Radar Love: The solitary rhythm of life at one remote radar

by Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media

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Scattered across Alaska are 15 radar sites in some of the most remote areas of the state, feeding information to a command center in Anchorage. Keeping them humming 365 days a year are tiny crews of private contractors who live there for months at a time. To many, the prospect sounds crazy. But to others the solitary rhythm makes total sense.

“We have celery, and avocados and broccoli. All the normal normals,” explained Leta Page, giving me a tour of her many walk-in freezers.

Page is what’s called a “service technician” at the Cape Romonzof Long Range Radar site, an installation owned by the Air Force at the edge of the Bering Sea, 15 miles from the nearest community, Hooper Bay. Page’s job is a combination of a cook, quarter-master, and house-keeper.

Leta Page has worked at the Cape Romanzof site for five years. When first hired, contractors rotate from site to site filling in for full-time staff until a permanent position opens up (Photo by John Norris, Alaska Public Media -- Anchorage)

Leta Page has worked at the Cape Romanzof site for five years. When first hired, contractors rotate from site to site filling in for full-time staff until a permanent position opens up (Photo by John Norris, Alaska Public Media — Anchorage)

“I keep my cheeses here,” Page continued.

“How much bacon is that?” I asked, pointing at a very large cardboard box.

“About 20 pounds,” Page replied nonchalantly. “These guys eat a lot of bacon.” In a separate freezer near some exercise equipment were several more bacon boxes.

Page and the three other employees that live at Cape Romanzof work for ARCTEC, a private company that’s held the Air Force contract to maintain these radar sites since 1994. That contract is worth $345 million over the next ten years.

During the 50s through the 70s sites like these were managed by the Air Force, which stationed hundreds of personnel at each one. It was considered a hardship posting. Depression and pathological boredom were regular.

“You would have to experience life at a remote radar site to understand how it is,” wrote Rudy F. Corral, stationed at the Campion site in the Interior from 1978-79. “No family…seeing the same people everyday for a year…no escape from work because you live there.”

Tours were kept to just one year. Page has been here five.

“I’m a piddler,” she said, standing in a rec room with a pool table, movie collection, and popcorn machine she bought herself. “I find something to do all the time.”

A “piddler,” in Page’s telling, is someone who can always figure out work that needs to be done. She says it’s common here, that all the technicians are pretty self directed, and don’t need each other for amusement.

This isn’t her first remote posting. She worked out at Shemya, at the tail of the Aleutian chain, for nine years, but left when her husband got sick. After he passed, she signed on with ARCTEC. Usually she works for two months straight, then takes a month at home in Anchorage, where she’s got a house and can spend uninterrupted time with her grandchildren.

“I go pick up my grandbaby at daycare and we go all day long,” Page said affectionately. “Now I got two more grandbabies, so I’ll have all three of ’em and we’ll just go. Because I don’t have to work.”

On top of the schedule, it’s good money. Generally, technicians make $120,000 – $150,000 a year, with few expenses while they’re on site. There’s internet and phone access, so people can communicate with their families. The Air Force even sends out books, magazines, and new movies each month from a library back at Joint-Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

ARCTEC screens job applicants to make sure they’re the type that can handle remote postings.

“We try to work people into it a little bit slower,” said Kevin Smiley, who oversees the company’s workforce.

“Your first assignment might not be such a long stretch,” Smiley said in his office in a building at JBER. “Send you out, let you experience what’s it’s like before you sign up for that four month haul in the middle of winter.”

The Romanzof radar site built in the early 50s used to have a working tram for bringing personnel up and down the steep hills of an inactive volcano (Photo by Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage)

The Romanzof radar site built in the early 50s used to have a working tram for bringing personnel up and down the steep hills of an inactive volcano (Photo by Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

The vast majority of site techs are former military, many of whom take advantage of the surrounding wilderness.

“One site does a lot of gold-mining,” Smiley said. “They find a lot of ways to recreate, whether it’s hunting, fishing, gold-mining, trapping. They find a lot of things to keep busy.”

Smiley doesn’t use the word “piddler,” but this might meet the definition. He shrugs off the suggestion that these jobs are abnormally extreme, although its unclear if that’s because he’s been disabused of the novelty or because his frame of reference has warped.

I asked if he’d ever do the months-long junkets the technicians do.

“Sure, I would do it,” he replied with barely any pause. He explained getting weathered into a site for a week, and being relatively unphased by the experienced.

“Eventually someone will come and get you,” he chuckled. “And there’s food to eat and there’s things to do, so you’ll be ok.”

According to Smiley, employees stay with the company for 12 years on average. One worked at a remote site for 37 years before retiring.

A sign painted on the driveway leading up to the residential dome at the Cape Romanzof site. (Photo by John Norris, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage)

A sign painted on the driveway leading up to the residential dome at the Cape Romanzof site. (Photo by John Norris, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Though supply planes are scheduled to come every three weeks, they’re regularly blocked by weather. Smiley recalled a site that once went three months without a delivery.

At Romanzof, Page said the longest stint she’d been through was six weeks.

“We didn’t have any groceries–anything fresh,” she said. Though there’s enough frozen and canned goods to last for months, creativity becomes paramount.

“I told the guys,” Page recounted, “if they wanted any eggs they had to go down to the beach and get the seagull eggs down there. That was the closest to eggs they were gettin’ from me.”

Page kept showing me around the cavernous insulated dome where the contractors live. Past the industrial kitchen is a dining area, and one floor up is a ring of bedrooms.

“If you don’t look at the dirt you can look at my room,” Page said, cracking the door.

In the winters contractors spend as many as 14 hours a day keeping roads linking the air strip and radar clear of snow (Photo by Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage)

In the winters contractors spend as many as 14 hours a day keeping roads linking the air strip and radar clear of snow (Photo by Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

It looked like the basic set-up of a college dorm room that’s been permanently settled into. There was a TV, comfy chair, and bureau filled with arrangements of knickknacks. In a corner was an impressive crocheting project that Page has set down since the weather started improving.

When Page showed me the supply depot she’s in charge of I had trouble hiding my awe: it was stocked with absolutely every spare provision you could possibly need, from batteries and cleaning supplies to two identical replacements for an eyewash station.

“Back in behind here I got blinds for the windows,” Page said with impish glee, showing me a modest stockpile tucked in a nook. “There’s some rugs back here–see those black round things? Those are mattresses.”

A sign mounted in the bathroom close to the dining area in the residential dome (Photo by Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage

A sign mounted in the bathroom close to the dining area in the residential dome (Photo by Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage

Page gave the impression of deriving profound satisfaction from being able to comprehensively care for other people. Years before Romanzof, when she lived in Anchorage,she handled the kitchen at North Star, a behavioral health clinic for girls.

“There was a lot of sad cases. Behavior problems and abuse and everything else,” she recalled with a weighty pause. “I don’t think a kid should be treated that way, and that was probably the hardest part.”

At the time, her sons were about the same age as the patients. Her house was the gathering spot for a small tribe of teenage boys.

“If I didn’t have one boy I had ten at my house.”

When I ask if keeping a home peppered with lost boys is that far off from mothering a bunch of loners at the remote military site, Page said no, not so far off.

“When I first started working remote, the station chief told me, ‘Leta, just treat all the guys like they were kids and you’ll be fine, you won’t miss your kids so much then.’ And actually, I still do.”

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