Winter Wonderland

It’s been an exciting new experience working winter drilling here in the National Petroleum Reserve of Alaska. The first site was west of the Colville River. I worked there for the first part of this two week hitch, and some of the days were fantastic scenes of blood-red sun over a desert of snow that looks like rolling sand dunes. I saw a couple of caribou working their way around the foothills, pawing at the ground and feeding on the tundra below. Hard way to make a living. I heard there were 3 caribou, and that a wolverine killed one and was feeding on it not far from the road. I did not see it when I drove down to the support camp a few miles away, and so it may have been covered by snow from some of the wind storms.

In a quick decision, it was decided to demobilize the drilling rig and camp, and move it about 75 miles to the other side of the Colville river to look for gas there. The drill site was a flurry of heavy equipment and loaders taking apart the various components of the rig, loading them on large rolligon and steiger snow trucks, and shipping them across the fields. The rolligons are incredible vehicles. They have sort of cylindrical balloons for “wheels”. A roller sits on top of the balloon, and is driven by the drive train of the truck. This causes the balloon to roll. There are about a dozen of these balloons, which act as wheels, but so well displace the massive weights of the cargo that they don’t even leave tracks in the snow I don’t think. I guess they must in drifted snow, but I don’t think they do in hard pack, wind driven snow like there is here. They don’t even have to legally stay on the ice roads, they tread so lightly on the
snow. The steiger rigs are essentially 18 wheelers, with the wheels replaced by a rubber track. Sort of a mini-bulldozer track at each wheel.

We’ve had heavy winds the past day, so travel has slowed or stopped altogether. I was moved yesterday to a staging camp near the new rig site, and am helping out with monitoring fuel transfers, cleaning up any minor drips on the ice pad, and watching out for compliance with oil spill regulaitons, such as keeping a drip pan under vehicles, drums of oil, etc. to catch any leaks.

As often happens up here, one of the first people I met was a fuel tanker driver I was helping to fuel. Turns out he lived in a small city in Michigan on Lake Huron, just up the road from my uncle, who lives in a tiny farm town. I think he was quite surprised that I knew where he lived. Another of my co-workers here fishes in Bristol Bay, and knows a good friend of mine from Juneau who I have been emailing regularly with my latest hot boat buy prospects.


Very busy day here. I’ve decided it looks like a truck stop here, with all sorts of 18 wheeler-type rigs parked all over the ice pad, a place to shower, go the bathroom, and a diner car.

Helped offload groceries flown in today. One load came in on what is essentially a flying boxcar. Haven’t seen one of these in 25 years. The last time was during the very first job I had in Alaska in August of 1983, Chena Marina, Fairbanks. The first week I was in Fairbanks, a newly-met friend asked if I wanted to go and work a slime-line cleaning salmon for $5.50/hr. It was the highest hourly wage I’d ever made – by far. I’ve still got friends from that first job. In fact, I had dinner in Anchorage on the way through to the slope a week ago, and my wife is good friends with another – they are both teacher union politicos.

The plot just thickens here. One guy working at this pad had all kinds of dirt on some current and former legislators – all first hand knowledge. Another had family along the Allegany River, downstream into Pennsylvania from where I grew up.


Bottom dropped out of the temperature last night. This morning it’s 30 below with little wind. Did my largest fuel transfer yet last night of 20,000 gallons. These take several hours, and it was trying to say the least to stand out in the cold. We warm up when need be. No one is getting frost bite to transfer fuel.

Turns out both of the fuelers were from Juneau – the younger one a former student of my wife. Another beautiful sunset as we fueled last night, here near the end of the Brooks Range foothills where the Colville River opens up to the Arctic Plain.

Mark Stopha
Alaska Wild Salmon Company
4455 N. Douglas Hwy
Juneau, AK 99801

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