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Amber Thomas grew up in Barrow, Alaska: ‘I saw a reflection of my younger self.’

By Hilary Reeves

It wasn’t until Foss Maritime Project Manager Amber Thomas left home for college that she truly understood how different her home was from any other place in the country.

“I’d often be asked about the 24 hours of daylight and the 24 hours of darkness and how I’d handled it,” she said. “I was confused by the question because it felt like asking someone ‘How did you handle drinking water for the first time?’ It’s not something you ever think about, it’s normal life. The hardest part of living in the Lower 48 for college was when the sun woke me up every morning at 6 a.m. I was used to all or nothing. I used to black out my shades with cardboard and tinfoil, the original black-out shades.”

Thomas was born and raised in Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow), Alaska, a town of just 4,500 residents. Utqiagvik sits on the northernmost point of the United States, beyond the Arctic Circle and just 1,300 miles south of the North Pole.

Amber looks through a theodolite in a barren arctic environment.
Amber Thomas worked as a Wildlife Technician for the North Slope Borough during the spring of 2011. She was counting a whale and marking its location with a theodolite while a polar bear napped behind. Photo by Vicki Beaver.

Thomas was 14 when she landed her first job at a local grocery store. She worked throughout high school and college in several fields, but her favorite was a stint as a Wildlife Technician. “My job was to count bowhead whales transiting through the water highway between shore-fast ice and the free-floating pack ice,” she explained. “My daily task was to get dressed to stand in below-zero degrees Fahrenheit for four-hour shifts for sometimes 12 hours a day. Each day I had to grab a 12-gauge shotgun with slugs, a radio, and start a snow machine in the cold. I rode by snow machine over the shore fast (ocean ice) to a campsite and then hiked another 15 minutes to our perch located next to the open water, all while protecting myself from the elements, wind direction shifts, and polar bears.  I remember telling my cousin how nervous I was to be doing it on my own, and she told me, ‘Trust your instincts.’ I was riding on the snow machine and briefly remember looking down and thinking, ‘Was that a polar bear track?’  Shortly after pulling into the campsite, I saw a polar bear meandering around the tent checking things out. That moment solidified that no matter where I am in the world, I can always trust my instincts.”

 Oil and the North Slope

Thomas said she came of age at a time when Utqiagvik was undergoing great change. With the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay, the 1960s and ’70s brought great outside interest in the North Slope region. By the ’80s, the North Slope was seeing the benefits of that discovery through the entities that had been established to ensure the local people benefitted from local resources.

In the early 1970s, the North Slope Borough was established; it’s larger than the state of Utah and the largest county-level government in the nation. The Borough also encompassed the rich oil and gas fields of Prudhoe Bay. Utqiagvik serves as the seat of government for the Borough. Also in the early 1970s, regional and village Alaska Native Corporations (ANC) were created by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the largest aboriginal land claims settlement of its time. ANCs are geographic-specific corporations owned by their shareholders with a mission mandated by Congress “to promote the health, education, or welfare” of the shareholders, and on the North Slope, it allowed for the Inupiat people to retain ownership and rights to lands selected and the resources within.

“The quality of life on the North Slope that I experienced was drastically different from my mother’s and grandparents’ generations,” she said. “We had running water, our school district could afford to hire teachers from outside to move to the Arctic, doctors rotated into our clinics, and we had television to connect us to the outside world and computers to teach us about the internet. The leadership of the regional and village corporations had the foresight to invest in education, and I was a product of that investment. Through scholarships and internships provided by the native corporations, I was able to further my education at the University of Idaho, where I earned a Bachelor of Science in American Studies and was able to prepare myself for future opportunities.”

A Field Trip to Foss

After college, Thomas worked at Arctic Slope Regional Corp. Energy Services, a subsidiary of for her regional ANC before joining Foss Maritime as a project manager.

“I was curious how businesses functioned outside of the world of native corporations and outside of the state of Alaska,” she said. “What I like most about my job is the constantly shifting projects that I have to think critically about, solving a multitude of problems. We could be bringing a drill rig to the Arctic, bringing a decommissioned vessel through the Suez Canal, or bringing utility vehicles to Puerto Rico to turn the lights on. Each day I take a mental step into each of my projects and evaluate where I’m at and where I want to be, and figure out how best to get the desired end result with the resources that are available to me.”

Foss welcome sign for "COASTAL VILLAGES REGION FUND STUDENTS"Last month, Thomas and her colleagues at Foss headquarters in Seattle hosted students from Alaska’s Coastal Villages Region Fund’s “Ciuneq” Education Pathways Program. Ciuneq is a Yupik word meaning a path or way forward. The program allows high-achieving students in Western Alaska an opportunity to explore educational pathways and careers.

“Though these kids weren’t from Utqiagvik, I saw a reflection of my younger self: Alaska Native students from small, remote communities stepping into an unknown outside world,” Thomas explained. “Coastal Villages Region Fund wanted the Ciuneq students to hear about maritime opportunities. As someone who grew up in a remote part of Alaska, I know what it can be like to travel outside for the first time and to interact with people who you haven’t known your whole life. So instead of me providing a PowerPoint about the various careers in the maritime industry, I thought it would be better to make it more interactive and to display the best attributes about Foss: our people!”

After a tour of the shipyard, Thomas and her colleagues in the office set up an area that featured employees in seven distinct maritime positions and had the students rotate through.

Students hunch over a map focusing on taking notes.

“We created a casual atmosphere with music and interactive tangible items for the students to touch and ask questions,” she said. “My key takeaway was that this experience was just as good for our employees as it was for the students.”

Her advice for young people: remember that no one gets anywhere alone.

“Latch onto those people who are cheering for you,” she said. “Find people who are succeeding in life and living the life you want to live. Be curious about how they got to where they are and ask them what they wished they had done differently at your age.”

Thomas hopes to someday go back to school to earn her MBA in Finance. She said when she looks back, she wishes she’d been braver sooner.

“I wish I hadn’t spent so much time afraid of the world outside of where I grew up,” she said. “There’s a whole world out there with wonderful experiences: food, places, companies, and people. You just have to be open to it. And I’m hoping this opportunity for the students can provide that opportunity to be braver sooner.”

Hilary Reeves

Hilary Reeves spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining the Saltchuk family of companies as a consultant. Since People of Saltchuk launched in 2014, Reeves has interviewed more than 200 Saltchuk employees from operating companies all over the world. Born in Tacoma, Washington, Reeves is a former president of both the collegiate and local professional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists, a graduate of the Society’s Ted Scripps Leadership Institute, and a Toastmaster. When she’s not writing, she loves to read, ski, and practice the piano. She lives in West Seattle with her husband and two young daughters.