What it's like to work in the Arctic

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Is Your Workplace As Rough As the Arctic?

The Faster Times

J. Ryan Stradal

March 11, 2010


For most of Winter 2007, I was in Canada’s Northwest Territory, in a series of small towns about two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. After twelve years of freelance writing, I have either traveled for work or traveled while between jobs, and I’ve been a few places around the world — Argentina, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, most of Europe. But the Arctic is nothing like the world that I’ve seen. It’s more like pictures of the moon.

In the daytime, the ground is a flat plane of pale white, the sky often a flat plane of slightly less-pale white. Above a certain latitude (about 69° North) there is no vegetation and hardly any topography. The horizon where earth and sky meet is sometimes invisible. If the wind picks up and lifts the dry snow into the air, you cannot tell where one stops and the other begins. At night, you could stare at the layers of stars, Milky Way, and brilliant green Northern Lights forever if the cold of the 19-hour February night wasn’t trying to kill you.

I was there to work on a media production that shot on and between the natural gas fields of the Mackenzie Delta. The field crew at the sites told us to wear a hard hat at all times. They told us to only go to the bars in groups. They told us not to go to anyone’s house, “especially if they’re native.” The acrimony between what they call “the oilpatch” and the locals has left blood in the snow of weekend mornings for decades. Even in a just world, if you take away the sunlight for a month, there will be fighting.

They told us to stay in our vehicles. If something happens, and you leave your vehicle, you will not be rescued in time. You do not leave the road; to leave the road is to die. You are given an orange safety vest, so they can find your body, in case you don’t listen.

The road is usually a frozen river. To break through the ice and fall into the river is yet another way to die. Sometimes the road is the frozen-over Arctic Ocean. When you break through that ice, you sink. They say it’s the air bubbles in your decomposing body that cause it to float, and in the sub-freezing water of the Arctic Ocean, human bodies don’t decompose. If you fall into the Arctic Ocean, your corpse may be well-preserved, but no one will risk a life, or expend the cost, to retrieve it.

Suppose you do fall in. By the time you reach the surface, the hole you fell into may have frozen over already. If you can punch through ice with lungs full of 35° water, maybe you deserve to live, but then you’re soaking wet in subzero temperatures, and you will spend your last few conscious minutes too delirious with hypothermia to be thankful that your next of kin will have something to bury.

Once, I asked a guy who’d worked up there for twenty-five years if he’d known of anyone who’d fallen through the ice and lived. He could think of only two. One of them, a rookie driver, got out of his truck just in time before it broke through. He stood on a snowbank watching his truck sink as he waited for someone to come along, and he wasn’t far from town, so someone did. There are checkpoints along the frozen river and when you pass them, you’re supposed to call a dispatch office, so they know to get help if you don’t reach the next checkpoint at the predicted time. The rookie driver went back South, back home, the next day, and his truck was pulled out. A year later, that truck hit the frozen river again, driven by another rookie. Local drivers call that truck “The Submarine.”

The story of the other fallen survivor is more grim. A driver’s semi truck broke through the ice of the Artic Ocean, and he couldn’t get out in time. His truck plummeted past the snowballs of salt that form just below the surface of frozen ocean water, and he was able to draw just enough breath from the air pocket in his truck’s cab before diving out into the viscous, freezing water. The ice was already forming over the hole he’d just broken through, and he would have died if a fuel tank hadn’t broken off from his truck. He rode the fuel tank all the way to the surface, where it broke through the thin ice, and he flung his hand up over the top.

The driver behind him in the convoy had stopped well short of the hole in the ice and had already given up his buddy for dead before he saw that gloved hand rise up with the fuel tank. Negotiating the thin ice around the hole, the other driver pulled the fallen man out. A helicopter — an unusual sight, but not unheard of — just happened to be passing over. The pilot saw the incident, and landed nearby, soon flying the fallen driver to the nearest hospital within two hours. The driver was treated for hypothermia and frostbite, and released that night.

The rescued driver immediately went to the bar, where he wasted no time telling his story. A number of his listeners didn’t believe him and even took umbrage with the tale, at which point, the rescued driver became aggrieved, and a fight broke out. Less than twelve hours after he was submerged beneath the ice of the Arctic Ocean — a situation that no one in recent history had ever survived — the rescued driver was nearly beaten to death in a dingy bar. He was taken back to the same hospital he had just left, and this time, he was there for two months.

You don’t need to break through the Arctic Ocean or get in a bar fight to die north of the Arctic Circle. Being outside will kill you just fine. In February, the temperature is often -40° F in the middle of the afternoon. Most people will never know cold like this. I grew up in Minnesota, and once or twice it would get that cold, usually at night, but Minnesota is humid. Minnesota has lights and trees and telephones that always work. The Arctic is the world’s second-largest desert. The snowflakes are large and dry like the little paper circles from a three-hole punch. You can’t even eat them to stay alive. They will dehydrate you. They will kill you faster than drinking no water at all.

Often, while on assignment in the arctic, I used to walk from the building where I worked to the post office. The three-block walk took me past what I was told was the northernmost traffic light in the world. Who is to say? In that climate, on foot, a Don’t Walk sign is a mild death threat. Even if you’re wearing moisture-wicking base-layers and down pants and Dakota boots graded to -80°, the moisture on your eyeballs will still freeze. Under a balaclava and behind a tight pair of wraparound polarized lenses, you will blink the ice from your eyes as you walk. When you step indoors, the meltwater from your irises will moisten your cheeks, and you will remember to wipe them dry before you go outside again.

You might wonder how people live there, but they have for thousands of years. There are two indigenous populations in the Mackenzie Delta, the Inuvialuit and the Gwich’in. The desk clerk at the Gwich’in-owned hotel told me that the two groups are old enemies from way back. In the bars, after a few drinks, each group unites in their prejudice against any kind of outsider, but even in the daytime, I heard racial slurs directed against me. You can brush it off at first, remind yourself that it’s not personal, but it wears on you after a while. The Inuvialuit and Gwich’in men and women that owned and worked at the trucking companies that serviced the drilling sites were uniformly friendly and generous, but in my two-plus months in their world, I heard far more overt public racism than I hear in Los Angeles over a span of years.

The arctic’s small towns reminded me of small towns in North Dakota. Some people were friendly, some were wary, and a few were just looking for an excuse to beat the shit out of me. The teenagers dressed in FUBU and Rocawear and were excellent at Guitar Hero. On Sunday mornings the church traffic congested the main street, passing the homeless population (!) that lived in the crawl spaces beneath the buildings and the blood in the snow from the previous night’s altercations. But only once did someone pick a fight with me in the Arctic. I defused it by saying that I didn’t work on the natural gas fields, which was technically true. But I see you with them, the wiry man in the stained tan Carhartt jacket said. I’m only recording what they’re doing, I said.

A gruff woman then said that my team was in the area to exploit the locals in some other way. I told her that we didn’t really care about her at all. Which was true. You’re not why we’re here, I said. We’re not trying to make you look bad; we’re not trying to make you look like anything. The man went away, but the woman stayed — and remained mad at me for a while. Later on she gave me her number. I never called her.

Daily life in the Arctic seemed like daily life in a lot of small towns. People went to work, went to the bars, went home. The cable TV and Internet connections were superb. I watched The Wire and the John Adams HBO miniseries when I was there. The food was hearty meat-and-potatoes kind of fare — poutine, hamburgers, Salisbury steak. The availability of fresh fruit and vegetables was scattershot and fluctuating. Prices were extremely high. A bottle of Yellowtail Shiraz was $34.00. A six-pack of Kokanee beer in cans was $13.00. The practice of mixing Clamato or another kind of vegetable juice in your beer was widespread, I suspect, because it made the beer last longer.

Most dry goods were also extremely expensive. A friendly mechanic who looked like Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top said that he once lost a Mac tool set out of a poorly closed cargo hold a few dozen miles from town. Of course, he forced the pilot to land. He believed that otherwise someone else would find out about the tools and steal them. Like anywhere remote, if it’s not from there or made there, it is rare and elusive quarry.

Things from the Arctic weren’t always that easy to come by either. To eat caribou or musk ox or elk or another arctic mammal, you pretty much had to know someone. I ate the first two. They handed out fermented whale blubber at the spring festival. I did not eat that: It smelled 126-times-worse than the socks of someone with athlete’s foot who’d just run a marathon ankle-deep in bleu cheese. Someone brought it back to the hotel, and it stunk up an entire floor for a day.

Surprise: There are no penguins in the Arctic. They’re in the Antarctic, and you might go on a special trip just to see them. The Arctic has polar bears. You will go out of your way to avoid them at all costs.

You must attend safety training to be present on a natural gas drill site. The section of the safety manual that covers polar bear attacks reads:

During my time in the arctic, the natural gas companies hired a small cadre of Inuvialuit men with snowmobiles and high-powered rifles to patrol the perimeters of the drilling areas and shoot any polar bears on sight. They’re a real threat: Due to the very real effects of global warming on their environment, polar bears have moved a good deal farther south than they have habitually ranged. In my last month on location, a town some 500 miles south of where I worked had two polar bear sightings. This was considered “unheard of.”

By the time I left the arctic, in April, the temperature was above freezing. The frozen river was closed to travel. The sun was out for 18 hours a day. You could see people’s faces when you ventured outside. I even saw someone in shorts.

I flew back with an associate producer named John and a petroleum services company employee named Marcel. John and I took Marcel out for dinner as one way of saying thank you for his participation in our project. For the first time in months, I had cell phone reception, drank fresh fruit juice, and saw attractive young women. I saw trees. I saw neon. The vehicle transporting me lacked an AC plug dangling beneath the radiator grill. Within a week of being home I had eaten either sushi or Mexican three times apiece. Within three weeks I was in a relationship.

I’d go back to the Arctic in the summertime. I hear it gets up into the 70’s, and that the wetlands of the delta are a breeding ground for giant mosquitoes. It is said that they’ve fatally sucked the blood from drunks and skinny-dippers; there are stories. In the winter, the Arctic is chaotic, manifold, and cruel in how it metes out death, but in the summer, when the heavy curtains are drawn to block the brightness of night, its extremes wield a more comfortable moral. You just won’t be able to sleep.