Another Day …


I am back on the slope for a 3 day hitch.  Arrived on Sunday (agreeable only because the Green Bay Packers had a bye week) and flying home Tuesday night.  It is winter up here, snow is falling and it covers all.  Truth is, this is the only time of year it does snow, since its the only time of year where its warm enough for snow to form.

As I banged through some posts on Facebook yesterday, I realized that we could use a little background of what is actually done up here.  Obviously, the main function of the operations here is to get oil out of the ground and put it in the southbound pipeline – and we do so sending over a half a million barrels of oil a day down that way.  Yet it’s not magic that makes oil appear above ground, nor is it fairy dust that moves it around or the promise of cheese to keep the oil wells flowing.  That’s what the work up here is intended to do.

First of all, there is the manning of massive Arctic Well Rigs.  Most of the oil wells here were drilled years ago, and while new wells are put in here and they really make their work known through “work overs”.  Basically, a well will stop producing for a number of reasons from down hole pumps failing to a reduction in pressure at the well site to even a case where a fish got stuck in the hole.  The rigs pull up over the existing well, clear out the mess, fix what needs to be fixed, then move on.  These are massive machines, since the wells are drilled using a specific method to reach pockets horizontally, and much of the well floor has to be enclosed from the weather.  The largest, the Liberty Rig, is 240 feet tall (or taller than a 20 story building).  Since the wells are not going to move to the rig, each rig is mobile – slow but mobile.  Yesterday, we almost got caught behind a rig moving between well sites.  We snuck out of work a half an hour early, and if we didn’t a stretch of road that would have taken a truck to cover in less than a minute would be tied up for hours as the rig moved over the same distance.

Once the oil is out of the ground, there is a lot of operations that take place before it can hit the pipeline.  The one thing I didn’t think about until I saw it in action is that the oil has to be cleaned up first.  What we get out of the ground isn’t just oil. It has sand, rocks, natural gas, and water (yes, water and oil do mix, they just don’t mix well).  There are facilities to separate the oil from the rest of it.  While we keep the oil, the rest of what comes out gets pumped back into the ground.  For the most part, the pressures underground are high enough that when we poke a hole down there, the stuff comes rushing out.  Problem is that over the years that pressure drops, so we push stuff back in to keep the pressure up.  Most of it is natural gas (because at this time we have no way to get the natural gas to anywhere south of the oil field), some of it is ground up rock from drilling, but we do pump an awful lot of sea water pulled from the Arctic Ocean back underground.

Finally, what we have as good oil needs to be pressurized to a suitable level with a suitable viscosity to make for easy travel south, which requires the right mix of added gas and chemicals.  Once we have that, we turn the oil over to the pipeline and they take it from there.

All of this work has to be maintained, so a huge amount of the workforce is maintenance.  Since I deal with vendor products, I end up tying myself into materials in support of the operation and the services used to do the work.  At the end of the day the well oiled machine that is Greater Prudhoe Bay, continues to get the oil out of the ground and get it to where it needs to go (namely my cool newish/oldish RV).

Oh … and last night was prime rib night too.  That really helped to keep things going.


False Alarm


According to the National Weather Service, the snow that fell yesterday morning building up to a point where I could write a date into a table was just a figment of our imagination.


Here I was all set to blog to you today that we had our first snowfall, but obviously I was imagining things.  When the pup and I went outside at 5:30am yesterday and what seemed to be drizzle turning into the white fluffy stuff wasn’t what we saw.  When there was white stuff all over the roofs of South Anchorage, it was just water that wouldn’t disappear fast.  The stuff all over the grass?  Really heavy frost.

While we all swear that on September 23rd, it snowed in Anchorage, the National Weather Service did not list it as a day with recordable snow because – according to them – it wasn’t a recordable amount.  It turns out that the NWS uses what is called a “Snow Board” to measure snow depth; but for Anchorage records it is located at a single location on the southwestern part of town called Sand Lake.  This location is pretty close to the coast, near sea level, and further away from the cold air that blows over top of the Chugach mountains and into town.  Or in other words, but the time the snow reached Sand Lake, it wasn’t snow.  The snow board did record a “trace”, but according to the NWS this doesn’t count.

So … False Alarm Folks … snow hasn’t started in Anchorage yet.  Heck, you couldn’t even argue that today.  We had frost this morning but its blue skies and highs in the 50°s.

On the mountains it has though.  What was “Termination Dust” last week is now a winter wonderland.  Nearly two thirds of the Chugach mountains are now white.

Sept23 chugach

But I will tell you right now — that snow up there?  It ain’t melting until 2014.

Terminal Conditions


Later in this past week, we saw something here in Anchorage that was yet another sign of the coming winter.  I’ve heard it called Termination Dust, or Termination Snow, but whatever you call it – the key word is Termination.  The Chugach Mountains that lie to the east of town (like, just east — the town goes up the sides of it and run all easterly close along all the towns in our area) are not mountains that remain snow covered year round.  There are glaciers deeper into the mountains, but from town and from cities along the Knik Arm & Mat-Su valley for months those mountains are a grey-green.  On wetter cooler days here in town, what doesn’t make it as rain here does become wet stuff at higher elevations.  Cold enough up there, and it will snow; but that doesn’t mean the snow gets past the mountain tops and doesn’t reach here.

So what you get is mountain peaks typically green with wispy touches of white across it.  At first it looks like my beard when I haven’t shaved in a few days.  Sparse and spotty.  The accent of white on green is, however, unmistakable.  When you see it, you see it.

Termination dust, though, holds big meaning here.  Termination dust represents the termination of summer.  At this point, there is no chance of summer coming back.  Sure, it’s hard for anyone to say that summer is still going on right now.  We get freeze warnings regularly.   It is noticeably chilly every day.  The leaves are turning, the grass is starting to go dormant, and all the tourists have gone home.   Termination dust means that whatever you need to get done before winter has to get done now.

I teased some of my friends who live out in the valley when a couple weeks ago they spotted termination dust, and I kept saying “It’s not true unless I see it.”  On Thursday, I saw it.

Before you start rubbing in the snow on me, think about this … I saw termination dust on Sept 20th for the first time.  Last year we had snow on the ground in Anchorage on Sept 15th.  So, this is actually quite late.  Snow/rain mix is in the forecast for the week, and last night I heard the first set of studded tires driving down the road.  Summer may be terminated, but winter hasn’t started yet.

My Second Car Isn’t


Ladies and Gentlemen … I own an RV (almost).

For you faithful Bear Feed Followers, you know that I have had as much success camping as Iowa has of not smelling like one big pig farm.  We made it out for one night of camping, and woke to 40° temperatures.  The other times the pup and I got chased home from mosquitoes, rain, and snow.  Each time I kept thinking that with an RV, I would still make it.  So that’s what I did (almost).

Today, I bought a 20-foot Class C Recreation Vehicle.

003It can sleep four in two queen sized beds, so me & the pup would be more than comfortable.  Runs on normal gas, has propane heaters, stove & stove top, refrigerator, and battery enough to plug in all the necessities.  Hold your hats for the next part …

It’s a 1978 Dodge Mobile Traveler.  1978!  When that RV was built, I was still 9 years away from being old enough to drive it.  The older vehicle I owned before this one was the 1980 Chevette, and that was back in 1991.  I took it for a test drive, and it runs … well … like a old truck.  Honestly, it runs like something half it’s age.  After it warmed up (because it did dip below freezing last night), it could smoothly move about with out a very noticeable chug (compared to what I was expecting … a very noticeable strain  to be put down).  No one is going to mistake this for a spring chicken, and if they do they need their eyes checked.

For the record, it was really cheap, and I mean REALLY cheap.  Someone asked today if I put down enough for a second mortgage when buying it, and I couldn’t stop laughing.  I payed cash for it without having to touch my savings.  If you are in the market for a 35 year old RV, you aren’t going to need a loan for that.

So why would I buy something that old and cheap?  Well — nothing is more Alaskan than buying cheap RVs in the fall.  No seriously.  Everyone I know up here who owns an RV bought one that was old, cheap, and in the fall.  It’s a buyers market.  Every year there is a flush of people who rather sell their RV than put it into storage for the winter.  These are people who are either not using it like they did, know they are moving out of state, or upgrading to a bigger or better one.  This one was bought by this family just this past spring when the previous owner got in some financial issues.  Their selling it because the principal owners has moved to Massachusetts to expand a business and the rest of the folks that own it are trying to move to Australia.  Because they are spread around, we have some title issues to deal with — that’s why it’s not a done deal yet — but it basically is a done deal.

Now … to come up with a nickname.


An ASQ Presentor


This is a work related post because, quite simply, my life has circled around work more so than anything else the last few weeks.  But tonight I get to do something really cool.

I am going to be presenting at the American Society of Quality (ASQ) – Alaska Section monthly meeting.  I am giving a presentation to this group on implementation of tools and processes where challenges exist in developing a quality culture or utilization of said tools.

No, seriously … this is cool … more than just to me.

I am a Quality Engineer, and for the job that I do, ASQ is the recognized body that we all look up to.  I was in ASQ when I was working in Aerospace, I am in ASQ now.  I know people in ASQ from the medical field, electronics, castings, forgings, air conditioning, and even entertainment.  ASQ also defines certifications that are equivalent to other professional groups – consistent with Professional Engineers, Lawyers, or Doctors might.  For instance, I am a Certified Quality Auditor (CQA) through ASQ which gives me the right to give my name out as Mitch Nelson, CQA.

So, the talk tonight is specifically for the Alaskan Regional body of ASQ, but it is still ASQ.  In fact, how I became a presenter tonight was an interesting story.  There was a quality conference planned for this winter, and they made a call for presentations to be made.  I took a chance, wrote up a synopses, and entered.  Not only did they think they wanted me for the conference, they were so excited they wanted me to present as the first speaker of the year in their meetings.

To be fair, I did give a nice spin on this presentation to them.  See, Quality is the red-headed step child of any company.  We support the company thought optimization, continual improvement, and waste reduction — but chances are people see us as preventing production when they see us at all.  It doesn’t help that terms like “six sigma” become an automatic turn-off to many operators we work with.  It’s like the old saying goes: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.

My presentation embraces that step-child personality.  We find ways to backdoor tools.  Find the right people to convince that we are needed.  Then let the tools be your advertising.  In the end this presentation isn’t about “How to make them drink”  … this presentation is about “How To Convince them they are Thirsty”, and then they will go in search of water.

See?  Isn’t That Cool?

Oh What a Year Makes


It started with a moment I had around noon this morning, then now around 6PM I am fully realizing how much has changed over the last year.

Anchorage is feeling a weekend of “Indian Summer”, that one last shot to feel like summer time.  It’s now 63°F (about our average for any day during July or August), sunny, and not a cloud in the sky.  Seeing the day clear up like that I had just one thought — “Crap, I am going to have to mow the lawn today”.  A year ago I would be packing up, strapping in, and making a run for the mountains.  It was a day like this that I visited Echo Bend for the first time, my favorite place to hike.  I would have gotten deep into the woods, high in the hills, and had me a grand old day.

You would think with all the rain we have been getting that the sun would put me in a good mood, but come on … what does a month of rain do to a lawn?  It also doesn’t help that you need to have dry grass to get a good mow, and that means you need not only a period of sun long enough for it be dry (which we haven’t been getting) but it has to line up when I am able to get the lawnmower out (bigger problem).  The only chance I had to mow since Mid-August was last sunday night, and a completely blue sky when I started was raining 40 minutes later (and I had only finished half of the back and none of the front).

So I had a crappy mood about the lawn, and for that matter what a year has become for me.

My attitude today has a lot of reasons.  Work is one, it’s been as tough of a run of work the last month as I have had since moving here, and having the first ‘day off’ in two weeks sounded really nice.  Plus I had a load of work to do tomorrow to meet a Monday deadline .. and to make my other Monday deadline, Tuesday deadline, two Thursday deadlines, and following week deadline possible.

Part of it is football related.  The game of the century of the week was on.

Part of it was how badly out of shape I have become.  I mentioned it a few months ago in the blog, but I really let myself go up here, and try as I might, I haven’t been able to round the corner.  That corner needs to be rounded or else some other things just aren’t going to be possible.

Part of it, though are good things.  Like I get to take the pup for a walk, something I couldn’t do last year at this time because … well … there was no pup.  So I was more than happy to spend a long morning with my cuddle buddy.

A year ago I DIDN’T have a lawn to gripe about. The bear cave is a great house for me.  I always wanted a good yard and a good lawn, something just not possible in the constant drought of Kansas.  Mowing it today was a pain, and I am sweaty, breathing hard, and covered in dirt — not to mention that the pup will be pukeing up grass he eats from my compost pile for the next couple of days.  But the smell of the fresh cut grass permeates the house, and makes it smell of the indian summer it is.

So yeah, I am not completely happy of what happened over a year, but there are somethings that make it worth it.

“Summer” On the Slope


This week, I returned to the North Slope / Prudhoe Bay / Deadhorse, AK for the first time since May.  Back then, while the rest of you were already noticing temperatures in the ‘it’s really hot’s, the slope was still in winter conditions.  Snow and ice covered everything, and the only sign of the changing seasons was that dead grass could be seen through the drying ice, and there was a one small patch of open water where a crazy bird decided to come up early and hang out on.

Well, up here, summer does happen, but it happens REALLY fast.  We all are still days away from the official end of summer, but summer is really over all over Alaska.  Back in Anchorage, we started feeling like fall weather around Labor day, but it felt more like northern states around late September.  Here, in early September, it feels more like early November.  Temperatures are already down near freezing, and they have had their first snow.  There is a wet that hangs over everything, and the cold ocean meeting the semi-warm harm creates a lot of fog.  It feels like winter is about to hit at any minute.  But feeling and looking are two completely different things.

Every other time I have been to the slope, it has been DEAD winter.  Every building, every container, every piece of equipment was covered in snow and ice, some of it appearing like it would never see usage in years to come, lord knows why it was ever put up here to begin with.  The flat tundra around the facilities was nothing but white spreading out on all sides around us, appearing like a sea of hopelessness.  Being here during the weather, you couldn’t fathom how anything could survive without a camp, a truck, or a nice cup of coffee.

While I am not seeing the ‘summer’ life here, my whole view of this place has taken a complete turnaround.  Buildings aren’t just dull white covered green, they are colored, and clean, and vibrant.  Machines and trucks look newly used.  Some camps still look dead and meaningless, but during the winter they all look that way.

Truth is, the grasses have all turned brown with the coming winter, but there is grasses to see.  Grasses as far as the eye can see.  The tundra isn’t flat dead, but rolling small solid dirt and gravel.  Then there are the lakes and streams.  Lakes specifically.  One of which, right next to Deadhorse (Coleen Lake) is so wide that in foggy conditions you might not see the other side.  Not only that, it’s beautifully blue-green.  When you pull open Google Maps and look at Deadhorse, it’s easy to see the lakes and rivers – but I can’t tell you how hard it is to see it the rest of the time.  Not just hard, I just couldn’t picture them when I came to visit.  Now, that I see it, the layouts up here make more sense.  Pads and storage areas that seemed to be oddly placed off the road now can be seen separated by wetland.  Places where I saw massive piles of snow that I was sure I would see come this time of year were gone, because they plowed them right onto a waterway and the snow washed right out to sea.

In the end, this is still a place focused singularly on the business of producing oil, but like the land itself Prudhoe Bay becomes a different world in that narrow window of time called summer.  I return in 2 or 3 weeks, and when I do, likely summer had lost the fight, and winter begins a new.  Until then, I get to go home to where it is just autumn.

Mayoral Trama


Alright, I have been slacking off on my blogging duties.  Surely there is a good reason for me not giving you your Bear Feed for almost 10 days, and obviously that reason couldn’t be ‘its raining a lot’, ‘I’ve been busy with work’, or not at all ‘a lot of football to watch from the couch’.  The real reason is much more traumatic.

Alaska’s most famous & beloved current politician was a party to an assassination attempt on August 31, and we all wait with baited breath on news.  Of course if you are following politics in the USA, you know who I am talking about.

Yes … that is …

Stubbs the Cat.  The Mayor of Talkeetna, AK.

Stubbs was mauled by a dog while on a simple walk around his city.  The dog, which still remains known, at large, and yet to be brought to justice, has a history of being a “bad dog”.  There is no evidence as yet that this has anything to do with the war in Syria.  But seriously, Stubbs was hurt pretty bad, including a punctured lung and fractured sternum.  He looks like he will survive, but it was touch and go for a while.

And yes, a cat is a mayor of Talkeetna.  Talkeetna is a small town of under 1000 people between Anchorage and Denali.  Other than having a cat for a mayor, Talkeetna is also known as the starting point for many of the Mt McKinley expeditions, and as the inspiration for the 1990s television show Northern Exposure.

Stubbs was originally bought by Talkeetna General Store’s owner when just a kitten, and named as such because of his stubby tail.  Shortly after that during an election for mayor, the town was generally unhappy with the candidates, so Stubbs won by a write-in effort.  Since then the town removed the position, and just let Stubbs take over the title since July 18, 1997.

Just in case you missed it — Stubbs has been mayor of Talkeetna for 16 years.  He was elected mayor when he was 3 months old.  It would be the equivalent to a human being elected president at the age of 2, then hold the position well into his 80s.

There are a lot of thoughts and prayers going out for Stubbs.  Because the medical bills were high, a fund was set up to help pay for the surgery.  It has caused some undue attention.  Stubbs received a care package from PETA (Protection for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), which many could see as a special interest kickback.  Though it was mostly blow over because in a town filled with people who hunt and fish to survive, PETA will likely win anyone over … even a cat.

Bunny Count: August


Let’s start with the big number:

Number of Doggies Named Auggie turning 1 year old today: 1
Number of Doggies Named Auggie having to be put in a time-out on his birthday for being too rowdy about his new squirrel toy: 1

Now the rest of the bunny count — for the record, all of this is “in the wild”, I visited two zoos, an aquarium, and a wildlife center; “behind bars” is not “bunny count worthy”:

Bunnies: 0
Angry Beavers: 1
Caribou: 11
Caribou blocking traffic:
Dall Sheep: 15
Prairie Squirrels: 4
Grizzly Bears: 3
Moose: 2
Short Eared Owl: 1
Sea Otters: 19
Bald Eagles: 1
Harbor Seals: Lost count at 100
Sterling Sea Lions: Lost count at 50
Humpback Whales: 2

Lifetime (In Alaska) Counts:
Bears: 6 – Doubled this month
Whales: 3 – Tripled this month

Days Spent with Family: 8
Days Spent in Lower 48: 10
Days Spent in the Office: 5
Days Spent Attempting to Camp: 1
Days Spent Hanging on the Couch with the Pup Watching Sports: 6

Current hours of Daylight: 14 Hours 12 Minutes
Daylight Lost in August: 2 hr 51 minutes

Days with Rain: 24
Total Rainfall: 4.95 inches (that’s a lot by the way)
Average Aug Rainfall: 4.85 inches (that’s scarey by the way)

“Miles” Walked in July: 20.89
Total Miles in 2013: 311.11
Miles to Go to Valdez: 0  .. made it!!

Number of times killed by bears, whales, camping, rain, miles, or the lower 48: 0