Photography by Bruce Rettig
IN MY BOOK, REFRACTION: AN ARCTIC MEMOIR, I recount a comment by a union personnel director in Seattle the day before I traveled to the North Slope of Alaska: “Prudhoe Bay might not be the end of the world, but you sure as hell can see it from there.” On Saturday, February 11th, CNN reported that an unidentified object was shot down over Prudhoe Bay, and Colonel Cedric Leighton described the area during an interview: “. . . we have to keep in mind that, you know, it’s a very remote location. I’ve been up there in that area once in my Air Force career, and it is bleak. It is literally the end of the world.”
I know this area well, having worked four summers working for Arctic Marine Freighters (AMF) as a merchant marine in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska—I guess one can say that I’ve been to the end of the world and back. Alaska’s North Slope is defined as the area north of the range with two Arctic Ocean seas: the Chukchi Sea to the west of Point Barrow, and the Beaufort Sea to the east. The Beaufort Sea includes Prudhoe Bay, located over three hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Deadhorse, the gateway to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, is basically an airstrip and work camp. It’s mostly Quonset huts and other prefabs—a haphazard cluster of structures built of aluminum, steel, and rubber. Instead of streets, angular gravel roads wind between structures resting on gravel pads. Most all the businesses are engaged in oil field or pipeline support such as drilling, construction, and maintenance. In the summer, the midnight sun doesn’t set for almost 64 days, with constant daylight from May 20 to July 22, while in winter the area gets 55 days of darkness, from November 24 to January 18.
AP News (Alaska, Feb. 11, 2023)
The object flew over one of the most desolate places on the nation. Few towns dot Alaska’s North Slope, with the two apparently closest communities—Deadhorse and Kaktovik—combining for about 300 people. The Prudhoe Bay oil field on the North Slope is the largest such field in the United States.
Deadhorse, Alaska, “National Forest.”
When our fleet of tugboats and barges ripped free of their moorings during an arctic blast and drifted over one hundred miles east, toward Canada, I spent the following summer at Barter Island, where the village of Kaktovik is located. At the time, there was a U.S. Air Force tracking station at Barter Island that was a part of the DEW Line (Distant Early Warning line). It’s not surprising that the first of four (and counting?) unidentified objects was shot down over Prudhoe Bay. Home to the largest oilfield in the United States, its proximity to Russia, and wind currents that stretch across Canada and the U.S., it’s only natural that this area could serve as a gateway for high altitude spy equipment floating across North America.
When I worked on the North Slope, there was a U.S. Air Force tracking station at Barter Island (near the village of Kaktovik) that was a part of the DEW Line (Distant Early Warning line). The U.S. Air Force had controlled Barter Island since 1951, and they extended the runway in 1953 to support the DEW Line Radar station. The Barter Island station controlled a section of the line named the BAR sector, and it included a series of surveillance radar stations along the North Slope and stations in the Canadian Yukon and Northwest Territories. This system resided entirely within the Arctic Circle and crossed mostly unexplored land.
The U.S. Air Force loaned us transportation at Barter Island, near the Iñupiat village of Kaktovik
There were nine manned DEW Line stations, four of them classified as “auxiliary” sites and five “intermediate” stations. The auxiliary stations were like the primary site at Barter Island, and the intermediate sites had fewer personnel. The stations included high-powered search radars that fed antennas with a range of about 160 miles. Most of the outposts had a twenty-five-man module building for personnel and an airstrip—although the length and quality of the airstrips varied, making frequent landings a bit of an adventure. The one our airplane landed at was in fair shape, although rough weather often made for interesting landings (as I found out by experience). Civilian contract workers who signed eighteen-month contracts were on staff at each of the sites, but Air Force military personnel also visited frequently.
The DEW Line is now a distant memory of the Cold War. Many of the 60-plus radar sites, built on the northern tundra in the 1950s, have gone the way of so many other Cold War relics around the world, abandoned and dismantled. Some of the facilities were folded into the North Warning System (The North Warning System is a joint United States and Canadian early-warning radar system for the atmospheric air defense of North America), others were dismantled.
U.S. Air Force tracking station at Barter Island in 1983. Most of these stations have been decommissioned.
Old Iñupiat hunting camp near the village of Kaktovik. The Arctic Marine Freighters (AMF) fleet can be seen in the background—my home for most of the summer of ’83.
As much nothingness as there was in the Arctic, there were many things we didn’t see. I had heard of submarines cruising below the ice cap—both U.S. and Russian. For skies that appeared so void of anything, they had their share of aircraft roaming high above us. There were many contrasting features on the north slope—from tiny Iñupiat whaling villages on remote gravel islands only five miles long, to F-16s playing cat and mouse with Russian MiGs over 50,000 feet overhead and traveling at over one-thousand miles per hour.
— from Refraction: An Arctic Memoir
When I worked at Barter Island, the “Barter Island Social Club” was part of the Air Force tracking camp. Basically, it was a bar in the middle of the Arctic, and the only customers were civilians who worked at the installation along with visiting Air Force staff. I only had the opportunity to visit it once, but I remember seeing a photo of a Russian fighter plane hanging on one of the walls. When I asked the bartender about it, he said that it was taken by a U.S. fighter pilot when they were playing “cat and mouse” with a Russian fighter plane, near or within our air space. He said, “They test our pilots to see how close or deep they can get into our area before being chased away. It’s all a game—happens a lot.”
Seems as though the games continue at the “End of the World.”
To read more about Prudhoe Bay, Deadhorse, Barter Island, and Kaktovik, check out my book, Refraction: An Arctic Memoir, at: https://bit.ly/3tdZR0R
A U.S. Navy hovercraft assisted by the tugboat, Yuba, in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.
Saturday morning news, February 11, 2023.
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