Everybody Has a Story: It was not a lock that remote Alaska trip would end well

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It was August 1978, and I was working in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve (in the Navy Reserve, better known to many of us as NPR-4). I was working for an engineering firm out of Anchorage, and my responsibilities were to locate suitable mining sites for gravel extraction near next winter’s proposed test-well sites.

We were working from a temporary camp near the north side of the Brooks Range. Our primary means of transportation was a helicopter and occasionally a single-engine plane. NPR-4 is so large and remote, there were only three coastal Eskimo villages, with Barrow the largest, in an area the size of Indiana. This is Alaska’s western section of the north slope, where caribou and maybe grizzly bear outnumber people.

Our pilot, myself and two laborers were asked to check out an area about half an hour’s flight time away. It was late afternoon, and we planned to return in time for dinner.

The north slope is treeless, with low rolling hills from the Brooks Range to the Colville River. Beyond that, for the next 100-plus miles, it’s an open plain of tundra, small lakes and ponds, all the way to the Arctic coast. From the air, everything looks the same. There are very few prominent landmarks.

We were looking for a site just beyond the Colville. After checking our unreliable map and using a back-and-forth pattern, we found the site, which was marked by a small air compressor and drill.

Our helicopter was a French Alouette II, which looked like the helicopters in the TV series “M.A.S.H.” It had a plastic bubble covering the controls and an open frame in the back. It could carry three plus the pilot.

Our pilot set down just long enough to have us jump out. He said he would be back in about 20 minutes, after checking on something or other, perhaps one of our fuel caches.

It took a short time to determine that the high ground was a good site for further exploration. The two helpers did not even bother to dig, since prairie dog holes were abundant. The prairie dogs would pop up occasionally as if to say, “Who are you?”

After 30-something minutes, I became concerned that our helicopter had not returned. The thought of being left out there wasn’t very pleasing. It would be in the 40-degree range at night, with no shelter. I had to hope the pilot didn’t have engine trouble, and I was also aware of the somewhat remote possibility of bear.

Fortunately, those thoughts were no longer relevant when I heard our helicopter approaching. But shortly after getting airborne again, I looked out and saw jet fuel spraying from a high-pressure fuel hose. The spray was hitting the exposed engine-exhaust cone. I informed our pilot, who immediately looked for a place to set down. We were in luck; at that moment, we crossed a bluff overlooking the Colville River basin and found a gravel bar on the other side. We set down, cut the engine and piled out.

Four of us in the helicopter for the night, out of radio contact, was not very desirable. I asked the pilot if he could fly the chopper above the bluffs in order to make radio contact with our camp. He thought that was good idea and suggested that I volunteer. In other words, forget it.

But we were in luck once again. On this same gravel bar sat a cat train, parked for the summer. A cat train is four or five trailers on skids, hooked together like a train that can be pulled by a dozer. We had been unaware that it was there. In all of NPR-4, there may not have been more than four cat trains parked for the summer, and we happened to land near one.

It would be a great shelter for the night, but there was one problem: Each unit was padlocked with a combination lock, and we did not know the combination. Each of us found a lock, and for the better part of an hour worked to figure out the combination. Finally, someone solved it — the combination was the same as the year, 1978, and we were able to open all of the trailers.

By this time, it had grown dark, but we found a flashlight, two cans of tuna and crackers in the kitchen unit. Blankets and pillows were in the sleeping cars. I found a bunk for myself and was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

I awoke the next morning to sunshine and the sound of a helicopter search party landing. We were back at our camp in time for breakfast.

My contract read that I would be paid for the time that I left camp until the time I returned. So, the outcome was much better than it may have been.


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