What…You Live on a Train in the Arctic?

That is usually the follow up question that I get when people ask me what it is like to be a remote paramedic in the arctic of Alaska during winter.  I bet as you are reading this, you are sitting there asking yourself the same question…So let me tell you a little about it.

Just like anywhere in the world, land is a precious item and it is one that we are all trying to preserve and protect. The North Slope of Alaska is no different, and despite anyone’s personal opinions, companies care about it as well. Therefore, during the winter months when the snow is falling and temperatures dip to negative 70 degrees at times, it allows for the best time for exploration without damaging the area.

To do this, companies build temporary camps that are known as sleigh camps, or cat-trains and we glide across the snow without disturbing the tundra below. It is amazing, because when summer hits and the snow melts, there is absolutely no sign that anyone has been on the land.  I know what you are saying right now, “You still have not explained what a sleigh camp, or a cat train is?”

So here goes, a cat-train is a set of boxcars just like you would see on a normal train running on tracks, except this train sits on skis. Yes…skis just like you would use to ski down a mountain, just much bigger.  There are five boxcars per train, (or string) as we call them. These boxcars can have a multitude of different functions. Some of the cars have sleeping quarters where up to three people stay in them. Others have things like a diner, a kitchen, administration offices, computer labs, and a medical clinic, which is where you will find someone such as myself.

Now, as I explained before there is only five box cars per string. Therefore, we must have multiple strings. In most camps, there are between five and eight strings that are lined up side-by-side when we are parked. This is where the term “sleigh camp” comes into play and at times there can be upwards of 150+ people living in this camp. These camps move every 3-5 days depending on the goal and the size of the project.

So how do they move?  Well that is where the word “Cat-train” comes from. We use tractors to pull the strings when we decide to move. This could be as simple as moving a couple thousand yards to protect the tundra from long layovers and at other points we travel 10-20 miles in a day, except they only move at about 2 miles per hour. So needless to say, those can be long days.

It is probably one of the strangest things I have done in my career. I live on a train, that sits on skis, that moves across the snow every few days, and then we set up shop again. However, I will tell you that I am so glad that I was given an opportunity like this. There are people who dream of going to Alaska. Not only did I get to go to Alaska, but I got to do it unlike most and I got to do it in style!

By: Jason McLaughlin, B.S., NRP, MICP

The Privilege of Working

The privilege of working “Choose a job you love and you will never work a day in your life”. This quote has been attributed to Confucius. Pretty smart guy if you ask me. When I tell people what I do… work in remote medicine as a Paramedic in the arctic, the first question they ask is “How do I get a job like that?” Followed by “isn’t it cold there?” The answer to the first question, at least for me, is that I knew someone and he brought me up here at a time when I needed to see EMS through a different lens. More on that later. The answer to the second questions is… “Yes”. That is the easy one… IT IS THE ARCTIC AFTER ALL.

After working in Emergency Medical Services (EMS) for nearly two decades (at that time) in roles including; wheelchair vehicle driver, emergency medical technician on a transfer ambulance then to emergency medical technician on a first response 911 ambulance, promoting to paramedic,  then having the pleasure of becoming an Educator for an EMS training program and a Fire Department and finally becoming a Clinical Director for an ambulance service. I think it’s safe to say that I had seen many aspects of EMS, the good, the bad, and the ugly. I needed a change or I needed to get out of the business that I had loved for so long but began to despise.

I was able to find a short-term position with a remote medical service provider. The first remote job I picked up had me spending three weeks in an isolated spot in a western state. It was perfect! I was able to remind myself that there is more to EMS than just chasing one thing after another. I was being paid a decent wage, and I was able to checkout from technology (cellphones and internet access) as well as the grind of running emergent and non-emergent call after call for a while. It is amazing how that can clear one’s thoughts and change your perspective.

Over time, I found myself working in remote areas of Alaska, on the sea as well as on land. The coolest part? Most of my work in Alaska has been in the Arctic Circle. Yes, it IS cold there. I have had the opportunity to see the northern lights, whales, walrus, seabirds, foxes, caribou, musk ox, and wolves. I have observed people in one of the harshest environments on the planet and watched them thrive as human beings. I’ve learned about industrial areas that I had not previously been exposed too. I have met people from areas of the world I had not even conceptualized beyond reading National Geographic or watching the Discovery Channel and learned about their families, their homes, cultures, and values.

I left this job for a short-time to pursue an opportunity that was presented to me. That opportunity was a J-O-B. I felt as though I was showing up to work every day and forgot what it was like to be happy. I realized that I missed working in remote medicine and returned to a job I love. It is a privilege to find a job that is enticing and challenging but rewarding and yet still pays well.

I do not really feel like I go to a job anymore. It is not work at all; it is fun, interesting, and an adventure. As soon as one tour is over, I find that I cannot wait to return for my next.

By Scott Nelson, B.S., NRP, MICP