Icebergs near Portage Glacier. Photo by Di Keller Õ81
by Sally Rothwell '84
Ah, Alaska. The Last Frontier. Land of the Midnight Sun. A place with majestic mountains and glaciers, moose in our yard, salmon so thick you can reach down and grab one, eagles flying overhead, whales, grizzly bears and mountain sheep on the edge of town.
Visitors to Alaska experience the wildlife and natural beauty, but there is much more. By living here I have come to know other special qualities of our 49th state, such as the cultural and political curiosities of a land where oil revenue flows so freely that the state gives each resident a yearly dividend check, yet many natives still live without running water.
After receiving a degree in geology from Colgate in 1984, I moved to Texas to work on a masters at the University of Texas at Austin. My thesis, a study of how deformed rocks reveal the secrets of tectonic plate movement, took me to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America for two field seasons.
In the fall of 1987 I moved to Houston to work for British Petroleum as an exploration geologist. After two years at BP I decided the corporate world of "Big Oil" was not for me and so, in 1990, I began a career in environmental consulting. Some good came of my stint at BP, however, because it was there I met my husband Greg. We were married in 1992.
Life in Houston is great if you love air conditioning and table-top topography. However, since both of us hailed from cooler and more mountainous regions, an escape from the flat, humid coastal plain was always on our minds. Our ticket out arrived in September 1993 when Greg was offered a transfer to BP's Anchorage office. We drove from Houston to Anchorage in 11 days, needing every minute of the time for the 4700-mile trip. We settled into a house in Anchorage just as the first major snowstorm of the season arrived.
Bald eagles at Homer, Alaska
Work and weather
Greg started his new job as a development geologist with BP-Alaska the day after our arrival. We already knew many of the people at BP so we had friends to help ease the transition into our new life. I began searching for a new job in environmental consulting. Because of the long winters and short summer field seasons, most environmental consulting companies hire in the spring, then let people go in the fall. I decided to take it easy for the winter and get to know Anchorage and Alaska, and get my skiing legs in shape after eight years in Texas.
My time off worked wonders for my stress level, but after four months I was restless and in need of something productive. So when a friend at BP offered me a job as a rigsite geologist on oil rigs drilling on the North Slope I accepted eagerly. "The Slope," as the locals call it, is the site of the gigantic Prudhoe Bay oil field.
After training in polar bear awareness, tundra ecology and survival in extreme cold, I plunged in. My job was to study the drill cuttings or rock chips that come to the surface during drilling operations in order to interpret which geological formation they were derived from, and to direct the drilling crew, or "geo-steer," in horizontal wall drilling operations when they were near the oil reservoir.
The job was interesting but conditions were harsh and the hours were long. Temperatures were often 40 or 50 degrees below zero with screaming winds that brought the wind chill to minus 70 or 80 degrees. The wind would kick up snow and cause whiteouts or "Phase 3 conditions" in which all non-emergency travel was suspended.
The harsh weather, the fact that the drilling rigs operate 24 hours a day, and geologists had to work continuously when the drill bit neared the oil-bearing horizon, made for exhausting work. It was not uncommon to stay awake for 48 hours at a time while being expected to stare down a microscope and make intelligent decisions about what was going on two to three miles under my feet.
After a month of debating whether rigsite work was to be my calling, I received a job offer from one of the environmental consulting firms I had contacted the previous fall. The offer was for less money but I didn't have to worry about frostbite or polar bear attacks, and the hours were more normal. By March 1 I was a project manager for Woodward-Clyde.
Much of the environmental consulting work in Alaska involves cleaning up leaked or spilled fuel from the large tanks at native villages. The tanks hold a year's supply of diesel fuel which the villages use for running machinery and for heat. Another part of our work is for the Department of Defense. During World War II and the Cold War years there were hundreds of radar stations, air strips and other military operations set up all over the state due to Alaska's strategic location near Japan and the former Soviet Union. All military sites had at least a few fuel tanks, and some had transformers that held PCBs, a substance we now know is extremely toxic. Our work involves investigation and cleanup of these military sites.
The uneven permafrost surface and the highly variable soil and rock types found throughout the state make the remediation of fuel spills in the Arctic regions a challenging task. Several methods we employ to remove the spilled fuels include excavating and washing gravels, introducing hydrocarbon-eating bacteria to metabolize the fuels or, in some cases, drilling wells and simply pumping the fuel out. The problem of environmental cleanup in high Arctic regions has only recently been addressed. Our remediation methods are being improved as new technology becomes available.
Working in Alaska has other unique challenges. Our field work generally involves remote military sites or native villages that are accessible only by small plane. Many of the villages do not have running water or sewers. Bathroom facilities may consist of "honey buckets," which are nothing more than five-gallon pails that are emptied in an open dump on the edge of town. Lodging, if available, can often consist of a trailer left over from some construction project. If it happens to be the time of year for a caribou herd or salmon run, projects or meetings have to wait. More than once our company arrived at a coastal village to find that everyone we were scheduled to meet was out walrus hunting.
I quickly learned that Mother Nature determines itineraries here, and "white man's" artificial schedules are secondary at best.
Crescent Lake near Anchorage. Photo by Di Keller Õ81
Playing year round|
The best part of living here is the great outdoors, especially in summer when Alaska becomes the Land of the Midnight Sun. The day length reaches 18 hours in Anchorage and up to 24 hours north of the Arctic Circle. With the Chugach mountains just two miles from our house, we can enjoy an evening hike to one of the many summits in sunlight until 11:30 p.m.
Alaska is a fisherman's dream, and fishing is a big part of the Alaska culture. The first salmon run marks the true beginning of summer for hardcore fishermen (and women) -- about two thirds of the population. In Anchorage, city folk work their office jobs until quitting time, jump in their trucks and drive to their favorite fishing holes (some right in town).
Greg fishes as much as possible but complains that it's never enough. Sometimes we take a float plane to explore a new backpacking or fishing spot recommended by friends. Or we take our inflatable boat and fish rivers or coastal areas. Besides fishing, summer weekends are spent hiking, sea kayaking and white water rafting.
Winter has its own special treats. After the long active days of summer, with visiting relatives and friends, the onset of winter provides a welcome respite. Anchorage has a world-renowned system of cross-country ski trails within the city. During the week we take our skiing gear to work, then relieve the day's stresses by skiing a 10K loop on the lighted ski trails. These same trails are popular running and mountain biking trails in summer. There are also two downhill ski hills in Anchorage, and a ski resort within a half hour's drive of the city. The locals also pass the short winter days by snowmachining, snowshoeing, playing ice hockey, sled dog mushing, skijoring (convincing your dog to pull you on skis) and ice fishing. And of course there is the Iditarod.
Sally and Greg fishing for salmon in the Kenai River
Culture and politics|
Alaskans are heavily dependent on nature's bounty -- fishing, mining, logging, and oil production. The state's budget is funded up to 80 percent by oil revenues from the North Slope. As oil production and revenues decline, the state is faced with the problem of cutting programs and services that many Alaskans have become used to or even dependent on.
The best-known state program is the Permanent Fund dividend which has doled out up to $1000 per resident over the last 15 years. The $15 billion dollar savings account that finances the Permanent Fund is a popular target for politicians attempting to solve the budget deficit. However, to reduce or eliminate the Permanent Fund would be political suicide. The problem of how to balance the state budget in the face of declining revenues will remain far into the foreseeable future.
The greatest potential for reducing oil revenue declines lies in allowing oil companies to explore the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for additional oil resources. This is a nationally recognized issue, but most "Outsiders" would be surprised to learn that a majority of Alaskans favor drilling in the ANWR. The Native Federation has voted for opening the refuge to drilling with the hope that the resulting jobs and economic benefits would outweigh the potential for environmental disturbance of a small strip of the Arctic coastal plain.
Another sensitive issue is that of subsistence hunting and fishing rights. Many Alaskans have lived off the land all of their lives, before land regulation by the federal and state governments. Many subsistence families are exempt from the regulations, but sport hunters and fishermen -- most of the state's voting population -- are demanding an ever-increasing share of available game. The federal government has stepped in to protect the rights of the subsistence minority, but with projected decreases in federal funds the continuation of the subsistence lifestyle is uncertain.
The Alaskan wildlife that is so enduring can also be deadly. Last July two well-known Anchorage runners were killed by a grizzly bear just outside of town. And last winter two people were stomped to death by moose in the heart of the city. Fortunately for the wildlife, Anchorage cannot grow much more. We are surrounded on two sides by ocean, on one side by mountains and the 500,000-acre Chugach State Park, and the remaining side by military bases.
In winter the moose come down from the mountains to seek shallower snow and food, and many are killed by cars. Often we awake to find one or more moose in our front yard, nibbling on birch branches. Last winter we had a record snowfall which brought a record number of moose into town. Some people started pushing for a moose hunt within city limits to thin the population. Moose were beginning to threaten dogs and school children waiting at bus stops. But others think of the Anchorage moose as our mascots, or as pets, and the thought of shooting them is outrageous.
Living in Alaska is a special experience but it's not for everyone. We are thousands of miles from family and friends. Upscale shopping is virtually nonexistent -- much is done through catalogs. There are only a few good restaurants. Anchorage has an impressive performing arts center but we don't get mainstream artists because of travel costs and the assumption that there are not enough people here to support programs.
With 260,000 people, half the state's population, Anchorage is isolated from the rest of the nation, so people bond together and it feels like a small town. For those who love the outdoors, who appreciate the positive aspects of a small town-like atmosphere, and who like spectacular scenery and wildlife, there is nowhere like Alaska. We hope it will stay this way forever.