Monday, April 21, 2014

Lonely, Alaska

My guide/trailbreaker/chef/leader Ben Jones had some tasks on his lake-sampling trip that took us near Lonely Point, Alaska. We made a quick run to the end of the tundra, the beginning of the Arctic Ocean and a Cold War fortress, now deserted.

Lonely was born in 1957, when the U.S. constructed dozens of Distant Early Warning radar sites from the Aleutians to northern Canada. They were spaced about 60 miles apart on the northern coast of North America.

In this one skinny building under the radome, a few dozen guys pulled long shifts staring at radar screens, hoping they didn't see green blips coming over the sea ice. The DEWline sites were set up as a trip wire connected to the White House. If Russian Bear bombers heavy with nukes were heading for Chicago, these guys would see it first.

Happily the guys were just bored. Lonely is now abandoned except for a pair of resident ravens that roost beneath the cold tin roof of an old hangar. Their squawks and glunks made the place seem even more eerie, and Lonely has a high baseline level of spook.

While there, Ben installed a weather camera on the old control tower. He aims it to a repeater on the tundra that sends a signal back to the Ben Jones cabin at Teshekpuk Lake, from where I'm writing this post.

"Just go explore the place," he said to me while he worked. "Use your headlamp to check out the old living quarters."

He added one thing: "Oh, and if you see a polar bear, rev up your snowmachine to scare it away."

And so I slid down a drift and entered the creepy/cool complex.

The former post office.

Someone's dorm room. With kitchen/radar/bar/bathrooms all in one building, guys didn't have to go outside.

Further incentive not to venture into the cold wind: White bears with a meat-only diet live on the sea ice, which is a few hundred yards from Lonely.

Contractors from Wainwright won the bid to dismantle/clean Lonely this summer and next.

Walking through the long corridor, imagining airmen and civilians calling their wives and girlfriends on the 60s-era phones covered with frost, I headed for the light at the far end of the tunnel-like structure. 

When I got close to the light, this image fired every fear cell in my body:

I had seen these rounded tracks before once, near Shishmaref. In this moment, I was terrified. For a few seconds that felt like hours, I could not move. The crumbs of snow told me the polar bear tracks were fresh.

That exit would not do. Not breathing, I retreated the 100-yard length of the building, for the first time seeing polar bear tracks I had missed before. Shit. Thoughts of meeting a white bear in this tunnel upped the insane fright level.

I winced at the squeaks of my boots with each frantic step out of there. I emerged near my snowmachine like a freaked ground squirrel and climbed aboard to its relative safety. I fired the engine. then rode a wide lap around the complex looking for polar bear tracks leading in. I found none. Could a bear be denning in the house-size snowdrift at the terror exit? Probably not, but Ben and I never ventured to that snowdrift to find out.

I stared at the old living quarters for 10 minutes to the Lonely soundtrack of wind and a heavy power cable gonging against a metal light post.

I was happy to return to the other human at the site. Ben installed another camera on one of these pilings that the Arctic Ocean is eating. While I held screws for him, my head swiveled like a radar dish. No white bears. Just a visit from three snow buntings that few over the sea ice toward the North Pole.

Goodbye Lonely.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Arctic coastal plain, midway on the journey from Toolik to Teshekpuk

Arctic fox near our campsite west of Nuiqsut.

Set up on a lake Ben, Chris and Guido are studying. Hard for the average man to tell water from tundra this time of year at 70 degrees north. But the boys have a sixth sense.

'Tis pretty remote up here. But we never felt lonely so close to Alpine oilfield and it's tundra satellites.

Some visitors rolled in.

Clay, left, and Mike are surveyors for ConocoPhillips. Their tundra buggy goes anywhere, Clay says.

Had another problem with Chris's sno-go. Was unrelated to what Bodey repaired at Umiat. Boys couldn't fix it in the field, so coworkers sent another one by sled from Barrow. Two guys from Barrow delivered the new machine outside our tents at 3 a.m. After some sleep at Nuiqsut, the heroes we never met picked up our dead machine and snowmachined back to Barrow, arriving at 1 a.m. A 300-mile round trip!

In the meantime, Guido discovered that his bouncing sled makes bowling balls. 

Science writer at work, arctic coastal plain. Blogging by satellite, yet another miracle of our time.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


Population about 50 and constantly varying. On the Colville, largest river in northern Alaska. Born with the Naval Petroleum Reserve in the 1940s.

Ben, Chris and Guido have done their arctic lake studies in the surrounding area as Chris's banged-up snowmachine spent time with the only mechanic within 100 miles.

We emptied the Qounset hut when we heard a sno-go pull up and the mechanic delivered the news.

"It's better than it was before," said Bodey Winningham, who welded the frame while listening to Mettalica in the shop here. Bodey is 27, owns a few monster trucks and one monster Subaru wagon, and spent five years fixing things on a nuclear sub in the Navy. Boy is goin' places.

Machine back from dead made us happy, as is Chris's wife Sarah today.

Boys tested the machine back in the field, somehow finding salmon-shape lakes under the snow.

Then back home for dinner. And the chance to send this dispatch through the air to that dish. Then 22,000 miles up to a satellite, and 22,000 back to you.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The long trail to Umiat

Goggle selfie with Ben's help. Left Toolik on a sunny cold afternoon. Four machines, eight weighty sleds.

Stopped at Toolikhenge, as Guido called it. Throw a caribou skin over these rocks, you're set.

The riding was fantastic until we stopped near a shelter cabin. Chris noticed his machine was listing to the right.

Using this magic green wire, a four-foot steel rod, lots of hose clamps and a nylon ratchet strap, the boys somehow made the machine drivable.

Rollin' on, we saw farthest north river otter slip n' slide.

The Anaktuvuk River fire of a few years ago, with a tundra scar bigger than eastern counties, sprouts grass.

Had to cross a few snowy dips. With our double sleds loaded down, we transitted some of them very slowly.

Enjoyed the far north sunset at about 10 p.m. We were still a long way from the barn. But Ben got us on the ice road that connects The Dalton Highway to Umiat when we really needed headlights to see. There followed a few hours of ultra endurance snowmachining. As the air cooled to its low of -27F, we saw the lights of this little oil-exploration/science research camp from 20 miles out. We buzzed into Umiat at 1 a.m., never so happy to see the inside of a cold Navy Quonset hut.

Chris Arp and Ben Jones, this morning. They already have a welder here working on the sno-go, along with a few Plan Bs.

Guido Grosse enjoys the Umiat wireless.