Peacefulness and quiet beauty are united as one and transcend all other impressions. Time stands still out there on the pack ice, every-thing is real and all that is not concerned with life and death is irrelevant.

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An excerpt from the book:

I was fortunate enough to spend five months on Fletcher’s Ice Island (T-3) in the Arctic Ocean as part of Lamont-Doherty’s geophysical program. Duties included maintenance of geo-physical equipment, celestial navigation and daily weather reports.

20th May 1972

T-3

Arose at 6:45am and went to breakfast where I dined on fried eggs, egg-bread, bacon, fried potatoes, orange juice and milk. The plane to T-3 was not scheduled to leave until 5pm so I spent the day reading Jules Verne. There are two hotels in the village which only open for the Summer with its small commitment of tourists. One of these is called ‘The Top of the World’.

Our plane, a Lockheed Hercules, departed about 6:45pm with six passengers, countless fuel drums and propane cylinders. There were no seats initially so we just had to hang on as best we could during take-off; the cook and a metal ladder lost their equilibrium during this event, but no harm was done. After the plane had successfully made altitude we picked up the aluminium seats, placed them in convenient positions and rode out the rest of the flight in moderate comfort. The four-hour flight across the frozen ice to north of eastern Canada was uneventful but bloody cold! Even with my expedition parka on I was still shivering. No toilet facilities were available so one of the passengers peed on the floor. The rest of us just held on. A thick cloud cover obscured any view we might have had of the pack ice so we had no preview of our forthcoming exile. Touch-down was relatively smooth. Outside, the senses were blasted with deafening noise and fumes from the engine exhausts. The camp could be seen a few hundred yards away through a veil of wind-driven snow. All in all, a picture of complete desolation and lunacy! Shouldering my pack and clutching my other belongings I set off for the camp. Eventually I reached the mess hut, stumbled inside and dropped my gear.

The interior of the hut was somewhat ramshackle but warm and very inviting after my ‘trans-arctic’ trek. Seated around several large tables were a few of the inmates, drinking coffee and discussing the arrival. One of my co-workers, Isaac, was there, laughing at the new arrivals and in the process of getting himself ‘well under the table’. He showed me our living quarters (Lamont’s) and I nearly died from the stench and overall filth.

Our trailer was separated into a sleeping section and a lounge area. The only ventilation was the front door and all the windows had been blacked out to keep out the sunlight in the Summer months. There were two bunks against the back wall of the sleeping area, and another bed against one of the side walls. The beds were obviously never made and the sheets looked like the original unwashed articles (one guy had been sleeping in dirty sheets for over three months). Opposite one of the beds was a very dilapidated bookcase, covered with dust, old cigarettes, etc. The linoleum was peeling off the floor and loose tiles lay all over the place. The smell was probably the result of accumulated odours from hundreds of dirty socks, shirts, bodies etc. The lounge area was little better; the divan had been thoroughly chewed by Gunky (the resident husky dog) and its contents lay spilled all over the floor; old clothes, part of a weight-lifting set, more cigarettes and a host of other junk also lay scattered around. Isaac directed me to the closets where we stored our gear and told me to find one that was relatively empty. The first door I opened precipitated an avalanche of old boots, gloves, parkas and assorted clothes. In another I found part of a life raft, paddles, emergency rations and such-like. Eventually, by dint of considerable rearranging, I was able to store my gear away and retire for the night.

Jason, a co-worker from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) was scheduled to leave T-3 on the next plane so in the intervening ten days he instructed me in my duties. The Lamont crew usually work alternate 12-hour shifts and as Jason was doing the day shift, I worked the same, at least until Jason left. However, as the computer to the satellite navigator and the magnetometer were both down, much of that 12 hours was spent drinking coffee in the mess hut or at some other leisure activity. The three principal duties for the Summer were: a) celestial navigation which utilised the sun and a theodolite as well as the requirement for accuracy; b) recording weather data every three hours, and c) taking gravity observations from the gravity meter every three hours. In addition to these we had to change chart paper on all instruments requiring it (thermograph, barograph, precision depth profiler, anemometer and satellite printer), and keep the instruments operative, which meant repairing them if they broke down (luckily Isaac was fairly good at this). There were also numerous other small jobs which had to be done in the course of the Summer, like repairing the theodolite shack and insulating it – a little bit of carpentry which I was most proud of!

Isolation

The camp consists of about 27 wooden and metal trailers, most of which are grouped fairly close together. The outlying huts are the five wooden hydro-huts, which house a metal A-frame and winch for obtaining samples from the ocean or ocean bottom through a hole in the ice directly beneath the centre of the A-frame. The huts include the Palace, which is the Lamont ‘laboratory’, the Colby Bay Country Club, which houses the University of Washington laboratory, and the shack out by the runway bearing the sign: ‘T-3 International Airport’. The central area of the camp includes the mess hut, the seven sleeping trailers, the generator shacks, weasel shack (a weasel is a sort of car on tracks), the various ‘shitters’ – both one and two-holers, several storage shacks, and lastly, the old weather hut which has a large fibreglass dome on top.

The camp is maintained by the Naval Arctic Research lab-oratory at Barrow which provides a station leader, several Inuit workers to do the mechanical and maintenance jobs, a cook, and on this occasion an assistant to help the cook – washing dishes etc (the cook’s son in this case). The rest of the personnel are scientists representing a small group of universities from mainland US. Of these, Lamont and the Universities of Alaska, Idaho and Washington have permanent quarters here. Personnel from these institutions stay anywhere from ten days to over a year on the island, though the normal period is from three to five months. During Winter, which extends from 1st September through to 1st May, planes land every ten days; in Summer, planes are unable to land on the soft snow and small lakes which characterise the runway at this time, and consequently supplies and incoming mail are dropped by parachute. Paradrops usually come every two weeks though bad weather and ‘other commitments’ often delay them. Thus personnel who stay for the Summer have to remain for at least four months. Only in Winter can a person make a very short stay.

Wrecked USAF C-47 plane

During the ten days before the final plane departed I familiarised myself with the camp and the surrounding landscape. The depth of snow cover was about 3′ (1m), though deep drifts were piled up everywhere. The snow was quite firm to walk on, except that which had freshly fallen. The camp is situated near one edge of the island so it is an easy matter to walk out onto the pack ice. Away from camp the atmosphere is entirely different; the stink of diesel fuel is gone and the noise from the generator is greatly reduced. Peacefulness and quiet beauty are united as one and transcend all other impressions. Time stands still out there on the pack ice, everything is real and all that is not concerned with life and death is irrelevant. You won’t find any frilly poodles out there. The pack ice is about 10′ (3m) thick as compared with about 100′ (31m) for the island. Along much of the contact between pack ice and island, pressure ridges develop. Around T-3 they are typically small and can be climbed or crossed easily. The highest point around T-3 is a 25 foot ice pinnacle (8m) about a mile from the camp which we named ‘The Pinnacle’. A few days after arriving at the base one of the temporary residents suggested we go out and climb it. So my co-worker, Stew, and I collected an ice-axe each and walked out there, crossing some old pressure ridges on the way. The snow was already starting to get soft and it was a good half an hour before we reached our objective. One side of this block was almost sheer so we decided to leave that face until we knew what we were doing with our ice-axes. Around the other side the going was easier though we still had to cut steps in the ice. From the top we had a spectacular view of the surrounding pressure ridge. Behind the pressure ridge the pack ice displayed a jumbled array of small ice mounds and peaks, something like a chessboard in mid-game receiving a mantle of snow, and then freezing. We descended the way we had come and then headed back to camp.

Mark Barsdell in the field
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