to be sure, and the potential for a public relations disaster loomed over the party like a polar bear waiting hungrily at a seal's breathing hole.
The company men played it safe--no beer at this Molson function. The winners could guzzle Molson Ice until they peed golden rivers in Inuvik, a Cessna-hop away from the concert site, but there was nary a drop of free brew to be had in "Tuk."
Unlike many native villages in Alaska and Canada that have "gone dry" to combat rampant alcoholism among Eskimos and Indians, Tuktoyuktuk is a "damp" town--there are no liquor stores, but it's legal to possess and consume alcohol. Clearly, the Molson suits were leery of providing the lubricant for an already slippery situation.
Once we caught a plane to Tuk, we scouted out a campsite. We settled on a strip of beach near the village's old schoolhouse, abandoned because of erosion from the encroaching Arctic Ocean waves. On the back side of the building, village kids had spray-painted homages to the heavy-metal band AC/DC. One fresh addition read, "Metallica is coming to Tuk!"
We met several other beach campers who intended to crash the gates at the concert the next night. They included two obnoxious women from Delaware, a young Australian couple traveling the world on a shoestring budget, a tan, bone-chilled man from Yuma, and two dudes from Salzburg, Austria.
Both the Austrians and the Australians said they originally arrived in Tuk with no clue about the impending rock show. "Ah, Metallica, they are quite popular in Austria," Kristian said in a thick Schwarzenegger accent. "We will rock 'n' roll, yes."
On the eve of the concert, ten more Alaskans who had braved the road trip joined our enclave.
The contest winners arrived in Inuvik two days before the show. They wore laminated "VIP Winner" badges around their necks. Some of the winners looked thrilled, others just bored. "There isn't a TV or a phone in my room," one of them whined. "If I had known it would be like this, I wouldn't have come."
Susan Goldberg from Staten Island, New York, said she "expected something much more picturesque, like fjords or something, but I never expected the people to be so nice. They aren't like the people where I'm from." Susan had never been to a rock concert before. "I'm excited."
Inside a fried chicken joint in Inuvik, I overheard a Canadian reporter interviewing a village elder. "Don't you think it sends a bad signal to kids having this concert here? I mean, won't they associate Metallica and partying with beer?"
"I don't think so," said the elder.
The reporter wasn't satisfied--he'd found his angle and was sticking to it. "I mean, doesn't this community have an alcohol problem and isn't an event like this just going to make the problem bigger?"
The elder thought for a moment. "No."
Leading questions, it seems, will get you only so far above the Arctic Circle.
Polar Party contest winners scored their E tickets to the Arctic by either entering a drawing via Internet or regular mail, or finding a "You Win" sticker in a special 12-pack of Molson Ice. Molson only put out ten of the magic 12-packs--one of which was discovered by a flight attendant on Hole's plane from Seattle to Anchorage.