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)




During the winter of 1936-1937, alarming news stories began to come out of Alaska. At that time, most Americans knew very little about this territory. Most of us had heard of “Seward’s Folly,” named for the secretary of state who had arranged its purchase from Russia in 1867 for the sum of $7.2 million, or about 2 cents per acre. It would be in the news again in 1959, when it became the 49th state of the United States. In between, most of us visualized the territory, incorrectly, as a vast area of little but ice and snow.

This visualization was consistent with the news of 1936-1937, in which the Black Rapids Glacier, in central Alaska, was described thus: “Living, Sinister Mass of Ice 500 Feet High and Mile and Half Wide Rumbles and Crashes Down Black Rapids Valley.”


As narrated in Time magazine, “Out of Central Alaska last week came an exciting story. The Black Rapids Glacier, long dying in its valley 125 miles south of Fairbanks, had come to life. Its mile-and-a-quarter face was shoving toward the Delta River and the Richardson Highway (sole motor road from Fairbanks to the coast), rearing ice crests to 500 feet, breaking off great land icebergs which tumbled thunderously ahead onto the mossy valley floor. Geologist Ernest N. Patty at Fairbanks declared this week that if the Black Rapids Glacier is moving as reported, it is traveling 220 feet per day, a world record.”

The glacier advanced about one mile each month between December 3, 1936, and March 7, 1937. It is classified by scientists as a “surging” glacier. Some glaciers surge from time to time, others do not. The difference is not fully understood, but appears to be related to a failure of the water drainage system within and beneath the ice.

The photo below shows the glacier on September 9, 1937, shortly after its surge (U.S. Geological Survey, photograph by Fred Howard Moffit). The surge ended just short of the Delta River, but was watched closely because of the potential hazard to the Richardson Highway. Geologic evidence indicates that another surge had taken place 600 years previously, and that one had dammed the river to form a lake.


Now, in the event of another surge, the stakes are still higher. The trans-Alaska oil pipeline was built through the same narrow corridor just beyond the river.

A later photo, made in August 1994, shows clearly the “Bath tub ring” effect – the moraine (rock debris transported and deposited by the glacier) plastered up against the valley wall, reflecting the former high levels of the glacier during the surge (U.S.G.S. photograph by Rod March). The foot of the glacier is now about 3 miles short of its maximum surge point.


*          *          *

In the summer of 1952, the Alaska Terrain and Permafrost Section of the U.S. Geological Survey sent out four field parties, totaling about 15 men, to study the glacial history, engineering geology, and permafrost conditions of several areas in central Alaska. I was a member of the party working along a 65-mile stretch of the Glenn Highway, from the village of Slana to Tok Junction, where the Glenn and Alaska highways meet.

By mid-August, we had all been working hard seven-day weeks for two and a half months, and it was time for a bit of relaxation. The four parties met, and together we toured all four field areas, each party hosting a field trip to show the most interesting geologic features it had found. And, for the party working along the Delta River, the Black Rapids glacier was the prime attraction.

We approached along the Richardson Highway, and then pulled off for a view of the glacier, about 3 miles away, and the heaps of moraine it had left as its forward edge broke up and began to melt away.

Note: You may click on any photo to enlarge it.


We crossed the Delta River on a cable bridge that seemed lightly built and somewhat unstable, so that we allowed only one man at a time to make the crossing.


As we approached the hills of moraine, we soon noted that they were actually detached blocks of ice, covered by only a thin veneer of rocky debris.


After walking about 3 miles, we passed by the ice cliff marking the current foot of the glacier.


The surface of the glacier was touted as a veritable highway through the rugged, forested and snow-covered mountains. Its smooth surface offered what we understood to be a safe and easy walkway. Despite all that, I became slightly uneasy upon learning that nobody in the group had a rope, or a set of crampons  (steel frames with downward-pointing spikes, attached to the boots to prevent sliding on ice).


As our march progressed, I saw features that might justify a bit of uneasiness. First, the crevasses that appeared where the glacier’s downward descent became steeper than usual. A slip of the foot in this area could be decidedly inconvenient.


Next, a spectacular feature that we called a Moulin (French for “mill”), a large and deep hole through which surface melt water drained down into the innards of the glacier, ultimately to its bottom which might be anywhere from a few hundred to a couple of thousand feet deep.


As I felt compelled to include a down-hole shot with the camera, my stomach became queasy with the concern that crampons would nicely have prevented slipping and sliding.


Of course, crevasses and moulins would be most dangerous when hidden beneath a bridging layer of recent snow.   But I still wondered whether similar features lurked beneath thin ice left over from last winter’s snow.

*          *          *

If I had doubts about the safety of glacier-walking based on my own experience there, some years later all my dreams – or, rather, nightmares — were realized when I saw a picture of the same glacier shortly after the Denali Fault Earthquake, a magnitude 7.9 quake that occurred on November 3, 2002. This tremor caused several massive avalanches of rock debris directly onto the surface of the glacier. The debris spanned the one-mile width of the glacier, and covered about 13 square kilometers of its area.

The odds might be against such an event, but this was definitely not a place to be walking at that time.


(The above is a “stitched” image from two U.S.G.S. photos, by R. March and D. Trabant)

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


When I left the meeting at the Pentagon in late June, 1955, I had everything I needed to proceed to Norway, where I would take part in an intelligence operation aboard a Norwegian sealing vessel, operating in Svalbard, a far northern island group belonging to Norway.  (The operation itself is described in my posting “Spy Ship” dated August 9, 2013.)

“Everything” included military travel orders, a security checklist defining procedures to follow and people to contact, a travel advance check, and a passport of the kind normally issued to tourists, not to government employees on official business.  “Everything” did not include an airline ticket to Europe.  We would be flying on the Military Air Transport Service (MATS).

I had met Bruce, a civilian contractor with the Office of Naval Intelligence.  While I would be investigating potential sites for large military airbases, he would study navigation conditions, harbors, and sites for ports or beach landings to supply these bases.

I had also met the other three Americans who would be joining us – all experts in electronic intelligence:  Fred, a captain in the Army Signal Corps; Doug, an Air Force captain; and Fritz, a civilian technician skilled at installing electronic devices and keeping them running.  Fritz never identified his employer; I suspected either the National Security Agency or the Central Intelligence Agency.  The mission of these three men would be to record signals from radars in the Russian mining settlements in Svalbard and along the nearby shores of the Soviet Union.

Once again, we had been warned of the need to maintain tight security on this mission.  If the Russians suspected our mission at all, particularly its electronic aspects, they could easily board our ship and send us all to Siberia, or worse.  We must appear at all times to be tourists.


The Rhein-Main airport at Frankfurt, West Germany was our point of entry into Europe.  At that time there were two terminals on opposite sides of the main runway.  The German civilian terminal handled commercial flights.  The other terminal, operated by the U.S. Air Force, handled military flights.  It was proudly labeled “Rhein-Main Airbase, Gateway to Europe.”  The five of us were to assemble in Frankfurt and travel together by train to Norway.


As Bruce and I were waiting to board our flight at Washington National Airport, one of our project officers came by and asked me to join him on the aircraft parking apron for a confidential chat.

Word had just been received that Fred, Doug, and Fritz had a disastrous arrival in Frankfurt two days earlier.  The passports of the first two had been stamped ENTERED – U.S. AIR FORCE EUROPE, a brand that would expose their U.S. Government affiliation at every border crossing – including the crossings into Communist East Germany — and hotel check-ins for the rest of their time in Europe.  Perhaps even worse, Fritz avoided the stamp, but only by bolting from the immigration line and disappearing from the terminal.  He was now being sought by the German police.  (As I learned soon afterward, Fritz had dashed across the runway to the German civil terminal, melted into an immigration queue to get the needed entry stamp, and then slipped quickly out of the country and on up to Norway.)

After all this bad news, the project officer was pleased to announce that measures had been taken to make sure there would be no repetition of the fiasco for Bruce and me.  An agent of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI) would board our plane in Frankfurt to escort us off and make sure that our passports got the proper entry stamps by German civil authorities.

What had happened was perfectly predictable, except that nobody had thought of it.  The bosses in Washington hadn’t foreseen that a MATS flight would arrive at the military terminal, where the military stamp would be applied to all passports.

I was getting the sinking feeling that there would be no end of installments to this one continuing lesson:  Make your own travel arrangements, or beware!  After all the rigid secrecy and expense involved in mounting this expedition, we couldn’t manage to get five commercial airline tickets to Frankfurt that would have allowed our team to travel like the private citizens we were pretending to be.

And now I was further concerned that an electronic spy ship had been selected as my means of transport to Svalbard.  My own work, related to airbase construction, would not pose any imminent threat to Soviet security, but the electronics intelligence most certainly would.  If the Soviets found out what we were up to, they might take drastic measures.

Our flight to Frankfurt lasted 20 hours, including a refueling stop at Lajos airbase in the Azores.  After touching down at Rhein-Main, the aircraft taxied up to the military terminal.  As soon as the portable steps were in place, a man in civilian dress climbed to the top.  When the cabin door was opened, he stepped inside and asked for Bruce and me by name.  We came forward.  He flashed his OSI identification and asked us to follow him.  We moved quickly into the empty special lounge for VIPs (Very Important Persons).  He was curt and appeared tense.  “Give me your passports and baggage tickets.  I’ll be back in ten minutes.”

As we waited, I considered the attractive surroundings and the service being rendered, and reflected that we had “arrived in style.”  Our man returned on the dot of ten minutes.  We checked our baggage and it was all there.  We checked our passports and, yes, they had been stamped.  Stamped ENTERED – U.S. AIR FORCE EUROPE.

I voiced the obvious:  “These passports have an Air Force stamp in them.”

“That’s right.”

“But that’s just what you were here to prevent.”

“No one said anything about that.  I was told to expedite your passage through the terminal.”

We thanked him for his kind efforts and pondered our situation after he left.  It was clearly time to call Mr. Sylvester.  This code name identified us and our mission.  Bill, an Army intelligence agent in Frankfurt, answered our call.  He picked us up within the hour, and together we began a three-day process of figuring out how to resolve this latest fiasco.  Bill decided immediately that we would have to take up residence in the bachelor officers’ quarters at the airbase; any hotel in town would want to see our passports.

This unwelcome confinement was relieved by daily outings with Bill, mostly to the U.S. Consulate where we had repeated interviews and saw much shaking of heads.  We visited the basement room where documents were forged and altered, but even there the man shook his head, saying U.S. passports were too difficult to alter.  An elderly, corpulent German lady at the reception desk quizzed us daily about our evening exploits.  As we shook our heads, she shook hers too in disappointment, admonishing with a twinkle in her eye that Frankfurt was a great place to have a ball; we needed only to name our pleasures.

On one occasion, Bill took us to his office at the I. G. Farben building, the Nazi-era headquarters of the huge chemical concern, and still the largest office building in Europe.  The Allies had spared it during the wartime bombings, earmarking it as a postwar military headquarters and administration building.  In familiar Nazi style, the building dwarfed individual humans and incorporated the latest mechanical efficiencies.

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One of these was the use, instead of elevators, of endless conveyor chains in constant motion.  I have read of the “Paternoster” cabs mounted on these chains, but my experience was more primitive:  no cabs, only exposed foot-perches and handholds at regular intervals along the chains.  Regular users were rather graceful on these gadgets, but I had to make a nervous leap when a perch arrived, hold on for dear life, and leap off at the desired floor.  I had a nagging fear that this technology had been adapted from the abattoir, and that there could be a meat grinder at the roof or basement level.

On the second afternoon of our stay, Al Nicol came in from a field office of the U.S. Geological Survey near Heidelberg, some 60 miles distant.  Al was an engineering geologist of wide experience, great abilities, and highly acclaimed reputation.  As previously arranged, he would stay overnight to give me an extended tutorial on geologic field procedures that could be useful in my assignment.  But first, Al’s presence with an auto gave Bruce and me our first chance to sample the Frankfurt nightlife.  So Al kindly escorted us through a night on the town that lasted till two in the morning.  In the downtown area surrounding the main railway station, the U.S. forces had commandeered all the hotels and public buildings, and among them had sprung up a string of night clubs, beer halls, snack stands, and assorted dives that catered mainly to Allied military people.  It was a throbbing Times Square atmosphere 24 hours per day.

Frankfurt hauptbahnhof(1)         Frankfurt hauptbahnhof(2)

 Next morning, my first act was to hold my head beyond the edge of the bed as I threw up on the floor.  After a failing try at breakfast, I spent the next three hours flat on my back as Al patiently delivered his tutorial.  I would frequently grunt and occasionally even ask a question to assure him that I was still conscious.  I took in and remembered a lot more of his points than I ever expected.

Shortly after Al left, Bill returned with great news.  The passport dilemma had been solved!  The consulate would issue us new passports and keep our present ones in a safe.  After the expedition, we would exchange passports again and return home on the original ones.  I admired the beauty and simplicity of the solution, and wondered how many high-powered government officials had been needed to think of it.  If it were an option at all, this solution would have seemed obvious from the start, before we wasted several days seeking other means of solving the problem.

Before the day was out, Bruce and I moved to the luxurious Frankfurter Hof hotel where Fred and Doug had been waiting for us.  The tab of 16 dollars per day was way over my per diem travel allowance, but well worth the experience for a short time.  As we stood on the roof garden surveying the city, it really did seem fair now to say that we had arrived in style.  Frankfurt, a sprawling city of perhaps 600,000 inhabitants at that time, was fast rebuilding from the war.  Nevertheless, from our rooftop we could see in nearly every block at least one burned-out building shell or cratered vacant lot.

But we still had lots more arriving to do, specifically in Norway, and there now seemed no reason for any further stay in Frankfurt.  Correction!  Doug had a reason.  Far from his wife and small children, he had named his pleasure in the person of a female roommate whom he was not anxious to leave just yet.  And Fred, the senior member of our group, always seemed most anxious to please Doug.  So we all agreed to round out the week in Frankfurt.  During the remaining days, Bruce was mostly with a flight attendant friend he had met on the MATS flight.  Doug stayed in his hotel room.  Fred and I became tourists and sightseers for real.

Frankfurt was full of fascinating sights and sounds.  Aside from the sideshows around the main railway station, the real spectacle was the German people, endlessly energetic, working long hours six days a week.  Their average personal income was about 100 dollars per month, I was told.  Thanks to a favorable exchange rate of 4 marks to the dollar, Americans could order steak dinner for about a dollar and a half.  But it was obvious that here was an economy on the rise, and that these people would soon work their way up from such low estate.

There was one untoward effect of all this energy and ambition that I found astonishing.  This was the apparently reckless abandon with which German drivers plied the roads.  Bill had introduced me to this on the autobahn, a rambunctious scene of weaving, bumper-riding, and split-second maneuvers at breathtaking speeds.  Bill pointed out that one could easily tell the maximum speed of each vehicle, for that was precisely the speed it was going.  His explanation for this was that an entire generation nearing middle age was now experiencing its first car, hence was only in the teen-age of driving maturity.  (Maybe so, but I didn’t note much change when I came back in 1960.)  The auto accident rate in mid-fifties West Germany was about four times that of the United States, and one motorcycle owner in ten did not live to make the final payment.

One week after Bruce and I landed at Rhein-Main, we gathered with Fred and Doug in the railway station before dawn to board the express to Copenhagen and Oslo.  The trip was roughly a thousand miles and would take somewhat under 30 hours.

Shortly before reaching Grossenbrode, where we would take the ferry to Denmark, we crossed a corner of East Germany with all the train’s window blinds tightly closed.  The conductor warned that peeking could cause nasty problems with the local authorities.  Our second ferry, from Denmark to Sweden, embarked from Helsingør, Shakespeare’s Elsinore.  From the ferry we saw “Hamlet’s Castle”, appearing by its style to be several centuries too young for the sweet prince, but nevertheless picturesque.  The central wharf area of the town was overshadowed by a decidedly un-picturesque ESSO sign, the largest I had ever seen.  We slept through Sweden, and arrived in Oslo the next morning.

This posting is a selection from my book, The Cold Coasts (Kindle, Paperback, and Hard Cover)



As Fritz and I flew to Kerman, we were cheered to put the miseries of Bandar Abbas behind us.  Yet we didn’t imagine how enjoyable, indeed how much of a compensation, the next adventure would be.

In 1967, Kerman had a population of about 140,000.  It is located on a broad plain near the higher margins of the Lut Desert.  At an elevation of about 5,800 feet above sea level, it presents a moderate climate of low humidity.  It is widely known for its creation of Kerman carpets, and the surrounding province of Kerman is one of the world’s leading producers of pistachio nuts.

As we arrived, the first welcome was the vast improvement in the weather over that of Bandar Abbas.  The daily temperature cycle seemed at least 20 degrees (Fahrenheit) cooler, and we were far removed from the oppressive humidity of the Persian Gulf shores.

The next welcome was in the friendly hospitality of the Colonel commanding the local regiment of the Gendarmerie.  He knew not a word of English, it seemed, nor did Fritz or I know any Farsi.  We somehow communicated, and he treated us to delicious snacks while we all waited for an interpreter to arrive.  Highlights of the snacks were a juicy melon, and pistachios from the trees growing right outside his office – slightly unripe, but already tasty and a matter of great pride to him.


Of course, we didn’t mention the diarrhea that had been afflicting Fritz and me for nearly a month.  It seemed better to enjoy the snacks and worry later about the consequences.

Aside from the usual project work we did while in Kerman, the highlight of the visit was a tour of the local carpet factory.


As we approached it, we passed through a very narrow street, an alley, barely wide enough for our auto.   Here we came upon an elderly man guiding his donkey, laden with bags that seemed to contain sheep’s wool.  Fortunately, there was an alcove where the two of them could escape from our path.

This man and his beast were definitely photogenic, but we were aware of sensitivities among Iranians regarding picture-taking.  In some cases this was a religious scruple having to do with graven images, in others it involved a wish to be paid for posing.  I felt that I could get a picture unobtrusively from the inside of the car, viewing through the windshield as shown below.


Fritz, however, was far more aggressive.  He wanted to get an extreme close-up picture of the man.  He prepared his camera and leaned far out of the window as we came close.  At the moment of passing the man, Fritz screamed out “I can’t see!  I can’t see!”  My first thought was that the man had resisted Fritz’s aggression by somehow attacking his eyes.  But then I saw that the lens of the camera was missing.  We quickly stopped the car to search for it

Looking backward down the street, we saw the old man running toward us, smiling broadly, and holding the lens up high for us to see.  He brought it to us and seemed overjoyed at the opportunity to be of help.  We thanked him profusely and quickly assembled a cash gift – by now, we were feeling guilt over the bother of the lens and also over the picture I had taken surreptitiously.  All of us – except the donkey – parted in cheerful spirits.

Our first stop at the carpet factory was in the drafting shop, where an artist was preparing a new design.  He worked on a sheet of quad ruled paper, each tiny square the size of one hand-tied knot.  He started with black lines outlining the boundaries within the design, as shown in the portion near his left hand.  As shown in the remaining portions, he then proceeded to color each square, showing the color of the woolen knot that would be applied there.


The sheet covered one corner of the design.  This would be sufficient for a small rug, since the one corner would be repeated symmetrically on the loom to produce the other three. In the case of larger carpets, he would also need to design the straight zones along each  side and end, between the corners.

Our next stop was in the dyeing area, where a series of large stone vats contained sheep’s wool immersed in boiling hot water, each vat containing a different dye. From here, the dyed wool was hauled out into the open air for drying.

Kerman-04    Kerman-05

The dried wool was then carded.  This was a combing process consisting of drawing two wooden paddles, each studded with numerous small nails, across each other with the wool in between. This would align the wool into straight, parallel fibers that could be pinched off by hand in bunches, each of exactly the right size to make one knot in the design.  This was the first of many tests of the weaver’s skill. The fiber bunches were approximately three to four inches long.  They were now ready for the loom.  There was no spinning for the ordinary knots – the wool was spun only to make threads or yarns for specific applications, such as the fringe or borders of the carpet or the warp threads on the loom.

We next proceeded to the weaving area, where we saw an elderly weaver studying the design charts.  He would commit the design to memory, because during the weaving his eyes would be on the knots themselves.


He then pinched off the individual bunches – exact size critical as mentioned above –wrapped each bunch around two of the warp threads, and tied a knot.  The excess length of these bunches would produce a shaggy effect on the top surface of the carpet.


As he wove, he chanted a song, somewhat tuneless and repetitive.  We were told that he was describing the placement and color of each knot.

We soon learned that he had an assistant, a very young girl who followed his chanted instructions to produce the symmetrical image of the design on the opposite corner of the carpet.

When my camera came out, she hid bashfully behind the loom.  I would not invade that privacy, but I did get a picture of the loom, revealing along its right edge the toes of one bare foot, one hand and forearm, and the outline of her head appearing as a vague shadow through the warp threads (to enlarge the picture, click on it once).


After a carpet was completed on the loom, it was taken outside where a worker sheared off the shaggy wool to produce a perfectly level surface, revealing the design in all its beauty and fine detail.  A mark of skill, that merely by eye he could avoid hills and gouged valleys in that surface.  He used shears about a foot long.


At this point, the carpet was likely to be slightly off-square and wrinkled along the edges.  A stretching machine corrected these problems in the last operation I saw of the manufacturing process.


This entire visit had been a fascinating learning process for me.  The main point of what I learned was the extreme skill that was applied at each step of producing a carpet – even the steps that seemed simple and commonplace.

As we departed, I was reminded of one more fact:  In the year 1967, the Shah was still reigning, and his subjects often went out of their way to demonstrate loyalty to him, whether truthfully or not. In the foyer near the front entrance of the factory, a small rug hung high on the wall, an excellent portrait of the Shah himself.


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


Scientists will point out a number of factors influencing the color of the ocean, but in my northern travels one factor outweighed all else, and that was the mood of the sky. Whatever hues shone down upon them, the waters returned these with heightened intensity. Beneath the blue skies we found along the Norwegian coast, the sea was an inky blue bordering at times on indigo. Now as we headed into open ocean, the mood was quickly altered. The skies were sullen gray, as if brooding over the intrusion of the Gulf Stream into these chilly fringes of the Arctic Ocean. The sea responded in a murky gray tone reminiscent of tarnished lead and seemingly just as opaque.

During my total of about 12 days spent sailing in these waters north of Norway and south of Spitsbergen, normally the minimum wind condition I heard reported was gale (32 to 63 mph), which produced respectable ocean swells with whitecaps, causing rolls and pitches of the vessel that made walking on board an unsteady process. Then at frequent intervals lasting several hours to a day at a time, the winds increased to storm levels (64-72 mph). Here, waves regularly broke over the forward deck. They washed the lifeboat dories mounted on the second deck as the ship rolled to extremes which I at first found alarming. And water occasionally splashed into the steering house. Walking became a series of short dashes from handhold to handhold. Traversing the open forward deck had to be timed as well as possible to avoid the breaking waves.

BearILocMapAlone amid these restless waters, some 300 miles north of mainland Norway and 200 miles from its nearest island neighbor, Bear Island hunkers down in its long-standing defiance of the elements. A rocky island of sixty-some square miles, it is rimmed everywhere by sheer coastal cliffs, rising to 100 feet in the lowland parts and to more than 1,000 feet in the hilly parts of the island. The incessant breaking of waves against these cliffs, the frequent noisy rock falls, and the massive piles of rock debris and the spectacular rock chimneys and pinnacles that fringe the coastline, all these bits of evidence make it clear that the island is but a remnant of its former self, and is being diminished perceptibly even in the course of human history. Inland from the coast, this land sports no soaring peaks nor sparkling glaciers; instead, the gray and tawny shades reflect from lake-dotted plains and subdued round hills that were ground low and smooth by the stone-studded sole of the overriding ice sheet. Appropriately enough, the highest peak on the island, at about 1,700 feet, is named Miseryfjellet or The Misery Mountain. Now the ice sheet is gone, but frost continues a relentless attack. Hard sandstones are shattered into mile after mile of bouldery waste, with fragments from the size of one’s head to the size of one’s small auto. Softer rocks are churned by cycles of freeze-and-thaw into huge convex clayey polygons rimmed by rings of cobblestone and gravel. At times, even during the brief clearings of the skies in this region, the island seems to wrap itself in the protective folds of its very own fog bank and cloud cover. But to no avail, for high winds and fog seem to have no trouble coexisting here.

Polygonal patterns, shown in this view, are a common feature where there is intense freezing Fig06-copyand thawing in the upper soil layers and, below depths of a few feet, the soil is permanently frozen. 

Bear Island has a bad reputation as a place to visit. The reason has nothing to do with its name. Bears are not a usual part of the local fauna. Polar bears habitually stay with the pack ice, far to the north during the brief Arctic summer, where their chief prey of seals can best be hunted. The island was named by Willem Barents to commemorate the killing of a bear there in June of 1596. But by the mid-twentieth century, the much more benign ice conditions as well as the increased hunting pressure by man would have made a summer visit by the creatures most unexpected. No, the island’s notoriety stems from its windy weather combined with its lack of protected waters for landing. Landings must be made on small rock ledges or pocket beaches open to the full force of the ocean waves. Heavy weather has stranded travelers ashore here for as much as a month. The frequent presence of the fog bank is an additional nuisance. We were at one point in radio contact with a ship attempting to reach the island; they were in its vicinity and had been making passes at the island for two days without finding it in the fog.

So this Bear Island was our first destination, and the crossing took 36 hours.  Upon our arrival, we anchored in Sørhamna (South Harbor) to wait out the latest bad weather.  This was a partly sheltered cove without any reasonable access to land because of the extremely high and steep cliffs rimming it.  Nevertheless it offered some respite from heavy seas and an opportunity to fish.  As if on cue before even the first nibble, the sun came out, the winds died down, and the storm waves faded to gentle swells.  This calm could be brief, so we upped anchor quickly and chugged some five miles up the west coast to our preselected landing site, where we anchored about a quarter mile offshore.

Scheduled to camp on Bear Island for ten days, we were mindful of its nasty reputation and took provisions for a month for the shore party of four: Bruce, Tore, Frank, and me.  Getting all this ashore was too much for our little fiberglass motorboat to handle, so one of the large, heavy lifeboat dories was lowered and put into service.  Four or five men on deck handed the packages down to four men on the dory, timing their moves with the rise and fall of the sea swells.  I was on the dory, and working at my right side was Leiv.  Losing balance at one point, I clutched the gunwale in front of me to steady myself.  Almost immediately I was whammed by what seemed to be a baseball bat, slamming into my midriff and across the insides of both elbows.  The blow broke my grasp on the gunwale and sent me crashing on my rear end.  In what must have been fractions of a second, two realizations came upon me:  First, that the bat was in fact Leiv’s left arm, swinging straight and rigid.  And second, that even as I was still bouncing, the dory and the Godønes crashed together with a loud creaking and scraping.  Leiv had seen my eight fingers draped over the point of imminent contact, and had saved them by his usual alertness and instant reaction.

We drew ashore at the base of a vertical 100-foot cliff where a tiny beach, 6 feet wide and some 30 feet long, was situated at the mouth of a ravine.  The ravine afforded a steep route but one which we could clamber up on all fours, dragging our supplies with us, to the level ground up top.  Many hands assisted, and within an hour the job was done.  We pitched camp alongside a creek about 100 yards inland from the cliff edge.  The camp consisted of one large tent, about 9 feet square, for supply storage, meals, and socializing; and a pair of two-man mountain tents for sleeping.


Once the camp was set up, our shipboard friends wished us good luck and sailed off.  The ship was hardly out of sight before the clouds returned and the wind and waves resumed their rampage.  At no time in the next ten days did we see even a brief spell of calm that would have permitted a boat to land or depart from the island.

Sleeping at night was somewhat of a problem.  For starters, broad daylight continued around the clock.  Next, rock falls along the coastal cliffs produced booms like distant claps of thunder, several per night, which I found unnerving at first.  Further, the winds seemed to pick up in intensity around midnight, at the dimmest level of daylight, to cause incessant loud flapping of the tent.  Finally, as the wind picked up, it rained every night.  Put all this together with Frank and me bundled up and stuffed tightly into a tiny tent, and the result was a continual noisy face slapping by wet canvas.  Two hours of this was enough for Frank; he went to the supply tent, lit up the Primus stove for warmth, and made his bedroom there for the rest of our encampment.  Alone in the mountain tent, I still had the noisy flapping but at least I could avoid bodily contact with the canvas.

Fig05CabinBrI A cabin built by a German pilot after    a wartime emergency landing on Bear Island.  Supplies including timber were airdropped to him. He apparently flew off before finishing the cabin.  Ruts left by the aircraft were still visible ten years after the war. 

After a few days we recognized a deep mystery.  Though our campsite was rained upon heavily each night, nearby areas showed no sign of rain the next morning.  The soils were always moist, but there were scattered boulders that should be wet and should have puddles in their crevices; instead, they were dry.  Could we possibly have our own private rain cloud hovering above in all this wind?  And then one night I solved the mystery in a somewhat unpleasant fashion.  The tent flapping was especially loud and rapid and growing more so each minute.  As it approached a climax I lost hope of ever getting to sleep.  Then the noise stopped abruptly and total silence ensued.  I luxuriated in this sudden calm for what seemed like several minutes.  But it could only have been the several seconds needed for the collapsed tent cloth to settle down on my face; one of the two tent poles had broken under the force of the wind.  Grumpily I moved out of the warm sleeping bag, out of the fallen tent and into the cold wind and rain, in stocking feet and long underwear, to seek a replacement tent pole.  Fortunately there was one, and I soon had it in place and all was in good flapping order again.  Before reentering the tent, I looked down the creek to where it cascaded over the cliff’s edge.  It was not cascading!  Instead, the fierce westerly wind was picking the creek up bodily and hurling it back as a torrential spray onto our camp.

Next morning Frank and I pondered the possibility of moving camp, but decided against it.  It was not only the labor of moving our mountain of supplies that deterred us.  It was the fear of losing one or both tents to the wind if the two of us attempted to move them without the help of others.

Although the higher coastal cliffs of Bear Island are famous bird rocks hosting millions of nesters from June through August, the inland fauna is sparse indeed. We glimpsed a blue fox one evening as we were bedding down in the open after working some miles from camp. The fox was more troubled by our presence than we by his. Then there were a few birds, notably skuas and terns, who found the solitude of the upland plains preferable to the crowding of the cliffs. Their nesting areas could often be spotted by the litter of broken crustacean and mollusk shells reflecting the diet these birds had won from the sea. My first encounter with these ground nesters involved the old broken wing ploy. I saw this apparently injured bird hopping along, dragging one wing on the ground. Following to see if I could help, I was led to a safe distance from the nest, whereupon the canny creature took off and flew normally. Once tricked, I would not play that game again, but would merely exert caution against stepping on eggs. This decision was at my peril. For when the broken wing ploy failed, the dive-bombing plan was put into effect. This was not a ploy or a threat, but a genuine attack involving real bumps on the head, forcing me to hold onto my hat and protect the eyes. Upon mature consideration, I decided that playing along with the broken wing ploy was to be preferred.

I once read somewhere that no vegetation in Svalbard exceeds six inches in height. There may be exceptions, but none that I ever observed. Among vast barren stretches on Bear Island I saw scattered patches of thin mosses and lichens, brown or darkish green, and bits here and there of the whitish reindeer moss I had come to know earlier in Alaska. The brightest greens, seen only at a distance, were on ledges of the highest coastal cliffs where bird droppings had created a rich soil. During our stay of ten days in early July, the spring thaw was just ending on the island. The rotten ice covering the lakes and ponds finally broke up and disappeared, as did the snow banks on the shadiest north-facing slopes. So this was a poor time to judge what lusher tones, what blossoms might brighten the landscape a few weeks hence at the height of the brief summer…

Bear Island – Bjørnøya in Norwegian – had been a particularly unpleasant place to visit, yet there grew in me a haunting sense that it had the force of a special personality. Perhaps this stemmed from the human-style crosscurrents and inconsistencies of its nature. Harsh and austere, the island in its serene moments hinted almost at hospitality in the smooth contours of its gently rolling lake-dotted plains and its homely subdued hills. Its stony resistance to the elements was more than matched by vulnerability and, ultimately, a capitulation sometimes noisy but never quite ceasing. And behind all this stood the fact of its lonely vigil amid such great expanse of angry sea. Somehow, all this became a symbol of something deeply echoed within the psyche. When I dream of travels past, more often than not I see Bear Island, lonely and forlorn. Only two other places ever brought a reminder of that island and of the feelings it stirred. One of these was the barren, sulfur-decayed landscape of the Arminius pyrite mine at Mineral, Virginia, before its reclamation. The other was the site of the first lunar landing.

Our farewell view of the island was along the thousand-foot high bird cliffs on the southwestern coast. The waters here were busy with feeding birds of many kinds: puffins, auks, gulls, kittiwakes and murres, and more that I had never heard of. As we passed, one of the crewmembers fired a rifle and the sky darkened with millions upon millions of birds from the cliffs. I was unaware at the time that the shot was illegal during the nesting season. Only by hindsight, as an avid watcher of nature study shows during the ensuing years, can I now grasp the tragedy of countless chicks and eggs dropped, lost, or abandoned during that moment of panic. At the time, I felt only awe at the spectacle.


(The above is based on my book The Cold Coasts.)


In March 1955, I was assigned by the Geological Survey to observe an atomic test shot in Nevada.  The particular shot was known as Teapot Ess, a shallow underground burst intended to test the ability of “atomic demolition munitions” to create craters in the earth.  This was of interest to the office of the U.S. Army Chief of Engineers, with which we were engaged in a cooperative program of military geology.

Make no mistake:  In the mid-fifties, many of us construed the opportunity to observe an atomic explosion as somewhat of an honor, perhaps, and most certainly a high adventure.  After all, this subject had dominated the news in the previous ten years, and the weapons development and testing program was one of the government’s most important activities in this period.  These were times when many of us tended to believe our leaders more often than not; and they had assured us all that the tests were perfectly safe – safe for observers and participants, safe for people of the neighboring towns, the nation, and the world, and safe for the environment (though not many even thought of that word in 1955).  Of course, a few dissenters worried about strontium-90 in the food chain and about strange quirks in the weather.  But that was all sort of long-term, and shouldn’t spoil the fun of watching a blast or two!

So I arrived in Camp Desert Rock, Nevada late one starry but moonless night.  The c795px-NTS_-_Tm-55-08amp, some 50 or 60 miles out of Las Vegas, was almost completely described by its name; all that remain to be mentioned are the 12-man tents in which test observers were housed.  I remember the “moonless” detail of my arrival because, once the jeep had dropped me off with my baggage in front of my assigned tent and departed, I could not see the tent but had to feel for it.  If there was a darker place that night than under the stars, it was in the tent.  I felt my way inside, cheered on by snores, grabbing a toe here and a nose there, until I found the only remaining vacant cot.  One wakeful soul warned that everything was covered with soot because the wind had earlier blown the stovepipe down.  But, as I sat on my cot in the profound darkness, removing suit, tie, white shirt, etc. (yes, that’s how we dressed up for plane flights in those days), I couldn’t think of any way to make practical use of his warning.

I soon learned that, because of schedule changes, I would also be witnessing the Teapot Apple shot, followed by Teapot Ess a day or two later.

A couple of days after my arrival, after all the usual briefings, safety and security lectures, field trips, and general atomic orientation, about two or three hundred of us observers boarded buses at about three in the morning and raced off at 35 miles per hour toward Yucca Flat.  Most of the observers were military officers, but a few such as myself were civilians in military support programs.  Warned of cold nights, we wore blankets and as many layers of clothing as we had been able to accumulate, plus steel helmets furnished by the management.  After a two-hour drive, we were dropped off along trenches at a distance, as best I can recall, of 2,500 yards from a well-lighted steel tower 500 feet high.  After the buses departed, the tower seemed to grow ever taller as it dominated our otherwise dark desert world.  We knew we could not escape it, for to walk to a safe distance would take longer than the remaining time before the shot; our only survival would be right here in the trench.  The Teapot Apple shot, which we were here to witness, produced a yield of about 15 kilotons (TNT equivalent) of explosive power, as I understood it at the time.  More recently published records vary wildly as to the intended and actual yields, but that is someone else’s problem, not mine.

After a 45-minute wait, mostly spent stamping feet in an attempt to keep warm, we heard sirens and loudspeaker commands to get into the trenches.  This immediately revealed a problem that had been obscured in the dark.  Winds during the night had partly filled the trench with sand, reducing its depth from 5 or 6 feet to about two and one-half feet.  All parts of our bodies had to be at least 2 feet beneath the ground surface for safe cover.  And we could not lie flat.  We had been warned to keep one knee up under us to provide sufficient lift in case the trench should collapse on us.  In short, the problem led to a flurry of bare-hand digging in the loose sand almost until shot time.

At the first hint of dawn, excitement was escalated by sirens, horns, beepers, and a backward-counting voice on the loudspeaker.  I assumed the one-knee-up, face-down position, secured the steel helmet, covered all with a wool blanket, closed my eyes, and wrapped my right arm over my face.

As the zero count was reached, a light penetrated all these covers and obstructions to strike my eyes with the brightness of a candle held 2 or 3 inches from the closed eyelid.  Almost immediately, the trench began to rock, throwing and bumping me from one wall to the other.  After probably 4 or 5 very lengthy seconds of this, the blast arrived, crashing Tpotappleaand reverberant, akin to the sound of a lightning bolt far too close for comfort.  It pierced and agonized my ears, knocked the helmet off, and brought a rain of stones and sand into the trench.  A few seconds later we were told to stand and look.  While distinct echoes of the blast continued for some thirty seconds, we saw the mushroom cloud, haloed with a violet glow, already high overhead.  As we continued watching, it rose from perhaps 10,000 feet to a level of about 20,000 feet, at which it began to drift downwind away from us.  Sparks continued for some time to shower in the vicinity of the tower stubble.  We walked for some unspecified reason toward Ground Zero, trusting implicitly in the sergeants reading Geiger counters, until they told us to stop and turn back.

I often thought about the motives of the United States Government in transporting ultimately hundreds of thousands of observers and participants, most of them soldiers, to these tests.  I suppose the principal motive was to train a generation of troops that would be familiar and at ease on the nuclear battlefield.  This didn’t work for me, even after I had ultimately witnessed four atomic shots.  I came to fear and detest the thing more by having seen it.  Its savage fury, even without human victims, had visceral effects raising all sorts of emotions, mostly akin to horror and culminating in tears.  Then I thought of a scant ten years earlier, when on two separate occasions a great many human victims had been in such hellish eruptions; and more tears came.

A couple of days later I witnessed the Teapot Ess shot, a shallow underground burst TptEsswhich tested cater-forming effects.  Compared to Apple, Ess was decidedly unspectacular and anticlimactic.  The best I can say for its large, low, chicken-shaped dusty cloud is that it trapped much more of the radioactive debris in local fallout on the Test Site, as opposed to the tower and aerial bursts which generally managed to salt most of the earth with their poisons.

There is a humorous footnote to the interest by the Army Chief of Engineers in crater-forming effects of atomic explosions.  Subsequent small-scale tests established that a whole row of explosive devices, spaced at just the right intervals, could produce a huge but very neat trench, not at all the scallop-shaped hole in the ground that one might expect.  Fifteen years after Teapot Ess, the Sierra Club was engaged in a series of attacks on the environmental record of the Army Corps of Engineers.  They even resorted to humor, in the form of a fictitious article in their magazine concerning the Cro-Con Canal, allegedly a secret project of the Corps.  The name of the canal was a shortened version of Cross-Continental.  The canal was to be a deep-water, sea-level trench crossing the United States from one coast to another.  Deep-water ports would be created at such unlikely places as Denver, Colorado.  And how would all this excavation be done?  You guessed it: A long row of atomic explosions.  The Sierra Club made it clear that all this was fictitious humor, but it gave weary environmentalists a much-needed opportunity to laugh. 

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


The once-flourishing Norwegian culture of arctic hunting has vanished.  The animals are now protected by law, much of the hunting territory is now designated as national parkland, and Norwegians have found other more profitable and less risky pursuits.  But in 1955, every polar bear and every seal was fair game without limit.  And men risked their own lives in the pursuit.

I had several opportunities to learn something of the activity while aboard the sealing vessel Godønes in the summer of 1955, as follows:


About two in the morning I awakened to much rattling and shaking.  The Godønes was ramming its way through nearly continuous pack ice.  The ship bumped repeatedly and also gave sidewise jerks as it glanced off the larger floes.  In my bunk in the bow of the ship, I idly mused over the possibility of a large chunk of ice suddenly appearing in the cabin.  After all, less than a hand span’s thickness of wood was keeping it out.  But there was nothing to be done; so I repeatedly put my faith in God and the good Norwegian shipwrights, rolled over, and fell asleep – to awaken again upon nearly falling out of bed at the next violent bump or jerk.  By ten in the morning the Godønes was making good progress.  Though much ice was still around us, we could easily avoid it through broad leads of mirror-smooth water.

Presently there was a bustle among the crew as a large male polar bear was sighted on one of the ice floes ahead.  Kaare, the chief engineer, rushed up with a rifle and took a seated position at the ship’s bow.  The engine slowed more and more as we approached the bear; 300 yards, then 200 yards.  The bear grew nervous.  Then, at about 100 yards he clambered over the edge of the ice and splashed into the water.  Could he have dived deeply as a seal, this would have been his escape.  But, strong swimmer that he was, he was trapped at the surface where he could not survive.  The ship bore down on him until its prow hung almost over his head.  As close an enactment as I have ever seen of the old phrase, “shooting fish in a barrel.”  I recall the turning of his head to give a look back over his shoulder just as two shots were fired.  The water erupted in a geyser, then another; then it turned bright red.

A looped cable was quickly passed under the armpits and the body was hoisted onto the forward deck.  Fast work with sharp knives, and the skin was removed along with a 3 to 4 inch layer of fat, which they called spekk, still attached.  Within a few minutes the bloody Sv2Bearcarcass was hoisted again and dumped into the sea.

Not being a hunter, I was stunned by the whole procedure.  True, I had often fished, but always in the strong belief that killing for food is somehow acceptable in the order of nature.  This bear died not to furnish food but to grace someone’s den with a rug.  I felt compelled to say something, yet was fully aware that a sealing vessel would not be a rewarding stage for a tirade on animal rights.  So I blurted out the query, “Why let the carcass go to waste?  Why don’t we eat it?”  I was both invoking my killing-for-food principle and tossing an insult toward our regular shipboard cuisine.

But my subtle ironies were lost on all who heard; ’twas probably for the best.  Bjarne took my questions at face value and responded matter-of-factly, “We never eat bear meat.  Trichinosis.”  An astounding revelation, this, which hardly fitted my concept of the pure and pristine Arctic.  I was aware of problems with eating a bear’s liver, owing to excessive concentrations of Vitamin A, but this was different.  When back home, I would surely have to do some research on it.

One further question occurred to me about this killing.  I am no connoisseur of furs, nor do I know what wonders furriers can perform.  But it seemed to me that, if this bear’s destiny was to become a rug, he should have made a good rug of thick, lustrous winter fur.  His fur in July seemed dingy, thin and ragged.  I hoped it would not turn out to be a waste.

During the course of the afternoon several bearded seals were sighted on the pack ice and shot.  The chief difference from bear hunting was that the seal had to be shot dead while on the ice.  In the water, this excellent swimmer would instantly make its escape by diving.  The seals always rested near an open lead or water hole into which they could slip quickly if threatened.  The hunt then became a contest to see how close the hunter could come before alarming his prize.

Kaare took his sitting stance as before.  As the vessel approached within 150 yards, the engine was cut off completely and we continued drifting forward.  Usually at about 100 yards the seal would perk its head up, and then CRACK! and it was all over.  Kaare was near fifty years of age, but his eyes must have been very youthful.  One bullet, one seal.  Not only did he never miss; he never missed the particular place on the neck where a bullet was quickly lethal, yet least damaging to the value of the fur.  From the hole in the neck a fountain of blood would spurt for several minutes while the ship pulled up and several crewmembers stepped onto the ice to skin the carcass.  But before skinning began, there was a curious ritual.  Kaare, the hunter, would stoop down and drink the spurting blood.  This was a common practice jokingly explained as a means to get a quick shot of vitamins, much needed in the absence of fresh food.  But I speculated that it was a tradition with ancient roots and a more mystic purpose.


It took about five minutes to skin a seal, after which the pelt was hoisted aboard with a 2 to 3 inch layer of spekk attached.  With sealskins as with bearskins, shipboard processing consisted first of removing the spekk from the skin.  This was a laborious operation akin to the cutting of a fish fillet, followed by much scraping.  The spekk was stored in a barrel on deck; it would fetch a handsome price at the rendering plant.  The skin was sprinkled liberally with salt crystals to preserve it until it could be gotten to a tanner; it was folded and tied up in a neat package, and stowed in the hold.  After all this, the deck would be slippery with animal fat for many days to come.

In all their handling of seal pelts, the men had to exercise great care not to cut themselves.  The pelts frequently carried a gonorrhea-related infection that would enter a wound to cause a condition called spekkfinger.  This was an infection that refused to heal, continuing to fester as it spread slowly over the hand, attacking bone and muscle as well as skin.  Modern antibiotics could handle it, but in the old days a finger or two were often lopped off to stop the spread.  Kaare showed me an extensive scar on his right thumb and forefinger where he once had a case that was finally cured by antibiotics.  Strike two for my concept of the pure and pristine Arctic.

Normally, seal carcasses were left on the ice where they were skinned.  But on one occasion a slab of meat was brought aboard for the evening meal.  We were assured that the spekkfinger bug did not inhabit the meat.  So I was open-minded enough not to pass up an opportunity for fresh meat, especially if eating could help justify a little bit of the killing.  As we gave cooking orders, I heard Fritz go for extremely rare: “Just restore the body temperature, please!”  I wasn’t as open-minded as that.  As the saying goes, I might have been crazy but I wasn’t stupid.  I ordered mine well done.  It was a pleasant meat, dark and fine-grained and with a somewhat strong taste.  Reminded me more of beef liver than anything else, although it was not at all rubbery.  After my return home, I read a bit on trichinosis in polar bears; seems they caught it by eating seals.  I wondered whether Fritz ever came to regret ordering his meat rare.  Strike three and out for my concept of the pure and pristine Arctic.

Sv2CubLate in the afternoon we sighted a young bear, scarcely 3 years old and probably not long independent of his mother.  He hadn’t yet learned to fear mankind.  Standing motionless on the ice, he watched with interest as the Godønes drew within 50 yards of him.  Bjarne stepped down on the ice carrying a slab of salted, dried cod, and the bear ran forward to meet him.  Prudently, Bjarne made a hasty retreat and spent a while close to the ship before moving out again.  When the two were about 30 feet apart it was Bjarne, not the bear, who decided that this was close enough.  Bjarne gave the cod a mighty toss and then reboarded the Godønes, leaving a very happy bear behind.


Sv2HuntHutAlong the western shore of Forlandsletta we visited a hunter’s hut that had recently been used.  (The author is shown standing by the hut.)  Lace curtains at the windows strongly suggested a woman’s presence in the not too distant past.  But the most recent occupant was a lone male hunter/trapper who had left a note as he departed some 20 days before our arrival.  He indicated that he was rowing to Ny-Ålesund, his boat loaded to the gunwales with blue fox, bear, and seal pelts, spekk, and eiderdown.  He had left an additional load of eiderdown under the cot, and would appreciate it if anyone headed for Ny-Ålesund would bring it along to him.  The down was not under the cot.  Apparently someone had already picked it up.  What stunned me was the journey he was undertaking in an open rowboat.  The shortest route, totaling roughly 65 miles, began with nearly 40 miles northward along the rugged mountainous west coast of Prins Karls Forland, exposed to the open ocean; the remainder was in reasonably well sheltered fjords.  A southerly route would reduce his open ocean exposure to about 10 miles, but would increase the total to about 85 miles.


After the Godønes was disabled, another sealing vessel, the Blåsel, towed her back to Tromsø, a difficult and dangerous procedure that required ten days for the 600-mile distance.  After one day spent zig-zagging through pack ice, the remaining days were spent in rough seas under gale or storm conditions.  A small sample of that weather experience, with its implications for Arctic hunters, follows.

We rode out strong winds and heavy fog in the shelter of Halvmåneøya (“Half Moon Island”) for more than 19 hours.  Then, though the fog continued, the wind slackened and we moved out shortly past noon of the fourth day under tow.  We set our course for Bear Island, which we hoped to pass within two or three days.  For some hours we made excellent progress, but by 9 in the evening the storm had returned or a new one had overtaken us.  This time there was no sheltering land nearby, so the Blåsel just kept chugging ahead as best she could.  The wind came on with a howling fury, but its direction out of the west allowed us to keep up a bit of southward progress, about 2 knots.  Few aboard the Godønes managed to sleep that night; the rolling and pitching of the ship were more extreme than I had yet seen.

Next morning, as the wind tapered off and visibility improved, we sighted Hopen Island off the port stern.  A quick check of the map showed that in 22 hours we had progressed 65 miles from Halvmåneøya, but were already blown 30 miles eastward off our course.  A new course was set, and with slackening winds our speed was back up over 3 knots.

That evening we heard a radio report that another sealer, just off North Cape at the tip of mainland Norway, had nearly capsized in the same heavy weather.  Aboard were two hunters returning from a two-year stay on Edge Island.  In the crew’s frantic efforts to save the ship, all deck cargo was thrown overboard.  This included the entire catch of bear, seal, and fox pelts, eiderdown, and spekk that the hunters had collected in two years.  It also included their team of dogs, presumably kenneled in crates on deck; the dogs were shot before they were thrown overboard.  Aboard the Godønes, spirits were indeed low that evening.


After we arrived in Tromsø, I had the opportunity to see other aspects of the hunting culture.  The Blåsel had already completed a successful hunting expedition before taking us in tow.  There were many sealskins and bearskins in their hold, most of which were eventually traded to a couple of our American party in return for cash and whiskey.  One of the bearskins represented a mother bear who was found with her two small cubs.  The cubs were still alive, caged on deck in stout wooden crates, frequently being fed evaporated milk by crewmembers, and destined for sale to a zoo.  These were considered a special prize; one of the experienced sailors estimated their value in port at 5,000 American dollars (as of 1955) each.

(The above is based mainly on my book The Cold Coasts.  For readers of Norwegian, an excellent and thorough description of the hunting culture, and of the men and ships involved, is presented in the series of books by Odd Magnus Heide Hansen, titled Ishavsskutenes Historie – Fangstkulturen som ble borte.)