THE 'BLACK GOLD’ RUSH OF `69
THE GAMBLE FOR MONEY
They’re all gamblers: the half-frozen oil riggers in the numbing Arctic, the edgy stock-market plunger, the troubled corporation probing the innards of the Canadian Shield. They’re gambling for big stakes. The gamble may enrich or corrupt or break them. In this issue Maclean’s presents three documents that show what can happen to men who dream of BIG MONEY
IT’S 5.30 IN the morning at Melville Island’s Rea Point, where the day always begins with the weather. The radio equipment lined against one wall of the big plywood room jangles with metallic voices from the Arctic outpost camps: “ReaPointReaPointReaPoint, this is Sherard Bay. Can you give us your weather?” Pause. Thump of feet hitting the cold floor. “Uh — temperature minus 15, ceiling 500 feet, visibility one-quarter mile, wind northwest 15, sky . . . what the hell would you call that? Obscured . . . ” Rea Point is a collection of red shacks shimmering like a mirage on Melville’s frozen sand. The north coast of the Canadian mainland is 400 miles to the south, the North Pole only 800 miles away. In summer the island is a brown desert of waddies and eroding ridges and the polar sunshine shivers on the offshore packice. In winter the ice fog creeps across the snow crust and the cold spreads through your clothes like a blue dye. They shot a wolf near Rea Point not long ago. It froze rigid with the snarl still on its face.
Question: Since this glacial wilderness is clearly unfit for man or beast, why bother with it? Answer: Oil. This is the major supply centre for the greatest oil search Canada has ever known. Panarctic Oil Limited is gambling
between $35and $45 million that the western hemisphere’s largest untapped oil basin lies beneath these islands. If the gamble pays off, it will change the balance of oil power in the world. In terms of Arctic exploration, no other country — not even Russia — has attempted anything so bold. There has been nothing like it in the Canadian experience since the railway opened the west. This is Canada’s moon shot.
ccBLACK GOLD continued
Now IT’S 5.45 A.M. Outside, you can begin to make out the airstrip that catskinner Leo Vanderleest scratched out of the seashore sand two years ago after “walking” his big D-8 tractor 90 miles across the island. The base is supplied by ships and barges slicing through the northwest passage from Montreal, 3,300 miles away, and by aircraft making the 1,500-mile haul from Edmonton or the 925-mile trip from Yellowknife.
The flight from Edmonton takes six to 12 hours, depending on the weather. The aircraft is usually a Pacific Western Airlines DC-4 or DC-6, crowded with geologists, diesel mechanics, pilots, construction workers, truck drivers, catskinners, seismic crews, groceries, a Skidoo, crated helicopter parts, a repaired tractor track. A relief pilot snoozes on an iron cot. Beside him is an emergencyrations trunk containing a rifle, fishing gear, water and food. The ladies’ lavatory serves as a pantry. This is an all-male world.
The route north is past the tree line, over the barrens and across the Arctic coast. Once past the coast, pilots must fly true headings based on visual contact with either the sun, stars or ground. No radio beacons guide them and a compass is useless this close to the magnetic pole. The chances of reaching Rea Point without being grounded by weather average one in four.
Question: So what’s in this for me? Answer: Plenty, if you’re a Canadian taxpayer. Panarctic is a unique corporation of which the federal government, the largest single shareholder, owns 45 percent. The remaining shares are held hy Canada’s leading petroleum and mining companies. Comineo Limited and its associated company, Canadian Pacific Oil and Gas Limited, jointly hold 18 percent, and CPOG president John Taylor of Calgary is also president of Panarctic. Other participants include Cemp Investments, Noranda Mines, Dome Petroleum Limited and Inco. At present 70 percent of the Canadian petroleum industry is U.S.-owned. Panarctic could change that. Only one of the 20 companies involved is American.
BY 6 A.M. the Melville world is unbelievably white. Ice crystals give a curiously luminous quality to the air. Helicopter pilot Ed Pruss swings his jet-turbined Bell 205 chopper up and away with a sling of aviation fuel drums for Drake
ast riches at the top of the world-and every Canadian is a shareholder
Point, the support camp for Panarctic’s first wildcat well.
The choppers are the airborne equivalents of the sledges used by 19th-century British explorers. They flit down the Arctic channels, past low white capes throwing shadows on the sea ice, hauling fuel, transporting men, airlifting entire camps to new locations. Ed Pruss was forced back by weather on a fuel haul yesterday. Today he is scarcely airborne when he radios in a mechanical malfunction. Drake Point will be without chopper fuel for the second day.
“Drake Point weather,” squawks the radio. “Temperature minus 22, ceiling 5,000 feet and overcast, visibility five miles and hazy, wind two nine five at 10.” At Drake Point, the world’s most northerly wildcat well is drilling. The 135-foot rig gawks over the flat landscape like some Ice Age giraffe.
The million-dollar rig is built to withstand 60-mile-per-hour winds and temperatures down to 30 degrees below zero, for a chill factor of minus-140 degrees. A man’s skin freezes at eight degrees above zero in a 40-mile wind. The rig was manufactured in sections so that it could be hauled north in a Hercules air freighter and landed on a 5,000 - foot strip carved out of sea ice. From there, choppers swung the sections seven miles to the site and the rig was assembled in sub-zero weather.
Last April 19, Drake Point L-67 was spudded (broke ground) in a test designed to tunnel more than two miles into the frozen sediments of Melville. At 3,600 feet it kicked mud and gas out of the hole. On July 12, about 1V2 miles into the earth, it blew wild. Mud, gas and sand thundered to the top of the derrick
in a mixture so abrasive it cut through the metal substructure. Panarctic dispatched a jet to bring in Dome’s veteran drilling superintendent Ed Tovell and famed Texan wild-well expert Red Adair. It took them two weeks to control L-67. ( By this time, the Here’s sea-ice strip had become unusable, so all equipment had to be airlifted to a land strip and choppered to the site.) A fire at the wellsite was snuffed out with steam and dynamite. The crews then plugged the hole and skidded the derrick off. They sealed off the gas zone and skidded the derrick back on. But before they could resume drilling, the well blew again. Question: What’s all this costing? Answer: It costs about two million dollars to drill a well in the Arctic. Nobody knows what it will cost to complete L-67. By the end of the year, Panarctic will have drilled four wells in its 17-well program and the overall program for the past two years will have cost $17 million. Only mammoth low-cost Middle East-type reserves will justify the expense, but the odds are with Panarctic. The volume of potential oil-rich sediments in our Arctic, dumped into the polar basin by the northern rivers, exceeds those of the Prairies and BC combined.
AT 9 A.M. Rea Point calls Sherard Bay, 70 miles away, for an estimated time of arrival on PWA’s Hercules. Sherard weather is temperature minus-22, ceiling 500 feet and broken, visibility one mile and blowing snow, wind 25.
Outside the radio room the sun, low on the horizon, burns lemon - yellow through the inevitable fog bank. Geologists lounge beneath the unbelievable bosom of a Playboy foldout. For four days they have been trying to get to the seismic camp at Pat Bay on Lougheed Island, 150 miles north, to install $200,000 worth of equipment. But so far fuel, space heaters and groceries have had priority on all available aircraft.
The bunkhouse beyond is a forest of brown, angle-iron cots, green sleeping bags, littered papers, magazines, bare light bulbs and walls festooned with shirts and underwear. A sign on the wall says, with simple directness, PISS OUTSIDE. In the small cubicles of space, men doze, read, stare: unshaven, dressed in whatever is warmest. A helicopter pilot lies asleep in his bunk, fully dressed.
Clustered around the rim of the prim enameled stove are a group of “juggies,” their faces blotchy where the flesh has frozen deep. These are the kids who trudge over the snow and sand and mud. laying cables for the seismic crews. ► BLACK GOLD continued
They are a close-knit bunch, often from the same prairie town. “I’m writing my grandparents,” says one. “You know, they are good to you all your life. Besides, they have this house and when they’re gone I get it.”
Panarctic’s twin-engined De Havilland Otter, Papa Alpha Tango, humps down the strip and Mel Deines, manager of the Rea Point base camp, jumps out. Mel is only 28, with a soft drawl and encyclopedic knowledge of machinery, gained during 10 years of pushing trucks out of Calgary through the north. He has aged about a decade in the last 12 months, but he is totally absorbed in the job. “You’ve got to be flexible,” he says, with characteristic intensity. “If the cat doesn’t work, you’ve got the truck. If that doesn’t work ...” When everyone else is having breakfast, says a co-worker, Mel Deines likes to be having lunch.
Now he tells a man: “That’s real fine, Howard. You know, you can’t just go down and buy it at the corner store.” Then he tunes the radio into his corner store, the Panarctic office in Calgary 1,770 miles away and reels off a list of needed equipment and supplies. Question: How did all this start? Answer: After a private Arctic exploration venture foundered, then Northern Development Minister Arthur Laing persuaded a reluctant cabinet to authorize federal participation. His arguments included the issue of Arctic sovereignty and the need for northern employment. Formation of Panarctic was announced on December 12, 1967. Although Ottawa has only one director on the board and leaves the day-to-day operation of Panarctic to private industry, the government can elect its full slate of directors any time and has the right to veto any sale of shares. Because it’s in the limelight and using public funds, Panarctic is under considerable pressure. Says Vice-President John Godfrey, “Normally, development would proceed much more slowly. You might drill five or six dry holes before getting production. But what happens if Panarctic drills five or six dry holes?”
AT 10.30 A.M. the twin Otter takes off again, trying to get fuel to Drake Point. Pat Bay, named after the Otter’s call sign, asks for information on the arrival of the Hercules from Sherard Bay. Sherard reports the Here is loaded, fueled and broken down. Crews have been working on repairs all night. Besides, the weather is now zero-zero at Sherard. Pat Bay is silent in the face of these obstacles.
Mel Deines calls Neil Fluker at Panarctic’s office in Calgary. Mel reports
Sherard is on the deck, the Here is unserviceable, only one helicopter is working and Drake is out of chopper fuel. “Roger, okay, that’s fine,” says Neil. You could tell Fluker that the camp had dropped through the ice and he would reply serenely, “Roger, okay, that’s fine.” Outside Neil Fluker’s office there is a Northwest Territories’ poster of a white polar bear with the slogan EXPLORE CANADA’S ARCTIC. An Albertan who started at the bottom of the oil patch, Fluker was drilling superintendent at Dome’s first Arctic wildcat at Winter Harbor on Melville, spudded in September 1961, and drilled all winter in minus-50-degree weather before it was abandoned as a dry hole at 12,543 feet. Now he is responsible for barging and airlifting thousands of tons of equipment north, to Rea Point and Eureka and Resolute Bay. Neil spends about 30 percent of his time in the Arctic and the rest on the phone or the single side-band radio. He phones Dan Maclvor in Edmonton, the greying, gangling ex-bush pilot who runs PWA’s Hercules operation. “Running an Arctic exploraton program 1,700 miles away is like running a foreign operation,” sighs Bob Currie, Panarctic’s administrative manager.
ELEVEN A.M. The radio room is quiet.
The two cooks make up the grocery list in the corner. An American oil man stomps in, wearing a stadium coat and earflaps. He sat up late last night asking questions on setting up a camp. “I’d venture to say that you’ve got the goddamndest seismic camp in all North America,” he said. “What does it cost those bastards to work here?”
“Pat Bay weather minus-21, ceiling zero, sky obscured, visibility one-eighth mile and blowing snow, wind two nine zero at 25 and gusty. You can fly in here, but landing might wrack you up.”
That would be Doc Barkett, over on Lougheed Island. Along with Fred Glenn and Harold March, Doc is responsible for United Geophysical of America’s seismic operation for Panarctic. The “doc” is strictly honorary. And when you meet L. P. Barkett, you are surprised to find he is only 34.
Essentially, seismic maps the ground lying thousands of feet below the surface. Underground charges are set off at intervals over a grid pattern. The sound waves are measured and timed as they bounce off the formations below, giving a profile of the underground structures. The computerized information is then used to select drilling sites. Until the oil crews came, the only people in the Arctic islands were in scattered weather stations or Eskimo settlements. At the height of the 1969 season, 200 men in 25to 50-man camps were scattered across the Arctic archipelago. At Lougheed, Doc is preparing to move the seismic operation north to Ellef Ringnes and Amund Ringnes Islands, named for the Norwegian brewmasters who financed explorer Otto Sverdrup’s vain attempt to claim the Arctic islands for Norway at the turn of the céntury. First, the choppers fly a sleeper kitchen and a power unit across the channels to Malloch Dome on Ellef Ringnes at a site picked out by Panarctic’s chief geophysicist, R. K. Merritt, who roams the Arctic from March to August, spotting potential airstrips.
Next, the twin Otter flies in with a cook and helper and a Wardair Bristol pilot, who walks around the site, measuring the depth of the snow with a broom handle. Then the Bristol is flown in from Rea Point, bouncing slightly on the virgin snow. The two curved doors in the nose of the aircraft open and a D-4 tractor is winched out. The tractor builds the airstrip for the Here, which airlifts in the camp.
In this fashion, the seismic crews leapfrog from Lougheed and the Ringnes Islands over to Cornwall and King Christian Islands and finally to the cathedral cliffs of Ellesmere in the eastern Arctic. Despite phenomenal rain storms, which jellied the terrain and grounded the choppers, they shot 800 to 900 miles of seismic by the 1969 season’s end.
Errol Kleidon is at Rea Point awaiting transport to the seismic operation. He is a shooter, setting off the charges that send geysers of snow and sand into the sky. Errol is young, handsome and ambitious; he wants to open a men’s store hack home in Surfer’s Paradise, Australia, where the ocean temperature averages 78 degrees. He can earn about $1,000 a month during the season. He stares out at the snowscape: “I must be crazy,” he says.
BY NOON the problems are piling up. The wind is rising, blowing snow. The D-7 tractor has broken down, so the crews can’t haul fuel from the barge halfhidden in the rubble of the shore ice. This means there is no fuel for Drake Point, where tracked vehicles are waiting to move equipment across Melville to a new drilling location.
The Rea Point radio chatters incessantly. Mel asks the Here to pick up a smaller D-4 tractor from Pat Bay. Two helicopters are en route to Lougheed; now one radios that he thinks the other is off course with only 20 minutes’ fuel
A he packhorse Here lumbered in, 1,500 miles and $10,000 from Edmonton. And then the question: Where’s the airstrip?
left. The twin Otter reports that it found catskinner Leo Vanderleest stranded in a Bombadier with a broken ski 160 miles out of camp.
Leo was scouting a route for the cat camp he will haul. He can walk his cat hundreds of miles without a compass in 60-below-zero weather and blazing winds. Just take your watch, says Leo. Point the small hand toward the sun and divide the degrees between the small hand and 12 in half. That’s south. If there is no sun, then follow the wind on your face. On Melville, it is nearly always from the north or north-northwest.
AT 2 P.M. the Here lands in a cloud of blowing snow and sand so harsh it guts the engines when sucked up by the props on touchdown. The Here is the packhorse of the north, capable of moving 45,000 pounds at 300 miles an hour. Charter cost from Edmonton is $10,000 per trip. Now the cargo door is lowered. Nestled inside is a sky-blue helicopter, as fragile as a dragon fly. Gently, so gently, the men ease the chopper off.
On the Here’s first trip to Rea Point, Captain Dean MacLagan couldn’t find Leo’s newly built airstrip, a pencil mark on the map. The radar showed no relief features. At 400 feet he circled over the fractured ice pack and picked mp the coast. At 300 feet he saw the tractor tracks. “We’ll just bend it around here,” said Dean, banking the giant freighter, and he came up over the strip. There were no towers, no lights, no nothing. “Melville International Airport,” he said, and the Here bumped down the runway.
Today, Melville International is busy. On the strip sits a stranded DC-4, one engine out, blotched with oil. A twin Otter brings in six men from Resolute Bay, 300 miles away. A Wardair Bristol lands for refueling. Fluker phones from Calgary to say a DC-6 left Edmonton and will arrive via Resolute around 5 p.m. The Here roars in with the D-4 from Pat Bay. It is dispatched to make a fuel trip to the buried barge.
The barge lies buried stern to shore. The cat bucks like a horse over the opalcolored snow, glinting pink and mauve and green in the crystal air. Sea ice has forced the bow of the fuel barge high in the air. Working almost in slow motion because of the cold, the men open the
hatch and lower a four-inch hose down into the dark liquid. This is the life force of Melville — and it became even more precious in August after heavy ice sank two relief barges pushing through Melville Sound. The loss was estimated at one million dollars. Plans were immediately laid to refill the remaining barge by airlift and the drilling went on.
Today, on the return trip, the swollen fuel bladder rides behind the cat on a highboy, sloshing with each jerk. Finally, it flops off into the snow like a monstrous blubbery whale. The crew disengage the tractor and head over the shadowed snow for camp. The bladder will be rescued tomorrow.
FIVE P.M. The DC-6 radios it was delayed at Yellowknife for three hours, awaiting radio parts. At Resolute it picks up three Eskimo boys who have completed a drilling course in Edmonton. James Nashak, 22, is an orphan, educated in Churchill and Inuvik hostels to the seventh grade. Handsome Andrew Tagak was raised in a hunting camp; he was 13 when he entered grade one, and it took him six years to learn English. Jobie is 21 and quiet. He reached the grade-three level at Pond Inlet on Baffin Island. Tagak’s wife hangs on to his arm in the cold Nordair waiting room at Resolute. “Is it true you get time off every six weeks?” she asks. “Will the plane bring you back to Resolute?”
The ride to Rea Point is so cold the sandwiches freeze in the aircraft and the men pace the aisle to keep warm. Finally, there is the bone-jarring touchdown and the cargo doors open. From the ground, faces peer up, masked against the cold, only frost-ringed eye holes showing in the dark. Clumsy with the weight of their parkas, the new arrivals run over the snow, crackling in the cold, for the sparse comfort of camp.
That night the movie in camp is Madigan. A nice, bad cop. Takes a few favors, pushes people around. Big shootout. Madigan killed. Audience is regretful, particularly when sweetie wife sobs. The bunkhouse is quiet, sombre. In the washroom, a hard - looking catskinner thoughtfully puts his grease - stiffened coveralls into the washing machine and loads it with water melted from blocks of snow.
Outside, the Here is grounded in Sherard in zero-zero weather. At Drake Point, the Arctic wind whistles through the stacked-up drill pipe. And Leo, missing Rea Point camp in a calm ice fog, spends the night on the sea ice in temperatures reaching 30 below. The Rea Point radio is quiet. □