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ICEX 2007 Camp Inhabitants Battle Harsh Arctic to Support Underwater Exercise

Navy NewsStand

Story Number: NNS070402-03
Release Date: 4/2/2007 12:17:00 PM

By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Barrie Barber, U.S. Fleet Forces Command Navy Reserve Public Affairs

ARCTIC OCEAN (NNS) -- U.S. Navy and Royal Navy Sailors and civilians called a polar ice camp atop the harsh, frozen Arctic Ocean home in March while supporting Ice Exercise 2007 (ICEX-2007), a joint tactical exercise on and under a mile-long ice floe adrift off the northern coast of Alaska.

For Senior Chief Sonar Technician (SS) Robert Bissonnette, assigned to the U.S. Navy Arctic Submarine Laboratory, living on the ice was another day at the office in a 30-degree below zero climate about 180 nautical miles north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

“Initially, it was a shock,” said Bissonette who has spent years in the hulls of submarines gliding along in the silent depths of the sea around the globe. “That was definitely a new experience on the cutting edge of cold. Coming from San Diego, you’re looking at a 100-degree temperature difference, and that’s pretty drastic.”

The U.S. Navy contracted the Applied Physics Laboratory of the University of Washington in Seattle to build and maintain the small village for nearly $2 million. The university dubbed the camp the Applied Physics Laboratory Ice Station (APLIS).

The university last worked with the Navy in ICEX 2003.

The camp headquarters had a command hut; mess tent with three cooks; nine “hooches,” or small, plywood-constructed sleeping quarters with six bunk beds; two “breadloaf” tents that mostly housed temporary visitors; a generator-driven powerhouse; a runway carved on ice and a heliport. Snowmobiles doubled as truck hauling sleds to transport cargo to and from the airport, and taxis to transport people on short jaunts outside of camp.

The Arctic Submarine Laboratory set up a temporary shore station at Prudhoe Bay to shuttle visitors and keep the camp supplied via daily air trips.

“It’s not the back side of the moon, although it looks like it,” said Fred Karig, APLIS project manager who first set up an Arctic camp for the Navy in the 1970s.

“It’s hard work, harsh work in the beginning,” said Fran Olson, an APLIS camp engineer and an ice camp veteran. “There’s so many parts and pieces that go into building a small village.”

Living at camp requires a cautious eye. Campers are told to look out windows before stepping outside. Polar bears have wandered occasionally through the settlement in past years, and were repeatedly spotted from the air this time several miles away.

“We’ve never had a problem,” Karig said. “They’re curious as anything. This is their backyard. They do get your attention. Mostly everyone’s cameras come out.”

Polar bears and the harsh environment are why many people make the trek from somewhere else, Olson said.

“A lot of people come here because of this attraction to come to the Arctic to compete with Mother Nature,” he said. “Are you strong enough? Can you deal with the cold? People (arrive) that like adventure. If you’ve never done it before, it’s ‘Wow.’”

The extreme cold, however, didn’t deter high-level visitors and movie stars from making an appearance at ICEX.

List of VIPs includes Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter; Adm. Kirk Donald, director of naval nuclear reactors; Vice Adm. John Donnelly, Commander Submarine Force; Royal Navy Rear Adm. Donald Cooke, Commander Royal Navy Submarine Force, and John Casey, president of submarine-builder Electric Boat in Groton, Conn.

Movie stars and a film crew filmed aboard the USS Alexandria (SSN 757) and used the camp as a base of operations during the making of the motion picture ”Stargate SG-1: Continuum.”

The submarine acted as a rescue vessel for series characters trapped in the barren, endless icescape.

“It was amazing,” said Stargate SG-1 actress Amanda Tapping, who plays Col. Samantha Carter. “It’s just so different. It’s just the thought being out here in the middle of the Arctic sitting on a block of ice with 40 other people.”

Some Alexandria Sailors visited the village, too, before heading to the top of the world.

“It’s pretty nice for a camp on top of a plate of ice,” said Navigation Chief Electronics Technician (SS) John Vadnais, an Ocala, Fla., native. “I never though I’d be at the North Pole.”

Sonar Technician 2nd Class (SS) Aaron Spalding, an Alexandria Sailor based at Submarine Base New London, Conn., spent his last duty assignment at Naval Station Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Even though he’s an Anchorage, Alaska, native, adjusting to the typical 30 degrees below zero temperature wasn’t easy when he emerged from the hatch.

“My blood was thinned out a little bit so it took a little bit to get used to it,” he said.

Royal Navy Petty Officer Darren Davies, an ICEX assistant range officer, extended his tour of duty at the Maritime Warfare Centre in Portsmouth, U.K., to see the other worldly landscape.

“How often do you get to come to the Arctic?” he asked. “I’ve never done it. I’ve been around the world.”

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