Tuesday 22nd August 2023 

This is another getting there day. After breakfast we were at 71N 153W, with an air temperature of 7C, having travelled more than 650 nautical miles. We were heading southeast towards Prudhoe Bay, having passed Point Barrow during the night.

Utqiagvik, Point Barrow, is the most northerly settlement of the USA. Essentially, it is a flat, bleak and often fog-bound place 330 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It was in the news in 1968 when British explorer Wally Herbert and two colleagues, sponsored by the Times newspaper and followed everyday by H, attempted to cross the ‘Top of the World’. With four sledges and forty dogs they travelled for 476 days and covered 3720 miles on the walk via the North Pole to Spitsbergen (Svalbard). This was the longest sustained sledge journey of polar exploration, assisted by the sub-ice ocean current and the resulting drifting ice as used by Nansen in the 1890s.

By 14:00 the weather had changed, the horizon has disappeared into the fog and rain and winds are expected from the west.

The Arab oil embargo of 1977 doubled the value of crude oil and spurred the US into action by discovering and using their untapped oil reserves. In 1968 massive reserves of oil were discovered in the Prudhoe Bay region of the North Slope. Problems arose, not in its discovery or extraction, but in its transport from the wells to the states of the Lower 48. Surveys were undertaken and a deep-water route in the NWP charted. In 1969 the ice-strengthened supertanker- SS Manhattan, with its modified icebreaker bow, broke through the ice filled channels escorted by an icebreaker and returned to the eastern seaboard with the token cargo of one barrel of crude oil. This was the first commercial vessel of this size to complete the transit but future prospects for its use could not be foreseen. The solution was to build a pipeline across Alaska to the ice-free port of Valdez on the south coast. There was vigorous debate and opposition, but President Carter pushed through the legislation. With mountain ranges to cross, earthquakes to withstand, migration routes and tundra to protect, the revolutionary pipeline zig-zagged (to cut down damage if ever there was a spillage) its way across the state. The pipeline has remained secure though a massive problem was an oil spill at Valdez following the grounding of a supertanker in the 1980s. Nature, however, has slowly recovered.

At 17:00 we are getting closer to Prudhoe Bay and the North Slope, unfortunately hidden by cloud, but it is an appropriate moment to reflect upon one of the reasons for our passion for the Far North. 35mm films from the BP film library from the 1970s illustrated H’s teaching of this region and the rigours experienced by indigenous peoples and those involved in the oilfield workings. The films were new in the 1970s, but the commentaries remain fresh in the mind. “This is how a man must dress to just step outside, so what does it feel like at 40 below where flesh freezes instantly and a steel spanner snaps like a carrot.” The oil men, “are a quiet matter of fact bunch of guys, some of them are hardly more than boys. They don’t talk tough, they don’t think big, but in their way, they are giants.”

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