It is said that to work out in the far reaches of the Land of the Midnight Sun for weeks at a time, you have to be “a little bit off”. It’s probably true. Through June and July the mosquitos are vicious and thick enough that you can inhale them. There is no A/C – with the northern sun shining on you sideways, the relentless summer heat feels like it’s cooking you.
Currently, it’s August, it’s 45 degrees, and it’s raining. Fireweed, the floral tracker of summer, has bloomed away all of her tall, proud, purple spikes and turned to wind blown strands of silk; fall has come to the tundra. I’m writing this while sitting inside my Quonset hut, I’m sipping my blueberry tea, wearing thick winter socks, and thinking about snow. As a remote paramedic, I’m stationed above the arctic circle at a mine exploration site. Around me, the low hum of a turning drill and the steady drone of a helicopter are the only additional sounds mingling with the gentle patter of raindrops on the insulted tent walls. The Internet and almost all external communication continues to be a fickle, flighty mistress. Intermittent radio traffic flickers in and out as the chores of this future mine site are accomplished. There’s about an hour until dinner is served.
Imagine if you will, a space that is about the size of a standard football field with an oval running track around it. At one end is a graveyard of dead machines and a small warehouse-like workshop. From the middle to the top section lie neat rows of orange and white domed tents that are strangely reminiscent of marshmallows with porches. There are several hard sided, cabinesque structures at the uppermost part of the encampment; these serve as year round housing. Once the snow falls and camp size decreases, the tents will be winterized and shut down. This collection of 35 tents house the in and out bound rotation of 70 – 85 people. In addition, there are three bathing and washing machine facilities, a recreation tent, and four large administrative tents. In the space that would serve as a running track around the field, there are drill sites, a helipad, a creek, landfill, incinerator, generator, and other various things that make up an exploratory mining camp. Just off to the side and away from camp is the airstrip for landing small passenger “bush” planes.
The weeks spent here pass with little distinction between day and night – during the short summer work season, the sun doesn’t set. Sleep doesn’t come easy, but insomnia does. Homemade blackout curtains and benadryl become your best friends.
People work on rotations, usually two weeks at a time, sometimes three. Shifts are seven days a week, twelve to sixteen hours long. Planes bring you in, and planes take you out. Planes bring in the fuel, the supplies and the food. If the planes don’t make it in, or you didn’t order enough – you have nothing.
Very little in the way of variety is to be had way out here in the last of the last frontier. Food is ordered in bulk by the kitchen, cooked by chefs, and served at specific times. You live by the regulated clock of meal and meeting times. You pray that the chef that was hired knows how to cook and you won’t end up eating rice for a week. Bring your own coffee though, no matter how you doctor it, the camp stuff is swill.
Freight is expensive to ship, takes a while to get here, and delivery is dependant on the weather. The closest native village is fifteen miles away, the nearest town is an hour by plane, the nearest city is two flight hours. We are very fortunate that over in the village there is a mercantile store, and that the lady who owns it is kind enough to make the drive out here several evenings a week. She brings candy, soda, chips, cigarettes, dip, energy drinks and small toiletries. But that’s it, if you don’t pack it with you out here, you probably won’t get it.
As far as the work here goes, pad builders build drill pads, drillers drill core, geologists log the core and send it off for analysis. To accomplish this, A-stars, the flying pick-up trucks of Alaska, are used extensively. Without a sound helicopter and good pilot to man them, quite a few projects would take longer and be less safe – or worse, just plain unreachable. The drillers and drill pad builders use the helicopters for slinging loads, heavy lifting and transportation to the top of the roadless mountains they are perched on. Good news in meetings is that “the drills are turning and core is in the core shack.” Bad news is that drills are broken and need to wait on parts. Days or weeks of work get behind, pushing the limits of the program schedule and budget.
Around camp, maintenance workers maintain the grounds, housekeepers maintain the tents, heavy machine operators build roads, clear ditches, create driveways, and level areas for new tents. Stairs are built, railings are fixed and outdated equipment is upgraded. Mechanics keep the fuel trucks, pick up trucks, ATVs, side by sides, and snow machines running. Overall, camp runs smoothly – everyone knows their job or role, and everyone works hard.
Now medical, that’s me. Just me out here with my emergency medicine know-how, plenty of trauma gear, a couple of Stokes baskets, LifePak 12, full contingent of ALS medications, some over the counter medications, and a satellite phone. I can pretty well handle everything except a stroke. I hope and pray every day that no one pops a blood vessel and bleeds into their brain. The nearest full scale hospital is two hours by plane away in Fairbanks to the east, three south bound flight hours to the nearest Level Two trauma center in Anchorage…and if you need a Level One trauma center? Seattle. You have to go to Seattle – three and a half more hours south past Anchorage. Fortunately, Alaska has fantastic fixed-wing air ambulances and emergency medical crews. If you need help, we’ll get it to you. Might take a little while, but we’ll get it done.
At the end of the day…
Not everyone loves it out here, many people don’t even like it. But the money is decent and the views – you sure can’t beat the surrounding scenery with a stick. Regardless of how you feel about it, we keep coming back. Like I said, most of us are “just a little bit off.”