Escape from the Northslope

I am the Ice Road Warrior alone in the vast emptiness of the Arctic. Luna my old friend escorts me as I barrel down the frozen reflection of the sky above.

“Those dumb sons of bitches didn’t realize who they were fucking with.” I thought.

There I was in on the furthest push westward into the National Petroleum Reserve on the Northslope of Alaska. I had recently just made the decision to terminate my employment with Pacific Environmental who I had been working with over the past 7 years.

I have worked as a oil spill technician as far East as Point Thompson near ANWR, far West as Red Dog Mine which coincidently was just fined for Environmental violations, well within the Interior and the Cook Inlet. I know all the in’s and out’s of the slope and have run damn near every ice road up there.

I had for sometime been looking forward to this Willow project which is Conoco Philips latest bid to get more oil from Alaska’s Northslope.

The Willow wells were drilled in early 2016 in the northeastern portion of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Once the federal government agreed to lease land in the Indiana-sized reserve, it was cracked open for oil development by Conoco and partner Anadarko Petroleum Corp., holding a 22 percent interest in the unit. The discovery was on federal land.

Conoco recently began oil production at the first producing field within the reserve’s boundaries, CD5, where 20,000 barrels of daily production has beat expectations by 25 percent. It is beginning construction this winter at Greater Moose’s Tooth 1, where peak production is estimated to reach 30,000 barrels of oil daily.

“The acreage acquired in the recent state and federal lease sales gives us running room to test the concepts that led to Willow and other NPR-A discoveries,” said Richard Lunam, a top Conoco official.

The Willow wells were discovered in the Brookian Nanushuk geologic formation, relatively shallow rock that has been overlooked by Alaska’s oil industry, as explorers scouted for the deeper and older pools of oil such as those at the giant Prudhoe Bay.

The Nanushuk and the related Torok formation were created roughly 100 million years ago as sediments from eroding mountains deposited across the Slope, when it was an oceanic basin. Caelus Energy and Armstrong Oil and Gas have announced two large Slope discoveries in the formations over the last year.

For all the preparation CP has performed in order to get the permits there seems to one flaw that no one is taking into account and that is that the Northslope is warming up. In order to protect the fragile tundra ecosystem and abundance of animals that call this last vestige of wilderness home all the Exploratory Drilling Projects happen in the winter when there is adequate snow cover. On any given site there is the drill rig, man camps and all the heavy equipment that it all entails to succeed.

This project has a lot of money riding on it, Billions in fact. So when the temperatures were to warm to build ice roads out to the remote location some heads began to get nervous. When I first started working up there I would be dispatched no later than Halloween and would usually work through until Easter. The past three years I have started consistently after New Years and we have to be off the ice no later than March. So needless to say that makes for a short season in order to get anything done.

Like I said I was looking forward to this next project but when I got out there in mid February I knew something was wrong. We were already three months behind schedule and the ice road was compromised by the fluctuating temperatures. All the contractors involved were scrambling to make things work at what I perceived at the expense of safety and environmental concerns. The stress levels were through the roof from the top on down and it was not uncommon for decisions to be based on projected results even though everyone knew we were not going to hit our deadlines anytime soon.

Now I have quit many jobs before but this job was good for me since by the time people started to piss me off the project would end. On the first day I got my ass chewed out by another contractor for something I had nothing to do with. I was told to not worry about it but after the second time I had to set this S.O.B straight on how our relationship was going to flourish. He stood there with mouth agape when I told him calmly that I had once put a man in the hospital with several broken ribs and a dislocated jaw for disrespecting me like that. He turned in a huff and went crying like a little bitch to his boss who then told his crew to keep an eye out for me. One of their workers took me aside and told me that they had it out for me and I needed to be aware of what was going on. That’s fine, I could give a fuck. I let me night guy know what’s going on and he told me that he was also having problem with this outfit.

Later on that same hitch I seen a light plant at an intersection that had frozen and was not working so a semi truck blasted through the four way and went barreling into the tundra which is a gross violation. I had to report it and thought first I would let the Ice Road Superintendent know before I put in all the paperwork. When I went into his office and thought I was being a team player I ended up getting my ass chewed out for causing ripples on the project and to stick to cleaning up oil spills and mind my own business. This is from the main superintendent field wide so I just laid low as I began to realize what was going on. The ice road was two months behind schedule and the rig was starting to move even when they were not quite ready to receive it at the site. Anybody could see that things were setting up for failure but the word from the top was press onward regardless. I called my immediate Supervisor and told him of my concerns and was told to just lay low. So am I just here going through the motions I asked. “Pretty much” was the reply. I knew then this was all a sham and they really didn’t care about environmental or safety concerns it was all about making the deadlines set forth by some guys in Houston, Texas.

So I just continued to do my job the best I saw fit and stay to myself but that all came to a head when I went in to get my timecard signed by the Company Man. The Big Cheese/ Head Honcho. Now I knew better to go up onto the rig during the beginning of the day since that’s when all the big wigs were meeting and the stress levels were at their highest. But I had to get it signed and get it turned in that day before it was to late. That’s when I knew I would no longer be working on this project as the Company Man proceeded to chew my ass out for having to sign the timecard and then he accused me of fudging my hours. I looked him in the eye and apologized and told him I needed to get this signed so I could turn it in. He mumbled something and snatched the timecard from my hand and scribbled his name. I apologized meekly and told him I would I would see him the following day when I started my shift, which couldn’t have been any further from the truth.

That night I went back to my room and started packing my gear with the intentions of driving the 100+ miles of ice road back to Deadhorse and get off the slope as soon as possible at any cost. The following morning I got all my stuff packed and relieved my night guy who had no idea what I was planning. I went about my morning duties and said my pleasantries to the Company Man as promised. I then took one of the trucks I knew had a 60 gallon slip tank for extra fuel I would need on the epic 100+ mile Escape from the Northslope. I filled that tank as well as the onboard tank and set out before the Sun rose. I then pulled the ACS magnet off the doors so I would look like all the other leased trucks on the slope.

I felt a surge of adrenaline as I was committing to something that I knew everyone up there had thought of once or twice in their time there on the “Slope”. You see it was not only this recent experience that got me thinking about my future up in the Arctic. I had 9 months earlier been diagnosed with Stage III Colon Cancer and had experienced a paradigm shift in what I perceived as important in my life. After surgery and chemotherapy I was healing pretty good. I did though start experiencing some gnarly side effects caused by chemotherapy. It was a condition called hand-foot syndrome where the flesh on my hands cracked and my feet began to develop these small blood blisters that were like walking on glass. I was nervous that the cold up there was going to make life difficult which proved true after working in -55 below zero temperatures for a week straight. My right foot went numb and it would not thaw out. Perhaps a condition worsened by the lack of blood flow caused by Diabetes I was now also having to deal with.

Another thing that really was in the back of my mind was the total lack of empathy from my employer on the State of my Health. After all that I had been through with Cancer no one ever asked how I was doing. The only thing that mattered to them was if I was able to work that winter or not. Even when the owner of the company came up to Alaska from Hawaii he didn’t even know who I was, what I had been through or even remotely gave a fuck. In all those six years working for them, taking on jobs with short notice and staying beyond termination dates I had never been offered a raise. In fact I had recently been in talks with our main competitor to go work for them at a increased pay scale. So I wasn’t really to worried about walking away Penco. But I have to tell you I just dont feel right doing this anymore.

The great expanse of the Arctic was there before me as I drove down that lonely Ice Road. The Sun was still well below the horizon and the Moon was full lighting my way. I knew that soon the drill rig would be calling for a fuel transfer which could not be completed without a spill tech present. In fact any fluid transfer would not be able to completed without me there. You see like I said before I have quit many jobs for many reasons but this one in particular was going to feel good. In fact I look for new and interesting ways to quit jobs not content with simply walking away.

The Moon distorts as it raced along side me and became a deep orange color. I bid him farewell and promised I would see him the following day some 700 miles south when I was in Anchorage. Although I was not sure how I was going to get off the slope without assistance from my company. You see, I have seen people get fired or walk off because of the shitty conditions. Its this time when the supervisors would schedule a plane ride off the slope but not before making a spectacle of the would be “quitter”. They would make you wait for the next available plane ride and in the meantime would ream your ass in front of the rest of the crews on site. I seen it done before and was not going to play that game.

But first was the obstacles at hand. On the Ice Road there are Security checkpoints throughout the entire length of road to keep people from accessing projects off limits. I had a total of four separate checkpoints I would have to go through and I knew that once the word got out I was not available and they figured out I was not returning to the project that they would cancel my badge that allowed entry/exit through the checkpoints. This ain’t my first rodeo though and I have been on damn near every ice road on the slope. As a subcontractor for Alaska Clean Seas I had full reign and access to the ice roads which I took full advantage of. So needless to say I knew all the in’s and out, short cuts and ways to avoid these check points.

It was when I was about forty miles down the ice road when I realized that I had forgotten my backpack with my wallet back at my CONX so I had to turn around to retrieve it. Now usually you are not supposed to go over 35 mph. on the ice but here I had to make an exception and like Mad Max from the Road Warrior I was flying down the ice with determination of a fugitive.

As I pulled onto the ice pad where the rig was I grabbed my backpack I forgot and proceeded to do a few more duties so people saw me. I went out of my way to get in people’s way so there was no doubt I was on site. Then I went and got more fuel and set out on the road again. I was not nervous in fact I was having the time of my life in this cat and mouse game. The first check point was at 2L pad and I knew there was a back way around camp I could go to avert it. I stopped in and flirted with this baker gal I found attractive and told her of my plans. She was more enthused than I was and made me a lunch to go and wished me luck. I grabbed her, pulled her in close and told her I wanted to see her when she got offslope. She blushed as I turned away and got in that truck. In case you haven’t noticed,… I’m going for it.

Now the Sun was beginning to rise and I knew the rig would be doing its fuel transfer soon so I blocked everyone that would be trying to call me and turned off my phone for good measure. The next check point came at the camp of Alpine where I went into to grab some coffee and food for the journey onwards. As I walked into camp I seen one of my fellow co workers that was attached to that camp. He had his back to me as he was changing out some spent batteries so I stealthily walked behind him and down the hallway.

“Pando?” I heard from behind me and picked up my pace into the kitchen where I made a couple of quick turns through the kitchen I knew all to well from working there the previous year. I then caused a commotion with the cooks as I chewed their asses for not disposing of their kitchen grease in a responsible manner and told them that my co worker was on his way to make sure they were in compliance. I saw my coworker get assaulted by the kitchen manager with a barrage of questions about what I had told the staff as I smiled and walked out the back door, jumped in my truck and punched it down the road humming that Smokey and the Bandit song

East bound and down, loaded up and truckin’

We’re gonna do what they say cant be done.

We’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there

I’m Eastbound, just watch ol’ Bandit run…

I thought I could catch a plane out of the main hub of Kaparuk but was notified that it did not fly on that day so I had to continue onwards to Deadhorse some 80 miles further. I had to be careful here as I knew my boss was prowling around somewhere and I’m sure by now the word was out I was nowhere to be found back at Willow. Now I don’t get nervous easy but I beginning to feel a bit fidgety thinking about how I was going to get through the last check point when I went from Conoco Philips leases land to British Petroleum land. It was my last obstacle.

I knew that they probably cancelled my badge and would be apprehended and to tell you the truth I was close enough to Deadhorse now that I knew it wouldn’t be long before they found me. As I pulled up to the one and only check point I could not get around to scan my badge, the Security guard asked where I was coming from and I pulled some total bullshit out of my hat and told them we had a emergency out on my rig and was told to go to Deadhorse with no delay to pick up a much needed part that was being flown into Deadhorse. He continued on that he couldn’t find my place of origin and I told him that I had experienced problems with my badge before. He was skeptical and wanted to call me in but the office was getting packed on the truck drivers were waiting behind me to get through. He handed back my badge and I thanked him. The Ice Road Gods were helping me out as I breathed a sigh of relief I made it through all the check points but I still needed to find a way back to Anchorage some 800 miles to South without any assistance.

As I drove into Deadhorse I called my buddy who worked for a airlines carrier and told him of my plight. He was more than happy to help me hide the truck while we figured out how I was going to get off the slope without having to go through interrogations of how in the hell I was able to get as far as I did in a seemingly secure world. I even contemplated stow away on a truck on the haul road back to Dawson. Or perhaps I could hitchhike back with some tourist who found that they could not access the Arctic Ocean without a badge which I coincidently had one available.

My buddy found out that there was a Alaska Airlines public plane available that afternoons I walked down to the airport right past the window I knew my boss would be looking out of. But he wouldn’t be expecting me over one hundred miles off my project. Even if he had gotten news I was nowhere to be found we had experienced communication problems in the past so it wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities that I was out on the ice road cleaning up a spill but could not communicate with shitty reception.

I walked into the Alaska Airlines terminal and told them I would like to get a flight off the slope. They asked who I worked for and why I wasn’t leaving on a scheduled Shared Services flight as ALL employees had to do. Now I have used my ethnicity to my advantage before and have passed as Hawaiian, Spanish, Navajo and once as a Puerto Rican so I just stated I was laying over to visit my Aunty in Barrow, I was now a Athabascan for all intended purposes. The problem was it was going to cost me over $500 to fly on short notice. That’s when the lady at the counter asked me if I was a part of the Club 49. Which I stated I was and she informed me that I had access to a one time voucher to get 40% off a ticket for short notice flights. Fucking A man…… Book It Ma’am!

I kicked it with my bro and told him of my latest adventure. He and his co-workers just sat there transfixed as I told them all that led to this situation and they were all in agreement that they wish they could do the same. It was stories like this that people thought of but had never heard of actually happening. We all laughed about it and I felt a great weight being lifted off me as I went out to the Company Truck and took out all the Arctic Gear the company provided for me and placed it in the truck I would leave in it so they couldn’t hold my last check. That is if they could ever find their truck.

As I was waiting in line to get onboard the plane I thought at any moment Security was going to come in a drag me off but nothing of the sort ever transpired. As the plane took off the tarmac and we reached into the Cold Arctic Sky, I saw down below all those poor Sons of Bitches that were looking above at the plane I was on wishing they could leave the Icey Talons of the Oil Indusrty.

I pressed my face on the window as the airplane tilted towards the Southern Horizon and “Flipped” the Bird with my middle finger to all those assholes below caught in a perpetual destruction of the Earth.

Therein I left it all behind as I Escaped the Northslope and contemplated pulling my 401k. to buy a sailboat to start an adventure of Epic Porpotions.

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