Monday, November 28, 2011

Prudhoe Bay, Alaska

Misty morning in Prudhoe Bay
Published onIt's funny that of all the places that Ursa and I have traveled to over the course of the last couple years, and all the places that I've blogged about on here, that it has taken me so long to get around to writing about the place I get asked about the most, Prudhoe Bay, Alaska; and I suppose that's because it's where I work, therefor it's the place that I'm traveling to get away FROM.
So here's the lowdown on our life up here above the Arctic Circle. As that there are few if any, permanent settlements in such a remote location, and the oilfields are such a large and technical operation, manpower must be brought in from elsewhere. Consequently everyone here works on a rotational schedule for three weeks then flies home for three weeks off (some people prefer to adjust their schedules to two weeks on/two weeks off, or four and four but the principle is the same, I work for x weeks then my alternate takes over my job for x weeks). I work for CH2MHill, a contractor to British Petroleum and we provide various support and logistics for the on shore drilling rigs, and production facilities around the field (mostly moving various fluids used in the drilling process, to and from the rigs).
At first look, Prudhoe Bay can appear to be an extraordinarily bleak place, but those appearances can be deceiving. There are many natural wonders held by the arctic that one simply cannot see anywhere else in the world. As beautiful as it can be though, it is without a doubt one of the harshest and most unforgiving environments anywhere on the planet. As I'm writing this the ambient temperature outside is -31 F, and with the wind chill factor it is -51 F. The snow doesn't freeze in sticky flakes like you may be used to elsewhere, it's texture is more like sand, and when wind storms pick up it is very similar to being in a sandstorm, with visibility dropping to less than 10 feet. So it's safe to say that Mother Nature is not playing around when it comes to this place.
One terminology point I'd like to make is to explain that, as you can see on the attached map, Alaska's arctic coast curves slightly south between Point Barrow and the Canadian Border, this has given rise to a common reference to this area as the "North Slope", or rather, just "the Slope". I have found many people to be confused by this, calling it "the slopes" as though it is some form of ski resort; I can assure you, it is not. (There isn't so much as a hill for a hundred miles)


Meteorological phenomena in the arctic are one of my favorite things about this amazing place. A common point of confusion is the sun "never rising". This is true, there is a period of winter where the sun does not breach the horizon (the sun set on Thanksgiving day, and won't rise again until the second week in January), but it is not like it's inky black night for two months, there is still a good amount of residual daylight that does shine through during the daytime (much like the light before dawn or after dusk). What's really amazing though is when the sun does begin to rise and set again, the two events are timed very close together or even merged entirely, and they produce one long sunrise/set event that is absolutely stunning! It can last for hours, with the sun rising at, say, 11 in the morning then setting around 1 in the afternoon. After the winter solstice on December 22, we will begin gaining more and more daylight, usually around 8-11 minutes per day.
Moon Dogs
Sun dogs and moon dogs are another arctic phenomena, and are produced when ice crystals in the atmosphere appear to create a halo around the sun which is most apparent to the left and right of it, occasionally with one small sun dog just above the sun. Usually these ice crystals only form at very high elevations, but in the arctic it's cold enough that they form at ground level allowing us to more commonly see these effects. Moon dogs are the same as sun dogs except they are much more rare because, aside from the specific atmospheric conditions needed to produce them, the moon must also be full, or nearly full.
Aurora Borealis
The most famous meteorological event in the arctic is the amazing, Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights. They wave like banners of light above the tundra, and cast an eerily beautiful glow across the arctic. The Auroras are caused by particles from the sun being forced to the north and south poles by the Earth's magnetic field, then burning up in the atmosphere. This year is expected to see an elevated level of solar activity, and consequently should result in a peak year for Auroras, so for those of my friends and coworkers here in Prudhoe Bay, keep looking up!

The wildlife in the arctic is fascinating to me because of their sheer resilience. It's always a surprising sight to see people bundled up in their parkas, and running for shelter only to have a raven sitting on a nearby storage bin glowering, and squawking at us, as if thinking to himself "you bunch of wusses". To think that these ravens can live in this environment all year round is awesome to me. They are cunning, tough, resourceful birds and are as much a symbol of the arctic to me as a polar bear or arctic fox.
I often get asked about the polar bears, and the truth is that while they are around, our oilfield is located on the coast, and the bears prefer to stay further out on the ice cap, closer to their primary source of food, the ringed seals. If we do see them, it's likely that they are young and having a hard time hunting and are starving, or that they're very old and can't hunt and are also starving, or that they are a sow with cubs. As it turns out, these are the three most dangerous times that you can encounter a bear of any type, so polar bear sightings are taken VERY seriously. More common for us on the coast though are the grizzly bears which, while prevalent, have been showing up with less frequency in recent years due to more strictly monitored regulations regarding the local landfill.
Arctic Fox
As a general rule, I try to leave the squeeing over fluffy animals to my girlfriend, Ursa, but even I have to admit that an arctic fox in his winter coat is one of the most adorable animals you'll ever see. Like the ravens, these little guys are very clever scavengers. Unfortunately, while they are sure to approach people looking for some scraps, feeding them is frowned upon because so many of them carry rabies.
Musk Ox
Another animal that is unique to this area is the muskox (which is not actually related so much to oxen, but rather more closely related to the goat). These gnarly beasts are notable for their thick layer of shaggy wool, and the curved horns on both the males and females. The inner layer of wool, known as qiviut, is one of the softest of all wools, and will not shrink in water of any temperature. It is also stronger, and eight times warmer than sheep's wool. It is highly prized around the world. The muskox travel in small herds of 10-24 and will band together in a defensive circle to protect their calves when danger is present.
King Eider
In the summer months Alaska's northern coast thaws and becomes a fertile wetland, and plays home to hundreds of species of migratory birds, as well as the caribou herds that make their annual migration here to feast on grasses and to be relatively free from predators. Species ranging from the large tundra swans to the tiny little snow buntings that flit around the construction yards. A variety of sandpipers can be seen around the edges of every pond, and ducks and geese abound. Also the ptarmigans with their feathery feet and king eiders are exciting viewing for birders.
Gathering Center #2
All of that, and I haven't even mentioned the oilfield yet. Make no mistake about it, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was one of the most important projects of the 20th Century. It's construction began in 1974 in response to the oil crisis which had beset America the previous year, and the pipeline and it's 11 pump stations were completed in 1977. When at full production it can pump more than 2 million barrels of crude per day to market, and to date it has shipped nearly 16 billion barrels of crude. But it's not just about the pipeline, this entire oilfield is in many ways a technological marvel. Keeping everything running smoothly in these conditions takes a great deal of engineering and planning in order to maintain one of the cleanest and safest oilfields in the world. As a point of clarification, there are many oilfields in the Prudhoe Bay area, the Prudhoe Bay field is just one of them; others include the Kuparuk field, Milne Point, and the Alpine field among others.
Rig Doyon 14
In the simplest terms the oilfield itself is laid out like this: Drill Sites are positioned all around the field, each drill site contains between 20 and 40 oil wells. Oil from those wells is collected and shipped, via pipeline, to Gathering Centers (also called Flow Stations); from there the oil goes through some processing to remove solids, and gasses, then gets sent to Pump 1, which is the beginning of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, where the oil gets shipped down the pipeline to market in Valdez. As for the oil wells, you can't just drill a well and forget about it; crude oil is extremely corrosive, so the wells must have periodic maintenance done to them. That maintenance is done with a drilling rig, which can pull corroded pipe out from downhole and replace it, or drill a new well if necessary. The role of the contractor that I work for is to bring materials to and from these drilling rigs to facilitate them doing their job. Obviously I'm simplifying this a great deal, and there are a lot of diverse activities going on but this is the most pedestrian explanation that I could come up with.


As that there are no permanent residents in Prudhoe Bay all of the oil companies and their contractors house their employees in work camps which are somewhat analogous to college dorms. The camp that Ursa and I stay at is a 400 man camp, called the Arctic Oilfield Hotel (AOH). While none of the camps in the area are much for amenities, it does have a community rec area with a couple pool tables, ping pong table, and poker table, also a sauna, and a small gym. Meals are served in the dining hall; we are fortunate enough to have some of the best food on the Slope at our camp, our cooks are very good. There is always a salad bar, and every dinner has options of fish, poultry/pork, or beef entrees; usually some sort of beans and some selection of steamed veggies. Sundays are prime rib night, and Wednesdays are steak nights. All in all, we get treated pretty well in the food department.

Home Cooking
One of Ursa's favorite dishes on the slope is a chicken curry salad that they make. Funny how Ursa liking it directly equates to it's appearance in my cookbook at home. I'm not sure about the salad that the kitchen at AOH makes, but this is the recipe that I like to use. It's super easy, and good. I like the sweet fruits balancing out the curry.

Curried Chicken Salad
1 3/4 Cups chicken broth
1 1/2 lb skinless, boneless chicken breast
1/2 Cup mayonnaise
1/2 Cup yogurt
5 teaspoons curry powder
1 Tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 medium red onion (chopped)
1 firm, ripe mango (peeled, pitted, and chopped)
1 Cup seedless red grapes (halved)
1/2 Cup salted, roasted cashews (coarsely chopped)

Bring 4 cups of water, plus chicken broth to a simmer in a 2-3 quart sauce pan. Add chicken and simmer, uncovered, for 6 minutes. Remove pan from heat and cover, let stand until chicken is cooked through (about 15 minutes). Transfer chicken to a plate and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Chop into 1/2 inch pieces.

While chicken is cooling, mix together mayonnaise, yogurt, curry powder, lime juice, honey, ginger, salt and pepper. Now add chicken, onion, mango, grapes, and cashews; stir together gently to combine.

Thanks for reading everybody, sorry there is no "Tunes" section this week, but Prudhoe Bay doesn't have much of a music scene. We'll be thawing out in sunny, southern California in a few weeks. So we shall see you all then. Bye!

Oh, Parka, you are my only friend!

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