Presented by AKOG
Two on, two off.
If you’ve lived in Alaska for any length of time, you almost certainly know someone who works this well-known “hitch” schedule in the oilfields of the North Slope. But if you’ve never experienced it for yourself, it can be hard to imagine just what it’s like to spend two weeks at a time working 12-hour days in one of the world’s most remote, most challenging energy centers.
“I think people quickly forget, when you go to the North Slope for the first time, how different it is,” said Tiffany Carey, who used to spend much of her winter in remote mobile camps in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska while overseeing ConocoPhillips' seismic program. “It’s just so different. You take a regular Boeing that you would take on vacation, and you land in an industrial oil and gas world.”
Even though the work that’s done there is a topic of everyday conversation, most Alaskans have never experienced what it’s like to actually live and work in an oilfield camp. Unlike the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, the Valdez tanker terminal, or Anchorage corporate headquarters, the North Slope infrastructure is located largely out of public view. Until you’ve lived it, it’s hard to describe.
While the hours are long and the lifestyle isn’t exactly a “normal” work environment, Alaska’s “Slopers” say there’s a lot to love about their one-of-a-kind workplace.
Long working days (and nights)
In theory, having two weeks off every month sounds luxurious, and for those who enjoy the Slope lifestyle, it’s a great system. But those two weeks of rest and relaxation -- “R&R” for short -- are hard earned. Oil production and exploration is a 24/7 endeavor, so each individual position is held by four different people -- two per hitch who alternate shifts of 12 hours or more.
“It’s intense,” said Jeff Connelly, senior coil tube drilling engineer for ConocoPhillips. “You are absorbed in the work. If that’s something that you can get excited about and it suits your personality, you really can’t get anything better.”
For three years, Connelly worked on a team that did a mid-hitch changeup so the first week was spent working nights and the second week was spent working days. Making the weekly schedule change required a lot of teamwork, but everyone cooperated to pull it off so that they could help one another make a smooth transition back to town life.
“Then you’d be on days for going home, which is nice because going home on nights is pretty tough,” Connelly said. “I think I was somewhat perpetually tired for the last three years, but the work was perpetually rewarding.”
And when you’re on the Slope, the focus is all work -- four weeks' worth, essentially, packed into two. Since you’re also living with your coworkers, that means long days that often start even before your shift begins.
“When you wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning and stagger down to pack your lunch, people will walk up to you before you’ve had your first sip of coffee and say ‘Hey, I wanted to talk to you about X,’” said Susan Card, a ConocoPhillips facilities engineer at Kuparuk. (She admits that sometimes she is one of those people.)
But Card said there are some very relaxing things about Slope life, too -- like a two-week break from running errands, making and keeping appointments, shopping for groceries, and other routine chores.
“When you are on the North Slope, there are none of those distractions,” Card said. “You just work. At night, I don’t have to plan a meal, cook a meal, wash the dishes. The only thing I do is make my bed and do my laundry.”
Camp life (tents not included)
Resident workers on the North Slope live in what are known as “camps,” but you won’t find any cabins here. These camps are large, rectangular buildings full of small rooms that look more or less the same across the Slope: A twin bed, a desk, a chair, a closet. Carey brings her own pillow and blankets from home -- “that makes the world of difference,” she said.
Even within the world of the North Slope, there’s a bit of an urban-rural contrast. Prudhoe Bay Operations Center, at the hub of North Slope production, is a large camp with amenities like a movie theater, a swimming pool and even a gift shop. More remote camps like the Kuparuk River Unit don’t have quite as many bells and whistles, but even they feel “luxurious” compared to the way Carey and her crews live during their winter season work in NPR-A.
“Almost all of my projects have been really remote projects, only connected with ice roads and ice pads,” Carey said. “The drilling rigs come with their own camps. The seismic program also has their own camps that they call ‘cat trains.’ They tow the camps around the tundra with a chain of ATCO trailers.”
Winter weather on the Slope is punishingly cold, even by Alaska standards, but in the permanent, self-contained camps, you can stop for a chat in the hallway or slip on a pair of sneakers to get in a quick workout. Rooms are connected to private or semi-private bathrooms.
“In the seismic camp, though, with our strings of trailers, your bathroom is in a separate trailer,” Carey said. “The offices are in a separate trailer. You have to get suited up in your Arctic gear to go anywhere.”
When Carey would go out on a seismic program, she wore ski pants pretty much all day long. On mild days she might dress light -- one Patagonia jacket layered over another.
“I wear a toque all winter long, every winter,” Carey said, using the Canadian term for a ski cap. “I sometimes feel like my hair has to recover from three months under a toque.”
One thing that’s consistent no matter what kind of camp you work in: food. Lots of it. Most camps serve hot breakfasts and dinners and provide fully-stocked “spike rooms” where workers can pack their own lunches or grab a midnight snack. Out on a cat train, hot lunch is on the menu as well.
“The thing we can do to keep the crews happy is (have) warm, delicious food,” Carey said. The small size of a remote operation means kitchen crews get to know individual preferences, like how people like their eggs cooked, and they’ll plan special meals -- eggs Benedict on a Sunday or filet or crab legs to celebrate the end of a season. (That tends to make up, Carey added, for the times when bad weather limits supply deliveries and everyone has to tough it out with no fresh produce for days.)
Working in another world
No matter how long you’ve worked there, oil and gas folks say you never forget your first trip to the North Slope.
“It’s beautiful as you’re flying up there,” Connelly said. “As you start kind of diving down in altitude, you can start to see the North Slope, which is just this big flat tundra terrain with all of these small lakes and rivers. It’s a whole other world.”
In summer, the tundra is thickly scattered with small lakes under 24 hours of Arctic daylight. In the winter, the entire landscape freezes into a white, windswept plain, dark for most of the day and punctuated by the infrastructure of the industry: drill pads, flow stations, camps and warehouses, all connected by a network of roads and flowlines, the pipes that carry oil across the Slope before it begins its 800-mile journey to Valdez.
“You’re there and it’s dark, and it’s that dry cold, and you’re in this industrial oil and gas world,” Carey said.
As daunting as it is at first, Carey said she also found it welcoming.
“This is really like a village,” Carey said. “It’s not just a camp. Folks who work on the North Slope, their coworkers feel like their family because they spend so much time with them. Everybody kind of knows each other.”
Carey grew up in Newfoundland, Canada, and before she moved to Alaska, she admits she would have been hard pressed to locate Prudhoe Bay on a map. But after seven years of remote work over 1,000 square miles of the North Slope, at this point, it feels like home.
“I’m so lucky,” she said. “Alaska and the North Slope has to be one of the coolest environments to work in. I’ve been to a few other oilfields and I’ve worked other places, and I just think Alaska is so unique.”
AKOG is a diverse community of Alaskans who are proud to work in the oil and gas industry. Established for industry employees, by industry employees, AKOG’s goal is to share our pride in what we do with our friends and neighbors.
This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with AKOG. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.