Bloody Good Time at the Top of the World in Prudhoe Bay

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North America » United States » Alaska » Fairbanks
June 11th 2017
Published: June 13th 2017
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We assembled for breakfast, and already Mike was chowing down on his hot breakfast with eggs, sausage and hashed browns. We opted for the cold breakfast option (at a discounted price). We both had some cereal and some toast and I supplemented that with a Pepsi. Mike passed out the evaluation forms and envelope for us to rate him as a guide. He’d been kidding us during the trip that we could let him fill these out for him. Sharon scowled at me when I didn’t pick up on the fact that you were supposed to put both the evaluation form and the tip in the envelope. I finally picked up on what she was meaning; but, Mike had already stowed the envelopes. Sharon kept shooting me those, “Give it to him NOW” looks; but, I was waiting for the right time to give Mike his tip and it just didn’t seem right to do so in front of everyone else while Mike still had things to say but finally found a moment to give him his well deserved tip.

Mike handed around a long narrow object, and obviously a bone of something, and asked us to guess what it was. It was perhaps eighteen to twenty-four inches long, slender, with a slight bow to it and two small knobs on either end. I felt it and was surprised by its hefty weight for its apparently diminutive size. Mike agreed with my assessment that it had been fossilized. “But what is it?” Mike urged. There were speculations of whale, or perhaps polar bear. Mike noted that it was a marine mammal, and one that still lives today. I thought that Mike was going to bust out laughing when the one lady in the group was running her hand back and forth over the smooth fossilized relic, saying “Oooh. This is smooth and hard.” She guessed correctly that it was from a walrus. But Mike insisted, “Which part of a walrus… no not his tusk.” Mike then gave one more clue, “It only comes from a male walrus.” It took a second for what he was meaning to register, whence again she said “Oooooh!” and quickly deposited the walrus penis bone on the table top.

Later I settled our meal bill with the camp manager, paying for two dinners, two cold breakfasts and one Dead Horse Camp hat. I went out to secure my newly purchased hat and to place our luggage in the van. When I returned I found the German biker girl from the day before chowing down on multiple helpings of the warm breakfast. She was hoping to catch up with the other biker girl on the trip back to Fairbanks. She had gotten a lift past the road construction with a van full of birders. So, Mike figures, maybe birders aren’t so bad after all. We all had a chance to reminisce about the wildlife that we’d seen; altogether, a pretty successful trip. Mike noted, “And we have that bear siting from someone in the back, ‘Over There’. The bear spotter responded, “Oh I don’t know if we can count that… it wasn’t substantiated.” I observed, “That doesn’t seem to deter news organizations these days, just attribute the bear to some unnamed source.” I don’t think he cared for my comment, because he gave me a double take.

We had to wait for our security escort to show up to take us out to the Arctic Ocean, accessible only through the perimeter maintained by the oil companies surrounding their wells and drilling operations. He was a large man, perhaps six foot six, and broad at the shoulders. He was a native Alaskan and a member of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. These corporations were set up to assist native Alaskans perform work associate with the region they serve. On the North Slope this involves the oil industry, providing services to the oil industry (such as security) or performing road maintenance (such as what we saw with the road being raised). On the North Slope, this corporation is doing quite well and there is ample work. Other corporations around Alaska are not as fortunate. We were getting ready to go outside and board his bus. He was putting on his jacket, and his stretch as he did so made it so Sharon needed to duck to avoid getting hit. “Oh, I’m sorry he said. I better be careful or your husband will beat me up.” As we walked through the door I said, “He obviously doesn’t know your husband.” We had originally all started to go to the door where we had come in and left our shoes but the shuttle was out a side door. In both buildings here we had to leave our shoes at the door way or wear paper booties. He said that we needed not to dawdle to avoid being caught behind a drilling platform that was being moved today. We spotted the platform and he seemed relieved that they hadn’t broken it down into three sections yet, so we should have plenty of time, as it was still together although the rig was leaning significantly. The rig had just been used to drill a confirmation well for a new find in Prudhoe Bay. With the rigs that they have today, they not only can drill straight down; but, they can also drill at an angle at the bottom of an existing well to look for oil. You don’t want to get caught behind one of these contraptions when they’re moving them, because there would be no way to pass them they are so wide. And they only move at 1 MPH. That’s all the faster that they can move; otherwise, their 18 foot diameter tires would get too hot from the friction. Talk about a burn out!

A short time later we stopped at the shore of a frozen Arctic Ocean. There were a few small patches where water was visible through the snowy icy surface; but, not many. A gravel spit extended out into the ocean, sloping down either side to the frozen water’s edge. The wind was frigidly cold. Sharon was thankful for having gotten a winter pull over hat to keep her ears warm. My red hat wasn’t doing much good at all for my ears (or for the top of my head either, for that matter). We took a couple pictures of ourselves standing ankle deep in the snow atop the Arctic Ocean, and I must say that that felt a bit precarious. We walked out towards the end of the spit where others had already assembled. Everywhere that you look were the signs of a foreboding frozen place, bleak, desolate, overcast in a foggy mist of icy crystals that stung the face. My nose was complaining of the code, and I could feel the chill start my nose to run. Only it was blood. I asked Sharon if she had any tissue, but she’d left it back in the van. One of the ladies travelling with us handed me some tissue that she had; and, then the guy who likes to talk handed me some more, and I was grateful for both. With the continued cold heightened by the low humidity, I sensed this wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. I started the long walk back the spit to the shore where the van was parked. Fortunately, it did stop bleeding once I’d gotten in the warmer van and in out of the biting wind. Thus concluded our visit to the Arctic Ocean.

We went back to the camp where we would meet the pilot. We followed another van to the camp, and Mike said that it contained the two people who had just flown up from Fairbanks, along with our pilot. Mike assured us that we had nothing to worry about with this pilot; and, that he’d successfully completed rehab two weeks ago. The pilot said that we would be leaving in about thirty minutes. When it was time, Mike drove us out to the airfield where the plane was waiting, and the pilot road shotgun this time. We said our goodbyes to Mike. The pilot told us to wait in the van while he loaded the bags into the nose of the twin engine Cessna. He then gave us an introduction of himself on the tarmac, explaining that this was a great day to be flying. Even though it had been dreary a few miles away on the Arctic Ocean, or at least it seemed that way in the wind, here it was sunny, bright and clear. And I wasn’t noticing the wind. Sharon told the pilot, “Mike’s already told us about you completing your rehab.” The lady behind her was aghast that Sharon had said such a thing; but, she hadn’t heard the pilot talking with Mike and Sharon back at the camp, and kidding about Mike’s introduction of the pilot to us. Sharon sat behind the pilot on the left, and I was to the right of her. The others piled in behind us and it really was like stuffing sardines into a can. There were a couple of empty seats; so, I wasn’t too worried about the heftiness of some of the passengers. And after all, it was a nice day to fly. The pilot had told us so: yes, the one who just completed rehab.

We all put our headsets on and adjusted the volume as the pilot had instructed us. He said that he would occasionally look back to check how the temperature was, and that we should point up if we wanted it raised, make a fist or okay signal if it was good, and point down to lower the temperature. We could hear his voice over the intercom, and we could also hear the external air traffic control communications. The pilot confirmed with the tower that his flight plan was on file. He pointed to a small box with three different colored lights on the dash in front of the empty co-pilot’s seat. That’s the GPS satellite up-link. It allows the home office to track the flight. He said once we take off his boss would be monitoring our progress and status. I’m all good for not having another Wiley Post incident.

We had clear skies and smooth take-off. He told us not to be alarmed if he dons an oxygen mask during the flight. It’s not likely he would today, but above certain altitudes it’s a safety precaution. I guess it’s okay if the passengers pass out. He said, “We have instrument guidance between 11,000 and 15,000 feet. But today we’re flying under visual flight rules.” We were wondering what that meant, and his pause let us think about it before he continued, “That means… just don’t hit the rocks.” Sharon looked at me and mouthed, “That would be good” over the drone of the twin engines.

During one of the pilot’s glances back to check on passenger’s comfort, he got an up signal, but when he asked, “Do you want the temperature up?” he got a wave off. A second gesture altered the meaning of the request and the pilot asked, “You want to know how high we are?” That got a nod and he confirmed what I could see on the altimeter already, that we were at 8,000 feet. We had an impressive view of the Brook’s Range below, seeing many jagged snow bearing peaks. Off to the right was Atigun Pass, and Dalton Highway on which we’d travelled north. We did encounter some turbulence as we cleared the mountains and were heading on over the Yukon Plains. We could see visibility worsening as we approached Fairbanks on the two-plus hour journey. In the end, we were flying in rain and heavy clouds. The pilot confirmed his runway on approach and we landed on runway two-zero. We had a smooth touchdown and taxied to the small terminal where we had started our tour.

The van took us across town to the Westmark, where we checked in for three nights. Our Holland America packets weren’t quite ready; but we were able to get a room key. Unfortunately, when we got to the room, it had a “Do Not Disturb” sign in the slot for the key. I went back to the desk, and fortunately, they were able to switch us to a room in the same tower and on the same floor (just at the opposite end of the floor). And yes, it was again the third floor!

By comparison to recent accommodations, these are spacious. We went down to the restaurant, and I had the gouda mac and cheese with chicken and artichoke, which was wonderful. Sharon had a plain Angus burger, which I gather from news stories is referred to as a “nothing burger”. Who knew? We split a wonderful warm brownie with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and chocolate syrup. We were looking forward to a relaxing day in Fairbanks tomorrow.

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