“Telling our driver on the way back, he laughed, saying they could’ve been polar bears, being that we were working on top of the Beaufort Sea.”

Prudhoe Bay “Cat Train”

In the early 1970’s, I worked a couple of jobs in Alaska that for various reasons, I didn’t hang around long enough to make a career out of.  While attending automotive technology classes at Anchorage Community College, I moonlighted as a custodian for Excell Janitorial at Montgomery Ward department store on Northern Lights Boulevard and Spenard Road. That gig lasted a week.

My job was to vacuum the whole complex while two other guys emptied trash cans and cleaned windows. This store had two levels. I got to know my cumbersome Sanitaire vacuum cleaner quite well, toting it up and down a silenced escalator.

The boss warned me that the last guy hired had been fired for stealing. He said that Montgomery Ward had a clandestine security guy working nights and mornings. This person was never observed because there were areas he hid and couldn’t be seen. They knew he was around, because the poor fellow couldn’t make it through a shift without lighting up a cigarette. My supervisor also told me this man often left bait in various places to try and nab someone.

I was vacuuming near the jewelry counter one night. There on a glass display case sat a couple of rings in their fancy velvet boxes. “How unclever!”, came to mind. I assumed the security guy was watching me closely.

“Hey!”, I called out loud enough for anyone to hear. “If you left these rings here on purpose, they’re not my size!”

I uttered such out of humor, not caring what the consequences might be. Thankfully, the fellow never showed his face, or I would’ve asked him to take his nasty smoking habit outside. Later that evening, I detected tobacco smoke upstairs, and knew that he was dogging me. I immediately started singing, Jimmy Crack Corn and Little Liza Jane. Those were the only songs I knew words to, having learned them as a kid in Alabama. I still sing the tunes in my garage when no one’s around; lyrics greatly changed due to ever worsening CRS syndrome (Can’t Remember Songs).

Towards the end of my first week, I glanced out a large window, spotting my friend, Jeff Thimsen, drive by. He was cruising around town in his ’65 Chevrolet as we often did together. Seeing such and being jealous, along with having that unnerving security guy watching my every move, I turned in my resignation the following Monday. Out of courtesy, a few more shifts were completed until a replacement custodian was found.

Approximately a year later, my soon to be brother-in-law, Charlie Hart, was working as a doodlebugger on a seismograph crew on the Alaskan North Slope. Doodlebugger is a nickname of sorts for field seismic employee. Charlie mentioned that GSI was looking for help, and the pay was great with a guaranteed 84-hour work week.

It was the end of the season for seismic crews and most of the seasoned employees were headed home. One of the oil companies wanted a final job performed before frozen tundra and ice started thawing. GSI was hastily trying to round up a crew to complete this mission, hiring just about anyone with functioning legs and arms.

I flew out of Anchorage via Wein Airlines on a 737 jet. We landed at Dead Horse Airport a little over an hour later. After disembarking, I was ushered to a small building close to the taxiway. Inside were other oil field workers bound for different camps; a lone pool table constantly in use with a cloud of bluish smoke hovering over it.

The restroom was outside in another building. Toilets had electric grids within the bowl area designed to incinerate solid materials. I didn’t see the sign saying not to urinate in them, as that was strictly to be done in another part of the building. Noticing it much too late, some guy yelled at me, claiming fellows had been killed doing such. I thought he meant electrocuted. Turns out the electric grids shorted out with too much liquid hitting them. The ‘murder reference’ had to do with that poor guy having to change them. I apologized and quickly left.

After several hours of waiting, I boarded a DeHavilland DHC-6 Twin-Otter aircraft on skis bound for destinations unknown. We flew for perhaps 30 minutes before setting down next to what the pilot called, a “cat train.” This would be my new home.

The cat train consisted of a D-7 Caterpillar, hooked to five little buildings on skis. These mobile shacks made up the camp office, kitchen, living quarters, and a small, chemical decomposing porta-potty . I can only imagine where they dumped the stuff. A diesel Snow Cat used for transportation sat next to the kitchen. Several guys were working under it using visqueen and a kerosene heater to stay warm.

I was shown a cabin I’d be sleeping in and then invited to the dining car for dinner. Diners were expected to eat and leave as space was at a minimum. I shared a 20′ x 12′ dwelling with three other guys. They were all smokers. An instant headache resulted from having to breath their pollutants besides enduring a stinky, oil-burning furnace.

Eating breakfast the next morning at 6:00, I climbed into a Snow Cat with another “juggy” and the vehicle driver. Juggy was officially my new title. My assignment was to pick up seismic cables and geophones (microphones) that another crew laid out the previous day. Imagine a continuous string of Christmas lights with the bulbs facing down, because that’s what they reminded me of.

These devices are used by geologists to tell what’s inside the earth’s crust. The cables stretched out for miles across what I thought was frozen tundra. We had to bend over and grab each geophone separately. After bending and standing thousands of times a day, it was exhausting. They didn’t want us yanking them up by the wire as it could damage things.

Snow Cat

Pete and I brought along a provided lunch including snacks and drinks of our choice. Thermoses of coffee were available, and we each took one the first day. They were empty by noon. I had on bunny boots, thermal underwear, insulated pants, an Arctic parka, fur hat, thick gloves, and sunglasses. What little sun there was to work under was blinding after it bounced off the white terrain. Polarized eye protection prevented snow blindness. We had no communication device which to me was most disturbing.

Our high-strung taxi driver left us there and didn’t return until around seven o’clock that evening. We’d worked well past sunset using flashlights and minimal light from a bright moon. It was unnerving to say the least. There were ice ridges everywhere and after a while they appeared to move. My co-worker and I began to think we were seeing polar bears. In actuality, being tired and cold, we were imagining such.

Telling our driver about the eerie sightings on the way back to camp, he laughed, saying they could’ve been polar bears, being that we were working on top of the Beaufort Sea. That was the first time we learned that land wasn’t under our feet.

Evidently, the oil company hiring GSI desperately wanted this area explored for possible oil and gas reserves. Being at the bottom of the totem pole, Pete and I weren’t privy to such information. It simply leaked out via the doodlebugger grapevine.

Back at camp, things weren’t any better. After a late dinner, my trying to sleep while three roommates hooped and hollered didn’t allow for adequate rest. The druggies had at their disposal, pot, cocaine, and booze. Back then, drug testing wasn’t heard of amongst oilfield workers. Sadly, our Snow Cat driver was one of the dopers.

This routine went on for a few days before Pete told me he’d had enough. He said I’d most likely be working by myself until they finished the job, as help was hard to come by. Being alone in the middle of a vast frozen field of ice , with no radio, gun, or survival gear was a bit unnerving. Knowing that I had to rely on a pothead driver to pick me up was the worst nightmare. For safety reasons, I elected to quit as well.

We rode for a full day in the back of the cat train, trying to catch up on lost sleep. They sent us home the following morning on a slow loving, single engine Cessna airplane. It was headed to Anchorage for repairs. I think it took us close to four hours or longer as we had to refuel along the way. Never was I so happy to get home.

Looking back on things, I’m glad I got to experience such. I found out quick that being a “juggy” wasn’t meant for me, even with the decent pay. Things somewhat changed for the better after I left. Substance abusing employees were no longer tolerated by the company. Urine tests took care of most of that problem. A major downfall being that the fat paychecks were virtually cut in half, because this company and others started hiring out of country employees.

Prudhoe Bay is still supplying oil to ships in Valdez harbor. I can proudly say that for a brief week, I had a miniscule part in making such happen!

Beaufort Sea

Author: michaeldexterhankins

ordinary average guy

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