Thursday, August 27, 2015

Have We Seen Changes Or What!

Our world has changed pretty drastically over the years since our Homestead was first settled. My husband Jim and parents came to the Colville River Delta to build a home and live here year-round in the mid-1950’s. In those days, no one lived permanently in the area, nor even in the hundreds of miles between Barrow, at Alaska’s northern most point to the west of us, or Kaktovik on Barter Island, near the Canadian border to the east of us.

There was a military instillation a little over 13 miles from us called a Dewline site.  (Distant Early Warning). It was built in the mid-50’s, with a few people stationed there for long hitches, to watch for foreign planes trespassing into US airspace. For us, it meant a few lights on the horizon to the northeast, otherwise there was nothing man-made visible in any direction from our house. We were truly isolated and living in a wilderness few others saw besides our own family and guests.

Then exploration and retrieval of oil started. In the early 1960’s our family became involved in guiding or providing support for early oil company sponsored seismic exploration efforts, plus guiding a  Sinclair oil rig and support equipment along the northeastern Alaska coastline from Canada and up the Colville River for further oil exploration work. Slowly, after the big discovery oil well was drilled in Prudhoe Bay in 1968, we began to see more distant lights off to the east as more and more oil drilling rigs and facilities began to spring up. Although there was a fever of activity with gravel mining, road and pad construction, and drilling activities, Prudhoe Bay was still far enough away so as not to affect our normal scenery or activities here on the Homestead. However, those lights did keep increasing during the 1970’s, but it was not the oilfield that brought the biggest changes for us.

In 1973, a new native village was started about 22 miles upriver from us.  Our homestead is located on Anachlik Island on the far eastern side of the 22 mile wide delta face. Nuiqsut village was established at the start of the delta on the western side. It was only a few families at first, but eventually grew much bigger into a community of over 400 people.  It was this substantial increase in the local population that brought the most noticeable changes to the area in which we live. A land must adapt to the influx of a large number of people and their activities, especially ones who partially live off the land through hunting  and fishing. Thus we witnessed decreases and changes in wildlife patterns around the delta area. We saw fewer wolves and wolverines, local caribou disappeared, some waterfowl had to move away from major boat traffic areas in summer, fresh-water seals decreased, and our commercial fishing operation gave way to subsistence users. The Colville River Delta  could not help but change from this increase in human habitation and activities. (Later, the encroaching oilfield would add to this impact.)

As the oil field continued to grow over the years and expanded west across the Kuparuk River, industry and all its infrastructure kept getting closer and closer to us. A few structures on the horizon and lights at night increased until it looked like a huge city off to the east of us.

There were advantages to this encroaching world to help offset the negative changes. First there was the Dalton Highway, or Haul Road, as it is more commonly called.  It gave us a ground transportation route to southern parts of Alaska via the road constructed to build and service Alaska’s new oil pipeline from the North Slope to Valdez. More year-round gravel roads were constructed to and over the Kuparuk River, into the new Kuparuk Oil Field. That brought ground transportation even closer to us.  Eventually a road was finished to Oliktok, where the Dewline was located, and we then had a jumping off spot to drive over the winter ice into the Colville Delta, where we live.

Ground transportation changed how we obtained our yearly supplies of food, fuel and other items. Previously we brought all our supplies north from Fairbanks on large cargo planes that also back-hauled our commercial fish to southern markets. Road access allowed us to truck supplies at lower costs and eliminate building a large ice runway for a cargo plane.

We bought a pickup truck and small trailer at this point and I (Teena) became the designated trucker, since Jim was the pilot. I began making several trips to Fairbanks a year. (My many trucking adventures are another story.) Plus trucking companies could now haul freight north for us.

Another advantage to the Prudhoe Bay Oilfield was the establishment of a new Post Office. For many years we had to personally fly our mail to and from the Barrow Post Office, 160 miles away. Once we shifted our address, we still were responsible for delivery and pickup of our own mail, but the Prudhoe Bay Post Office was much closer (about 60 miles) and located where we both flew or drove often. This cut down the expense, plus increased the frequency of getting mail.

Prudhoe Bay also provided closer air transportation for both ourselves and our guest or clients. Commercial airlines and air taxis began operating out of Deadhorse, the service area for the new oilfield. With both roads and runway, Prudhoe Bay now became the new North Slope hub for us instead of Barrow.

Another important advantage to having the nearby oilfield was access to scrap wood.  Previously our supply of firewood to heat our house came predominantly from drift willow that washed down the Colville River every spring during break-up. We had to make several trips a week with a snow machine and big freight sled to get enough wood to keep ahead of our consumption.  This also meant a lot of digging down through snow to retrieve the wood deposited along the low-lying  river banks or delta face. Knowing where this driftwood gathers ahead of time was paramount.

The oilfield has lots of construction debris, including scrap wood. When driving home from Prudhoe Bay, or anywhere else in the oilfield, we always had a load of wood to heat our home. Instead of round drift willow, we now burn mostly square dunnage.

In the 1980, the Kuparuk Oilfield, west of Prudhoe Bay, was being developed, and not only did we have lights much closer, but the buildings, rigs, and power lines were covering most of our eastern view by then. By the 1990’s we had drill sites within 5 miles of our place. Our landscape was changing rapidly.

On top of the permanent oilfield infrastructure to the east of us, we also had winter exploration operations beginning to surround us during the mid-to-late winter seasons when travel over ice and tundra became possible in the deep freeze months.  Oil work was steadily moving west with equipment busily making ice roads and then heavy oil industrial equipment moving to new exploration sites. Ice roads and ice pads sprang up all around us, some as close as only a few miles away. Seismic operations continued around us nearly every winter. Fortunately, all this activity was restricted to the frozen winter season.

Then the oilfield rolled on by us, as a big new develop named Alpine was built 12 miles to the west of us in the heart of the Colville River Delta. Later, more drill pads were added to this new development. All of this means more lights, buildings, runways, and activity within constant sight of our house. Support planes fly back and forth daily winter and summer.  In the beginning, we had to ask for respect that these planes stop using our house as a landmark and flying right over the top of us, especially with the huge transport planes that shook the China dishes in my kitchen cabinets.

Ongoing during the oilfield development, has been multiple environmental studies to establish baselines, plus continue monitoring any environmental impact the oil industry has had to the land and wildlife.  Our family has been an integral part of these studies over the years, from providing strategic baseline information to working with study groups and providing logistics support.

In general, we have had favorable impressions of the oil industry's stewardship of the land here on the North Slope. Yes, they have many federal, state, and local environmental guidelines and stipulations in which to comply, but from our experience, they go above board to safely and responsibly operate in this fragile environment.

One of the more recent changes for Jim and me has been my direct involvement in the oilfield since our children are grown and gone. From the early 2000’s, I have worked for various oil or oil support companies throughout the area. My jobs have included managing logistics, expediting supplies, participating in oil spill response activities, and managing remote exploration camps. I usually work what we call a 2&2 schedule, where employees work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 2 weeks straight, and then are off work for 2 weeks. Meals and housing are provided. Most oil industry jobs are shared between two employees who switch back and forth. Most workers live off the North Slope and transportation is provided to and from work (usually from Anchorage). Since I already live on the Slope, my commute is like other locals who work in the oilfield, usually by plane or helicopter from the home village.

All in all, we have maintained our independent lifestyle despite the many changes, but marvel at how different our extended environment has become and how nearby neighbors have ballooned over the years.