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Good pay, camaraderie sustain oil workers, but 'you never get used to it'

It is a familiar ritual each day at the Anchorage airport. ..

It is a familiar ritual each day at the Anchorage airport. Oil-field workers and support staff check in at a counter operated for the major oil companies on Alaska's North Slope, BP Exploration and Phillips Alaska.

The companies fly their own 737s to oil-field destinations in Kuparuk and Deadhorse, some 600 miles to the north. The workers, who typically spend two weeks in the oil fields and two weeks at home, get free transportation to and from the North Slope as well as free room and board while they are on the job.

While many live in the Anchorage area, some even return to homes in the lower 48 states for their two weeks off each month.

On an April flight to Kuparuk, the plane broke through the clouds at the last moment to touch down on a snow-blown airstrip across a road from the large Kuparuk Operations Center.

Surrounded by the flat, white expanse of the frozen tundra in early Arctic spring, the connected three-story and single-story buildings at Kuparuk, the largest of them painted a surreal shade of reddish orange, sit on stilts so their heat does not melt the permafrost.

A tower bristles with satellite dishes. Trucks and heavy equipment pass by en route to drilling pads and processing plants visible on the horizon. It seems a bit like what it might feel like to arrive someday at a bustling colony on Mars.

This particular colony, and others like it, is populated by a hardy breed of migrants, a new culture on the North Slope faced with the same unforgiving weather that has tested the native Inupiat Eskimos for generations. Many of the "newcomers" have now been in the Alaska oil fields for 15 years or more.

There are drill-rig workers and truckers, engineers and computer specialists, safety specialists and environmental monitors, cafeteria workers and secretaries. Many of the Inupiat also have taken jobs in the oil fields.

It is a challenging life, even with the advantages of cold-weather gear for outside work and warm, well-appointed housing (the Kuparuk center, with living quarters for about 400, is outfitted with racquetball courts, a weight room, two gyms and other recreational facilities.)

Fifty-five miles northeast of Kuparuk, the Endicott facility sits on two artificial islands - totaling about 50 acres in all - from which BP Exploration has drilled more than 100 producing oil wells.

Over breakfast in the cafeteria, several workers spoke of the lure of good money that brought them north and the abiding reality of temperatures that plunge to minus 30 or more for a good part of the year.

"You never get used to it," said Doug Fuller, 46, a welding technician who has been on the North Slope for 14 years.

"It's an effort every time you step out the door," agreed John Tyron, a chemical operator from Minnesota who works for Alaska Petroleum Contractors, an Eskimo-owned oil-field services company. His typical work day lasts 12 hours.

The isolation and the harsh climate create a certain we're-all-in-this-together camaraderie.

"People bond," said Rick Arnold, 54, a former policeman who came to Prudhoe Bay in 1978. "You develop some really strong friendships. That helps you through the pain."

There is no denying the down side. Many workers spoke of family strains caused by the cycle of being home for two weeks, away for two weeks. Divorce is common.

"That's why I have three sons and no wife," said Azel Faglie, an equipment rigger who has been on the North Slope since 1978. "It just gets tough being gone so much."

Mark Butcher, 45, a camp service attendant - in charge of helping to set up temporary quarters at remote exploration drill sites - told of learning about a car accident in Spokane in which his wife had been seriously injured and two of his children killed. More recently, his mother died while he was up north.

Still, Butcher has no regrets about his life in Alaska - he has worked on the North Slope since 1986 - and says his wife accepts his schedule. "She's learned to like it," Butcher said. "The two weeks off at home is good.... She knows I love it up here."