Not many folks get the chance to go as far North as Spy Island, Alaska.
I have had a few chances to get there myself and on this occasion I was hired to build an Ice Road from Oliktok Point to the facilities at Spy Island. The video clip above I took while standing by due South of the island waiting for the Hovercraft to depart.
The picture on the right was taken at the IceCube Neutrino Detector at the South Pole Station. We used the Bully there for cargo and personel transport during normal operations. But when the alarms sounded it was our Firetruck and Ambulance as well. That is where I first learned to pilot one of these cool machines.
But when it comes to building an Ice Road over the the water you do not start with a PistenBully. Instead you grab yourself one of these Argo’s and load up some gear to first find a path that can be safely navigated in the dark.
Heading out on the Sea Ice is a very precarious undertaking. The team brings various supplies for the task at hand but also we carry substantial emergency gear in case things go wrong, and they do! Extra food and water is essential in theses conditions. Keeping it from freezing can be tough.
After the gear is all securely stowed and the task thoroughly understood we head out in the Argo. It was a lot of fun exploring the Sea Ice looking for our route. The thought that we might break thru the Ice was always in my mind. But I knew the Argo was built for just such a thing.
Actually the only thing I was afraid in the Argo was Polar Bears. It only had a fabric shell. A hungry bear would have enjoyed the taste of my crew. Lucky for us we did not get attention from more than just a few Arctic Fox now and again.
Once the path over the Sea Ice is identified by the “Ice Doctors” it is time to get the PistenBully on the task.
Now the cool thing about being out on the Sea Ice in the Bully is that it is plenty warm inside and I feel much safer from the Polar Bears. The downside of being in the PistenBully at this point is that every time I go out on the Ice I have to weigh every piece of gear I take and find out where I can go and what work I can do without popping thru the Ice. It can be challenging when folks want their stuff hauled and you have to make them be more patient.
It took many passes to clear the proposed path of chunked up ridge lines formed by the movement of the Sea. In between using the blade to bust chunky spots there is a non-stop need to clear the accumulations drifting all over the place.
In the meantime some other crew and gear was arriving on scene for the next stages. The yellow rig on the right is a pumper. It has very large surface area wheels to spread its weight over the Sea Ice.
When it goes out to work they use its crane arm to swing out an auger to drill a large hole in to the ice. They then draw water up thru the Ice from the Sea and flood the road to make a kind of solid uniform surface that can then be used to carry surprising amounts of weight.
Technically we were on different crews, but when things went wrong way out on the Ice we helped each other out.
Speaking of things going wrong. Here is a photo I took after we built a bridge over a hole in the Ice. Why was there a hole in the Ice you say? As it turns out some folks will lie about what they weigh(inculding gear) and not take you seriously when you tell them every pound counts.
So long story short you can see Spy Island in the distance. We were quite far from help had we gone deep. The good news is we were damn lucky that day. The way the Ice broke out under us dropped the vehicle rear down first thankfully. I was able to rapidly use the blade and throttle to drive us up off the comprimised Ice chunk we were floating on.
There certainly was not a lot of time to be off the Ice since the job was so demanding but the Bully needed a lot off attention to keep her in tip top shape.
We certainly were pushing this equipment beyond the limits of what it was meant to do so I was not surpised that I was becoming quite the Bully Mechanic.
Almost immediately after I arrived, the temps at night got so cold we could not turn the machines off anymore. Life became about making sure the Bully was happy. I would check on it at night before I went to bed, and then first thing in the morning.
I took good care of that Bully and she took good care of me. I guess I never thought about a machine fondly before. But you know what, we breached the Sea Ice that day together and we both dropped. It took both of our skillsets to get out. So what he heck, I guess I feel a bit of gratitude to my mechanical pal that pulled thru when it really mattered
Just because you can not see my face do not think I am not grinning ear to ear. Why would somebody in these conditions be so happy you ask? Well it is an easy answer. I had successfully built the Ice Road I was hired to construct and I had never done that before. So I was pretty stoked!!!
This was one of my really fun gigs. Thanks for reading along and I will share more soon.
Written by: Eric J. Hecker