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arrow Stories and Tales of the Coast & Geodetic Survey
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Arctic Field Party Work by Captain Robert A. Earle, C&GS

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Caterpillar tractors and sleds often bogged down in the deep snow, thus making it essential to stop the train, unhitch other tractors and move them to points from which they could pull a stranded vehicle from a drift. General policy on this trip was to have a scouting party leave the main train about an hour prior to the time we broke camp, then mark the trail for one day's travel, after which they would return to the cat train each night. After about 8 days on the trail, during which all members of the party battled bitter cold and blowing snow, we finally arrived at a point off Tigvariak Island. It might be stated that during this trip the only warm areas were those in the two bunk houses of pipesleds and these were exceptionally crowded, as 12 men had to eat and sleep in an area approximately eight feet wide by thirty feet long. Furthermore, these bunkhouses were very poorly insulated, and with roaring fires furnished by oil stoves, temperatures would range from 100 degrees in the top bunk of our three-bunk tier, whereas clothing and boots placed under the lower bunk would freeze.

Locating our camp on Tigvariak Island was rather a complicated procedure, in that the entire area including the sea which surrounded the island was covered by snow and ice. Luckily, we had some air photographs which, used in conjunction with the rise of the high water line gave us a slight idea of the configuration of the island. By using thaw boilers to send a jet of steam through the snow, we finally determined the lines marking the tundra, and the sandspits and the regular sea areas in the vicinity of our camp. This survey was most essential as a camp built on the tundra in the ___ (warm?) periods would bog down; similarly, we could not have a camp in water areas. After laying out our camp on a large sandstrip, we proceeded to unload supplies and erect quonset huts which were to be bunkhouses and mess houses and our office. Later, numerous pyramidal tents were erected on platforms for use in storing supplies and equipment.

After the first quonset had been erected, half our men returned to Barter Island with the tractors and empty sleds in order to continue bringing equipment across the Arctic, while the remainder worked at building our new camp. All in all, five different cat trains were needed to bring all equipment which included four launches placed on cradles on sleds across this section of Arctic coast. Problems not previously encountered were met daily. Initially, we found that our Prestone had disintegrated, the solid ingredients had been frozen at the bottom of the can and the glycerin floating on top. Later we found that when this material was mixed with water its freezing point could be lowered to minus 50 degrees. Due to the fact that it was practically impossible to get vehicles started hurriedly without the use of thaw boilers, it was necessary to keep a mechanic on duty during the nights and leave all vehicles including tractors, weasels and small cats idling during night-time hours.

Water for these camps was supplied from chopped ice which was obtained from inland lakes. This was a daily function. A certain group of people to maintain huge stacks of ice behind the various quonset huts was designated. This ice was then chopped, placed in 5-gallon mark cans, which reposed on all heating and cooking stoves in order that we would have enough water for drinking and washing.

Picture of a Norseman bush plane.

Two small bush planes which were based at Point Barrow were under contract to our party for use in flying supplies and mail to our isolated camps; thus, one of our first jobs was to prepare a runway. This was done by using the blades of our tractors to scrape a smooth path about 100 yards wide and one-half mile long on the sea ice. As elevations and features on a snow-covered terrain are not only indistinguishable but also deceptive, both sides of the runway are marked with empty oil drums and windsocks were erected at either end of it. It was a banner day when early in March one of our small Norseman planes on skis brought us the first mail we had received in over a month.

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Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

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