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Will US Arctic planning take a 'Sputnik moment' as activities increase?

Earl Finkler
End of Project Coldfeet mission June 3, 1962, at Naval Arctic Research Laboratory (NARL). The last two people to the right are familiar NARL names, Director Max Brewer and his assistant John Schindler. Leonard LeSchack (pictured, third from right) courtesy photo

Back in November 2011, shortly after Veterans Day, I had the pleasure of writing a commentary about a 1962 James Bond-type intelligence mission from Barrow out to an abandoned Soviet ice station in the Arctic Ocean.

A B-17 flew out to the ice station where two Navy intelligence officers parachuted down to collect information on the Soviet facility. The airstrip had broken up, so to get them back, the Navy used a Fulton Skyhook, which was able to yank the two officers back up to the plane.

One of those two was Leonard LeSchack, who now almost 50 years later is still very active in Arctic concerns. Bob Thomas of Barrow public radio KBRW and I were able to interview him twice on Thursday morning interviews.

He now lives in Canada and works to locate oil resources around the globe.

But he remembers his Barrow times very well and is concerned about planning and international cooperation. He also remembers Barrow residents who helped in the Coldfeet mission, including Kenny Toovak and Charlie Edwardsen.

Recently, the new movie out about the famous gray whale rescue in Barrow back in 1988 included the Russian icebreakers which came in to help the whales get through the final pressure ridge. No U.S. icebreakers were available.

Now, he said, the thinning ice and increased interest in shipping and oil exploration calls for increased planning and infrastructure. In a 2009 lecture at the Calgary Military Museums, he said he said of the U.S. and Canada that “If ever there was a time when pooling resources and developing expertise together would be of advantage for both countries. I believe now is that time."

In a recent e-mail, he said, “As long as I can remember, it requires a major catastrophe, such as the attack on Pearl Harbor or the launching of Sputnik by the Soviets to motivate a U.S. Administration to make major commitments that require bi-partisan support in Congress....”

I can remember my first exposure to U.S. Arctic planning in 1969 when I was working with the Barrow City Council on a comprehensive plan. It turned out that the various federal agencies working in the area were holding annual meetings in Outside places like Albuquerque, New Mexico. Local leaders were able to persuade the agencies to hold the next one in Barrow. It was a good experience to go out to the Naval Arctic Research Laborator (NARL) with Barrow residents for several days of meetings.

The Native people of the North Slope have already made progress in planning and organizing for a strong voice in the Arctic. Mayor Eben Hopson reached out to other Native peoples in the Arctic. He was instrumental in helping develop the Inuit Circumpolar Conference which now represents the interests of Natives from Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia.

The latest I heard, the U.S. Coast Guard will have some 11 ships, boats, etc. in the Arctic Ocean this summer. Hope they are effective and have adequate infrastructure, communications, etc. Also that visiting tour ships will inform and cooperate with the communities of the North Slope.

Earl Finkler Earl Finkler is a former resident of Barrow and host of the Morning Show on KBRW Barrow -- serving the North Slope. He now lives in Medford, Wisconsin, with his wife Chris and former Barrow Husky "Avu."

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.