Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Deadhorse Experience

I was sent to work at Prudhoe Bay for a month in October. The tundra is flat, white, windy and expansive. You can see the curvature of the earth in every direction.

The camp in full sunlight. It usually
 looks a lot more gray
I worked with two coworkers keeping up a work camp: Justin and Joey. We had a crew of 7 electricians staying with us. For a month I didn't see another female. Everyone hits on you without shame, even if they're 60, married and have kids. I told them I was a lesbian to get them to back off.
Water is 35cents/gallon, because the company has to drive all the water up from Fairbanks and truck the sewage back down to town for processing. Very inefficient and costly. I've mastered taking 2 minute showers and washing dishes with minimal water-use.
Reminded me of the water situation in the Sci-Fi book 'Dune', except I was conserving water in an Arctic desert instead of on a hot, sand-covered planet infested by giant worms.

Deadhorse screws with your mind. It's dark-a sliver of sun barely rises above the horizon and then dips down: a beacon that fades with every passing day. The sun looks very Africa-like at times.

Deadhorse Camp at sunset
It's an industrial work camp, so it's gray-colored, monotone and boxy. Splashes of color were non-existent (apart from the sun). Even our uniforms were a dull, washed-out gray. Lots of insect-like machines around camp too.
Radar station (compasses don't work this far north)

Oil rigs

People keep to themselves. Little conversation is exchanged--everyone is strictly here for work. The crew worked 14 hour days, ate dinner and crashed. There are no holidays, no weekends. Everyone works 7-day weeks, and soon you forget what day of the week or what date it is. It's no-longer pertinent.

Sun dogs are formed when ice crystals drifting close to the
ground bend the light rays passing through them by 22 °
Forced, hollow laughter rings out in the gray hallways---out-of-place and quickly suppressed. Talking on skype, I was amazed by the huge smiles and excitement radiating from the screen--vibrant emotions were non-existent up here.  
Peripheral ray of a Sun Dog from the back porch
Deadhorse reminded me of an article I read about an incident at the Antarctic Russian Vostok station during the winter season. Two of the workers played chess on a daily basis. One night, when the other guy took too long to move his pawn, his companion stabbed him with an ice ax. Amazing how darkness and isolation can push rational people towards radical, psychotic behavior.
We lived outside in seismic units that resembled something from the matrix. In the evenings we would leave the main camp and make our way through the snow to our rooms that looked like cardboard boxes on stilts.

Higher-end housing

Very matrix-like

One time I got snowed in and had to jostle the door for 40 minutes, before I could create a crack big enough to slide my way through. Almost missed work.

This passage was barricaded by 6' snowdrifts after a winter storm. My room's 302
The bathrooms were in the main building, so everyone carefully monitored the liquids they'd consume before heading to their rooms.

I wasn't miserable, quite the contrary. It was intense, kept me on my toes, and I'd go back in an instant. I'm realizing that I'm attracted by extremes.

Trekking across the tundra

Glimpses of the sun were a rarity
It was cold and windy--around 30-50 mph on a daily basis. You have to keep an eye out for polar bears and white-outs.
On the haul road
Fox I tracked

Several exciting things happened while I was up here. I fell through a river on one of my excursions and soaked my left leg up to the thigh. Terrifying, but I survived and made it back to camp in one piece by hitching a ride with a passing trucker.

Place I fell in
 Another time I went out to ski, there was a whiteout and I got lost...for a couple hours... not my smartest move.
Tundra attire 
My very warm hat
Life has a different meaning up here-it's about work, survival and menial day-to-day tasks that keep the camp running: making sure that the fuel doesn't freeze, shoveling the entrances, insulating the windows, etc....

50mph winds can block a door in less than 2 minutes. Resistance is futile 

Not sure what I was doing here...

Checking water+fuel levels

Everyone is equal up here: bosses and supervisors clean toilets and wash dishes along with everyone else. The world is not glamorous: it's hard work, and no amount of volunteering in 3rd world countries or interning at wealthy corporations will prepare you for the realities of a day's worth of menial labor.

Deadhorse was wonderful, simple-no distractions. It's not for everyone, but I've always favored cold, harsh weather. I'm okay with being uncomfortable. 

I hitchhiked back to coldfoot with a guy with a penchant for 60's music. It was bizarre to see trees again, mountains....and females. I was used to seeing white, flat expanses in every direction.

Trees....and mountains....take some time getting used to

A very long and cold wait

Mountains on the drive back

Back in Coldfoot


  1. Sorry my ignorant ass told you the river was frozen. Glad you made it out alive. -Justin