I was only a year out of college – old enough to get my first engineering job, but young enough to still be clueless about the world – when my opportunity to visit the Arctic presented itself. I was working for the offshore oil exploration group of Texas Instruments’ Geophysical Services Division, designing electronics. That’s back when our computer’s physical memory was the size of a carry-on bag, but could store less data than a sheet of notebook paper. By comparison, today’s smart phones have hundreds of times more memory than a roomful of computers had back then!
One fall day, I was called in to a meeting and advised that I had been chosen to participate in a project to adapt our offshore system for use in the Arctic during the winter time, now only a few months away. I was too busy saying, “Cool!” to worry about the engineering challenge this represented.
In the past, once the Arctic Ocean had frozen over, seismic crews explored for oil by setting off dynamite charges, and then recording the acoustic pulses from long arrays of geophones (sort of like small microphones). Geologists would then examine the data, seeking possible oil deposits.
However, the previous year, environmentalists had decided that the dynamite was interfering with the love life of mating seals. Now it’s not clear to me how they established this fact. Maybe the seals had a Dr. Phil hotline and complained, or perhaps they just wrote letters to Dear Abby. In any case, I’m told there were lots of happy seals when the environmentalists succeeded in getting a ban placed on the use of dynamite in the Arctic.
I was the only electronics engineer in a group of mechanical engineers, which wasn’t all that bad; since they didn’t quite understand what I did, they mostly left me alone. I guess they figured I knew what I was doing and if not, they didn’t want to be close enough to my incompetence to get electrocuted. As it turns out, I got my part done on time, but at the last minute, we had a problem with a very large power supply. So I arranged to stop by the manufacturer in San Diego on my way to Anchorage, Alaska.
I still recall arriving at the Dallas airport curbside luggage check-in and throwing the guy a twenty as I offloaded a mound of equipment weighing several hundred pounds, which he happily checked for me at no cost. By comparison, I recently paid $50 to check a single, 40-pound suitcase.
I left sunny Texas to fly to even sunnier and warmer San Diego. I left there to head to snowy, cold Anchorage, and then on to the really, really incredibly frozen, cold Dead Horse, Alaska. As I walked down the rolling stairway from the plane, carrying the suit I’d worn to my San Diego meeting in a plastic hanging bag draped over my shoulder, all the hairs in my nose froze with my first breath. I was pleased to find that they thawed when I exhaled. I don’t know what the temperature was, but I was certain it had a minus sign in front of it.
I hurried inside the airport lobby to bask in the steamy heat, at which time I discovered my plastic hanging bag was hanging in shreds. Evidently, it had frozen when I stepped off the plane, and then shattered when I bumped it against the railing on the plane’s stairs. Welcome to Dead Horse, I thought.
I was met by one of our crew, who escorted me to my room inside a row of trailers that were placed end to end in two rows, with the space in between enclosed to form a hallway. Though this might surprise you, the facilities there were spartan. My shared room was slightly over 10 feet square, with barely enough space to squeeze between two single bunks, at a cost of over $2,000/day in 2013 dollars.
When we finished setting up our system, they flew us in a twin engine Otter equipped with skis out some 50 miles onto the ice to the north of Dead Horse, where it was really, really, really incredibly frozen cold. Though it wasn’t a long flight, it felt like an eternity.
I spent the whole flight focused on the horror stories we had been told about these small planes crashing. We’d heard that by the time the passengers could be rescued from a crash site, many had their nose and ears frostbitten to the point that they had to be amputated. I don’t know whether that really happened or the stories were a scare tactic designed to get us to wear our cold weather gear. But I can tell you that either way, it worked with me.
Had I known at the time that a major blizzard was bearing down on us as we flew out onto the ice, I would have been a total basket case. (Stay tuned for Part 2 next week.)
Arctic Adventure (Part 2)
The base camp out on the Arctic ice near the North Slope of Alaska consisted of two strings of trailers outfitted with skis and towed behind large bulldozers. My room in beautiful Dead Horse seemed spacious compared to my camp room, which featured a set of bunk beds and barely enough room to stand and dress. The galley, the crew chief’s offices, the water production equipment, the fuel sled, the camp generator, and the restroom facilities were each housed in their own separate unit.
Water was produced by melting snow. Each time the camp was relocated, they would create a big mound of snow with one of the bulldozers. Then one of the crew would shovel it into the top of the snow-melting equipment and presto, we had water… well, sort of.
It turns out that the Arctic Ocean is, of course, salt water and some of that salt ends up in the thin layer of snow that they scraped off of the ice to make our water. The salt in the water would rust the metal pipes, thereby turning the water reddish and causing it not only to taste bad but to look nasty too. Nonetheless, I forced myself to drink it since there weren’t too many alternatives. That was, until I spotted the camp malamute making yellow snow on the side of our water-maker pile, after which I drank only bottled soft drinks, milk, and even considered pickle juice on occasion.
Even back then, they took the whole environmental thing really seriously. In order to meet environmental regulations, the toilets were electric. After all, we couldn’t have our crew making poo poo out in this pristine area. To put the absurdity of this in perspective, the north slope of Alaska is 50 times larger than the state of Delaware, which has a population of nearly a million. When my group joined the Arctic crew, we increased the population by about 25% to 30. I wonder if they have since required the polar bears to wear diapers.
Those of you who have gone to school in cold climates where they still use radiators may have had the occasion to smell the odor of the bad boys relieving themselves on the radiators as a prank. If so, you would have been quite familiar with what that room filled with electric toilets smelled like. Of course, the toilets were reserved for number two; it was required that we go outside to do number one (for some reason they weren’t concerned that this might upset the ecology). Considering that we were dressed in multiple layers of clothing with temperatures that could approach 100 below zero, this presented its own set of challenges.
But speaking of environmental impact, the year before a land-based crew had gotten bored and decided it would be neat to carve the company’s initials, GSI, in the snow. However, it wasn’t so neat when the weather warmed and the initials left a permanent image in the perma-frost, and GSI was fined major bucks for defacing the tundra.
By the time we reached the base camp, they had already moved out all of our equipment in a vehicle someone had named the “Thunder Wagon,” which I thought was sort of a cool name. It was basically a large enclosed trailer on huge wheels with a small electronics shack (my domain) and a second room filled with huge compressors to supply our air gun acoustic source. After landing, we spent the day readying our equipment.
The following morning, we loaded up into a monstrous vehicle featuring five-foot-diameter tires to ride out to the Thunder Wagon to begin our seismic data collection. When the windshield immediately fogged up from the moisture in our breath, the driver fired up the defroster, consisting of a propane torch, and swept the flame a couple of inches from the window to create a hole big enough for him to see through. It sure impressed me!
We arrived on site to find the Thunder Wagon in all its glory with its four air guns deployed, each hanging off a boom on the side of the vehicle over a hole drilled through the ice. I climbed up the stairs and went to work readying my electronic system to fire the air guns, while several of the crew milled around beside me trying to stay warm. When everything was ready, I looked up to find myself alone but for the crew chief.
“Ready?” he asked.
“Yep,” I replied, at which time he headed out the door. A moment later, he reappeared outside motioning for me to raise the small window and said, “Okay, fire when ready.” Being young and naïve, it was only later that I put it all together.
Apparently, those older and wiser than me appreciated the danger of releasing a huge cloud of compressed air beneath the ice when the air guns fired. One theory was that the row of four holes would serve as a perforation, and the ice would crack, thereby causing the Thunder Wagon to become the Thunder Boat followed quickly by the Thunder Submarine.
This was a bad thing since 90 seconds after falling into the Arctic Ocean you become an ice sculpture. Only later was I informed that the mysterious large Styrofoam block in the roof of my electronics shack was an escape hatch intended for this eventuality.
So with everyone (but me) standing a safe distance away, in my blissful ignorance I proudly pressed the button to fire the guns. A dull thump followed by a gentle heave of the ice was the result. At this point, everyone cheered, after which they bravely poured back into my little electronics shack to congratulate me, at which time Klondike Harry gave me my Arctic nickname: Yukon Frank.
It turns out, I would have the chance to earn it. (Stay tuned for part 3 next week.)
Arctic Adventure (Part 3, Conclusion)
For the next few days, everything went well. We were breaking all sorts of seismic production records and became sort of like rock star heroes to the crew. Because we were covering so much ground so quickly, we generally ended up too far away from camp to return for lunch.
Since there were no McDonald’s close at hand, one morning I raided the galley and managed to steal one of those large deli-store salamis about five inches in diameter and three feet long. Lacking a cooler I left it outside, trusting the Arctic cold to keep it from spoiling. I thought this was a pretty clever plan until lunch time came, and I found it had turned into a giant salami Popsicle.
Ignoring the laughs and taunts of the crew, I scrounged up a hacksaw and carved off lunch. After wrapping my sawed 0ff chunk of salami in foil,
NOTE: If you get a chance, check out the reviews of Frank’s latest novel, “The Pass.”
I placed it on top of the big compressor motor, and thirty minutes later, I was chowing down on a hot lunch. With the smell of roasting salami filling the Thunder Wagon, some of the crew appeared, their laughter now replaced by the sound of their growling stomachs. I smiled and offered them… the hacksaw.
Aside from not being able to drink the water and my fear of polar bears, my Arctic trip was truly a unique experience. I was filled with awe at the Northern Lights. I got to eat several-hundred-year-old ice, which really was ice blue. And I learned that it was necessary to leave our vehicles running continuously so the oil would not become so thick they couldn’t be restarted. But I must confess that the polar bear thing always weighed heavy on my mind.
The previous year, this same crew had a bear enter the camp at night and rip the door off the galley store room. On another occasion when they stopped for lunch, they spotted a bear a ways off in the distance. After eating, a couple of the crewmen went out with binoculars to spot the bear. Turns out, they didn’t need them.
While they were enjoying lunch, the 10-foot-tall, 1,400-pound bear had circled the camp and was now right behind them. After killing both men he began dragging the body of one off to his den. It took repeated attempts using the bulldozer to drive the bear away and reclaim the body. So as you might imagine, when I woke in the middle of the night to go outside to do number one, I made very short trips.
For the next few days, we fell into a sort of routine, and I was getting close to finishing up when I got to experience a whiteout. This is basically an ice fog in which visibility is vastly reduced. It’s not unlike walking around with a sheet surrounding you a few feet away. I thought it was sort of cool until I felt something furry touch my hand while on my way to the Thunder Wagon. I recovered from my near heart attack to find that it was not, in fact, a polar bear but the practical-joking camp dog.
That night the wind blew fiercely, and it snowed horizontally. By the next morning, a snow drift some seven feet tall had formed between the two rows of trailers, and it was clear that we would have to wait it out. With no TVs or video players, I got to spend lots of time reading the crew’s collection of… Shakespeare, yeah, that’s it. I was kicked back relaxing when my roommate rushed in to tell me to get dressed as we had to move.
“Why?” I asked, after a big yawn and stretch.
“Because the wind is blowing the ice pack away from shore. They found cracks just outside our camp, and if they spread, the camp is likely to end up in the water. We’re going to relocate to an area where the ice rests on a shallow sandbar so we don’t have to worry about falling into the Arctic Ocean.”
While it normally took quite a while to don my 17 layers of cold weather clothing, about 30 seconds later I emerged from my room looking like a cross between the Pillsbury Dough-boy and the Michelin Man. I followed my buddy to our vehicle where we climbed in and fired up the propane torch.
During the move, one of the other vehicles knocked off our door handle, and we returned to find our room filled with snow the consistency of baby powder. When we tried to sweep it out, it would simply fly around before settling back onto the floor. But this soon became the least of our problems.
In all the confusion, somebody neglected to bring along the fuel sled. Without fuel, the generator would stop running. Without the generator, we would have no power. Without power, we would have no heat. Without heat, we would soon become one with the frozen wasteland. With only a few hours of fuel remaining, a brave crew member volunteered to go face the blizzard to retrieve the fuel sled. We never saw him again.
When it was clear that he wasn’t returning, they called in a Rolligon. The enormous pillow-like tires on these all-terrain vehicles are powered with a capstan drive, and can navigate in zero visibility with their aircraft-like instrumentation. It arrived in the nick of time bearing emergency fuel for the generators.
By the time the blizzard was over, most of our 15 camp vehicles were buried somewhere on the ice. The bulldozer operator who had left in search of the fuel sled was finally found – alive, but badly frostbitten. And I stood ready with my bag by the ice airstrip waiting for my flight out. When the plane touched down, I turned to reach for my bag and when I looked back, I saw that the plane had crashed into the snow berm.
It seems that the pilot had neglected to put down both skis. When the weight of the plane settled on the landing gear, the rubber tire gripped on one side while the ski on the other slid easily along, causing the plane to make an abrupt right-angle turn. After pulling it from the berm with a bulldozer and making a quick inspection, the plane was pronounced undamaged, and we were invited to load up.
I briefly contemplated remaining at the camp before finally boarding the plane with a pilot I no longer trusted. I vowed never to return.
Disclaimer: Frank Wilem is an author, speaker, and all around funny and entertaining guy. On this blog, his stories are based on his real life experiences, often with a satirical twist.
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