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?”

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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.

camp aerialNow, 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.

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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