Alaska’s spring, summer and fall seasons on the northern coast don’t last long.
They come rapid-fire, followed by the long winter season of bitter cold and little sun light.
Standing on the shore of the Beaufort Sea in the fall it is possible to smell, and also see, time passing. It’s like this: In August at the beach there is the smell of approaching winter; that clean fresh air from the North that we usually associate with snow fall.
As for watching winter grow closer daily; looking northward from the same shore the first time, I saw something startling. On the horizon was a thin white line. Like any Cheechacko, (newcomer,) I asked what it was. “The winter ice is coming to shore,” Someone said with a smile. Morning and evening each day the line grew visibly thicker and closer, in a powerful, unstoppable way. Only a few weeks later the ice reached the shore.
Oil exploration in the Beaufort Sea commenced almost 100 years after whaling’s decline. To reach sub-sea oil and gas, this body of water required a novel approach. It was accomplished by construction of 5 acre islands in the shallow water. The islands were built during the winter after the ice was thick enough to bear weight. Roadways were plowed through the snow, over the salt water ice, to the place where the islands would be. Trucks hauled rock and gravel over the ice to the site. Bulldozers kept pushing it higher. I’m guessing they piled it over 20′ high in places. Then before the thaw they transported the machinery to the mainland and waited for the island to fall through the ice. Precise calculations tell me that a 5-acre patch of gravel that must be several feet above the high tide mark in summer, when the average depth to the sea floor is 16 feet, is…uhh….a lot of rock.
Leaving Anchorage after lunch time one winter, we flew due north. Soon the Troy Air twin engine turbo-prop plane was flying in the dark. A little later we turned slightly west, encountering blizzard conditions and minus 55 degree temperatures. Near the coast all of the terrain looks the same from the air, and also from ground level.
The pilots began dividing their attention between the fuel level gauge and their navigational chart, poring over them intently to confirm the course. We all watched for that pinpoint of light to guide us to the drilling site. They began to fly a zigzag pattern. Finally in the distance a light shown. As we landed I wondered if we were on land, frozen lake or offshore on one of the five-acre man made islands?
The broken 500kW generator shared a small generator enclosure with a second identical set which thundered along, producing enough power for a village.
Inserting ear plugs I began repairing the broken machine, only four feet from the thundering gen set that still ran. It was 90 degree “F” (above zero) inside the generator enclosure. Outside it had dropped to -60 degrees F.
Here I was in one of the few places on earth where one foot step and a heart beat took me through a 150 degree temperature gradient when I walked outside for a break. What’s more, the fans were blowing in the hot room and the wind was howling outside, a few feet away, so there was also a huge wind chilling and heating factor. Working into the night I got the damaged generator taken apart before getting a little sleep.
Things were coming along nicely the next day. During the brief time when the mid day sun almost cleared the horizon, I cracked the door and peered out to see a track-driven Nodwell vehicle passing by. Getting my camera, I stepped outside to snap a picture of it. The driver saw me, stopped and turned facing me while flashing his headlights in greeting. We both waved and he drove on.
The air was clean and fresh; the sun light drew me out a little further, and I stepped a few more paces from the noise of the generator shack. The snow crunched under foot, and then suddenly I was falling…
However, I landed on solid footing in a foot of water. The ice I’d broken through was at eye level. On full adrenaline, I crouched and sprang upward, leaving my dignity in the hole. Landing on hands and knees, I gasped and caught my breathe before quickly scuttling back to the safety of the generator shed.
After collecting myself and changing clothes, I went back out for a look at the hole. The camp’s laundry facility drained hot wash water into the area and the steam from the water had just built up a thin cover of ice over the area where the water drained. No danger there, just inconvenience. I can’t recall being more terrified.
I returned to Anchorage that night, and the next morning found me safely working in the warm, dry shop.
Example of very practical course content.