Polar Huskies in front of the Badami oil drilling site.Date Posted: 05.15.06
Location: Fairbanks, Alaska
Weather Conditions: Blue sky, calm, and sunshine 62F / 17C
After 70-some days of dogsledding with the Polar Huskies, covering over 750 miles from sea level to more than 5,000 feet above, the GoNorth! Arctic National Wildlife Refuge 2006 expedition has reached our final destination, the oil field of Prudhoe Bay. And true to form, the expedition was jam-packed with excitement, wonder, and kindness to the very end. Recent encounters ran the gamut from mosquitoes as big as house flies to musk oxen lining up in formation; from pumping oil drills to flying 11,500 feet above the Brooks Mountain Range in a tiny plane – plastered with duck tape and running via a small engine no bigger than a pick-up truck…
Reading ‘DTS CNI-876-164 TSNR 2 5 E UM + 813 - S’ is one of the benchmarks identified on topographic maps found on the North Slope Borough, sitting along the shoreline of the Arctic Ocean.
Traveling along Barter Island the ice was a bit pushed up, but soon all flattened out, making it hard to tell land from ice. The fog was heavy every day of this week with temperatures hovering around or just above freezing and the ice pack on the Artic Ocean melting. That meant literally ‘traveling into the white,’ in what is called ‘flat light’ where everything is just white, no shades, no perception of depth, nothing to let you know up from down. But these conditions did not stop the Polar Huskies as Freja, in lead, found her way westward across the ice. We have simply been cruising – running close to half days of travel and still easily covering 20-25 miles everyday!
Teacher Explorer Mick Hamilton enjoying his lunch while sitting on the Arctic Ocean!
We had planned to travel a bit slower for our new team member, Teacher Explorer Mick Hamilton, to really get into the experience and learn the ropes of dogsledding with the Polar Huskies. "From setting up camp to working with the dogs, Mick did fantastically – above and beyond any expectations – meshing right in and becoming a full blown member of Team GoNorth!” shares Paul. “It is not easy to get the hang of traveling with the team in these circumstances where you can’t tell up from down, and your sense of the landscape is close to none as you ski next to the sled trying keep up,” adds Mille.
We dogsledded by the Lefingwell Campsite, a national historic site, where geologist, Ernest Lefingwell, almost single-handedly mapped the entire Alaskan Arctic coast during the years 1907-1914. He also identified the sadlerochit formation main reservoir of the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field.
Watch Mick tell about this lunch stop.
Once in a while black dots would appear in the distance. The dogs never really picked up on the fact that these were indeed seals coming up to bask on the ice, because we had the wind at our backs everyday, and the seals always dove by the time we were close enough for the dogs to see them. “We did get very close to a large herd of musk oxen though,” recalls Aaron with a grin. “We were nearly to Prudhoe Bay, so I thought that there were barrels or some sort of small buildings in the distance,” Mille explains. “Then I saw movement and realized the only things they could be were musk oxen! But, we had been told not to expect to see any as they supposedly had migrated to Canada.” Aaron grabbed his camera to look at ‘the rocks’ in the big zoom lens – sure enough, more than 20 musk oxen were lying down, and slowly getting up. Mille and Aaron quickly decided to try getting closer, leaving the trail from Paul and Mick’s team, to head over the tundra and approach the herd at a respectful distance.
Herd of musk oxen.
Aaron continues, "I was snapping pictures of the herd, while Mille was yelling commands for Disko to take the team towards the musk oxen. We would move a bit closer, stop, take pictures; move a bit closer, take pictures... We did not want to get them alarmed and leave, and we wanted to make sure we had the dogs under control. Disko, leading the team, was a bit confused why we were not following the perfectly good trail of the team ahead of us. All of a sudden the musk oxen moved into a perfect row facing us, lowering their huge heads so we could really see their impressive horns. There was no need to get any closer to that wall of defense – and Mille could not divert the team fast enough for my comfort. Right then the dogs also realized what we were approaching was moving! We quickly turned the team ninety degrees, heading back towards Mick, Paul,and their team, who were watching in the distance.
We enjoyed good food and nice people at the Badami Oil Field.
That morning we enjoyed fresh orange juice, eggs, bacon, yogurt, cereal with cold milk, fresh coffee, and a bathroom visit at the Badami Oil Camp. Located about 30 miles as-the-crow-flies from Prudhoe Bay, this is the most eastern and remote oil drilling pad on the North Slope. Actually, it was much smaller than we thought it would be, appearing out of the fog with a tall antenna, a deep humming noise, and no people to be seen anywhere. We dogsledded the other side of it, along the beach bank. A plane took-off from the airstrip, but we still did not see any people. Thinking perhaps there was no one about; we made our way to the top of the bank, and were struck by the site of an oil pipeline. As far as we could see it was coming from the buildings, stretching into the distance. The Alaskan Pipeline! – connecting this place, sort of like a road, from here, in the middle of the tundra surrounded by nothing but nature, 800 miles south all the way to Valdez, the northernmost, ice-free port in North America.
So that the crew at the Badami drilling site had a chance to say hi to the real superstars, we ran the sleds and Polar Huskies through the pad as we departed in the morning!
We setup camp and then ventured towards the pad. “It was very eerie walking onto the drilling pad surrounded by pipes, pumps, and huge machinery. We did not truly know what was underfoot and we were not sure if we were even allowed to be there,” recollects Mille. “But as always seems to be the case, once we finally found a building with some people in it, they turned out to be the nicest possible.” We soon found ourselves eating a wonderful dinner while learning lots about life on an oil pad from John, Bruce, and the rest of the crew on the Badami Oil Field. John explained to us that there is really no ‘pumping’ taking place at this oil field. The oil pad covers an area of about 20 acres and the thicker oil flows to the pipeline, somewhat like a well.
Watch us dogsled underneath the pipeline that takes the oil south!
John walked us through, showing how the oil is separated into three chambers, one of them being natural gas which is then put back into the well in the ground to keep the pressure up and the oil flowing to the surface. The Badami Oil Field, named after the geologist who ‘discovered it,’ is considered to be a small facility. Only 12 people are employed here, most the time working shifts of two-weeks-on/two-weeks-off. As the facility's manager, Bruce, put it: less than 1,000-1,400 barrels (about 40-44,000 gallons!) of oil flow from here every day, compared to 40-50-80- thousand barrels of oil from the really big oil drilling sites in Prudhoe Bay! This oil field, owned by British Petroleum, was actually shut down last summer because it produces so little, but with the rising prices of oil, this fall it was reopened.
Mille waiting on her sled in front of Drill Site 12 in Prudhoe Bay.
Whereas the Badami Oil Field almost seemed asleep, it was a completely different experience as we approached the major oil field operation of Prudhoe Bay. This was like approaching a different planet – plopped down right here in the middle of the tundra surrounded by white, white, white as far as the eye could see into the fog. Working two-to-three-week shifts, more than 5,000 people fly here from every corner of the country and around the world (the furthest we met was from Australia!!) for an average pay of $1,000 a day. The area was humming with activity – trucks zoomed around; cranes, loaders, and all sort of large machinery beeped, while enormously huge and impressive oil rigs towered into the sky. Never having been anywhere quite like this, coming up to the road we stopped to take in the site, and try to acclimate ourselves.
Dog box assembly with help from the VECO crew.
As we literally dogsledded right into a strickly regulated, frenzied workplace, we were surprised that no one stopped, waved or even seemed to notice two teams of Polar Huskies and the four of us standing in the ditch on the roadside. Soon Paul was greeted by John Holsman, the Base Manager for VECO in Prudhoe Bay, who came out to take in the site of the Polar Huskies, make sure they would be staked out in a safe and secure setting, and to welcome us. What seemed like an army of people helped us locate and put together, then load, the dog boxes on pallets onto a 18-wheeler truck to take all 24 huskies to the airport that night. Then later, they helped Paul load the dogs and sleds onboard. We were also setup at their huge facility with rooms, showers, and delicious foods…including yummy soft ice cream!!!
It is always a bit odd to arrive at our final destination. Though it is a proud feeling to have reached our goal, it is sad to know that our journey, pulled by powerful Polar Huskies, has come to an end. Mille expresses, “I admit to having teary eyes as I walked down the line to thank the dogs while looking back toward where we had come from – flashing through my mind was the incredible beauty, many wonderful friends we have met along the way, and the everyday adventure of camping on the land; setting up a new home eah day with our teammates, and of course, working with the dogs.” That night we fittingly celebrated the success of reaching our destination in Prudhoe Bay by enjoying hot showers, a wonderful dinner, and sleeping like babies…
GoNorth! team members who traveled from Kaktovik to Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean – from left: Mille, Paul, Mick, and Aaron.
Now, we might have arrived in Prudhoe Bay and laid down the harnesses for this year’s LIVE expedition; but the adventure had not come to an end quite yet! Mick, Aaron, and Mille were scheduled to board their flight back to Fairbanks the following afternoon. As none of us are allowed to fly onboard the cargo aircraft with the dogs, here we would wait for the Polar Huskies, scheduled to depart on a chartered aircraft from Prudhoe Bay in the early morning, around 3 AM. The following afternoon, Paul was then to fly to Fairbanks and meet up with the rest of us. From here - Aaron and Mick were to fly back to Minnesota while Mille, Paul, and the Polar Huskies drive the 3,000 plus miles back to Minnesota in the dog-truck.
Mick unloading our bags, back on the ground in Fairbanks after a three-hour flight across the Brooks Mountain Range in the tiny Cessna 207 plane.
Watch the flight in route!
That is not quite how it went though. Somehow Frontier Airlines did not have seats for any of us to get onboard the airplane! Turned out…there was really no way to get any of us to Fairbanks in time to meet the Polar Huskies' arrival in the early morning hours. A flurry of activities, and some nail gritting hours later, we realized that meant we would have to cancel the cargo flight and possibly wait days to fly the dogs out. But, once again incredible generosity and kindness were bestowed upon Team GoNorth! when John from VECO decided to make our only option (and really, it was not an option) a reality by chartering the renowned pilot ‘Kermit’ to fly the three stranded team members to Fairbanks in his small Cessna 207 airplane. And that’s how we ended up on one last (Aaron and Mille add the words ‘very scary’) adventure across the Brooks Mountain Range. The tiny plane soared into the sky, through rain and wind, from the snowy, wide-open space on the coast of the Arctic Ocean, to the warm night with spring smells of trees and rain as we stepped out, happy to be on the ground again in Fairbanks – groggy from yet another mind-blowing experience.
Brooks Mountain Range seen from above!
Traveling on rivers, across Brooks Mountain Range – the longest mountain range in North America – onto the Arctic Ocean in blistering cold as well as scorchingly hot temperatures, ranging from minus forty-some below to seventy-some above; black nights of bright dancing northern lights to now 24-hour light; towering mountains, sinking deep snow, bad ice, open water, rock gorges, caribou kidneys, whale blubber, beautiful beadworks, seal skin moccasins, Eskimo dancing, running with herds of caribou, and the scares of grizzly bear…it has been journey of a lifetime! Though it is not one of our longest expeditions, this expedition, more than any other, has not had a dull moment. Experiencing first-hand every possible landscape, we made our way through seven (!!!) eco regions while learning from and meeting with heartfelt warmth and the kindest of hospitality from both the Gwich’in and Inupiat Eskimo people. More than ever, this expedition, and not least the many wonderful people we have met along the way, has challenged us to keep our minds open. Traveling through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was stunning, as day after day we were surrounded by the most breathtaking scenery, encountering the wonders of this unique place on earth that presents us with every face of the Arctic. While awed by its nature, we also came to realize the difficulties; the juggling, and balancing that are part of living in one of the most remote regions of the United States.
Oil pumping stations in Prudhoe Bay from the air.
Listen to Mick’s final thoughts as he heads back to Minnesota.
We know personally that the Gwich’in live of the land as the caribou people not only because they are connected in spirit with the migrating animals of the Porcupine Caribou herd native to ANWR, but simply because this is what makes it possible for them to live and eat everyday! While we were in the small Inupiat Eskimo community of Kaktovik this month's issue of National Geographic came out, putting front and center how the lives, livelihood, and way of living here is often interpreted in much too simply; not quite true to the struggle to just have what most of the rest of us take for granted – running water and a job! Jobs were what we saw at the oil fields. Looking at the pipeline snaking its way into the distance, the air vibrated with pulsing sounds of men and women hard at work 24-hours a day, seven days a week, it was mind boggling to think how this very oil is flowing as fast as possible so that all of us, you, and everyone, hundreds, thousands of miles away can drive in the school bus, turn on the air conditioner, toast a piece of bread – just do what we most of us do every day…without so much as thought about how we actually get all this energy!?
A profound ‘thank you’ to our sponsors and partners lead by Best Buy Children Foundation, NASA, and the Office of Polar Programs at the National Science Foundation.
Speaking of energy, we are proud that this was indeed the first-ever, net-zero expedition. But, much energy obviously goes into a successful expedition. GoNorth! Arctic National Wildlife Refuge 2006 was made possible by the hard work of the entire crew at Education Basecamp and behind the scenes – throughout the campus at the University of Minnesota and around the North American continent; the invaluable contributions and magnificient support of the GoNorth! sponsors, partners, friends, family, you! – and not least by the boundless energy of the mighty Polar Huskies, the true superstars of GoNorth!
Polar Husky Energy!
With such bountiful energy, enlightened by our experiences over the last fourteen weeks, we end this LIVE program, having learned that there is much for us all to consider when it comes to how we best try to find a balance between the energy we use, and how we continue to explore for oil and other natural resources in such incredible places as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – and throughout the Arctic. What we can do in the future is to not just limit our need for, and saving of, energy but also to explore new energy sources that will always be available to us, once we figure out how to harness them! On that note: Keep exploring! We hope you enjoyed exploring along the way – we loved sharing the experience with each of you!