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Life in Deadhorse, Alaska: It’s all about the oil

Life in Deadhorse, Alaska: It’s all about the oil

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DEADHORSE, Alaska — This industrial outpost near the edge of the Arctic Ocean is as grim as its name.

Scraped out of the marshy tundra some 260 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Deadhorse houses hundreds of workers that support the nation’s largest oil field just to the north in Prudhoe Bay.

With the exception of the busloads of tourists and the BP and other oil workers who shuffle in and out every two weeks from nearby oil company compounds, not much happens here beyond work — not even after BP started shutting down Prudhoe Bay because of corroding pipes.

While the oil companies have their own secure compounds in Prudhoe Bay and surrounding oil fields, other companies house workers in ‘‘hotels,’’ modular units cobbled together to house overnight guests as well as welders, mechanics, construction workers staying for weeks at a time.

‘‘People picture a bar or swimming pool or school. Little do they know it’s just a bunch of trailers stacked next to each other,’’ said Lawrence Mason, who works for Caribou Construction Inc.

Instead of trees, bulldozers line the street. Arctic foxes and grizzly bears sometimes roam the cluster of buildings and mud parking lots stamped with the spirals of truck treads.

Life here revolves around oil, drawing drilling crews and workers of oil-support companies who fly into the community before heading to Prudhoe, a vast industrial hub on wind-scraped flatlands crisscrossed by pipelines, oil gathering stations and power plants.

All of the thousands of workers who cycle through the North Slope each year, even the post office and general store staff, come from somewhere else — many from states as far away as Texas and Florida.

‘‘It’s only a four-and-a-half hour commute,’’ said Mark Pettit of pipeline maintenance company VECO Corp. said of his trip every three weeks from eastern Washington to Anchorage. ‘‘It’s not too bad.’’

A flight from Anchorage takes an additional two-and-a-half hours.

Workers here are scruffy and tough, but they’ve been trained to live under the strict rules of the slope.

The all-terrain vehicles found in communities across Alaska are banned to protect the delicate tundra. Seat belts and protective glasses are a must.

‘‘I didn’t used to wear a seatbelt, but after 18 years of working up here, I do it,’’ said James Nunley, of Marsh Creek, who cleans up old work sites left by the military.

Beyond the checkpoints leading into the oil fields, drug and alcohol possession make a case for on-the-spot firing. None of the stores, hotels or restaurants sell liquor, so many workers outside the company compounds bring their own.

A bumper sticker sold at the Arctic Caribou Inn proclaims, ‘‘Deadhorse Alaska: All that far and still no bar.’’

The area is so dismal and remote that oil crews generally stay two weeks at a time, eating and sleeping between long shifts. Crews are well paid and well fed, dining on prime rib, salmon, crab, salad bars and decadent desserts in four main BP crew camps in the field.

The road to the main company camps at Prudhoe Bay starts at the center of Deadhorse and winds around Colleen Lake. Beyond checkpoints lie the sprawling expanses of Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk, the first and second largest oil-producing fields in North America, as well as smaller satellite fields.

Deadhorse was built to withstand the cold. Many of its buildings are purely functional Quonset huts that resemble half tin cans rising from the ground. Plug-in outlets for warming vehicle engines during deep Arctic freezes hang from most buildings.

In winter, workers bundle themselves in arctic gear against temperatures that can plummet to 60 degrees below zero in a bleak, snowpacked landscape. Summer unveils long tundra grasses spotted with lakes. Temperatures then can reach 80 degrees.

On Wednesday the mercury climbed into the 40s, mild by most measures.

The Dalton Highway ends in Deadhorse. Independent travelers and cruise ship passengers bused on side excursions traverse the year-round route, built for trucks hauling freight to the North Slope.

The 414-mile highway was laid in the 1970s during construction of the 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline. The entire stretch of highway opened to the public in 1994, but most of it remains a gravel road, much of it strewn with rocks and spangled by potholes.

Once in Deadhorse, travelers can visit Prudhoe through two-hour bus tours offered by Arctic Caribou Inn, one of two hotels open to the public.

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