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 Short Story

Memories From the Alaskan Pipeline

By Bernard Howe

It was the summer of 1975, work in the lower 48 was terrible and a gas shortage was causing a lot of jobs to be shut down. I decided to give Alaska a try, for if I stayed home I would surely go broke soon. I spent the next 14 weeks working at a hotel and sending money home to my family before I finally got my first job. On a Saturday morning in November I got my job. No one knew just what the job was except it was on the North Slope for a company call ACI. I spent the next day in 8 hours of classes as the cold weather training was very.

I arrived in Prudhoe Bay at the Dead Horse Alaska airport in the early evening, we taxied up to this small building and they put the stairs to the side of the plain. As we was walking down the steps forklifts were lifting up boxes to the luggage door and the guys inside started unloading our baggage. Inside the building I saw a man with a sign that read ACI. I went up to him and said I had a work referral for the carpenter's and I was to go to GC 1 (gathering center 1). Then we piled into a big stretch van and he took me to a man camp called CCI it was a 2-story orange trailer type portable building.

Early the next morning, I woke up and went to the mess hall to have my first meal at camp. They had everything you could want eggs, omelets, bacon, ham, pancakes, French toast, all made fresh to our order. This was something I got used to, as it tasted really good. For evening meals we had steak 3 times a week, prime rib on Sundays, crab, lobster, frog legs, ham, roast, chicken every week. After breakfast I headed to the bus that was scheduled to go to the job site. All the busses would leave in convoy style and they all got to camp at the same time. Once I finally got to the job site I met my boss who then took me to the carpenter shack and introduced to the others. The general foreman explained the rules for the site and the do's and don'ts. Seems that they were just getting ready to build the gathering center and they just had a skeleton crew so far. It seemed the job superintendent just got back from Anchorage from the main office. He had just picked up the newest plans and was given our schedule as what was to happen. I was partnered with a big man from Idaho. Big Al was his name and he owned the AT connector ranch in Idaho, where he raised Appaloosa horses.

Our first job was to go inside the big buildings that had been set on piling the past summer. We had to start stripping out the shoring and bracing from the packing they did before these huge modular buildings were shipped by barge. These buildings were very cold as there was no heat yet and everything felt frozen. Inside it seemed like there must have hundreds of miles of pipe and grading catwalks everyplace. They also had these huge electrical rooms and there was conduit that ran everyplace. The electricians also came in with us to get the power ready to start so we could warm these buildings up and get them ready to go online. A machine called a creepy crawler to where they were set carried these huge modular buildings. A creepy crawler was the frame of a huge track type crane and in the middle of the body was this huge piston that could lift or lower the buildings on to the pilings. Some of the buildings had 2 and 4 of these creepy crawlers caring them from the Arctic Ocean to the site. Before the put the stairs up to get in we climbed up ladders to open up the units. The reason they were put on high piling was when it snowed up there the wind would blow and blow and the snow would build up and cover the buildings. So by putting them on the piling the snow would drop when it hits the side and blow away under the buildings.

Later that winter we started to work out side making shelters for the pipe fitter's and electricians. We started enclosing the bottoms of the buildings and building huge shelters over the pipe rack. This was where the oil from the oil fields came to the gathering center, and the pipe that would carry they cleaned up oil to pump station 1 down the road.

One pretty sight I saw that first winter was the northern lights, they seemed to dance and wiggle across the entire sky. When we got away from the activity to where it was real quiet we could hear static electricity snapping as the northern lights crossed overhead.

W never shut off the vehicles because they would freeze up and crack the engines if they got shut off. When they needed maintenance they brought the vehicle into a heated workshop. There were men called oiler's who come by every day to fuel up the generators, trucks, and anything else that needed to be kept running. When we had to work out away from the main job they sent a bus with us so we could warm up in them. They always had places for the men to come in and warm up and dry out their clothing, gloves, and so on. Most the places had hot coffee, chocolate or tea, some had soup too so you could get something warm into your body. The bunny boots as they call them were the best investment a person could buy, as nothing else would keep your feet warm in the extreme temperatures. Bunny boots were all white rubber with an air valve on the side to open up if you were in an airplane. They had a huge felt bottom formed between two pieces of rubber so you did not have the cold coming up and freezing your feet.

When I got back from my first R & R, they called me into the office. It seemed they liked what I have done and wanted me to be a foreman for the utiliway crew. Utiliways are underground wooden chases built for the electrical and piping from building to building. We made them out of 12" x 12" timbers 20 feet long. We covered the utility tunnels with 6" x 12" timbers so we could drive a truck over them. The heat piping ones had �" marine mahogany plywood on the bottom, sides, and top to make them waterproof. We sealed them with mastic to make sure no moisture got in. There were actually miles of utiliways we put in.

Besides the Utiliways we had scaffolding to put up every place for the pipe fitters, painters, insulators, and electricians. Then we had to finish the rooms with ceiling tile and hang the doors and hardware in the operation centers. We also had to build shelters for the pipe fitters to weld the pipe up outside in the cold. They had to be built so good that they could heat them up to above freezing and then cool it down to out side temperature over a period of three days. Seemed like the carpenters had the duty of making sure all the other trades stayed warm.

We worked 10 hours a day 7 days a week year round in double shifts with no days off for anything. It did not matter if it was a very HOT 40 degrees or a super cold 127 below we worked and kept everything going. In some of the very big windstorms a few of the shelters started to come apart and the carpenters had to go out and secure it so the pipe and welds would not be damaged. We even had to put a scaffold up in 60-knot winds at 80 some below.

There were a lot of very colorful men who work for me, from every place in the United States even Hawaii. I even had a man named Noel from French Quebec, and Ben from South Africa. The world's greatest sawman came from Finland. Eric could do anything with his tools; I have never seen a man like him before or since.

Big Jim was the man I counted on the most he was a huge man and so strong. He once picked up one end of a 12" x 12" and put it on a scaffold and crawled under it and carried it about 100 yards across the pad he was working on. Jim and I would play pool together in the evenings and sometimes we'd just sit and read. I also had a few Eskimo and Athabaskin Indians work for me. At first they were very quiet and did not talk much. I got the feeling the white man intimidated them. It took a while but they finally warmed up to me, and we became friends. I also found out they were much better craftsmen than everyone had said or believed.

Some of the prettiest scenery I saw was the endless supply of wildlife. Grizzly bears chasing the old, sick, or lame Caribou. Arctic Fox that is pure black in the summer and pure white in the winter. Birds of about every kind you could think of. The Caribou was a magnificent animal, they were so big and the antlers were just huge. Most of the time when they first arrived to the North Slope the velvet was falling off their antlers. Another time I saw a few different types of seals and a couple walrus. I also watched the migration of lemmings to the sea. I also had the privilege of watching 2 little old Eskimos make an igloo, and I even got to go inside to see how it looked. Amazing how fast they did it and how nice it was inside. It only took them a better part of a day.

For entertainment during the summer we played volleyball. We also had a big raft race that my roommate beau and I won the very first year. The race was through drainage tubes under the road and it finally ended just before the Arctic Ocean. The water was pretty cold but as long as it was moving fast it was not that bad, friction seemed to warm it up. Another time I got to swim in the Arctic Ocean, not long mind you, just long enough to jump out as far as I could from the dock and then jump right back up again and strip off my cloths. That was the coldest water I had ever been in

We even had a free concert one summer day by John Denver as he was passing through with Jacque Cousteau and he wanted to see the oil fields and the pipeline. He offered us a concert so they pulled a few flat bed trailers together and then he sang his heart out. We did not have amps just his vocals and his guitar, it was GREAT and he was a super performer with tons of energy.

Shoot we even had a couple of good old boys from Louisiana who made a still; damn they made some good shine. If anyone wanted to gamble there was about anything you could want up there. There were some very good guitar-playing singers up there too and we had our own little concerts every night. Beer was too expensive to ship up there so the drink of the day was a little rum, vodka or whisky

The company I worked for was ACI (Alaska Constructors Inc. Every thing we got up there had the letters BPANSP because we were building the gathering centers for the British Petroleum Company. It stood for British Petroleum Alaskan North Slope Project. The execs that came up there stayed in a special man camp called the BP Hilton. It had an indoor swimming pool, trees, and a putting green. Only the supervision and the oil execs could stay there. That's where the doctor was if you got hurt or sick.

One of the fun things I did one day after work that first summer was a couple of us got a rubber raft and paddled out to a plane that had crashed up there when they first started drilling. The name on it was the Colorado athletic club, and some one who got caught was trying to steal the drill heads and get the diamonds out of them. But it seems the load shifted and the plane crashed into the tundra and got stuck in the middle of a large pond.

In the summer months it does not get dark, as the sun never sets from May 11th till August 2nd. I loved the summer months both of them, as the whole county up here was unbelievable . . . including Caribou, birds, Grizzly bear, fox, and so many other things. One day a few of us were on the dock and we spotted 2 huge whale's surface and play around gray whales I think they were. Another time we saw a few killer whales chasing some seals on the ice floating around as the ice pack was starting to come back in. We even had a couple of wolfs show up for a few days. Once I managed to get a picture of a bald eagle on the docks. The first summer I was there I saw what was left of some barges and a couple tugs that got trapped in the ice flow and crushed like aluminum cans.

During the summer months they moved the big buildings off the barges and put them on the docks and storage areas close by. The first priority was to unload fast so the tugs and barges could get back around through the Bering straight before the ice pack came back in. Once they got the equipment and buildings unloaded they started moving everything to their final resting spot on the slope. Like I said earlier they use what we called creepy crawlers. The top speed for one of them was about 1 to 2 mile and hour.

As the gathering centers were coming to an end, we had to remove everything from inside the buildings and put it outside in storage. The big day was soon to arrive. Last minute checks and little tweaks making sure everything will go off with out a hitch. Even the flare pads are roaring, burning off the excess natural gas. The flare stacks were about 50 feet tall and about 6 feet in diameter, and the gas coming out of them made flames over twice as tall as the stacks. The noise from the flare pads burning off the gas could be heard for miles and seen in all directions. All the tests, and pre runs went off with out a hitch, we were ready for the big day.

The day arrived and the oil began pumping to pump station one just down the road the first stop in the pipeline on its way to Valdez. As the oil was being pumped we could not hear a sound, it moved through the pipes very quiet. The monitoring control room was busy at the gathering center as they could control the flow of oil from here or from some place on the other end of the pipeline in Valdez. A major achievement had been accomplished. It was not long after the oil started that the animals started to arrive up here on the North Slope. After the oil started flowing we geared up on a new site called GCIII as the gathering center I which we just finished was completed, and GCII was almost done just a few months away. Prudhoe Bay was changing shape and starting to become a town now.

My memories from this time are things that I will take to the grave with me. It was an experience I will always cherish, and it was where I grew up as a craftsperson and a person. The friends I made I may not see anymore and a lot have passed away to another world. Their memories will be with me forever and the smiles of them are mine forever.


A longer version of this story with photographs is located at http://members.cox.net/bernie03/.

Bernard Howe
Copyright 2002

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