Momentarily Alone In The Arctic

By Don Opedal

 

 

The year was 1976. Following a demanding season of icebreaking on the Great Lakes (we ran from Duluth to Buffalo) the Westwind embarked on her first Arctic East cruise in several years in. Each summer a Coast Guard icebreaker would travel to Greenland on the “Arctic East” expedition. The Arctic East is bound by Northeastern Canada and Northern Europe,and included Greenland and the Arctic Ocean. The primary mission of the Arctic East was to re-supply coastal military installations in Greenland, such as Thule AFB, and to preserve the security and safety of sea lanes across the North Atlantic. Scientific research

 was also performed.

One other duty involved installation of navigational aids at the entrance to Sondestrom Fjord to help the supply ships. One on side of the entrance is Cruncher Island with a diameter of about six miles and located just above the Arctic Circle. Here we were to install a battery powered radiobeacon. Cruncher Island was once the location of a manned installation but now only has a helipad, a small hut for the radiobeacon, and lots of old batteries. Being old even in 1976, the "radiobeacon beast" is relatively large and has a curious device that winds up a weight on a string and then uses gravity to pull it back down to operate. (A Rube Goldberg device, probably purloined from the USLHS.) We  also transported all of the batteries to operate the radiobeacon over the summer.

On the other side of the entrance is another island where we were to install a racon. This is much smaller and has fewer batteries. (For readers that don’t know, a racon is a “RAdar beaCON” or transponder. When hit by a radar beam it will respond with a signal that is seen on the radar display. This provides a more accurate and effective radar signature than the land or a smaller object.)

The plan used the helicopters to transport everything to each location. We took some survival gear (e.g., sleeping bags, food) in case the helicopters can’t return for some reason. ETCM Bill Weisheit and I went first to install the racon while the other ETs (ET2 Mark Tranor, ET1 John Patterson, and ET1 Hank Puckett as I recall) followed and started on the radiobeacon.  Bill and I came later to help. The ship remained offshore but in radio contact. 

I am lowered from the first helicopter followed by the survival gear and Bill. As the helicopter departs Bill immediately digs into the food for a snack.

I had never installed a racon before but the process seemed simple enough; bolt it to the top of the existing tower and connect the battery to the existing cables. At some point we discover we need some additional parts. We radioed back to the ship. The radioman responded saying he’ll have someone “get this shit for us.”  (Although we are virtually alone in the area I’m told the CO listening on the bridge was not pleased with the language on the radio.)  I tried to match the holes on the tower to those on the racon and connected battery cable. I also noted a mark on the racon that seemed to indicate the direction the racon should point.

Bill confirmed my observation and we have to cut the cable loose in order to re-route it to connect it to the racon in the proper orientation. I later hear that was the first summer the racon worked. Hmmmm.

With the racon installed, Bill and I are flown to Cruncher Island to help with the radiobeacon. The major task here is unloading the batteries and water needed to activate them. Everyone is wearing survival suits so we all look the same. Bill notes the aircrew is standing around and promptly, as a Master Chief is wont to do, puts them to work hauling batteries. I later point out that one of them is the pilot and senior to us but Master Chiefs are also not repentant.

Inside the hut I noted names of previous crews inscribed and written including that of Mike Cook who had been the Assistant Electronic Schools Chief when I left to go to OCS and would later be my boss. Eventually everything was connected and working and we returned to the ship.

The helicopters then depart to visit Sondrestrom AFB base. I have the 2000-2400 watch when the helicopters return. The direction finder on one of the helicopters is not working and despite turning on all of our lights the pilot cannot locate the ship in the fog and is now running low on fuel. Fortunately, he is now familiar with Cruncher Island and flies there to land. The other helicopter returns to the ship and ferries fuel back to Cruncher Island and eventually everyone is recovered safely.

Aids established, crew returned, we headed further north.

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