Monday, August 8, 2011

Working in the arctic

It's starting to get cold up here. Summer is turning to fall, green to red, rain to snow. Because I don't have any source of heat in my cabin, I've been having to wear a set of thermal underwear, as well as a coat and hat while I write. Lately I've been able to see my breath.

It was my original agreement with Coldfoot Camp that I'd work one day a week (for free) to cover my room and boards costs, and I'd spend the rest of my time writing. While we faithfully kept to that agreement for the first month, things have changed lately, now that business, here, has picked up. So, for the past several weeks, I've been working about 20 hours a week--all on the clock--for $11/hour. And it's been great.

I've learned that writing is not the greatest full-time job. It's a lot of fun to write every day, but I tire of sitting on my ass. Plus, the muse is fleeting when you continually harass her for inspiration. Working a part-time job and making a little extra cash has been an unexpected benefit of my life up here, plus I don't feel like such a free-loader because I'm no longer sitting in my cabin all day while everyone else around here does what is commonly regarded as "real work."

Here I am roto-tilling two large rectangles of ground. Coldfoot Camp is powered by diesel, and about a half-decade ago there was a 4,000 gallon spill. That dirt was removed to a special location. And here, once a year, it's roto-tilled so the diesel that has drained to the bottom can evaporate in the sun.

I found this frog in the unlikeliest of places: the diesel pond. A striking find because this is my first sighting of an amphibian in the arctic.

I've also done a good deal of tour guiding (which I did up here full-time five years ago when I was paying off my debt). Typically, I'm either oaring a raft down the Koyukuk River or driving tourists up to Wiseman (a semi-subsistence village fifteen miles north of Coldfoot) where the tourists get to meet hunter and trapper, Jack Reakoff, who's lived in rural Alaska all his life. I give them a broad overview of the region's history, plants and animals; Jack tells them everything about Wiseman and subsistence living.

Here I am, guiding.

Jack talking to tourists by his home in Wiseman.

Jack with moose and caribou hooves.

Jack showing tourists the inside of his cabin.

Jack's cabin.

The northernmost garden in Alaska.

Princess and Holland America buses do tours up and down the Dalton Highway, from Fairbanks to Deadhorse, which is just a few miles south of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields and the Arctic Ocean. I have a love/hate relationship with the tourists. They're all so kind and nice and grandmotherly, yet I'm constantly appalled with their poor health, and I--in general--frown upon their overly structured way of living/traveling. But still, I like them.

A few weeks ago, one of the Princess buses broke down 30 miles north of Coldfoot, and 220 miles from their destination, Deadhorse. Because all the guides here in Coldfoot were busy, I got to drive them all the way up in one of Coldfoot's tour vans to Deadhorse--easily the worst place man has ever created.

("A" is Coldfoot; "B" is Deadhorse.)

This is what the road looks like north of the Brooks Range when it turns to flat tundra.

And here's Deadhorse, near the arctic ocean, which is working camp that houses all the oil field workers. It is a cold, steely, metallic industrial town with guys outnumbering girls at least 15 to 1--a ratio I created based on my own observations. And while this number may seem intriguingly favorable to some of my female readers, I beg you to beware of the common Alaskan adage that holds true all along the Dalton Highway: "The odds are good, but the goods are odd." In Deadhorse, there are no schools, no churches, no libraries. There's nothing really, except for lots of oil, dudes, and metal. I feel like the joke needs some punch line, but Deadhorse is no joke. It's the sort of place you go if you want to descend into a Shining-like mania; the sort of place where you'll find your roommate hanging from the ceiling with the elastic of his underwear ringed around his neck.

Some views of town.

I drove back to Coldfoot the same night--literally a 500 mile trip in a day. Here are some pics of the sun hovering above the horizon at midnight.

Lastly, some weird/dumb things tourists have said... I've spent much of my time at Coldfoot dealing with tourists as both a tour guide and park ranger in the visitor center (also located in Coldfoot). Recently, I got hold of a document containing a secret list of quotes, which I share for your amusement.

“Where do they put them at night?” –woman from NY asking about what animals she might see and someone mentioning a musk ox.

“Do you drive back to Fairbanks every night?” (Fairbanks is 250 miles away.)

“Do you have any sort of 7-11 up here?”

“When do the caribou turn into moose?”

“Do you sell condoms here?” (not a stupid question, I guess)

“This is the United States. A places like that should not exist.” (Woman referring to the lodgings at Coldfoot Camp. She refused to shower there and desired to sleep in the bathroom at the ranger station across the road.)

“I was wondering if bears are attracted to blood and if so, should I be worried about this cut?” –girl from NYC

“So how do I go about applying for religious objection for paying to go into the park?” (There is no fee to enter the park.)

A couple asked a tour guide if they were still offering dog-mushing tours for $79. (It was summer and there was no snow on the ground.)

“Is there a dotted line marking the location of the Arctic Circle?”

“I have heard that watermelon berries have a laxative effect. Is that true?” –Older man

“Is that the sun or the moon?” asked looking up at crescent shape in a dark sky.

“This is a snowy owl,” someone said, looking at a ptarmigan

“Where am I??! THEY NEVER TELL ME WHERE I AM!” said an old lady, while threateningly pursuing a guide with her cane

“We’ve just come down from Deadfoot!” (probably referring to Deadhorse)

“Are the northern lights running now?”

“I’m not sure if I want to go to Deadwood.” (again, probably referring to Deadhorse)

“Today we came up from… somewhere.”

“Is this all there is to Fairbanks?” (woman upon waking up in Coldfoot after a long drive.)

“Don’t do drugs. This is what you’ll look like.” (Framing her face with her hands)

“Wolf-colored” (Lady’s response to a question about what the color of the wolf was that she saw.)

“Is there any water at Galbraith Lake?”

“Good morning.” (It was 6:30 p.m.)

“Can we stamp our US passport?”

“It’s like a Stephan King novel” (referring to Coldfoot)

“Will there be other people at the campground? We don’t want to be alone.”

“I need some help here… this stamp pad is completely dry.” (The pad was closed)

“Can I have an Arctic Circle certificate for my cat?”

“How do the animals know when to sleep?”

“Well, you’ll have to tell me where your glory holes are then.”

“How far is Horse-dead?”


Anonymous said...

on the topic of silly things tourists say--I worked at an outfitter in minneapolis for a bit about ten years ago. In our gear repair shop there was a quote from a ranger in glacier. The tourist asked him "whats the white stuff on the top of the mountains?" To which he replied: "angel shit lady." Rumor was he didnt last long.

mOOm said...

Not all of these are silly (though most are). I could imagine asking about when animals sleep when the sun doesn't set. That's not a bad question, I think.

Julie g. said...

Love your blog, but I have to say that there's an eau de superiority creeping into your worldview that's becoming slightly unattractive. I get that the tourists are fat and dumb, and say silly things, but you don't need to be so smug about it.

For instance, my sister lives in AK and so I've hear about summer dogsled runs on sleds with wheels. So perhaps the tourist's question revealed you ignorance, not his? Just a thought.

Josh Spice said...

Julie g: Ken is just expressing his observations of some unique experiences he's had up here in Alaska. Don't be too quick to take a side until you come up here and see it for yourself. It's more of a reality than a viewpoint.

Ken: nice post.

Josh P said...

I believe that list stemmed from one that I and a few others created a few years back - some of the quotes are uniquely identical to a list we created.

To Julie's point,from my memory a lot of those questions were taken out of context, and were really nearly as dumb as they would appear. Others.... were plenty moronic. Regardless, there was definitely a superiority complex amongst some of the seasonal workers - the whole place creates an us vs them juxtaposition not unsimilar to nationalism. It could make an interesting blog article.

I'm fascinated by the toad... quite the arctic find if you ask me.

Trish said...

So I am guess in that these tourists on the Princess and Holland America buses are on a cruise, and have the option of seeing some of the interior? (forgive my stupid question). If that is the case it seems odd that they would leave luxurious cruise accomodations for what sounds like primitive lodgings. Also, what are you referring to when you mention poor health? Victims of the American diet?

One last thing, one of my favorite comments from the list of silly things tourists say comes from the book 'Confederates in the Attic'. The park ranger at Fort Sumpter (I think) told the author that someone asked why so many civil war battles took place at national parks. I would have been too tempted with a remark such as 'well, they already had parking, toilets...'.

Ken said...

Anon—ha, good one.

Moom—Yeah, I guess I’m not even sure when the animals sleep. I’d guess that there really is no "bad time"; just many, many, tiny, tiny naps throughout the day.

Julie G—Ha, no, those tourists were inquiring about mushing on snow. When the ranger pointed out to them that it was summer and there was no snow here, I was told that they doubled over laughing at themselves. The post is meant in good fun. And if I know anything about the tourists, they’d have a good laugh at this as well. And while I don’t think I’ve been particularly smug lately, I’ll keep an eye out for it. (There is something about the rough and wild Alaskan (though vulnerable) environs that bring out the misanthrope in me.) On that note, though, I’m not sure if there is a way to have a strong opinion or criticize something, some person or some people without exuding a sense of superiority. I don’t think some of the great works could have been written without a little healthy smugness (Walden, Desert Solitaire, the Bible…). Not comparing my writings to these… just making a case for superiority/smugness, which, I’m afraid, will probably make its way into my posts every now and then, because, hell, I’m human.

Josh—thanks, I’m sure you’ve gotten your fair share of silly questions on the interpretive side of things.

Josh P—I think that us versus them mentality is present at most every workplace. I’m sure waitresses and cooks—across the country—resent their patrons. I think it’s all fairly innocent stuff, and the workers’ bitchings are more or less a healthy way of relieving stress.

Trish—Not a dumb question. Most of the tourists do one week on a cruise, and the other on a bus tour across Alaska. And yes, the quality of their accommodations is severely reduced by the time they get to Coldfoot/Deadhorse. You gotta hand it to them for being willing to make it up here.

And yes, typically they are really, really fat. When helping some of the particularly large ones get in the van, I’ve been asked to, on occasion, put both my hands on a large lady’s ass cheeks so I could push her up and into the van. Sometimes I didn’t think I had the strength…

Bec2hike said...

Ken your opinions and "smugness" is what makes you interesting. If you had no opinion this blog would never have happened. Some could have called you smug with your inital attitude and plans in the beginning of your van experience but your goals were achieved and you have motivated many. I laughed at this post as I have many at your representation of your experience. Your an insiration and a wonderful writer so keep being you!

VJP said...

Hi Ken, is that your van? You went from racy red to shit brown?
So,...what's next for you? You're always welcome to park in my driveway. You can even use our indoor plumbing, if you remember how. ;)
I read your article, congrats.
Write sometime, before your fingers are frostbitten.

Ken said...

bec2hike--thanks. Ironically, I do have a couple particularly opinionated (or smug) posts I hope to write in the next couple weeks. For you, I won't hold back.

VJP--I have absolutely no idea what's next for me. Usually, I have things planned out at least 3 months ahead of time; I don't even know where I'll be next month... Thanks for the offer--I'll keep it in mind, though I think I need a little more time away from North Carolina, if just to avoid the heat.

VJP said...

Ken, yeah, wait before to return to NC--85 degrees @ 11pm last night!

Vidor said...

Found this blog via Google Image search for "Deadhorse Camp". Gotta say that as someone who will soon be touring Deadhorse Camp and someone who is overweight (although not morbidly so, certainly not to the extent that I need to be shoved into a bus) I find it unpleasant to think that the tour guides will be laughing at me when I'm gone.