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The Arctic Ocean  09/26-27/06 (Day 154-155)
Never Ever Say Never

At 8 am we begin calling British Petroleum and not because we want to discuss their laughably transparent slogan change from British Petroleum to “Beyond Petroleum” (nice try guys) or the fact that their automated corporate answering system asks callers to choose “British English” or “English.” The cheeky buggers!  

No. We’re calling BP (we choose regular old English, by the way) because even though we are less than five miles from the Arctic Ocean (aka the Beaufort Sea) we’re not allowed to just drive or walk to the water since the land between where we are and where the water starts is controlled by BP and they require that all non-employees get official clearance and pass through a security check point.

Yes, we could have started the process of asking for special permission to gain access to the Arctic Ocean weeks or even months earlier. But we take a gamble on the hunch that it will be harder for BP to simply blow us off if we make our request while physically in Deadhorse, Alaska literally on the doorstep of the Arctic.

Unfortunately, we are up here in Deadhorse at a particularly bad time for BP—the news is full of reports of corroded pipelines and allegations that BP is pocketing profits instead of investing in routine infrastructure maintenance. Great timing.  

In response, the pipeline has been shut down and politicians and environmental regulators are sniffing around Deadhorse and the oil fields looking to point fingers—now here we come asking if someone has a minute to escort a couple of journalists to the Arctic Ocean since we’ve always said that the Trans-Americas Journey would take in everything from “the Arctic to Tierra del Feugo.” Pretty please?

What odds do you give us? Now cut them in half.

Undaunted, we begin our campaign by calling a woman whom a BP employee in Fairbanks told us is a “supervisor” who might have the clout to get us clearance. Turns out, she’s the vice president of something-or-other, as her secretary informs us when she calls us back to explain that it’s a really bad time and all of BP’s security teams are too busy to help us out. She does this in regular English, by the way.

Before she hangs up we get the secretary to give us the name of another person at BP who might be able to help and we immediately call him. No go, but he is decent enough to put us in touch with someone else who, it turns out, also can’t help but he refers us to a colleague—and so on and so forth.

This game of hot potato goes on for a couple of hours until someone puts us touch with a man from the BP publicity department who promises to see what he can do once he realizes that we really are journalists. What will it mean for BP, he asks nervously, if he can’t get us to the Arctic Ocean.  In our sternest voice we tell him that we’ll be “very disappointed” and he reiterates his promise to try before hastily hanging up.

This is our first real ray of hope. Clearly poor beleaguered Mr. PR Man is desperate for a shred of good publicity (or at least no more BP bashing) as his company weathers a nightmarish hailstorm of bad press. But we are still unwilling to put all of our Arctic Ocean eggs in BP’s basket so we begin discreetly asking the alarmingly large number of oil workers milling around the Prudhoe Bay Hotel in their sweats if they know anyone who might be able to sneak us to the Arctic.

Most don’t have a clue, but the few who seem to know the lay of the land up here all point us in the direction of an unassuming-looking helicopter pilot (we’ll call him Gary). After some nosing around we find Gary, introduce ourselves and explain our plight. We  hit it off immediately and Gary says that if the weather clears up (a very big if), he’s willing to let us ride along with a survey crew he is supposed to drop out on the tundra.

Around noon our cell phone rings and, without introducing himself or even saying hello, a voice on the other end tells us to stay where we are and a uniformed security guard will collect us within the hour. Just like that we are going to the Arctic Ocean! Sadly, we can’t take our Silverado with us since we have to be driven by Bill, a paramedic from New York, who seems happy to hang out with us instead of doing whatever other mind-numbing oil-field security task set out for him for the day.

After showing Bill our id, signing a waiver and putting on silly pastel-colored plastic safety glasses we head for the beach and within 10 minutes we are at the Arctic Ocean. Bill grabs his shotgun and stands on the lookout for hungry polar bears (very dramatic) while we prance around on the rocky shore gloating over our unbelievable success like little children. When we stick our fingers into the water we’re surprised to find that it’s much warmer than the air temperature which is a good thing since our shoes have gotten soaking wet. 

Speaking of a wet, there’s a no-booze policy in most of Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay, as proclaimed by big warning signs posted all over the Prudhoe Bay Hotel. This seems like a good idea in a place where people are far from home, often bored, operate massive pieces of dangerous machinery all day long and where it’s freezing and dark all day for months at a time. Alaska’s drinking problem is bad enough as it is.

But after the amazing events of the day we are in the mood to celebrate. Luckily, the booze ban doesn’t apply to small slivers of private property—such as the airport. So we smuggle some beer and wine out of our truck and into the pilot’s quarters near the runway where we watch some of the toughest guys we’ve ever met sing karaoke for hours.

Not everyone at the impromptu party is a pilot, however. Some of the guys work for a company that hauls goods and equipment to outlying villages, oil fields and military installations as soon as the tundra is frozen enough to drive on. They travel in long convoys made up of strings of modified trailers on sleds which are pulled by huge vehicles with cat tracks (like a bulldozer has) instead of wheels and tires. These “cat trains” drive nose to tail from point A to point B day and night with crews eating, sleeping and working (usually either constructing or destruction something) on board.

Honestly, nobody in Alaska is boring.


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