I am on an unexpected Day 3 on the slope today, and I took a little break from work this lunchtime because I got to think of how some might picture the struggles of being up here. Prudhoe Bay (aka Deadhorse, AK; aka ‘The North Slope; aka the slope) is hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle and covered in snow & ice for nearly as long of the year as it is thrown into the black of night. Temperatures dip below zero so often that the equipment up here has a bigger issue when the it gets above +50°F than when it drops below -40°F. Without a tree anywhere for over an hour’s drive and the landscape flat and pockmarked with normally frozen (and invisible in the winter) lakes, the wind blows up here constantly no differently than you would see in the great plains of the Mid-west meaning wind chills can drop as low as -70°F. Deadly Polar Bears roam the land, musk ox the size of a small car are strong enough to put a dent in your truck, and even the cute & fuzzy fox are so rabid that a bite will send you off to the funny farm.
So when you ask someone up here if it is hard to work on the slope, the answer usually is “yeah, but it’s not how you think”.
First of all, polar bears are very rare, and usually are taken care of by the wildlife security before they are ever a threat to us or themselves. The rest of the wildlife are usually good if you left them alone.
As for the cold, well, everyone carries (if not wears) arctic gear capable of keeping you warm down to -40°F outside. By everyone, I mean everyone, dragging those bags of gear around are a pain. We do so from October 1st through May 1st. But it’s not like we need them that often, nearly everyone who works up here needs to have that gear just in-case there is a problem in the vehicle you use – and most leave their gear in the truck the whole time. Nearly everyone works in a facility or camp – a nice heated warm facility. Everyone else mostly works out of a truck – a nice heated warm truck. So when you end up going outside only to get to something to take you back inside, you don’t notice the weather much. When the weather gets bad, they just have you work from the camp or get an escort here and there.
Work shifts are 12 hours 7 days a week, and usually means someone will work for 2 to 3 weeks straight until they are replaced with an alternate. That means when you come here, you come to work, nothing else. That isn’t really that bad either, because it means there isn’t the time to do much sitting around and doing nothing. You work, you get off work, you eat, you go to bed, you wake up, you eat, you go to work. For those on a rotation up here, working 14 days straight means you have off 14 days as well – think about getting a 2 week vacation every month (especially getting huge hazard pay to work up here – and free room and board for 2 weeks that you are here). Maybe hit the gym, maybe catch a movie, but that’s it. And the food here is great, too great, I mean … ice cream!!
What is tough about the place, like anywhere, is the unexpected. Up front in my head is that planes can’t land in bad weather. Yesterday, a day that was a nice warm 30°F caused fog to roll in at 9am causing my 6PM flight to get delayed. It cleared up but by 7PM when I was supposed to go out, the fog was back. The flight got cancelled, and we were told we would have to wait until today when the entire plane would be rebooked. Problem was, Thursdays are the busy flight days, and the earliest a plane could be freed up to be rebooked would be a 10:40PM departure (28 hours late). For me, that got in the way of a few things, and is an inconvenience. For some that live in the Lower 48, it meant rebooking 2 days out, and thats 2 days longer away from their families, and 2 days closer to coming back.
Then there is the sleeping here. It’s just not easy. Warm dry air in the camps, light through the shades during the spring summer and fall, and beds that resemble less of fluffy goose down, and more of dry wall. ‘How’d you sleep?’ is like a rhetorical question up here.
Everything has to come with you too. In my old traveling days, I got used to the idea that if I forgot something at home I could always pick it up on the road. That’s not going to happen on the slope. There is no Quik-E-Mart. There is a comissary, but it’s little more than a place to buy a magazine or a cool “got oil” t-shirt. They have some supplies, but not what you want (or want at the price they will make you pay). So I end up over packing every single time – because whether or not you may need it, you better have it.
The camps up here, though, rough it out like you would expect in any plant floor life – just with a little twist. The people you work with here expect you to keep them safe, and you have the same expectation in return. Everyday you look for everyone to make it back uninjured and in good spirits, because tomorrow is another day. As someone who doesn’t have a real shift up here, it feels like trying to fit into a party where you are the only one that doesn’t know everyone else — ‘vinyl sticker with big block letters saying that I’m just visiting, that I’m not permanent’. It makes me respect those who make it through the day here, makes me like what they accomplish. But it’s still not even as hard as I think.