Is Your Workplace as Rough as the Arctic?

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For most of
Winter 2007, I was in Canada’s Northwest Territory, in a series
of small towns about two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle.
After twelve years of freelance writing, I have either traveled
for work or traveled while between jobs, and I’ve been a few
places around the world – Argentina, New Zealand, Australia,
Thailand, most of Europe. But the Arctic is nothing like the world
that I’ve seen. It’s more like pictures of the moon.

In the daytime,
the ground is a flat plane of pale white, the sky often a flat plane
of slightly less-pale white. Above a certain latitude (about 69°
North) there is no vegetation and hardly any topography. The horizon
where earth and sky meet is sometimes invisible. If the wind picks
up and lifts the dry snow into the air, you cannot tell where one
stops and the other begins. At night, you could stare at the layers
of stars, Milky Way, and brilliant green Northern Lights forever
if the cold of the 19-hour February night wasn’t trying to
kill you.

I was there
to work on a media production that shot on and between the natural
gas fields of the Mackenzie Delta. The field crew at the sites told
us to wear a hard hat at all times. They told us to only go to the
bars in groups. They told us not to go to anyone’s house, “especially
if they’re native.” The acrimony between what they call
“the oilpatch” and the locals has left blood in the snow
of weekend mornings for decades. Even in a just world, if you take
away the sunlight for a month, there will be fighting.

They told us
to stay in our vehicles. If something happens, and you leave your
vehicle, you will not be rescued in time. You do not leave the road;
to leave the road is to die. You are given an orange safety vest,
so they can find your body, in case you don’t listen.

The road is
usually a frozen river. To break through the ice and fall into the
river is yet another way to die. Sometimes the road is the frozen-over
Arctic Ocean. When you break through that ice, you sink. They say
it’s the air bubbles in your decomposing body that cause it
to float, and in the sub-freezing water of the Arctic Ocean, human
bodies don’t decompose. If you fall into the Arctic Ocean,
your corpse may be well-preserved, but no one will risk a life,
or expend the cost, to retrieve it.

Suppose you
do fall in. By the time you reach the surface, the hole you fell
into may have frozen over already. If you can punch through ice
with lungs full of 35° water, maybe you deserve to live, but
then you’re soaking wet in subzero temperatures, and you will
spend your last few conscious minutes too delirious with hypothermia
to be thankful that your next of kin will have something to bury.

Once, I asked
a guy who’d worked up there for twenty-five years if he’d
known of anyone who’d fallen through the ice and lived. He
could think of only two. One of them, a rookie driver, got out of
his truck just in time before it broke through. He stood on a snowbank
watching his truck sink as he waited for someone to come along,
and he wasn’t far from town, so someone did. There are checkpoints
along the frozen river and when you pass them, you’re supposed
to call a dispatch office, so they know to get help if you don’t
reach the next checkpoint at the predicted time. The rookie driver
went back South, back home, the next day, and his truck was pulled
out. A year later, that truck hit the frozen river again, driven
by another rookie. Local drivers call that truck “The Submarine.”

The story of
the other fallen survivor is more grim. A driver’s semi truck
broke through the ice of the Artic Ocean, and he couldn’t get
out in time. His truck plummeted past the snowballs of salt that
form just below the surface of frozen ocean water, and he was able
to draw just enough breath from the air pocket in his truck’s
cab before diving out into the viscous, freezing water. The ice
was already forming over the hole he’d just broken through,
and he would have died if a fuel tank hadn’t broken off from
his truck. He rode the fuel tank all the way to the surface, where
it broke through the thin ice, and he flung his hand up over the

The driver
behind him in the convoy had stopped well short of the hole in the
ice and had already given up his buddy for dead before he saw that
gloved hand rise up with the fuel tank. Negotiating the thin ice
around the hole, the other driver pulled the fallen man out. A helicopter
– an unusual sight, but not unheard of – just happened
to be passing over. The pilot saw the incident, and landed nearby,
soon flying the fallen driver to the nearest hospital within two
hours. The driver was treated for hypothermia and frostbite, and
released that night.

The rescued
driver immediately went to the bar, where he wasted no time telling
his story. A number of his listeners didn’t believe him and
even took umbrage with the tale, at which point, the rescued driver
became aggrieved, and a fight broke out. Less than twelve hours
after he was submerged beneath the ice of the Arctic Ocean –
a situation that no one in recent history had ever survived –
the rescued driver was nearly beaten to death in a dingy bar. He
was taken back to the same hospital he had just left, and this time,
he was there for two months.

You don’t
need to break through the Arctic Ocean or get in a bar fight to
die north of the Arctic Circle. Being outside will kill you just
fine. In February, the temperature is often –40° F in the
middle of the afternoon. Most people will never know cold like this.
I grew up in Minnesota, and once or twice it would get that cold,
usually at night, but Minnesota is humid. Minnesota has lights and
trees and telephones that always work. The Arctic is the world’s
second-largest desert. The snowflakes are large and dry like the
little paper circles from a three-hole punch. You can’t even
eat them to stay alive. They will dehydrate you. They will kill
you faster than drinking no water at all.

Often, while
on assignment in the arctic, I used to walk from the building where
I worked to the post office. The three-block walk took me past what
I was told was the northernmost traffic light in the world. Who
is to say? In that climate, on foot, a Don’t Walk sign is a
mild death threat. Even if you’re wearing moisture-wicking
base-layers and down pants and Dakota boots graded to –80°,
the moisture on your eyeballs will still freeze. Under a balaclava
and behind a tight pair of wraparound polarized lenses, you will
blink the ice from your eyes as you walk. When you step indoors,
the meltwater from your irises will moisten your cheeks, and you
will remember to wipe them dry before you go outside again.

You might wonder
how people live there, but they have for thousands of years. There
are two indigenous populations in the Mackenzie Delta, the Inuvialuit
and the Gwich’in. The desk clerk at the Gwich’in-owned
hotel told me that the two groups are old enemies from way back.
In the bars, after a few drinks, each group unites in their prejudice
against any kind of outsider, but even in the daytime, I heard racial
slurs directed against me. You can brush it off at first, remind
yourself that it’s not personal, but it wears on you after
a while. The Inuvialuit and Gwich’in men and women that owned
and worked at the trucking companies that serviced the drilling
sites were uniformly friendly and generous, but in my two-plus months
in their world, I heard far more overt public racism than I hear
in Los Angeles over a span of years.

the rest of the article

13, 2010

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