From the hipster enclave of Portland, Oregon, to the stark terrain of the Arctic tundra – life in a remote corner of Alaska.
The northernmost part of Alaska, the North Slope, is one of the largest remaining areas of wilderness in the United States, abutting the Arctic Ocean. The landscape is an Arctic tundra; stark, flat terrain, laden with snow for much of the year. Native wildlife include caribou, red and arctic foxes, musk ox, ravens and the occasional grizzly or polar bear. When the snow melts in spring, millions of geese, ducks and swans turn up to nest.
This is the environment that dictates the hazardous working conditions for the workers of the North Slope. The area is rich in natural resources and is home of the Prudhoe Bay oil field, the largest oil field in North America.
All kinds of people live and work in the oil fields, from bachelors to travellers to families. They all live a fly-in fly-out lifestyle, meaning they work non-stop for a number of weeks, typically followed by the equivalent amount of time off.
Matt Walker, a former engineer from Portland, Oregon, moved to Alaska to work for a construction company based at Prudhoe Bay. He works for three weeks straight for up to 18 hours a day in temperatures as low as -60 degrees celsius. A work day typically begins around 5.30am. To top it off, the entire region is an alcohol-free zone.
“Is it complete hell?” I ask him.
“Yes,” says Matt. “Sometimes. Imagine having to work in a situation where you can work for 10 minutes and then have to sit in a truck for 20 to warm up again. There’s a chart. And you do that for 12 hours.”
There are times it can feel like a temporary prison sentence, but this is the lifestyle that allows Matt to travel for the equivalent of six months every year.
“The pay and time off is better than anywhere else in the world, as far as I can tell,” says Matt. Since moving to Alaska, his salary has more than doubled. He earns $US140,000 per year and spends a lot of that figure on plane tickets. Every three weeks he has both the time and the financial freedom to travel anywhere in the world.
Even a high school graduate with limited experience can make $50,000 as a standard scaffold builder and still have the equivalent of six months off every year. Other positions available include housekeepers, mechanics, safety advisors, drivers, painters, managers and planners.
The people drawn to this lifestyle are varied. “It’s a lifestyle choice,” says Matt. “The people who like it or can handle it can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s enough of a challenge that if you aren’t happy, you’re not going to last long.”
But Matt considers these challenges sacrifices that need to be made in order to attain the lifestyle he wants. “It can be lonely,” says Matt, “but I’ve gotten used to it and don’t mind it any more. It does help a lot to have someone who cares waiting for you to get back.” He got married in March this year, but says the only thing that’s changed is that he buys two plane tickets instead of one. He and his wife have travelled to Australia, through Europe and Southeast Asia as well as all over the United States.
He admits that the lifestyle could present more a challenge for those with children. But in some ways, he thinks it’s preferable to a nine to five desk job. “When you’re off you can spend all that time with your family, as opposed to being exhausted after work and seeing your family for a couple of hours per day at most. Then on the weekends [you have] to catch up on all the errands you’ve put off all week.”
One of the main challenges comes from the environment itself. In the winter it’s dark all the time; in the summer it’s bright. “The constant darkness can affect your mood and circadian rhythms,” says Matt.”It can mess with your head, but there are natural ways to deal with it. In the summer I wear an eyemask to sleep and take melatonin pills, which are a natural sleep aid. In the winter I take vitamin D supplements to help with not getting any sun.
“People I meet often fixate on the months of light and darkness due to its novelty, but the real beauty of this place is found during the transition,” he says. “The sky makes the slope bearable. That, and the foxes. Seeing them reminds me that we’re just visiting, and that the animals and nature are kind of waiting for us to leave.” – Victoria Kerridge
Top photo supplied by Matt Walker.