“Yeah, and good riddance to you, too!,” John Christensen muttered as we watched the wrench disappear down the hole we had drilled in the sea ice. Christensen, an oceanographer as well as a first-rate tinkerer, likes to solve problems, which is fortunate because we have a lot of problems to solve. One of which—now—is how to disassemble the instrument string lying on the ice in front of us like a soggy, segmented eel without the benefit of our only wrench.
Even though we lack a ship, this is an oceanographic research cruise, since we are—literally—somewhere in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. We are here to study the nutrient composition and productivity of the northern Arctic land shelf and how it interacts with the open ocean. Our plan is to drill a hole though six feet of sea ice and lower our instruments to 1500 feet before collecting samples and hauling them up again. We expect to drill five holes a day for several weeks. But, we have been averaging closer to one a day because of persistent equipment problems. At the moment we are on sea ice 100 miles northwest of Prudhoe Bay and the town of Deadhorse, Alaska, and drifting westerly in the Beaufort Sea. In other words, we are a long way from a hardware store and another wrench.
Christensen is 54, but everyone guesses ten years older from his gaunt appearance. He is the leader of our ship’s crew. The man staring forlornly at the dripping instruments is Claude Belzile, a Canadian post-doctoral researcher. It is his instrument that has been giving us trouble all week. The young woman energetically in charge of the sampling bottles and gear is Sarah Olivo, a 19-year-old freshman intern from the University of New England. She is known as “Sweetie” by Belzile and as “Chief” by me, but always behind her back. No one her age could possibly be as competent as she is at nearly everything she does. I have no particularly useful skills for a voyage of this type, except, maybe, a strong distaste for tourist vacations and a willingness to haul gear. I’m here because I injudiciously told a friend I wanted to “get out of town.” I had in mind a small Mediterranean village where no one spoke English, not this cold, windy place on the edge of beyond.
“I couldn’t feel the wrench,” Christensen offers as explanation for dropping it. It’s a plausible excuse. It is 20 degrees below zero Fahrenheit outside the tent, and a bit warmer on the inside, where the winch motor provides a bit of heat. Plus, the tent keeps us out of the wind, which adds a special bite to the freezing air outside. But it is delicate work to pour the samples from the collection vessel into the small sample bottles that Olivo holds, and both Christensen and Olivo prefer to work without gloves in the freezing slush around the sample hole. Christensen’s hands have been wet for nearly 30 minutes. As I pull my parka closer around me, I imagine I would have dropped the damn wrench a long time ago. Even so,we are lucky to be here.
A helicopter hauls us and all our gear out here and puts us down on the ice. Unfortunately, the helicopter doesn’t have enough fuel to get us back to our warm hotel in Deadhorse, where we can feel our toes again. It’s a problem. We solve it my hiring a bush pilot, Andy, to schlep out to our landing zone in his small plane with several 50-gallon barrels of aviation fuel that he, along with the two helicopter pilots, can hand pump into the helicopter. We need about 500 feet of smooth ice for Andy to be able to land and takeoff again. If it has been windy, and the ice has been crashing into itself, this can be hard to find, and may push us several miles from where we initially intend to land.
Several days ago, conditions were nearly perfect, with flat ice for nearly as far as we could see. We landed and immediately jumped out to assemble our gear and get the ice hole dug. My job is always to assemble the gear near the ice hole, where I am to be ready to immediately pitch the tent over the hole as soon as it is dug. The tent doesn’t provide much warmth, but it does keep us out of the biting wind, which is usually blowing hard enough to keep careful track of whatever piece of clothing you want to wear home instead of following it to Siberia to retrieve it. The wind is why it usually looks like I’m getting the worst of a wrestling match with the tent, as I try to pin its shoulders down and it tries to knock my glasses off and pull my balaclava down over my eyes.
The ice drilling is Claude’s specialty, although Christensen often lends a hand. Most jobs in the Arctic are two-person jobs, at least. Nothing is easy here. The drill auger comes in three three-foot sections, which are suppose to be attached consecutively, as needed. But, pulling the drill out of a three foot hole is hard, because it is heavy, and making the attachment is never simple in extreme cold and takes time. Time is a luxury we don’t have in cold temperatures, so Claude usually chooses to risk his life, and certainly his limbs, by starting the drilling with six feet of auger attached. This is sensible because sea ice is typically 4-5 fee thick. But it means he starts off controlling the drill with this hands above his head and the dangerous bit of the drill rotates close to his body. Christensen is quick to help out because, well, we all like Claude, and none of us are certain our meager First-Aid skills could keep anyone alive for the 4-5 hours or so it would take to get the Coast Guard out here from their station in Barrow, should Claude get hurt.
This particular day was a balmy 5 below zero, with no wind. In other words, as perfect a day as you are likely to get in the Arctic in April. Andy had no trouble landing his plane, and he had taxied it over close to the helicopter to make the unloading of fuel barrels easy. Claude and Christensen were getting ready to drill the hole between the two aircraft. Sarah and I dragged the portable generator, which supplies power to the drill, over near the hole, and I jerked it to life. A moment later, we were all more or less standing around the hole, like a street maintenance work crew, watching Claude drill the hole. He had just started when, all of a sudden, he pitched forward and the auger started moving quickly down the hole. Christensen was just able to reach out and grab the auger as the top of it went down to about hole level. “What the hell…?!”
As our two drillers recovered and pulled the auger out of the hole, Sarah and I looked in. We were standing on about six inches of ice. Not a word was spoken, but four pairs of eyes got very, very big. Six inches of hard lake ice is one thing, but six inches of soft sea ice is something else entirely. Seals can break though six inches of flexible sea ice quite easily. “Shit,” someone finally said. We cast an eye at the two nearby aircraft.
I glanced over at the pilots, still busy with the refueling. “What are we going to do?”
Nobody knew, although the fact that all of us weren’t swimming at the moment was a good sign. Finally, synapses started firing again. “Well, we’re here, and we’re on top of the ice and not under it. I guess it’s going to hold us.” Three of us looked dubiously at the speaker.
After a few minutes of further discussion, it was decided that we would sample this station, but that it probably wasn’t a particularly good idea to, you know, alarm the pilots just yet. I walked casually over to the helicopter and grabbed the red survival bag that contains a few sleeping bags, a tent, and a couple days worth of rations from beside the helicopter where we usually drop it as we are unpacking. I started dragging it away from the helicopter, which was clearly going to fall through the ice first, over in the direction of our tent, where it might actually do us some good if the helicopter suddenly disappeared. “What are you doing?,” Jim, the head pilot asked me. “Oh, you know, just getting this out of the way,” I lied unconvincingly.
Later, in the air, Christensen told the pilots about the ice. Two heads swivel in unison. “The ice was how thick!?”
“Well, you know, maybe a foot,” Christensen said. As we flew on to the next site, I started thinking about the arctic fox that showed up in our sampling site one day last week. I thought then, and I was thinking now, what a wonderfully lucky ship’s crew we were.
Learn more about my Arctic adventures in my e-book, Standing on the Ocean: A Layman’s Arctic Adventure.