3 Days of Minus 20

Los Angeles Times
May 16, 2007
By Alex Tizon

BEAUFORT SEA – For three days in March I camped on a drifting slab of ice, 200 miles north of Alaska, as close as I’d ever get to the top of the world and to knowing what it would be like to live on an ice cube. The cold crept through my boots and socks, into my toes and up my legs. It numbed my fingers and face and froze the moisture in my eyes. It swept into my lungs.

My shelter was a plywood shack, which I shared with five men whom I seldom saw. Beneath us, under the ice, the ocean plunged 12,000 feet deep. One of my shackmates, as a way of warning, described what happened to a snowmobile that had broken through the ice. It sank, like a toy whirling through space, all the way to the sea bottom, where it presumably will rest in frigid darkness for eternity. The message: Watch your step.

“You slip under, you’re gone,” said Lt. Cmdr. Gerard DeMers, the safety officer at the camp, which was built and run by the U.S. Navy.

To get there, I flew to Anchorage and took a puddle-jumper over the Brooks Range to Deadhorse on the outer edge of Alaska’s North Slope. I met up with Times photographer Myung Chun, and we joined a couple of Navy officers on a Cessna to the Beaufort Sea. Leaving Deadhorse was like jumping off a cliff. We left behind every electronic tether — cellphone, Internet, television.

“No HBO,” one of the Navy guys said, smirking.

Yet the severing was very undramatic from the air. I could barely discern where Alaska ended and the Arctic Ocean began. Both land and sea were covered with ice. The Arctic is one of the planet’s least traveled regions, and my first glimpses at 3,500 feet gave a hint why. There’s a lot of nothing here, a place where empty sky meets with endless ice. In moments the horizon seems to disappear altogether.

The Arctic is the smallest and least-understood ocean, about 1 1/2 times the size of the United States, most of it covered by ice year-round. When viewed on a circumpolar map, it looks roughly circular, with its bull’s-eye being the Geographic North Pole — the northern end of Earth’s axis.

The Arctic Region usually refers to the ocean and surrounding land masses — including parts of eight nations — above the Arctic Circle, an imaginary line that marks the latitude (66 degrees, 32 minutes north) above which periods of continuous daylight or darkness last up to six months. Land of the midnight sun in summer and endless night in winter. The online encyclopedia MSN Encarta had my favorite definition of the Arctic: “Large cold area around the North Pole.” It sums up the totality of what most people know about the place. That and the fact that global warming is melting the Arctic’s ice cover.

We’d been in the air 1 1/2 hours when the ice camp appeared in the distance like tiny dots in snow. As we approached, it looked more like toy blocks haphazardly thrown together in the middle of an immense hockey rink. Our Cessna glided onto a runway on the ice, a smooth landing, like any other on solid ground. What hit hard was stepping out. The cold was dry, invasive, a cool burn. I could feel the first breath enter my nasal passage, instantly freezing the hairs and mucus membrane and rushing into my lungs like an announcement: “Welcome to the Arctic!”

The temperature dips to minus 90 in some parts of the Arctic. For most of my time here, it hovered at minus 20, with an occasional wind gust subtracting another 20 to 25. We were 100 yards from camp. As we tramped across the ice, I silently thanked our handlers for forcing us to wear three layers of everything, every garment Arctic-grade. Then I noticed the sound. Every few steps, it seemed, the thump of my boots hitting the ice resonated like a drum.

“How thick is the ice here?” I asked the man leading us to camp.

He nodded, clearly unable to hear me through his ski cap and parka. “It sounds hollow,” I half-shouted. He nodded again.

*

THE man was Barry Campbell, a 22-year veteran of the Navy’s Arctic Submarine Laboratory, a largely civilian detachment based in San Diego, devoted to submarine operations in the Arctic Ocean. A stocky, squinty-eyed man with a grizzled beard, Campbell was the officer in charge at the camp. He promptly led us to the heart and soul of the place: the mess hall, a shack attached to an oversized canvas tent where two cooks prepared and served meals. Once inside, Campbell provided camp logistics.

Population of the camp tonight: 37. The number changed as personnel — scientists, engineers and technicians — came and went on twice-daily flights. Our location: an ice floe about a mile wide, roughly circular, and ranging in thickness from 3 to 8 feet. Picture a giant dinner plate floating on the water. The floe was drifting westward at a rate of a quarter- to a half-mile a day, fast as floes go but not detectable except by measuring instruments.

Then Campbell went over the do’s and don’ts of camp. Don’t venture outside of camp. Don’t travel alone. Don’t go into unauthorized areas unless authorized. Do watch every step. There had been a close call a few days earlier; a worker fell through the ice chest-deep before someone pulled him out. Do eat three meals a day (the body burns up to 5,000 calories daily to stay warm). Do look out the peephole before opening the door to go outside.

“Make sure there’s nothing out there that will eat you,” he said. A bear and cub had been sighted about 100 miles from camp. “Polar bears do eat people.” Other than that, enjoy your stay, Campbell said, adding drolly:

“Every room comes with an ocean view.”

The Navy, every few years, builds a temporary ice camp like this one to run submarine war games. When the games end a month or so later, the Navy removes the equipment and burns the camp. Every camp is built in a different spot. This year the Navy had invited Chun and me, along with Alaska Public Radio Network reporter Annie Feidt, to visit, hoping for friendly publicity. We were largely left to wander around on our own. In the end we saw more than the Navy wanted.

That first afternoon, I explored the camp. The sun, low on the horizon, shone brightly on this odd assemblage of buildings. The camp was about half the size of a football field, its boundaries unmarked, the horizon a faraway uniform line in every direction.

In the middle of camp, someone had stuck a pole in the ice with an arrow pointing to a spot beyond the horizon. Scribbled on the arrow: “North Pole 1016.4 miles.” People scurried between buildings, parkas hiding their faces. White gusts of breath emitted from under hoods. Everyone seemed to move with purpose. It was a working camp. The whole place felt somewhat like an equipment yard you’d find in the back of a factory. Scattered around were machines and boxes of miscellaneous supplies, barrels of fuel, rifle cases leaning up against sheds, tubs of ice cream stacked in crooked columns. Most of the perishables were kept outside, a benefit of having the entire outdoors as your freezer.

There were about a dozen main shacks, each stenciled with the name of a Las Vegas hotel. The mess hall was the Bellagio. The divers, whose main job was to repair and retrieve underwater equipment, stayed at Caesars Palace. The command hut, the off-limits headquarters where the Navy coordinated submarine war games, was the MGM Grand. Behind my shack, the Dunes, was one of two “pee holes,” which looked like oversized flower boxes. Inside each was a growing block of frozen urine. Nearby were two primitive outhouses with plastic fold-down seats. One lieutenant, Erik Reynolds, later described his first trip to the outhouse. It was night, with no lights, and minus 40 degrees.

“I went in a man and came out a frightened little girl,” Reynolds said.

There was a lot of locker room humor. It was predominantly a man’s camp, and the only two women, the cooks, laughed and went along. On the outskirts, about 75 yards past the perimeter, a couple of oceanography students concerned themselves with another hole, one they had made with a tripod that lowered various gadgets into the ice. One gadget melted ice in a circle. Over two days, the “kids,” as the old-timers called them, had melted through 40 feet of ice. It turned out they had burned through an ice keel, a formation that looked like a stalactite below the surface. Keels grow to almost 200 feet deep.

“This is it. The hole,” said Tim McGeehan, gesturing at his creation as if making a formal introduction. It was 2 feet in diameter and emitted a fluorescent, otherworldly blue. It was kind of pretty.

McGeehan and John Bleidorn, both students at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., spent their days prodding, exploring and dropping devices into the hole and studying sonar images on computer screens. They were attempting, among other things, to measure how ice keels affect ocean currents.

As the sun set about 9 p.m., I retired to the Dunes, where I had the place to myself — for a few minutes. The shack was nothing more than a box with six bunk beds, six sleeping bags and an oil-fired heater. Duct tape sealed the gaps in the plywood, but the cold still found ways to seep in, especially close to the floor. The room was either too cold or — when the heater kicked in — too hot. A freezer one minute, a sauna the next. For the rest of the night, my bunkmates wordlessly flitted in and out as they traded shifts in the command hut, the door creaking and the floor squeaking every time somebody moved.

*

THE next morning, a bright orange sun rose between the Sands and Circus Circus. The camp by then was already in high-bustle mode. After breakfast I got my first lesson in the multiple personalities of ice. What prompted it was that hollow sound my footfall made in some areas — thump, thump, thump. It was unsettling. The fear was I would fall through a thin spot and never be seen again.

“Could that happen?” I asked Randy Ray, the man who had cracked through the ice a few days earlier. Ray was field operations coordinator for the submarine lab. He was a big, bearded man, well over 250 pounds, and hulking with his parka wrapped around him. He’d been out scouting locations for a submarine to surface when he hit a soft spot. He was lucky others were near enough to pull him out.

On this morning Ray and a small group traveled two miles from camp and were waiting for the U.S. submarine Alexandria to surface. The 6,900-ton nuclear submarine was engaged in exercises with the Tireless, a 5,200-ton British nuclear sub. Though largely unseen, Alexandria and Tireless were the twin players around which the camp revolved. At that moment, Alexandria was about 200 feet directly below us.

“See — ” Ray began, lightly stamping the surface. “This ice — it’s not homogeneous by any means.”

From the air it looked like a single sheet, but in reality it was many pieces, like rubble, as small as granules and large as islands, all packed together, which is why it’s called “pack ice.” This pack ice shifts and breaks apart, melts and refreezes. It’s pushed by ocean currents and scraped and shaped by wind. Large cracks, called leads, create free-floating floes like the one our camp was on. Sometimes a pan of ice will crash into another one and overlap, creating formations above and below and uneven layers in between. The hollow sound, Ray said, could indeed indicate spaces between ice layers.

I was still pondering that when a voice yelled, “Here she comes!”

Within moments a black tower broke through the ice, like a giant chisel through glass, and rose nearly three stories. It was Alexandria’s sail. The position of the sail indicated where the shorter rudder would surface, but the rudder was off target by about 30 yards.

“Oh no,” someone groaned.

“Get out, get out! Go, go, go!” yelled Ray, as the rudder broke through in the spot where bags and radio equipment had been placed in a mini-encampment. A few bystanders — including me — stood momentarily frozen in awe. Blocks of ice, 3 feet thick, fell away. We quickly moved to safety as the 25-foot rudder eased the equipment and bags aside, like a whale’s gentle nudging.

“I have never seen anything like it,” exclaimed Reynolds, arms raised in the air as if praising God or warding off an attack.

“Oh my, oh my, oh my,” someone else kept muttering. The Navy later explained that submarine surfacing wasn’t a pinpoint science. It could have been worse. But the worst was still to come.

*

THE news came later the same day, just as the nightly camp meeting began in the mess hall. Dinner started at 7, and the meeting — usually a rundown of the day’s events and the next day’s schedule — began promptly at 8. The mood was relaxed and jovial. Officer in charge Campbell was just commenting on the success of the day’s submarine surfacing when lab test director Jeff Gossett, a big gray-bearded man (there were a lot of them in camp), rushed into the mess hall from a side door. His face looked ashen. He told the group there had been an accident on Tireless. There may be casualties. Submerged a few miles from camp, the sub was frantically searching for a spot to surface.

Normally it would take days to plan a surfacing. Pilots scout the terrain for an appropriate span of ice, then a land crew conducts tests and plants sonar devices in the water — in essence prepping the site. Surfacing at night through unknown ice was risky. Doing anything on unknown ice, especially at night, was dangerous. But for the next few hours, camp members broke all sorts of safety rules.

Suddenly there was no talk. Everybody burst silently into motion. The mess hall was turned into an infirmary, the tables and chairs replaced by cots and medical equipment. The pilots began prepping the helicopter. People in the command hut worked frantically to coordinate what would become a rescue mission.

When word came an hour later that Tireless had surfaced about 1 1/2 miles from the runway, Campbell approached divers Kevin Parkhurst and Pat McKeown. “We need you to take the snow machines out,” Campbell told them.Tireless needed help fast, and landing a helicopter in that area, where the ice was thought to be thin, would be too dangerous.

Parkhurst and McKeown, after some moments of questioning silence, suited up, started the snowmobiles and drove off toward the runway, the lights on their snowmobiles marking their path to the stricken sub. It was a long, perilous ride in darkness through tracks of ice they had never traversed before.

“We didn’t know how serious it was until we got there and they told us there were two deceased,” Parkhurst later said.

Apparently an oxygen canister — used to generate breathable air — had exploded in one of the sub’s forward decks, killing two sailors and seriously wounding a third. No one was prepared to say what caused the blast; the investigation is ongoing. The injured sailor was placed on an inflatable raft, which was pulled like a sled back to the ice camp. A helicopter flew him to Deadhorse, and from there National Guard pilots rushed him to a hospital in Anchorage. The journey from submarine to hospital took about eight hours.

The bodies of the two sailors were brought to the ice camp later that night and put in one of the plywood huts in the middle of the village. They would be flown back to Britain the next morning. Back in the mess-hall-turned-infirmary, four hours after he had broken the news, Gossett slumped in a chair and sipped a cup of coffee. Sagging circles weighed down his eyes. “In all the years, nothing like this has ever happened,” he said softly. I could barely hear him. “You can’t prepare for it. Not something like this. You can’t.”

*

THAT night, my last in the Arctic, I sneaked out of the Dunes to one of the blackest nights I had ever seen. It was just after 2 a.m. Much of the camp had bedded down exhausted, except for a few solitary figures who flitted between shacks. The ice seemed to give off a glow, as if a light bulb were on underneath. The sky was deep ebony and the stars shone brightly. Earlier, someone had pointed out that the brightest star wasn’t a star but Venus. I scanned for it again and thought I found it but couldn’t be certain. It was hard to be certain about anything up here.

Normal rules of observation didn’t apply. The Arctic was famous for mirages and inexplicable visions. Optical phenomena, the scientists called them. They gave everything a surreal quality, especially at night. The subzero temperature, the suspension of ice crystals in the air and the peculiar gases in the atmosphere bent light in strange ways.

“The Arctic is not so much a region but a dream,” wrote author Robert McGhee in “The Last Imaginary Place.”

The next morning, Chun and I packed up and headed out to the airstrip. A few others were flying back too. Just beyond the runway, I could see Tireless’ black sail and rudder jutting from the ice. What must it be like inside there right now?

“We don’t want you here,” Campbell said with a weary grin. Just as he met us when we arrived, he saw us off. “Things happen when you’re here.”

The flight back to Deadhorse was much like the one to the ice camp: wordless, with nothing to look at but the ice below. It looked different now. It was still flat but no longer featureless. I could see lines where cracks had formed. There were networks of cracks like arteries. I could see riffles and tiny crests like freeze-frame waves. Even the whiteness had variations, sometimes tinted and diaphanous, other times dense like porcelain. There was a lot going on down there in all that stillness. That was the lesson, if any, of my three days in the Arctic. More a reminder than a lesson: Where you think there’s nothing, there could be everything; when you think you’re on solid ground, the ground could give way. The whole picture could change in an instant.