AN ALASKAN POST SCRIPT

Twenty-five years after Project Soda Straw and the Restless Glacier had faded into dim memories, I found myself once again preparing to go to Alaska. Still with the Geological Survey, I no longer pursued problems of military geology, but was now involved in environmental analyses of mineral resource developments on the public lands.

Since my earliest studies of geology, the Malaspina Glacier had fascinated me. It was a perfect example of a “piedmont glacier,” one that had poured out of high mountain valleys onto the coastal lowlands where it spread out into the shape of a huge circular blob, about 35 miles in diameter at its maximum stage some years ago. It was one of the few Alaskan glaciers large enough to show up on even the smallest-scale maps of the territory.

The proposal —

Near the head of this glacier, surrounded by five miles of ice in every direction, was a small chain of hills known as the Samovar Hills. It was about to be designated as part of a National Park. The Shell Oil Company held a lease on it for petroleum development. It was a promising site – tar could be seen in some of the creeks that drained the hills and fed downstream into Oily Lake.

Federal regulations provided that Shell would be compensated for the taking of this land, if they had done any work to develop the lease. Alas, they had done no work at all, and they stood to lose it without compensation. But it was not too late to file a development plan.

Before any development plan could be approved, an environmental assessment would have to be made.  Very likely, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) would also have to be prepared and processed under the provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act. I convened a meeting in Anchorage where all the “usual suspects” – representatives of various Federal and State agencies having an interest in this development – joined to discuss preparation of an EIS. The Federal agencies included the Geological Survey, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and maybe more.

All the Federal representatives (the “Feds”) agreed that an EIS would have to be prepared, and that their agencies should participate. I was able, by observing the relative states of alertness and sleepiness among those at the meeting, to nominate a fellow named Peter as the leader of the task force that would prepare the EIS. He was unique in the depth and variety of questions he raised during the meeting.

Before our meeting adjourned, we heard a history of negotiations to date with Shell Oil. A couple of months earlier, after providing a general summary of the development plan, the company’s team was open to questions. First and foremost was:

“How will you get the oil out, given that the hills are completely surrounded by glaciers?”

Several days later, they announced their plan for getting the oil out. The quality of this plan indicated that we were not dealing with the high-powered scientists and engineers known to inhabit the company. Instead, we were dealing with a junior team considered “good enough” to deal with an EIS task force. The plan follows:

PLAN A: BUILD A PIPELINE ACROSS THE GLACIER

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Suppressing some humor and astonishment, the Feds calmly pointed out that glaciers move more or less constantly, and therefore a fixed pipeline would not be sustainable.

This time, the company team needed a week or two to come up with a revised plan, as follows:

PLAN B: BUILD A PIPELINE ON WHEELS ACROSS THE GLACIER

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Again, the Feds were respectful as they pointed out that glacier surfaces can change rapidly, and can present such features as crevasses, meltwater channels, and other kinds of obstruction that could snag wheels and tear a pipeline apart. A pipeline on wheels would not be sustainable.

After several weeks of study, the company team came out with a new plan, really quite sophisticated, as follows:     

PLAN C: BORE A PIPELINE BENEATH THE GLACIER

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Boreholes would be drilled at a 45-degree slant from each side of the glacier, with the intent that the two would meet at great depth beneath the center of the glacier. A radioactive source would be placed in the bottom of the first borehole to reach the center. A radiation-sensing device would guide the second borehole to within three feet of meeting the first. Explosives would then be used to shatter any rocks separating the boreholes, so that oil could pass freely from one to the other.

Such a scheme had never been carried out before. However, each of the critical steps had, separately, been used successfully: slant drilling, radioactive homing, and transfer of oil via shattered rock.

Plan C was complex and somewhat dubious, but we couldn’t reject it out of hand as we did with Plans A and B. We would have to take it seriously. The next item on our agenda would be a visit to the Samovar Hills.

The field trip —

Our party of about twelve men flew in a small plane to the airfield at Yakutat, about 400 miles from Anchorage.  Here we transferred into a large helicopter for the second hop, into the Samovar Hills.  That flight covered a distance of 55 miles, 12 of which were over Yakutat Bay.  Water in the Bay was extremely cold, in the temperature range where a human could survive only a few minutes.  As a safety precaution, we all put on insulating suits, which I can describe only as resembling the “bunny rabbit” suits that little boys are sometimes forced to wear during Christmas or Easter parties.  The principal differences were (1) these suits lacked long ears, (2) the facial opening was small, and (3) the suits were stiff and hard to manage in the confines of a helicopter.

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As we flew over the Malaspina glacier, we came to realize what an enormous body of ice it was.  At our altitude of about 5,000 feet, there were times when we could see nothing beyond it.  Its surface was striped with bands of moraine (rock debris).

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Landing on the edge of the Samovar Hills, we found ourselves in a pleasant green oasis among the vast expanses of ice.  At times, the nearby ice seemed likely to overwhelm the lower parts of the hills, but we soon realized that the ice was losing, not winning, that battle.

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Adjoining the hills were extensive areas of level land where drilling operations could easily be set up.  Each man was busy observing features related to his own discipline.  I noted the tar in the creek.  The fish and wildlife expert was studying a large bear turd, which he dissected by hand to learn what the creature had been eating.

After several hours on the ground, we donned once again the “bunny rabbit” suits and made our way to Yakutat and thence on to Anchorage.

The task force —

Several weeks later, the EIS task force convened at Geological Survey headquarters in Reston, Virginia. I now had a better chance to get to know Peter, the man of deep and varied questions. My nomination of him as Task Force Leader had been approved. Now I realized the enormity of my misjudgment. He had only one-way communication valves. He could ask brilliant questions, and could pronounce weighty judgments. But he lacked any attention span whatever, either to absorb the answers to his questions, or to hear the judgments or opinions of others.  He talked incessantly.

I spent a couple of weeks wondering how on earth we could cope with Peter and get anything done on the EIS. And wondering how I had ever managed to be so wrong in nominating him as a leader.

But I must have done something right along the way. The proposed development plan had been working its way upward through Shell Oil, and had finally reached the level of the aforementioned high-powered scientists and engineers.   These were practical people who sought assured results. They did not take well to dubious and experimental ideas like boring a pipeline beneath a glacier five miles wide. The development plan was withdrawn. The EIS was canceled and the task force, Peter and all, returned to their normal jobs.

I had been rescued from the consequences of my own folly. I never again had to don the “bunny-rabbit” costume.

*          *          *

Note: The illustrations for Plans A, B, and C are, of course, fictitious. They consist of “props” in color against the background of a black-and-white photo by the U.S. Geological Survey. When seeking “props,” I started by looking for a suitable soda straw to represent the pipeline, and I used something very similar to a straw. So now the Alaska cycle is complete, having started with Project Soda Straw, and ending with a pipeline project that recalled a soda straw. The two projects shared a common fate: Neither one produced any usable results.

This posting is published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)

 

Project Soda Straw

Spring was here at last! The spring of 1952. For our little family, it followed a hard fall and winter, especially for my wife. She had faced the usual problems and restrictions of pregnancy, combined with an emergency appendectomy early on and, for several weeks afterward, disabling pain caused by a nerve pinched during labor. Now these issues were receding and we were enjoying the spring in all its glory and abundant life, made more abundant by the recent birth of our first child, a boy.

We looked forward to a busy summer, introducing the newborn to a large extended family.

Then one day the boss asked me to accept a field assignment in Alaska, running from June 1 to mid-September. Except in the most serious of family crises, I would never reject an assignment for personal convenience. But I always examined an assignment closely, not wanting to waste time and effort on some ill-conceived “boondoggle,” as we called such things. Put to that test, this assignment came up short.

WbRszaAK 1_0008Our Alaska Terrain and Permafrost Section, it seemed, had bought a small drilling rig, powered by a gasoline engine. It could be carried by two men. I was being asked to test it in the field and to prepare a report for a couple of government agencies, recommending for or against the purchase of more rigs. It had a small diamond coring bit, shaped sort of like a doughnut, designed to extract core samples from hard rock for prospectors seeking mineral deposits.

However, our rig was bought to study permafrost, a layer of permanentlly frozen ground that underlies much of Alaska, extending from a few feet beneath the surface to great depths. The area of interest was in sands, gravels, and clays deposited by past glaciers in lowlands and valleys. We wanted core samples of the frozen sediments, and we wanted to explore for ground water resources that might be held within the permafrost.

Yes, the drill was designed for hard rock, but isn’t frozen sediment the same type of thing? Hardly. Drilling quickly melts the frozen material into some kind of muck. The churning of this slop would surely prevent recovery of any decent kind of core sample.  And, when drilling stops, the muck refreezes quickly and can permanently trap the drill.

How can such a small drill-hole (about 1.5 inches diameter) be used to detect ground water? My colleague Paul Johnson, an experienced ground-water geologist, said it best, “Well, you could put a soda straw in it.” And thus was born the name of the project.

From thoughts like these, I decided that the assignment was simply preposterous. But that wasn’t something to tell the boss. The drill had been bought and so, in simple government logic, it would have to be tested.

When I rejected the assignment, I cited other factors. Without experience in either drilling or gasoline engine operation, I would be solely responsible for keeping this piece of machinery in running order. Visiting various field parties, I would have to ask them to help me with all the tasks of brawn that drilling involves – an unlikely hope, inasmuch as they were all deeply absorbed in their own work. And what if I found the drill useless within a couple of weeks? What would I do through the rest of the summer?

After mulling my objections for three or four days, the boss presented me with an offer I couldn’t refuse: I would be supported by a geologic field assistant experienced in engines and in drilling. Also by an experienced ground-water geologist – none other than Paul Johnson of soda-straw fame! And finally, the three of us could conduct ground-water research studies, with or without the drill, for the rest of the summer. And so I made my way to Alaska on the first of June.

*          *          *

Air travel in the early 1950’s was distinctly a different experience from today’s version. Crowded airports were a rarity, and the travelers were shown the courtesies – and the luxuries, particularly in food – that are now reserved for Very Important Persons. Even the atmosphere added to the quality of the experience, much of the time permitting clear views of the beautiful lands beneath. Banks of haze and smog, so widespread nowadays, were seldom encountered. I did my best to get seats by the windows, and my camera was always ready to click.

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I made a brief visit in North Bay, Ontario at the Longyear factory where our little rig, known as the Porta-Drill, had been produced. Afterward, on the final flight from Edmonton, Alberta, we spanned three time zones and ended early the next morning in Anchorage.

Paul Johnson was waiting at the Anchorage Hotel, an overcrowded place in which he had been lucky enough to find a room. An annex to the hotel, renovated and still standing today, had been opened in 1936. But he was in the original rickety frame structure, built in 1916 and headed toward demolition in the 1960s.

As Paul opened his door for me, I was nearly overwhelmed by a dense cloud of alcoholic fragrance. In the midst of the cloud he stood, his face a brilliant red, showing clear signs of fatigue. Beyond him, I could see a fellow I didn’t know, passed out on a bed. “Good Lord,” I wondered, “what am I getting into?” I saw only one positive sign: Paul was smiling from ear to ear. He seemed very glad to see me.

Slowly, the story emerged. Yes, Paul was tired after a series of flights from Washington, arriving just a few hours earlier and well past midnight. Before boarding that last flight, he committed an error common to inexperienced air travelers. He opened a bottle of whiskey for one shot, then replaced the cork and put it in his suitcase. That bottle found new life in the rarefied upper atmosphere. Now he had all his clothing from the suitcase hung out to dry. Hence the fragrance. As for the other fellow, Paul didn’t know him. The hotel was pairing strangers off in the same rooms. This fellow was on a night shift and had arrived just a bit earlier for his daily snooze. Paul’s red face, I finally recalled, was a permanent fixture. And so, all irregularities were accounted for.

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Mid-century Anchorage was coming out of its earlier stage as a rough-and-ready frontier town. Perhaps I was naïve, or had read too much tourist literature, but I was surprised to see such modern urban touches as parking meters and traffic lights.

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*          *          *

Most of the camping gear and field equipment that we would need – including the Porta-drill – were in a storage shed in Palmer, a town 40 miles northeast of Anchorage. It served Alaska’s small but principal farming district, noted for its greatly oversized vegetables, the apparent result of endless daylight through a short growing season. The downtown area of Palmer extended a couple of blocks; the town’s one hotel, the Matanuska, stood nearby. All told, my field assistant and I spent 3 or 4 weeks of that summer in Palmer awaiting word from our bosses as to what we should do next. The ground water research that had first been offered had never panned out.  The food was excellent, but the principal entertainment consisted of two pieces of music on the jukebox: Blue Tango and Jealousy.  Tangos were in style that year.

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One critical item, a jeep, had been shipped to Fairbanks the previous fall for a major engine overhaul. So we took an railroad trip of about 350 miles to pick it up. As the train passed through the Alaska mountain range, fog and clouds prevented any view of the famous Mt. McKinley, North America’s highest peak, at 20,320 feet. But we did see other lesser mountains that were spectacular enough for me, given that I had never before traveled beyond the eastern United States.

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Then we drove the 500-mile trip back to Palmer, via Tok Junction near Alaska’s eastern border. We could have saved 100 miles by using the Richardson Highway, but parts of it were under construction and closed. Much of this trip was over other roads, also under construction and rough, but open, where speeds above 25 mph routinely bumped our heads against the ceiling of the cab. And so this trip required 5 days.

During the drive, we came to know and appreciate the lodges spaced at wide intervals along the highways. WbRszaAK 1_0001They were rustic, usually built of logs, and they featured bars, dining rooms and rooms for overnight guests. Paxson Lodge was strategically located at the junction of Richardson Highway with the road heading into the future Denali National Park, known at that time to us “palefaces” only as Mt. McKinley National Park. The road map showed these lodges as small towns, but in reality there were  few structures other than the lodge itself, a gas station, and perhaps one or two small shops for basics such as alcohol, tobacco, and groceries. I eventually spent a week at Paxson Lodge, but I failed to appreciate it as I should have, because it lacked any postal service, and my wife and I were accustomed to daily exchanges of letters.

During the long drive, it became apparent that Alaska was enjoying spring in June. Some of the major rivers were still covered with ice and snow, as seen in this view (featuring the author as a young man) of the Robertson River from the Alaska Highway.

WbRszaAK 1_0015Arriving back in Palmer, at last we were ready to test the drill! We set up first just outside Palmer, and gradually moved northeastward along the Glenn Highway. Most of the sediments here were sands and gravels, which made one of our dire predictions come true: Drilling melted the permafrost, the coarse abrasive grains collapsed against the drill bit, and a diamond bit was reduced to a useless nub after a few feet of drilling.

The local geologists and soils scientists urged us to return to Fairbanks, where an agricultural research station contained a broad basin of muck showing the classic signs of permafrost: polygonal patterns in the surface soils. This fine material would not cut so quickly into the bit. And there we staged the season’s final performance.

As we passed the depth of 30 feet, progress slowed; we were reaching the maximum weight of drill pipe that we could raise and lower by hand, without a hoist of any kind. Then a further dire prediction came true. During one of the delays, the thin layer of melted muck quickly refroze, and our entire tool assembly was trapped. The situation was rescued with a wrecker of the Alaska Highway Commission. Using its entire lifting capacity until the front wheels rose off the ground, the wrecker managed to jerk the drill assembly loose and retrieve it.

There was one consolation for all this trouble.  We were in Fairbanks just in time to enjoy the Fourth of July WbRszaAK 1_0007 celebrations.

We were in no mood to continue the tests. I had speculated that we might find the drill rig useless in a couple of weeks. Actually, we needed only ten days. The only test not completed: We never found a soda straw adequate for detecting ground water, particularly since the drill holes always collapsed promptly upon removal of the bit.

Now it was time to write the report. With tongue in cheek, made evident through complete truthfulness, excruciating detail, and ample illustrations, I described and quantified the rig’s performance. I showed “before and after” shots of the diamond bits put to short periods of use. In the final evaluation, I was careful to note that the rig was designed for coring in hard rock, not for the uses we put it to. That was only fair to the rig and its maker.

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In 1997, the Geological Survey proudly published a listing of the many valuable products of the Military Geology Unit during its period of operation from 1942 through 1975. There, under the heading “Special Reports for Office of the Chief of Engineers, 1942-1963,” this listing is preserved for posterity:

Report on field operations with portable core drill in Alaska
(Fairbanks, Northway, Palmer), J. R. Burns, 1952, 17 p.
RT, Perma, GW.

 This posting is published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)