This post summarizes a PowerPoint presentation that was given at the Summit Square retirement community in Waynesboro, Virginia on May 16, 2015.  Most of the events mentioned are documented elsewhere in this blog.  The PowerPoint presentation focused on humorous aspects having entertainment value for a live audience.  Wording is approximate because no script was used in the presentation.  Duration was about 40 minutes.


With a title like this, I realize that some of you may be wondering, why is he so negative, why can’t he talk about Arctic Accomplishments instead?

I promise you, I will talk about accomplishments, but that’ll only take a minute or two. As for the negativity, that dates way back.  When I was a little fellow, I had lots of trouble trying to satisfy my father with my grades in school. I’d tell him I got 93 on a test, and he’d ask what went wrong.  I didn’t like that.  I wanted praise instead.

So, when I got a grade of 98, and he asked the same thing, I screwed up my courage and snapped, “Nothing went wrong. I think that’s a pretty good grade.”  He answered, “Yes it’s very good. But if you’ll think more about the 2% you missed, then you’ll know it all!”

I still didn’t much like it, but maybe I thought he had a point, because…  Now, eighty years later, lots of my memories are about what went wrong. They don’t hurt much if I laugh at them. I hope you’ll laugh with me.


Here you see downtown Anchorage in 1952. I had gone to work for the Geological Survey a couple of years earlier, fresh out of school.   Now it was time to get some practical field experience.  I was assigned to spend that summer in Alaska, working on several different projects.

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I arrived in Anchorage in early June. Summer was right around the corner, and the city was in festive gear.  I expected to see a frontier town like those of the old West.  No such thing.  It was a modern city with all the latest conveniences – electricity, running water, even traffic lights and parking meters.  Yes, I exaggerate my surprise, but when I saw the first parking meter, I did think it was worth a picture.  The city also had a Piggly Wiggly supermarket, a pleasant reminder of my home in Virginia.

Anchorage was overcrowded by workers who had come for summer jobs. The hotels followed a “hot bed” policy. Day-shift workers rented beds by night, and night-shift workers rented the same beds by day.  Whether bedding was changed in between depended on what class of hotel one was staying at.

I joined with several other geologists in a tour of the Black Rapids Glacier. It had a bad reputation as a surge-type glacier, meaning that it could lie dormant for years, then it could grow rapidly and move forward at a dangerous speed.


In three months of the winter of 1936-37, it had moved forward at the rate of 1 mile per month. A more typical glacier speed would be around 100 feet per month.

The Fairbanks newspaper reported: “Living, Sinister Mass of Ice 500 Feet High and Mile and a Half Wide Rumbles and Crashes Down Black Rapids Valley.”

The ice dammed up a river and came close to cutting off the Richardson highway. The glacier has been wasting away ever since, but could surge again at any time.  The trans-Alaska oil pipeline now runs alongside that highway.

In the front center of the picture above, you can see where the river was dammed. Also, please note the light gray stuff bordering the glacier and extending up the lower mountain slopes.  Geologists have a scientific name for it, “the bath-tub ring effect.”  It is rocky stuff deposited by the glacier, and it shows the highest level the glacier reached in its last surge.

Glaciers are often described as natural highways in Alaska. Where they have a firm, smooth surfaces, they allow easy walking (below, left).

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Where crevasses – deep, open cracks — ave developed, walking is more dangerous (below, right). Many crevasses were much larger than these, but I didn’t have the courage to get close to them for a picture.  They are especially treacherous in winter, when they are hidden beneath the snow.


The feature above is known by the French name “moulin,” meaning “mill.” It is a seemingly bottomless hole where meltwater from the surface drains into the depths of the glacier.  It got us thinking seriously about safety.   We asked if anyone had brought a rope for safety.  No.  Did anyone have crampons, which were sets of sharp spikes that could be attached to the boots?  No.  From here on we moved very cautiously.

The Black Rapids glacier presented other dangers. This photo shows where an earthquake caused parts of the nearby mountains to collapse onto the ice. Their debris suddenly covered 5 square miles of the glacier.  This was not a good day to be walking on it.


Luckily, we had already finished our walk, almost exactly fifty years earlier.

The Army Corps of Engineers had problems with frozen ground in Alaska. At shallow depths, the soils freeze and thaw with the weather, just as they do in Virginia. But in many places beneath that, there is a zone where the ground stays frozen all the time.

We call this permafrost. It’s a few feet thick in some places, hundreds of feet in others.  Beneath a construction project, over time it can shift or melt away and the structure may collapse. Permafrost also makes it hard to find water sources for wells.

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The Engineers were charmed with a new product called the Porta-Drill (left), mainly because Porta meant that it was portable by only two men, while most drill rigs were much larger. They thought it might be the perfect gadget to explore permafrost and take samples of it, and even to find underground water sources.  They asked us to buy one and field-test it in Alaska.

As the new kid on the block, I got to run the tests, which were expected to take all summer. Nobody in Washington knew any details about the drill, so I had arranged to stop by the factory where it was made, on my way up to Alaska.

Soon after I got to the factory, I got the bad news. This was a diamond bit coring drill made for mineral prospectors. It could drill through hard rock and take samples to show if there were any valuable minerals there. It probably wouldn’t do anything worthwhile in permafrost. As for finding underground water sources, the advice was, “Well, you might put a soda straw down the hole and see what you can suck up.”

I told the boss all this and he said to keep an open mind. After all, anything that could drill through hard rock could surely get through permafrost.

I met with a field assistant who would help me haul the thing around, and we started drilling. I named the project Soda Straw.WbRszaAK 1_0014      WbRszaAK 1_0012

The boss’s advice wasn’t quite right. Below, you see two diamond drill bits.  The left one is brand new.  The one on the right has drilled through only 5 feet of frozen soil.  As we drilled, the soil thawed and slumped against the side of the bit.  Each particle of sand and gravel in the soil wore the bit down until diamonds in the lip began to fall out.  If there were any core samples, they turned into muck and got lost.  We never did manage to stick a soda straw into the hole.

There was another problem. When the drilling stopped, the soil quickly froze up again and trapped our drill rod.  We had to call a wrecking truck to pull it out.

It took only ten days to show that the Porta-Drill was useless for what the Engineers had in mind.

Now for the rest of the summer. Before I got my next assignment. I had to wait two weeks in a dreary town, in a dreary hotel where the best entertainment was a juke box playing Jalousie and Blue Tango.

My next assignment took me to into the mountains of the Alaska Range. Spectacular scenery.

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This was supposed to be another shot of those beautiful mountains, but a Smart Alec kept poking his face in front of the camera. Oh, well…

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Road maps at that time showed symbols looking like towns every 30 or 40 miles along the highways. These weren’t towns, but simple lodges such as the one below, which also had a nearby gas station with a few groceries, and a well-stocked liquor store.  Nearly all the roads were unpaved.  What we see here is the Richardson Highway, at what later would become the entrance to Denali National Park. On this road, driving a jeep at more than 25 mph would bump one’s head against the ceiling of the cab.

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I lived mostly in this log cabin (below) at Mentasta Pass. The shovel I held was a substitute for an outhouse.

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For whatever the cabin lacked in conveniences, it compensated with beautiful mountain views.

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My main work that summer was an engineering geologic survey along 50 miles of the Glenn Highway. I turned the report over to my party chief, a university professor who’d been hired for the summer. He was expected to publish it along with other results of the party’s work that summer.  I saw him a few years later. He had never gotten around to publishing the results, and he had somehow lost the only copy of my report.


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In the mid-1950s, the US and its allies were busy building a ring of airbases around the Soviet Union and China — large airbases that could handle nuclear bombers. NATO wanted to fill a gap in the ring, in the Norwegian territory known as Svalbard.  This included the Spitsbergen island group, only 600 miles from the North Pole, and Bear Island farther south.  Svalbard was close to several parts of the Soviet Union: Franz Josef Land, Novaya Zemlya, and the Murmansk coast.

My job was to find and survey sites in Svalbard where an airbase could be built.

Norway governed Svalbard under a treaty that allowed no military use of the land. So I had to work in secret.  Things like that often happened in the Cold War.

We sailed aboard the Godønes, a seal-hunting vessel that was built to handle pack ice and powerful storms on Arctic voyages lasting several months at a time. I learned after boarding that it had been outfitted as a spy ship to detect and study Soviet radars.  This gave us even more need for secrecy.  We were warned: If the Soviets suspected what we were up to, they could easily board our ship and send us off to Siberia.SvGodønes

There were 15 men aboard. Five Norwegian intelligence specialists.  Five Americans, including four intelligence specialists and a geologist (me).  And a Norwegian skipper and crew that totaled five.

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Leiv Isaksen, the skipper (left), was an outstanding seaman and navigator, famous for having made many rescues at sea. Sailing in the far north was a dangerous business.  In a storm just the year before, five ships went down with all hands aboard.  We were glad to have him with us.

The five Americans included some oddball types.  The electronics technician, who SvJRBinstalled our spy gear and kept it running, always turned the back of his head to a camera, and never told any of us who he worked for.  I’ll pass over the next two because I’ve told some really awful tales about them. At sea, they ignored their duties and preferred to hunt seals and polar bears, for the money their skins were worth.  While ashore, they hunted other species, to the point that one of the two got tied up in a paternity lawsuit.

After speaking of so many oddball Americans, I added this picture (right) to prove that at least one of them was, well, normal… Actually, he sort of looks like the Smart Alec we saw in Alaska….

Our first views of Svalbard didn’t promise much in the way of sites for airbases. Bear Island presents these thousand-foot cliffs (below left), populated by so many birds that they darkened the sky when someone fired a rifle.  But parts of the island are lower, and there we found cliffs only 100 feet high. We clambered up on all fours, dragging our camping supplies behind us.


 The islands of Spitsbergen, farther north, are dominated by mountains and glaciers (below right). But here and there we found level areas on raised beaches, as in the foreground of this picture.  Places like this gave the best prospects for airbase sites.




This is Ny-Ålesund (below), one of the few towns in Svalbard – a coal mining town in 1955, and now a research center. It has an established port facility that is warmed by the Gulf Stream and usually remains ice-free all year.


Svalbard dominates the sea lanes that were used to supply the Soviet Union during the Second World War. The Germans attacked Allied convoys by both sea and air.  They left behind many artifacts.  Shown below are a battery-powered robot weather station, and a cabin built by a German pilot.   He used it for shelter while he repaired his plane after an emergency landing.  The timber had to be air-dropped to him — he couldn’t have found so many neat boards there, although many large cut logs are found on the beaches of Svalbard.  Ruts left by the plane were still visible ten years after the war.

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I’ve mentioned American oddballs. The Norwegians, too, included at least one of these. A young military officer took a stint as guest at the ship’s wheel.  To see what this baby could do, he slammed the ship at full speed into a huge slab of ice.

The collision disabled the ship. We can only thank the good Norwegian shipbuilders that it didn’t sink right then and there. But we faced a long tow back to Norway — 600 miles, taking 10 days, and every day either in sea ice, or in rough seas under gale or storm conditions.

We saw the damage in a shipyard in Norway: The collision had bent the propeller shaft, and a propeller blade is lodged against the rudder.


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This damage ruled out what would have been the major success of the electronic intelligence mission — a sweep along the Soviet shores of Franz Josef Land, Novaya Zemlya, and the Murmansk coast

My own work ashore was already done. I had surveyed 8 sites for major airbases.  The one I rated best was a place called Kvadehuksletta, shown below.  It is six miles from the town of Ny-Ålesund.  Access by sea through that port was a major plus for this site.

SvKvadehThe following year, two high-ranking Norwegians visited the site and agreed it was an excellent place to build the airbase. One of the two was a military official, the other represented the Scandinavian Airlines System.  They formally proposed that the airline build an emergency landing field here.  This was, of course, nothing but a cover story.   The Norwegian government debated the proposal for the next two years.  Then the Soviet Union protested that it was a military project, which was forbidden under the Svalbard Treaty.

And so the project died, and it remained secret until 1996, when a new Norwegian administration apparently decided to embarrass its predecessor by revealing the whole story.


In 1977, the Federal government was moving to put a lot of Alaskan public lands into the National Park System. Private companies stood to lose mineral leases in those areas.  If they had done any work on a lease, the government would reimburse them.  If not, they would not be paid.

Shell Oil held a lease in the Samovar Hills, a small area completely surrounded by extensive glaciers. Shell had never worked on the lease, but now saw reasons to get started.  For any plan they proposed, my office would have to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement before the plan could be approved.

This map shows a small rounded bump on the south coast, indicated by the red arrow. That little bump is the enormous Malaspina glacier.Alaska77 arrow


In a closer view by satellite, the glacier includes both white areas and most of the adjoining gray areas, where the ice is covered by rock debris. The glacier is about 40 miles wide from east to west.

The Samovar Hills lie near the head of the glacier, where they are surrounded on all sides by ice at least five miles wide.

Seen from a helicopter, the Malaspina glacier extends as far as the eye can see. Light-colored bands of clean ice alternate with darker bands of ice covered by rock debris.RszaSamovar pix 35_0006                  RszaSamovar pix 35_0004

Our helicopter landed in the Samovar Hills. Yes, there is oil here. We saw black tar in the creeks that flowed out from the hills and into a lake that is named Oily Lake.

Shell Oil employs many brilliant scientists and engineers, but they weren’t going to waste their time discussing environmental impacts with government employees. They sent their rookie team to deal with us.

Our first question was, “How will you move the oil out of here?”

(I must admit, the next three pictures of plans to cross the ice are fakes.)

They answered quickly, “By pipeline. We’re going to build a pipeline across the ice.”


Didn’t they realize that glaciers move, and they would tear up a pipeline as they pulled it along?

The team needed a week to think about that.

They came back with the answer – A pipeline on wheels!


We looked at each other in amazement. Don’t these people realize that the glaciers have crevasses and all sorts of other obstacles that will snag the wheels?  If nothing else, the mere drag of all those wheels on a pipeline five miles long, and anchored only at its two ends, would be enough to tear the pipeline apart.  Did they have a solution for that?

This time they needed two or three weeks, and then they presented a wondrously complex plan.

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They would drill a large borehole at an angle beneath the glacier, until the hole was under the glacier’s midpoint. There they would insert a radioactive source.

They would drill a similar borehole from the other side of the glacier. Homing in on the radioactivity, it would come within three feet of the first borehole. Explosives would then be used to shatter the rock between the two holes so that oil could flow from one to the other. Ta da, an underground pipeline!

The Shell people admitted that all this had never been done before in a single project. But each of the critical steps had been done successfully in one place or another.

We had our doubts, but we couldn’t rule the plan out as an impossibility. So we’d have to go ahead with an environmental impact statement.  By the time we gathered a team to do this, word came down from on high in Shell Oil to their rookie team, to this effect:

“This firm will not get involved in such a hare-brained scheme just to get some reimbursement from the Government. Cancel the project.”

No telling how many dollars were saved by the cancellation. We in the government couldn’t take credit for the savings.  Credit goes to Shell Oil for finally displaying some common sense.



These three trips took up a total of eight months, and they were expensive. Now it is time to see what was accomplished, as I promised you.  Most people would weigh this against its cost to the taxpayers. I would also weigh it against the use of eight months of my life.


Project Soda Straw: The Porta-Drill was shown to be useless for its intended purposes.

Black Rapids Glacier: We learned about the hazards of this glacier. We forgot to take any safety devices, but we still survived our walk.

Glenn Highway Geology: Report completed, but the only copy was lost.

Electronics intelligence: The main mission, to detect radars along the Soviet coasts, failed because tomfoolery wrecked the ship.

Airbase construction: I found and surveyed eight sites for an airbase, but the base was never built because of a Soviet protest.

The Oil Lease: Oil was never produced. Shell Oil withdrew its proposal, and taxpayers saved, at the very least, the cost of preparing an Environmental Impact Statement.



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:



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:



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:     


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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.

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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.

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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)